Wine knowledge, or gaining an understanding of wine, is like marriage. You have to pay close attention to detail, be open-minded, have patience and persistence, hang in there and endure the long haul. Wine must be a lifelong companion, a soul-mate, a best friend. You may never know everything about your partner but at least you will die trying.
I know everything and nothing about wine. I know more than I did 10 years ago but I could study, read, taste, listen and experience 50 years more and still I would know so little. How great is that? What is so fascinating is the conviction and utter certainty so many professionals in the wine world proclaim what they think and feel about grapes, where they should be grown and how great wine can only be made if cultivated in very specific places. Conviction is admirable and opinions change. Experience is key.
Canadian wine writers seem hell-bent on insisting that specific wine regions and Ontario in particular, must specialize on specific grape varieties. Evan Saviolidis recently wrote this demonstrative headline, “Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the signature varietals of Prince Edward County.” Nothing shocking about that but it insists that all else might best be left alone. Niagara’s Rick VanSickle will find a way to endorse the region’s diverse best but he’s also pragmatic when it comes to vintage variation. ”Show me a great 2008 red wine from Niagara and I’ll show you someone who lost their shirt making it.” Rick does not wear rose-coloured glasses. Enthusiastic for sure but not an eternal optimist. Mike Di Caro believes in four grapes for Ontario; Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that “consistently produce the best wines that we have to offer.” Now he’s even more adamant that specific growing areas within the region need to micro-specialize. He’s not wrong.
Which brings me to Riesling. Last week I was fortunate to be included in the Brock University Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute’s Riesling Experience 2013, an international celebration of style, structure and purity. CCOVIBrockU Manager, Continuing Education and Outreach Barbara Tatarnic and Riesling Chair Angelo Pavan of Cave Spring Vineyard brought together producers, trade, media and wine enthusiasts from Canada, the US and around the world for lectures, tastings and discussion on all things Riesling. Opinions were strong, anti-diffident and full of matter.
Cornell University Sensory Researcher Terry Acree runs a lab concerned with discovering “how stimulant composition is represented in perception.” Acree’s first bold statement: “Olfaction as the most important part of wine is nonsense.” What? Acree insists that taste carries more weight, which will come as a surprise and a relief to the novice wine drinker. The following statement, not so much. “If you can’t tell the difference between Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris you have a biological problem.” That’s harsh.
For Riesling, Acree focuses on chemicals that correspond to the strongest identified smells, the most important and prevalent of which is TDN (Trimethyldihydronaphthalene). TDN the chemical or diesel/petrol the sensation as an “odour strength (Damascenone) as related to by human subjects.” In order for the wine taster to “experience” these sensations, two things have to be there. “Memories of different kinds of features and features themselves.” That said, Acree believes you can only smell three things at once, a notion he borrows from M.F.K. Fisher.
Acree sees odour as “an evolutionary human response to history.” If you have never come into contact with a banana, you will never smell banana in Chardonnay. TDN is the dominant aroma and where Riesling grows, more sunlight means more fruit and more TDN. TDN is a precursor but its prevalence does not necessarily increase as a wine ages. A very common theme when nosing an aged Riesling is to comment on the secondary aromatic emergence of a gas or petrol note. Acree believes that identifying increased petrol notes in aged Riesling is a bit of a misnomer. It had to already be there. “I’m just inventing a new, confusing way to discuss minerality,” he concludes. Job well done.
Nik Weis of St. Urbans Hof Family Estate Winery from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer in Germany speaks in superlatives and makes no concessions when it comes to his passion for crafting world-class Riesling. When I asked him if he has considered or would ever consider planting any other grape variety in the Mosel his response was an emphatic, “no, but I will drink plenty of Loire Sauvignon Blanc in the Mosel.”
Weis came to Brock to speak on the ageability of Riesling. Mike Di Caro and I spoke last night at the Stop Night market about Ontario Riesling and we agreed that sugar levels are both arbitrary and unpredictable so Niagara’s best is and should be of the dry variety. This follows the Weis doctrine. “Sugar levels build longer chains as they age and wine achieves more balance, creamy viscosity, savoury sweetness and can be considered dry despite having 25 grams per litre of residual sugar.” Niagara Riesling does not share these luxuries. There are exceptions, most notably from Vineland Estates St. Urban Vineyard (go figure) but the Mosel it is not.
