Assessing non-dry styles of German Riesling

If you are confronted with a Prädikat Riesling from Germany, you may be asked to identify where it comes from specifically.  Here’s a way to approach the process of narrowing down your options.

While Rheinhessen does produce plenty of off dry/medium sweet wines, they are less regularly seen than those from other regions.  In general terms, Rheinhessen is warmer than Rheingau, Nahe or Mosel so more Trocken is produced here.  As such, I would probably discount Rheinhessen from the conversation if you have a Prädikat wine.

That leaves the big three: Mosel (including the subregions of Saar and Ruwer), Nahe and Rheingau.  Let’s look at the identifiers for each when it comes to Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese.

  • Mosel: featherweight wines which walk the tightrope balancing sweetness and acidity.  Delicate and even ethereal at times, particularly from the cooler Ruwer and Saar tributaries.  

  • Nahe: everyone forgets about Nahe, but there are some exceptional Prädikat wines from here (Dönnhoff, Diel etc).  It’s a slightly more powerful style than Mosel, and while it does enjoy plenty of tension and slatey minerality, it’s not quite as poised or nervy as Mosel - it’s just a touch riper and rounder.

  • Rheingau: more powerful than either Mosel or Nahe.  The wines are broad shouldered, full of fruit and richness and may be a degree or two higher in alcohol.  These are not wines of tension but instead of breadth and concentration.

Chile: acidity

People generally use herbaceousness as an identifier for Chilean wines, both red and white. And while that can be in evidence, as usual, I think aromas and flavours are weak pieces of evidence and much susceptible to change. Far better to think about structure - acid and tannin structure.

In the case of Chile, one aspect that I have often noted in Chilean reds is their consistently high acidity. In Bordeaux varieties or Syrah, acidity is not usually a noteworthy point. But it is in Chile. Furthermore, Chile’s reds are often no more than medium bodied. Combine that with the acidity and you have a lightness of touch, raciness and certain weightlessness which put together make the profile of Chilean reds quite distinctive.

Australian Cabernet and Shiraz: telling them apart

I used constantly to confuse these two major Australian varieties until I focussed obsessively on structure and texture of the wines. Although there are innumerable different styles of each in this huge country, I have found the following general tips helpful to think about when trying to distinguish between the two.

  • Texture: Australian Shiraz has a plush texture. It’s velvety smooth, and on the mid palate almost feels like you’re surfing a wave of fruit. By contrast, Cabernet texture is grainier, both in terms of tannins and in terms of fruit.

  • Tannins: You don’t often hear it said, but Syrah as a variety has some of the finest quality tannins out there, texturally. Australian examples are great exemplars: there’s a velvety texture to the tannins which underscores the velvety quality to the fruit. Cabernet meanwhile is far more fine grained and very slightly woody.

  • Shape of the wine on the palate: Cabernet from Australia (as everywhere else) is typically linear and directional - it’s really going somewhere. Shiraz is round and full with a focus on the tongue rather than the edges of the mouth (as with Cabernet). This contributes to the effect that you’re sinking into a big cushion of fruit when you’re tasting Shiraz.

  • Other features: Cabernet is still often made as a medium bodied variety across Australia, and especially in Western Australia. Of course there are bigger scale examples in south eastern Australia, but increasingly, these are becoming the exception. Shiraz, by contrast, remains a full bodied variety in most regions of Australia, unless very conscious winemaking decisions have been taken to the contrary. Cabernet can be gently leafy (not herbaceous), especially from Western Australia, while many Shiraz still have the classic blueberry pie notes. Eucalyptus can be found in almost any red variety in Australia so does not help you.

A note on Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is a classic variety to appear in a blind tasting exam, because it is available in virtually every form: dry and still, sweet and still, sparkling, sweet sparkling…

With such stylistic diversity available, how do you pin it down in a tasting? Simply put, by focusing on its acid structure. Chenin Blanc always has high levels of acidity, and often the quality of the acidity is quite bracing - you sometimes fear for the enamel on your teeth.

