July 2009

Last Thursday morning, our group drove to Nierstein, not far up the road from Oppenheim where we were staying, to taste wines at Weingut Heyl zu Herrnsheim and St. Antony. The facilities for these estates are housed under the same roof and presided over by young winemaker Felix Peters. Heyl zu Herrnsheim has been producing organic wines since 1980, while St. Antony is in the process of changing to organic winemaking. We are in the Rheinhessen.

By the wine, the phrase “organic wine” is not allowed on German wine labels; the proper term is “made (or produced) from organic grapes,” though that situation may change by 2010 or 2012. The logic is that in order to be called organic wine, the entire process of making the wine must be “organic” and regulated as such. In any case, Felix Peters does not use the word organic on labels. “We don’t see it as dogma,” he said, “even though it’s important for the estate and the wines. Organic farming is very important for riesling because it’s a very late-ripening variety.” Indeed, we heard this comment wherever we went, from Prof. Kauer at the Wine Institute to many of the winemakers, that with organic and biodynamic methods, the riesling grapes ripen earlier. There’s a trade-off here: Longer hang time for the grapes versus the threat of late frost in the spring.

Readers may think it odd for a group of 12 people to belly up to the bar and start drinking before 10 a.m., but I promise that we spit and poured out far more wine than we swallowed — we’re all professionals here — which in a way was a shame because these were terrific wines. It helps not to eat too large a breakfast; you don’t want to feel bloated and slow when it’s time to analyze wines in rapid succession. Besides, the night before, we hadn’t gotten back to the hotel until midnight, after a long dinner with many wines, and after laying my head on the pillow about one, I rose at 6 a.m. to work on blog postings. See what I do for you, My Readers? Anyway, in those circumstances it’s best to be circumspect and not eat and drink like a fool.

The Rhine River originates in Alpine glaciers in Switzerland, flows north and then west to Basel and then heads north into Germany, picking up tributaries and power as it goes. At the city of Mainz, where the Main river adds its waters to the Rhine, the Rhine, confronted by granite hills, abruptly turns southwest for a few miles before shaking off the geological confines and continuing to flow north-northwest into the Netherlands and to the sea. Along that southwest bend, among steep hills, nestle the vineyards of the Rheingau, on the river’s north bank, and the Rheinhessen, on the south.

The Peter Antony and Heyl zu Herrnsheim estates consist of 85 percent riesling and 15 percent pinot blanc vineyards. The grapes go through spontaneous fermentation, that is, the winery relies on wild yeasts, not inoculation with manufactured yeasts, and the wines see a lot of skin contact for complexity and depth. These are, indeed, wines of complexity and depth, with the Heyl zu Herrnsheim rieslings having a slight edge over the rieslings of St. Antony, though in the final call, such distinctions hardly matter.

Here’s what we tasted that morning a week ago, with brief notes. My attempt here is not to spend heaps of verbiage on each wine but to offer an impression of the style of the house.

>St. Antony Bodenschatz Riesling 2008. Crushed gravel, yellow plums, jasmine, roasted lemon; lime leaves, citrus, gun-flint; spicy finish; fresh and vivid, bright minerality and acidity. Delightful. The price in euros is 6.90; the dollar equivalent would be $9.73. One impressive factor on this tour was the inexpensive nature of German wines. Of course when one gets into the realm of limited edition, late-harvest wines the cost goes up, but generally the wines we encountered, even of high quality, were relatively cheap. And there’s no ridiculous three-tier system to drive prices up along the way from winery to consumer.

>St. Antony Rotschiefer Riesling 2008. “Rotschiefer” is a brand for the two estates, their “most important wine,” Peters told us. This is fermented and aged 50 percent in 70-year-old wooden casks and 50 percent in stainless steel. The wine is a little fatter, smokier and fleshier than the preceding riesling, with deeper spice from start to finish. My notes end: “Incredibly vibrant and resonant — what life and vigor!” 9.80 euros ($13.82)

>Heyl zu Herrnsheim Rotschiefer Riesling 2008. The HzuH “Rotschiefer” derives form different vineyards than the St. Antony rendition, and more wooden casks are used in its production. Peters described this wine as having “a more typical riesling profile.” Perhaps it was slightly more intense and concentrated than the St. Antony. Lemon, pear, hint of peach; a blast of clean acidity; “big” for a riesling, almost forceful, trenchant minerality. 9.80 euros ($13.82)

>Heyl zu Herrnsheim Nierstein Brudersberg Riesling 2008, Grosses Gewächs. Grosses Gewächs, whimsically called “GG,” is an attempt by the estates of a region to agree on an official, though non-federal, ranking of the best vineyards; the equivalent is the French term “Grand Cru,” as it’s used in Burgundy. The notion of ranking vineyards was not only neglected by the Wine Law of 1971 but was actually dismissed as elitist, dealing a severe blow to the structure of German wines at the highest level. (I’ll discuss these issues more fully in a later post.) Anyway, Brudensberg is a monopole for HzH, that is, an instance of an entire vineyard owned by one estate. My notes: Wonderfully floral, flint and limestone, talc; tremendous presence & weight; squingeing acidity, crystalline purity and intensity — but earthy, almost “wheaty.” 30 euros ($42.30)

