August 2008

Terry Theise, the irrepressible importer of German, Austrian and grower-Champagne wines, writes and speaks about wine beautifully. I recently posted about wine vocabulary and prose and neglected to mention Terry’s rare style. He certainly uses the current arsenal of comparisons to fruit, rocks, and flowers, but he also conjures up neat analogies and beautiful imagery. 

For instance, regarding top vineyard sites he said, “I like to say that Grand Cru vineyards are the earth’s erogenous zones. They are special places that tingle when sunlight hits them.” He believes that the more birdsong heard while walking in a vineyard, the more of a trill will be found in the wine. He describes Riesling as “birdlike” — it “sings and flies.”

I recently attended a seminar titled, “Why Terroir Matters,” held at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It was mc’d by Terry and the panel included four talented Riesling producers: Johannes Hirsch, Christine Saahs, Johannes Leitz, and Helmut Donnhoff. I was very excited to attend this seminar, not only because I have a lot to learn about the many vineyards devoted to Riesling in Germany and Austria, but also because I love a good lecture! Listening to a lecture/discussion among experts and taking notes is what I loved most about school, and I wish that sort of academic approach was applied to wine more often. At any rate, this seminar did not disappoint me. 

Terry opened by saying that this would not be a defense of the existence of terroir.  He believes (rightly so) that we should move beyond debating its existence, and instead discuss what about it is interesting. He started this discussion with his personal definition of terroir: “A cause and effect relationship between soil components and wine flavors for which no other explanation seems possible.” The New Oxford American Dictionary supplies this definition: “The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.

Terry and the winemakers kept making the point that they do very little to the grapes, juice and wine to determine the final outcome. To further elucidate what they meant, he made a series of analogies: the vineyard determines the text and the winemaker chooses the font; the vineyard writes the music and the winemaker conducts; the vineyard gives birth and the winemaker is a midwife. 

Winemaking is simply the preservation of flavor, rather than the creation of it.  Finally, he emphasized that terroir should not be used interchangeably with the term, “minerality.” The terroir signature could be expressed as minerality, but is not limited to that — it could also be expressed as fruit or flowers or anything.  Whatever the signature may be, it only matters that it is repeated vintage to vintage and cellar to cellar. 

Johannes Hirsch, of Weingut Hirsch in the Kamptal region of Austria spoke next. He described terroir as a “special fingerprint.” To highlight the difference between his vineyards, Heiligenstein and Gaisberg, he poured wines from each from the 2003 and 2006 vintages. It was an excellent opportunity to see what sort of signature or footprint a vineyard leaves on a wine year after year. Both Heiligensteins were smoky, incense-like, and tightly wound.  The Gaisbergs were fruity, floral, and open.

Christine Saahs, of Weingut Nikolaihof in the Wachau region of Austria, had a unique perspective on terroir. Because she farms her vineyards biodynamically, she sees terroir and biodynamischer landbau as completely intertwined.  One could argue that she has restored her land to its most natural state, which is possibly the fullest expression of terroir.  She showed three wines from the Steiner Hund vineyard, from three different vintages (2002, 2003, 2005).  The wines were all very different from each other, and I’m afraid they showed vintage variation more than vineyard signature without having another of her vineyards to compare to Steiner Hund.  If I could generalize, I’d say they all had a steeliness, with floral notes.

Johannes Leitz, of Weingut Josef Leitz in the Rheingau region of Germany, made the point that “everything” has terroir. If white asparagus tastes differently from village to village, why not wine? He showed wine from three different vineyards, all from 2007 vintage. Here too, it was difficult to suss out the vineyard signature without comparison to another vineyard.  The Berg Kaisersteinfels Alte Reben and the Berg Roseneck Spatlese shared a smokiness, and they apparently share quartzite soil, albeit at different elevations. The honeyed nose of the Berg Schlossberg Spatlese showed that this slate covered vineyard was affected by botrytis, something not shared by the other two wines.  But these distinctions were not quite as pronounced as the examples from Hirsch, and above all the Leitz wines shared, regardless of vineyard, a sumptuous peach aroma and rich sweetness.

