A very short note from the Pfalz, with a Riesling from the heart of the classic Mittelhaardt district.
Floral and white peach nose on day one, opening up the next day to reveal red peach, apricot, red apple and green tea, followed by crushed rock on day three. Peach and candied lemon on the palate, with nice acidity. This wine is sunny, juicy and succulent, but certainly needs air. Good length on the finish.
Buntsandstein is a ubiquitous part of Pfalz geology. The southern half of the Pfälzer Wald (Palatinate Forest) is home to its most obvious incarnations: countless castles, cliffs, rock formations, and rocky outcrops of red sandstone, all ablaze in the evening sun. It becomes more of a beige-coloured sandstone, the further north you head towards the classic district of the Mittelhaardt, where Frank John and family are based.
Frank John was the winemaker at Von Buhl when I did a four-week internship there in my early 20s during the summer of 1997. I have positive memories of Herr John – a very calm, and calming, figure at a winery that was re-emerging from a period of relative mediocrity. John was the subject of a recent podcast (I can very much recommend it if you understand German; here’s the link). As he tells interviewer Wolfgang Staudt, the Von Buhl cellars in the 1990s were suddenly full of spanking new stainless-steel vats thanks to an injection of cash from Japanese investors who began leasing the estate in 1989. There were no wooden vessels at all. John and Von Buhl eventually parted ways in 2002. It seems that the then management did not necessarily share all of John’s eco-friendly convictions.
I tasted this wine gradually over seven days but only made notes on three of them. Initial iodine and peaty notes on the nose, followed by red fruit (mostly raspberry), honey, and wax. Day two: herbal aromas, maybe a hint of quince along with dried fruit (peach or apricot, not sure). Day seven: beeswax, succulent red peach, and herbs.
Very dry on the palate. Most of the above but with less fruit and more of the same iodine tang. Mouthwateringly fresh, with a subtle bitter twist and herbal, almost medicinal character. The wine has also acquired a greater generosity since 2019 when I drank the first bottle. But there is not an ounce of fat.
This excellent wine still has years ahead of it and certainly further ageing potential.
Hand-picked grapes. Wild-yeast fermentation, including malolactic fermentation, in 1,200- and 1,400-litre oak casks, with a proportion of whole bunches. Maturation on the gross lees for one year. Minimal addition of sulphur.
Now for an update on our vineyard, namely the 50 Chasselas vines that we (i.e. Jenny and I) planted in our front garden during the height of the first Covid lockdown in April 2020. (If I’m honest, it still feels a bit weird to be calling it a ‘vineyard’, given that the plot of vines is so tiny.)
In hindsight, the vine protectors were a bit of an overkill
Our vines have been in the ground for over 33 months, or three growing seasons, the last two of which have been a particularly sharp learning curve – 2021 and 2022 could not have been more different. The former was wet and cool, the latter hot and dry. Disease pressure was a problem in summer 2021. Chasselas is certainly known to be vulnerable to mildew, but the issues I had were mostly home-made. Once the shoots had reached a cuttable height above the trellis, I thought it would be a good idea to wrap them around the highest catch wires and let them continue growing. This approach, known as tressage (or braiding), means that the tips of the shoots are retained. The theory is that cutting off the tops of the shoots otherwise stresses the vines into producing a surplus of lateral shoots that will eventually crowd out the leaf canopy. And a crowded canopy means a greater chance of disease. The grape clusters also tend to be more compact as a result, which increases the risk of botrytis, or bunch rot. However, the only effect of tressage that I could ascertain was that the top area of the trellis simply became a mildew-prone, mildew-infested jungle. This was downy mildew (Peronospora), I should add; powdery mildew has been non-existent in our plot since we planted.
Tressage – looks lovely, don’t try it at home
Magnesium deficiency was another symptom of letting the vegetative growth of these young vines continue unchecked. This manifested itself on the vine leaves, which turned increasingly yellow. This, in turn, left the vegetation even more prone to downy. In short, the vines looked a mess and were already shedding leaves by the end of September 2021. I picked up all the infected vine leaves that dropped that autumn. From all 50 vines.
