New Paris Cuisine Is A Challenge for Wine

Four days in Paris last week refuted the idea that haute cuisine in France has run out of steam. Every dinner was different and innovative, but a theme that seemed to run through the evenings was the introduction of Asian spices. This leaves me wondering whether the traditional matches of wine and food still stand up in France or we need to rethink.

This question has struck some producers. François Milo of the producers’ association in Provence says that, “The mondialization of cuisine has benefited rosé. In France there has always been a fixed idea of which wines (red or white) accompany certain stages of the meal. But it’s difficult to pair red wines with international foods. I think that for the future, rosé is a vin de liberté.” I did not go so far as to try rosé – for one thing there aren’t that many rosés with enough flavor interest at this level, and for another choices on restaurant lists are very limited – but I did vary my usual thinking on suitable combinations.

Turbot in coconut sauce was a definite challenge the first evening at restaurant Auguste. In fact, I found the coconut influence a bit too strong for the delicacy of turbot. Overall this seemed to offer a similar challenge to dishes of stronger fishes prepared with vanillin a few years back. Then we had gone for a white Côte de Beaune to match: this time we went for Louis Michel’s Montée de Tonnerre 2012 from Chablis to find a bit more contrast. The Chablis didn’t have quite enough minerality to cut through the coconut, but it resisted well. Actually I liked it better than the Valourent of the same vintage, tasted a few days earlier, which seemed to have a surprising amount of forward fruit: the Montée de Tonnerre at least had intimations of minerality, although I’m not sure how far they will develop with time.

There were two fish dishes at l’Arôme: légine australe on asparagus, and turbot on rhubarb. (The first was unknown to me but tuned out on investigation to be the same as Chilean sea bass, a.k.a. the Patagonian toothfish, except that it apparently comes from waters off Africa.) These were quite strongly flavored dishes, too strong I felt to match white Burgundy, but Jonathan Pabiot’s Pouilly-Fumé Predilection from 2012 provided a brilliant contrast. This is very much the New Pouilly-Fumé, all delicacy and elegance: in fact, the Anima Figure (my companion) described it as ethereal. (The antithesis of New World Sauvignon Blanc, demonstrating wonderful range for the variety, if raising the question of its true typicity.) A course of chicken oysters and gambas was less successful.

Friends in Paris had managed to obtain a table at l’Astrance for the next evening. (This had required 35 phone calls on the day booking opened.) Choosing wine is a little tricky since the menu is a surprise, but on the basis of some hints from the sommelier, we decided that a light red would be most appropriate, and went for Domaine Dujac’s Morey St. Denis 2002. (The wine list at l’Astrance is extraordinarily fairly priced, a big contrast with most other restaurants in Paris, although you can usually find some wine where the sommelier has a special connection and price is more reasonable.) The red proved extremely versatile, going well with the famous cake of fois gras, langoustine with Asiatic influences, and légine australis again. (They were a little put out at l’Astrance to discover we had had the same fish the evening before at l’Arôme: apparently there are only five boats fishing for it, one from France, which presumably supplies both restaurants). Curiously, the final lamb dish which should have been the best match for the wine didn’t quite come to life, although the wine showed a wonderful combination of crystalline brilliance reminiscent of Volnay and femininity of Chambolle Musigny. Fighting well above its communal level, you might say.

Finally abandoning restaurants with names starting with “A”, our last evening was at Jean-François Piégé. The main courses were hommard bleu (cooked in blackcurrant leaves) and turbot in a curry sauce. One of the preceding dishes was asparagus in a sauce in which I thought I also detected curry, but which turned out to be saffron pistils. The wine was a no-brainer as there was a strong selection of Raveneau premier cru Chablis at reasonable prices. We had a Vaillons 2005, which turned out to be noticeably richer than usual for Raveneau, but still showing that characteristic anise and minerality on the back palate. Possibly a leaner year would have been an even better match for the food.

I can hear a cry going up: why no Riesling? It’s a wonderfully versatile grape that matches a wide variety of foods, especially good against Asiatic spicing, and is undervalued. I would concede the principle immediately, but my problem with Riesling is that nowhere – Alsace or Germany or anywhere else in Europe – is the principle accepted that there is an international standard for dry wine: less than 4 g/l of residual sugar. So I am almost never certain enough that a wine will be dry. Producers may argue that it tastes dry if acidity is sufficiently high, but that’s a matter of subjective judgment, and I prefer not to take a risk in a restaurant. (And asking the sommelier has resulted in too many wines which were stated to be dry but on which residual sugar could be tasted.)

