My love for Alsace wines – especially its Rieslings – is without parallel, yet even I am forced to concede: Other Rieslings Are Available! Given the grape’s Germanic origins and it’s position as the most widely planted grape there (23% of vineyard area as of 2015) it is only fair to look to Germany. Of all Germany’s 13 wine regions, for me the most synonymous with quality Riesling is the Mosel.
The Mosel wine region had Saar–Ruwerappended to its name until 1st August 2007, and those two names still account for two of the six Mosel Districts (Bereiche). Also, adjacent to Luxembourg, the Obermoseland MoseltorDistricts are home to modest wines – still and sparkling – made from Elbing and other “lesser” grapes. The final two Mosel Districts are the most important. The Berg Cochem District is also known as the Terraced Mosel (Terrassenmosel) as many of its slopes are incredibly steep and are terraced so that they can be worked. The final District is Bernkastelwhich includes the famous sundial vineyards.
The Haag family have run their estate in Brauneberg, Bernkastel District, since 1605. I have previously reviewed their Brauneberger Juffer Grosses Gewächs Riesling and Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel. Now I turn to their “entry level” dry Riesling.
Disclosure: bottle was kindly given as a sample, opinions remain my own
Fritz Haag Mosel Riesling Trocken 2018
Weingut Fritz Haag hand pick their Riesling grapes for this wine from their slate-soil vineyards around their home base of Brauneberg. Fermentation takes place in both large wooden vats (for a touch of roundness) and stainless-steel tanks (for freshness). As many who are fluent in wine know “Trocken” means dry in German, so the fermentation is not stopped early to make the wine sweet (although Fritz Haag does make some brilliant sweet wines).
This estate Riesling pours a light lemon in the glass. The nose is full of citrus with lifted mineral tones – and unmistakable Riesling character.
The measured residual sugar is 7.5 g/L which would be creeping into off-dry territory for some grapes, but set against this Riesling’s acidity it merely tames the zing a little and brings out the fruitiness of the wine.
On the palate we find fleshy lime, grapefruit and peach combined – you don’t taste them individually but there’s a new super-fruit that combines all their characteristics! Light and lithe, a wine that dances on your tongue before disappearing down your throat. Once in your stomach it sends a direct signal to your brain for another taste! The finish is dry as you’d expect from a Trocken wine, but the fruit sweetness in the mid-palate banishes any thoughts of this being too dry.
The TL;DR review: tastes of deliciousness!
RS: 7.5 g/L
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“New World” is not a great term as it basically means “outside Europe”, so it includes many different countries which are different in style. Just for convenience, it allows us to look at a selection wines from California, Central Otago, Southern Australia and Ningxia, all available from Liberty Wines.
I’ve been a fan of the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc / Viognier blend for some time (see review here) but as this is Napa then the Cabernet is the real deal. Pine Ridge Vineyards was first established in Stags Leap District in the late 70s with a single vineyard next to a – you guessed it – pine ridge. Their vineyards now number 12 and total 80 hectares over five Napa sub-zones: Stags Leap District, Rutherford, Carneros, Howell Mountain and Oakville. Pine Ridge produce a number of different wines, including several from individual sub-zones, but this is a blend across the five.
This bottle is labelled as a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon but that is 91% of the blend, with the balance made up by 6% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. 35% of the 2016 was aged in new American oak for 18 months, giving creamy vanilla to go with the blackcurrant, cherry and blackberry notes. This is a big, lush, heady wine that is not light and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s not for those who like racy reds but it’s imposing and delicious.
Ningxia is of course the most important Chinese region for wine. Some years ago I reviewed Château Changyu Moser XV 2008 which had an abv of 12.5% and was reminiscent of old school Bordeaux (think mid ’90s). The Pretty Pony is a very good wine, regardless of origin. It has oak, lovely black fruit and is already showing a nice bit of development. This is not like old school Bordeaux – this is like modern Bordeaux!
When Central Otago Pinot Noir began to enter into the consciousness of wine drinkers it was almost the opposite of Marlborough Pinot – big, bold and powerful – with alcohol to match. It was almost a Pinot Noir for Cabernet drinkers – no bad thing in my eyes as Cab is my favourite black grape – but times, and the wines, have changed. Now elegance and balance are to the fore, without losing the intensity that made them such a hit in the first place. This is a great example of Central Pinot – especially for the relatively modest price. It has a core of ripe red fruit and a slight smoky, savoury edge that gives it some seriousness.