Helmut Donnhoff, of the Donnhoff estate in the Nahe region of Germany, impressed me greatly. He possessed a wisdom and a sense of history that his younger colleagues failed to convey. He started off by saying that his father would not have known the word, terroirWhich makes sense of course, because it’s not German, but a French word cum buzz word. But the concept of terroir was understood as the business of wine was conducted. As an example, he pointed out that in his father’s day, the word “Riesling” didn’t even appear on the label, only the name of the vineyard, indicating that the vineyard signature was the more meaningful thing. Helmut’s explanation of why Riesling is such a good conduit of terroir is that it is a late-ripening grape that gets to spend a longer period of time in its environment than other grapes.  For instance in 2007, his grapes had 150 days of hang time between flowering and harvest.  That’s 150 days of exposure to birdsong!  Helmut makes 20 different wines from 20 hectares (about 50 acres) of vines.  A visiting Australian colleague expressed surprise at this: why not just one wine? In the Nahe, there are dozens of different soil types within six and half square miles. Each vineyard plot creates a different wine.  We tasted five of his vineyard expressive wines, all from 2007. My favorite was the excellent, steely, racy, limey Oberhauser Brucke Spatlese, but we also tasted the Estate Riesling, the Oberhauser Leistenberg Kabinett, the Kreuznacher Kahlenberg Kabinett, and the Kreuznacher Krotenpfuhl Spatlese.  They were all extremely mineral and lean, with such perfectly balancing acidity that they “drank dry” despite being Kabinetts or Spatlesen. As far as deciphering the vineyard signatures, I again found it difficult without another vintage to compare them to.  Regardless, after tasting fourteen unique Rieslings the point of the seminar was well made – terroir matters.

I propose a series of follow-up seminars: starting with a comparison of Heiligensteins and Gaisbergs not only across vintages, but also across wineries.


Last night we feted a good friend for her birthday, and because she very wisely chose New Lai Wah, we feasted for a meager sum.  I brought Pyramid Valley’s 2006 Lebecca Vineyard Riesling (just a $5 corkage fee), and it really sang alongside the dishes we ordered. I’ll post more about Pyramid Valley in the near future, but for now I’ll say that it is one of the few non-European wineries I’m actually excited about! Mike Weersing, a native Californian, settled in New Zealand after working at top-notch wineries in France and Germany. His Riesling is made in the Mosel style, and it fit perfectly on the table last night:








The Pyramid Valley 2006 Lebecca Vineyard Riesling tastes like peaches and lemons, with a Kabinett-like sweetness.









The cold dish was chicken (recently plucked and still a bit hairy) covered in a Sichuan pepper oil sauce, with peanuts, cilantro, and scallions. We also had a bottle of Hitachino Nest (was it Brown Rice Ale?) on the table. I don’t know much about the brewery, but everything I’ve had has been tasty!









Perhaps the most exciting dish of the evening was a geoduck picked out of the tank, and prepared into two dishes: the body (top photo) came out as a delicate sashimi, reminiscent of raw littleneck clams I’ve had on the east coast — briny and fresh. The head (bottom photo) was prepared into a soup, with bok choi, tofu and ginger. The broth was wonderful. It too was reminiscent of New England, specifically the Rhode Island style of clam chowder (no cream).









Next was the always excellent plate of ton choi with preserved tofu sauce (I recently discovered they do this same dish at Macau Cafe, but with spicy fermented tofu and chiles!)









We finished with the lobster and glass noodle dish our group has come to love. It’s an excellent summer dish, because it’s light, gingery and refreshing.

If you live in Sacramento and haven’t been to this restaurant, I highly encourage you to give it a try. Bring a bottle of wine or two, order family style, and then be surprised when the bill comes at how you can get such expertly prepared, elegant food and be charged so little money for it!

This post from the blog, Do Bianchi (written by a scholar of Italian wine, culture, and history) answers the question, “What is dinnertime like at Darrell Corti’s house?”

Last night I watched the movie version of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited. I am a huge fan of the 1982 PBS mini-series, and I’m afraid that made it impossible for me to enjoy the movie. It seemed truncated and confused; and Matthew Goode is no Jeremy Irons.  At any rate, the film reminded me of the wonderful scene where Charles and Sebastian raid the Brideshead wine cellar and attempt to be serious about learning about wine. They start off well-intentioned enough studying a glass of 1895 Chateau Lafite, but quickly get completely sauced and start hilarously mocking the way people talk about wine.

