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August 12, 2020

Fall and Rise of Alsace Riesling, with Cases in Point from Gustave Lorentz

For the first decade of my work as a wine writer, I probably devoted more columns in The Washington Post to Riesling from Alsace than any other grape from any other region.  I believed then--as I do now--that Riesling is the world’s greatest white wine grape variety, for a whole slew of reasons.  However, the general wine consuming public never really took to Riesling, and I made it my business to tell them repeatedly that they were missing out on something fabulously delicious and food-friendly.

Riesling is grown and vinified in many places around the world, but from the mid-1994 until 2005, when I was writing for the Post before leaving to help launch Wine Review Online, Alsace was the primo place of origin for someone like me who was bent on hooking readers on Riesling.  German renditions were marvelous but their labels and designations were dauntingly complicated and often too sweet for most consumers to use without specific pairing instructions.  Austrian Rieslings were just becoming available.  Australia made great Rieslings, but nobody here was interested in anything but Shiraz, so importers rarely brought the wines to our shores.

Washington and Oregon were just cranking up production, as were the Canadians in British Columbia and Ontario (all of which are now making wonderful Rieslings, along with Michigan and New York’s Finger Lakes).  California Rieslings could be found fairly easily, but most of them were pretty boring, as there’s just too much sun and heat in most of the Golden State to make the sleek, zesty style that most effectively lures wine lovers into Riesling World.

That left Alsace, which made reasonably priced wines that were essentially dry, widely available, fairly priced, and terrific with all sorts of foods.  This last virtue made them my “go-to” whites for Thanksgiving, and I never let a year go by without using that national occasion to preach the Alsace Riesling gospel.

But then, about a decade ago, things took multiple turns, and not in good directions for Rieslings from Alsace.  Dry Rieslings started appearing in serious numbers from Germany, partly because of a change in drinking fashions in that nation, and partly due to climate change lowering acidity and undercutting the need to leave residual sugar in the wines to balance them.  Weirdly, many winemakers in Alsace started leaving more sugar in their Rieslings even as the Germans were moving in the opposite direction, which was a bad move both commercially and stylistically, in my opinion.  Austria started sending a lot of dry or barely off-dry renditions, and this is also when Rieslings from Washington, Oregon, Canada, New York and Australia got a lot better and a lot easier to find.

To be sure, exemplary producers like Trimbach never strayed from dry style Rieslings, nor did they ever miss a beat on quality.  But the category of Alsace Riesling as a whole slipped badly, moving from a commanding position to just another choice among many, and a dicey choice at that, since the sweetness one would get from any particular bottle was no longer a predictable matter.

I honestly do not know how much this decline from “indispensable” to “also ran” actually hurt vintners' bottom lines in Alsace, where tourism tends to prop everything up.  But I do know that--somehow--the message got through, as Rieslings from Alsace have become notably drier and more consistently excellent in the past few years.

Among the houses that stands as a case in point regarding this positive development is Gustave Lorentz.  Rieslings from this house were still rather unremarkable within the last decade, but tasting through the current releases a week ago showed marked improvement.  The four wines below were all quite different from one another, yet all showed excellent quality in their style...and also in relation to their asking prices.  If you haven't tasted anything lately from this producer, do yourself a favor and circle back to them.  Imported by Quintessential, they are widely available, at least by Riesling standards:

Gustave Lorentz Riesling “Réserve” 2019 ($25):  This is very complex and classy for a straight Alsace AOC Riesling, showing good density but excellent freshness and balance.  The fruit is showy and ripe, but the acidity provides very good linear energy.  This combination makes for an exceptionally versatile wine that’s easily up to the challenge of roasted chicken or pork, but fresh enough to enjoy with delicate fin fish dishes.  92

Gustave Lorentz Riesling Vieilles Vignes “Evidence” 2018 ($25):  This organic, old vines “Evidence” bottling is leaner and racier than the standard-issue “Réserve” bottling from this house, with a touch more aromatic complexity.  I tasted the two side by side over the course of several hours, but couldn’t ultimately give one or the other a higher score, as the greater richness of the “Réserve” is so well balanced that it provides every bit as much pleasure if not quite the same level of “fine-ness.”  If the two gave me a bit of trouble as a critic, they’ll give you two excellent options as a consumer.  Very impressive.  92

Gustave Lorentz Grand Cru Kanzlerberg Riesling 2017 ($70):  I haven’t tasted this wine for at least five vintages, which makes me very sad about the releases that I missed.  It offers wonderfully complex aromas, with subtle floral topnotes and lovely lemon crème scents, followed by richer fruit flavors recalling tangerine above all, and then excellent minerality riding right alongside the fruit in the finish.  The acidity is abundant but perfectly integrated with the fruit, and in overall terms, every aromatic and flavor note seems perfectly proportioned in this impressively harmonious wine.  Truly, a thing of beauty.  94

