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Featured Wines: VOS Selections White Wine Tasting


A few weeks ago, I attended the VOS Selections Annual Portfolio Tasting featuring a few dozen vintners and several dozen wines, in New York City. As ever at these events, and regardless of how much you choose to spit out the wine rather than swallow it, palate fatigue eventually sets in, which makes the process of note-taking increasingly difficult. No one can taste 50 wines in a day without being reduced to the most perfunctory of opinions.

But even if you taste so much wine you can’t taste it any more (if you get my drift), you can learn a lot from attending a tasting. I love meeting wine-makers in person, hearing them talk about what grows on their land and how it goes into the bottle; especially when it comes to new and foreign markets, these conversations help me expand my knowledge and develop something of a wish-list for future visits to wine stores.

The following notes, then, are relatively basic and meant primarily to provide myself with a reference. But they may provide you with some pointers in the process.

AUSTRIA
I found myself tasting as much Riesling from Austria as from Germany, and particularly enjoyed those from Stadt Kremstal. The Stadt Krems Riesling 05 Steinterassen (“stone terraces”) comes from three small elevated vineyards to the west of the city of Krems. I found it to be as “pure as a winter stream” with golden delicious apple flavors up front and that crisp green apple on the back. The Stadt Krems Riesling 05 Grillenparz is named for a famed single vineyard, cooled by water rising from the Danube. With a more subtle nose than its predecessor, and with mineral notes to match those of the apples and pears, it’s unbelievably clean, emblematic of how Riesling can, at its best, offer something of almost surreal simplicity.
Rudi Pilcher is based in the Wachau village of Wösendorf, a little further west down the Danube from Krems. His 2005 Riesling Smaragd Kirchweg I found a little bubbly and sharp; I noticed equally high acidity in the 2005 Smaragd Achleiten (Smaragd is the highest grade in Wachau; Achleithen is the vineyard, of stone and rock). Pichler brought some of his 2001 Riesling Smaragd Terrassen, from very small parcels, and the extra years and late harvest had put something on this: it had a golden toasted apple aroma, and was starting to develop delicious caramel and toffee flavors. Most interesting of all Pichler’s wines was the Weissburgunder 05 Smaragd Kollmütz, which turns out to be Pinot Blanc under its Austrian guise. From vineyards about 1000ft above sea level, it too has high acidity. (Rudi told me he does not like fat wines, so “keeps them lively.” I can attest to that.) But it also had orange, pineapple and other tropical flavors. I loved it.
Finally (for Austria) I got to taste a Riesling from the Traisental region, where the limestone is clearly pronounced in the wine itself. The Neumayer Riesling 05 Rothenbart (“Red beard”) comes from a vineyard laden with iron and chalk, and it managed to balance the purity that seemed, at this tasting, to be an Austrian hallmark, with a very mineral, stony quality. The best, quite possibly, of both worlds and reason to look for Austrian Rieslings next time I’m in a good enough wine store.

A regal line-up of Rieslings from a royal German Rheinery.

GERMANY
I did check in with the Germans, though. From Hofgut Falkenstein in Saar, I found the Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spätlese 05 particularly interesting. “You get more pronounced fruits here,” I wrote. “Very acidic and deliciously zesty. Pears jump in with a certain joie de vivre.” (I must have been drinking!) Of the Niedermenniger Sonnenger Auslese 05, I noted that it was “slightly more golden. A touch sweeter on palate, and almost champagne-like in its bubbly enthusiasm.” Both these wines will retail somewhere around the $30 mark; given their quality, this appears well worth it.
From the Rheingau, which I typically prefer to the Mosel, I tried the Hallgartner Schonhell Erstes Gewachs 02 from the Fürst Löwenstein winery, which is far too many words of too much density for most people to follow. (No wonder German wines have had such a tough time in the modern international marketplace.) The wine-maker told me he believed this bottle had reached a “nice maturity” though I found it a little greener in the glass than I expected. I was more impressed with the Wisselbrunnen Erstes Gewachs 03, from a classified site, i.e. a German “First growth,” Very fruity and lively, with an enthusiasm that balanced the evident ripeness.