Messy, mildew-prone and magnesium-deficient
I already knew that the soil in our front garden was exceedingly well drained. Any rain, however hard and prolonged, seeps down very quickly. Almost too quickly. Leaving the area directly under the vines clear of grass and other plants only exacerbated this effect. Concluding that the cumulative deluge of summer 2021 had probably leached the soil of nutrients including magnesium, I decided to fill in the gaps permanently with a mixture of wild flowers and grasses. There were various motives for doing this. From the most basic perspective, a more diverse array of green cover underneath the vines – supplementing my grass-and-clover cover between the rows – helps to retain soil moisture and aerate the soil. Extensive root systems and their vast subterranean kingdom of mycorrhizal fungi are difficult to fathom or comprehend but a boon for soil life and soil nutrition, based on what I have already seen with my own eyes. Deeper-rooting plants like yarrow and the nitrogen-fixer sainfoin were also included in the seed mixture. I additionally sowed a little dandelion separately underneath the rows. The aim was that these would give the vines some competition and help to temper their vigour. Just as importantly, a greater diversity of plants should attract a greater diversity of insects and birds, which in turn have the self-regulating effect of keeping potential pests (like leaf-munching caterpillars) at bay.
Happier times in 2021
At this juncture, it is worth pointing out that the vines are divided into two distinct locations: 47 are situated in the main front-garden plot, while three grow along a narrow strip bordering our front drive nearer the road. We call this triumvirate ‘The Random Three’. Originally, the plan was to have all 50 vines in one plot, but we simply ran out of space. The Random Three lead a charmed life. Planted in quite fertile soil outside the main plot, they are each being trained up a single stake and are spaced one metre apart in a row instead of the intra-row spacing of 80 cm that applies to all the other vines. I have chosen to spur-prune The Random Three as bush vines, albeit with the aforementioned stake used to train the vegetation upwards and tie the shoots together with string. This gobelet sur échalas style persists in places like the Northern Rhône and – surprise, surprise – the shores of Lake Geneva, the purported birthplace of Chasselas. One of The Random Three, the nearest one to our house, is already living its best life and looks more than capable of supporting a whopping six two-bud spurs, or 12 primary shoots, from 2023 onwards. Apart from the aesthetic pleasure I get from shaping the vine’s architecture through spur pruning, the advantage of training a vine in this way is that the grapes receive almost 360-degree exposure to direct or indirect light. The only fly in the ointment is the proximity of one of our neighbours’ conifers. The people next door have kindly pruned all four of their adjacent conifers within the last couple of years, I hasten to add. Be that as it may, I would ban all conifers if I ruled the world.
The Random Three – the one on the right is particularly happy
By spring 2022, it was clear that the other 47 vines were growing up at markedly different speeds. About a dozen needed pruning back to two potential buds due to weak growth in the previous year. With the others, I generally took the two canes that had grown the previous year and cut both of these down to two, three or, in a few isolated cases, four potential buds respectively. What was generally left was a V shape of two spurs. The aim during the 2022 season was to have both spurs each producing a potential cane and spur for the next year respectively.
This approach was down to circumstance rather than design. With a fruiting wire only 40 cm above the ground, it dawned on me in 2021 that a single vine trunk would have to be exceedingly short and stumpy if I were to train the vines with replacement canes every year according to the Guyot method while having a spur branch out on either side of the trunk no less than 15 to 20 cm under the wire (see illustration near the end of this blog post). Starting with a V shape would allow me to use the space more efficiently. It would also set in motion the sideways branching that occurs when you practise a gentler form of pruning to protect sap flow in the vine.
V for victory
In practice, a few would-be spurs for 2023 failed to materialise. Acrotony, whereby the uppermost fruiting buds on one-year-old wood develop first, was particularly evident in 2022. Only the top bud developed into a new shoot in one or two cases, with no growth further down. Most of the potential three-bud spurs produced only two buds. The third one at the bottom failed to emerge or only produced a little stubbly twig. Consequently, I was unable to obtain some of my desired spur positions for 2023. This is no big drama as such, but it will necessitate some creative choices come pruning this March.
Due to the tressage-induced mildew debacle of 2021, my aim for the 2022 growing season was to remove all laterals (side shoots) until the primary shoots started approaching the top wires. I had no wish to give Peronospora even a sniff. Secondly, I was going to cut off the tops of the shoots once they started overhanging the rows. The tressage experiment in year 2 was worth it for experience sake but not something I was going to repeat. Thirdly, I wanted to preclude any magnesium deficiency by applying magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) as a foliar spray at least until fruit set. This purely organic, non-chemical treatment would replenish any magnesium shortage during the energy-intensive early growth phase in May and June. Ideally, the diverse ground cover will naturally balance out the soil in the long term. We also have a composter (note to self: I need to start filling it at some point). But Epsom will do for now as a preventive measure.
