Germany


What could be more straightforward than that? Not that all lists aren’t arbitrary in some degree, but after going through all the posts from 2010 on this blog several times and doing some cogitating and sighing and reluctant winnowing, here they are, The 50 Best Wines of 2010, as experienced by me and written about last year. Wines that I tasted in 2010 but haven’t written about yet will not show up on this list, nor will older vintages that I was lucky enough to taste, which I do damned little enough anyway. The order is wines I rated Exceptional, alphabetically, followed by wines I rated Excellent, alphabetically. Where I think such factors might be helpful, I list percentages of grapes and, for limited edition wines, the case production, if I know it. Prices begin at about $25 and go up to $200, with most, however, in the $30s, $40s and $50s.
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<>Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma Valley. Richard Arrowood’s new label. 996 cases. Exceptional. About $80.

<>Catena Alta Adrianna Chardonnay 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $35. (Winebow, New York)

<>Joseph Drouhin Chablis-Vaudésir Grand Cru 2007, Chablis, France. 130 six-bottle cases imported. Exceptional. About $72. (Dreydus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Exceptional. About $150, though prices around the country range up to $225. (Winebow, New York)

<>Vincent Girardin Corton Renardes Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes 2007, Burgundy, France. Exceptional. About $70. (Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.)

<>Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, Australia. Exceptional. About $38. (USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection)

<>Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Syrah 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 75 cases. Exceptional. About $40.

<>Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 974 cases. Exceptional. About $48.

<>Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2008, St. Helena, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $32.

<>Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 275 cases. Exceptional. About $75.

<>Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,200 cases. Exceptional. About $60.

<>Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 490 cases. Exceptional. About $40.
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<>Alma Negra Misterio 2007, Mendoza, Argentina. The red grapes in this blend are never revealed, but count on malbec, cabernet franc and bonarda. Excellent. About $30-$33. (Winbow, New York)

<>Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 195 cases. Excellent. About $58.

<>Francois Billion Grand Cru Cuvée de Reserve Brut Cépage Chardonnay (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $60. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France. Excellent. About $65. (Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill.)

<>Brovia Sorí del Drago Barbera d’Asti 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $20-$28. (Neal Rosenthal, New York)

<>Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos de Mouches (blanc) 2007, Burgundy, France. 600 cases imported. Excellent. $100-$110. (Dreyfus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Easton Old Vines Zinfandel 2006, Fiddletown, Amador County. “Old Vines” meaning back to 1865. Excellent. About $28.

<>Egly-Ouriet Brut “Les Vignes de Vrigny” (nonvintage). Champagne, France. Made, unusually, from all pinot meunier grapes. Excellent. About $70. (North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>En Route “Les Pommiers” Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,993 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Bodegas Fariña Gran Dama de Toro 2004, Toro, Spain. Tempranillo with six percent garnacha. Excellent. About $45. (Specialty Cellars, Santa Fe Springs, Cal.)

<>Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuisse 2008, Burgundy, France. Excellent. About $30. (Kobrand, New York)

<>Champagne Rosé Premier Cru de Veuve Fourny Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Pinot noir with a dollop of chardonnay. Excellent. About $55. (Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 407 cases. Excellent. About $46.

<>Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco 2006, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $45-$55. (Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal.)

<>Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Haton et Fils “Cuvée Rene Haton” Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $62. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Heller Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 154 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Domaine Huet Brut Vouvray Petillant 2002, Loire Valley, France. Excellent. About $30-$35. (Robert Chadderdon Selections, New York)

<>Iron Horse Brut Rosé 2005, Green Valley, Sonoma County. 81 percent pinot noir/19 percent chardonnay. 950 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. With 19.5 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot, 1 percent malbec. Excellent. About $52.

<>Kruger-Rumf Munsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett 2008, Nahe, Germany. Excellent. About $22-$25. (Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, New York.)

<>Margerum Rosé 2009, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 100 cases. Excellent. About $21.

<>Mendel Semillon 2009, Mendoza, Argentina, Excellent. About $25. (Vine Connection, Sausalito, Cal.)

<>Misty Oaks Jones Road Cabernet Franc 2008, Umpqua Valley, Oregon. 75 cases. Excellent. About $28.

<>Oakville Ranch Robert’s Blend Cabernet Franc 2005, Napa Valley. With 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. 393 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $90.

<>Joseph Phelps Insignia 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. about $200.

<>Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1992, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. Renaissance holds wines longer than any other winery; this dessert wine was released in 2008. Production was 364 cases of half-bottles. Excellent. About $35.

<>Renaissance Vin de Terroir Roussanne 2006, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. 63 cases. Excellent. About $45.

<>Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys 2008, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $22.

<>St. Urban-Hof Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Piesling Auslese 2007, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Excellent. About $55. (HB Wine Merchants, New York)

<>Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvée Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $42.

<>Talbott Logan Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Excellent. About $25.

<>Tardieu-Laurent Les Becs Fins 2008, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, France. 50 percent syrah/50 percent grenache. 1,008 cases imported. Excellent. About $22. (Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.)

<>Chateau Tour de Farges Vin Doux Natural 2006, Muscat de Lunel, France. Excellent. About $24. (Martine’s Wines, Novato, Cal.)

<>V. Sattui Black-Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 400 cases. Available at the winery or mail order. Excellent. About $40.

<>Yangarra Estate Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, Australia. 500 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $29. (Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.)
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Coming Next: 25 Fantastic Wine Bargains.

Oh, yeah, the holiday is over but the turkey lingers on, so LL and I were thinking about turkey hash, but she did some Internet research and found a recipe for Turkey Shepherd’s Pie. You would think that this would be a pretty simple dish, but it ended up using so many pans and bowls that it well-nigh wrecked the kitchen. The result was good though. What’s interesting is that the recipe calls — in addition to turkey, of course — for peas, cauliflower, potatoes and carrots. LL, in one of her typical astute moments, said, “Wait a minute. That stuff is exactly what you find in an Indian curry.” So she dumped some curry powder in with the turkey and vegetable mixture, and I think the dish was improved considerably.

Curry? Well, the wine had to be riesling, so I opened a bottle of Schloss Johannisberger Riesling Kabinett 2008, from Germany’s Rheingau region.

Schloss Johannisberg is an ancient estate that occupies a magnificent site on a broad hill that slopes in a southerly direction down to the Rhine. Grapes have been grown there apparently since the 12th Century, during monastic days. It has been an all-riesling property since 1720 and was one of the first, if not the first, in Germany to make a late harvest sweet wine from grapes affected by botrytis cinerea, the “noble rot.” In 1816, Schloss Johannisberg was given to Prince von Metternich by the Austrian Franz I for services at the Congress of Vienna — which redrew the map of Europe after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo — and while the Metternich name still appears on the estate’s labels, it has been owned since 1974 by the giant conglomerate Dr. August Oetker KG, manufacturer of baking soda, dessert mixes, frozen pizzas and yogurt and owner of breweries, sparkling wine facilities, hotels and so on.

