Saturday, 23 March 2013

Charting the Course for Cool Climate Wines


If you want to make great wines, you have to be cool. Cool-climate, that is. That was the premise behind the Cool Climate Wine Seminar held in early March at the Taberna Wine Academy.  The discussion was facilitated by a panel with serious wine credentials, among them Masters of Wine Annette Scarfe and Andreas Wickhoff, author and German wine expert Joel Payne, and local wine educator Tan Ying Hsien. 

While scientists and politicians continue to debate the existence of climate change in their ivory towers, those whose livelihoods depend on cooperative weather have no doubts. Tasmania, a region with the distinction of having the coolest climate in Australia, suffered a series of heatwaves in January, reaching record temperatures of 41°C while in the northern hemisphere, widespread frost in Austria last year reduced the crop by 40%. “Temperatures are not moving only in the warmer direction,” said Andreas. “The extremities are also increasing, and that means colder winters, and drought issues. Younger wines are challenged, that’s a fact.”

Why the fuss about cool climate wines? Ying Hsien expounds, “Quality wines come from quality grapes, and the best quality grapes need a certain amount of time to grow, ripen and concentrate their phenolic elements. A cool climate helps to a large extent in terms of the growing process.” Additionally, a cool climate helps to preserve acidity and freshness in the wines. This was exemplified in the first flight of wines tasted, a selection of whites from Germany and Austria. “There is a real purity of fruit and a taut minerality here,” remarked Annette. “This is showing the grape at its best with a real expression of individual variety.”

Not all grapes are suited for cool climates. Late maturing varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache would lack colour and have unattractive stalky notes if planted in cool areas. The seminar focused on early ripening varieties such as Riesling and Pinot Noir, along with lesser-known red Austrian varieties such as Zweigelt and St. Laurent.  Also showing promise was Gruner Veltliner, a high quality white grape that is Austria’s claim to fame. Paired against a top Chardonnay from Burgundy, the panel found that the GV showed better, a result that has been duplicated at other blind tastings. Andreas commented that “Gruner Veltliner is a variety with great diversity. It is one of the few grape varieties that can handle artichoke for example. Try artichoke with Chardonnay or Riesling, and it will most likely clash.” 

The seminar covered three cool-climate wine regions located in the Old World; Austria, Germany and Burgundy, although the panel noted that the New World had its share of cool-climate regions as well such as Central Otago, Tasmania and Patagonia. With their common history, Austria and Germany share many wine terms, including a classification system based on must weights. This system has its roots in the not-unfounded belief that only the best sites could ripen grapes sufficiently given the cool climate of both countries. Climate change however has turned this notion on its head. “In Germany, sometimes we can harvest an Auslese (grapes that are extremely ripe) now in September when we could only harvest a Kabinett (grapes at normal ripeness) in November fifty years ago,” said Joel. Austria and Germany are now moving back to appellation-based systems; the former via the DAC system and the latter via the VDP four-tier classification.

During a highly anticipated blind tasting session, Pinot Noir wines from Burgundy were pitted against their counterparts from Germany. In an interesting twist, two vintages were included, the young 2009 and a more mature 2002. The 2002 Negociant Leroy Gevrey Chambertin was easy to pick out due to its tertiary notes, but it was a challenge identifying the other three wines. When the wines were revealed, it was a German Pinot Noir which had been voted the best by the audience. “Something that most people tend not to know is that after France, Germany and the United States have about the same amount of Pinot Noir planted. In the case of Germany, it is more than Australia and New Zealand combined,” commented Joel. 

The seminar lasted for seven hours, far longer than the normal duration for wine seminars. Yet despite the intense discussions and quantity of wines tasted, I was far from exhausted at the end of it. Annette gave another insight into the benefit of cool-climate wines – that they tend to be lower in alcohol. “We would never have been able to do a full day seminar if it involved heavy, alcoholic wines; everyone would have fallen asleep!”

Complete list of wines:

Photo courtesy of Wein & Vin
Flight 1
Dönnhoff Riesling trocken 2011
Loimer Riesling Kamptal DAC 2011
Loimer Grüner Veltliner Kamptal DAC 2011

Flight 2
Loimer Spiegel Grüner Veltliner Erste Lage Kamptal DAC Reserve 2010
Henri Boillot Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles Premier Cru 2010

Flight 3 (tasted blind)
Loimer Spiegel Grüner Veltliner 2002
Negociant Leroy Meursault Blagny Premier Cru 2002
Loimer Seeberg Riesling 2008
Dönnhoff Hermannshöhle Riesling GG 2008

Flight 4
Heinrich Zwiegelt 2010
Heinrich Blaufränkisch 2010
Heinrich St. Laurent 2010
Heinrich Leithaberg Blaufränkisch 2010
Heinrich Alter Berg Blaufränkisch 2009

Flight 5
Heinrich Pannobile 2009
Heinrich Gabarinza 2009
Heinrich Gabarinza 1999

Flight 6
Loimer Terrassen Pinot Noir 2010
Heinrich Pinot Noir 2009
Huber Malterdinger Pinot Noir 2009
Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Village 2009

Flight 7 (tasted blind)
Huber Alte Reben Spätburgunder 2002
Negociant Leroy Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru 2002
Huber Schlossberg Grosses Gewächs Spätburgunder 2009
Armand Rousseau Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru 2009

My top picks and tasting notes:

Photo courtesy of Wein & Vin
Dönnhoff Riesling trocken 2011 – Dönnhoff is one of the most famous estates in Germany and one of only ten that received a five star rating in Joel Payne’s German Wine Guide. Gossamer purity and steely acidity with a core of green fruit and lime. The term “moreish” is usually applied to food but could well be used here. And this is their entry level wine!

Loimer Spiegel Grüner Veltliner 2002
– Winemaker Fred Loimer has been practicing biodynamics since 2005 and espouses a minimal intervention approach to winemaking. This wine exhibits the heights that Grüner Veltliner can achieve with age. A nutty nose with smoky elements, overlaying green pea and fruit salad. Slightly oily on the palate with balanced acidity. Shows intriguing complexity. 

Huber Alte Reben Spätburgunder 2002 – Weingut Huber is located in Malterdingen, an area with a long tradition of making wines from Pinot Noir. The same Cistercian monks who brought Pinot Noir to Burgundy also brought the vine to Malterdingen, finding that the area had similar soils to that of the Cote d’Or.  This wine, made from vines ranging from 20 to 40 years old, exhibits seductive nuances of raspberry and red fruit with hints of underbrush and soya sauce. Firmly structured with soft tannins and a silky texture. Beautifully balanced. 

Wines available from Wein & Vin.

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