In the event, the record-breaking hot, dry summer of 2022 did my work for me. After a spring without any problematic frosts, vegetative growth almost ground to a halt by the end of the July anyway. The vines were conserving energy amid soaring temperatures. Out of the 47 vines in the main plot, less than half managed to reach the top wire. I had already stopped with the Epsom salts well before July but continued applying other natural spays every so often: nettle, chamomile, dandelion and yarrow – just for basic nutrition and not for any other reason, because there was no disease pressure whatsoever, nor any major symptoms of magnesium deficiency for that matter.
Hanging on in there in early August 2022
I’d be lying if I said that drought wasn’t a concern. After all, the vines still have relatively shallow root systems. The 2022 vintage was also the first year to produce a crop. Admittedly, it was a tiny crop of only around 70 very small, loosely clustered bunches of Chasselas. Yet the vines coped admirably. I daresay the shutdown in growth helped them to ripen the fruit even more efficiently. While most of the vegetation at ground level turned yellow, the vines remained an oasis of green throughout the summer. If they can withstand such a broiling hot summer, this augurs well for the future. I suspect they will continue to adapt to circumstances and find their own balance in time amid the yarrow, the dandelions, the ryegrass, the wispy grass, the sainfoin, the clover, etc.
I picked my first-ever crop on 4 October 2022 – a small harvest that fitted into two large salad bowls. Half of the grapes I destemmed by hand, the other half I left as whole bunches. Into a five-litre plastic fermentation bucket they all went, filling barely half of the container. After leaving the bucket outdoors for the first night (a very chilly night), I decided to bring the harvest back inside. This was a good idea, as wild-yeast fermentation kicked in shortly after. Since then, the bucket has been ensconced in our front room and the juice has continued to ferment on the skins. I began pressing the grapes properly by hand shortly before Christmas. This process will continue for a while yet. At some stage, I will need to think about filtering the currently brown-coloured juice from the equally brown detritus of skins, stems and pips. A muslin cloth may come in useful. In the meantime, the inside of the fermentation bucket certainly smells much better than it looks. The alcoholic whiff is heady and fills the entire room whenever I open the lid. There has been no bacterial spoilage so far, as far as I can tell. Without getting too technical, the skins and stems in particular help to protect and preserve the juice from oxidation while conditioning the wine for a longer life. Whether I eventually manage to produce a couple of bottles of skin-contact ‘orange wine’ from the 2022 vintage remains to be seen.
Two salad bowls worth of grapes
Circumstances dictate this ad hoc approach. Maybe I will reduce the amount of skin contact in future when the crops increase in size and I upsize my ‘winemaking’ facilities and equipment into something more bespoke.
Gooseberry conserve, anyone?
I love pruning the vines. I love the time and thought that goes into creating and maintaining their shape. This spring should see me laying down one or two shoots per vine as canes for the 2023 growing season. With a total of four primary shoots already growing from the left-hand and right-hand spurs, I will leave either four shoots to grow from a single cane (‘single Guyot’) or two shoots from each of two canes (‘double Guyot’). Either way, it will leave me with a maximum of eight shoots per vine. However, some vines aren’t quite ready for that yet. In particular, there are about three or four vines that need pruning back to two potential buds again. I suspect one of them is suffering from faulty grafting, whereby the graft connecting the European Vitis vinifera cultivar (Chasselas) with the North American phylloxera-resistant rootstock (SO4) is of poor quality. This is a problem that will have originated at the vine nursery, not in our garden. I may have to replace the vine in question next year.
This is what I have in mind for 2023
Another question in my mind is how vigorous the vines really are. Growth was fast and prolific in 2021 with hundreds of litres of rain and an absence of under-vine ground cover. It was slow and meagre in 2022 amid the competition of ground cover coupled with a hot, dry growing season. I think the truth will eventually lie somewhere in between these two extremes once the vines have more years under their belt in their new surroundings. This is why I am favouring cane pruning over spur pruning for the time being, as the former affords me greater flexibility in terms of the number of potential shoots I wish to leave on each vine. Once you have permanent spur positions, it is very hard to revert to cane pruning without mutilating the vine, which is the last thing I want. Having said this, I can well imagine moving to permanent cordons with two spur positions on either side of the vine in the fullness of time. When this method works, it works really well. It usually involves pruning wood no older than two years old, whereas cane pruning can entail cutting three-year-old wood. The older the wood, the more significant the pruning wound. This is why world’s oldest vines tend to be spur-pruned.
Perfumed on the nose. Initial impressions of lilac, quince, fennel and yellow plum. Lychee and pineapple emerge on the second day. Dry, saline and smoky on the palate, with considerable density for a wine with 11.5% abv. Melon and pear notes gradually emerge – almost like a Grauburgunder. Lovely generosity. Exotic notes of lychee again. Bone dry. Some lactic notes, relatively low acidity – medium at the very most, but held together by notable phenolics. Simple but fine.