But more than just that, Chenin always shows a crescendo shaped acid structure. That is:

  • When the wine hits the palate, it can be surprisingly soft. When the wine comes from the Loire, the cool climate nose leads you to think you will get a big hit of acidity on entry, but no

  • After a couple of seconds on the palate, the acidity begins to be felt

  • After swallowing/spitting, the acidity reaches a climax. Only here do you feel the really high levels of bracing acidity that Chenin is famous for

  • For anyone familiar with music notations, the shape of this structure is a crescendo: the perception of the acidity just grows in keeping with the time spent on the palate

Possible confusions with Chenin are: Chardonnay (more consistent, linear acid structure), Grüner Veltliner (a bigger hit of acid on entry, even if it also climaxes on the finish) or Riesling (consistently felt throughout the length of the palate, like Chardonnay, but with a more ‘vertical’ rather than horizontal shape).

Australian Riesling: regional styles

This is a short post on identifying regional styles for Riesling from Australia.  I’m focusing solely on the two most important regions - Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia - and the Rieslings from Western Australia, around Margaret River and elsewhere.

Worth noting for the whole country: look out for low pH in Australian Riesling.  Low pH (which is different from high acidity) gives a hard mouthfeel which can resemble phenolic grip (but note most Australian Riesling does not undergo skin contact).  The petrol note (TDN) is common across all regions and the standard is for the wines to be fully dry, unless a deliberate choice has been made otherwise.  This is in contrast to New Zealand.

Clare Valley: the classic source of Aussie Riesling.  Intense limey citrus, a powerful, vertical structure, very brisk and clean.  Detailed and intense.

Eden Valley: a bit softer, with slightly higher pH and lower acidity than Clare.  More floral and less limey.  Some wines (e.g. Pewsey Vale) can have a jasmine scent and more minerality than Clare.

Western Australia: riper and more fleshy and generous than Clare/Eden with more weight and dimension of flavour, including stone fruit.  Lacks the intensity of Clare and can also show less mid palate focus and concentration.  

European bottle fermented sparkling wines

This is a (very) non-exhaustive analysis of European sparkling wines made in the traditional method, excepting champagne.  They are all distinctive in their own ways and require good theoretical knowledge of the styles (i.e. you have to know the varieties for each style at a minimum).  

The differentiating features are about climate (fruit ripeness and acid integration), autolytic pick up and acid structure (both variety dependent) and the ‘X factor’ for each style - the distinctive character unique to each style.

Sparkling wines require particularly careful tasting to identify successfully in a blind tasting, but these tips should help.

English sparkling wine - Champagne varieties

  • The acidity is the giveaway here.  Not only is it high or even bracing, it is also resolutely separate from the fruit/body of the wine - not integrated.  The acid structure can really be the dominant feature of the wine.

  • The wine as a whole can be austere

  • The acidity itself can taste a touch green, or unripe

  • Chardonnay dominant wines - and there are many Blanc de Blancs - are powerfully linear.  They really course along.

  • Can show excellent autolytic character

  • Less ripe fruit character even than champagne; sometimes you find a green, ‘hedgerow’ character which comes both from the flavour profile and the quality of the acidity

Cremant d’Alsace - usually Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois

  • Can have moderate to high acidity, which is a little surprising given the texture (see below)

  • Aromatically intense, but does NOT pick up autolytic notes 

  • Only moderately fruited

  • Can have good concentration on the mid palate and (sometimes like Menuier in champagne) for that reason can appear higher in quality than it really is.  The trick is to let it warm up a little and the wine becomes flabby and oily in texture.