The Mosel’s soil is built for growing Riesling, it is the catalyst that effects the metabolism of the grape and the sugar levels inherent in the wine. “The grape is nothing but the reproductive organ of the vine” and “every bottle is an isotope on its own,” says Weis. He adds “cool climate vines develop flavours, not simply sugars.” So Niagara’s got that going for it, which is nice.
Nik Weis finished off with a cork versus screwcap moment and his candor was very refreshing. “In my opinion, cork does not breath. If it did, wine would leak.” He announced an unequivocal support for cap closures. Concerning corks, “it’s like wearing a tuxedo when you go to the opera. That’s the only difference.”
Two sets of two St. Urbans Hof Rieslings were poured, intended to highlight a ten-year separation of wines from the same vineyard. Here are my (brief) notes:
Riesling Spätlese Laurentiuslay 2011 is precocious in its clearly defined, sugared entry and dry finish for such a young late harvest wine. Ripe peach, peach blossom and a spit of TDN go long and desiccant to bring you back for the next sip. 90-91
Riesling Spätlese Laurentiuslay 2001 has intensified in hue of green/gold patina, aromas of soda and diesel and flavours of orchard fruit. Fine, fine feinherb. 92
Riesling Auslese Bockstein 2009 reverses the sweet/dry continuum by sniffing medicinal and parched, gathering steam from ripe, tangy tree fruit and slowly emerging sweetly sapid. Mortally young to assess. 92-93
Riesling Auslese Bockstein 1999 has released a plethora of aromatics; pungent spice such as caraway and cardamom, ground peppercorn and tempering sweet honeysuckle. Freshness has not been lost and yet the sugars have lengthened to present a baked play of thirsty words. 94
Here are my notes on three of the 14 Niagara Rieslings tasted at lunch:
Stoney Ridge Cellars 2009 (winery, $15.95) resides in a middle ground between TDN and ripe, juicy fruit. Magnetic and luring, even-keeled and oblate like the ground it comes from in Niagara-on-the-Lake. 89
Fielding Estate 2011 (251439, $18.95) today seems wistful and dreamy, leaning Alsace in nut tones. “Well here we go again, steady as she goes,” Richie’s Riesling strikes a power chord and begins to sing like a raconteur with great energy. From my earlier note, “jumps out like a thunder crack with an instant emergence of gassy soda, lime and stone fruit. The citrus remains in attack mode and “her brains they rattle and her bones they shake.” Does the “jump back jack” and dances all around in the mouth, on the tongue and down the hatch. Very long persistence, almost glycerin in texture which for NP Riesling is simply awesome.” 90
Flat Rock Cellars 2012 (43281, $16.95) continues to hit all the right notes. What dry Riesling in Ontario has to be. Sodaliscious and stone cold. Winemaker Jay Johnston got the memo. From my earlier note, “is a single varietal conundrum, intensely dry, dusty yet dripping in grape concentration. Huge soda nose, I mean a crazy proboscis. Love the dry entry and off-dry tangent. Twenty Mile Bench issue reminiscent of Rheinhessen. Admirable length and trebled finish.” 90
The Riesling-friendly luncheon was followed by a presentation from Kathy Cannon, Director, Wines and VINTAGES from the LCBO who discussed the place for Ontario Rieslings on the world’s stage. Ms. Cannon spoke to a room of wine geeks in a nomenclature normally reserved for an unwitting class. There was an unspoken imprecation in the room and fortunately no effrontery or sloughing. The group listened to hopeful if arguable statements like “customers are moving to sweeter wines and Riesling is well-positioned for that growth” and “a great opportunity is there to position Ontario Riesling in VINTAGES. It is well represented.” Back to Nik Weis.
Weis is a walking shelf-talker. He is happy to say that a semi-dry Riesling is all you need for breakfast. The sugar wakes you up, the acidity enervates you and the alcohol makes you feel good, but not drunk. If it’s a young Riesling the CO2 helps send minerals and the “good stuff’ faster through your blood. “Riesling is better than an isotonic sports drink.”
On the subject of organics and biodynamics, Weis noted “if you feed a vine artificial fertilizer, it will get nutrition but it will not be happy. It needs decomposition, deconstructed materials, organics, even dead animals.” On the topic of TDN, “petrol in a strong way in a wine is a fault, like too much wood or alcohol.” Too much TDN is a result of too much dry soil, too much warmth in the climate and possibly too much defoliation. “It’s not a clonal issue,” says Weis, “Riesling takes forever to mutate.” I sure hope the Aussies are not listening.
Good to go!