>St. Antony Nierstein Orbel Riesling 2008, Grosses Gewächs. This spends six months sur lie, 30 percent in wooden casks, 70 percent in stainless steel. Fat, fleshy and earthy, very spicy; dense and chewy; a riesling for chardonnay-lovers, maybe; a little bready and wheaty, dynamic minerality. 18 euros ($25.38)

>St. Antony Nierstein Ölberg Riesling 2008, Grosses Gewächs. Shimmering intensity and purity; peach and pear, very spicy, vibrant and resonant; very dry, huge minerality; jasmine and lilac, also the bready/wheatmeal factor. Superb. 22 euros ($31)

>St. Antony Nierstein Pettenthal Riesling 2008, Grosses Gewächs. Wow, earthy, dense, intense and concentrated; very dry, fathoms of limestone and skeins of vibrant acidity; taut, lively yet almost lush; bready, cheesy and leesy, but slick as a whistle and clear as a bell. Needs three or four years. Superb. 25 euros ($35.25)

>For a treat, Peters pulled out a bottle of Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Pettenheim Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 1991. (“halbtrocken” = “half-dry.”) At almost 18 years old, this wine was young, fresh and clean, offering lovely balance, vibrancy and resonance, aromas of peach and pear and jasmine buoyed by riesling’s requisite petrol aspect; silky in the mouth, slightly sweet entry that immediately goes dry, almost achingly so; towering minerality and acidity. Wonderful riesling with another five to eight years of life.

After the tasting, we took the bus out along a one-lane road to the vineyards, stopping to peer up at the steep inclination of Orbel and Ölberg. The broad river Rhine flows about 100 yards away, down the slope. The vineyards are so steep that small tractors are required for cultivation between the rows. Someone asked about using horses, but Peters said that the land is too steep for horses. The vineyards are not separated by fences or walls, as they might be in Burgundy. The territory is marked by hedges and drainage ditches and nothing else. I suppose that when vineyards have been in existence for 500 years or so, everyone knows where the boundaries are. You just grow up with it in this wine country.

This was a satisfying visit. The wines ranged from enjoyable to great, and we appreciated Felix Peters’ low-key, self-affacing and accommodating manner (which can’t be said, as you will see, for every producer we visited).

The wines of St. Antony are not imported to the United States, but small quantities of Heyl zu Herrnsheim wines seem to be available in Chicago and, oddly enough, Tennessee, though I think not in my part of the state. (Like Gaul, Tennessee is divided into three parts.)

LL came home for lunch yesterday and said, “You know, today is Bastille Day.”

“Right,” I said, “Allons, enfants de la patria and all that.”

“We should have a French dinner tonight,” she said. “And French wines.”

“Good ideas,” I said.

“And you should do it,” she said. “You know, moules, steak frites, escargot, duck a l’orange.” A pause. “French onion soup.”

“Uh, right.”

Now there was a certain rigorous logic behind this statement. I am, after all, the one who is out of work, not she, whiling away the hours laboring over this blog, practicing the piano and generally indulging in grandiose visions of the future. (“Yes, I will write that novel!”) So, I did a little cookbook investigation and decided to prepare a sort of rustic dinner consisting of an onion tart, soupe au pistou and a pear clafoutis. Went to the store, bought what was needed, though I’ll tell you, while the tart was baking and the soup was simmering, with ingredients still to be chopped and put in, I thought, “No way am I making a clafoutis tonight.” So LL took the slices of pear that I was marinating in cognac, lemon juice and sugar, caramelized them in butter in the good ol’ cast-iron skillet, and we had them over vanilla ice cream, which was immensely satisfying.

Here’s what we ate and drank for Bastille Day 2009.
O.K., so I cheated on the onion tart. It should be pretty obvious from the picture that this is a small onion pizza, ha-ha! not an Official Julia Child-Sanctioned Tart. Yes, I made a pizza dough using one cup of flour — the usual pizza has about two-and-a-half cups of flour — but the same amount of yeast (1/2 a teaspoon) so the dough rose fairly quickly. I followed the advice from several French cookbooks and allowed the thinly sliced onions to cook over very low heat for about 45 minutes with salt, black pepper and a sprinkling of fresh thyme. I patted out the dough by hand, instead of rolling it, so that it would be fairly irregular, spread the onions on top, added some sliced black olives, more thyme and a generous amount of shredded Gruyère cheese, and put it into a 450-degree oven for 12 or 15 minutes. It was self-indulgently good.

