Wojciech Bońkowski
Wine & tea writing

Germany’s roll of honour

2009 was a vintage of high expectations in Germany. The favourable weather, naturally low yield and excellent harvest conditions combined to generate another excellent year in our stellar decade, after 2007, 2005, 2002 and 2001. My repeated tastings earlier this spring were ones of excitement and consistently high quality. So the stakes were really high when I embarked on the Erste Lage Sneak Preview tasting organised in Wiesbaden by the VDP association of wine estates. From the nearly 400 wines on offer I tasted 170 Rieslings over two days. These wines are the equivalent of grand cru bottlings and are essentially the very best of German dry white wine.
In brief, I was not disappointed. The overall level is very high. What’s really interesting about 2009 is that it’s a ripe year with abundant and expressive fruit (that’s the difference to 2008, which I criticised last year – perhaps slightly too harshly – for being green and mean) but it also pretty high acidity, which gives the wines brilliance and tension and will help them age longer than the 2007s and 2005s. It’s a rare combination to have so much vibrancy with so much ripe fruit, and it’s the real excitement of 2009.
I have liked many of the Rieslings I’ve tried but one region that has really shone is the tiny Nahe. Always high on any connoisseur’s list, it has surpassed itself this year with a long list of outstanding wines from such estates as Kruger-Rumpf (a superb Kapellenberg), Dönnhoff (I’ve not always been thrilled by the dry wines of this sweet wine master but the Hermannshöhle as well as the cheaper Dellchen left nothing to be desired), Emrich-Schönleber and Schäfer-Fröhlich.
The Rheingau has been a bit mixed with definite highs such a Johannishof’s Berg Rottland, Robert Weil, Jakob Jung and Josef Spreitzer, but also some relative disappointments, and I’ve been generally underwhelmed by the Palatinate where many wines were atypically green and fruitless. These two regions failing to take full advantage of the vintage, it’s the Rheinhessen, often an underdog, who I think takes second place. Among the many good wines were the young Wagner-Stempel (especially the Heerkretz) and a tremendous performance from well-established (and fully organic) Wittmann that could well be the best collection of the vintage.
Wine of the vintage?

There are least three dozen wines I would like to own and drink both in the short and long term. It’s all good news provided your banker likes Riesling too; at between 16 and 40€ per bottle these are wines are hardly for everyday enjoyment.


An incredible tasting of old Rieslings – we went back to 1909! Most were still very much alive. And even more surprisingly – bone-dry, even though you’d expect a Riesling to have residual sugar to age for so long. Not here!

Georg Breuer’s 2008s

It is a tradition of my Erste Lage Sneak Preview visits to finish the second day of the tasting with a visit to the Georg Breuer estate in Rüdesheim. Breuer is not a member of the VDP association and so cannot participate in the Erste Lage tasting, but quality-wise he belongs to the very top flight of German wineries, so it is de rigueur to come here and have a look at the latest vintages. From Wiesbaden it’s only a 30-minute hop by train (with all the classified vineyards to be admired from the train’s window on the way).
Sunrise over Rüdesheim (photo quality courtesy of Sony Ericsson).
I’ve recently sung the praise of Breuer’s 2007s (see here and here), and it was obvious that this new vintage (see here for a full overview) would have a hard time living up to that level. But the 2008s here turned out very enjoyable. In fact, they were stunningly good if you consider the average level of the vintage in the Rheingau. There was none of the green unripe acidity, and even the simplest dry Riesling here – the 9€ 2008 Sauvage – was not far away qualitatively from the Grosse Gewächse we tried a couple of hours earlier in Wiesbaden.

Mind you, these Rieslings are acidic. The 2008 Rüdesheim Estate (a village-level wine from various crus) has no less than 9.6g of acidity (and 6.9g of residual sugar) and yet it’s a wine of ripe mineral aromas and of engaging purity on the palate. Theresa Breuer says they were concerned by the very high analytical figures and even tried some deacidification but the damage to the wine’s balance was huge. This bottling, like its slightly more powerful sibling of the 2008 Terra Montosa (made from declassified lots of Breuer’s grands crus) shows a warm sea salinity that reminded me of Chablis.

