Nectar beyond mere money
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.