I went looking for a Bourgogne Aligoté, not a common wine in the ol’ Mid-South, but found exactly what I was looking for at Great Wine & Spirits, owned by a longtime friend, Gary Burhop. This is the Bourgogne Aligoté 2007 from the distinguished house of Amiot Guy et Fils. Aligote, the “second white grape of Burgundy,” is generally described along the lines of “tart, acidic and functional” and is best-known as the wine from which a true kir is supposed to be fashioned (with a few drops of cassis, the black currant liqueur). Some domaines lift aligoté above the fray, however, and Amiot Guy is one. (A. Villaine is another.) The Amiot Guy Bourgogne Aligoté 2007, as elegant as aligoté gets, feels etched in limestone and wreathed in little waxy white flowers. This piercing minerality is buoyed by scintillating acidity and hints of roasted lemon, pears and almond skin. The wine is defined by lovely heft and balance, though the finish, one grants, is dry and chalky to the point of astringency. This drank nicely with the onion tart, cutting through the richness, but would probably really shine with grilled trout or shellfish. Very Good+. About $24.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.
The next course, soupe au pistou, I took from Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud Cookbook (Scribner, 1999). This is a country-style soup from Provence, finished with pistou, a sort of pesto sans pine nuts, though — shoot me if you will — I bought a jar of pesto instead of using the bales of basil it would require to make it. Anyway, this is a sort of kitchen sink concoction with celery, onion, leek, garlic, potato, green beans, carrots, chickpeas, zucchini and, finally, plum tomatoes, which you don’t add until the soup is finished and off the fire. You could use a vegetable stock, if you wanted, but I just used water as the base and let the leeks, onion and potatoes sort of melt into the liquid, making a fragrant and flavorful broth. Before serving the soup, you stir in some pesto or pistou and scatter julienne basil over the top. It was really good.

For the soup, I opened the Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil Cairanne “Cuvée Léa Felsh” 2006, Côtes du Rhône Villages. The soup could probably have used a wine less robust than this one — even a rosé — but the wine was so well-made that it hardly mattered. (In fact, I’m sipping from a glass of this wine as I type these words, and it’s lovely.) Cairanne is one of a small number of villages in the Côtes du Rhône Villages region considered a good enough source of grapes and wines that it is entitled to put its own name on labels of its wines.

This was substantial, hearty, robust without being rustic, seething with lavender and lilac, earth and minerals, black currant and plums and blueberries with a high wild berry note. Flavors of slightly macerated and roasted black and blue fruits are supported by stalwart but smooth tannins that unfurl to reveal touches of wet slate, tar, leather, briers and brambles. The dusty, earthy finish pulls up underbrush and moss and, intriguingly, powerful spicy elements. As with a wine from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, not far away, this blends grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, carignan, cinsault and counoise grapes. Try this from 2010 through 2015 or ’16 with veal chops, country-style pates and terrines and hearty pasta dishes. Certified organic. Excellent. About $20, though found on the Internet from $14 to $18.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.
So, we didn’t have the clafoutis; there’s a limit to how many courses one can cook after 7 p.m., and timing a meal of several courses, especially with dessert, has always been one of my weak points as a stove-meister. Still, caramelizing the pears in butter with the cognac and lemon juice was brilliant and resulted in a simple yet sumptuous dessert. Not much eye-appeal but great flavors.

Along with the Amiot Guy Aligoté ’07 and the Catherine Le Goeuil Cairanne ’06, I purchased a half-bottle of the dessert wine Seigneurs de Monbazillac 2002, a blend of 85 percent semillon, 10 percent sauvignon blanc and 5 percent muscadelle. Monbazillac, part of the Bergerac appellation, is a sort of country cousin to Sauternes and Barsac, further west in Bordeaux. (Bergerac’s most important river, the Dordogne, merges with the Garonne to form the Gironde that flows northwest through the Bordeaux region.) Sweet wines from Monbazillac, made from the same grapes found in Sauternes and Barsac, don’t have the finesse of their more elegant relatives, but the wines are satisfying and much less expensive.

The Seigneurs de Monbazillac 2002 gave off aromas of honeyed peach and apricots, cloves and crystallized ginger. In the mouth, the wine was thick and chewy, almost viscous though brightened with keen acidity and minerality; flavors of roasted apricots and pears were permeated by baking spice and a hint of orange rind. The principle feature, however, is a kind of foresty earthiness that grounds every other aspect. Simple, direct and appealing. Very Good+ and a sweetheart of a food and wine match. About $11 for a half-bottle.

Victoire Imports, San Leandro, Cal.

As with many customs and institutions in Europe, the cultivation of vines and the making of wine in what is now Germany owe everything to the Romans and, later, to Christian monks. Ausonius of Bordeaux — for whom Chateau Ausone in St. Emilion is named — writing in about 370 AD, mentions the steep vineyards found in the Rhine valley. Five hundred years later, the Carolingian kings encouraged the spread of vineyards throughout the region by granting lands to monasteries that sent out missions, taking vine cuttings to propagate more vineyards. Little is known about the kinds of grapes that were grown or the sort of wine that was made then. Some of Germany’s best-known vineyards survive under the same name from as long ago as the 11th Century, and they still produce grapes.