Schloss Johannisberger Riesling Kabinett 2008 is categorized as Prädikatswein, which is to say, Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), though aiming at simplified terminology labels are no longer required to state the whole term, only the shorthand of Prädikatswein. This top category encompasses what are potentially the finest wines made in Germany’s vineyards, though of course many factors enter into a determination of quality, especially the weather throughout the growing season and at harvest. According to germanwineusa.com, in an assessment of 2008 in all the country’s vineyard regions, in Rheingau “the 2008 vintage will be known particularly for high-quality Kabinett wines.”

Why, then, is this wine not better? Not that it’s not attractive and enjoyable. The first impression is of lovely fruit scents and flavors in the form of ripe peach and pear with a hint of apple; the wine is lively and refreshing, quite spicy, moderately sweet on entry but dry from mid-palate back. The texture is sleek and silky, though tingly with crisp acidity, and the finish brings in a tide of limestone. So, pleasant and tasty, indeed, and an entertaining match with the turkey shepherd’s (curry) pie, but what the wine lacks is ultimate verve and nerve, the depth of exhilarating stony/spicy/citric vibrancy that should characterize a QmP-category riesling (with a profound history and heritage) from 2008, supposedly a great Kabinett vintage in Rheingau; it quaffs much easier than it should. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. Prices on the Internet range, ludicrously, from about $20 to $35.

Imported by Valckenberg International, Tulsa, Okla. A sample for review.

For a chilly day, I took a package of four pork shanks from the freezer and looked around the larder for what I could do with them. Ah, a container of prunes, left from some other recipe that I do not remember, but there are always leftover prunes, and they last forever. And some fresh rosemary and sage. Things were shaping up nicely. I called LL and asked her to go to the store and get some turnips, carrots, potatoes and mushrooms, which she accommodatingly brought home at lunchtime. Well, I never used the mushrooms because one of the dogs kept stealing them from the counter. Anyway, I browned the shanks in olive oil in a large pot, took the shanks out and sauteed some chopped onions and garlic, scraping up all the little meat bits. To the pot, then, I added chopped turnips, potatoes and carrots — turnips and carrots peeled — and cooked them for a few minutes, stirring them around to pick up any olive oil and rendered fat left in the pot. Then back into the pot with the shanks, along with maybe 16 prunes (sliced in half), handfuls of chopped rosemary and sage, a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of pepper and a bottle of dry white wine. Put the lid on the pot and let those shanks simmer for three hours or so. When LL got home from work, she said, “Wow, something smells really good!” For dinner, I presented her with Braised Pork Shanks with Prunes, Rosemary and Sage. Green beans on the side. A little grated lemon peel on top. So freakin’ good …

Pork and prunes put me in mind of Alsace and Germany, which put me in mind of riesling, but the hearty meatiness of the dish also put me in mind of syrah, particularly the Northern Rhone Valley. In the interests of experimentation, I opened the Peter Jakob Kuhn Quarzit Riesling Trocken 2008, Rheingau, and the Philippe and Vincent Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage 2007. How did the wines turn out as matches with the pork shanks? Read the comments that follow. These were samples for review.
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I first tasted the Peter Jakob Kuhn Quarzit Riesling Trocken 2008 when I visited the biodynamic estate in July 2009; my post about that occasion is here. The property is graciously and fervently run by Peter Jakob Kuhn and his wife Angela; he, as winemaker, produces rieslings of remarkable character and dimension. The Quarzit designation is the second rung in the ladder of their roster of wines. My notes at the time: “V. stony, v. pure and intense, v. spicy; yellow flowers, yellow fruit, stone fruit; huge hit of minerals, slate and limestone; v. dry, crisp, vibrant, austere. This is, one admits, a little demanding; it needs a year or two.” Sixteen months later, the wine has opened considerably, but it’s primary motivation remains a scintillating expression of minerality in the form of crushed gravel and shaved granite. The floral element is more apparent; flavors of peach and pear encompass hints of dried thyme and a sort of Platonic grapefruit pithiness. The wine is indeed, as I wrote last year, “v. dry, crisp, vibrant, austere,” all qualities enhanced by acidity of startling vivacity. Ideally, a riesling to match the pork shanks would have halb-trocken — “half-dry” — or even a spatlese; the PJK Quarzit 2008 was simply too dry, too astringent for the richness of the dish, though there were moments when I took a spoonful of prune and turnip in the sauce and then a sip of the wine and felt a brief frisson of perfection. 11.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $28, but prices on the Internet run from about $25 to $40.

Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York.
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Made from 100 percent syrah grapes, the Domaine Philippe and Vincent Jaboulet Crozes-Hermitage 2007 offers a pungent and classic bouquet of smoke, wet dog, cloves and sandalwood, spiced and macerated red and black currants, and, in a few minutes, burning leaves, briers and brambles, moss, rose petals and violets; in fact, give the wine some time in the glass — I mean like an hour or two — and it smells as if you had somehow taken the whole of the Northern Rhone Valley in your hand, all its weeds and flowers and gravelly, loamy earth, and crushed it and rubbed it and inhaled the deep, exotic redolence. Austerity takes over in the mouth, but it’s the austerity of broad tannins rather than oak. Only 20 percent of the wine ages in oak casks for 10 months; the rest stays in concrete and stainless steel tanks, so despite the grainy heft of the structure there’s an aura of freshness and clarity. Still, this was too young, too dense and underdeveloped for the pork shanks. A better choice would have been, to keep with the Rhone but travel further south, a Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, or more toward the home-base, a fruity zinfandel. 900 cases were imported. Excellent potential from 2012 or ’13 through 2017 or ’19. About $31.

Imported by Wilson-Daniels, Napa, Cal. Bottle image by John McJunkin.
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LL seared a fillet of salmon, just with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and braised baby bok choy with garlic and, um, other stuff, while I made sweet potato oven-fries dusted with cumin and chili powder. A simple and delicious dinner.

I opened a truly lovely German wine from the Nahe region, the Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett 2008.

Nahe borders the western reach of upper Rheingau; to the northwest, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer extends down along the Mosel river. The wines of Nahe are often described as being amalgams of Mosel and Rheingau, and perhaps the geography of Germany’s wine country, with Nahe between Mosel and Rheingau, explains that notion. The best vineyards of Nahe cluster along the banks of the Nahe river, in the region’s central eastern side; the principal towns are Bad Kreuznach and Bad Münster, the prefix “Bad” indicating the presence of health-giving spas and resorts. (A münster is a monastary.)

