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Speaking truth to power: Why I don’t go ape over Riesling

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I’ve gotten so tired of geeks talking up the virtues of Riesling that it actually came as a relief when I read Jancis Robinson’s column on her blog yesterday in which she concedes she might “go to my grave” without the masses never properly appreciating the wine she has loved “for roughly 35 years.”

Riesling freaks have been telling us Americans for years that there’s something wrong with us for not loving Riesling. They say that we’re too bloated and superficial to appreciate a wine so subtle and pure as Riesling. They suggest that, if we prefer Chardonnay, we’re a bunch of heathens with no capacity for enjoying nuance.

Every time I read or hear someone like that, something inside me revolts. Of course, being the polite person I am, I don’t really reply. But Jancis’s column—and bless her for writing it—has enabled me to finally speak my mind on this overweaning tendency of the Riesling Drinkers towards arrogance and condescension.

I have had a lot of Riesling in my time, mainly German, often Alsatian and occasionally Australian, and certainly from California. Some of these have been everyday wines; some of them have been expensive. In fact, back in the 1980s, before I was a paid wine writer, I used to shop at the old Connoisseur’s Wines, on Bryant Street in San Francisco, which specialized in German wines. I knew the floor staff, and I still have labels in my tasting diary of some of the Rieslings I drank.

I never fell in love with it, is what I’m saying. Sure, I “got” it. It was usually off-dry, crisp in acidity and incredibly delicate. It often reminded me of water—not because it was bland, but because it was so light and pure and natural. Back then, I didn’t taste blind, so I was always looking for that “garden” quality Hugh Johnson spoke of, not to mention the petrol—and I usually found it. And I appreciated the acidity. I once went to a big tasting at Fort Mason of (I think it was) the 1991 vintage and tasted more than 100 young Rieslings. My gums haven’t been the same since.

So sure, I recognize Riesling’s greatness. It truly is one of the noble white wines of the world. But the reason I never fell head over heels in love with Riesling is precisely because of what Jancis says: It “just has too strong a personality to appeal to consumers to gain global attraction…unlike Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, it has a very powerful flavour…even when it is young…which some people are bound to dislike.”

Good for Jancis for her candid appraisal of reality. She’s the only widely-published wine writer I’ve ever heard admit that there could possibly be something troubling about Riesling. The rest of them sound like it’s the Second Coming, and only those with eyes to see and ears to hear will be admitted to Heaven.

Riesling does have a very powerful taste. People complain about Chardonnay being too much of this and that, but I’ve never had a great Chardonnay that wasn’t at the same time subtle. It’s hard to explain how a rich wine like Chardonnay can be subtle except to use my usual metaphor of certain people whose wardrobe and hair and underlying good bones make them look like a million dollars and yet they still are elegant. George Clooney, perhaps, or Denzel Washington (in the past I would have said Cary Grant). Riesling by contrast is one of those wines whose personality is so overwhelming that you either like it or you don’t.

I don’t want to pick on Riesling, though, so much as reflect on the attitude, among certain wine writers, that you have to be like them in order to appreciate it—and if you don’t, then you’re not like them, which means your taste is questionable. Isn’t this the very elitism we’re trying to get rid of? Besides, it’s important to ask the question, Why haven’t Americans embraced Riesling when all the “important” tastemakers have been ordering them to for years? Jancis once again tumbles into the truth when she quotes a senior U.S. representative of an important German estate to the effect that “sales of both domestic and imported Riesling are now falling and that ‘Riesling remains a one-customer-at-a-time proposition.’” Are the American people stupid for not buying Riesling? Are they just a bunch of yokels who don’t have the sophistication to understand what their betters recommend?


What is “nobility” in wine?

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Why are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay “noble” varieties? Why isn’t Zinfandel? Can Syrah be “noble”? Is sparkling wine “noble”?

First, we have to define “noble.” It’s an oldish word when applied to wine. From Wikipedia: “Noble grapes are any grapes traditionally associated with the highest quality wines. This concept is not as common today, partly because of the proliferation of hybrid grape varieties, and partly because some critics feel that it unfairly prioritizes varieties grown within France. Historically speaking, the noble grapes comprised only six varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”

It’s tempting for me to side with the democrats [small “d”] in this argument–the ones who feel that de-nobleizing certain varieties because they’re not French is unfair and patronizing. But there are sound reasons for preserving our current understanding of varietal nobility.

The most important of these reasons is that, in California as in France, a handful of varieties clearly makes the best wines, and has for pretty much as long as the state’s wine industry has existed. All I need do is go to Wine Enthusiast’s database to confirm this. Since the first of this year, all 30 of my highest-scoring wines have been either Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, with the single exception of a Nickel & Nickel 2010 Merlot, from the Harris Vineyard, in Oakville. (And I, personally, would not include Merlot among the nobles, at least in California.)