Cremant de Loire - almost any variety can be included, but Chenin Blanc is most typical

  • The Chenin Blanc is the key here, and gives a similar acid structure to still examples of the variety

  • Look for a particularly mouth watering, bracing acidity on the finish

  • Not autolytic

  • A certain aromatic funkiness - in addition to the usual honey, wax and bruised apple, a kind of saltiness

Cremant de Jura - Chardonnay and Savagnin

  • Any wine with a good quantity of Savagnin in it will have that distinctive, meaty, gamey note that is so distinctive

  • Chardonnay must be 50% of the blend, but even Chardonnay here has a certain aromatic funk - salty and nutty

  • High acidity

Cremant de Bourgogne - Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

  • The Cremant most similar to champagne, but lacks the complexity or length

  • Slightly richer and fuller than champagne thanks to the warmer climate, but obviously a similar aromatic spectrum

  • The most autolytic of all the Cremants

  • Can be red fruited on the nose and have a more energetic mousse than champagne

Cremant de Bordeaux - all the red and white Bordeaux varieties

  • Rarely seen on export markets so not worth dwelling on

Cremant de Limoux 

  • This is not Blanquette!  Blanquette is the local name for Mauzac, so that variety predominates in Blanquette.  As a result, Blanquette can be intensely bruised apple with very high acidity

  • Cremant was created in 1990 for a more international style, with a particular emphasis on Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, although Mauzac is permitted too

  • A driving, linear acidity from the combination of Chardonnay and Chenin, felt particularly on finish

  • Not as ripe as Cava to the south, but still more flavor dimension than Loire/Bourgogne/Alsace

  • Earthy and funky

Cava

  • Simply riper than any of the above, owing to the warmer climate

  • Can have an earthiness which may be confused with Limoux

  • But greater range of fruit expression beyond just citrus

  • More rounded and gourmand a wine than the French sparklers

  • Acidity is better integrated and less conspicuous 

  • Commercial examples can have notable dosage

Franciacorta - Chardonnay/Pinot Nero/Pinot Bianco

  • The closest lookalike to champagne with the exception of English sparkling wine

  • High quality autolytic notes, often showing considerable complexity

  • Acidity is often racy, especially in Blanc de Blancs styles

  • Riper fruit and more mid palate weight than champagne, as befits the more southerly origin

  • Look out for a telltale waxy/meaty note on the nose, a bit like the smell of the rind on a cured meat.  I used to think this was the Pinot Bianco, but have subsequently found it in non-PB wines too



A few thoughts on Brunello subzones

Presenting the new 2014 Brunello vintage in New York this week gave me the opportunity to stop and ponder how best to think about the different subzones of Montalcino.

For a long time Montalcino has resisted having their wines understood in terms of subzones, not only because they did not want to create a hierarchy of better or lesser sites, but because, in very practical terms, many of the older wineries still have vineyards in very different parts of the appellation. In difficult years like 2014, this is a blessing for blending purposes, rather than having to rely on a single site.

But, many small new estates are popping up which are reliant on single sites. For that reason, it makes sense to at least try and understand the characters of the different subzones. This work has been nobly undertaken by Kerin O’Keefe and Walter Speller, among others. The notes below are cribbed from Kerin O’Keefe’s wonderful Brunello book and confirmed by my tastings this week.

  • Montalcino South: immediately around the town to the south. This is the most historic part of the appellation and contains many leading producers. High altitude (up to 500m), thin soils, big diurnal shifts ensures slow ripening. Elegant, complex, mid-weight, perfumed wines. [Leading producers: Biondi-Santi, Conti Costanti, Barbi, Brunelli, Salicutti, Cerbaiona]

  • Montalcino North: down the northern slopes away from the town. Cooler region at slightly lower altitudes than those in Montalcino South (although there are a huge variety of altitudes and sites in this large area). Generally a more earthy style and often with considerable tannic structure (e.g. from around Canalicchio). Includes the top single site in Montalcino, Montosoli. From here the wines combine elegance and power. [Fuligni, Marroneto, Canalicchio (di Sopra), Le Chiuse, Il Paradiso di Manfredi, Pertimali Livio Sassetti, Capanna, Altesino, Val di Suga]

  • Tavernelle: south and west of the town at 300-350m with good diurnal variation. Rocky soils. Easier ripening than further upslope. Classic styles of Brunello are found here. [Case Basse-Soldera, Santa Restituta (Gaja), Caprili]

  • Camigliano: further west than Tavernelle.  Rather a low lying area, down as low as 130m.  Warmer and drier than higher up, ensuring good ripeness.  Lower acid, higher alcohol wines approachable upon release.  Includes CastelGiaconda which is second largest producer. [CastelGiaconda, Pian delle Vigne]

  • Castelnuovo dell’Abate: south east of town, around the abbey of Sant’Antimo.  200-450m, vineyards facing south and west - excellent growing conditions.  Cooler than Sant’Angelo to the west.  Wines are earthy, elegant, powerful but graceful, although this region is starting to warm and risks becoming too hot at lower altitudes.