The estate of Kruger-Rumpf, regarded as an up-and-coming producer, is farther downstream (north), at Münster Sarmsheim, not far from where the Nahe runs into the Rhine at the town of Bingen. Münsterer Rheinberg Kabinett is the estate’s basic wine, but that status does not imply inferiority. Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett 2008 is ethereal and exquisitely expressive of the riesling grape; a touch of spritz makes the wine light and balletic. Delicate aromas of pear and peach with hints of yellow plum and honeysuckle are borne on an evanescent tide of slightly earthy limestone. Citrus flavors unfold to reveal a suggestion of creamy Lady apples, briefly baked. The wine flirts with sweetness on the entry, but from mid-palate back, it’s bone-crisp, bone-chalky, bone-dry, yet ripely, gracefully succulent. What a sweetheart! Alcohol is 8.5 percent. Drink now through 2012 (well-stored). Excellent. About $22 to $25.

Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, N.Y. A sample for review, from a trade group.

Well, My Readers, it’s time to wrap things up for the trip to Germany. This is the 12th post, and I’ve covered about every topic, issue and idea that came out of that too-brief sojourn. Today, I thought it would be fun to turn to some of the best meals, or at least dishes, that I ate in Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Pfalz and then finish with a list of the best wines I encountered during those four days. As you will see, not once were we presented with sauerbraten or sausages.
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Tuesday, July 7. I didn’t take my camera to the introductory dinner on our first night, so I can’t provide a visual record of one of the best fish courses I have ever eaten. This was at the restaurant l’herbe de Provence, which occupies the whole first floor of the sleekly modern Zwo Hotel and Restaurant in Oppenheim. The dish was a filet of rotbarben (rouget barbet or red mullet) on braised apricots with fried chanterelle mushrooms. That was it. Utter simplicity and completely fabulous in its balance of sweet and savory and earthy sensations and of complimentary textures. Also simple yet almost heartbreakingly lovely was the pinot blanc that accompanied the dish, the Guntersblumer Weisburgunder 2007 from Geheimrat Schnell.
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Wednesday, July 8. After a day visiting estates and tasting wines in Rheingau, we touched down in the village of Hattenheim, in front of the venerable Zum Krug Weinhaus und Hotel, where the chef Josef Laufer presides over the kitchen. His father, also Josef Laufer, is founder of the establishment, though the building dates back to the early 18th Century. Laufer prepared an inventive, intriguing meal for our group, not every element of which worked. For example, the second course, for which I will not transcribe the German name, consisted of a cup of foamed soup made from organic goat cheese adorned with basil pesto and a portion of air-dried country ham, each perched on a rectangular plate. The soup was good; the ham was good; they did not compose a relationship together.

On the other hand, Laufer provided what was probably the best meat course of the trip. This was a shoulder of free-range pig in elderflower syrup (Holunderblütenöl) — I’m not certain of the cooking method — on a bed of kohlrabi with “little mushrooms” (Pfifferlingen) and new potatoes, a dish that went far beyond the concept of common “meat and potatoes.” And while I did not get used to drinking riesling with meat courses — I think people got tired of me saying, “Man, I sure wish I had a Ridge Three Valleys Zinfandel with this!” — the fact is that the brilliant Jakob Jung Erbach Hoherrain Erste Gewächs (“First Growth”) Riesling 2002 eased my pain.
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Thursday, July 9. Evening brought us to Weingut Gysler, a producer that has been operating in the Rheingau village of Alzey since 1450 and is now run by Alexander Gysler on biodynamic principles; the wines, which display gratifying delicacy and authority, are certified by Demeter and BIO. Instead of dining at a restaurant, dinner was catered at Gysler by celebrated young chef Peter Scharff, who left a Michelin one-star restaurant to start a group called Kulinarische Kompetenz. I found his resemblance to Emperor Franz-Josef — or was it Ludwig, Mad King of Bavaria? — striking. Scharff and his staff grow 200 to 250 herbs, many of which found their way into these courses. We didn’t have a printed menu, so my interpretation of some of these dishes may be sketchy.

I thought that the first course involved salmon “three ways,” but I could find only two, a salmon mousse, cunningly surrounded by paper-thin half-moons of radish, and deeply flavorful smoked salmon, accompanied by a tangle of crisp, fresh greens. It was a complicated dish, but delicious. Next came braised beef shoulder and smoked and braised beef cheeks on roasted tomatoes with root vegetables, of which I was not so fond, because it seemed neither to tax the chef’s ingenuity nor to rise too high about the “meat and potatoes” level,” which is not to save that I didn’t clean my plate.

Dessert, though, was this beautiful panna cotta with fresh berries and herbs. Each plate also held, on the rim, a little totem of dark chocolate. This was, I think, the hit of the evening, along with Gysler’s Weinheimer Hölle Huxelrebe Spätlese 2008 served with it. One of our party who had a car promptly bought a case.
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Friday, July 10. The plains and gently rolling hills of Pfalz held our attention today. We had lunch at Netts Restaurant und Weinbar, in Gimmeldingen, along with a tasting of wines from Weingut A. Christmann. The restaurant, designed in a spare contemporary manner with white walls and plain wood accents — and with a stunning view from the dining room of a great shallow valley stretching for miles — wasn’t scheduled to open for another week, so this was a special occasion. You could tell that the establishment wasn’t finished by such details as the mirror in the men’s restroom held in place by a two-by-four; that’s usually a giveaway. Though the food was simple, it was impeccably prepared and presented, adding up to what was probably our most coherent meal from beginning to end. It didn’t hurt that the Christmann rieslings were superb, though I thought that two pinot noirs were too spicy and worked over by oak.

First, a simple piece of rabbit loin rhubarb sauce, with two wines, Christmann’s Ruppertsberger Linsenbusch Riesling 2008 and the Königsbacher Ölberg Riesling 2008, which is to say, an excellent wine followed by an amazing wine.

Then, a lovely terrine of peas and carrots with an arugula salad and hazetnut pesto, with the excellent Reiterpfad Grosses Gewächs (“Grand Cru”) Riesling 2004 followed by the exceptional Idig Grosses Gewächs Rieling 2003.

If the meal at Netts had a weak spot, it was that the next course seemed a tad obvious, a little less subtle that the others. This was roulades of trout stuffed with herbs served over onion marmalade with gnocchi on the side. These wines, too, the pinots I mentioned before, were the weakest in the roster.

Finally, a sort of rhubarb crumble served in a small tumbler with whipped cream and a strawberry on top. I took my dessert to a window sill to get some different light — a food tourist with a camera is a terrible thing — and the waiter, evidently thinking that my empty place meant that I hadn’t gotten any dessert, kindly brought another. And I ate that one too!
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Friday, July 10. For our final dinner of the trip, we were driven to Deidesheim, where we convened at Zur Kanne, a restaurant and hotel that has been serving guests since 1160. We were tasting the wines of Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, a relatively youthful estate that has been producing mainly rieslings only since 1597. Perhaps by this time I was weary of orchestrated wine-tasting meals; as good as the courses were, my favorites were two simple soups, an amuse bouche of cold cucumber soup with creme fraiche, and the potato soup with wild-garlic pesto that came between the trout and the pork. Not that these soups weren’t fairly rich, of course.