During the Middle Ages, Germany established wine trade relationships with the Netherlands, the Scandinavia countries and England, using the mighty Rhine in its flowing to the North Sea, through the Netherlands, to advantage. The major wine trading cities were Frankfurt and Cologne. When Shakespeare writes about “Rhenish,” he refers to German wines popular in England during the Renaissance. (And don’t forget Byron’s “hock and soda water!” “Hock,” from Hockheimer, became a synonym for German wine in Great Britain.) The success of these trading efforts, however, was diminished by the expansion of the vineyards, leading to overproduction and falling prices, and by the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which extensively damaged vineyard regions and reduced the pool of farm workers and craftsmen. (They were, you know, dead.)

The situation just briefly cited offers a microscopic view of a macro-historical problem. All ferocious economies of war aside, before the Industrial Revolution and the widespread availability of manufactured goods, the materials most severely affected by the inevitable forces of the market were agricultural products. Every aspect of the grape-growing, wine-making and wine-selling economy is slapped out of kilter by such elements as over-expansion of vineyards, the resulting decline in quality (as vines are planted in more and more unsuitable soils and climats), prices drop and surplus wine that cannot be sold builds up. Sounds like Soave and Valpolicella in the 1980s and ’90s or Vin de Pays d’Oc in the 1990s and 2000s. Greed never takes a holiday. Before the Thirty Years War, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition), vineyard lands in Germany amounted to — get this — 865,000 acres. That’s four times the cultivation of grapes in Germany today. Those must have been some yummy wines.

It took 150 years for the wine industry in Germany to recover from these crises, but more changes came with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, which altered Germany politically and geographically and shifted much vineyard ownership from the church to private producers, a process that also occurred in Burgundy. (The German and Burgundian systems resemble each other in that small distinctive vineyards are often owned piecemeal by many individuals.) The fact that “Germany” was actually a collection of kingdoms and principalities imposed burdens of taxes and duties that restricted the trade in wine, but that problem was eliminated in 1871 with the formation of the German empire.

The 20th Century struck the German wine industry with new catastrophes. World War I, the economic travails of the Weimar Republic, the rise of National Socialism and the Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II provided four decades of deprivation, while the introduction of branded wines in the 1930s — Liebfraumilch! — hurt the image of German wines abroad. National Wine Laws in 1892, 1909 and 1930 attempted to set standards, especially in the controversial area of adding sugar during fermentation to raise the alcohol level, but primarily these regulation left farmers and producers confused and dissatisfied.

War after war, famine, poverty, charging markets, the radical shifting political map of Europe, the clashes of dynasties: Then came the Wine Law of 1971, and what producer after producer described to my group touring organic estates in Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz last week as “the death of wine in Germany.” That topic deserves more thorough examination in its own post, coming up in a few days.

I may be smart, but I didn’t hold all this information in my head. My thanks to the aforementioned Oxford Companion of Wine (third edition of 2006), still under the leadership of the estimable Jancis Robinson; the fifth edition of The World Atlas of Wine, by Robinson and Hugh Johnson (Mitchell Beazley, 2001); and The Wines of Germany, by Stephen Brook (Mitchell Beazly Classic Wine Library, 2003). The excellent map of the German wine regions is from vinum-x-tellus.ie.

One of the most consistent good value wines in California is X Winery’s blended Red Wine. For the new release, the X Winery Red X 2007, North Coast, the combination is 60 percent syrah, 21 percent cabernet sauvignon and 19 percent zinfandel, grapes and proportions that meld into a robust, full-bodied, flavorful wine well-matched to the pizza we ate last night (while watching the truly bizarre, utterly trite movie Hounddog; Dakota Fanning deserves an award for bravery.) Anyway, the wine is ripe and spicy, bursting with notes of brambly and briery black currants, plums and blueberries. Flavors of black and red berries, luscious but also pert and tart, are permeated by vibrant acidity, making for a lively mouthful of wine that packs an engaging personality. Tannins are dense and a little velvety, and they lend a touch of austerity to the finish. As is usually the case with X Winery products, oak is deftly handled; the wine ages 16 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels, of which 19 percent of the French barrels are new and 8 percent of the American. One feels the spicy wood lending framing and foundation to the wine but not a trace of toastiness. This will be great with the burgers and steaks that come from your grill this summer. 1200 cases were produced. Very Good+. About $15.

The winery has also just released the debut bottling of the Red X’s new companion wine, White X 2008, North Coast. The blend is an interesting (and successful) 57 percent sauvignon blanc, 20 percent muscat blanc, 19 percent chardonnay and 4 percent roussanne. There’s no new oak here; the wine spends 9 months aging, the sauvignon blanc and muscat blanc in stainless steel, the chardonnay and roussanne in neutral (that is, used) French barrels. White X 2008 is bright, clean and fresh, sporting aromas of roasted lemon and pear, jasmine and acacia, a hint of orange rind and a touch of spice. Zesty acidity contributes a sense of not only liveliness but clarity; the wine seems crystalline in effect, the acidity almost lacy and transparent. In other words, this is a delightful wine, wreathed with citrus flavors that partake of a wisp of the tropical and anchored in elements of scintillating minerality. Drink this as an aperitif or with ceviche or sushi or light seafood dishes. 580 cases were produced. Very Good+. About $15.

