Hangover-less wine (and other stories)

There’s a rumour going round in the outré world of artisanal alcohol consumption that natural wine won’t give you a hangover – presuming of course that you drink a hangover’s worth of the wine in the first place.

I have to tell you that it’s just not true.

It is not true because it contains alcohol, a toxin, which if ingested in sufficient quantities dehydrates the body and consequently impairs its proper functioning.

That said, natural wine may just give you more of a fighting chance of recovery on those dreadful Dixonian days than a bog-standard supermarket bottle would.

Why so? Because of its relative absence of sulphur dioxide.

What is sulphur dioxide?

Sulphur dioxide is a chemical compound. It is widely used as a preservative in the food and drinks industry. It’s used in the preservation of dried fruits; it’s even used to keep fresh fruit looking fresh. Those little packs of sliced apple in the supermarket – have you ever wondered how they stay white rather than oxidising and going all orangey-brown?

Sulphur dioxide (as in ‘contains sulphites’) is also used in winemaking. It has been for centuries. As long ago as the Roman era winemakers would burn sulphur candles in their amphorae wine vessels before filling them with wine; although they didn’t know how it stopped the wine from spoiling, they knew it did. The practice was then adopted by 16th century English and Dutch importers who did the same with their oak barrels.

Nowadays it’s usually added in synthetic, powdered form at various stages of the winemaking process – just after the grapes have been crushed, after fermentation, or just before bottling. These are the stages when the wine is most likely to oxidise and spoil.

Less scrupulous or more risk-averse winemakers will add it at all three stages. Natural winemakers distinguish themselves by adding only a minimal amount of sulphur during the whole operation, usually at bottling.

Some diehards use no sulphur at all. From a commercial point of view this is tantamount to madness. From a natural winemaking point of view, it is almost the Holy Grail.

How does this relate to the bastard behind my eyes?

Experiments have shown that sulphur dioxide messes with the action of a compound called glutathione. When the body processes booze, one set of enzymes converts alcohol to acetaldehyde. Glutathione then kicks in to convert acetaldehyde into acetate, which the body find easier to excrete.

Sulphur dioxide inhibits glutathione, which means acetaldehyde hangs around, which is not what you want: it’s up to 30 times more toxic than alcohol, hence the bastard behind the eyes, the nausea, the insuperable sense that your family and friends “are leagued in a barely contained conspiracy of silence about what a shit you are”, as Kingsley Amis puts it.

So, all other things being equal, if you want to keep the risk of the unpleasantness outlined above to a minimum, you will assuredly fare better with wine that is ‘natural’, rather than ‘conventional’.

One place you can do this in the very near future (assuming that you’re reading this before December 3), is at the William Morris Gallery Late event co-hosted by the Vine Collective:

 

wmg-late-agitate
This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Winter edition of Root + Bone.
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Tasting Older Vintage Chablis

In January this year I was learning about the left/right bank contrasts of Chablis at a tasting hosted by BIVB Chablis at 28-50 in Maddox Street. I wrote about it here, using a picture in a deeply clever and innovative way to illustrate the story.

*** Chablis is not a grape, by the way. A drinks magazine editor pointed out recently that most wine consumers think that’s the case. It’s actually a region in the north of Burgundy that makes lean, generally mineral, apple-and-citrus wine from chardonnay grapes. ***

Anyway, at the tasting I was talking to a gentleman called Sebastien who was pouring the wines. He explained to me how Chablis develops in the bottle – the sort of flavours that bottle ageing produces which transform Chablis from lean, generally mineral, apple-and-citrus wines into something new and wonderful – with flavours of hazelnuts, mushrooms, honey, stuff like that.

I told Sebastien that, though I loved Chablis, I’d never tasted any older-vintage bottles and would have to seek some out. He told me that he worked for Jean-Marc Brocard, one of the big producers in Chablis, and that he would send me a bottle when he got back to France. I said that would be brilliant and wandered off to find the smoked salmon (much better with oaked, left-bank Chablis than generally unoaked right-bank Chablis, by the way).

