Nec­tar be­yond mere money

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

THE laws of Ger­many gov­ern­ing the nomen­cla­ture of its wine re­gions are ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­plex. For 99 per cent of Aus­tralian con­sumers, five of the 13 qual­i­tatswein re­gions (them­selves a dis­til­la­tion of three more gen­eral re­gions) are of paramount im­por­tance. They are the Rhein­gau, Rhein­hessen, Pfalz, Nahe and Mosel (un­til re­cently Mosel-Saar-Ruwer).

When you find the 13 qual­i­tatswein re­gions are di­vided into 39 bere­iche (dis­tricts) con­tain­ing 160 gross­la­gen (col­lec­tive sites), which in turn en­cap­su­late 2632 einzel­la­gen (sin­gle sites), shown on la­bels in baroque Ger­man script, it is small won­der many would-be con­sumers sim­ply shrug their shoul­ders and move on to France, Italy and Spain, or sim­ply stay at home.

Be­cause I aman un­abashed lover of ries­ling, I don’t ig­nore the main re­gions out­side the Mosel, can in­ter­pret the la­bels with­out un­due dif­fi­culty and recog­nise the best pro­duc­ers in those re­gions. Re­peated trips over the years have helped the process.

But I have never vis­ited the re­gions of Franken (Fran­co­nia) and Wurt­tem­berg, ly­ing ad­ja­cent to each other (run­ning north-south) to the east of the big five but part of the 13 qual­i­tatsweins . The best wines of Franken are sold in the dis­tinc­tive squat bocks­beu­tel (its use pro­tected by Ger­man law for Ger­man wines) and which is most com­monly en­coun­tered in the ubiq­ui­tous Ma­teus rose.

This year the Academie In­ter­na­tionale du Vin, to which I be­long, put mat­ters right by mak­ing its an­nual ex­cur­sion to Wurt­tem­berg and Fran­co­nia. I had an im­age in my mind of vine­yards planted on rel­a­tively flat land and pro­duc­ing mas­sive yields of syl­vaner and muller thur­gau. A sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of the vine­yards met that ex­pec­ta­tion, but the best pro­duc­ers have vines on slopes that suf­fer lit­tle in com­par­i­son to the Rhein­gau and which pro­duce wines of real qual­ity.

With some es­tates dat­ing back to the 13th cen­tury (the old­est bot­tle drunk in the 20th cen­tury came from the 13th), it is no sur­prise to find that Weingut Ru­dolf Furst can trace its fam­ily his­tory to 1638. On the other hand, Paul and Mon­ica Furst have brought (rel­a­tively) youth­ful en­thu­si­asm and un­doubted tal­ent to the es­tate, sharply lift­ing its qual­ity to the top of the tree.

While I re­main ob­sti­nately (and pre­dictably) faith­ful to ries­ling, 40 per cent of the es­tate’s plant­ings are to pinot noir, or spat­bur­gun­der in Ger­man. Most Ger­man pinots of the past have been pale and anaemic but I have tasted some star­tling pinots from 1976 and 2003 (very warm vin­tages), so the axis of Bur­gundy might move north­ward to Ger­many (and in par­tic­u­lar th­ese two re­gions) if the cli­mate-change prophets are proved cor­rect.

For the time be­ing, ries­ling re­mains king (in qual­ity, not nu­meric terms). The dry or near-dry ries­lings of Furst are ut­terly com­pelling, some eerily sim­i­lar to top-class Aus­tralian ries­ling.

In Wurt­tem­berg, the field is much more crowded with qual­ity pro­duc­ers: Weingut Graf Adel­mann (Count Michael Adel­mann was our pri­mary host through­out the trip), Ger­hard Aldinger, Drautz-Able, Jur­gen Ell­wanger, Karl Hai­dle, Ho­hen­lohe-Oehrin­gen, Graf von Neip­perg, Rainer Sch­nait­mann, Hans-Peter Wohrwag and Her­zog von Wurt­tem­berg are all at or near the top.

For me, the most un­ex­pected uni­fy­ing fea­ture was the out­stand­ing auslese, beer­e­nauslese, trock­en­beer­e­nauslese and eisweins pro­duced in Wurt­tem­berg, with ries­lings lead­ing the charge.

For the num­ber nerds, a 2005 Sch­naiter Al­tenberg Ries­ling Trock­en­beer­e­nauslese has 301 grams of resid­ual sugar a litre and 11.2g of acid­ity. For those for whom such num­bers are mean­ing­less (ar­guably the sen­si­ble ones) this wine was glo­ri­ously, in­tensely sweet yet had life and move­ment: if you like, fresh fruit rather than crys­tallised.

The bad news is the tiny quan­ti­ties in which th­ese wines are made, and their seem­ingly high cost. I say seem­ingly, for in­stead of (say) 1500 litres of wine picked at nor­mal ma­tu­rity, the same num­ber of vines may pro­duce only 150 litres if all goes well.

There are many risks in­volved: in­stead of botry­tis (known col­lo­qui­ally as noble rot) you may get grey or black rot, ren­der­ing the grapes use­less. Some­times the wait is in­ter­minable: while Novem­ber to De­cem­ber usu­ally marks the end of the sea­son, one maker de­scribed how he waited un­til Fe­bru­ary (or Au­gust in Aus­tralian wine­mak­ing terms) and had to deal with grapes re­sem­bling lit­tle more than pep­per­corns that fought hard against re­leas­ing the drop or two of juice each con­tained.

The re­al­ity is that no mat­ter how ex­pen­sive th­ese wines may be, they are made for love, not money. It also ex­plains why lucky vis­i­tors may find a 375ml bot­tle be­ing opened by the wine­maker, who can’t bear to sell it, pre­fer­ring to share the joy of tast­ing the nec­tar of the gods.

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