Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Wurzelwerk: Riesling and the Quest to Understand Terroir

Photo: Wurzelwerk. From left to right: Maximilian von Kunow,
Johannes Hasselbach, Stef Jurtschitsch, Alwin Jurtschitsch.
This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Winemakers and good friends Johannes, Max, Alwin and Stefanie spent the 2012 holidays together, sharing merriment and each other’s wines. As Riesling bottles emptied and night settled in, the conversation turned to terroir. What does a glass of Riesling say about its vineyard site? Is terroir just a combination of the vineyard’s soil, climate and topography? How much does the winemaker affect a wine’s sense of place?

By the end of the night, they’d devised a plan to try to answer some of these questions. The motto: “Give me your juice; I’ll give you mine.” They called it Wurzelwerk, or root work.

The cast:
·      Johannes Hasselbach, Weingut Gunderloch (Rheinhessen, Germany)
·      Maximilian von Kunow, Weingut von Hövel (Saar, Germany)
·      Alwin & Stefanie Jurtschitsch, Weingut Jurtschitsch (Kamptal, Austria)

The concept: Each winemaker trades some of their 2012 harvest with the others. Each winemaker then crafts three different wines, one from his own estate fruit and one from the fruit of the other two.

The result: 3 winemakers x 3 Rieslings = 9 wines. Their final output totaled about 400 half-liter bottles of each of the nine Rieslings.

I recently attended a Wurzelwerk tasting at Domaine Wine Storage in Washington, DC, where these three winemakers showed off the results of their experiment. Alwin kicked off the tasting with an explanation of the basic question they were investigating. If soil, aspect, climate, indigenous yeasts and other site-specific factors comprise terroir, then “by rule, it should taste the same,” Alwin said. “In practice, it’s actually quite different.”

After an explanation of the logistical details, we tasted the first three wines side-by-side. The crowd was befuddled. Questions and concern spread through the room. “Why do they taste different?”

Max chuckled. “That’s the question.” Alwin and Johannes refer to Max as the philosopher of the bunch, and it fits considering how energized he gets by these complex little mysteries. “You can read a hundred books about wine,” Max told the crowd. He pointed to his glass. “No book has this.”

In order to make the process as uniform as possible, the winemakers removed as many variables as they could. Johannes, for example, normally uses old oak barrels to ferment his Riesling, but for this project everyone used stainless steel. The grapes were crushed to avoid potential oxidation that could arise from just shipping crates of whole clusters, but the juice was left in contact with the skins. The on the road juice had the same level of skin contact as the home field juice. (For the sake of consistency and clarity, I’m referring to the wines vinified elsewhere as “on the road” wines, and those wines vinified on their own turf as “home field” wines.) The wines were fermented using only ambient yeasts from the vineyard, meaning no additional yeasts were added to the on the road juice.

Another interesting note: the wines took vastly different amounts of time to ferment. Some were completed three months after the harvest, while others didn’t finish fermenting until June of 2013. Yet another mystery.

This is all part of the fun, Johannes said. “We haven’t demystified wine. If anything, we’ve further mystified it.” The winemakers knew they would learn a few things through this project, and, of course, they did. But Johannes was speaking for all of them all when he said, “The whole idea was looking for answers. What we got was more questions.”

My takeaway: I thought each wine tasted best when it was vinified on its home field. The on the road juice still expressed the basic characteristics of its vineyard, but these wines were slightly out of focus, a bit more hesitant, lacking some of the verve and wow factor of the home field wines. Only slightly, though. I thought all of the wines were impressive. But they were different, unpredictable, perplexing. Their similarities were pushed to the side as my attention focused on their nuanced differences.

My notes follow…

“Der Schatz-Berg”
This is Max’s fruit. These three wines come from Von Hövel’s holdings in the blue slate soils of the Scharzhofberg vineyard, located in the Saar region of the larger Mosel Valley. The wines carry the funny name because, under German wine laws, a wine cannot carry a vineyard designate if it is made outside of Germany.