A few weeks later a magnum of Brocard 2003 arrived on my doorstep and I felt very happy about that. I wrote to Sebastien, saying I would wait for the right time to open it and would let him know how I found it.

Several months later, over dinner with my girlfriend and a couple of friends, one of whom is a girl, or rather a woman; the other of whom is a boy, or rather man, I opened it.

Dinner was oysters with two sauces – one of passion fruit, the other sauce mignonette – then saltcrust sea trout with roast potatoes, samphire and saffron aioli.

Now 2003 is supposed to have been a disastrous vintage in Burgundy: loads of frost damage in April followed by one of the hottest summers on record, which meant grapes had to be picked ridiculously early throughout the region. Quantities were low and quality much the same (although cooler sites on higher slopes which usually produced inferior wines (eg Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Hautes Côtes de Nuits) had an anomalously good year).

Yet this 2003 Chablis was absolutely wonderful: hazelnut, honey and savoury notes combined with a much-softened lemon-apple fruitiness. Lovely texture, well-balanced, really complex and quite rich, which is remarkable if you consider that AOC Chablis is unoaked.

No oak, a cool climate and the famously unaromatic chardonnay – this might seem like a recipe for unremarkable wine, but here the combination of good-quality grapes, the flavour-producing action of fermentation, lees ageing and extended time in bottle has produced something wonderful. I wish I had 20 more magnums to savour.

A huge thank you to Sebastien for introducing me to the deliciousness of older vintage Chablis.

Consernyng Tayste and John Milton’s Beeying a Dyck

At a certain point, our concepts of taste got all muddled. Gustatory taste got mixed up with aesthetic taste, sensation blurred into sensibility. This is a problem, because as a result the same snobbery that prevails over aesthetic taste often does so over the tasting we do with nose (80% of taste is retronasal olfaction) and tongue.

It’s all wrong, as any reasonable person knows. There is no accounting for taste: it’s subjective – partly down to gene expression, partly down to where you’re born, how god-awful your school meals were, etc, but always personal.

Taste is not an aptitude test. It’s about pleasure (what food scientists refer to as hedonic valence) and the more we taste the greater the scope for pleasure. It’s something that really needs to be rescued from snobbery and restored to its original evolutionary-behavioural simplicity.

If you’re looking for someone to blame for the confusion, try the poet John Milton. In Paradise Lost, for the first time Milton used the word ‘taste’ to refer to something more than ‘tongue taste’ – namely as a metaphor for good judgement:

Eve, now I see thou art exact of taste,
And elegant, of Sapience no small part,
Since to each meaning savour we apply,
And Palate call judicious…

Four centuries on, some of us struggle to admit we prefer the taste of prosecco to champagne, or Rice Krispies to Eggs Benedict, or any other number of preferences which are governed by the measure of pleasure they give us and that alone.

Well done, Milton, you dick.

This is an extract from an article originally written for iLoveMyGrub.com.

Mosella

Mosella is a paean to the river Mosel written around 1,650 years ago by the poet and scholar Ausonius. Born in Bordeaux, Ausonius worked as a lawyer, grammarian and rhetorician before being called to the imperial court in Trier, then a major Roman imperial city, by Emperor Valentinian to educate his son, prince Gratian. Ausonius eventually returned to Bordeaux where, in his old age, he wrote several literary works of which Mosella, here excerpted and beautifully translated from the original Latin, is one of the most celebrated. His descriptions of the boisterous industry on the vine-covered banks off the river make clear just how important winemaking was in the region so many centuries ago. And so well written…

I had crossed over swift-flowing Nahe’s cloudy stream and gazed with awe upon the ramparts lately thrown round ancient Bingum, where Gaul once matched the Roman rout at Cannae and where her slaughtered hordes lay scattered over the countryside untended and unwept.

Thence onward I began a lonely journey through pathless forest, nor did my eyes rest on any trace of human inhabitants. I passed Kirchberg, sweltering amid its parched fields, and Tabernae, watered by its unfailing spring, and the lands lately parcelled out to Sarmatian settlers.