Ah, yes, more trout and pork! Not a thing wrong with the trout — whole this time, and served with a sort of Mediterranean zucchini and tomato salad — or the silky smooth rack of young pork (Jungschwein) with a piece of corn on the cob, pierced by a fork, and roasted potatoes, and I bet travelers didn’t get food like this in the 12th century. Still, I wanted something light, something undemanding. At 110 hectares –almost 283 acres — Dr. Bürklin-Wolf is a huge estate by German standards, but several of the wines we tried, especially the Gaisböhl Grosses Gewächs Riesling trocken 2007 with the pork and the Gaisböhl Riesling Auslese 2002 with dessert — strawberries with Grand Marnier and ice cream — were outstanding.
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Going back through my notes, I think we tasted about 85 wines on this brief trip to Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz. Many of these were noteworthy for intensity and purity and authenticity, but after much consideration and weighing their multitude of effects, I settled on these 15 as the best, 14 whites, mostly riesling, and one red, that is pinot noir (spätburgunder). Why do this? Why even make these differentiations and sort out a hierarchy of the “best?” Because that’s the kind of guy I am. I like lists and matters put in order, tied with a bow of finality. So there.

>Graf von Kanitz Riesling Trocken 2006, Rheingau.
>Weingut Jakob Jung Erbach Hoherrain Riesling 2002, Rheingau.
>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshoher Scheurebe Spätlese 2008, Rheinhessen
>Peter Jakov Kuhn Doosberg Riesling 2007, Rheingau
>St. Antony Nierstein Pettenthan Riesling G.G. 2008, Rheinhessen.
>Kuling-Gillot Ölberg Riesling G.G. 2007, Rheinhessen
>Battenfeld Spanier “CO” Riesling 2008, Rheinhessen
>Geysler Weinheimer Hölle Huxelrebe Spätlese 2008, Pfalz
>Heimer Sauer Hinter dem Schloss Weisburgunder Spätlese trocken 2007, Pfalz.
>Heimer Sauer Gleisweiler Hölle Riesling Beerenauslese 2005, Pfalz
>A. Christmann Königsbacher Ölberg Riesling 2008, Pfalz
>A. Christmann Idig G.G. Riesling 2003, Pfalz
>Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Gaisböhl G.G. Riesling Trocken 2007, Pfalz
>Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Gaisböhl Riesling Auslese 2002, Pfalz
>Heimer Sauer Spätburgunder 2005, Pfalz.
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Image of Peto Scharff by Ernst Büscher; all others by F.K.
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During the four days that I was in Germany in July, our group heard over and over from producers and winemakers that the Wine Law of 1971 marked a body-blow to the German wine industry from which it has struggled for almost 40 years to recover. Indeed, in his chapter on the Wine Law in The Wines of Germany (Mitchell Beazley, 2003), Stephen Brook uses words like “abuse,” villainous,” “terminological rape” and “inanity” to describe the regulations and their effects. While an explanation of German wine label terms and the strictures of the Wine Law could take a semester of seminars and workshops, let me heroically attempt such a feat in one incredibly over-simplifying blog post.

(This post is not a guide to reading German wine labels. For that precise information go here or here.)

And before we leap to the heart of the matter, let me draw an analogy between the vineyard systems of Burgundy and Germany. In contrast to Bordeaux, for example, where the estate and the wine are synonymous, in Burgundy and Germany the villages and vineyards hold the qualitative pride of place, with many producers making wine from the same vineyard, of which they may own a piece or purchase grapes from another owner. In Bordeaux, for example, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild is the name of the wine and the estate, and its vineyards are its own. On a Burgundy label, the words Volnay Le Cailleret indicate (first) the village and (second) the vineyard, just as on a German label the words Nierstein Ölberg indicate the same village/vineyard sequence. Most of the wine world follows the model of Bordeaux, to greater or lesser degree.

O.K., now, here’s how the German Wine Law struck the death knell for the country’s fine wine estates.

First, the committees that came up with the Wine Laws completely ignored the traditions of quality differences among vineyards. Let’s face it: some vineyards are better than others. That’s why, in Burgundy, for instance, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, a Grand Cru vineyard, (usually) commands a higher price than Gevry-Chambertin Les Cazetiers, a Premier Cru vineyard, or why, in California, wines made from vineyards with long histories of producing high-quality wines, such as To-Kalon or Sanford & Benedict, are sought after by collectors. What makes one vineyard better than another is a subject for another post or seven, but, briefly, it’s a matter of the nuances of exposure, drainage and soil/sub-soil composition along with variations in the consistency of warmth and coolness during the day and at night. Such details, both minute and sweeping, of geography and micro-climate can change within a few hundred yards or even from one side of a road to the other. Fortunes depend on such subtleties.

As far as the German Wine Law is concerned, however, the greatest virtue of a wine is not where it came from or the grape variety from which it was made but the ripeness of the grapes.

The whole spectrum of German wines falls under these divisions: 1. Deutscher Tafelwein (German table wine); 2. Landwein (country wine); 3. Qualitätswein bestimmer Anbaugebiete (QbA, quality wine of a specified appellation); and 4. Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP, quality wines with distinction). The vast majority of wine made in Germany is Tafelwein and Landwein; few regulations apply to these levels and little is exported. QbA wines — often signified just by the word Qualitätswein on labels — must conform to regional laws and must be tested by a compliance committee; these wines may have sugar added during fermentation to achieve the required level of alcohol.

QmP wines, which may not have sugar added to them, were codified in the German Wine Law of 1971 as such: Kabinett; Spätlese, Auslese; Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerauslese. The categories are defined by law in ascending order, starting with Kabinett, in terms of the ripeness of the grapes and the potential alcohol content (that is to say, from driest to sweetest) and the specific lateness and method of harvest. The Wine Law clearly implies that the ascending order is one of increasing quality; a Spätlese wine, in other words, is inherently “better” than a Kabinett and so on.

Second, the German Wine Law of 1971 shanghaied the names of well-favored villages and attached them to broad regional designations (Grosslages), thereby diluting the reputation of the village and its often illustrious vineyards. “How many people would know,” Brook writes in The Wines of Germany, “that Piesporter Goldtröpfchen was the name of one of the finest sites on the Mosel, while Piersporter Michelsberg was a Grosslage name that incorporated a vast area of utterly mediocre vineyards on overfertile flat land at some distance from the river?” In other words, it is perfectly legal for a wine designated Piesporter Michelsberg to have no wine from Piesport in it.

