Georges Vigouroux Les Comtes Cahors Malbec 2011

I’m not quite sure what I’m expecting from these inexpensive supermarket-sourced wines, but perhaps it shouldn’t be a complete surprise when I come away disappointed. To the extent that I opened this bottle with any sense of hope at all, it quickly diminished on seeing stubby plastic cork. Not a good start.

I’m not sure what to prefer: a cheap Madiran with a semblance of regionality but little sensual satisfaction, or this, a much more generous wine whose style, unfortunately, tends towards the generic. On pouring, it certainly looks the goods, showing a very dark hue and significant density of colour. Aromatically, my first impression is of sweet, vanilla oak that smothers aromas of sweet red fruit. The most obvious oak aromas blow off, though, and the wine ends up quite well balanced, if simple and a bit characterless.

Sweet red fruit is the name of the game on the palate and, for those who enjoy the Malbec flavour profile, this is an inexpensive way to get a fix. It’s medium bodied with a flash of fruit on the mid-palate and a generally disjointed set of components. A bit of acid here, some oak there, a tap of tannin brining up the rear. Very clean and bright, overall.

Not a bad weekday red for distracted drinkers.

Georges Vigouroux
Price: £8.99
Closure: Synthetic cork
Source: Retail

Vignobles de Gascogne Madiran Reserve des Tuguets 2010

As much as I adore aromatic white wines and light, elegant reds, after several weeks in Germany I have developed unhealthily deep cravings for something big, tannic and slutty. I’m in the UK right now, so my usual game of restricting myself to supermarket wine holds. A recent visit to a Tesco the size of a small village resulted in this, a Madiran with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc in addition to the usual Tannat. Surely a combination to salve some of my tannin withdrawl.

And yes, it’s reasonably tannic. It’s also, initially, pretty mean, showing little lusciousness of fruit and, in its place, a bloody flavour profile that’s not metallic so much as sinewy and spare. There are big holes in the aroma and flavour of this wine, holes that are are partially addressed with air, but it remains a fundamentally lean, savoury wine even through extended tasting. To the extent there is overt fruit character, it’s bright and red, with some sweetness but little weight. Structure is more gratifying, with tannins that are well textured and acid that keeps things fleet. Yet I can’t love the balance of this wine, and the whole is akin to someone painfully skinny who isn’t, alas, especially handsome either.

At Tesco, I also purchased a Cahors I hope will provide more satisfaction.

Vignobles de Gascogne
Price: £8.99
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Cardinal Cusanus Stiftswein Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 1992

Harvest ended with somewhat of a whimper in the Mosel. For me, straddling both vineyard and cellar, the end of picking simply meant more cellar work, less physically demanding but no less interesting. It’s a monumental achievement, though, when the last of the fruit comes in, especially in a year like 2013, which was in many respects a race against a steady, weather-induced loss of grapes from the vines. We celebrated en masse at a wonderful dinner hosted by Weingut Kerpen, with plenty of great estate wines and hearty German food.

A few days later, I dined again with Martin Kerpen, this time at an astonishing restaurant in Zeltingen-Rachtig, a couple of kilometres from Wehlen. The Zeltinger Hof is somewhat legendary in the area, not least for its selection of well over a hundred and fifty wines by the glass. Bottles line the walls and represent a list that, I imagine, is unparalleled when it comes to wines of the region. It’s the kind of list people travel for and its context — a humble hotel restaurant in a small wine village — might strike some as unlikely.

The travel journalist Jacob Strobel y Serra caused a minor sensation recently when he wrote scathingly of the Mosel as a backward-facing tourist destination, lacking the sorts of modern attractions demanded by today’s traveller. While this has stirred debate within the region, it has also prompted many restauranteurs to feature Moselochsen on their menus, Serra having accused the region’s inhabitants of an attitudinal similarity to the lumbering, narrowsighted Mosel ox.