And at length on the very verge of Belgic territory I descry Neumagen, the famed camp of sainted Constantine. Clearer the air which here invests the plains, and Phoebus, cloudless now, discloses glowing heaven with his untroubled light. No longer is the sky to seek, shut out by the green gloom of branches intertwined: but the free breath of transparent day withholds not sight of the sun’s pure rays and of the ether, dazzling to the eyes.

Nay more, the whole gracious prospect made me behold a picture of my own native land, the smiling and well-tended country of Bordeaux—the roofs of country-houses, perched high upon the overhanging river-banks, the hill-sides green with vines, and the pleasant stream of Moselle gliding below with subdued murmuring.

Hail, river, blessed by the fields, blessed by the husbandmen, to whom the Belgae owe the imperial honour which graces their city, Trier: river, whose hills are o’ergrown with Bacchus’s fragrant vines, o’ergrown, river most verdant, thy banks with turf: ship-bearing as the sea, with sloping waters gliding as a river, and with thy crystal depths the peer of lakes, brooks thou canst match for hurrying flow, cool springs surpass for limpid draughts; one, thou hast all that belongs to springs, brooks, rivers, lakes, and tidal Ocean with his ebb and flow.

Thou, with calm waters onward gliding, feel’st not any murmurs of the wind nor check from hidden rocks; nor by foaming shallows art thou forced to hurry on in swirling rapids, no eyots hast thou jutting in midstream to thwart thy course—lest the glory of thy due title be impaired, if any isle sunder and stem thy flow.

For thee two modes of voyaging are appointed: this, when boats move down thy stream with current favouring and their oars thrash the churned waters at full speed; that, when along the banks, with tow-rope never slackening, the boatmen strain on their shoulders hawsers bound to the masts.

Thyself how often dost thou marvel at the windings of thine own stream, and think its natural speed moves almost too slowly! Thou with no mud-grown sedge fringest thy banks, nor with foul ooze o’erspread’st thy marge; dry is the treading down to thy water’s edge.

 

For from the topmost ridge to the foot of the slope the river-side is thickly planted with green vines. The people, happy in their toil, and the restless husbandmen are busy, now on the hill-top, now on the slope, exchanging shouts in boisterous rivalry. Here the wayfarer tramping along the low-lying bank, and there the bargeman floating by, troll their rude jests at the loitering vine-dressers; and all the hills, and shivering woods, and channelled river, ring with their cries.

Nor does the scenery of this region please men alone; I can believe that here the rustic Satyrs and the grey-eyed Nymphs meet together on the border of the stream, when the goat-footed Pans are seized with merry ribaldry, and splashing in the shallows, frighten the trembling sister-Nymphs beneath the stream, while they thresh the water with unskilful strokes.

Oft also, when she has stolen clusters from the inland hills, Panope, the river lady, with a troop of Oread friends, flees the wanton Fauns, gods of the country-side and it is said that when the sun’s fiery orb stops in the midst of his course, the Satyrs and the sister-Nymphs of the crystal depths meet here beside the stream and ply the dance in partnership, what time the fiercer heat affords them hours set free from mortal company.

Then, wantonly frolicking amid their native waters, the Nymphs duck the Satyrs in the waves, and slip away right through the hands of those unskilful swimmers, as, baffled, they seek to grasp their slippery limbs and, instead of bodies, embrace yielding waves.

But of these things which no man has looked upon and no eye beheld, be it no sin for me to speak in part: let things secret be kept hid, and let Reverence dwell unspied upon, in the safekeeping of her native streams. Yon is a sight that may be freely enjoyed: when the azure river mirrors the shady hill, the waters of the stream seem to bear leaves and the flood to be all o’ergrown with shoots of vines.

What a hue is on the waters when Hesperus has driven forward the lagging shadows and overspreads Moselle with the green of the reflected height! Whole hills float on the shivering ripples: here quivers the far-off tendril of the vine, here in the glassy flood swells the full cluster.

The deluded boatman tells o’er the green vines – the boatman whose skiff of bark floats on the watery floor out in mid-stream, where the pictured hill blends with the river and where the river joins with the edges of the shadows. and when oared skiffs join in mimic battle in mid-stream, how pleasing is the pageant which this sight affords!