I believe l’Astrance started the move in Paris to surprise menus. I was struck by the fact that three evenings out of four we had a surprise in at least some courses. At both l’Arôme and Piégé, you choose your main course(s) – you can choose either one or two from a short list – but the starters and desserts are a surprise from the chef. It’s a neat solution to the difficulties of providing many choices at every course which must simplify issues like food wastage and buying-in for the restaurant. Of course, you have to be a top-line chef to pull this off. A consequence is that it does make it more difficult to find an appropriate wine. Wines by the glass chosen to match the food are offered by most of the restaurants, but my past experience is that this can be a bit erratic in providing interest in the wine.

On the last evening at Piégé, I said to the maitre d’ that a series of interesting dinners seemed to put paid to the idea bruited a few years ago in the Anglo-Saxon press that haute cuisine in France had died a lingering death. “I would have agreed with the idea five years ago,” he said, explaining that the rush of innovation is a revival of the past few years. Granted that there are similar influences, each interpretation is different: I wonder where it will go next.

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Alsace Diary part 4: Sweetness – the Big Mistake with Grand Crus

Sweetness is the issue that absolutely bedevils Alsace. Should wine be dry or be sweet? And should it be the same every year or should it be allowed to vary with the vintage? There are two schools of thought. Sometimes epitomized by other producers as “the Trimbach way,” one school holds that wine – especially Riesling – should be dry. “Our wine is bone dry and therefore suitable to accompany food,” says Hubert Trimbach. Other notable houses in this camp are Hugel and Josmeyer. The majority of producers, however, follow a mixed model, mostly trying to make dry wine, but admitting defeat and allowing some residual sugar when they feel this produces a better balance. Let me explain why I think this is usually a mistake and why it is destroying the grand cru system.

The issue of sweetness is all tied up with the grand cru system. In a marginal climate, the best sites are those that most reliably achieve ripeness. These became the grand crus in Alsace. In a typical vintage, the difference between vineyards might be that an appellation vineyard needed chaptalization, whereas a grand cru reached an acceptable level of alcohol quite naturally. So the wines would have the same (dry) style, but the grand cru would display the extra character that goes with greater ripeness. In the present era of warmer vintages, however, the appellation vineyard may reach an acceptable level of potential alcohol, and the grand cru may go above it. This explains why at many producers the entry level wine is always fermented to dryness, but the grand crus show some residual sugar.

So is residual sugar part of the terroir? “The idea with the Vins de Terroir (wines from single vineyards or grand crus) is to represent the vineyard, so the wines are not necessarily fermented dry. They are intended to be coups do coeur, where people care about the character not the technical specs,” says Philippe Blanck at Domaine Paul Blanck. Jean-Christophe Bott takes a similar view at Domaine Bott-Geyl ” I don’t believe the wine has to be absolutely dry – we are vignerons not chemists – it has to be balanced. In one vintage the balance may be 5 g sugar, in another it may be 12 g.”

The argument is basically that something has to give: either alcohol will be too high or there will be residual sugar. This might not be so much of a problem if the style was consistent for any given producer and between vintages (and if the consumer can tell from the label). Vintage variation is a killer in the sense that you cannot buy a wine sight unseen if it is dry in one vintage and sweet in another. And it’s equally confusing when a producer changes style from appellation Alsace to grand cru. “The problem is not with the entry level, it’s more with the grand crus, where the Riesling may be picked at 14% potential alcohol. It’s more difficult to achieve dry Riesling and we can find grand crus with 7-8 g sugar or more; it’s totally stupid for the grand crus to have residual sugar,” says Pierre Trimbach. In my view, this is spot on as a criticism, because how am I to understand the difference between, say, an appellation Riesling and a grand cru Riesling if the first is dry and the second is sweet? Marc Hugel puts the issues in even more direct terms: “When I started 35 years ago, almost all wines had less than 3 g residual sugar. Now most wines have more, grand cru Rieslings often have 7-8 g or more, and Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer have 20-30g: this is a dessert wine.”

And even to compare two grand crus, they need to be in the same style. It’s all very well to say that Schlossberg has granite, Rosacker is calcareous, and Rangen is volcanic, but whatever effects the terroir has on the style of wine are (at least for me) muddied by residual sugar. Whenever I have been able to compare terroirs from producers who have multiple grand crus all in completely dry style, the results have been enlightening, every bit as interesting as a comparison between Crus in Burgundy. It’s a great lost opportunity if the comparison is muddied by variable sweetness. In fact, I would go further and say it’s a great disappointment to spoil what should be the ultimate expression of terroir by confusing the palate with sugar.

