In the middle of dinner prep, our guests — son Jakob and his friend Darsie — arrived from Truckee, eager to do a little wine-tasting before our happy-birthday-dear-Jakob celebration. I sent them off to Vini, promising to meet up as soon as I finished the salad.
When I arrived, they were sitting at the bar, happily ensconced in wine-talk with owner Jeff Day. So I wandered through the 70-odd wines available “on tap” in search of just one to serve as my appetite-whetter (not that I ever need such). I found one that intrigued me, poured a taste and joined the out-of-towners.
“What are you drinking?” Darsie asked.
“It’s a pinot noir from Germany,” I replied. She stared at me. “I can’t believe that out of all the wines in this place, you and Jakob chose the same one!”
Thinking about this amusing coincidence later, I decided that it wasn’t quite as much a coincidence (much less a mysterious mother-son connection) as it seemed.
The afternoon was chilly, so chances were good that we’d choose red over white. Jakob has a few rows of pinot growing in Mendocino County and is making his first wine from them, so he has a particular interest in tasting a wide variety of pinot styles. Both Jakob and I have for years been in search of the “perfect” pinot and enjoy critiquing as many examples as possible (I being a bit more tolerant of oak and austerity).
Finally, both of us like restrained, unusual wines — and a German pinot sounds both restrained and unusual, doesn’t it?
Not so unusual, I’ve since discovered. First, Germany is one of the top three pinot noir growers in the world (the other two being France and the United States). And the Germans have been making pinot noir (or Spätburgunder, as it’s called in German-speaking lands) since Cistercian monks in the 13th century planted these vines along the Rhine.
They also planted them in Burgundy, to rather greater success and fame. Most of the great wines — some argue they’re the greatest wines in the world — of this region are 100 percent pinot noir. The fickle, persnickety grapes flourished in France but had hard time ripening in the cooler German climate. Until recently, German pinots tended toward the very light and lean. Unsurprisingly, the best came from Baden, the southernmost German wine region.
Enter climate change. And ambitious young winemakers. The German red wine landscape is changing, and the new German pinots have more in common than the old with their French relatives.
The ’08 Reichsrat von Buhl Spätburgunder we tasted that day was a good example. Light, yes, and very dry but with lovely restrained fruit and a hint of good earth. Here’s Jancis Robinson’s assessment: “I find good German Spätburgunder … usually reliably gentler and fruitier than run-of-the-mill red Burgundy and this wine shows pinot noir at its most delicately succulent. It finishes with lovely freshness.” I liked it a bit more than Jakob did.
I’d send you to Vini to taste it, but in the way of Vini, it has been replaced. And German pinot noir isn’t so easy to find. At first I thought it was just its unfamiliarity. But I’ve learned that the Germans so love their Spätburgunder that they drink most of it right up.
When I asked Claire at the Co-op if she had one, she smiled happily and pushed me along to a section with several German wines. She reverently put a bottle with an elegant white and silver label in my hands. “It’s a bit pricey,” she said, “but worth it.” (It’s currently on sale for $23.)
She was right. My partner and I had a bottle of this Heger ’08 Sonett pinot noir (from Baden) for dinner that very night. Wow. Its cherry and strawberry aroma and flavor make it unmistakably a pinot noir, but it certainly wasn’t from California and you’d guess probably not from France.
I have no idea what I’d think in a blind tasting, but knowing it was from Germany, it tasted, well, German. It’s quite light but with surprisingly intense fruit that’s nevertheless entirely restrained and elegant. A bit of smoke and thyme and maybe violet adds to its pleasures.
And it went beautifully with both our entrees (at Monticello) — an arctic char with creamed leaks and a hand-made pasta dish with a variety of mushrooms — cutting through the creaminess with a gentle acidity. It even did fine with the beet salad we shared as a first course and the baked quince we shared for dessert.
California-based importer Rudi Wiest has a reputation as the finest U.S. importer of German wines; he visits Germany two or three times a year, and has personal relationships with all the Wiest-represented estates. I can’t imagine finding a domestic pinot of this quality at this price; I immediately emailed Jakob. (The wine’s in fairly limited release; if you want to try it, don’t delay.)
In my ongoing search for the interesting and unusual, I had a chance to drink a bottle of the newly released and relentlessly local Simas Family Vineyards Mourvèdre. Mourvèdre’s best known as a blending grape, most famously in the GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvèdre) Rhône reds.
Although it has been grown in California since 1860, it was mostly used, as the Simas family says, to make the “California field blend.” By which I think they mean “plonk.”
But the grape was given new life by the Rhone Rangers in the late 20th century (I’ll never get used to writing that), who started looking for old vine plantings of the varietal and experimenting with both single-varietal bottles and Rhône-style blends.
Simas Family Vineyards has been, since its beginnings, using mourvèdre in its Capay Valley Red, but now has a very limited bottling of the single varietal. And delicious it is, with its earthy, dark berry aromas and flavor. We drank it with a rapini-topped pizza one night and a chard-bean-goat cheese pasta another. It worked perfectly with both. I haven’t seen it in any stores yet, but Monticello now has it on its wine list, an excellent choice given the wine’s affinity for California (i.e., Mediterranean) seasonal cuisine.
Jakob’s going to say, “Just a bit too much oak,” but he’ll happily drink it anyway.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com