France and Germany have a long history of squabbles and invasions. I decided to continue that theme last week, bringing some French reds and a bottle of vin liquoreux (read: dang sweet) from the Loire Valley to a German “base” heavily fortified with riesling, (but not heavy with fortified riesling) By “base” I mean the Vinotéka U Švába, one of (if not the best of) the vendors of German wines in Prague. Certainly, you will not find a more ardent proselytizer of German wines in the city than the bar’s owner and host, Thorsten Kleemann. Thorsten is pugnacious, opinionated, and sometimes even friendly. He named his bar U Švába because it sounds like the Czech word for Swabian, “Švábský,” his heritage of Germany, but also the Czech word for cockroach, “Šváb.” So there is a large carving of a cockroach hanging above the front door – if that creeps you out, Thorsten doesn’t care. To his defense, I have never seen a real cockroach in the bar.
Thorsten and I were joined by a Russian friend and an Irish friend. Insert your joke here, but we had a really nice time! The opening salvo of this discussion was a Morgon 2006 from Domaine de la Combe au Loups. Morgon is a “cru” of Beaujolais. “Cru” roughly means “growth” in French and is applied to areas of vineyards that historically produce grapes of a proven quality. This is NOT Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine to be enjoyed within the year of purchase. As it were, this 9-year-old bottle improved over the course of an hour, the red fruits becoming much brighter with some aeration, it was light and cheery and holding well. The color was also fairly rich, almost completely moved from a purplish, young-wine tint into an adult, stately garnet-red phase. Our second glass was one of Castelmaure’s “Une Autre Route” Collection, “Au Village sans Pretension,“ 2011. The winemakers wanted to focus on the flavors that the heavy sun of the Corbières appellation in southern France brings. There is no oak-aging to soften or structure things, just fermentation in glazed cement tanks that impart nothing to the wine. The varieties (carignan, 50% of the blend; grenache, 30%; and syrah, 20%) play their roles perfectly, the carignan ripe enough not to impose its heavy tannins that make a wine over-astringent, the grenache adding a touch of relative lightness, the syrah filling the glass with color and giving some body to fill the mouth. This was a 10-dollar bottle of wine that had my cohorts thinking 15 to 20. A real success: deep fruits, some nicoise olives, and none of it seemed forced or cloying. A very little bit bitter in the back of the throat (Which I think would denote a certain quality or ripeness of the grapes themselves – any wine-pros want to comment?) but it drank so well – for 10 dollars, a wine with some character? I’ll take it!
And If I had to choose a song to go with this, it would be this.
The 3rd bottle I brought was a Chateau Pierre-Bise 2009 Quartes de Chaume. What a color, only 6 years old and so golden!A wonderful wine. Quarte de Chaume is a tiny appellation, coming from the western-ish Loire River basin. On its 50ha ( roughly 123 acres) of schist and agglomerate soils sloped above the small Layon River, the grape chenin blanc suns itself until autumn when something wonderful happens – rot. Specifically Noble Rot, Botrytis cinerea. While the fugus’ spores are on the grapes all season; they germinate in the fall thanks to morning fog brought by the Layon. Once activated, the fungus is more thirsty than hungry, slurping the grapes’ water but only snacking on their sugar – the grapes are reduced to shriveled bags of syrup. The ugly, sticky, fuzzy fruit gets picked, pressed, and what little liquid slips out ferments into a wonderfully aromatic, bright but profound sweet wine. Noble Rot gives wines a savory, funky aspect (In the way that good honey is “savory,” and the band Parliment is funky) and an incredible concentration that one won’t find in unaffected wines.
Chenin blanc is already known for it’s honey notes, so that taste came to the fore on this wine. Wonderful body, lots of aromas that I can’t pinpoint, it sounds like this song on a late summer day. Minerality has a strong presence here, a flavor echoing the many sweet rieslings I’ve tasted. Whether that minerality is a result of metamorphic soils (Schist, or mostly slate for the rieslings) or if the fermentation of a sweet wine causes a “minerality,” I can’t say; and scientific research doesn’t have a definitive answer. Until I know, I’ll just enjoy it…
Drinking great wine affects people in predictable ways – they think, “One great bottle deserves another.” The motivations to open another excellent bottle can range from generosity and curiosity to pride and gluttony. Usually all of those are mixed together. In this case, “J’ accuse!” Thorsten of cultural pride, countering my suave French bottle with a bottle of 1976 Weingut Jos. Christoffel Jr. Christoffel-Prum from the lauded Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard. It’s a Beerenauslese, similar in sugar content and production to the previous wine.
And it tastes like… corked. Corked means that there is a chemical, 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (TCA), hiding in the cork closure of the bottle. While it sounds like a football cheer at UC Davis (“We’re gonna win ’em all / why don’t you throw the ball/ 2, 4, 6/ TRIIIIII-cholroanisole!”) it actually adulterates between 4 to 10 percent of cork-sealed wine bottles. Simply explained, TCA is the result of pre-existing fungus in the cork reacting with chlorinated cleaner at the cork factory. At very small concentrations, like ONE-PART-PER-TRILLION, it inhibits receptors in one’s nose and mutes the ability to smell that particular wine. At larger concentrations, like about 4 parts per trillion, it causes one to detect smells like wet cardboard in a wet basement of an old farm house in Michigan.
The TCA ruined the potential record of year and land that this bottle should have been. And it would have been amazing. As it were, a layer of muted aromas in the mouth gave way to a middle palate of MUUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHH, and an aftertaste of… dill. Dill that endured for over a minute. Pretty neat! Still, so close to the win, but TCA took it all away from us that evening.
Undaunted, Thorsten brought out a second fine bottle, this 1999 from Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl. This small bottle contained a riesling eiswein, or ice wine. Eiswein is produced from grapes that hang on the vine until the first good freeze of winter; then, harvesters start at any hour to pick the grapes which are immediately pressed. The icy grapes obviously have less liquid, and so yield a syrup that ferments into rich, complex, and sugary wine. Eisweins are sipping wines, one cannot drink too much of them, such is their concentration. This riesling eiswein came from one of the most reputable vineyards in Germany, Forster Ungeheuer. Five-hundred years ago its wines went to royalty. Initially, I still preferred the Quartes de Chaume to this one, favoring the French example’s roundness. But the intensity of riesling wine won me over, the acidic electricity of the riesling grape combining with the sweetness and chewy texture of the wine. The wine feels like this piece of music feels played loud.
The specter of Type-2 diabetes swirled around us, such was the sugar of these wines, but Thorsten had one more drop to pour, a 2013 Hummel Glückselligkeit. The wine comes from a German, Horst Hummel, living in southern Hungary, and replicates the “Trockenbeerenauslese” style of his homeland. Trockenbeerenauslese is German for, “I-drink-maple-syrup-right-from-the-bottle-this-wine-is-not-too-sweet.” Seriously, the TB style can be more concentrated than the above icewine, and comes from berries even more desiccated than those of the Quartes de Chaume or the 1976 Beerenauslese. While the bottle was sweet, I must admit it was young, and its flavor had not developed or even fully opened up after being put in bottle. It will be a very good wine, but it paled next to the others at this point. The other wines might have said, “Nice job, kid, keep working, you’ve got talent.”And so the tasting ended, all in good spirits after a friendly evening of international investigations. While no treaties were signed, amicable verbal agreements were warmly stated that we shall repeat the investigations soon, until we reach an accord among the participating members as to which nation produces the best sweet wines.
This might take a long time…