Biased wine drinker = Ill-informed wine drinker

So you are a Riesling fan but never drink a wine made from this grape from anywhere else other than Germany or Alsace? Your favourite red is Bordeaux Blend from the eponymous region and you think it is waste to drink such a wine from any other region of the world? You are one of those who feel that the epitome of elegance in a Burgundy Pinot Noir makes every other Pinot simply plonks in comparison? The very thought of drinking a Sangiovese from Australia makes you tizzy? And when it comes to sparkling wines, you are militantly biased against anything else apart from Champagne?

As much out-of-place these may sound in this globalized age, where wine appreciation has transcended geographical boundaries (remember British Palate Vs. American Palate, which is of little interest today?), it is still not uncommon to encounter hardcore and blindfolded loyalty to wines made in particular regions.

Talking about myself…

I was no different until about seven years ago, as a fresh student of the subject and a ‘newbie’ in the field of wine tasting and appreciation. I suffered from this naive tendency of comparing wines from classical wine regions with those which have adopted the same grape varieties, but not necessary the styles. And most often, I would blindly trivialize the latter for being not-at-par to their Old World counterparts.

Have I learnt my lessons?

You bet! Looking back, this ignorance was solely the result of little knowledge and awareness, but now, after upgrading my wine learning and drinking hundreds of wines from many wine regions, and of many styles and genres, I have realized how incomplete and ill-informed wine drinker I was.

So how does one differentiate between styles and appreciate uniqueness of each?

To start with, the intrinsic character (aromas and flavours) of a wine grape hardly changes with regional variation. Be it the black fruit and crème-de-cassis like characters of Cabernet, Riesling’s floral aromas, Chenin blanc’s grated green apple notes or Grenache’s sweet & spicy berry flavours, the primary nature of the grape remains intact irrespective of where it has grown. It’s only the wine-growing conditions (terroir, in technical terms), along with wine-making practices which alter the styles of the final product.

While it will need an entire book to compare the distinct characteristics of similar wines from different regions, I have chosen three most common grape varieties known to produce clearly distinguishable wines when grown outside their traditional environments. For each, I have laid down the characters of both the Old and New World variants, along with a brief conclusion outlining their merits. The idea is to demonstrate the uniqueness and speciality of every style.

1.) Pinot Noir:  This is one grape variety which arouses the most intense passions in terms of their regional following. Terroir in its true sense is most passionately debated whenever this grape is in question. In its home in Burgundy, the quality wines display elegant, layered aromas, mixed with the signature ethereal touch. Except in very warm vintages, the tannins are never too matured and fruits not too ripe (jammy wines in Burgundy’s top echelons would almost be a sin!). Overall, the producers here aim to make complex, age-worthy Pinots which exemplify balance.

A typical Old World Burgundy Pinot Noir Vs. a New World style from Central Otago
A typical Old World Burgundy Pinot Noir Vs. a New World style from Central Otago

In New World regions like Central Otago of New Zealand, the winemakers seldom aim to make their Pinot Noirs in the traditional Burgundian style. Rather, the aim is to let the fruit express itself as much as possible (fruit-forward, in other words). The grapes are normally left longer on the vine to achieve optimum ripeness, resulting in richer wines with silkier tannins. A lot of New World Pinots also have attractive (darker) colours and more elements of ripe dark berries in addition to the usual red fruits (red currants, strawberries, raspberries and red plums). The objective is never to make investment-grade ‘fine wines’ but a product which is enjoyed young and with a wide range of food.

Conclusion: Red Burgundy’s USP is its sheer power of seduction and unique style associated with the appellation it is grown in, which very few regions can match, more so when the grape variety happens to be the fussy Pinot Noir. But that does not take away the credit from the New World Pinots which have created their own distinct profile and are admired for their easy approachability and expressive nature.

If Burgundy is synonymous with raw pleasure and ‘beauty-in-complexity’, the New World Pinot Noirs are enjoyed for their down-to-earth charm and unpretentious character.