They circle in and out, and graze the sprouting blades of the cropped turf along the green banks. The husbandman, standing upon the rise of the green bank, watches the light-hearted owners as they leap about on stem or prow, the boyish crew straggling over the river’s wide expanse, and never feels the day is slipping by, but puts their play before his business, while present pleasure shuts out past cares.

Mosel Riesling: Like the Juice of Crushed Slate

Not that you can get juice from crushed slate, but the image definitely evokes the focused, flinty character of rieslings from the Mosel.

In this most northerly of wine regions (it’s at 50° latitude; the latitudinal range for wine growing is 28°-50°) the bits of slate that litter the vineyards store the sun’s heat, transferring the energy to vines which would otherwise lose the will during the cold night hours. The Mosel river itself also helps to nourish the vines, reflecting the sun on to the slopes and providing that extra bit of warmth that encourages the vines along.

And what about those slopes:

Bremmer Calmont

 

‘Steep’ barely covers it. Look across the river at certain vineyard blocks and they look vertical . The Bremmer Calmont (Bremm is the town, Calmont the vineyard. This is a naming system you will come to recognise if you drink Mosel wines) vineyard on the bow of the river between Trier and Koblenz is the steepest in Europe. At 67 degrees, it has the same gradient as the tougher sections of the Matterhorn. Just being able to stand in vineyards like this would seem impossible without harnesses, carabiners and crampons – but farming them?

Terracing is essential on such vertiginous sites, but even then bad things can happen. The guide on my trip told me the last tragic accident was three years ago, when a winemaker who was replanting a particularly steep vineyard site fell off his tractor and somehow impaled himself on a vine-training pole. His family continues to make wine in the same region.

People have been braving these inhospitable sites for 2,000 years, since the Romans ruled the western world. Nearby Trier was a major Roman city and much of the wine made in the Mosel was transported down the river for consumption there. Archaeological discoveries of a Roman wine press that dates back to 400 AD (making it the largest wine press ever found north of the Alps) indicate the scale of the industry then. Indeed it’s thought that the vineyard area in the Middle Mosel sites of Piesport and Neumagen-Dhron during the Roman era was just as big as it is today.

What’s the wine like?

What can you expect from Mosel riesling? It is a very special combination of high acidity, low alcohol and laser-focused minerality. When you taste one of these wines, you know about it. Such finesse, such clear definition, such invigorating freshness. And because the alcohol is low, you can drink a lot without getting messy. I regard this as a huge plus point.

What about Mosel riesling’s famed ‘minerality’? Does the slate show in the flavour of the wine? It may appear to, but no, not literally. Though terroir romantics would have us believe otherwise, there is no known mechanism for the transfer of mineral flavours from soil to finished wine. Besides which slate doesn’t taste of anything. Having said that, there’s something going on that gives Mosel rieslings their unmistakeable, mouthwatering, mineral feel.

Some wine people think that it’s a relative absence of fruitiness which we read as a mineral, even faintly salty, quality in the wine. It’s also been suggested that it’s something to do with sulphur compounds produced during fermentation. Others still argue that certain nutrients in water held deep in a soil – sodium and potassium-containing ones – are drawn up through the roots and transfer to the fruit.

There are even suggestions that the mineral-salty feel in certain wines it attributable to a fungus, a gossamer-fine network of mycorrhizae which attaches itself to vine roots and exists in a marvellous symbiotic relationship with them, transmitting messages like synapses in a brain and helping them to distribute water and nutrients evenly throughout the whole vine system.

Studies are being conducted that should get to the bottom of this terroir mystery before much longer. Until then, if you want to know more about it, I recommend you read what wine writer and former plant biologist Jamie Goode has to say about it.

The best Mosel rieslings from my trip:

I spent two days travelling along the Mosel river and tried a wide range of rieslings from different vineyard sites in the company of local wine writers, Mosel specialists and the winemakers themselves. These are the best wines tasted during my trip. I’ve made a note of those wineries I know to be biodynamic or natural, and have included links to UK retailers/importers where known.