Here is the case for accepting a natural balance, as put by Marc Tempé: “My aim is to make a dry wine because it goes best with food. But with our climate and cépages it’s difficult to make a dry wine from mature berries. There are years that are completely dry like 2010, there are wines that have 5 g left, but they are naturally in balance. Wines with 5 or 7 g may taste dry if they have the right structure. Wines with a little residual sugar may be perfectly suited to many foods, although many people express horror at the idea of wines that aren’t bone dry.”

Even the most committed producers admit that it’s mostly impossible (and maybe undesirable) to get completely dry Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer from grand crus. “Pinot Gris ripens very rapidly. Sometimes you say you harvest in the morning and it’s dry, you harvest in the afternoon and it’s sweet,” says Etienne Sipp. “Gewurztraminer will reach 13-14% when Riesling gets to 11%,” Marc Hugel says, concluding,” It’s better to have 14% alcohol and 7 g sugar than 15% alcohol and bone dry.” And Celine Meyer at Domaine Josmeyer points out that “If Gewurztraminer is completely dry it’s not agreeable because it’s too bitter”. So the consensus is clear that, faute de mieux, Gewürztraminer (and Pinot Gris) are going to have some sugar. “I prefer to make dry wines and for Riesling it’s easy to be dry, but with the grand crus for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer we cannot produce dry wines. To follow what the terroir has to give you, the wine would not be balanced if you picked early enough to make dry wine,” says Jean-Christophe Bott. But he adds ruefully, “Of course the market is looking for dry wine.”

Here is a heretical thought. If it is impossible to make a dry wine with under 14% alcohol from the grapes planted in a particular vineyard, are you sure you have the right variety? Instead of relying on historical precedent, should the criterion in choosing the variety be that it will achieve ripeness (but not over ripeness) at a level that allows dry wine to be made at reasonable alcohol levels in most years? In Alsace, if Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer give you the choice between 16% alcohol or residual sugar, perhaps you should switch to Riesling. In Bordeaux. if Merlot gives you 15% sugar, perhaps you should switch to Cabernet Franc or even Carmenère. Or maybe – quelle horreur – you should think about Syrah.

And for that matter, perhaps the whole concept of grand crus should be rethought. The climate was cooler when they were being defined.(It’s a sign of just how outdated the grand cru definitions are that the regulations specify the need to reach 10% alcohol!) Should spots that used to give reliable ripeness but that now give over-ripeness still be grand crus? As Alsace is even now proposing to classify a large number of lieu dits as premier crus, perhaps the level of desired ripeness should be an issue. And if the trend goes any further, maybe they will need to reconsider the hierarchy of premier and grand crus in Burgundy. In the era of global warming, should we start by asking which sites best give the desired style of wine, rather than simply looking by reflex reaction for the places that give the most ripeness?

Alsace Diary part 3: A Visit to Trimbach and Vertical Tasting of Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune Riesling

From my hotel just above Ribeauvillé, I could look down at vineyards all the way to the town, including the sweep across two adjacent grand crus, Geisberg and Osterberg. One of the greatest Rieslings of Alsace, Trimbach’s Frédéric Emile, comes from plots in 6 ha spread out across both grand crus (which is one reason why it has the lowly Alsace appellation). An even greater Riesling, perhaps the greatest in all Alsace, is Trimbach’s Clos St. Hune, which comes from 1.67 ha in the Rosacker grand cru, although because Trimbach does not (or did not, of which more later) believe in the grand cru system, it is also labeled only as Alsace. While I have tasted both cuvées on many occasions, I’ve never before had a systematic vertical to compare them directly, which is how we spent a morning with Pierre Trimbach.

TrimbachTW2

Vineyards rise up immediately behind Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé

Although Trimbach is one of the ten largest producers in Alsace, it is still very much a family owned firm. Pierre Trimbach is very hands-on: “I can still drive a fork lift, when needed,” he says. The firm is well known for taking a strong position on the meaning of Alsace: wines are dry; and they have rejected the grand cru system. Other producers sometimes refer to “the Trimbach style” as a shorthand for complete commitment to dryness. On my previous visit, Hubert Trimbach told me. “All wines are fermented close to dryness, they should be suitable to accompany food.”

Trimbach’s heart is in Riesling, which accounts for more than half of all production, and this goes hand in hand with the commitment to dry style. The hierarchy can be quite deceptive. The basic Riesling is a third to half of production, the Riesling Reserve comes almost entirely from Trimbach’s own vineyards, and the Selection de Vieilles Vignes is a selection within the Reserve category, made for the first time in 2009. Tasting the 2011s, as you go up the line you get more refinement, but less overt fruits, more reserve and minerality, and more time is needed to open. Going to Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune, flavor is less apparent on release, it needs time to come out. So in a horizontal tasting of a young vintage, you don’t see the increase in quality in an overt expression of fruits, you have to look beyond that to get an impression of future potential. And we may be talking about many years here.