2.) Syrah/Shiraz: Syrah is to northern Rhone what Cabernet Sauvignon is to Medoc. Its reputation as one of the noblest grapes of France is best represented in the wines from such venerable appellations as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The fact that the New World’s most famous wine from Syrah/Shiraz, the modern-day Penfolds Grange, started its journey to fame as ‘Grange Hermitage’, bears testimony the stature of the wines from Rhone Valley (Hermitage appellation of Northern Rhone represented the benchmark style of Syrah).

Two wines grown in very different conditions producing varying & unique styles
Two wines grown in very different conditions producing varying & unique styles

Rhone Syrah, and especially those from the top appellations, is known for its powerful structure and a complex, but highly attractive, aroma profile. These benchmark examples are characterized by plenty of dark berry aromas with varying notes of mocha, dark chocolate, minerals & wet red earth and smoke, along with distinct peppery spice. A lot of these wines may be highly perfumed when co-fermented with the local white speciality, Viognier (and Marsanne & Rousanne, occasionally). The tannins are always sturdy without being offensive and so is the acidity. Their full body and rich mouthfeel are extremely addictive.

Its new world counterparts are scattered throughout – from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand to Washington State in the US, from Western Cape in South Africa to almost all the regions of Australia; each specialising in their own unique styles of Syrah/Shiraz. But among all these, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia have created specific and distinct styles which attract a huge fan following world over’. These range from pure & highly extracted ‘fruit bombs’ to more serious wines with plenty of varietal characters as well as secondary aromas of sweet spices, chocolate, licorice and savoury fruit candies. Owing to the warm growing conditions, most have ripe tannins and high alcohol (which, sometimes is so much that the all important balance is compromised), resulting in warm and heavy mouthfeel. But when well-made, these wines are extremely delicious.

Conclusion: It is once again apparent that the Rhone Syrah, being a product of the traditional genre, is more of a classic style – not on-your-face, lean, complex, food-friendly and made to age gracefully.

Now, should this style be taken as the ultimate representation of Syrah/Shiraz? Not if the ones from South Australia are also admired for their individuality displayed by the highly expressive fruit, silky and smooth tannins, rich mouthfeel and full body. Are these traits not to be enjoyed in a wine?

3) Riesling: Riesling, like Pinot Noir, is quite fastidious about its choice of growing conditions. A cool climate variety, it expresses itself fully only when the existing growing conditions are optimum. Germany is the spiritual home of Riesling as its terroir is best suited to its existence. In the classic German regions of Mosel, Rheingau and Nahe, Riesling thrives in many varied microclimates, producing a vast array of styles. The unique characters of quality German Rieslings are inimitable – exotic floral notes, layers of citrus fruits, wet stones and minerals and kerosene-like notes with prominent steely acidity. Riesling’s unique ability to shine in sweeter styles is also well recognised in German wines.

A classic German Riesling & a New World variant
A classic German Riesling & a New World variant

While Alsace and Austria add to the Old World’s portfolio, the New World’s contribution to the worldwide Riesling production is still far and few. Some noticeable regions which have triumphed in creating particular styles of their own include Oregon and Washington states in the US, Marlborough and Central Otago in New Zealand and northern reaches of South Australia – mainly Clare and Eden Valleys. Instead of being intensely floral and minerally, which is the core hallmark of German, Alsatian and Austrian Rieslings, these wines display more fruit characters – grapefruit, apples, nectarine etc. along with citrus blossoms. Some good examples also show hints of flint-like minerals, and most also maintain their fresh acidity.

Conclusion: Germany is blessed with growing conditions that are typically suited to Riesling and naturally the wines demonstrate unmatchable finesse and quality. But over the years, many New World wine regions have also successfully crafted their own styles which have won worldwide acclaim and acceptance.

Genuine wine lovers, like gourmands, are known to be adventurous in their drinking habits and that’s what separates a wine drinker from the rest. The ability to enjoy a wide range of styles and types of wines is the innate quality of genuine wine consumers. One may not like a particular wine due to factors like a less-than-average vintage, poor wine-making and substandard storage & cellaring, but these do not make a style of wine irrelevant or unacceptable.