I would rather stand in a vineyard talking with and listening to a winemaker than in a winery surrounded by anonymous steel tanks and ranks of wooden barrels. Being in a vineyard seems to bring out the expression and eloquence — like a fine wine — in a winemaker, and I always learn a lot under these salubrious circumstances. It doesn’t hurt that vineyards often occupy stunning landscapes and offer magnificent vistas of surrounding countryside. Certainly, I learned a great deal from Rainer Eymann, as mentioned two entries ago, while we walked through one of his vineyards last Friday in Germany’s Pfalz region.

Back at the Eymann facility, however, the story seemed different. Frankly, his wines were not the favorites of the three days of visiting wineries or sitting in restaurants with winemakers tasting wine. Remember, Eymann told us that because of using biodynamic farming practices, he thought that his wines were “more authentic,” that “the taste and smell of the vineyard is more intense,” and that the wines are “more sophisticated.” I’m not sure what he meant by “more sophisticated,” though there’s obviously the sense in which one could say that, for example, Solaia is more sophisticated than a $10 Chianti.

“More authentic” is the mantra we heard over and over from winemakers using organic and biodynamic methods when we asked if these methods “worked” and if the wines were different somehow. (I put “worked” within quotation marks to indicate that even this notion — farming methods “working” in some way — is ill-defined.) “More authentic,” of course, implies that a wine adheres to a standard, a profile of qualities imbued in and imparted by a particular vineyard; in other words, “more authentic” means that a wine exemplifies the terroir of a place, its “placeness,” better than it did before using organic or biodynamic methods. The unspoken question is: “So, why were you making and selling the ‘less authentic’ wines before? Just for practice?”

Anyway, my fellow tasters and I found the white wines we tried at Weingut Eymann — let’s save the reds for another day; they comprise a whole other set of issues — pleasant, lively and drinkable but not memorable. Of two sparkling wines and three still white wines, I rated two Very Good, one Very Good with a question mark, one Very Good+ with a question mark, and one a solid Very Good+. The latter was the Eymann Gonnheimer Sonnenberg Graubergunder (Pinot Gris) Trocken 2008, an enchanting, floral, spicy wine, redolent of almond and almond blossom and tasting of pear and melon in a cozily dense texture. Overall, the wines seemed quite high in acid, a fact pointed out by my colleague Ewa Wielezynska, from Magazyn Wino in Warsaw, and she asked Rainer Eymann about this perception.

“We are not a global player,” he replied. “We are a local player, and people like this style.” (The winery includes a popular restaurant, which, as we finished the tasting, was beginning to fill with patrons, most sitting outside on a beautiful late afternoon.) “We do not style wines for the international market,” he continued. “We make wines to be piquant and lively. These are practical aspects. People around here enjoy these wines for a meal.”

Well, that sort of precludes criticism, as “practical aspects” tend to do. If the locals appreciate and buy Eymann’s wines, if they come to the restaurant and drink the wines, if they like the wines for their piquancy, liveliness and pleasant qualities, who am I (or we) to say, “But, but, but … ”

The problem, however remains: Do organic or biodynamic methods — and Eymann went organic 27 years ago, way before most producers in Germany had ever heard of such a thing — make “better” wines or “more authentic” wines, and how can those standards or characteristics be measured, quantified and stated?

OPPENHEIM — Readers, when I was first in Oppenheim at Hotel Zwo, looking out my window, I saw a black BMW pull into the parking lot. I could see, painted on the hood of the car, the words “Deutsche Weinkonigin.” Now I know about as much German as Young Werther knew Pig Latin, but even I could tell that the words translated as “German Wine Queen.” What the hell? I thought, there’s a German Wine Queen?

Indeed there is, and it’s a tradition that goes back 60 years.

Here’s a picture I took of Marlies Dumbsky, the German Wine Queen for 2008-2009, and that’s exactly how she introduces herself: “Hello, I’m the German Wine Queen.”

Each of the German wine regions elects a queen, and so on until in a national competition, for Wine Queen for the whole country is chosen. It’s not just a beauty contest, though the current holder of the office is obviously attractive. Marlies graduated from the Wine Institute in Geisenheim, and she worked for two years at her parents’ winery in Franken. The German Wine Queen puts her life and studies or whatever other job she has on hold for a year and travels practically every day in the promotion of German wine, even, for Marlies, to Japan and Korea and China, to the United States, and she travels constantly inside Germany and to other European countries.