The vines for Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune have similar age, and yields are similar, so differences really should be due directly to terroir. Our comparison between them covered many vintages back to 2001, and the balance shifted with time. The restrained style really pays off here in the rich vintages, such as 2009, when they don’t suffer from over-ripeness. Clos St. Hune is really not very expressive yet, but evidently has greater density than Frédéric Emile. Neither is at all ready, but if you want to experience Trimbach at Grand Cru level without waiting, there is a new choice available. This is a fascinating contrast with Frédéric Emile, where Pierre says that “Osterberg is always more upright, Geisberg is always richer.”

Trimbach recently purchased the vineyards of the nuns of the Couvent de Ribeauvillé, which included 2.6 ha in Geisberg. The nuns made it a condition that the grand cru should be stated on the label, so Trimbach will shortly release its first wine labeled under a grand cru, the Geisberg 2009. This is much more approachable, with overt stone fruits cutting the usual Trimbach austerity, and will be delightful to drink while waiting for Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune to come around. Trimbach already owned some other plots so now has become the biggest owner in Geisberg, and in my opinion, their cuvée will become the definitive expression of Geisberg.

Going back through the vertical, the first vintage of Frédéric Emile that seems ready to drink is 2005, but the Clos St. Hune remains pretty restrained and still needs more time. The first vintage of Clos St. Hune that I’d be inclined to drink now would be 2001, which has a perfect balance between minerality and fat. The Frédéric Emile is all minerality and salinity, moving in a distinctly savory direction. In every pairwise comparison back to then, Clos St. Hune shows more density but Fréderic Emile shows more obvious fruit flavors. It takes at least a decade for the fruit flavors in Clos St. Hune to become more obvious. (Of course, it does depend on teh vintage, which can make a big difference: Trimbach are releasing the 2009 Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune before the 2008, because the 2008 vintage simply needs more time.) As a working plan, drink Geisberg from five years after the vintage, drink Frédéric Emile from eight years, and drink Clos St Hune from twelve years!

Trimbach’s position on dryness isn’t quite as adamant as it might seem when you move out of Riesling. “Dry doesn’t mean anything, well maybe for Riesling, but for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer it’s balance,” says Pierre. The style for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer isn’t totally dry but is as close to it as you can get while maintaining balance. “8-10g sugar isn’t a problem if it’s Pinot Gris not Riesling.” Tasting the Pinot Gris Réserve Personelle and the Gewürztraminer Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre (the equivalent for these varieties to Frédéric Emile in Riesling), there’s only a suspicion of sweetness on the palate, although technical levels are around 8 g and 15 g, so you can see varietal typicity.

The range of Trimbach’s Rieslings is impressive, starting from insight into typicity at the appellation level, then increase in character with greater selection and older vines, and finally the quality and steely longevity of a range of grand crus, not to mention the occasional Vendange Tardive, last made for Frédéric Emile in 2001, and of which I have a bottle as a souvenir of the visit to try on a future occasion.

Alsace Diary part 2: Sweetness – the Big Mistake with Ambiguous Labels

I think Riesling is one of the most under rated white grape varieties. It is fantastically versatile with food, as any one who visits Alsace or Germany will discover. But I almost never order it in a restaurant, because I have no idea whether it will be dry (and no, after many surprising experiences, I don’t trust the sommelier to know whether it will taste sweet to me). And I absolutely never order any of the other grape varieties in Alsace, irrespective of whether they might match the food, because the probability is that they will have some residual sugar.

Sales of Alsace wine are in steady decline, and uncertainty as to whether any particular wine will be dry or sweet almost certainly play a large part. Until you get the categories of Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, used for very sweet dessert wines, no distinction is made on the label about the degree of sweetness. A handful of producers are committed to dry styles, but for most producers, a particular cuvée may be dry one year and off-dry the next year, depending on vintage conditions. That uncertainty is a complete killer in a restaurant. (And I’ll look at what varying sweetness does to the reputation of grand crus in part 4 of the Alsace Diary.)

Conscious of the issue, many producers in Alsace have been moving to indicate the sweetness of each wine on the back label, most using a scale from 1 to 5, some a scale from 1 to 10. Would this solve the consumers’ problem, I asked Celine Josmeyer (who is committed to a dry style) on a recent visit. “It would if all producers used it,” she says. But I wonder if it is that simple.