Obviously this scheme favors large producers who can take advantage of a famous name to display on labels of generic wine. It also favors wine sellers who can persuade their customers to purchase more expensive Spätlese or Auslese wines because they’re “better” than Kabinetts. (I saw a newsletter from a German wine club that described the principle virtue of QbA wines as “to mix with club soda.”)

However, some of the best wines I tried in Germany were Kabinett wines of classic intensity and authority or Spätleses made in the dry or “half-dry” (trocken or halb-trocken) fashion. Other great wines I encountered were QmP wines declassified to QbA or deliberately made outside the QmP system, just as producers in Italy used to opt for the lowly Vino da Tavola designation to make wines from officially unapproved grapes. That’s one method by which fine estates in Germany are trying to produce authentic and individualistic wines without being hampered by illogical regulations.

Another method is the creation of a self-regulating regional Grand Cru (Grosses Gewächs) system designed by the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates) and legalized in 2006. As admirable, however, as this classification system may be in identifying and supporting Germany’s finest vineyards (though who could say that these choices are not arbitrary to some extent), the VDP’s relentless emphasis lies with dry wines at the Kabinett and Spätlese levels, at the expense of the inimitable dessert wines that are the real glory of Germany’s wine industry. It’s true that in a changing world German wine consumers turn increasingly to dry wines, but the wonderful heritage of that golden nectar must not be minimized or forsaken.

Last week I went to a blind tasting of 14 rieslings from around the world. This was hosted by Great Wine & Spirits, a retail store in Memphis that puts on a tasting almost every Saturday afternoon throughout the year. (Not at the store; Tennessee law forbids tasting wine in a wine store, a policy so stupidly stupid that it’s almost beyond comment.)

Generally these are tastings of assorted wines that fit a season or a genre or a price-point, but during the summer the events are conducted blind and each Saturday focuses on a different grape variety. Attendees at the tastings vote on their favorites, and the winners are featured at the store at discount prices. I don’t make it to all of these events, but considering my encounters with riesling in Germany early in July and the number of rieslings I have been tasting at home, I thought that I shouldn’t miss this one.

The interesting result of this blind tasting was that the top three winners were German wines, including two that were my favorites. People attending the event ranged from a couple, sitting at my table, for whom this was their first wine tasting to another couple, sitting nearby, who casually discussed buying cases of this and that and were clearly experienced tasters and drinkers.

The wines we tasted, in this order (which we didn’t know during the event) were these:

1. Lengs & Cooter Riesling 2007 (Clare Valley, Australia)
2. Domäne Wachau “Wachau” Riesling 2007 (Austria)
3. Firestone Vineyards Riesling 2007 (Central Coast, California)
4. King Estate “Next” Riesling 2007 (Washington State)
5. Bergström “Dr. Bergström” Cuvee Riesling 2007 (Willamette Valley, Oregon)
6. Pierre Sparr Reserve Riesling 2006 (Alsace)
7. Barnard Griffin White Riesling 2007 (Columbia Valley, Washington)
8. Schloss Vollrads Summer Dry QbA 2006 (Rheingau, Germany)
9. S.A. Prüm “Blue Slate” Riesling Kabinett 2006 (Mosel, Germany)
10. Schmitt Söhne “Anything Goes” Riesling QbA 2008 (Mosel, Germany)
11. August Kesseler Riesling QbA 2007 (Rheingau, Germany)
12. Schloss Vollrads Riesling QbA 2007 (Rheingau, Germany)
13. Dr. Loosen “Dr. L” Riesling 2008 (Mosel, Germany)
14. Mönchhof Estate Riesling 2007 (Mosel, Germany)

“QbA” stands for Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete, a vast category of German wine whose principle standard is that the wines were made in the stated area of production. Depending on the estate or producer, QbA wines can be quite good, even excellent. The QbA level comes below the highest category of German wines, QmP, or Qualitätswein mit Prädikat.

The winner in this tasting was August Kesseler, followed by a tie between Monchhof Estate and Schmitt Söhne’s Anything Goes.

Here are my brief tasting notes, transcribed from my little blue notebook:
1. Lengs & Cooter, “Lemon-lime, minerals — quite pungent — unfurls with lime, grapefruit and jasmine, really lovely, bristling acid, taut and crisp.” Very Good. About $19.

2. Domäne Wachau, “attractive yet subdued — jasmine, limestone, lime & grapefruit finely ground — whiff of petrol — nicely balanced, some peach & apricot — mouth-filling — solid finish , v. dry with heaps of limestone.” Very Good+. About $16-$19.

3. Firestone, “Green apple — lime — pretty sweet, not much impact, v. taut, tart, crisp.” Good. About $11.

4. King Estate Next, “Quite neutral — no more than pleasant.” A disappointment, because I usually like King Estate’s pinot gris and pinot noir. About $12-$13.

5. Bergström, “Petrol, limestone — apple & apple blossom — a tad sweet — but crisp acid and a taut mineral finish infused with spiced grapefruit.” Quite enjoyable. Very Good+. About $22-$28.

6. Pierre Sparr Reserve, “Pleasant, attractive, quite floral — a little sweet on the entry but immediately goes dry — tart, even pert — doesn’t feel balanced.” Another disappointment. Good+. About $20-$23. (I wrote about the vastly superior — or younger and fresher — ’07 version of this wine here.)

7. Barnard Griffin, “Lime, peach & pear, touch of almond and almond blossom, takes a few minutes for flavors to unfold — peach and pear, tons of limestone, attractive texture.” A well-balanced riesling, not quite compelling. Very Good. About $13.

8. Summer Dry, “Clean, fresh, bright — limestone, pear, melon, lime — hint of petrol, a little earthy — complex range of spice and floral effects — dry, crisp, taut — heaps of shale and limestone, formidably dry finish — quite a wine.” Excellent. About $16, and Great Value.

9. Blue Slate, “Peach, pear and petrol — spiced and honeyed apricot — initial sweetness balanced by bright, clean acidity — penetrating minerality — very attractive.” Very Good+. About $19.

10. Anything Goes, “Generally nicely done –a little sweet — good acid balance, lime, grapefruit & peach w/ a touch of orange peel — tart acid and limestone — enjoyable.” Very Good. About $13. The idea is that anything, as in any food, goes with this wine.

11. August Kesseler. “Real riesling — petrol, lime, lychee, green apple & apple blossom — jasmine — sweet, slightly honeyed entry but v. dry — taut and tart, scintillating acidity and minerality, lovely balance. long finish.” Excellent. About $16, a Fantastic Bargain.

12. Schloss Vollrads. “V. dry, crisp, tart, taut & supple, pure minerality layered under spicy peach, pear and lime peel.” Very Good+. About $17-$21.

13. Dr. Loosen “Dr. L.” “Soft, floral, pretty sweet — simple and direct, dry finish, not much character.” Good+. About $11-$14.

