This was the section our teachers warned us about. Mostly because, well if you haven’t heard Germans don’t speak English and the language they do speak sounds really weird. Its worth the trip though – if only for the wine served in a bottle shaped like a goat scrotum.
Its not easy growing grapes in Germany and Eastern Europe. Its cold and sometimes quite dreary. With a little perseverance, German fortitude and more Phd’s than you can shake a riding corp at, you can grow a lot of wonderful white wine, some digestible reds and come up with really unique wines rarely appreciated in the New World.
We began our tour with some photographs that illustrate the spirit of German wine growing. In order to maximize sun exposure, some of the greatest vineyards exist on steep slopes, facing the sun and a river beneath to catch reflected light. When I say steep, I mean so steep they have to hire Polish peasants, lash them to the hillside and gradually lower them down to pick the grapes. There is even a quaint wine named for the monk who was thrown down one of the vineyards. Miraculously he survived hitting the bottom – though badly bruised and broken, causing the locals to be even more pissed at him. They had to kill him with their bare hands. Funny people the Germans.
But they are also serious about their education. It seems it not uncommon to find the term Doctor on a German bottle of wine. I even found a Doctor Doctor – referring to both the grape grower and the wine maker. They don’t’ have Phd’s in wine, they just have Phd’s in something. Part of that whole European educatin’ thingy I mentioned earlier. Germans = smart!
As I recall that first class was also the night of bracing acidity, or as the flesh in my mouth remembers it “Auhghghgnggg.” You see the Germans grow very sweet white grapes. They don’t always ripen completely and tend to produce extraordinary acidity. Given the sweetness of the wine you’re not always aware that you’ve just swished with a few tablespoons of tartaric acid. You have to notice the salivation on the sides of your tongue to really identify the dangerous ground you’re walking. As I write this all of the soft tissue in my mouth is shuddering with the trauma of that night. Each glass of wine stripped away another layer of flesh. When I looked at my throat in the mirror that night, I could make out the subtle outline of my spinal column.
In truth these were beautiful wines made by masters of balancing sweetness with acidity. Forget the crappy bottle of Blue Nun you got sick on in high school, there are many gems to be had here. It really is so foreign to our palates its difficult to convey how a wine can be sweet, achingly acidic, light and complex. These wines are the natural partners of a heavy German meal. Bratwurst was made for these wines. More than a few “red wine only” students were converted to white wine groupies by this course.
One of the unique wines we discussed at length was a Sommelier’s secret weapon, Austrian Gruner Veltliner. This is a varietal of unique versatility and food friendly joviality. Its magical touch seems equally at home with difficult foods like asparagus or eggs and broad combinations – as in a “classic surf and turf” (I had one with salmon and pork ribs recently.) Reasonably priced it can be an answer to some very difficult food pairings.
By the way, speaking of food pairings, it turns out this whole time I was supposed to be memorizing wines to pair with various foods. Those of you familiar with the story of Mark Twain will recall that his first trip down the Mississippi as an apprentice river boat pilot he was told endless details about the depth, currents and character of the mighty river. Turned out he was supposed to be taking notes, rather than enjoying them as quaint travel log tid-bits. Like Twain I blithely enjoyed all of the information about pairings without realizing its importance. Luckily it would only cost me one nigh of sleep and about 1/2 inch of hairline. More on this later.
I was delighted to discover more opportunities to enjoy sweet wines in this course, two of which please not only the palate but also the need for a good tale. Imagine you’re a King about to wed a Princess from another land. What gifts of wine might you expect to match the stature of your occasion? How about a case of 200 year old Eszencia Tokaji (Toe-k-eye) to start things off? Growing wine in Hungary can’t be easy. Its a cold land, prone to mold and rot. Some of these vinicultural diseases can have a magical affect on grapes – in this case we’re talking about botrytis. Imaging a fungi that gradually decimates the strength of the grape skin, causing liquid to slowly evaporate and flavors usually extracted from the skin by maceration (soaking the grape juice with the grape skins) to slowly infuse themselves into the now syrupy grape juice. What remains after botrytis has had its way looks more like weathered black olives with a healthy dusting of mold than grapes or raisins. When pressed however the gold that flows forth is rich, exotic and mind blowingly sweet.
The Hungarians are not the only ones to make use of botrytis to increase the sweetness and character of grape juice. The French have perfected the use of botrytis in Sauturnes. Tokaji however has something unique to offer the world of botrytis lovers. Centuries ago peasants were roaming the Csars vineyards, plucking individual grapes mauled by this noble rot and carefully placing them in baskets. Before the basket would get too full the workers rushed back to the winemaking building and dumped their precious harvest into a large stone container. As the weight of added grapes increased they pressed themselves, releasing through holes in the bottom of their vat the “eszencia” or first flow.
This juice is so overwhelmingly sweet it can take a decade to ferment only a few percent of the sugar. By the time you’ve opened that 200 year old bottle of wine its probably just about ready. There are lesser qualities of Tokaji which we were able to taste. The best way I can describe it would be the transition from black and white in the Wizard of Oz to technicolor. The sweetness seems to preserve flavors in the wine like notes of an orchestra captured forever in a bottle. There are subtleties in there, of a sunny day following a cold damp night. The memory of must, a bright moon and crisp morning frost.
Speaking of frost how about harvesting grapes in late December, after midnight with bare hands? Sounds like a ring of hell Satan would set up for French vintners who add too much Merlot to their blends. Its the method for making Eiswein. Similar in taste to botrytis, Eiswein achieves its sweetness by freezing grapes on the vine – at least 3 nights of sub-zero temperatures. When the grapes are finally pressed in the chill of a winters night much of the water is left as frozen crystals, while the sweetest nectar is captured for fermentation. Equally as luscious as Tokaji it has its own sense of unique character. The Canadians do a good job of this too.
* If you don’t mind searching an Anbaugebiete (wine region) for your QBA (sort of like an AOC) for your favorite kabinette (sugar rating) Reisling, Germany has some amazing wines that are exceptionally affordable.
* Spatburgunder, Blaufrankish, Weisburgnder, Grauburgunder – can you spot the French grape varietals? Pinot Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris!
* There’s got to be a Doctor Doctor Doctor wine out there. When I find it I’ll get it for my Dad who is only a Doctor Doctor.