One problem is not everyone is using the same scale. When Olivier Humbrecht first introduced a five point scale, some years ago, he excluded the dessert wines on the grounds that everyone knows they are sweet. I think he was right about this: once you are into overtly sweet wines, the exact level of sweetness is rarely an issue in making a decision. It’s down at the bottom where you really want to know whether a wine is bone dry, off-dry, or slightly sweet. A standard five point scale here would be adequate; but if the five points extend all the way to full sweetness, it really doesn’t discriminate enough, and if some people have five point scales and others have ten point scales, it’s just confusing.

Another problem is that the scales are subjective.”They are absolutely not objective. Perception of sweetness depends on alcohol, sugar, and acidity,” says Etienne Sipp, who uses a ten point scale at Domaine Louis Sipp.  It’s the old question of whether a wine tastes dry when it has high enough acidity to disguise the sugar. Perception of sweetness doesn’t vary so much among people as perception of some other flavors, but at the level of balancing sweetness and acidity, not everyone is the same. Most producers tell me their dividing line between category 1 (dry) and category 2 (off-dry) is around 6 g/l residual sugar, but that’s precisely the point that is most subjective. Even worse, the number depends on who does the classification. Tasting at Kientzler, I queried the classification of a wine in category 1; if I had been doing the classification, I might have given it a different number, says Eric Kientzler. “The problem is that everyone has their own system, when I see what’s on the label, sometimes I’m astonished,” says Marc Hugel.

I just can’t bang on about this enough. There is an international standard for dry wine and it is less than 4 g/l sugar. Above that you may or may not be able to taste sweetness, but below it virtually no one tastes sweetness. So category 1 should be defined as unambiguously dry with less than 4 g/l; category 2 could be defined as ambiguously dry (meaning that opinions could differ) with more than 4 g/l sugar and very high acidity; and category 3 could be defined as showing at least some sweetness to most tasters. That would be useful; the present scale is simply too unpredictable.

But in any case, the whole thing is irrelevant, because the scale is put on the back label. Okay, in a wine shop you can turn the bottle over and have a look. But in a restaurant? I’m not going to ask the sommelier to bring out a series of wines from Alsace so I can check the back labels. The sweetness needs to be part of the official description. There should be a category of Alsace Sec which is defined as less than 4 g/l sugar: no give and take. There could be another category, or peferably categories, for wines that (might) taste dry but aren’t technically dry.

I have the same problem with the trocken classification in Germany, which is meant to avoid these problems, because trocken has been misdefined as either less than 4 g/l sugar or less than 9 g/l if acidity is high enough. That latter class puts us back into the ambiguously dry category, which is why I almost never order trocken Riesling in a restaurant, although I love the wines when they are really bone dry.

And as for Brut Champagne, it is completely ridiculous to have one description for anything up to 12 g/l dosage. Now that many Brut Champagnes are in fact below 6 g/l dosage, they could be labeled as Extra Brut (but often aren’t because producers fear this will put off consumers). Sugar isn’t so critical when you are drinking the wine as an aperitif, but Champagne will never make inroads as a food companion unless and until the categories for sweetness are better defined.

But here’s another idea. Instead of messing around with subjective scales, why not just put the level of residual sugar (or for Champagne the dosage) on the label. That would be technically simple and much more informative. I know, I know, the objection will be that this may confuse the consumer, but that’s a really weary excuse these days used to hide anything from high alcohol to residual sugar, and I’m not so sure consumers are as easily confused as producers like to pretend.

The crucial thing is that the label has to give completely predictability: can I taste sugar or not? In regions where sugar levels vary, there is one way, and only one way to do this: to have a category defined strictly as less than 4 g/l sugar. That’s the standard everywhere that wine is only dry (white Burgundy must be less than 4 g/l, for example), so why is it so difficult to get people to see this in other regions?

Alsace Diary part 1: Valentin Zusslin – Master of Subtlety from Riesling to Pinot Noir

Spending this week in Alsace, I am finalizing the producers to be included in my book, The Wines of Modem France: a Guide to 500 Leading Producers. While a producer should be judged on the range as a whole, I’m inclined to look at Riesling as the defining variety: top Rieslings should show minerality, piercing purity, freshness, and increasing breadth of flavor with age. I look for Pinot Gris to balance expression of stone fruits with more savory notes including a characteristic note of mushrooms (yes, I know that’s considered pejorative in some quarters, but it’s part of the character when subtle). Gewurztraminer is not my favorite variety, I find it simply too perfumed, but when the perfume is delicately balanced with lychees I can appreciate its qualities. I usually find Muscat a bit too obvious, and have lower expectations of Pinot Blanc (and Auxerrois), Chasselas, and Sylvaner, but I’m on the lookout for unusually fine examples that I could recommend. I hesitate to include Pinot Noir as a criterion in a region whose reputation is established for white wine, but full marks go to producers who have taken advantage of global warming to make fine Pinot Noir in Alsace.