Another Central Pinot, but totally different in style. Burn Cottage has been practising biodynamic since the first vines were planted in 2003, and there is a low intervention approach to winemaking. Whole bunch fermentation allows the wine’s aromas to develop fully – it smells…special, for want of a better term. This is a fine, fine wine which delights all the senses but the mind too.
Like many McLaren Vale vineyards, Mitolo has Italian roots through its founder Frank Mitolo. It also has an influx of German genes through winemaker and business partner Ben Glaetzer, scion of the Barossa producer Glaetzer wines. The Mitolo portfolio is split into three ranges: Jester, Small Batch and Single Vineyard.
The G.A.M. Shiraz was the first wine produced by Mitolo; it’s not an alternative to GSM which is prevalent in the Vale, but actually stands for the initials of Frank’s three children, Gemma, Alex and Marco. The fruit is sourced from a vineyard belonging to family friends and fellow Italian immigrants the Lopresti vineyards, in particular their “Chinese Block”. As it’s located at the bottom end of McLaren Vale, the block benefits from cooling sea breezes. The vines are over 40 years old and are planted on a type of clay. Fermentation is kept on the cool side to preserve fruit flavours and then fermentation is in French oak (30% new, 70% used) for 15 months. Only at that point are barrels given final selection for inclusion in the G.A.M. Shiraz.
Aussie Shiraz is a great crowd-pleaser but this is way above that – it has phenomenal structure and intense, opulent-but-not-jammy black fruit. The Jester Shiraz is a great introduction to the style at a little over half the price of the G.A.M., but I’d argue that the latter is more than twice as good and represents great value at this price point.
Grosset Gaia Clare Valley 2014 (14.0%, RRP €66.99 at good independents nationwide)
Grosset are best known for their Rieslings, especially the Polish Hill and Springvale bottlings, but they also make some great reds too, including a Pinot Noir and this “Gaia” Bordeaux blend. I say Bordeaux blend though its precise proportions of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc would rarely be found in the Gironde. At five years old this 2014 still has bright berry, blackcurrant and plum fruit. It does have a dry leathery side, with grippy tannins and good acidity. As this is Clare there is of course a screwcap closure; a challenge to the Bordelais to catch up? This will be drinking well for years and years.
Last year, thanks to the generosity of Françoise and Seán Gilley of Terroirs in Donnybrook, Dublin, I had the opportunity to meet one of the young stars of Alsace wine, Agathe Bursin. And not only meet her, but to have her guide us through a tasting of her wines and then try the wines with the excellent food of Forest Avenue.
Like many people in Alsace, Agathe Bursin had a connection to winemaking when she grew up, although not directly from her parents like some. In her small infant school she was the only girl along with four boys; that is, four boys who all wanted to be a tractor driver on their family’s vineyards, so it was only natural for the young Agathe to dream of this as well.
Secondly, while her family had been selling their grapes to the local cooperative since 1956, her grandfather did make some small amount of wine for family consumption – and Agathe was fascinated by the equipment and the process.
Fast forward several years to 2000, and she graduated in Oenology, but when her first wines were made back home in accordance with her textbooks, they didn’t feel like her wines at all. She learnt from this minor setback and took an entirely new approach; stripped back and providing a gentle hand of direction only when required.
Since then she has followed organic and biodynamic practices (though has not sought certification) including the use of herbal teas in the vineyard and only indigenous yeast for fermentation. Interestingly, it is the yeast present in the cellar rather than the vineyard that usually win the biochemical war that is fermentation. She neither encourages nor discourages malolactic fermentation, it is simply permitted to happen if it happens. Thankfully though, it usually happens spontaneously in the red wines and not in the whites.
Agathe’s Domaine now totals around 5.5 hectares, split over the Grand Cru Zinnkoepflé and the Lieux-dits Bollenberg, Dirstelberg, Strangenberg, all around her home village of Westhalten. The split of varieties is: 5% Muscat, 15% Pinot Gris, 20% Riesling, 20% Gewurztraminer and 20% Sylvaner. Some of the vines are co-planted – more on which later.
Here are my tasting notes on the wines, with the rider that je ne crache pas les blancs….
Pinot Noir Strangenberg 2015 is from grapes grown on marl and limestone soil. The grapes are hand picked then partially de-stemmed (40% – 60% depending on the vintage). There is no cold soak; fermentation begins in stainless steel tanks with eight days of maceration (longer would lead to the wine being too vegetal) before being transferred into used 228 litre pièces to complete the two months of fermentation. Maturation is for 20 months. This Pinot Noir shows bright red and black cherry fruit; it’s a smooth wine that has taken a touch of weight and roundness from its time in oak but very little obvious flavour.