Berg Rottland and Berg Schlossberg are to your left.
Looking at the top bottlings here, the 2008 Berg Rottland Riesling was, as usually, the most open and approachable with lovely balance, bone dry, finely crafted, precise, mineral and really impressive for the vintage; a wine I find quite enjoyable today, with no challenging acidity. The 2008 Berg Schlossberg Riesling comes from a more exposed, more consistently dark-slatey vineyard and is, as usually, a very backward wine, with a bit more power and punch than the Rottland; in some vintages it can lack the acidic vivacity of the latter but in 2008, that extra ripeness from the sun-absorbing dark slate soil was definitely an advantage. Develops really well in the glass (becoming almost flowery); this will be drinkable sooner than Schlossberg usually is. The 2008 Nonnenberg Riesling is a cru I drink more rarely than the two above; from the village of Rauenthal farther east, the soil here is less slatey, more loamy. This is also a rather shy wine but less tight texturally than the Schlossberg, leaner, though not less mineral. All three are very pure wines with impressively ripe acidity; they really seem to come from a different vintage than the very lemony Rieslings from the Rheingau tasted at the Erste Lage Preview. Of course, tasting at a producer’s cellar with more time to dedicate to each wine does change your perception by a margin. But not such a wide margin. So why this difference? Theresa Breuer indicates record-low yields (going down to 25 hl/ha in the Schlossberg, and that’s at a density of 8000 vines/ha…) as responsible for the riper acidity.

We finished the evening at Breuer’s crowded Schloss Rüdesheim Weinstube, starting with a wine taster’s best friend – cold beer, and rounding off the session with a bottle of Breuer’s enjoyable Riesling Brut. Come here really hungry as the portions are huge, and be prepared for Japanese parties and a lot of singing…

Erste Lage Sneak Preview 2009 (full report)

My extensive report from the largest tasting of top German Rieslings. All regions comprehensively reviewed.

Anniversary wines

Sky is the limit

We’ve had an important anniversary in the family, and it was time to bring some really big guns from the cellar. I’ve poured some of the oldest wines in my collection. You don’t drink a bottle from 1938 every weekend.

It was the sort of event that takes weeks if not months of planning. Browsing internet wine shops, enquiring for offers, searching for tasting notes. Pondering a dinner menu, thinking of food & wine matches. Planning a proper ‘trajectory’ for the event. Alternative scenarios, ‘B’ plans (old bottles are often faulty). In the end I’m happy with how smoothly it went. With some helping hands in the kitchen I managed to serve 12 courses with matching wines to a party of 10, steering clear of major disasters. And it all took short of 9 hours.

I’ll spare you a description of the food – reading about bisques, soufflés and chocolates on a blog always sounds a little over-indulgent and of little usefulness – and share a few tasting notes.

Domaine Vacheron Sancerre 2006
This wasn’t served to guests – it was the cook’s aperitif. It’s quite ripe for a Loire Sauvignon, with subdued acidity but an obvious mineral character. A classy wine, though not a monster of expression. But I prefer Vacheron’s clean style in a less ripe vintage.

Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1993
A gift from the maison that I’ve cellared since 2003. 1993 was a structured vintage, but never great and now largely overshadowed by the likes of 1996. Yet top cuvées from 1993 are now in top shape – this Churchill surely is. Outstanding from the first to the last drop (not that it lasted long). Fresh, unevolved, poised and mineral. There is some underlying sweetness of dosage but also good vinosity and juiciness. The flavour is very fused, and it’s difficult to give a detailed analysis: perhaps a bit of raspberry atop the more usual notes of brioche and vanilla. Still very young – this can go on for another decade or two. Brilliant wine.
We’ve also had some other champagnes including a crisp, engaging Brut Réserve Rosée (two years since dégorgement) from
Philipponnat, whom I find very much on the upswing of late.