Long vertical tastings of Pinot Noir and Riesling with Jean-Paul Zusslin at Domaine Valentin Zusslin fly into the top ten list for both varieties. We tasted Pinot Noir from the lieu-dit Bollenberg (near Rouffach, which is one of the candidates for promotion to premier cru, and where the clay-calcareous soils are suitable for red varieties). I hadn’t encountered these Pinots previously, but they seem to me to capture the essence of Alsace in the context of red wine. They are destemmed, vinified in wooden cuves with pigeage to begin with, switching to pump-over half way through fermentation, and matured much along the lines of top flight Burgundy, in barriques with 50% new oak. Color is deep, fruits are round, the palate is exceptionally smooth, silky tannins support the fruits, the overall impression is quite soft, and some wood spices show when the wines are young. I was puzzling over how I would relate them to Burgundy, and I think the main difference is in the aromatic spectrum: if it isn’t too fanciful, they have a more aromatic impression that seems to relate to the general character of Alsace in growing aromatic white varieties. A barrel sample of 2013 shows as very ripe, 2012 is a touch livelier in its acidity, 2011 conveys a sense of a more earthy structure, 2010 has closed up a bit and is more upright (the counterpart of the often crisp character of the white wines in this vintage), 2009 (my favorite) shows the first signs of evolution with an elegant nutty palate that is reminiscent of the Côte de Beaune, and the 2008 has lightened up and is moving in a savory direction. These are serious wines by any measure, and anyone who is serious about Pinot Noir should try them.

Our Riesling tasting started by comparing three Grand Crus from 2012, which seemed to increase in their savory impression as we went through the line. Bollenberg is precise without being tight, a very pure expression of Riesling. Clos Liebenberg brings more intensity and adds herbal elements to complement the citrus and stone fruits of the palate. Pfingstberg isn’t exactly drier than the other two but is more savory, showing herbal notes including tarragon before the citric purity of Riesling returns. Then we went back in time with Pfingstberg. In the 2010 vintage the savory notes of 2012 are joined by the first notes of petrol. (The first bottle we tried was very slightly corked, and the petrol was quite evident, perhaps because the fruits were a fraction suppressed. A second bottle brought the fruits out more clearly, and the petrol was less evident.) There’s a tense, savory edge to the palate, with an impression of salinity at the end. Back to 2008 where petrol is just beginning to replace savory elements as the first impression, and the palate follows with a classic blend of citrus and stone fruits. The defining word about age came from the 2001, a lovely golden color with some honey, tertiary aromas, and touch of petrol. The flavor spectrum here is moving in the direction of late harvest, but the wine is bone dry: that’s a wonderful combination that I’ve only really experienced in Alsace. Then with 2000 we had a Vendange Tardive, as that was the only Riesling made from Pfingstberg in this vintage. This is a very subtle wine for late harvest, with the sweetness of the apricot fruits cut by tertiary aromas and herbal impressions. In fact, if you want one word to sum up the style of this house, it would be subtlety.

Why Not to Order Riesling in a Restaurant: the Problem of Trocken

It’s like one of those old riddles: when is a dry wine not dry? Answer: when it’s German Riesling. Or for that matter Riesling from Alsace and (less often) from Austria. The old question of perception of sweetness was brought back for me by dinner at the Setai Restaurant on Miami’s South Beach, where I felt that the Asian-dominated cuisine called for a Riesling. But I wanted a dry Riesling. Although there was range of choices, largely from Germany and Alsace, it was not immediately obvious whether the putatively dry Rieslings were really dry.

So I had a discussion with the sommelier. I liked the look of the Zind Humbrecht Clos Hauserer, which comes from the foot of the Hengst Grand Cru and should have that quintessential mix of richness and minerality. The sommelier assured me that it would be completely dry and went off to find the bottle. After a  few minutes he returned to say that in fact the wine is not dry. I wondered how he had discovered this without opening the bottle, but decided to move on to avoid any possible problems.

Most of the German Rieslings on the list were clearly sweet, but there was one Grosses Gewächs, so I felt safe ordering that without much further discussion, as the whole idea behind Grosses Gewächs is that first the wines should come only from designated top vineyard sites, and second, they should taste dry (more of this in a moment). The wine was Georg Mosbacher’s Forster Freundstuck (Freundstuck is a relatively little known vineyard close to the famous walled Kirchenstuck vineyard in the town of Forst).