And — was it because our group was important, prestigious or lucky? Marlies traveled with us for two days, always upbeat and engaging, though journalists tend to be a grumpy and demanding species. (I’m kidding, of course; we were sweethearts.) Many times, during our tastings and discussions, she displayed her knowledge about the intricacies of German and EU wine regulations and about grape-growing and winemaking, even, occasionally, gently correcting the assertions of our official guide.

We were sorry to see her go, but German Wine Queen duties beckoned elsewhere.

Thanks, Marlies, you were a real queen!

And no, she doesn’t wear her tiara all the time. She keeps it in her car for emergencies, such as when a bunch of journalists start whining, “Oh, come on, Marlies, put on your crown!”

Wine making, from beginning to end, starting in the vineyard, is a matter of balance. It’s either the easier thing in the world or one of the most complicated.

Listen to Rainer Eymann, owner and winemaker of Weingut Eymann, whose facility is located in the village of Gonnheim, in Germany’s vast Pfalz vineyard region. Standing in one of his vineyards, within a five-minute walk of the winery — even as a village, Gonnheim ranks as small — you will see, off in the west, the blue-gray bulk of the Haardt mountains, while farther away in the east, you discern the distant blur of the Odenwald. Also in the east, about 15 kilometers from where we’re standing, winds the Rhine River, the waterway that over thousands of years created this broad valley and laid down its rich loess soil.

Eymann has run his domaine using organic methods for 27 years; in 2006, he increased the intensity of the treatment by going with biodynamic principles. The estate consists of 15 hectares (about 39.5 acres) of vineyards around Gonnheim, planted to 70 percent white grapes, mostly riesling, and 30 percent red, mostly pinot noir, with a broad range of other grapes. He makes a little sparkling wine in addition to still wines.

“When I began organic,” he said, “people around here thought I was looney, but times have changed. Organic and biodynamic have reached the top producers now. There was a legend that organic wines would not be high quality, but everybody knows now that it’s not true. Still, we’re always learning with organic and biodynamic agriculture. In 20 years, we may be doing something different.”

The soil where Eymann has planted his feet in stalwart fashion between two rows of vines is some 30 meters deep, with eight to 12 percent lime, or “calcareous soil.” The sky that hovers over us is mottled with shifting and blowing dark clouds; one would swear that rain was on the way, but Pfalz in actually the driest area of Germany.

“The problem,” said Eymann, “is that the weather comes from the southwest. It rains in the mountains, but stops in the plains and then picks up again in the Odenwalt to the east. We have soil that can store lots of water, but we don’t have enough rain, and this effect is enforced by the change in climate. We put down the cover crops between the rows [between every other row] to help the fertility of the soil, but that also takes away some of the water that we need.”

This delicate balancing act, as if the vineyard were poised on a high-wire and the farmer/winemaker were a circus master urging the performer carefully onward, requires craft and experience to maintain. First, Eymann lays down a rough compost material in alternate rows (alternate to the cover-crop) to protect the soil from erosion, because, “we don’t get much rain, but when it rains, it pours.” Second, and especially after the record-breaking and death-dealing heat of the summer of 2003, he installed a drip irrigation system.

Constant work goes on in the vineyard toward leaf, canopy and cluster management. Harvesting is done by hand.

To defeat fungus, Eymann sprays, from the organic farming tradition, different extracts of plants, seaweed, mixtures of stone-dust, minerals, copper and sulfur. He also uses the well-known (or infamous) biodynamic mixtures called 500 — “horn manure” — and 501 — “horn silica.”

When I asked Eymann why he decided, three years ago, to take his organic methods to the level of biodynamic, he said, “I was just interested in what’s happening. I was in contact with a lot of farmers using biodynamic and we talked, and I decided to try it. The main point is that you have the basis of organic farming, and biodynamic is the apex of it. After three years, you cannot tell safely by statistics that anything is different, but we are building on the basis of 20 years or more of good organic practice. We have done many things, so I would never say that because of 500 or 501 that we are making good wine. We have to wait and see.” He did say that he believes that because of using biodynamic methods his wines taste more authentic, that you can smell and taste the vineyard more intensely, and that the wines “are more sophisticated.”

What is important, he said, is the health of the grapes. “Quality comes from the vineyard, from selecting the grapes and treating them gently. Quality is not coincidence. It takes planning and craft and management. We do not want to produce the same wine every year. The wine should reflect the vineyard and the vintage and the fingerprint of the winemaker.”
O.K., Readers, it’s 12.45 a.m. on Saturday, and I have a plane to catch in Frankfurt at 12:25 p.m. I suppose I should get a few hours sleep, but maybe I should go ahead and pack. Or read for a few minutes. Each day on this three-day whirlwind tour of organic estates in Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz, we have visited three or four wineries, had lunch at some and tasted wines, met other winemakers for dinner and tasted their wines. I have a lot to write about, not only about individual estates and wines, and meals we had, but about the issues and concerns that surround organic and biodynamioc methods. We had a terrific group of wonderful, funny and companionable people, though I’ll tell you that if you give 12 journalists a big enough bus, they will not share a seat! No way! We need the second seat for all our gear! Actually our number was diminished today (I mean yesterday), and sometime, perhaps, I’ll tell you the story — like something out of Beckett or Flann O’Brien — of the jolly Irishman who had to drive back to Dublin suddenly because he discovered that his passport expired at midnight.