Cheers,

Niladri

Memories from the land of Riesling – Part 1

Famous vineyards overlooking the Mosel river

A journey to classic wine regions is nothing short of a pilgrimage for wine lovers, and when such a sojourn is complemented by a combination of exploring the hidden vinous treasures and local gastronomic delights, it certainly becomes a once-in-a-lifetime event. My recent visit to the Mosel and Nahe wine regions of Germany, as part of a small group of wine enthusiasts from India, was one such experience. A first-hand exposure to the wine-growing nuances of the country’s two most famous wine regions was both invaluable and exhilarating.

Germany has all the hallmarks of a quintessential wine country where rich tradition plays a major role in dictating its overall wine profile. Be it the wine-grower’s passion for the vineyards and their terroir, the age-old (but fast-evolving) wine-making practices which follow least-invasive techniques of production, highly refined wine laws or the intrinsic part wine plays in its culture and folklore; everything about the country is a wine aficionado’s delight.

We stayed in a chalet-styled hotel in the quaint and sleepy but stunningly pretty wine town of Trittenheim on the famous Mosel Weinstrasse (Mosel Wine Route), a perfect place to set up base for exploring wine regions of both Mittelmosel (middle Mosel) as well as the adjoining areas of Saar and Ruwer (the two tributaries of Mosel and highly recognised wine districts).

The famous Piesporter Goldtropchen vineyard overlooks the Mosel, just behind the familiar cathedral tower

The four-day trip took us to many famous vineyard sites synonymous with some of the most acclaimed wines of Germany; the likes of Piesporter Goldtropchen, Juffer Sonnenuhr, Trittenheimer Apotheke, Scharzhofberger, Ockfener Bockstein and Oberemmeler Hutte (I know, German names can be real tongue-twisters :)), to name a few. For someone who rates German Rieslings as the epitome of quality and sensual pleasure, it was nothing short of a tremendous sense of fulfillment for me to visit their birthplaces and understanding the unique growing conditions.

These wines are some of the most distinct styles in the world and time spent in these vineyards are without a doubt one of the most practical ways to appreciate their quality. The slate-rich soil, steep slopes overlooking the gently meandering river, the vineyards’ orientation (exposure to the sun), sunlight reception by the vines, overall vine management practices, grape ripening pattern depending on a vine’s location etc. – each has a role to play in their distinctive character.

Our visit to the vineyards was followed by the exploration of the region’s winemaking techniques and conducted tastings of every style of Riesling possible…more on the local winemakers and reviews of some chosen wines in the second part of this post.

Apart from winery and vineyard hopping, we also managed to keep ourselves occupied with many other activities, two of which I strongly recommend if you ever happen to visit the region. First, make sure that you go on the Mosel river cruise without fail…you’ll love it, believe me. For wine lovers, a trip here minus this cruise is like visiting Venice and not taking a Gondola ride. You will be spoilt for choice in terms of photo opportunities, for there are iconic vineyards dotted all the way on the canvas-like slopes overlooking the river, plus nature’s other un-spoilt splendours. And yes, do not forget to carry an assortment of local Rieslings…they will not only keep your vinous senses active but will also give you a sense of how being in paradise might feel!

The region’s rich wine offerings are complemented by exquisite cuisine made from fresh local produce. Be it the light-textured but somewhat sweet Mosel Trout and other fishes, juiciest of meats, tangy and smoky cured meats, flavourful berries or a range of cheese, this part of Germany surely measures up to any other top gastronomic destination of the world.

Gourmet cuisine made from local ingredients…gastronomic bliss!
Lunch amidst the Kesselstatt vineyards in Saar. Unbeatable experience!

To savour the local food and wine you can either head to the historic town of  Trier with its myriad of road-side cafes or one of the  fine dining restaurants (like the Russell’s) in Trittenhiem. But nothing can beat the experience of sampling the best of local food and wine surrounded by lush green vines, like the one that was organized for us by the Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt winery in the middle of their Scharzhoffberger vineyard.

Here are some more chosen images from my trip:

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Cheers,

Niladri