14. Mönchhof Estate. “Earthy & minerally — sweetness extends back through mid-palate — balanced by taut acidity, rollicking spice — lovely texture, both crisp and lush — heaps of limestone — a sense of energy and engagement.” Excellent. About $16-$19 and another Great Value.

I think that the qualities distinguishing the best German examples from the other wines in this roster are what I noted about the Monchhof Estate 2007, a sense not simply of authenticity but of energy and engagement, of fulfilling a purpose and accomplishing what a grape can do. That’s the case, of course, with all expressive wines that compellingly appeal to our sensibilities.

The results of this small tasting should not prejudice My Readers against rieslings made other than in Germany. In California, for example, look for the excellent rieslings of Napa Valley’s Trefethen and Smith-Madrone, or Gainey from Santa Ynez Valley, and from Australia, Mount Horrocks and Tim Adams, both in Clare Valley.

The advocates of biodynamic methods of agriculture range from the mildly committed, who employ bio-dy techniques selectively and ignore the mumbo-jumbo aspects, to disciples for whom the words of Rudolf Steiner and Nicolas Joly are gospel.

The last part of that sentence, or something similar, was much on my mind late in the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8, as the group I was with paid a visit to Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn, one of the most highly regarded estates in Germany’s Rheingau region. The winery, situated at the outskirts of the incredibly charming village of Oestrich, offers nothing fancy and neither do the unpretentious Peter Jakob Kühn and his wife Angela, who are friendly and down-to-earth, though she is more forthcoming than he, who is the shyer of the couple. (She is a former German Wine Queen.) Both, however, are passionate about their 18-hectare estate (a bit less than 47 acres) and the wines they produce.

PJK has been certified organic since 2004 and this year became a member of Demeter, the organization that certifies biodynamic estates. Much of what Peter Jakob Kühn does in the vineyard, along with being scrupulously meticulous, seems like common sense. Compost the vineyards with estate-produced materials in the Spring. Plant crop cover between vine rows in the Summer and in the Spring plow it under. Avoid chemical nutrients. Apply minimal pressure in the winery; stainless steel and large barrels for riesling, with a light filtration. Anyone could do that.

Peter Jakob, also, however, follows many of the stipulations of biodynamic agriculture as laid down by Rudolph Steiner in his famous lectures of 1924: horn compounds of manure and silica; teas of horsetail, stinging nettle and chamomile to spray on the vines; careful consideration of the phases of the moon to supplement the “movement” of the wine, including during bottling.

We stood with Angela Kühn by a vineyard that sweeps up to one side of the winery, accompanied by the winery’s 13-year-old Labrador, Acino. Here’s where things got a little sticky. One of the group mentioned that the rows did not have great shoots springing from the tops of the vines; were they cut back?

“No,” said Angela, “in the best parcels, we don’t cut the tops of the stems to give a message to the vines that no one wants to damage them and cut off their lives. If you cut the stems, it creates a sense of urgency and power because their lives are in danger, and they want to regenerate the next generation. This pushes the sugar level up. By not cutting the stems, by reducing the stress and gently tying the stems back” — the stems are wreathed along the top of the row and tied with soft but durable material — “we create a more balanced wine. Vineyards that get not only care and concern but love, we feel the vines will profit from it.”

This is the point where I throw my notebook and pen into the air and say, “Oh, please!” Not really, because my mother taught me better, but come on, the vines think their lives are in danger if you cut the stems? You have to love the vines, not just take care of them? Does the same principle apply to tomato plants and rutabagas? Amber waves of grain? Corn as high as an elephant’s eye?

But these are sweet and gentle people, and their attempts to live and work in harmony with nature are touching, and the wines they produce, which is really the issue here, well, the wines are pretty damned wonderful. (And all the wines are closed with screw-caps.)

Take, for example, PJK’s basic wine, the Jacobus Riesling trocken 2008, made in stainless steel. My notes: “Big, ripe, fleshy; yellow plums, camellia, honeysuckle; intense, concentrated, seductive; full, lively, dynamic; v. spicy; crushed stones, pulverized slate and gravel; really great.” The price in Germany is 8.60 euros, or about $12.50. An amazing wine for the price. Jacobus is named for the founder of the estate, Jacobus Kühn, who started making wine here in 1786.

The next level is the stainless steel Quarzit Riesling trocken 2008, and the name tells it all. My notes: “V. stony, v. pure and intense, v. spicy; yellow flowers, yellow fruit, stone fruit; huge hit of minerals, slate and limestone; v. dry, crisp, vibrant, austere.” This is, one admits, a little demanding; it needs a year or two. 13.90 euro, about $19.50 to $20.

We tried two of PJK’s top rieslings. The Oestrich Doosberg 2007, aged in 2,400-liter barrels, is a brilliant medium gold color; the wine is intense and concentrated, coiled like a steel spring, offering incredible energy and nerve and verve; it’s very ripe, very spicy, sleek and lithe and racy, and could stand to mature for two or three years before being opened, or you could wait until 2015 to ’17 and see how it develops. Extraordinary. Not surprisingly, the price goes up at this point, 26.60 euros, about $37.50. The Mittelheim St. Nikolaus Riesling 2005 — current release is ’07 — is powerful and earthy and exotic, an eloquent expression of pure minerality with hints of petrol, jasmine, crystallized ginger and a touch of banana, all leading to a finish that’s almost brutal with granite and limestone. This too needs a few years, say 2011 or ’12 through 2016 or ’17. 24.60 euros, about $34.75.

Finally, there was the Oestrich Lenchen Riesling Spätlese 2008, a pale gold-colored wine of piercing minerality that offered subtle touches of lemon, lemon curd and peach, a wine delicately sweet, winsomely floral and sustained by such a surge of acidic nervosity that the glass feels electrified in your hand, and then from mid-palate back the whole package turns startlingly dry and austere. A lovely and slightly challenging riesling that needs a year or two in the bottle. 18.30 euros, about $26.

So, at this point, Readers, you’re saying, perhaps rather smugly, damn your eyes, “Ah ha, F.K., now you have to revise your negative opinion of biodynamism and admit that it works!” Well, what I will say is that Peter Jakob Kühn is a brilliant winemaker and that he certainly makes brilliant wines, making that judgment on a brief exposure. If biodynamic methods in the vineyard contribute to this brilliance, then I will say that, yes, the principles work here. I wonder though: If Peter Jakob Kühn did not bottle his wines “in a diminishing phase of the moon,” would they be any less brilliant? If he did not spray with, say, the horsetail compound, would the wines be less compelling? Would Peter Jakob Kühn — meticulous, thoughtful, hard-working and attentive — not make brilliant wines under any circumstances?

The wines (or some of them) of Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn are imported to the U.S. by Domaine Select Wine Estates.