This turned out to be a nice wine, inclined to richness rather than minerality, but palpably sweet. If it had been labeled as a halbtrocken (where up to 18 g/l residual sugar is allowed) I would not have blinked, but I found it hard to accept that any reasonable person could describe it as dry. Perhaps it has residual sugar right at the limit for the trocken classification, with low enough acidity to let the sweetness dominate the palate. The sweetness was far too evident for the wine to be a good food match, although it did make a nice aperitif. I suggested to the waiter that the sommelier might like to come back and taste the wine so that he could avoid telling future clients it was dry, but for whatever reason he did not reappear.

When it was time for another bottle, I asked for the wine list, and the waiter, perhaps reacting to my earlier comments, said that he would fetch another sommelier. So I went through the list with head sommelier Dwayne Savoie, and we decided that there really wasn’t another completely dry Riesling. But an excellent alternative was found in the form of F. X. Pichler’s Loibner Berg Grüner Veltliner (Smaragd). I’m usually rather cautious about Grüner Veltliner outside of Austria, because I’ve had so few that have been truly expressive (as opposed to some interesting wines, especially older ones, in the Wachau region. Also, the Smaragd classification is based on ripeness/alcohol and so does not guarantee dryness). But I trusted Dwayne’s judgment on this, and wine turned out well, showing much the same quality as Riesling in ability to match Asian cuisine, although I would say it showed less refinement than Pichler’s Rieslings. My only complaint was that this wine is really too young now – but as I agreed ruefully with Dwayne, restaurants can no longer afford to hold the wines for ripe old age.

But I was left with the feeling that perhaps I should go back to my old rule: never order Riesling in a restaurant because you can’t tell whether it’s dry or not. With the exception of a small number of producers whose wines are always absolutely dry, it’s a pig in a poke. My experience in trusting sommeliers to know whether the wine is dry has not been great either. For years I never ordered Alsace Riesling because of this uncertainty, and I only abandoned the rule for German Riesling when the Grosses Gewächs classification was introduced. But it turns out this has the same flaw as the old system: trocken can allow up to 9 g/l residual sugar, on the assumption that acidity will be high enough to hide the sweetness. But it takes only one case, such as my recent experience, to throw the whole system into doubt; I’m not sure I will take the risk again. Uncertainty is completely lethal in a restaurant, especially given the prices on wine lists these days.

I will certainly concede that the playoff between sugar and acidity can give quite misleading results. Take a series of Rieslings that are supposedly trocken and try to place them in order of sweetness or in order of acidity. Often enough, the order conflicts with the numbers, because of the way in which high acidity disguises sweetness. But there is really no guarantee that a wine will taste dry unless its sugar level is below the level of perception. As Armin Diehl, of Schlossgut Diehl, former editor of the Gault-Millau guide to German wines, said when I asked him about the 9 g/l limit for trocken wines, “This is a nonsense: internationally dry is less than 4 g/l.” If they are really serious in Germany about persuading consumers that they make dry Rieslings that are suitable for matching food, trocken needs to be limited to 4 g/l residual sugar. That’s the level at which almost no one can detect sweetness. As I’ve suggested before, there should be another classification for wines that have more than 4 g/l but less than 9 g/l, and which are intended to taste dry. I am sure the German language is up to producing some very complicated compound adjective, which means, “has some residual sugar but actually tastes dry.”

Tasting Notes

Forster Freundstuck, Grosses Gewächs Riesling, Georg Mosbacher, 2007

The first impression is richness rather than finesse: not surprising for the Pfalz. The nose is fairly muted but gives more of an impression of stone fruits than citrus. The palate follows the same spectrum, but with more of an edge of citrus on the finish, and just a touch of petrol to identify the variety. But the wine is palpably sweet: it does not taste as though residual sugar is below the 9 g/l for the trocken designation. The soft richness of the wine attests to relatively low acidity, which presumably lets the sweetness show through so clearly. Alcohol at 13% attests to the ripeness of the grapes. At all events the balance of sweetness to acidity does not justify the trocken label. This is not what Grosses Gewächs is about, and betrays the whole principle.  87 Drink now-2016.