Riesling Dirstelberg 2016 is grown on the highest vineyard in Alsace at 500 metres above sea-level. The soil is red sandstone, sheltered from the wind but still cool (which Riesling prefers). The vines are trained as Double Guyot which tends to give small berries. According to Agathe, with age these wines take on chalky, mineral characters rather than diesel. At this young age it is racy, nervous and tangy, full of fresh citrus – lime lemon and grapefruit – and orange blossom.
Pinot Blanc Parad’Aux 2016 is a blend of Pinot Blanc and its close relation Auxerrois. The former has high acidity (which is why it is so popular in Crémant d’Alsace) whereas the latter is quite floral and has moderate acidity. The two varieties are co-fermented and the local yeast naturally leaves a little bit of residual sugar (6 g/L) which comes across as roundness rather than sweetness (Agathe believes her indigenous yeast are “quite lazy”). Soft stone fruits are the order of the day here, with a touch of peach, apricot and nectarine.
L’As de B 2016 is a proper field blend, where the different varieties are all planted in the same plot, are harvested and then vinified together. Bizarrely, while the different varieties would normally ripen at different times in their own blocks, when planted together they mature together! The blend is – are you ready for this? – 5% Muscat, 15% Pinot Gris, 20% Gewurztraminer, 20% Riesling, 20% Pinot Blanc and 20% Sylvaner. The residual sugar for the blend falls between 10 and 20 g/L depending on vintage. The 2016 shows lots of spice, with the Gewurz and Pinot Gris particularly showing through. Interestingly, although the blend stays the same from year to year, different grapes seem to come to the fore with each vintage.
L’As de B 2008 shows how well this wine can age – it still shows great freshness as well as development, but is not yet fully mature. It seems soft and gentle, as though it had settled in to itself with age.
As I speak reasonable French I presumed that “As de B” signified “L’As de Bursin”, i.e Bursin’s Ace, but this is not the case. The grapes all come from the Bollenberg; the story is that when the blend was first vinified, someone chalked “Edelzwicker” on the tank – the traditional Alsace blend – but as Edelzwicker is not usually a field blend, Agathe didn’t want to use that term. Instead she preferred “Assemblage de Bollenberg”, but as that was far too long she settled for L’As de B – and the name stuck.
Pinot Gris Dirstelberg 2016 is grown on the same red sandstone as the Riesling. RS is off-dry at 14 g/L which is my preferred style for the grape. The palate has delicious quince and pear plus exotic spices. It is rich but nowhere near cloying.
Per Agathe, with age the Pinot Gris Dirstelberg gains notes of smoke, toast and flint – this sounds very intriguing and something I hope to experience for myself in the not too distant future!
Gewurztraminer Dirstelberg 2016 is the wine which gave Agathe the most worry. On the Dirstelberg, Gewurz naturally produces lots of leaves, but as winds tend not to be strong there is a significant risk of bunch rot if they are not trimmed back. Once harvested, the grapes are given a very gentle pressing over 6 to 8 hours in order to extract only moderate phenolics – this also results in the wine looking somewhat paler than the average young Gewurz. This is a gentle, restrained Gewurztraminer that really does live up to Agathe’s desire for fruit and balance. If only more could be like this, I think the grape would have more fans.
Riesling Grand Cru Zinnkoeplé Vendanges Tardives 2015shows how sweet Riesling can be a magnificent, balanced rapier. Residual sugar of 65 g/L is the counterpoint to thrilling, racy acidity.
It’s still very young and tangy – and very enjoyable – but has years of magnificence ahead of it. If I had a case or two, then yes I’d be tempted to dive in now and again, but I think, despite the expletives of joy in my tasting notes, this is one that will be legendary in a decade’s time.
Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Zinnkoeplé Vendanges Tardives 2015 is getting on for the longest name of any wine I’ve ever reviewed! Harvesting took place at the beginning of November, so this is a true Vendanges Tardives.
Obviously sweeter on the palate than the Riesling above – both in terms of higher RS at 89 g/L and softer acidity – this is a mighty fine example of late harvest Gewurz. Compared to some it’s relatively muted – but as the grape can be such an overblown, blousy, tart’s boudoir, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Post Script: Does Agathe drive a tractor now? You bet she does!