Gustave Lorentz Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim Riesling Vieilles Vignes 2016 ($65):  I opened this wine and tasted it alongside this house’s 2017 Grand Cru Kanzlerberg (as well as three other Lorentz Rieslings) for a long and very pleasant evening, and then again over several subsequent days while they were refrigerated but unsealed.  Although I did not admire the overtly sweet "Burg” 2017 bottling (which isn't imported to the USA), all of the others were exceptionally fine in their individuated ways.  The Battle of the Grands Crus ended up in a dead heat, though the wines are utterly different.  This release from the beautiful and formidable Altenberg de Bergheim vineyard is very rich and quite dramatic, with lots of palate weight as well as very expressive aromatics with a pleasant undertone of botrytis that fits nicely with the ripe profile of the fruit.  This is certainly the fleshpot of the two, with the ’17 Kanzlerberg showing a much more cool, reserved, mineral character.  The fact that this house could turn our two beauties with such different profiles is impressive.  94

Posted by Michael Franz at 1:54 PM

August 2, 2020

Welcoming Miranda Franco to Wine Review Online

Please join me in welcoming Miranda Franco, who joins WRO this week as a regular wine reviewer.  Miranda has many personal strengths, including a sharp mind and an energetic character, but most important from the perspective of our readers, she has a boundless love of wine and one of the most perceptive palates I’ve encountered in recent years.

I’ve known Miranda for five or six years now, tasting regularly with her in classes I conduct at Capital Wine School in D.C.  We work through a dozen wines per evening during those classes, usually tasting “blind,” and I always ask everyone to register an evaluation of each wine before I say anything myself.  It turns out that Miranda and I agree much more often than we disagree about the merits of particular wines, but that’s less important than the fact that she invariably assesses their attributes clearly and accurately.  Also quite telling is the fact that she’s a fearless blind taster…and one who is frighteningly good at guessing grape varieties and regions of origin, based solely on her sensory powers and capabilities for recall.

Having “courage of one’s convictions” is a necessary attribute for a critic in any field, whether we’re talking about movies or art or wine.  But, of course, blowhards have more than enough of this attribute, even as they lack modesty and a drive to accumulate knowledge.  By contrast, Miranda is quite modest—but also utterly resolute in building her knowledge and inventory of tasting experiences. 

Her drive to learn has been manifested since 2014 in the education and certification programs of the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust, the Society of Wine Educators and the Napa Wine Academy.  As for accumulating tasting experiences, she has traveled to many of the classic regions in the USA and Europe, and just as impressively, her searches for new frontiers in wine have taken her to Mexico, Croatia, Hungary, Argentina, Morocco, Chile and the Azores. 

Miranda holds an M.A. from The Johns Hopkins University and, by day, is Senior Policy Advisor in the Washington, D.C. law office of Holland & Knight.  She also participates in a range of charitable and professional organizations, and serves as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for the D.C. foster care system.

We are delighted that Miranda is joining Wine Review Online, and are certain that you’ll enjoy the wines she steers you toward from our “Reviews” page each week.  Her first three reviews appear below, to assure that you get a sense of what her bright future holds in store for all of us.  Wineries, importing companies or readers can contact Miranda at: 

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Gai’a Estate, Santorini (Cyclades, Greece) Assyrtiko “Thalassitis” 2018 ($35):  Gai’a (pronounced Yay-ya) Estate’s 2018 Assyrtiko Santorini “Thalassitis” has sea salt and lemon zest aromas that immediately transport you to the beaches of Santorini.  The wine is seriously thirst-quenching, with the perfect amount of juiciness and crisp acidity that are needed to foil these hot summer days.  It has the distinct minerality you’d expect from a volcanic island with a briny edge.  The delicate lemon, lime, and honeysuckle flavors give it a bright and lingering finish.     

R. Lopez de Heredia, Rioja DOC Gran Reserva (La Rioja) “Viña Tondonia” Rosé 2009 ($125):  This is not your typical rosé.  For starters, it is over ten years old, which is worth emphasizing and spends four years in an oak barrel.  Notably, it is not released every year.  This unique wine made me fall in love (and become slightly obsessed) with the wines of Lopez de Heredia.  I had the pleasure of trying this wine in a different vintage a few years ago, and continue to seek it out in any vintage I can find. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to get your hands on, but it’s entirely worth the effort.  It is distinctive with the strong character of an aged wine, offering flavors of orange peel, tarragon, dried cherry, and almond.  It’s unusually complex for any wine, let alone a rosé, compelling you to pour another glass.  Blended from Garnacha 60%, Tempranillo 30% and Viura 10%, it still holds a good amount of acidity, showing some promise to age for a few more years -- if you can hold on to it for that long.  96

Rasa Vineyards, Columbia Valley (Washington) Petit Verdot Dionysus Vineyard “Living in the Limelight” 2016 ($60):  Rasa Vineyards has an outstanding selection of terroir-driven wines.  The “Living in the Limelight” Petit Verdot may not be one of their flagship wines, but it should not be ignored.  “Living in the Limelight” is an ode to the often-overlooked Petite Verdot grape.  This wine demonstrates that Petit Verdot is not merely a minor blending grape.  This blend of 95% Petit Verdot, 2.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2.5% Cabernet Franc gushes with blackcurrant, black plum, and blackberry with a dash of black pepper and clove.  Smooth, and complete.  Enjoy it now or in years to come.  93

Posted by Michael Franz at 10:19 AM