Weingut Sybille Kuntz (Lieser, Mosel, available from OW Loeb)
Maximin Grünhauser (Grunhaus, Ruwer, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Meulenhof (Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Haart (Piesport, Mosel)
Weingut Markus Molitor (Bernkastel-Wehlen, Mosel, available from Bibendum)
Weingut AJ Adam (Dhron, Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Van Volxem (natural, Viltingen, Saar, available from Howard Ripley)
Weingut Clemens Busch (biodynamic, Zell, Mosel, available from David Bowler)
Weingut zur Römerkelter (biodynamic, Maring-Noviand, Mosel, available from Vintage Roots)
Weingut Zilliken (Saarburg, Saar, available from OW Loeb)
Weingut Knebel (Winningen, Mosel, available from Flint Wines)
Weinhof Herrenberg (Schoden, Saar, available from The Winery UK)
Staffelter Hof (Kröv, Mosel)
Weingut SA Prüm (Bernkastel-Wehlen, Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Hain (Piesport, Mosel, available from Tanners Wine)
Weingut Bastgen (Bernkastel, Mosel)
Weingut Melsheimer (biodynamic, Reil, Mosel, available from The Winery UK)

An Introduction to German Wine (Especially Riesling)

I’m just back from Germany where I’ve been travelling through the Mosel and Ahr valleys to taste as much German riesling and pinot noir as I could. I’m going to write three blog posts based on the trip starting with this one, a general introduction to German wine and its main grape, riesling. Then I’ll write one on Mosel riesling (which is the best riesling in the world) and one about Ahr pinot noir…

Germany makes some of the best wines on the planet. It has done for centuries. Not enough people know this.

I wrote about German wine’s persistent image problem – one that’s basically down to Blue Nun and complicated labels like this…

german wine label

– after a wine press trip to Rhinehessen, Nahe and Pfalz last July. That was a baking hot few days for which I forgot to pack any appropriate clothing, so I spent four days disintegrating in 30C heat in black denim jeans. But the wines, particularly the rieslings – taut and mineral in Nahe; fuller with more ‘meat on the bones’ in the warmer Pfalz – made it all okay.

Riesling is sometimes referred to as a ‘noble’ grape – one of six along with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. This indicates its potential for producing wines of the high quality and ageworthiness wherever in the world it is grown.

And wherever in the world its grown, riesling is unmistakable: high in acidity, with lime, grapefruit, peach and (especially sweet styles) pineapple fruit notes, often with hints of honeysuckle and, in the more complex and developed ones, resiny essential oils, ginger, peppery spice, even petrol (that’s actually quite common).

It is almost never oaked, and rarely undergoes malolactic fermentation (which converts sharp, zingy malic acid to softer, ’rounder’ lactic), so you can always expect a mouthwatering, primary-fruit freshness from a riesling, and its high acidity means it will stay drinkable for a decades. The oldest I’ve had were from the 1970s, but pre-war bottles still have a near-miraculous freshness about them.

Although its also a defining grape of Alsace and there are plantings all over the world, from Chile to Australia, German rieslings are, to quote Tina Turner, simply the best – that is, they are the ones with the greatest finesse and character. It has been this way for a long, long time. For centuries royal households have insisted on having German rieslings in their cellars; auction records from the early 20th century show that German riesling was at the time the most highly prized wine in the world, commanding a price three times higher than any first-growth Bordeaux.

Labels…

The labelling of German wines can be confusing. But this is how it basically works: when it comes to quality wine (as opposed to basic table wine), the nomenclature is based on grape ripeness, measured in degrees Oechsle.

First you have ‘Qualitätswein’. This will be the most basic wine of a reputable estate and can be made up from grapes from any of the estate’s vineyard sites. These grapes will have been the first to be harvested.

Then you have a system known as ‘Prädikat’, which is upheld by a group of about 200 of Germany’s best wineries known collectively as the Verband Deutscher Prädikats (VDP). When you’re looking for a good-quality German wine, look for this symbol on the cap of the bottle:

VDP_logo

The first level of this Prädikat system is ‘kabinett’. Kabinett wine is a level up from qualitatswein and traditionally off-dry – ie, it’s possible to detect a hint of sweetness, though often it’s completely dry. The name ‘kabinett’, incidentally, comes from a time when monks made wine and kept their best supplies in a special store, or cabinet, in the cellar.

