June 12, 2020
If the current state of the world has you filled with foreboding, you
could chalk up the arrival of fabulous Pinot Noir from Germany to global
warming. Or, if you’re trying to be upbeat about things, you could
attribute this happy surprise to German craftsmanship. If you’re
feeling even-handed, you could credit both, which probably makes sense.
But in any case, though few American wine lovers have yet to experience
the wines directly, Pinot Noirs from Germany have arrived at a point
quite near the peak of the global quality pyramid.
I’ve been enjoying some of the better examples for about a decade at
this point, and also taking devilish pleasure in inserting them in blind
tasting classes at Capital Wine School as well as private tastings for
law firms and other clients around my home in D.C. Pinots from the
likes of Meyer-Näkel routinely mop the floor with top Premier Cru
Burgundies when tasted sight-unseen, which is fun to witness in its own
right, but not quite as fun as seeing big-shot lawyers glaze over in
amazement when the wines are revealed after a vote.
I’ve hesitated to write much about this phenomenon for the good reason
that very few bottles make it to the USA. However, after tasting
through a set of four standout current releases from a major national importer, Vineyard Brands, I’ve finally broken down.
The mind-blowing leader of this four-pack is August Kesseler (Rheingau, Germany) Assmannshäusen Höllenberg GG Pinot Noir 2016, with a suggested price of $203 and 97 Points
in my carefully considered assessment. This is one of the most
remarkable renditions of Pinot Noir that I’ve tasted over the past five
years, and just for context, that span would include tastings of well
over 1,000 bottles made from that variety.
Beyond being striking for a German Pinot, it embodies a couple of
characteristics that make it a sort of archetype for Pinot per
se…alongside the likes of Musigny or La Tache from Burgundy (stop
laughing…I’m serious). First, it almost perfectly exemplifies an
uncanny combination of “flavor without weight,” an attribute that
transcends even the descriptors “delicacy” or “elegance” that are often
attached to Pinot. My friend and WRO colleague Michael Apstein and I
employ this tasting term occasionally after one of us coined it while we
were enjoying dinner together at Ferran Adrià’s legendary restaurant
“El Bulli” in Catalonia—the place that made “culinary foam” famous (and
infamous). If the term doesn’t seem to make sense to you in relation to
wine, it definitely will after you taste this bottle.
Second, when evaluating young wines—especially Riesling and Pinot Noir—I
place very high value on “purity” of fruit. This does not refer to a
wine that is “simple,” showing fruit and nothing else, but rather to a
pure core of fruit flavor in a wine that enables other accent notes to
display themselves against a perfectly un-tainted background. This wine
is an object lesson in purity, showing ripe, red cherry flavors that
are as impeccable as they are alluring. Subtle accents of spices and
some nascent savory undertones are also evident, but everything speaks
softly in this wine, including the wood and tannins.
No doubt the growing site had a major role in the wine’s sophistication,
as the very steep, slate-strewn Assmannshäusen Höllenberg vineyard
and its very old vines is a renowned site for Pinot, a variety that
comprises fully 40% of Kesseler’s production (which may be surprising
for the majority of wine lovers who think of the Rheingau almost
exclusively as a source for Riesling).
With the vineyard’s excellence noted, excellent cellar work is also
evident, both in what the wine shows and what it doesn’t show.
Regarding the utter absence of any astringency from stem or seed
tannins, it seems that this wine results from the lightest possible
pressing, or that the juice for this particular bottling wasn’t pressed
at all, as opposed to being made just from the free-run juice freed by
the weight of the grapes themselves in a recaption bin. Based on the
wine’s “feel,” I’d guess that--if it was pressed at all—it was by
butterflies who had inhaled helium. Phenomenally sleek and graceful,
this is quintessentially “feminine” Pinot, and I only wish I had another
bottle to see how it will age as tertiary notes from time in bottle add
complexities to this almost ethereal wine.
Obviously a price tag of $203 is going to scare off a lot of wine
lovers, even those who are open to the idea that German Pinot deserves
mention alongside the elite from Burgundy. So, next in line from Kesseler is the 2015 “Cuvée Max,” $120 and scored at 93 Points.
This is a bigger, riper, more structured wine with more oak and grip.
I’m certain that some tasters who value flavor impact above delicacy
will actually prefer this bottling to the Assmannshäusen Höllenberg
2016, so if you fit that description, go for this if you’re lucky enough
to find a bottle.
The best value in the lineup is the straight 2014 Pinot Noir, with suggested pricing at $61 and earning a score from me of 93 Points.
The fruit is assembled from steel sites in the villages of Lorch,
Assmannshäusen and Rüdesheim, and it shows wonderful purity and
freshness and a very high ratio of flavor to weight. I really recommend
decanting this wine and giving it plenty of air by swirling one’s
glass, which enables a host of little complexities to emerge over the
course of a couple of hours…provided you can muster the patience to keep
from polishing it off sooner than that.
The entry-level offering in the Kesseler Pinot lineup is called “The Daily August” 2017, priced at $27 and scoring a solid 90 Points.
It is significantly “juicier” and more overt in its charms that its
stablemates, but still, there’s no mistaking this for the sort of
Pinot/Syrah juice that is increasingly common from California (which can
be delicious…to be fair…but is definitely not made by butterflies
buzzed on helium). Fruity and fun but still with impressive
sophistication, this is a relatively affordable way to get a sense of
Germany’s emerging Pinot prowess….
June 2, 2020
Scattered Peaks is the pet project of Derek Benham, an avid surfer ("scattered peaks" is a surfing term that describes sets of waves) and a bit of a daredevil in his private life. When it comes to wine, however, Benham is all business.
His company, Purple Wines, has forged a reputation for solid wines at modest prices with brands such as Raeburn, Four Vines and Avalon. The company sources grapes from the Central Coast of California to Sonoma County's Russian River Valley.
A few years ago, Benham decided he wanted to have a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and launched Scattered Peaks in 2015. A couple of years later, in a stroke of genius, he hired longtime Napa Valley winemaker Joel Aiken to oversee the project. Aiken had spent more than a quarter-century making wine at the iconic Beaulieu Vineyards before striking out on his own several years ago.
Aiken's first vintage was 2017. He made a Napa Valley Cabernet ($40) using grapes from one of his favorite appellations, Rutherford, blended with grapes from the nearby Pope Valley (a sub-appellation of the Napa Valley) and a few other spots. It's a beautifully structured Napa Cab that's a steal considering the price of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon these days.
But the real news was the launch of a small-lot program with the 2017 vintage, which was off to a great start. The grapes are sourced from two very special vineyards, the iconic Morisoli Vineyard in Rutherford and the Sage Ridge Vineyard near Pritchard Hill, at the base of Howell Mountain. Only 900 six-packs (450 cases) were produced, and the wine retails for $125.
It's a sensational Napa Cabernet that will give the likes of Spottswoode, Stag's Leap, Cakebread and Duckhorn a run for their money. Better yet, plans are in the works to produce a separate wine from each vineyard.
"It's a fun project," said Aiken. "They say get the grapes you want and make the wine you want."
When your winemaker's name is Joel Aiken, that's sound advice.