But that’s for another day.

OPPENHEIM — Well, Readers, I’m seriously underdressed for this expedition. Last week the temperature was in the mid-80s in northern Europe, and I packed my bag accordingly. Yesterday morning, I could have used a scarf and sweater when we boarded the bus that took us to the Geisenheim Research Institute (about 45 minutes away), for a presentation by Prof. Dr. Randolf Kauer and to visit one of the school’s experimental vineyards. (We also had lunch in the student cafeteria, where the food was neither better nor worse than the food in any student cafeteria in the world.) Kauer is apparently the only scientist in Europe devoted exclusively to the study of organic and biodynamic farming methods, and he and his students take a rigorous approach to these important subjects.

They’re important for two reasons. First, more and more grape-farmers, estate-owners and winemakers are turning to organic or biodynamic methods to ensure the health of the soil and terroir and to (theoretically, at least) produce better wine. (Still, “more and more” adds up to less than two percent of vineyard acreage in Germany.) Second, the notion of “organic” in this new sense, along with the general tenor of the “green” movement, permeates world culture now; the zeitgeist is green, friends, and marketability and profitability in many industries is tied (however tenuously and temporarily) to the process of going organic.

I’ll hit some high-points of Prof. Kauer’s illustrated lecture here and delve into the implications of organic and biodynamic practices next week when I’m back in the USA. Kauer was well-spoken, engaging and slyly humorous. I mean, you have to like a guy who will stand up in public and say, “What is spontaneous fermentation, I often ask myself.”

Kauer divided organic practices into three levels: (1) Sustainable or Integrated Viticulture, that is “good viticultural practices” that all growers should perform; (2) Certified Sustainable Viticulture, which take #1 and adds guidelines set down by the federal states (of Germany); (3) Certified Organic or Biodunamic Viticulture, which takes points 1 and 2 and adds the guidelines and controls of the various organic associations, such as ECOVIN and Demeter.

These levels of activity are aimed at producing the healthiest soil and the healthiest vines possible, most of the work involving treatment of the vines themselves — reducing vigor, exact training systems and canopy management, creating looser clusters — such treatment being, as Kauer said, “the highest priority.”

The professor spent 30 minutes or so — he was giving us, he said, “a whole course work of information in two hours” — on biodynamic methods, his attitude toward such practices as horn manure, dynamization, various teas and mixtures, following the progress of the moon and stars, being with “an open mind.” When I asked him if, as a scientist, he shouldn’t also take a skeptical approach, he said that he had to balance his openmindedness with his training as a scientific skeptic. “We cannot say at this time if biodynamism is scientifically based. The result of our tests and trials could be that they make no difference.”

One of our group asked if that result would be accepted by the adherents of “bio.” Kauer said, emphatically, “No,” meaning that fanatics for the principles of Rudolf Steiner will not be unconvinced. “We do see,” he added, “that with the use of horn silica the grapes are ripening earlier.”

Because the European wine industry is highly regulated and the American wine industry is not, many of the problems that profoundly engage government bureaus, grape growers, winemakers and producers and the EU in general will seem arcane to their counterparts in America. Besides regulations, many based on historical, regional traditions, that govern permitted grape varieties, plantings, yields, use of sugar and acid and so on, the debates about how organic practices should be regulated are fierce. For example, the use of sulfites in processing wine is very controversial. According to Kauer, producers in Italy want to reduce the amount of sulfur permitted in wine processing by half in organic wines. Producers in Germany, France, Austria and other countries, however, want to use the same level of sulfites in organic wines as are permitted in “conventional” wines, because, the argument goes, many winemakers use less than the permitted amount anyway.

“Sulfite content should not be a criteria for organic labeling and regulation,” Kauer said. “We don’t need such regulation. We already have the regulations against GMOs, and that is enough.” The Italians, Kauer suspects, “are looking toward future marketing,” a stance that perhaps says as much about attitudes toward Italy as it does about the use of sulfites.

After lunch, Kauer met our group at the institute’s experimental vineyard high on a hill overlooking the Rhine and the outspreading valley that looked like a succession of rolling hillsides, villages, vineyards and the distant points of steeples against the cloudy sky.

He explained that the students at the institute maintain sections of conventional vines, organic vines and biodynamic vines side by side in order to track the similarities and differences in the soil, vines and grapes that result. To try and keep all factors equal, the various composts used for the vineyards, whether the composts are produced conventionally, organically or biodynamically, are often measured to make sure that the nitrogen levels in the applications are the same. Cover crops between the rows consist of up to 30 different grasses and flowering plants and herbs, making not only for healthy soil and providing cover for tiny animals and beneficial insects but offering a distinct wild beauty to the vineyards.