Images of the winery and Angela Kühn & Acino are by Ernst Büscher; image of Peter Jakob Kühn is by Tim Wegner.

The times and the tastes they are a-changing in Germany. Look at this statistic from the German Wine Institute: In 1980, the ratio of white wine produced in the country to red wine was 88.6 percent white and 11.4 percent red. In 2007, the production figures are 63.2 percent white and 36.8 percent red. Yes, the German wine consumer is turning away from white wine in favor of red wine, and red in Germany generally means pinot noir (spätburgunder). Plantings of pinot noir in Germany’s wine regions have grown from 3.8 percent of total acreage in 1980 to 11.6 percent in 2007 or about 30,377 acres.

(Though plantings of white grapes are down, plantings of riesling itself increased by about 1,235 acres in 2007. Germany’s total vineyard acreage in 2007, about 102,000 hectares — 262,140 acres — lands it in seventh place in Europe behind Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Moldavia and Greece, but ahead of Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria and Switzerland. Spain’s vineyard acreage — 1,169,000 hectares or 3,004,330 acres, by far the largest in the world — beggars the imagination. What happens to all that Spanish wine?)

The pinot noir grape has a long history in Germany, but the problem is that it’s not easy to get pinot noir grapes to ripen around the 50th parallel, which runs through the upper Pfalz and Rheinhessen. As a result, German pinot noirs tended to be thin and acidic. Climate change in the past decade, however — and if you don’t believe in global-warming, talk to German winemakers — has brought the blessing of milder winters and slightly warmer summers (“slightly,” except for the brutally hot summer of 2003), resulting in the potential for riper grapes all around.

The additional problem, though, is what to do with these fully (or more fully) ripe pinot noir grapes. With a couple of exceptions, the red wines I tasted in Germany two weeks ago seemed unsatisfactory from myriad aspects. Many producers in Germany, like their counterparts in the New World, seem to believe that making serious wine means deploying serious oak, even if the grapes involved inherently don’t take kindly to the heavy-handed treatment with wood. For example, Rainer Eymann, at Weingut Eymann in Gönnheim, Pfalz, gave his Gönnheimer Sonnenberg Pinot Noir 2005 two years in oak, effectually killing any flavor, or as my notes say, “Jesus! Where’s the fruit?” On the other hand, he aged his Gönnheimer Mandelgarten Merlot 2007 one year in barrique, the somewhat standard 59-gallon French barrel, and produced one of the best, most interesting and complex red wines we tasted on our trip.

The so-called “noble” grapes varieties in Germany are highly susceptible to the potentially devastating fungal diseases downy mildew and powdery mildew, and great efforts have been made in the past 20 years to concoct grape varieties that are more resistant. Some of these crossings include, for white wine, Johanniter, Phoenix, Solaris and Monarch, and, for red wine, Regent (the most widely planted, but only about 5,600 acres), Cabernet Cortis, Cabernet Carbon and Prior. We tasted a few red wines made from blends of these or other hybrid grapes and found them mainly sappy, weedy and foxy, as if they were a combination of gamay, pinotage and black muscadine, though they were presented with pride and hope. Better to work with pinot noir and try to get that right than to trifle with these minor, goofy grapes.

On the other hand, we tried some pinot noirs that were not just encouraging but outright fine achievements, though, as one would expect, they were individual expressions of the grape; all pinot noir wines don’t have to imitate the Holy Grail of Burgundy, but they need to be recognizably varietal. One of these was the Spätburgunder 2005 from Heiner Sauer, an organic producer since 1987 in the village of Böchingen, in Pfalz. (Sauer also owns Bodegas Palmera, a winery in the Utiel Requena region of Spain.) Sauer’s Spätburgunder ’05 sported a radiant medium ruby-magenta color; a deeply spicy, smoky bouquet of mulberry and black cherry; and a chewy, almost muscular texture that cushioned elements of leather and moss, black pepper and cloves, fruit cake and plums. The wine aged 10 months in barriques, of which 50 percent were new barrels. This excellent pinot noir, both authentic and individual, would sell in Germany for 17.5 euros, or about $24.70.

Another well-made pinot noir was the Rotwein (“Red Wine”) Barrique 2007 from Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn, a rigorously biodynamic estate in the Rheingau village of Oestrich (and I’ll write more about this estate and its methods in a few days). As seems to be the case with pinot noir wines from Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz, this one emphasizes the grape’s spicy aspects; is this stylistic choice or climatic necessity? The color was a lovely medium ruby with a slight brick-red cast; the bouquet delivered beguiling aromas of cloves and allspice with spiced red and black currants and plums. The wine was quite dry, earthy and loamy, reminding me of some location-focused pinots from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and while there was a sufficient (though not abundant) quantity of delicious black fruit flavors, the wood really showed itself from mid-palate back. Personally, I could have used a grilled veal chop with this wine, but we were in the tasting room at Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn, and no such thing was in sight. If you lived in Germany, you would pay 22.70 euros for this wine, about $32.

The wines of Weingut Heimer Sauer and Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn are imported to the United States by Domaine Select Wine Estates.

Truly, though, the pinot noir that I enjoyed the most in Germany came on our first night in Oppenheim, at the restaurant L’herbe de Provence in Hotel Zwo, a sleek place that, like the other small-town establishments where we ate, consisted of a restaurant that occupied the entire first floor with two floors of rooms above. The main course at this introductory meal was a “back” of a country-style “Donnersberger” suckling pig served with asparagus and polenta; with it we drank a Guntersblumer Eiserne Hand Spätburgunder trocken 2007 from the Gehimrat Schnell winery. This was a lovely little pinot that boasted a ravishing bouquet of plums, mulberries, dried spices and dried flowers and winsome flavors of macerated and spiced red and black currants with overtones of lilacs and brambles. Not a great pinot noir by any means, but immensely appealing and drinkable. It would set you back the lordly sum of 8 euros, about $11.30.

Once we left St. Antony and Heyl zu Herrnsheim, Thursday (July 9) in Rheinhessen turned into a day of contrasts, not that contrast is a bad thing; often one learns the most through the process of give-and-take. The bus took us south from Nierstein, through back roads, to Ludwigshöher, a village about the size of a baseball diamond, where we were scheduled to have lunch and taste the wines of Weingut Brüder Dr. Becker — this is the estate and winery of Lotte Pfeffer-Müller and Hans Müller — and also wines made by their friend Christine Bernhard, of Weingut Janson Bernhard in Zellertal-Harxheim, in the Pfalz region, a sort of preview for our next day’s exploration. Lotte Pfeffer-Müller is chairwoman of the board of ECOVIN. She and Bernhard prepared a spectacular lunch for us, which we’ll get to in a few minutes.