This entry-level bottling was my first-ever Teschke wine, I am ashamed to say. Michael Teschke’s reputation goes before him as a 21st-century pioneer of Silvaner. (Teschke prefers the international spelling, with a y.) Blauer Silvaner is a less common mutation of the better-known (Grüner) Silvaner. At peak ripeness, the grapes look a bit like Grauburgunder/Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio at the same stage. To be honest, I can only think of a couple of other wineries that grow Blauer Silvaner: Weingut Reinhold & Cornelia Scheider and Weingut Abril, both on the Kaiserstuhl in Baden.
Unfortunately, Michael Teschke recently took the decision to sell nearly all of his vineyard holdings. To paraphrase an open letter that he wrote to one of his main retailers in Germany, it looks like Herr Teschke basically came to the conclusion that the blood, sweat and tears that he had invested in his vocation was simply unsustainable both from a financial and emotional point of view.
This wine is unfiltered and unfined. Its pale lemon hue is matt in appearance, not gloss. Intense nose of quince, beeswax and blossom, with hints of chamomile – developing out over time to show a resinous character. Salty, sour beer on the palate, along with more quince. Quite refreshing, pithy acidity. The wine’s low alcohol (10%) belies its medium body and concentrated, almost silky mouthfeel. There is also notable phenolic grip (white ‘tannins’). Suggestions of caramel as well. The finish is long, satisfyingly sour, and moreish. This would go well with a salty Bretzel.
Stefan Vetter’s reputation goes before him as a producer of scintillating natural wine – a genre that suits Sylvaner more than most other varieties I can think of. A lot of Sylvaners I’ve had in my time have been on the earthy, riper side. This specimen is a totally different creature. Saline, pure and really quite interesting.
Schwarzer Herrgott is one of the great 21st-century German terroirs – located in Zellertal, the most northerly part of the Pfalz. Divine in name, divine in quality. The Zellertal is quite a valley running from west to east, with the south-facing vineyards enjoying optimum sunshine in the rain shadow of the nearby Donnersberg mountain – the highest elevation in the Pfalz. Like other notable patches of the ‘Nordpfalz’, limestone is the predominant bedrock.
By the way, this is the Pfälzer iteration of Schwarzer Herrgott in the village of Zell. There is also a Rheinhessen Schwarzer Herrgott – a GG no less, referred to as ‘Zellerweg im Schwarzen Herrgott’, situated only a kilometre or two away, officially part of the Rheinhessen village of Mölsheim, and made famous by Weingut Battenfeld-Spanier with a Grosses Gewächs (GG) of the same name.
Vivid medium lemon in appearance, with an intense nose of wet chalk and lemon, with herbal essential oil and slightly vegetative hints. These are beautiful, pure aromas. Lemon continues on a concentrated, medium- to full-bodied palate, along with the aforementioned chalk expressed as a sort of silky film coating the teeth and mouth. Electrifying acidity with ample volume, leading to a long-lasting finish. A grand cru in all but name.
Markgräflerland – the stretch from Freiburg to Basel – is bursting with interest at the moment. You have Hanspeter Ziereisen and his merry band of Landwein disciples (Dirk Brenneisen and Max Geitlinger, to name just a couple). You have an exciting new start-up on one of Baden’s best limestone terroirs (Weingut am Klotz). You have classical labels updating and redefining themselves (Schneider in Weil, Blankenhorn in Schliengen). You have names new and old offering ridiculous value for money (Lämmlin-Schindler, Rieger, Scherer & Zimmer). You have the boutique Wasenhaus duo, who are probably in a category of their own. You have the linear, no-frills Gutedel of Dörflinger (English for snörkellos). You even have the main grower cooperative, Markgräfler Winzer, lifting its own quality up a few notches in recent years. And let’s not forget the two Wassmers, Fritz and Martin – Pinot gurus who seem to have been around for ages, even though they haven’t.
All of these names, including Maximilian Greiner, produce Gutedel (aka Chasselas), one of the most underestimated of all cultivars. The grape isn’t popular (and little known) among British palates. Naturally light with modest alcohol and acidity, Chasselas is imbued with a certain neutrality that befits its Swiss origins. It certainly isn’t sexy. And yet, given time on the lees and in bottle, it manages pretty well to refresh and stimulate even without Riesling levels of acidity, while retaining a comforting, handcrafted, yesteryear character reminiscent of something you’d swear you’ve drunk before, even if you haven’t. Wine as pretty as a dumpling, to paraphrase US wine importer Terry Theise.