Perrier-Jouët Blason de France 1959
I got this bottle from the
Barolo–Brunello shop in Germany. The level was a little low and there was some heavy sediment so I knew the risk (and the very amiable owner Stefan Töpler made it clear). Such old bottles are always a hazard. Here, the cork was completely loose and the wine awfully oxidised with no bubbles. Oh well.

Domdechant Hochheimer Domdechaney
Riesling Spätlese 1983

I visited this estate on the Main near Frankfurt in April 2005, and we’ve had a great conversation with owner Dr. Franz Werner Michel. At lunch, this 1983 was served, and enhanced by Michel’s engaging stories, it tasted as good as any mature Riesling ever did. Upon saying our goodbyes we were offered a bottle each of the same wine. As usually with precious wines, it was waiting in my cellar for an ‘occasion’. A very mature wine, with some storage problems perhaps (cork was completely soaked) showing in a musty, unclean nose, though underneath there is some good Firne [aged Riesling] character. Sweeter than expected on the palate, but there is also a greenness to the sweetness and acidity. This bottle showed a bit unremarkable but was surely short of perfectly stored.

Jean-Marc Brocard
Chablis Grand Cru Bougros 1998
As expected from the youngest wine of the afternoon, no problems whatsoever with this bottle. It was part of a mixed case of older vintages I bought at the estate last October. It’s only 35€ – a bargain for a grand cru of any age, let alone a decade old. When tasted in Chablis, it showed very good saline minerality but also quite some oak sweetness. Yet served with food (a saffron-flavoured poule à la crème), the oak disappeared almost completely. It was a lesson in real-life food & wine matching. Crisp, linear, mineral, statuesque almost, showing power and reserve. An excellent wine. Dregs retasted the day after were less exciting, less poised, built around the butter and vanilla I remembered from October. Not bad at all on a hedonistic level though.

Domaine Huët
Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu demi-sec 1961
I got this bottle a couple of years ago from the excellent
Bacchus Vinothek in Germany. The price seemed low (50€), and these Vouvrays are known for their ageing potential so I took the plunge. Looking at the intact label and the immaculate cork it’s clear this bottle was at best recorked (and likely refilled?), and at worst it’s not a 1961 at all. It’s an excellent aged Vouvray but it really tastes too young and dynamic to be 48 years old. The colour is also a bit suspect, with green tinges (unlikely in a wine of this age?) to a medium golden whole:

Aromatically it’s dominated by a taut, austere reductive character: not quite stinky but very herby and hayey, with a bit of richness that reminded me of an old Tokaj. On the palate it is very structured with mouth-puckering acidity effectively covering the sweetness, although the demi-sec character is quite pronounced for a wine of this alleged age. There’s also some alcohol (only 12% on the label). A big, structured wine that’s fairly immobile and could easily survive another decade. If you don’t need it to be a genuine 1961 it’s a very fine bottle for the money.

Thierry Allemand Cornas Chaillot 1996
A bin-end from Vienna’s Unger & Klein, sold at 32€ instead of the more usual 60€. Deepish colour especially at core, for the age. It starts fairly barnyardy and reduced on the nose but fortunately isn’t bretty, and with some proper airing this blows off, revealing a fairly engaging nose of crushed raspberries and good vinous depth. Some mild age on the palate but this is far from old. Palate on entry is also pleasant: vaguely varietal and peppery, but the progression is highly disappointing. Basically this just weakens and disappears on the palate. No structure whatsoever: modest acidity (though enough for freshness) and no tannins. There’s a beguiling purity about the whole thing and I can’t say it’s uninteresting but I wouldn’t pay the normal price for it. Perhaps the vintage’s lowly reputation in the northern Rhône is justified after all.