  • Sant’Angelo: in south and south west of the zone, dominated by large wineries: Poggione, Argiano, Col d’Orcia and Banfi.  Up to 40% of all Brunello comes from here.  More Mediterranean conditions: lower rainfall and hotter temperatures than further north and upslope.  Faster ripening - crop harvested up to two weeks earlier, not helped by climate change.  But higher in the sub zone - around Sant’Angelo in Colle, excellent wines can be made (e.g. Lisini and Il Poggione and Col d’Orcia’s wonderful single vineyard, Poggio al Vento), which show depth and structure but with finesse.  From lower parts, the wines are often darker in color and higher in alcohol.

  • Bosco and Torrenieri: small regions.  Bosco is in far north west of the zone, a cool part; only two wineries [Silvio Nardi and Castiglion del Bosco]; generally less powerful wines.  Torrenieri is in far north east of the zone on clay soils.  Can be very tannic, but wines really improving and much more elegant now.  [SassodiSole, Innocenti].

Malbec: blind tasting tips

Malbec is one of those varieties that can be hard to spot just because it’s yet another full bodied, tannic red.  How do you distinguish it from Cabernet or Shiraz or more powerful styles of Tempranillo?  The good news is that when you know what to look for, Malbec is relatively easy to spot.  

The first thing to say is that while the tips below are valid across different regions of origin for Malbec, if you have a French example from Cahors, you can generally expect a more savory profile than in Argentina. Cahors is one of the most savory of all French reds.

As usual, the most reliable way of identifying Malbec is via its tannic structure.  Malbec is almost always a variety which shows high tannin.  What else can we add?

  • The tannin is powerful, rustic and is often rather coarse

  • Because Malbec is a Bordeaux variety, the tannin is felt around the edge of the mouth

  • More specifically, the tannin is felt on the hinge of the jaw

  • A classic sensation with young Malbec is the ‘lockjaw’ sensation: it’s hard even to open your mouth after swallowing because the tannins glue themselves to the jaw so much

Other noteworthy attributes of Malbec:

  • You expect a wine of this weight and concentration to be black fruited.  But often Malbec is RED fruited, specifically with a raspberry scent

  • In spite of that sweet red fruit on the nose and on the front of the palate, it finishes very dry.  A sweet start with a dry finish is quite unusual and distinctive, especially when the wine is not from Europe

  • There is a distinct dried tobacco note on nose and on finish

Ultimately, Malbec is (was) a Bordeaux variety. That means it’s built on tannins. Focus on that and you’ll improve your chances of spotting it correctly.

Mencia: key identifiers

Mencia is an increasingly common Spanish red variety both at retail and in the on-trade. But most of us are not as familiar with it as we are with more commonly found Spanish reds: Tempranillo from Rioja and Ribera and Garnacha from Priorat. (I always think of these as the ‘big three’ of Spanish red wine, but don’t forget about the Monastrell wines from Jumilla and Yecla. Other Spanish reds may be too obscure for a blind tasting exam).

What is Mencia like? The best way to learn is to taste for yourself, and one classic is the inexpensive J. Palacios Petalos; it’s a benchmark example of Bierzo.

When you’re tasting you might want to consider the following attributes I have consistently noted across different examples of the variety.