I asked Kauer if, because the sections of vineyards — conventional, organic, biodynamic — are planted next to each other, there was any bleed-through of elements and influences that would have an impact on the trial conclusions. He said that two lines of vines on each side of the sections are not measured and the grapes from those vines are not harvested to avoid contamination by other methods.
Readers, I had intended to write this post last night, but we didn’t get back to the hotel in Oppenheim until midnight, and about the only activities I could manage were brushing my choppers and crashing into bed. I did, however, get up at six this morning to write and post this entry. Yesterday, we also tasted a group of organic wines with Gotz Drewitz, executive director of ECOVIN (and we were not terrifically impressed, particularly with the reds), and then traveled to the village of Oestrich, where the bus had difficulty maneuvering in medieval streets originally intended for goat carts, to the winery of Peter Jakob Kuhn, where he and his wife Angela devote considerable efforts toward biodynamic farming. The wines are splendid — more on them in another post — but is their high quality directly connected to their methods? Then we traveled to the village of Hattenheim, where we had a wonderful dinner at Hotel & Weinhaus Zum Krug, and more on that later, too.

Now it’s nine o’clock, and we’re about to set off on another day of traveling through the Rheingau, visiting estates and tasting wine. I’ll check back with you when I can.

Au revoir, or whatever.

OPPENHEIM — I didn’t take my camera to the reception and dinner last night, thinking, silly me, “Well, it’s a reception and dinner, why would I need a camera.” I was wrong. We had a splendid dinner and excellent wines at l’herbe de Provence restaurant in Hotel Zwo, where many of the group are staying, and I wish now that I had some images for you.

I met my colleagues on this three-day tour of organic estates — we represent the UK, Finland, China, Japan, Korea, Belgium, Netherlands, Canada, the USA (that’s me), and the common language is English.

The wines for last night’s event came from Geheimrat Schnell, in a Rhein estate in Guntersblum. We began by sipping a pleasant and tart Chardonnay Brut, but the revelation was the Guntersblumer Weisburgunder 2007, a pinot blanc that was one of the most gorgeous wines I have ever encountered, bursting with camellia and jasmine, pears and yellow plums, limestone and dusty limes, all couched in a texture that was like powdered silk electrified by startling acidity. We drank this with the amuse bouche, a shot glass holding a little bread salad and a piece of sardine, and the starter dish, a brilliant combination of rouget barbet (that’s a fish) on braised apricots with tiny fried chanterelle mushrooms. Lord have mercy, the wine and the dish placed off each other beautifully.

A small “surprise course” from the kitchen brought a dollop of braised calves’ tail in a pastry shell. With it we drank Geheimrat Schnell’s Guntersblumer Eieserne Hand Spatburgunder 2007, a lovely, light, delicate pinot noir with a ravishing bouquet of plums and mulberries, dried spices and dried berries, a wine that pulls up spice, brambles and lilacs poised in a satiny texture. Not a profound pinot noir, but certainly one you (meaning I) could happily drink every day. The price for this wine around these parts is 8 eruos, about $10; the Pinot Blanc 07 mentioned above costs 6.5 euros, about $8. And the winery is right down the road. Can you imagine “drinking locally” like this at such prices?

Oops, just got back from breakfast in the hotel lounge, a magnificent spread of a dozen salamis and other cured meats (some rather mysterious looking) and the most beautiful breads in the world (all of which demand trying), cereals, bowls of jams and jellies gleaming like dark wobbly jewels, tomatoes, pickles and so on, and not a pastry in sight.

The bus is waiting to take us to Geisenheim Research Institute, the only viticulture department in Europe devoted to organic studies. We’ll have a seminar with Prof. Dr. Randolf Kauer, have lunch at the institute, tour the experimental vineyard and then come back to Oppenheim for a tasting with ECOVIN, the association of German organic winegrowers. And then another estate visit and then dinner tonight.

More later, with pictures.

Hello, Readers, I’ll be posting for the rest of the week (if I can keep the batteries on the laptop charged) from Germany, specifically from the Rheingau and Pfalz, where I’ll be touring organic vineyards and tasting wines and figuring out what’s going on with sustainable and biodynamic grape-farming in these ancient places. I’m based in Oppenheim, a very charming city nestled on a steep hill — all the towns are — that rises from the great Rhine river. The image is of a corner in the Old Town of Oppenheim, below the top of the hill where several old churches stand. How old? Well the original edifice of the Katherinekirche was built in 1225; the new addition is from 1459.

Tomorrow, my group will visit Geisenheim Research Institute, down the river a few miles, have a tasting in the afternoon with the director of ECOVIN, taste wines at Weingut Peter Jakob Kuhn, an estate that has been farming biodynamically since 2004, and then ending with dinner at Hotel & Weinhus Zum Krug in Hattenheim and having dinner with more wines from Peter Jakob Kuhn. Then back to Oppenheim to read email and post to this blog, followed by collapsing in bed.

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