Loibner Berg, Franz Xaver Pichler, Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, 2007

Very dry is the first impression on nose and palate, almost spicy, although not as finely textured as Pichler’s Rieslings. The fruits show as citrus, inclined towards grapefruit, but with a spicy edge (some might call this white pepper). The citrus fruits give a strong impression of minerality, which again brings an almost Riesling-like note to the finish. The overall impression is that the wine is very young, it really needs some time to integrate and rub off the rough edges: it’s a shame to drink it so soon, it seems to be made for aging.  89 Drink now-2017

The Best Terroir is the Best Terroir

How far can you take terroir? It seems blindingly obvious that some sites produce better wine than others: it is not rocket science to suppose that a sunny spot in the middle of a well drained slope will produce better wine than a cool, shady, damp spot at the bottom.  And I am prepared to buy the fact that slight differences in terroir can reliably produce different nuances in the wine: I was quite convinced of this by several series of pairwise comparisons in Burgundy when I was researching my book on Pinot Noir. Other convincing examples come from comparing, for example, Ernie Loosen’s Rieslings from different vineyards in the Mosel. You can’t mistake the fact that these wines are consistently different, although all made in the same way. But the unresolved question that sticks in my mind is whether different terroirs match different grape varieties or whether the best terroirs are simply the best terroirs. (The middle of that slope would probably produce better plums, apricots, or apples than the bottom.)

I was much struck by this issue when visiting Pinot Noir producers in Germany. All of them, of course, also produce Riesling; in fact, for most of them the Pinot Noir is little more than a sideline. Everywhere in Germany, Riesling is planted in the best terroirs. Those terroirs that aren’t quite good enough for Riesling are planted with other varieties. But where is Pinot Noir planted? Are there spots that are really suitable for Pinot Noir but where Riesling would not succeed? This does not seem to be the case. Pinot Noir is a demanding grape, and it is usually planted in spots that would also have made good Riesling. The best terroirs are the best terroirs, and it’s a matter of choice whether Riesling or Pinot Noir is planted there. And as for the effect of terroir on the nature of the wine, I saw similar effects on both Pinot Noir and Riesling: more minerality, more sense of tension in the wines from the volcanic soils in the north, to rounder, fatter wines from the limestone soils in the south, and softer, lighter wines from sandstone soils in the east.

Is it a general rule that every wine region has a top variety (or varieties) that take the best terroirs? Even on the left bank of Bordeaux, where you hear a lot about the perfect match between Cabernet Sauvignon and the gravel-based soils, it’s really more the case that the gravel-based soils are the best terroirs – so Cabernet Sauvignon is planted there. Merlot is planted in the spots that couldn’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve yet to hear a proprietor extol a vineyard for the perfection of the match of its terroir to Merlot – I suspect the match is more faute de mieux.

Are there regions that grow multiple top varieties where we could test the argument that there are terroirs that are equally good but suited for different varieties. Burgundy seems the obvious case, where the contrast is increased by the fact that Pinot Noir is black but Chardonnay is white. Isn’t it the case that the terroirs of Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, are uniquely suited to Chardonnay whereas those of (say) Nuits St. Georges, Clos Vougeot, and Gevrey Chambertin are uniquely suited to Pinot Noir?

Not exactly. The focus of the appellations to the south of Beaune on white wine is quite recent. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Puligny Montrachet was mostly planted with Gamay, Chassagne Montrachet was almost exclusively red, and Meursault was divided between red and white wine. The area that is now Corton Charlemagne mostly produced red wine until the twentieth century.  And in the eighteenth century, Clos Vougeot’s white wine was almost as highly regarded as Le Montrachet, as indeed was a white Chambertin. Could we at least argue that the change is due to better understanding of what grape varieties are suited to each terroir. No:  it’s the economy, stupid.

When fashion has swung to and fro on red wine versus white, plantings have followed. Here’s a modern case in point. Beaune’s Clos des Mouches is one of the few vineyards that have both black and white grapes. But there isn’t any pattern to the plantings that follows details of terroirs: in fact, rows of black and white grapevines are more or less interspersed, according to what was needed when replanting last occurred. And as Chardonnay has proved more profitable than Pinot Noir, there’s been a trend towards replanting with Chardonnay.

If the best terroirs are the best terroirs, what determines the best variety for each location? Well, climate is no doubt the most important factor: heat accumulation and hours of sunshine are basically going to determine whether and when the grapes reach ripeness.  Are the best terroirs simply those where historically the grapes have ripened most reliably? On the hill of Corton, where the plantings of Chardonnay for Charlemagne stretch round to the western end of the hill, where Pinot has trouble in ripening, you might argue that the best terroirs are planted with Pinot and second best with Chardonnay, although I have to admit that they make wonderful white Burgundy.

So here is the challenge. Are there examples where two terroirs in the same vicinity give different results with two grape varieties of the same quality (and color if we want this to be a rigorous test)? If one terroir gives better results with one variety and the other terroir gives better results with the other variety, then I will withdraw my conclusion that the best terroir is the best terroir and matching grape varieties is down to climate.