Why do these wines score higher than other varieties? Ahh, here we get into the fuzzy details, which are impossible of proof. But let me try. First and foremost, there is structure, a word that seems comprehensible at first. Structure is architecture: just as you can have the most beautiful stuff (paintings, carpets, furniture, vases) in the world, but it’s only a mere pile if it doesn’t have a room or home in which to reside, so too wine needs walls, a floor, a ceiling, a sense of stolidity and solidity, else it become simple flavor. And flavor, in and of itself, has never been the primary attribute of great wine.

California, of course, has no problem developing flavor, in any variety. That’s due to our climate: grapes ripen dependably. To the extent California wines are the target of criticism, it is because Europhiles find a dreary sameness to too many of them. Even I, as staunch a defender of California wine as there is, find this to be true. Too often, the flavors of red wines suggest blackberries and cherries and chocolate, whether it’s Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo. It’s easy for such wines to score 87 points, or 89 points, or even 91 points: these are good scores, but not great ones, limited by the wines’ lack of structure.

Structure, of course, is composed primarily of acidity and tannins, the latter of which may come from both the grapes and the oak treatment. (I won’t get into the mysteries of minerality.) Yet there are elements of structure that are more difficult to define. Texture is an element of structure, just as the way a room feels is an element of its architecture. Imagine a room with soaring roof and large windows that let in the sunlight, as opposed to a cramped, pinched room, a closet or storage area. The former feels more satisfactory to our senses and esthetics. So too does a wine with great texture feel superior. It can be the hardest thing in the world to put into words, but even amateurs will appreciate the difference between a beautifully-structured wine and its opposite. (I have proven this many times, with my wine-drinking friends who have but limited understanding of it.)

So why don’t we allow Zinfandel into the ranks of noble wines? I suppose an argument could be made that we should, for at its highest expressions–Williams Selyem, De Loach, Elyse, Ravenswood, Bella, Turley–Zinfandel does fulfill the structural and textural prerequisites of a noble wine. But too often, it does not: a Zinfandel can be classic Zin for its style (Dry Creek Valley, Amador County) and yet be a little rustic, in a shabby-chic way. Sometimes this is due to excessive alcohol, sometimes to overripened fruit, but no matter the cause, and no matter how much fun that Zin is to drink with barbecue, the last thing I’d call most Zins is noble. Zinfandel is Conan the Barbarian, ready to chop your head off and stick it on the tip of a spear.

Can sparkling wine be said to be noble? It is most often, of course, a blend of two noble varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so why not? The answer is as simple as this: We call varieties “noble,” not wine types. Perhaps we should expand the definition of “noble” to include types, not just sparkling blends but Sherry and Port. Certainly these are great wines, if underappreciated nowadays. I keep my eye, also, on some of the surprisingly eccentric red blends being produced lately, mainly by younger winemakers (often in Paso Robles), who are mixing varieties in unprecedented and triumphant ways, proving that a wine doesn’t have to be varietal (as defined by the TTB) in order to be great.

But I’m comfortable for the time being restricting nobility to just a handful of varieties in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not Riesling, not yet, in our state. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not yet, in our state. Not Syrah, not yet, in our state. And not, as I have said, Merlot. Any one of these latter varieties can produce great wine, but it will be the exception.


Tasting old whites from Stony Hill, plus a new red

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The conversation of whether California Chardonnays or Rieslings age or don’t age rarely happens, and for good reason: few do, and most people don’t care about aging white wines the way they do with reds. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “age.” Most any wine will last for a while before becoming utterly undrinkable, whatever that means. By “aging” we mean to indicate several qualities about a wine: that it becomes better (again, whatever that means) – that it becomes more interesting (but this is in the eye of the beholder) – that the connoisseur will appreciate it whereas a novice might not (but we have to be careful with such descriptors) – that it is worthy of respect to still be clean and drinkable at a great age – that it has transcended its fruity origins (primary) and achieved secondary or tertiary characteristics.

That long opening paragraph is meant to indicate some of the problems or issues involving older wines. Tasting an old wine that is, by some sort of common critical consensus, “properly aged” is not a simple matter, cut-and-dried, like determining whether or not milk is fresh or spoiled.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can tell you about a tasting yesterday at RN74 in San Francisco of some wines from the famous Stony Hill Vineyard. In case you don’t know, Stony Hill is one of California’s and certainly one of Napa Valley’s oldest, continually-operated wineries, run by the founding family–in this case, the McCreas. Fred and Eleanor bought their property high up on Spring Mountain in 1943, and nine years later, in 1952, they produced their first vintage of Chardonnay. Riesling subsequently followed, and, in 2009, they made their first-ever Cabernet Sauvignon, released just a month or so ago.

(Trivia segue: Only three wineries in Napa Valley that were in business in 1952 are still owned and operated by the same families today: Stony Hill, Charles Krug [by the Peter Mondavi family] and–who’s the third? Guess. The answer is at the end of this post. First to get it right gets a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.)

Anyway, here are my notes. I’m not scoring the wines because in my judgment it’s harder to rate old white wines like these than younger ones since the perception of them is so varied. Besides, I obviously tasted them openly and that is not my usual tasting procedure.