Cosimo Taurino Brindisi Riserva Patriglione 1975
This was another bin-end from a German shop, so obscure they didn’t even know how to price it. Eventually I got away with 35€. In its recent vintages it’s a southern Italian classic I very much enjoy, essentially a modified Salice Salentino (based on the Negroamaro grape) made with an amarone-like technique of drying the grapes to raisins. Fill level is quite and the cork is excellent (certainly recorked) but storage is an issue, as the wine is showing very aged. There’s a leathery, cooked-fruity, vinegary, almost maderised character that some of my diners disliked, though with a bit more experience in Apulian wines I find it fairly typical. This has aged on acidity (and some greenness) but lacks superior dimension or definition. On the other hand a Brindisi red at age 33 in this shape is surely not a bad achievement.

Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Riserva 1947
It’s another
Barolo–Brunello bottle from Stefan Töpler. I paid 149€ for it and whenever I can justify the expense again, I’ll be sure to order some more – an outstanding bottle of wine.
I have had numerous older Barolos from the house of Borgogno, including a fantastically refined 1958, an impressive, brooding 1961 and a gentler 1967. But all came from the producer’s cellar, and were all opened and checked for faults, then refilled with the same wine, recorked and relabelled. Basically you get a Borgogno guarantee that the wine is in good shape. This makes the producer’s prices (the 1961 was 105€ a year ago) even more of a ridiculous bargain.

This bottle was different in that it came from a private cellar and was not refurbished. I can’t tell you much about the cork as at my first attempt to pull it out (with a 2-blade opener instead of a corkscrew) it smoothly dived inside the bottle. But the wine was in fine condition and I must congratulate Mr. Töpler for his sourcing. It’s rare to find wines in such pristine shape even from the 1960s. A moderate amount (i.e., little for the age) of fine-ish sediment. The colour is not bad, surely quite evolved but actually a fairly poetic complex hue ranging from clean ruby at core to amaranth-orange:The one disappointing thing here is the nose. I usually enjoy Barolo as much for its fantastically floral, deep bouquet as for anything else, but here it’s a little lifeless, showing modest notes of raspberries, dominated by a green, briney, animal, damp-cellary, mildly over-the-hill character. But palate is very fresh and alive, with beguiling coffeed complexity. Very good length too. Perhaps not the ultimate Barolo experience (1961, with its remaining power, is more impressive) but very interesting for sure. Last sips at room temperature are really tannic (!), mineral, impressively long and so very much alive.
Kopke Porto Colheita 1938
A half-bottle that was distributed to journos who attended a presentation of old colheita ports from the
Sogevinus companies (a holding that was established in 2006 and regroups some of the most prestigious port brands: Barros, Burmester, Cálem and Kopke). No bottling date but likely to have been 2007, shortly before the event. Colour is a transparent brown-amber. For volatility and a salty, marmitey character this is close to a madeira in style. A vestige of pink fruit, crystallised sugar, minor saltiness underneath; not really nutty (unlike most of these old colheitas). Moderate sweetness, high acidity, good (but not extraordinary) length, this is a good example of an aged colheita but frankly unexceptional. The flavour is a bit low and there’s only reasonable complexity; this tastes like a mid-1970s colheita could (and not a greatly structured one at that). Perhaps just an inferior vintage here, as the 1937 was one of the stars of the said tasting.

Hans Lang Hattenheimer Hassel Riesling Spätlese 2003

The power of stereotype
I’ve already blogged on the 2003 vintage for European white wines (here and here). Expected to have a 2003-free cellar by now, but there’s always the lone bottle lurking here and there where I least expect it. I discovered a half-dozen on the German Spätlese shelf. For German sweet wines, it was actually a fairly good vintage, beating records of ripeness throughout the country as grapes dried on the vine during that torrid summer without the usual help of botrytis.