  • Medium bodied, moderate alcohol (13-13.5%)

  • Moderate, fresh acidity

  • Juicy red fruit character

  • A spicy or peppery quality to the fruit

  • Moderate levels of chalky tannins

  • Velvety texture - this is a good example of a variety where the texture of the tannins is quite different from the texture of the fruit

  • Put the last two points together and you begin to understand why a common confusion is with Right Bank Bordeaux: a St. Emilion kind of chalkiness and a velvety red fruit character…

  • …but the location of the tannins is different. Rather than being around the edge of the mouth, as you expect in any Bordeaux variety, here they are in the cheeks (just like they are for Tempranillo, incidentally - cheek tannins are a pointer for Spain)

  • You sometimes find that distinctly Spanish note on the finish: torrefaction. That is, a slight roasted or even toffee character to the finish. Very Spanish!

Identifying varieties in sparkling wines

Identifying grape varieties in bottle fermented sparkling wines is one of the most difficult things to do in blind tasting.  Here are a few guidelines I think about.

CHARDONNAY


In a way, Chardonnay should be the easiest of the three major champagne varieties to recognize.  Yes, a lot of people talk about the finesse of Blanc de Blancs wines and the high quality texture, but for me - as ever - it’s about structure.

Chardonnay is the white equivalent of Cabernet Sauvignon in that it’s a wine with a very strong sense of direction.  It’s really linear and is really going somewhere.  And in sparkling wines you see this so clearly.  There’s a really thrusting acidity which courses along in the mouth - it’s quite a ride.  Anytime it is this pronounced you should consider whether it’s largely or entirely a Chardonnay wine.

PINOT NOIR

Pinot has a more concentrated, dense mid palate sensation than Chardonnay does.  It’s more compact and felt on the mid palate, and lacks the drive of Chardonnay.  And of course, look out for red fruit notes, or - what I have been finding quite useful recently - hints of a mature, mulchy, red Burgundy, aromatically, or, an intense and complex spiciness (especially from the Aube).

MEUNIER

No longer called Pinot Meunier in Champagne!  In (increasingly common) 100% versions from the Vallée de la Marne, can be very broad, ripe and fruity on the mid palate.  Obviously would be confused with Pinot rather than Chardonnay, but ultimately lacks the finesse and subtlety of Pinot Noir, and can be a bit of a fruit bomb.  But when made in a dry style, quite a big, imposing, structured wine - nothing insubstantial or forgettable about it.

BLENDS

Most sparkling wine remains blended however, and as with any blended wines, the above-discussed attributes will be rounded out or blunted just a little.  Single variety wines tend to be more pronounced - but importantly, not necessarily more complete!

Resolving a classic confusion: Gruner vs Albarino

For many us who do blind tasting, one classic confusion is that between Gruner Veltliner and Albarino. Aromatically they can be similar and both have high acidity. But that’s where the similarities end. Here’s how to tell them apart.

Albarino

  • Has far more structure, both phenolic structure and acid structure

  • Its most pronounced characteristic is its grippy phenolics (among good examples) which are closer to tannins than almost any other white variety

  • Has a square acid structure. That is, the acid is felt like a brick wall when it hits the palate, then found around the edge of the palate, and then the wall comes back at the end. It’s a square in the mouth.

  • The acidity itself can have a green quality. Like the occasional Riesling, sometimes Albarino’s acidity itself can struggle for ripeness and take on a green quality.

  • The acidity can be more than just firm, it can be positively hard.

Gruner Veltliner

  • Has some phenolic texture (more the higher up the quality pyramid you go) but without the universal gripiness of Albarino.

  • Has the ‘rollercoaster’ acid structure, not the square acid structure. The rollercoaster consists in a peak of acidity upon entry, only for it to fall off immediately, and even become rather soft in the mid palate. But then, like a crescendo, it builds up again to the finish, where it is most pronounced and mouthwatering.

  • The acidity lacks the greenness of Albarino’s.

  • The acidity is tangy, not particularly hard or structuring.

Avoid using aromas and flavours as primary pieces of evidence, but as confirmatory evidence, in Albarino, look for orange blossom, orange cordial, lime and peach. In Gruner, lime, cress and dill are common, and in general, a more savoury flavour profile than Albarino.