Apparently, it’s the understatement that makes Chasselas a dream with sushi and sashimi, although I have never tested this theory.
Inspired by Ziereisen’s Gutedel ‘10 Hoch 4’, the world’s most expensive Chasselas, more and more of the region’s growers are doing what their grandparents and great-grandparents used to do by affording the variety the requisite time and respect. This equates to generous skin contact, use of traditional presses, wild-yeast fermentation, longer periods of maturation in large, old wood (including acacia), and minimal, if any, fining or filtering. In other words, old-school. The result is a phalanx of new-wave Chasselas across Markgräflerland that are yeast-infused, minerally, complex and long-lived.
Maximilian Greiner farms according to biodynamic principles. He grows Chasselas, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (the latter for his zero dosage Sekt). Greiner’s vineyards are properly in the foothills of the Black Forest: in the hamlet of Gennenbach and the villages of Feuerbach, Mauchen, and Obereggenen.
🍷 Pale lemon in appearance, with a nose that fills out and gains detail with warmth and air. Pear aromas initially, followed by hints of green apple and almond as well as a faint touch of bubblegum. Floral, meadowy notes – maybe also a suggestion of lemongrass. (Strangely, this reminds me that iconic Black Forest beer Rothaus Tannenzäpfle always has a hint of lemongrass.) An ever-so-subtle lime-lemon combo provides sufficient freshness on a silky medium-bodied palate. Much of the aforementioned notes on the nose offer complexity on the tongue, culminating in a long finish. Exceedingly delicious and right up my street.
This is a single-varietal wine made from old Portugieser vines situated in the secluded Berntal nature reserve (hence the English play on words).
Deep purple appearance. Lush if still little diffuse on the nose, with blueberry, black olive and a hint of dark chocolate. Well-integrated, fresh acidity and fine-grained but still quite pronounced tannins. Textured mouthfeel packed within a concentrated medium to full body, with cedar, soy sauce and a dash of Maggi. Savoury, complex and long, with a long life ahead of it.
The Reinecker family have been a mainstay of Sekt production in Markgräflerland for a good many years. Apart from turning the base wines of other wineries into fizz (a practice referred to in German as Lohnversektung), they also sell their own house range of sparkling wines. You could say that the Reiningers are, to a certain extent, the ‘Raumlands of Südbaden’. In 2019, the family entered into a still-wine collaboration with the illustrous Kaiserstuhl wine estate Weingut Franz Keller, buying up the Reingerhof wine estate that comprises three hectares at Isteiner Klotz overlooking the village of Istein. Isteiner Klotz is a limestone cliff that used to sit on the banks of the Rhine – until the 19th century, when Johann Gottfried Tulla straightened the river to improve boat navigation. Nowadays, the Rhine is set back from the cliff about 200 to 300 metres away on the other side of the A5 autobahn. This prime, south-facing vineyard land – long forgotten – is one of my favourite spots in all of wine-producing Germany. The location is depicted in my profile picture. (For the record: the vineyard’s official Lagenname is Isteiner Kirchberg.) Apart from Gutedel (Chasselas), the Reineckers and Kellers also grow Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc). They recently took receipt of a small herd of Ouessant sheep that graze in the vineyard and help to give lots of natural goodness back to the soil.
Medium lemon colour. Nose of lemon accompanied by a noticeable whiff of popcorn as well lactic hints (think of a hard cheese like Gruyère). This wine also has a savoury dimension – spiced with cumin notes and a sprinkle of lightly toasted bread crumbs. Beautiful lemon and savoury characters continue on a slightly glazed, textured palate that gradually takes on greater complexity with more air. Strawberry notes also make an appearance. Bone-dry mouthfeel, with juicy acidity and a long finish.
Tabula rasa is Latin for clean or blank slate. The vintage is 2018; the R stands for red.
This is a blend composed of 76% Grenache (mostly old vines from McLaren Vale, apparently), 10% Shiraz, 9% Mataro and 5% Carignan. Dark ruby/garnet, this has blackcurrant ice cream on the nose, with a hint of vanilla. Brambly fruit on the palate. Keen tannins and good acidity lend eminent drinkability despite 14.5 per cent abv and a full body. This has a crown cap enclosure and contains only 0.5 litres. I can almost imagine turning up at a drinks party with this and imbibing it straight from the bottle like a beer.
Bought from our local bottle shop, Baythorne Wines. Only on sale in Australia and the UK, as far as I can tell.