USA
Against this competition, it has to be said that, in switching continents, Dr. Frank’s Rieslings from New York’s Finger Lakes paled in comparison. The 2005 Dry Riesling was light and clear, and gave me that spring-water effect; the Semi-Dry Riesling 2005 had just a touch of sweetness up front, and was generally understated, which I liked. But there’s a difference between simplicity and purity, or perhaps I should say between plainness and beauty, and maybe you have to put a Finger Lakes Riesling right up against one from the better vineyards in Germany or Austria to see of what I mean.
I also tasted, for the first time, Dr Frank’s Celebre Sparkling Riesling, which was more like fizzy apples than a Champagne. And I stuck with Dr. Frank to taste the Chateau Frank Brut 98 Sparkling, which contains the same three grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay – as are grown in Champagne. (Previously, Frank figured this gave them license to actually call their sparkler a Champagne; I’m pleased to see they’ve come to their senses.) Yeasty and toasty, it’s very very lively. Did I mention that it’s yeasty? And lively? Anyway, I enjoyed it, but after the Riesling taste test, maybe Frank was fortunate I didn’t head over to the table pouring proper champagne for a comparison.
One wine that Frank was alone in pouring at the VOS tasting was its Rkatsiteli, a grape unknown to most people despite being, thanks to its dominance across the former Soviet states, one of the most widely planted grapes in the world. The 2006 Dr. Frank Rkatsiteli, only recently bottled, was certainly singing its own song. It’s a very light color, very nettle-like, with accompanying gooseberry flavors such as would normally have you thinking Loire Sauvignon Blanc. But it’s got a full palate. And while it’s a little green and vegetal there’s enough of substance to keep me interested. Watch for a fuller review in the near future.

GREECE
I made a mistake of attending the table full of Greek wines thinking that, after my visit to the country last year and the two superb bottles I brought home with me, I would learn more and taste even better. But the white wines on hand were both inexpensive and low quality, and in a couple of cases, completely cooked. Oh dear. I truly believe that Greece is one of the countries to watch in the wine world, but an opportunity was wasted at this particular tasting.

BURGUNDY
Far better to spend time with the expensive wines of Burgundy which no one can afford to leave out on a pallet somewhere to be cooked by the sun. Besides, there’s nothing like a portfolio presentation to learn about and taste wines that you otherwise can’t afford. From the renowned Henri Clerc, and from the heralded 2005 vintage, I tasted the Puligny-Montrachet, which I found overly creamy and buttery – not as oaky as California Chardonnays, but more dairy-like than I usually prefer. A Puligny-Montrachet Champ Gain 1er Cru was also very plump, while the Puligny-Montrachet Folatieres 1er Cru was more silky and suitable to my taste. In fairness, these are white wines made to last and, of course, they hail from another hot European summer; serve them with the right dish three years from now and it’s unlikely anyone will complain.
But either way, and given that we’re talking $50 a bottle wholesale, I prefer the wines from Meursault. (In fact, I’ve learned along the way that Meursault is my favorite Burgundy white wine; I think I’ve been generously disposed ever since Tom Jones insisted upon it in his rider.) From Domaine Jobard-Morey, and again tasting the ripe 05 vintage, the basic Meursault was softer than any of the Puligny-Montrachets, the Meursault Les Narvaux 05 was a little more lean, while the Meursault Charmes 1er Cru had a nose of incredible delicacy, “the very definition of finesse,” which put it just above the Meursault Poruzot 1er Cru in a taste test that was essentially hard to fault. Pour me any of these wines any time you like.

RHÔNE – RANGERS AND REAL

A curiosity: pure Grenache Blanc – from California. (And only 150 cases produced.)

On the same subject, though not necessarily with the same consistency of results, I will taste a Rhône ranger any time one wants to offer me one. Perhaps the most unexpected wine of the entire portfolio was the 100% Celadon Grenache Blanc Eden Valley from Topanga Vineyards in California. Grenache Blanc is not a grape you see much of outside of the Rhône, and almost anywhere it’s grown, it’s usually blended anonymously: bottling it individually is, quite frankly, ballsy. But in the hands of this new winery, raised in neutral barrels with lees stirring, it showed a lovely lemony aroma and solid body, more like a Northern Rhône white than a Southern. Very impressive, albeit as something of a novelty.
On the subject of Northern Rhône Rangers, the Torbreck 2005 MR from Australia’s Barossa Valley (and the same company behind the recently reviewed Juveniles red Rhône imitation) is an exact imitation of your northern Rhône blends, where Marsanne and Roussanne rule. This wine was very fruity, really quite delectable, more attractive in fact than the Marsanne-dominated Domaine Courbis St Joseph Blanc (also from the ’05 vintage) which had a fleshy aroma, and a real fatness to it that made me wonder about either the heat of the vintage or to question my usual fondness for the appellation. Then again, I may have just come to it with my palate dulled by the Domaine Paul Autard Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc 04, a blend of equal parts Grenache Blanc and Clairette, along with some Roussanne, and which I initially found so fleshy that I wondered if it hadn’t been oxidized. It hadn’t. But it had certainly seen its share of new oak. Like many a Rhône lover, I remain a little confused by the white Châteauneuf du Papes: the combination of the Provencal heat and the old work-horse grapes only rarely delivers a wine of elegance rather than power. At the prices they command, I prefer heading lower down the chain for the white wines, and saving my Châteauneuf du Pape money for the reds.

Ah yes, the reds. There were, of course, plenty red wines at the VOS Tasting and I made sure to taste my fill. More of these in part 2.

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