It’s easy to perceive the sensibility of a winery after a few minutes walking around and talking with the owner or winemaker. Brüder Dr. Becker has roots in the late 19th Century, and the facility has accreted gradually over the decades. Even the newer buildings, apparently from the 1960s, seem well-used, practical and rustic. Vines grow abundantly over arbors and trellises, moss furs the paving stones, and close by a rooster protests the presence of strangers in his precincts. Müller took us around the back, into an open shed where old machinery is stored, or simply waits for mechanical eternity, to talk about crop cover in the vineyards. What he showed us was a long table on which stood wide shallow bowls filled with the seeds of the plants — yellow, white and red clover, buckwheat, caraway, wild carrot, black lentils and some kind of pea plant — each type of seed remarkably different from the others, some fine enough that they almost felt like fine meal in the hand, others rough and pitted.

He took us into the winery, down two flights of stairs to the cellars where large oval barrels slumbered in the dim light. I promise, My Readers, that once you have seen a thousand steel tanks and 10,000 barriques, you never want to see another, but oddly shaped, venerable casks — some of these were from the 1930s and ’40s — silently hunkered down in a cellar carved from stone, highlighted by the unforgettable aroma of young wine and old wood, make for an experience of which I never tire.

Back upstairs, we walked into a room set for lunch in a manner that would have made the editors and stylists at Food & Wine and Gourmet magazines weep with envy. Out came the cameras to record this sight: a long, long table, overflowing with bright, colorful flowers and set with platters and bowls of the most gorgeous food imaginable, everything artistic yet artless, beautiful and carefree. There were slices of quiche with nettles; baby carrots wrapped in mint and thin slices of ham; lamb meatballs with feta cheese; pancake-like wraps of tomato pesto and feta cheese; bales of herb salads; home-made herb butters and dipping sauces, all made from organic ingredients and as locally-grown as possible. As delightful as this feast was, it didn’t make the best setting for tasting wine; there was too much going on, too much to eat and talk about, but, being the professionals that we were alleged to be, we forged professionally ahead.

While we ate and tasted, Lotte Pfeffer-Müller and Christine Bernhard provided commentary, each weighing in with a zinger. “If you don’t produce ecological wines,” said Pfeffer-Müller, in her motherly yet uncompromising way, “then you don’t make real wines. If you don’t grow ecologically, then you cannot talk about terroir. It’s a kind of lifestyle.” And when we were trying Bernhard’s irresistible Zeller Klosterstuck Riesling Spätlese 2007, she said, “Riesling is unforgiving, but he’s adorable, too.” She always referred to the riesling grape in masculine terms. Both women asserted that since changing to organic methods in the vineyards, the grapes are “healthier” and the wines “better,” but, again, we had no standards of comparison. The wines we tasted, as these briefs notes should convey, ranged from appealing and delightful to profound. (Sorry, I only recorded prices for a few of these wines.)

>Janson Bernhard Zellertaler Silvaner trocken 2008. Clean, fresh and spicy; vigorous acidity and minerality; lemon and yellow plums; thirst-quenching, delightful. 9 euros. ($12.70)

>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshöher Silvaner trocker 2008. More substance to this sylvaner, a little fatter, spicier. 5.80 euros. ($8.20)

>Janson Bernhard Zellertaler Schwarzer Herrgott Riesling & Traminer trocken 2008. Another delightful wine, a blend of 50 percent riesling and 50 percent gewurztraminer; lively and spicy, very floral.

>Brüder Dr. Becker Dienheimer Riesling trocken 2008. Fresh, clean, bright, floral; very dry, tremendous minerality. 6.90 euros. ($9.75)

>Brüder Dr. Becker Tafelstein Riesling 2007, Grosses Gewächs (Grand Cru). Gunflint and lilac, very pure and intense, very dry; profound minerality (limestone & shale), scintillating acid; awesome.

>Janson Bernhard Zeller Klosterstuck Riesling Spätlese 2007. this is beautiful; pure and intense and concentrated; great balance among ripeness and acid and minerality; peaches and apricots, touch of apple and pear; rigorous acidity, yet lovely, delicate; very dry finish. A lesson in the balance of delicacy with power.

>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshöher Scheurebe Spätlese 2008. Deep, earthy and spicy; lime and grapefruit, very floral; poised between spareness and opulence; towering minerality, a sense of balance that’s actually exciting, electrifying. Wow.

>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshöher Traminer Beerenauslese 2005. Close to angelic yet years to go, as in 2015 to ’18.

We also tasted a red wine from each estate, which I’ll save for a post on red wine in Germany.

After leaving Brüder Dr. Becker — late, of course — we wended our way through fields and lanes and minuscule towns to the southern fringe of the Rheinhessen and a broad windswept hill in Hohen- Sülzen, home to Weingut BattenfeldSpanier and Weingut Kühling-Gillot and the forward-thinking and purposeful couple Carolin Spanier-Gillot and Oliver Spanier, whose marriage in 2006 united two old wine families. If Lotte Pfeffer-Müller and Hans Müller look like farmers, a sort of “Pleasant Peasant” version of American Gothic, Gillot and Spanier look like young gods, poised, elegant, modern. Their tasting room resembles one of Philip Johnson’s Glass Houses; their website could be a series of still photos from a film by Wong Kar-Wai, all poetry and shadows and evocation — and not very helpful.

Oliver Spanier, we discovered, takes self-confidence to steroidal levels, and as he poured wines for us, he delivered his opinions in rapid-fire and authoritative fashion, and in impeccable English.

On winemaking: “I don’t cool wines, I don’t heat wines. I do nothing. It’s all about fantastic sites and fantastic grapes.”

On biodynamic practices: “I don’t like to talk about bio-dy. I need minimum 20 years to see the results. Many young winemakers are doing biody and maybe it makes a great job to show the wines, but bio-dy is only part of the picture. I don’t believe in the moon and the constellations. The oceans go up and down whether there’s a full moon or not. When I do something, I must show it in science. I hate teas, teas do nothing. [Spanier is referring to some of Rudolph Steiner's root, plant and herbal teas that are sprayed at intervals on the vines.] We do spray the horn manure. This definitely works. You can see it in the grapes.”

On Rudolph Steiner (inventor of the biodynamic method of agriculture): “Steiner was a sick man. That says it all for me.”

On fruit in wine: “I hate all this discussion about fruit. All this makes me crazy. These writers are writing that a wine tastes like strawberries picked when the dew is still on them! [And I'm thinking, 'Hmmm, where can I use that?'] I like wines that are spicy and interesting. With this kind of wine, you can’t talk about flavors and boring things.”

On Bordeaux red wines: “I hate Bordeaux! Latour tastes like Coca-Cola!”

The wines, though, I thought were pretty damned wonderful, but they were controversial in our group. One of my colleagues acknowledged that they were well-made but “soulless.” That was not my impression. Brief notes:
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