2012 Von Hövel Riesling Wurzelwerk “Der Schatz-Berg” - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
Complex aromas of honey, white flowers, white peaches, orange peel and lots of crushed rocks. Tangy, clean, yet rich on the palate, with flavors of orange peel, lychee nut and limes. The non-fruit flavors are just awesome: saline, slate, clay soil, smashed rocks. Long, pure and beautiful. Showing more clarity and precision than the other wines. (92 points)

2012 Gunderloch Riesling Wurzelwerk “Der Schatz-Berg” - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
Showing a bit less intensity on the nose, with orange peel, white flowers and slate. Ripping acid on the palate, this wine is brisk and salty, more so than the others. Still getting that great orange peel, but some lemon in here too, honeysuckle. Intense minerality on this wine. A bit leaner than the Jurtschisch and ever more when compared to the Von Hövel. (91 points)

2012 Jurtschitsch Riesling Wurzelwerk “Der Schatz-Berg” - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
The aromas are still beautiful, and quite similar to Von Hövel’s, but a smidge less intense. Orange peel, white flowers, crushed rocks. Creamy on the palate, but tangy, with orange peel and lychee nut, but this wine tastes a bit nuttier, showing a bit less mineral and a bit more floral and candied orange peel notes. Still a beautiful wine, but shocking to taste the difference. (91 points)

“Der Rote Berg”
This is Johannes’ fruit. It comes from Gunderloch’s holdings in the red slate Rothenberg vineyard, located in the Rheinhessen town of Nackenheim.

2012 Von Hövel Riesling Wurzelwerk “Der Rote Berg” - Germany, Rheinhessen
Aromas of peach nectar, apricot, bright flowers, limestone, sea salt. Tangy and zesty on the palate, with orange, papaya and apricot flavors. Love the sea salt and mineral aspects. Close to the Gunderloch estate wine, but just a bit less focused. (90 points)

2012 Gunderloch Riesling Wurzelwerk “Der Rote Berg” - Germany, Rheinhessen
Amazing aromas: white peach, apricot, intense floral notes, sea breeze, limestone. So pure and focused on the palate, with flavors of orange, apricot and lychee nut. Crisp, nervy acid, rushing minerals, and notes of spiced tea and mienrals on the finish. More defined and driven than the other wines. Another example of the best wine of the three coming from the home field cellar. (91+ points)

2012 Jurtschitsch Riesling Wurzelwerk “Der Rote Berg” - Germany, Rheinhessen
More peaches and yellow flowers on the nose than the other wines, with richer, honeyed notes. Juicy apricot, lychee and orange on the palate. Zesty, with sea shells and minerals, some limestone, chalk and sea breeze notes. A really impressive wine, but definitely different than the Gunderloch estate wine. (91 points)

“Der Heilige Stein”
This fruit comes from Alwin and his wife Stef, who work together on the wines. The fruit comes from Jurtschitsch’s holdings in the Heiligestein vineyard in the Kamptal region of Austria. The soils are composed of desert sandstone with quartz and high silica content.

2012 Von Hövel Riesling Wurzelwerk “Der Heilige Stein” - Austria, Niederösterreich, Kamptal
Interesting mix of aromas: apricot, clover honey and a musky note. Clean and crisp on the palate with rich apricot, lychee papaya flavors, but tingly acid throughout. Sea salt, clay and honeycomb notes. Complex, balanced, beautiful. (91 points)

2012 Gunderloch Riesling Wurzelwerk “Der Heilige Stein” - Austria, Niederösterreich, Kamptal
Apricot, papaya, sea salt and minerals on the nose. Juicy and plump on the palate but nervy acid keeps it balanced. Papaya, lime juice and apricot flavors mix with minerals, chalk and whipped honey. Long, complex, showing a hint more minerals and elegance than the Von Hövel, at least for my palate. Long, honeyed finish. (91+ points)

2012 Jurtschitsch Riesling Wurzelwerk “Der Heilige Stein” - Austria, Niederösterreich, Kamptal
Focused aromas of white peach, papaya, potpourri, chalk and sea salt. Definitely the most complex aromas of the bunch. Again, on the palate, this home field wine scores big. So pure and direct on the palate, with papaya, lime and apricot. More intense minerality than the other two wines, and this shows complex clover honey, yellow flowers and chalk. Long, sexy finish. A gorgeous Austrian Riesling showing just what the Heiligenstein vineyard can offer. (92 points)

I’ve obsessed over wine for almost a decade now. But despite all the studying, all the blind tasting, all the collecting, all the corked bottles and blog posts, it’s refreshing and liberating to realize, through some sort of Riesling-fueled Socratic epiphany, that I know so very little. Wine will forever by mysterious. “In a hundred years, we will not have all the answers,” Max told the group of tasters.

He’s right. And as we do get the answers, the questions will change, and we’ll need to seek new answers all over again. This never-ending mystery, it befuddles us all, oenologists, growers, winemakers, writers, consumers.  Isn’t that why we love it so?

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