“It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle.”
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”
“Like a flute by still water.”
“And this is a wise old wine.”
“A prophet in a cave.”
“And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.”
“Like a swan.”
“Like a unicorn.”

I’ve always been fascinated by the topic of wine vocabulary. They way we talk about wine now is really quite different than the approach of previous generations. In his autobiography, the venerable Hugh Johnson says about current wine vocabulary, “I don’t really want my favourite subject to be ridiculed. There is a problem when these people list all these flavours and aromas they think they have detected. It then gets on to the label of the bottle and what you are looking at appears to be a recipe for fruit salad.”

Touché. However, his generation had their own approach (itself not beyond reproach), which usually meant describing wines as various types of women, e.g. “voluptuous”, “shy”, “seductive” or “frigid.” 

In the last few decades, there have been attempts to formalize and standardize wine vocabulary. Ann Noble, an emeritus professor of enology at UC Davis, created the Aroma Wheel in 1982. It is made up of concentric circles: the innermost circles are more general (floral, fruity, herbaceous) and the outer circles become increasingly specific (violet, blackberry, eucalyptus).  The Wine and Spirit Education Trust has a devised a similar system, called the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting. While I think it is a little silly to formalize something that could (and perhaps should) come naturally, I found these to be helpful when learning about wine for the first time. Some grape varieties really do smell like other fruits. Specifically, Sauvignon Blanc and Scheurebe often smell like citrus. Gewurtztraminer smells like either roses or lychees,  no doubt about it.  

Ideally, one develops their own style of tasting note, incorporating whatever one likes from current or historic traditions. In my own tasting notes, I tend to summon the character of fruits, as well as other smells found in the world. Here are some examples of recent tasting notes of mine:

On a dessert Muscat: “Orange blossom…is exactly what [the wine] smells like.  Also, dried peaches and apricots, honey, and something else lovely and unnameable.  It is sweet and viscous like honey, but with enough acidity to prevent it from being too heavy on the tongue.”  

On Trousseau from the Jura: “The wine smelled like cranberry, graphite, and indeed game; the palate was full of red fruits and a subtle bitterness that was pleasantly reminiscent of a cherry pit.  It was wonderful, and hauntingly contradictory–light and heavy, refreshing and rich, fruity and mineral.” 

Really, there is nothing to stop you from saying something is both reminiscent of a fruit and a person. I can easily imagine a wine (Australian Shiraz, perhaps) having the following description: “Smells like plums, cream, and vanilla. Tastes as flabby and overripe as a sweaty, out of shape son of a bitch.” That ought to make both the current guard and Hugh Johnson happy.

Last night we enjoyed a rosé made from a “white” grape called Moschofilero. I suppose it actually qualifies as a “grey” or gris grape, so called because of the pinkish tinge on the skin. Until now, I’d only had white wines made from this grape. All (but a very few) grapes have white juice inside. The color in a wine comes from the skins. That’s why champagne is generally a white wine, even though two of the three grapes used are red — Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. When making champagne, skin contact with the juice is avoided completely, so no color in the wine (rosé champagne gets its color from adding a little bit of red wine). Most rosés are made from red grapes, they just have shorter period of skin contact than red wine does. Lately I’ve been seeing more rosés on the market made from grey, or pink grapes, like Pinot Gris. Domaine Spiropoulus‘ Meliasto is a pink wine made from Moschofilero, a member of the Filero family, ancient cousins of the Muscat family. The relation is apparent when you smell this wine — it’s similarly floral and musky. The wine is somewhat full-bodied, round and creamy. The aroma is the best part. We had farfalle with eggplant and tomatoes followed by wilted arugula. It was a decent match, though not heavenly. The tomatoes are very acidic, and the wine is somewhat lacking in that department. The aroma and character of the wine went well with the eggplant though. Perhaps a more traditional greek dinner would have been the ticket. Maybe some grilled lamb?  The estate is located in Mantinia, in the middle of the Peloponnese. They’ve been growing their grapes organically since 1993. The wine came from Corti Brothers in Sacramento, for $15.99. At the same time I bought “Greek Wines: A Comprehensive Guide” by Geoff Adams ($10.99), because although my knowledge of greek wine is greater than most, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. In this ancient land, whose people began the spread of grapes all over Europe, there are seemingly limitless grape varieties and regions and estates to learn about. Adams’ book does a good job of summarizing the complex nature of the country’s viticulture.