Next comes ‘spätlese’ (which means ‘late harvest’). Here the grapes will be picked a little later than for kabinett, and so will have more ripeness, more sugar. They may have also begun to be affected by noble rot. Spätlese wines are usually a touch sweeter than kabinett but are sometimes fermented to fully dry, and may have a slightly higher level of alcohol. (Alcohol is always low for Mosel rieslings, incidentally, which gives them that unique combination of grapey sweetness, racy acidity and low alcohol which means you can drink them all night and still feel pretty sprightly at the end of it.)

Then you have ‘auslese’. Here the grapes are riper still, with more sugar in the grapes, and a greater proportion of the grape having been affected by noble rot. Then you have the properly sweet, dessert style, which can only be made during the best vintages, and which require a high level of care and selection of the grapes. First there is ‘beerenauslese’. Then there is the syrupy, intense and astoundingly expensive ‘trockenbeerenauslese’, which is made from individually selected, completely botrytised (raisined) grapes. As an example of its level of refinement, around 1,000,000 of these grapes are needed to make around 400l of wine.

Finally there is ‘eiswein’, where the grapes are left on the vines until well after the first frost, when they’re fully botrytised. They are pressed while frozen, which extracts the intense, sugary juice while leaving the water content behind. Like trockenbeerenauslese wine, eiswein is very expensive and only it’s only possible to produce it in excellent vintages. Also as with trockenbeerenauslese, it’s really, really lovely.

The prädikat system applies to any white grape, but the one you’ll find it applied to more than any other is riesling, which is by far Germany’s most celebrated.

If you’re put off by the idea of sweetness in wine, remember that riesling has very high acidity, so the sugar in, say, a spätlese or auslese is not going to make the wine taste especially sweet; rather its interaction with the acidity will create a wonderful, mouthwatering dynamism in the mouth. These wines are as fresh and vibrant as can be; they are anything but cloying.

Riesling and food…

While riesling not very well represented on supermarket shelves, wine pros love it. Ask a sommelier her favourite white grape and more often than not the answer will be riesling. This isn’t because its recherché or vogueishly weird, but because it’s so distinctive and so versatile, fantastic to drink on its own or to pair with a wonderfully wide variety of food styles.

Scandinavia is one of the biggest export markets for German wine. Think of typical Nordic foods: smoked and salted fish, berries, herbs, very clean, often delicate, flavours; think, as a pairing, the younger, leaner, more mineral rieslings of the upper Rhine – Mosel, Nahe, Rheingau.

German rieslings are one of the only genuinely good pairings for Asian and South-East Asian food, most having the requisite low alcohol, firm acidity and refreshing character to marry with the spicy, sweet-sour and umami flavours of cooking from this part of the world. Steamed dim sum or sashimi? Try the same sort of riesling as for the Nordic foods mentioned above. Thai red or green curry? Try a young spätlese riesling to cut through the cream but carry the sweetness.

Older vintages of ripe rieslings, such as auslese, even go well with game, such as venison, when it’s accompanied by fruity sauces. Oysters are even an option, especially for older vintages from regions known for their salty, mineral styles, like the Mosel.

Best vintages…

As a rule of thumb, since 2000 the odd years have been good, even years not as good (high acidity, less fruit), with the exception of 2012 which was very good. 2014 was difficult with a marked problem with fruit flies and rot. Estates had to select their grapes very carefully and yields were relatively low, especially in the lower Mosel.  This vintage produced a lighter style of wine, generally.

In 2013 yields were poor again but the wines that were produced had more intense flavour than the 2014s. Both 2001 and 2005 were excellent vintages with very ripe fruit, while 2009 was also good. According to some producers, 2011 was the best vintage since 2000. Prior to this, the standout vintage – one of the best of the century – was 1990.

So there you go. Seek these wines out. Riesling is a wonderful grape and Germany produces the best examples of it. Within Germany there is one place that outshines any other in production of it and that’s the Mosel – the subject for my next post.