For me, a menu of schnitzel and Moselochsen sounds like a piece of heaven, and it’s true the Mosel seems free of the sort of ultra-high end tourism experiences that can, for better or worse, transform a region’s appeal. As such, it’s terribly easy to get a good, cheap meal at many of the villages that dot the river. At the Zeltinger Hof, Martin and I ordered a menu with Moselochsen at its centre, and the proprietor provided two wines to match. One was a Mosel Spätburgunder with considerably more structure than I’m accustomed to, the other was this Riesling from Wehlener Sonnenuhr, old but by no means ancient as wines of this region go.

It amazes me how the Rieslings of the Mosel are used as food pairings locally. A plate of slow-cooked red meat with a rich, sweet jus cries out for a big red wine. Or does it? Of the two wines paired, the Riesling was by some considerable margin the more attractive match. The wine itself was excellent. A curious thing happens to Mosel Riesling as it ages. Unlike, say, a Clare Riesling, whose flavours typically move through honey and toast, Mosel wines seem to deepen without such sudden, radical changes in flavour. This Auslese is caressingly gentle on the nose, with aromas of vanilla, lemon curd, butter and minerals. It perhaps lacks a degree of refinement, like a stuffed toy just starting to come apart at the seams, but one forgives older wines these flaws more easily than younger ones.

In the mouth, it shows the slippery texture that graces older Mosel wines, a texture that strikes me as not unlike Hunter Semillon. It’s the mid-palate, though, that allows this wine to pair so well with rich, meaty food. There’s still good body and sweetness here, age adding richness to its flavours and matching its impact to the sweet jus of the Moselochsen. Good length, intensity and complexity. Again, this lacks the sort of precision and refinement of a truly superior Riesling, but in the context of this meal, it was nigh on perfect.

Cardinal Cusanus Stiftswein
Price: N/A
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

The craziest wine region in the world?

mosel-kerpen-1I sentence anyone with romantic notions of wine production to a harvest in the Mosel.

There’s no doubt the last three weeks, spent occasionally in the cellar here at Weingut Kerpen but mostly on the slopes of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich and, most distressingly, Graacher Domprobst vineyards, have been the most physically demanding of the year. Two days after the completion of the harvest, each morning is a process of unfreezing various joints and muscles that, I am tempted to think, have been permanently damaged. I’m grateful, however, the various cuts on my hands and arms inflicted by rogue secateurs and blackberry bushes have, for the most part, stopped bleeding.

You’ve probably seen the photos: vines rise scenically above cute German villages that look to have strayed in from a fairy tale. I’ve not seen any witches on my visit so far, but there’s certainly a moral to the Mosel story: this is no sane place to grow wine. One has to walk the vineyards to adequately appreciate how steep they can be, and how difficult it is to simply make one’s way from top to bottom without the added complication of trying to pick fruit.

And yet, vines have graced the south-facing slopes here for two thousand years, as ancient a tradition as any New World winemaker might wish for, proving at the very least that crazy vignerons aren’t a new invention. This is an extravagantly old-fashioned wine region, from its viticultural methods (still predominantly close planted vines, one plant per post, cane pruned in the shape of a heart) to the magnificent wineries that grace the banks of the Mosel in Wehlen, Bernkastel and Graach. The wines are old-fashioned too, gloriously so in my opinion, with few concessions to fashion or varietal diversity. Sure, there’s some Spätburgunder planted here and there, along with a smattering of Müller-Thurgau, but the point of the Mosel is Riesling in its spectacular diversity of expressions.

Wine here is an interesting counterpoint to that from Burgundy. The Burgundian model of wine has had a far-reaching influence in terms of shaping how many other regions, especially in the New World, conceive the winemaking enterprise. The primacy of terroir, the exaltation of single vineyards, the ostensible erasement of the winemaker; one site, one expression, minimal “intervention.” German Riesling is different. For a start, vineyards like Wehlener Sonnenuhr are vast and contain many sites of differing grades. Although generally regarded as having some defining characters, these mega-vineyards are simply a starting point for a winemaker-driven range of expressions: dry, half-dry or sweet, ripeness levels like Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and so on. These aren’t pseudo-natural, “just leave it and bottle the results” wines, they are a complex matrix of styles enabled by the vineyard and mediated by the winemaker, often requiring simple but highly interventionist winemaking (most notably, stopping fermentations part-way through).

How refreshing: a wine culture that acknowledges both the importance of the vineyard and of winemaking.