This Hattenheimer Hassel Riesling Spätlese 2003 from the overperforming estate of Hans Lang is a case in point. The colour is fairly young (what vinous practice likes to describe as ‘plate gold’), and there’s really not a hint of evolution save for a minor note of brown sugar caramel. The nose is explosive, spicy, very Rieslingey, and really engaging. The palate offers the same register with an extra splash of lemony pithiness; it’s really mouth-watering. There is not a lot of concentration, in fact a bit of the wateriness I consider a hallmark of classic German Riesling. This is arguable, but I prefer a Spätlese to taste of Spätlese and not downgraded Auslese (as seems to be the ubiquitous fashion throughout Germany). This lemony acidity has preserved the wine, and remaining bottles (I have none) could easily live to see their 15th anniversaries.

This was a fine performance by a wine style you’d expect to age well even in 2003. But I recently opened Lang’s 2003 Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Riesling Erste Lage. This grand cru level wine only has 10.5g of residual sugar (and 13.5% alc.). In ripe and overripe vintages these late-harvested dry Rieslings are usually the first to surrender to alcohol and fatness. Not here. An admirably poised and zesty 2003 with little alcohol and, again, almost no evolution. Primary fruit is a bit down, leaving a healthy amount of punchy minerality. Tastes dry and actually quite fresh. Not an immensely complex or deep wine but could continue ageing in search of these characteristics.

I was really surprised by the excellent showing of these two wines and enquired the owner Mrs. Gabriele Lang about the vintage. She says that in the central Rheingau around Hattenheim, loess soils dominate (as opposed to the more usual slate). The very rainy 2002/2003 winter helped build considerable water reserved, which the loess soils then released on the stressed vines during that tropical summer. Mrs. Lang considers 2003 one of the top vintages for this part of the region. This explains why these two bottles were so delicious, and shows the limitation of ‘vintage overviews’ that are the wine press’ workhorse.

62 grands crus (3 on video)

Well, almost. Let’s say 62 grand cru level wines that were poured during a morning and afternoon session at Robert Mielżyński’s annual Grand Cru event. As leisurely as it sounds (and looks: we taste outdoors on the lawn – made difficult this year by tropical temperatures and humidity here in Poland) it is one of the Polish season’s high points.

Getting ready for grands crus.
As noted above, tasting circumstances were short of perfect and the more serious red wines suffered. Nonetheless it was exciting to get a snapshot of new and old(ish) vintages, and some valid confirmations. Mielżyński’s catalogue is strong on Bordeaux and the event has traditionally centered around an en primeur tasting of the latest vintage. I consider tasting months-old Bordeaux pure nonsense, and it was no consolation that the wines were a few months older (and importantly, final blends) here compared to the April trade tastings in Bordeaux that generate the plethora of Parker & Co. points. Anyway Phélan-Ségur 2008 was nicely curranty but curiously untannic, centered around what seems to be a major 2008 characteristic: fresh, zesty acidity. The best from Domaine de Chevalier was not its overoaked vanilla-scented 2008 but the following spell of honesty: On ne fait plus du raisin, on est sur le marché des bijoux. The nicest 2008 came from Kirwan, juicy, crisp and full of a rarely seen nervosité. But it was so much more exciting to taste the older vintages: Domaine de Chevalier 2001 suave, generous and with quality tannins; Phélan-Ségur 1996 evolved, animal and so satisfying for its bourgeois peerage; Kirwan 1998 (pre-Rolland by the way) balanced to the millimetre, very Cabernetish with a lot of reserve; and last not least, Palmer 2003 oozing luxe and a quality of oak you find in maybe five or six wines on this planet. Hmmm, I nearly got excited with Bordeaux.

Alberto Cordero di Montezemolo talks to Polish vintner Katarzyna Niemyjska.

But it was all forgettable compared to the Douro wines of Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria. I’ve never tasted an unbalanced wine here but the recent vintages have picked up even more depth and concentration (courtesy of old vineyards but also a more precise extraction than before, I guess). Even the 13€ red VZ is an utterly serious wine with plenty of substance and terroir definition; if I had an estate in the Douro I’d really be happy to have this as my grand vin. 2006 is rocking now but 2007 promises even better; it’ll be a truly memorable vintage. The flagship Quinta do Vale Dona Maria 2006 is thick as ink and very structured but already hints at superb balance of black fruits and minerals; it’s more convincing today than the 2007 which I’ve found a little atypical, more Mediterranean, low-acid, almost Grenachey than usually here. (But it was tasted under the 30C midday sun). The limited-production CV 2007 is a more seriously extracted beast of a red, but this too has gained depth and personality in the last vintage or two (not that it ever lacked either). These are ridiculously affordable wines that have never failed me, and to get them you don’t need to fight the en primeur battles with brokers from Moscow and Shanghai.

Here’s Cristiano van Zeller explaining the 2007 vintage for you:


Having recently blogged on the Dobogó estate in Tokaj I’d only briefly mention yet another excellent dry Furmint from winemaker Attila Domokos: the newly introduced single-vineyard Szerelmi 2007 finds that elusive middle way of upper bracket Furmint; it’s rich but botrytis-free and not overripe, oaky but the use of second-year 400-liter barrels gives it a real sense of balance. Also an exciting mini-vertical of the Aszú 6 Puttonyos with a spicy, evolved but delightfully fresh 2003 (Domokos’ first vintage – now that’s really impressive), a perfumed, airy, against-the-odds 2005 and a truly stunning 100% Furmint 2004, clean as a whistle and invigoratingly citrusy, in a vintage when few makers had any grapes good enough to make a 6P.

In this weather, it’s perhaps little wonder oak-free crisp Rieslings performed best. Theresa Breuer of the Weingut Breuer was showing a range of bone-dry and mineral-deep Rheingau wines including the 2007 Berg Rottland that blew my mind last time; this time it was Berg Schlossberg that stole the show with a very subtle 2007 and a slowly maturing, beurre noir-flavoured 2002. Again, it’s difficult to think of a more reliable and honestly-priced estate than Breuer. Theresa speaks about the Berg Schlossberg bottling:


Another brilliant Riesling collection was presented by Roman Niewodniczanski of the Weingut Van Volxem in Saar. Saar is a microregion on the south-western outskirts of the Moselle, that in the last dozen decades has produced some spectacular sweet and sweetish wines courtesy of such vintners as Egon Müller and Zilliken. In 2000 Niewodniczanski revived a historical estate and set upon making quite a different style of wines: ripe, broad, concentrated, mineral, dry and dryish instead of sweet and far less zingy-acidic than before (mirroring, he claims, Saar wines as made in the 19th century when they belonged to the world’s most expensive). It’s a style that has been performed successfully elsewhere in Germany by estates such as Heymann-Löwenstein in the Lower Moselle, or Peter Jakob Kühn in the Rheingau. The stylistic agenda is controversial but qualitatively Van Volxem has been an obvious, and huge, success. We sampled through some young wines – 2008s are still in their infant stage (some unfiltered and very yeasty) but the Saar Riesling 2008 is already showing the impressive cruising speed this winery has reached in less than a decade, while the newly introduced Goldberg 2008 is certain to become one heck of a superconcentrated, almost brothy piece of mineral Riesling. The Saar Riesling 2007 is singing today. The highlight, however, was a series of aged magnums Roman brought for the sake of education and sensual delight. Bonjour mineralité with the Altenberg Alte Reben 2004 from 80–100-year-old vines, showing that unmistakeable salt & pepper signature of the Saar; a different balance with the sweetish Gottesfuss Alte Reben 2005 (16g of residual sugar), a broader, almost Pinot Gris-styled wine but not without balance and tension; fantastic drinkability and brilliant mineral zest with the Wiltinger Braunfels 2001: the most modest of these crus (and perhaps vintages too) and yet the most satisfying wine of the day.

Here’s Roman Niewodniczanski summarising his winery project in the Saar:


Beethovenian wine

What wines did Beethoven enjoy?