2010 Chardonnay: Classic Stony Hill style, dry, minerally and citrusy, with little apparent oak. (The alcohol on all the Chardonnays is in the 13% range, give or take a little.)

2006 Chardonnay: Shy at first, then lemon verbena and mineral notes. Drying out a little. Somewhere between fresh and aged, indeterminate. Something mushroomy suggests wild mushroom risotto.

2001 Chardonnay: Spectacular. Roasted honey, dried lime, minerals, salt. Fruit fading into the background. Interesting and nuanced.

1997 Chardonnay: So clean and inviting. Really stands out. Honey, sweet cream, Meyer lemons, vanilla. Obviously no longer young, but fresh, tangy, vibrant.

1994 Chardonnay: Clearly an old Chard, but no trace of corruption. Nuts, sherry-like oxidation, dried fruits and honey. So dry, with mouthwatering acidity.

1982 Chardonnay: Botrytis shows in the sweetness. Impressive for 30 years in the bottle, but for me the sweetness is off-putting.

1978 Chardonnay: A touch of corkiness? Or just getting old? Whatever, it’s dry, creamy and nutty, with Meyer lemons, minerals and pears. Perfectly fine and complex. 38  years old and still kicking!

1992 White Riesling: At 20 years, such a wonderful wine. Off-dry, honeyed, brilliantly crisp, offering ripe orange blossom, green apple and mango flavors. Has at least 10 more years ahead.

1988 White Riesling: Has picked up an old gold color. Very pure aromas. Old, filled with tertiary notes, not for everyone. Dry, delicate, brittle, sweet toffee, grapefruit, lemon zest, salty. Some oxidation, like a manzanilla sherry.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon: Their first Cab ever. Made in an old style: 13.5% alcohol, tight, tannic, bone dry, earthy, with sour red cherry and red currant fruit. Fans of ripe, opulent, high alcohol Cabs might not like it. Will age for many decades. I would love to taste this wine in 2029 and maybe I will.

Answer to trivia segue: Nichelini.


What’s wrong with Riesling?

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Nothing, actually, except that so few Americans want to drink it. I know, I know, some writers are touting a new interest in Riesling. Asimov, over at The Pour, wrote that Riesling is finally getting some respect. The Wine Economist just last week wrote about “Riesling’s Rising Tide,” and if there’s one white white that gives sommeliers wet dreams (can I say that in a family publication?), it’s Riesling.

Recently, Jon Bonné more accurately wrote about Riesling’s “serious baggage — the [consumer’s] fear of sweetness, perhaps the fear of insubstantiality.” “[P]eople are not stepping up to the bar to demand a glass of Riesling,” he pointed out. That accords with my own observations.

I personally love a good glass of Riesling. When I go to a nice restaurant or bar, very often it’s my appetizer wine — either that, or Albariño or sparkling wine. Yet I always ask the barkeep or sommelier if the Riesling is dry or close to it, because I really don’t care for an off-dry Riesling except under very strict circumstances, and never for a first drink of the evening, when I want something mouthwateringly crisp, clean and dry.

I used to drink a lot more Riesling than I do now. There was a store down on Bryant Street, South of Market, called Connoisseur’s Wine Imports, that specialized in German and Alsatian wines. I went there several times a week to pick up a bottle. In my tasting diary I have notes on a 1983 Erdener Treppchen Spatlese, an ‘83 Riesling “Les Eglantiers” from Heim, in Alsace, ‘86 Riesling from Domaine Lucien Albrecht (also Alsace), and a Spatlese Riesling from Weingut Kanzemer, a M-S-R that cost all of $7.95. In 1989 I thoroughly enjoyed an ‘83 Piesporter Goldtropchen Auslese that knocked me out, it was so pure. I could write thousands words on all the rest of the Rieslings I’ve known and loved.

These days I don’t get to taste a lot of European Riesling because I’m so swamped with California wine, but I do taste a lot of California Riesling. I’m not a huge fan. I’ve given my highest scores to late-harvest Rieslings, of course: Navarro, Arrowood, Greenwood Ridge, Beringer, Grgich Hills, but we’re not talking about sweeties, we’re talking dry to off-dry. In that category, Pey-Marin, Smith-Madrone, Navarro, Trefethen, Esterlina and Stony Hill lead the pack, more recently joined by Tangent. These are wines that need no oak, have vital acidity and are clean and racy, often showing Riesling’s diesel fuel smell and peach flower notes. Good as they are, though, they don’t seem to have the complexity of Germany or Alsace.

I don’t know how to popularize Riesling with consumers. Sommeliers, like I said, love to push it, but most Americans have never met a sommelier and never will. Restaurants are pushing it, but usually they’re the kind of restaurants that have sommeliers; see the preceding sentence. Maybe American producers need a Riesling Association to promote and market the variety and wine, but it’s hard for wineries in different states to work together. Hell, it’s hard for wineries in the same state to work together. Here in California, there are enough Riesling producers to organize and do something. Maybe they could team up with producers in Oregon and Washington and form a West Coast Riesling Lover’s Association. Just saying.


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