It’s this integrated view of winegrowing that prompted Martin Kerpen to send me out to the vineyards to pick. In a series of fascinating conversations, we have discussed the relationship between vineyard and cellar, and how some wine cultures separate the two more than others. His view is unequivocal: winemaking is inseparable from viticulture. Although my formal training presented me with two quite separate disciplines, and my experiences this year have been firmly cellar-based, the wisdom of Martin’s view has slowly dawned on me as I’ve moved between vineyard and cellar, first picking then processing fruit. I find, now, when I taste each batch in the cellar, I know how the fruit looked in situ, what the vineyard was doing as we harvested, the trellising used, the crop load, variability within the site, and so on. It’s a view I’ve not had of any parcel of fruit until now, and it’s fascinating.

Of course, I’ve tasted widely and often since arriving here. I was already a big fan of German Riesling, hence my desire to work in the Mosel, and my appreciation for the wines has grown substantially over the past few weeks. They are, at their best, sublime, spectacular wines. What has shocked me most, I think, is how well, and how slowly, the wines age. They develop a set of flavours quite different from South Australian Riesling, shunning overt toast and honey in favour of a slow transformation that shaves the wines of their highly floral aromas and further emphasises fruit richness and minerality. Minerality is a key term when approaching these wines, and as a descriptor is often used by local vignerons to indicate a separate element from either fruit or structure; a third component of wine, if you like. I don’t think there’s anything magical about the mineral flavours in these wines, but they are most certainly there and are a key balancing element.

If there is anything magical about Mosel Rieslings, it’s in their balance. For example, wines with over one hundred grams of residual sugar taste only off-dry and finish cleanly, yet with the most powerful, luscious fruit on the mid-palate. This is a trick I’m repeatedly astonished by, and I’m keen to learn the magic from Martin. I’ve been conscientiously tasting ferments as they take their course, and we will soon begin arresting ferments. Martin does this mostly by taste, and I’ll be tasting alongside him, training my palate to recognise the right moment.

It’s truly nuts here: the vineyards are insanely steep (and even more insanely beautiful), the complicated system of quality classifications surely invented by a committee of lunatics. Most of all, though, the wines are wildly, crazily, fittingly beautiful.

Weingut Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese *** 1995

The last two days have seen wonderful visits to Weingut Kerpen by friends of mine: Chris Thomas, winemaker at Dowie Doole in McLaren Vale, and Jimi Lienert, with whom I worked in New Zealand at Terra Sancta. On both occasions, Martin Kerpen generously opened many bottles for us to taste, so I enjoyed the good fortune of sampling a range of Kerpen wines from the last three decades.

To single out one wine seems a little pointless, as the interest in such wide ranging tastings lies in understanding the diversity and flavour development within the style. However, I felt one wine above all others was dripping with beauty and quality — this 1995 Auslese ***.

There’s a big jump between Spätlese to Auslese, and within the latter quality level a wide range of permissible ripeness levels. This wine, a three star Auslese, is at the top of the ripeness scale, a fact abundantly evident in the richness and power of its flavours. It simply screams from the glass, not in the strident manner of a young, dry Riesling, but in the buxom style of a deeply fruited wine, layers of rich fruit aroma emerging from the glass. There’s a good deal of flavour development, but this doesn’t read as an especially old wine; rather, its primary fruit smells burnished, high toned edges having been replaced with golden, glowing hues.

In the mouth, an exceptionally long wine. This is probably carrying a ridiculously high level of residual sugar (by Australian Riesling standards, anyway) but it’s taut and clean, balancing powerful fruit at the front of the palate with refreshing, fine acid at the rear. What one gets at these higher ripeness levels is more power and complexity, and this seems to me quite remarkable for the amount of fruit that is packed into what never seems an especially sweet or dessert-like wine. Line and length are impeccable, as is balance, so critical with this style. On the basis of tasting much older wines from this estate and vineyard, I’m sure many more years could accrue without detriment, but I think it’s fabulous right now. I hope Martin will sell me some from his cellar.

Note: I’m currently working the vintage with Weingut Kerpen.

Weingut Kerpen
Price: N/A
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift