Tastings in the Heart of Europe: Prowein and Beyond
By Michael Godel and David Lawrason
In March Michael and David attended Prowein in Dusseldorf, Germany, the world’s largest wine trade fair, tasting a fascinating array of wines. Both also added short visits to lesser known regions. David visited Lazio near Rome, and Michael visited the tiny Ahr Valley as well as Rheinhessen in Germany. Here are their reports based on the following tastings….
Jancis Robinson, Alsace, Greek Assyrtiko, Chianti Classico, Franken Silvaner, The Ahr Valley and Rheinhessen…
By Michael Godel
It was one month ago that David and I attended Prowein 2017, the international wine congress in Düsseldorf, Germany of such immense proportion that words, description and explanation just fail to do it justice. If you are an agent your goals are simple; meet with your incumbent suppliers and taste with enough new ones to fill the holes in your portfolio. But what if you are a journalist like me? What do you concentrate on? Were do you start?
First things first. As a Canadian and a representative of Wine Country Ontario I hung around the Canadian pavilion, talked with our coast to coast winemakers, vintners and marketing representatives, took in the seminars on cool climate wines led by David and Dr. Janet Dorozynski and of course, tasted some wines. I’m glad I did because I might have otherwise missed out on four exceptional Canadian bottles. Pillitteri Estate’s Cabernet Franc 2013 integrates its older oak to great advantage. Vineland Estates Cabernet Elevation Bo-Teek Vineyard 2014 is a benchmark all-estate fruit filled bottle, sharp and focused. The Benjamin Bridge Brut Rosé 2012 confirms two salient matters; the Nova Scotia sparkling wine leader is the Canadian commander and blush bubbles are what they do with constant consistency. Then there was the “Hurricane,” the Blomidon Estate Late Picked Sparkling Chardonnay 2011. Visionary for Nova Scotia and Canadian sparkling wine.
You can’t see it all, do it all or taste it all, so you pick your spots. The rest of my three-day, 12-pavilion cum airport hangar wanderings can be summed up in five ProWein experiences; Jancis Robinson, Alsace, Greece, Chianti Classico and a great exploration into Franken silvaner and spätburgunder. The grand dame of wine held a special intimate media tasting. With fewer than 18 international journalists in attendance, Jancis Robinson’s seven favourite wines at ProWein were poured, choices she noted “I think should be useful to our readers and seek out value.” Nahe and Weinviertel riesling, Etna Rosso, Chinese cabernet sauvignon, Crozes-Hermitage, Amontillado and my pick of the lot, the “chock full of fruit and tradition” De Martino Viejas Tinajas Cinsault 2013, Secano Interior/Coelemu, Maule, Chile 2014.
The honour and privilege to taste Alsace is always welcome and especially when the sit down happens with two exceptional humans like Christian and Valerie Beyer. Their Lieu-Dit pinot gris and noir were terrific examples but it was the Emile Beyer Riesling Grand Cru Pfersigberg 2012 Alsace that blew me away. From special limestone this is more refined than similar Alsace from granite, of a salty minerality and intensely elegant. I also sat down with Panayiota Kalogeropoulou and Margarita Damigou for a ProWein date with assyrtiko and it was a revelation to taste the Domaine Sigalas Kavalieros 2015, Santorini, Greece, a single-vineyard white that turns the world on its head. As does the Domaine Tetramythos Roditis 2015, PGI Peloponnese, Greece, a white that ignites the light fantastic’s wire. A one on one face to face with Chianti Classico’s President Sergio Zingarelli allowed me to taste his estate’s flagship wine, the Rocca Delle Macìe Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Sergio Zingarelli 2012, Docg Tuscany, Italy. Elegant as much as sangiovese and Gran Selezione will likely ever strive to be.
The Germany pavilion is the epicentre of the ProWein universe. Gravity would naturally pull you to the Mosel and yet I was in search of an alternative experience. With travels to the Ahr Valley and the Rheinhessen looming I gravitated (naturally) to Franken and more specifically to an intensive workshop with silvaner and spätburgunder. The days of the old flattened ellipsoid, field bottle silvaner packaged in traditional Franconian Bocksbeutel are nearly behind us and while several modern, clean and pure examples match up with the great mineral fresh whites around the planet, one stood apart. Rudolf May Silvaner Retzstadter Langenberg Der Schäfer 2015, Franken, Germany is brilliant, stony-gemstone able, savoury, no actually sapid, and exceptionally mouth salivating. It’s fresh to drink now and with more ability than most to age. Passion für Pinot Noir! is the avant-garde Deutscher Qualitäswein Franken slogan for spätburgunder. Rudolf May once again impressed with their Retzbach Benediktusberg but as I was about to pour myself a taste of the next wine, a Franken booth associate swooped in to slip me a Burgundy glass, so I knew this was going to be different. It was the Weingut Richard Östreicher Spätburgunder No. 1 Sommeracher Katzenkopf 2013, Franken, Germany that taught me what Franken pinot noir can be.
On day three of ProWein I jumped on the großer Magie Bus with 17 international journalists and headed for the Ahr Valley, one of Germany’s (of 13) furthest northern wine regions. With an area of 150 hectares (of 100,000 total in Germany), even the Mosel is not so far north. Our first visit was to Meyer-Näkel, a young winery in its third generation. Before that there was a winery (Meyer) and Näkel (restaurant). When the grandparents married the entities merged. In 1982 winemaker Meike Näkel’s father took the winery and her uncle the restaurant. Starting out with two, now there are 20 hectares under vines. The slopes are ridiculously steep, prized for their blue slate soils and so difficult to work. Spätburgunder steals the Ahr Valley show and while Meyer-Näkel’s lieu-dit and grand cru (Großes Gewächs) are impassioned and important works, in Ontario you can find their affordable entry-level treat. The Meyer Näkel Spätburgunder 2015, Deutscher Qualitätswein, Ahr Valley, Germany is really what basic German spätburgunder needs and is expected to be. Yet nothing could prepare me for what a former German wine queen would pour. Julia Bertram grew up in Dernau, gained experience at Meyer-Näkel and Klumpp. In 2013 she launched her own her vineyard with just half a hectare and now farms three and a half. Nothing fascinates her and the “SchlAhrVino” (association of young Ahr vintners) as much as ripe wines, especially pinot noir. Her whole bunch, wild ferment spätburgunder is nothing short of intense. The world should get ready for her alternative ahr universe Julia Bertram Spätburgunder Handwerk 2015, Ahrweiler, Germany.
The next two were Rheinhessen days, first with five Appenheim village winemakers at Weingut Willems & Hoffman, followed by a visit to taste more deferential and singular spätburgunder at Weingut J. Neus. At Neus we got grippy with the muschelkalk soil meets spontaneous ferments from the team of Operations Manager Lewis Schmitt and agronomist/oenologist/winemaker/cellarmaster Julien Meissner’s pinot noir. The Weingut J. Neus Spätburgunder Muschelkalk Alte Raben Trocken Ingelheim Am Rhein 2014, Rheinhessen, Germany carries structure that takes you on the ride from background to foreground. “A strict style of pinot noir,” says Meissner. We moved away from the red wine thematic and into more familiar territory when we stopped in at Weingut Thörle for a visit with Christoph Thörle. The single-vineyard Hölle and Schlossberg rieslings are as exceptional as any in Germany but the Ontario presence of Thörle Feinherb Riesling 2016, Qualitätswein Rheinhessen, Germany should never be overlooked. On our last day in the Rheinhessen we stopped in at Weingut Manz and if you ever find yourself in their tasting room, expect a multi-varietal experience. On any given day you may taste weissburgunder (pinot blanc), riesling, grauburgunder (pinot gris), sauvignon blanc, spätburgunder (pinot noir), merlot, cabernet sauvignon and finally, huxelrebe trockenbeerenauslese. On this day it was the Weingut Manz Riesling Spätlese Trocken Kehr, Weinolsheimer 2015, Rheinhessen, Germany that spoke to the territorial low yields and late harvest work of Eric Manz.
The week in Germany saw virtually no sun, that is until the final morning outdoors above the Rhein River under the shelter of the Fockenberghütte. Here we tasted the Nierstien wines of Weingut Domtalhof, St. Antony and Louis Guntrum with our charismatic M.C. Konstantin Guntrum. We walked the famed Roter Hang Vineyard and had the great fortune to taste Guntrum’s ethereal 1976 Neisteiner Heilgen riesling. Guntrum wears the passion for his home vineyard in his expression, on his sleeve and by the way he walks. “Roter Hang is a geological statement,” he explains. Red soils of friable sandstone, steep and breathtaking. Weingut Louis Guntrum Riesling Trocken Nierstein Oelberg 2015, Rheinhessen, Germany is lean, mineral skin deep, slowly changing and developing in just the short time in glass. It is the portal into which you can peer to wonder about great riesling grown above the Rhein.
The German wine experience is owed great thanks to Stefan Egge, Christiane Schorn, Brigitte Küppers, Michael Mandel and Carola Keller of ProWein press department, Messe Düsseldorf and Wines of Germany. I have been on many Press trips over the years and the organization in Germany was second to none. I will now begin looking forward to ProWein 2018. Until then, Godello is good to go.
…Bordeaux 2014, Vacqueyras, Austria, Torres of Spain, Frascati and Latina
by David Lawrason
As Michael articulates above, Prowein presents an impossible challenge to those who are just there to taste. There were over 6,500 producers and tens of thousands of wines arrayed up and down miles of aisles in seven pavilions. I only had one scheduled tasting on my itinerary – preferring to follow my nose. And here’s where it took me (beyond the Wines of Canada pavilion that I discussed in an earlier report)
The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux held a rather too-solemn four-hour exposition pouring the 2014 vintage. I missed this event in Toronto in January, so grabbed the opportunity to get a feel for the 2014s – tasting about 40 properties across all the major right and left bank appellations. It was good to very good vintage with a cool, fairly rainy spring and summer saved by warm and dry September/October harvest weather. Most pundits are ranking it higher than 2011, 2012 or 2013, and indeed I found most of the wines quite lovely – ripe enough for the most part if not as concentrated, deep and structured as great vintages like 2010. My quickly sketched notes kept coming back to words like “refined”, “silky” and ‘perfumed” – and my ratings ranged from 88 to 93, with a couple of 95s for Le Bon Pasteur (Michel Rolland’s property in Pomerol) and Chateau Leoville-Poyferre in St. Julien. Other highly rated left bank wines included Giscours, Beychevelle, Leoville-Barton, Lynch-Bages and Lafon Rochet (great value). On the right bank I favoured Beausejour-Becot, La Dominque, La Gaffeliere and newly elevated 1er Crand Cru Classe Larcis-Ducasse. I have not made “review quality” notes on these wines, which is difficult to do in crowded walk-about situations.
The Rhone Valley area was always busy, with many drawn to the superb “self pour” area organized by appellation. I went right to Vacqueyras in the southern Rhone, a warmer appellation that seems to produce quite powerful, sometimes rugged and quite concentrated grenache-based reds. I have always thought of Vacqueyras as a more rustic Chateauneuf-du-Pape (at half the price). I tasted eight wines here and loved Dom. La Fourmone 2015, Dom. La Ligiere 2014, Domaine Les Ondines 2015 and the more mature, meaty Dom. Fontaine du Clos 2012. And then I moved on to taste reds of Beaumes de Venise… I could have got lost in the Rhone for the day.
The “self pour” system is widely used throughout Prowein (and Canada needs to do it next year). Over in Pavilion 14 I stumbled across a huge ‘self-pour’ section featuring award winners in the Mundus Vini competition associated with Prowein. I tasted through some Spanish and Portuguese whites for about 30 minutes before feeling overwhelmed. In the same building I stopped at the Austrian “self-pour” for another 30 minutes, then visited Kurt Angerer, one of my favourite Austrian producers, whose wines occasionally show up at VINTAGES. His range of Gruner Veltliners (Kies, Spies, Loam, Eichenstaude) from varying soil types are fantastic, some of the most opulent, complex and structured in Austria – and belong among great whites in the world.
Then it was time to go to work, sort of. I am heading to Barcelona in May to co-host a Gold Medal Plates tour for Canadians that will delve into the wines of Catalonia, including a day in Priorat. One of our stops will be a tour, dinner and concert at Torres, a large family winery well-known to Canadian wine drinkers. At Prowein I stopped at the Torres stand to brush up on the latest vintages and select wines for our dinner. But I had not expected to see Miramar Torres, a long-time friend who runs the small, biodynamic Miramar Estate in Sonoma County, California. She poured her complex, elegant un-oaked chardonnay called Acero, as well as two stunning, deep pinot noirs – LasMasia and MasCavalls, that you really need to watch for at VINTAGES in months ahead. Among the Torres Spanish wines I earmarked Pazos das Bruxas Albarino, Salmos Priorat, Purgatori (a carinena, garnacha, syrah blend from Costers del Segre) and the famous Mas La Plana Cabernet sauvignon for the Gold Medal Plates dinner.
I am glad I didn’t arrive at Prowein jet-lagged. I had flown to Europe four-days earlier to visit the seldom-visited region of Lazio, which encircles the city of Rome, and is lost in the glare of this monumental capital. Lazio is best known historically for a white wine called Frascati, but most of the vineyards have succumbed to urban sprawl. Which is unfortunate because the volcanic hills of this zone seem ideal for vines and are full of history. I did visit one small organic producer called De Sanctis making stellar Frascati, so far beyond the tart, pale almost watery white sold by the jug in yesteryear. DeSanctis 2016 Abellos was excellent, as was a neutral oak aged 2015 Superiore Riserva called Amacos. And the real surprise was a delicious, fragrant estate-grown cabernet franc.
The quality and varietal revelations of Lazio continued further to the south and east in the province of Latina, about an hour from Rome. Much of Latina is a flat plain (including wetland dried out by canal draining during Mussolini’s era) facing onto to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Its main port is Anzio, site of the almost catastrophic Allied invasion of Italy in World War Two. The flatlands are ringed to the north by the same range of volcanic hills (the Colli Albani) in which Frascati and another perhaps familiar appellation called Velletri, lie. There are many wineries in the region, on the plains and in the hills, but a dozen, larger quality focused wineries have come together to form the Strada del Vino (wine route). Most are virtually unknown in Canada, and growing local varieties that are equally obscure like bellone, biancolella, cesanese and nero buono. Some varieties trace their history to pre-Roman times, as do some of the ancient hilltop villages like Cori and classic, bucolic Sermonata.
One of the largest and most intriguing wineries is Casale del Giglio, ‘newly’ founded in 1967 by the Santarelli family, Roman wine merchants who actually sold a lot of wine to Canada back in the day. Casale del Giglio was planted in viticulturally virgin terrain, coming into its own in the 1990s with an ambitious program of replanting and varietal experimentation of its 180 hectares under the scrutiny of the intense and knowledgeable winemaker Paolo Tiefenthaler (who commutes weekly to Veneto to make wine at Zenato). He now makes over 20 different wines at Casale, some from indigenous varieties like bellone and cesanese (already in Quebec and coming to VINTAGES this year); others from French varietals that have proven to work well in this warm but sea-cooled region. There are the usual suspects like merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc and syrah, but some very successful surprises like petit manseng, viognier, tempranillo and petit verdot as well. I tasted the entire portfolio, and the quality level is easily averaging 90 points. The varietal acuity is spot on. If you find yourself at Casale don’t miss dinner next door at Satricum, a Michelin one-star named for the pre-Roman town that is still under-going archeological excavation in the middle of Casal del Giglio’s vineyards.
Nearby in the hill town (and DOC) of Cori there is a brand spanking new tasting room, fabulous restaurant and agri-tourismo hotel belonging to Cincinnato, a co-operative winery founded in 1947, but brought into the modern/quality era in 1995. Based on 126 members farming 268 hectares, Cincinnato provides a fascinating glimpse into historic, indigenous varieties rendered with precision. Much of it is now farmed organically in the volcanic ash laden hillsides. I loved the aromatically blowsy, fragrant almost tropical bellone white that narrows so nicely on the finish. And the black-fruited, vibrant nero buono- based reds called Ercole and Castore. I almost felt wistfully sad here, such great effort and vision being put into local wines that are so far off the beaten path that their hope of great international success is very limited.
The same can be said of Lazio as a whole – perhaps the most forgotten wine region of Italy. But then Italy is so complex, and so profound, that it is almost impossible to comprehend and easy to understand how some regions get overlooked. Lazio did not present at Prowein. Apparently Lazio does not even present at VinItaly. So it is left to individuals like my host Giovanni Silvestri to beat the drum. Based in Rome, he is a freelance marketing consultant, also working with the Gambero Rosso magazine/awards empire, with a focus on Canada. (He married a Canadian). And he is behind the upcoming Tre Biceri (Gambero Rosso three cup) tasting in Toronto June 9 (watch for it on WineAlign)
So as Michael thanks the organizers of Prowein above, including Canada-based Stefann Egge, I want to add my thanks. And I also want to thank Giovanni for his time and expense in opening my eyes to Lazio. Just when you think you know it all…