There are wine experiences in this life that are absolutely dumbfounding. Not necessarily because the wine is a perfect 100 point wine, but rather maybe because of it’s history, the picture it paints, the company in which you enjoy it, the person that made it… or something entirely else and entirely undefinable.
I’m sitting here right now having one of those dumbfounding wine experiences and if you asked me, I couldn’t exactly tell you why. Well, I know the company is good as I’ve been joined by my friends Emelie and Malene. I also know that the wine is good… But I’ve basically no idea what I’m drinking, the history behind it nor nor why it’s good. Partially because what’s in my glass is a gosh-darn rare treat, partially because it’s origins are shrouded in (near) complete obscurity. For a wine-obsessed geek such as myself, it’s pretty rare not to know at least a thing or two about what he’s drinking and its origins! It puts me out of my comfort zone so to speak, in a really exciting way.
But first things first, let’s start with what we do know about the wines that made me ponder the exact ingredients of an amazing wine experience. As far as background goes, we do know that a few weeks ago, a “geek of sorts” (the words are those of my wine guy, not mine) walked into a wine shop in Kolding, Denmark. The “geek” – a lab rat by trade and a winemaker by heart – was about to embark on a sales tour of sorts. He was, you see, the owner of a minuscule plot in the German wine region Franken (or Franconia to the Anglophiles amongst us), a plot capable of producing some 500 bottles of wine, divided evenly between two common German grape varietals: Riesling and Silvaner. His mission, quite simply, was to travel Denmark by train, offering samples of his wines as he went in an effort to push his wares to specialty stores along his route. Had he ventured farther, we might actually have gotten to know a bit more about him, but in reality, his tour de force probably went a little better than anyone could have hoped for and hence a little shorter.
“How much do you have?” my friend the wine guy apparently demanded after an initial taste – “60 bottles of Riesling and 120 bottles of Silvaner,” the geek said. – “Cancel the sales tour,” my friend simply said, “I’ll take whatever you have!”
And so, with not further pleasantries or back story exchanged, a deal was struck to make an exchange of goods on neutral grounds on a given date in Hamburg, Germany. On the date, my wine guy made the trip down there in the company van to meet up with his new small-scale supplier… Who had apparently freighted the remainders of his entire production, all 180 bottles worth, to Hamburg from the fields of the Franken in the trunk of his Ford Ka(!)
Disregarding the fact that the winemaker deserves an f’ing medal for somehow fitting 180 bottles of wine in a Ford Ka, the feat gets no less impressive when you consider German geography and the situation of the Franken wine region in Bavaria, some 600 kilometers from Hamburg. 600 kilometers in a compact car, surrounded by 180 bottles of wine? You’ve got to be either crazy or really have a product worth peddling to attempt a feat like that… And as we are about to see from my dance with two of only 500 total bottles available for the world-wide market, the winemaker might not be that crazy at all and the product might very well be worth peddling.
The wines of Franken
With the Riesling hotspots Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz getting most of the recognition amongst German wine regions, Franken falls a bit under the radar of most wine lovers. And that’s a bit of a shame, really, as there is good stuff to be had from the region.
Wines from Franken are usually bone dry and very high in mineralization because of the soil and the mild climate found around the Main river which runs through the region. The humble beginnings of wine production in Franken can be traced back at least as far as to the year 777 where written notes mention a winery given to the monastery of Fulda by none other than emperor Charlemagne himself. From these humble beginnings grew a rather sizeable production using such iconic grapes as Riesling, Pinot Blanc (or Weissburgunder to locals), Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) and even the “lesser” of the Champagne grapes, Pinot Meunier (Schwarzriesling)… And then, of course, the iconic grape of Franken, Silvaner.
Silvaner (or Sylvaner as it is known in Alsace and some other places) is a grape that usually receives little attention in the outside world as it is considered a relatively “simple” grape generally known for producing predominantly crisp, refreshing, fruity wines that are, well, easily drinkable. In the not so positive sense of the word. Silvaner, however, is native to Franken and enjoys quite a bit of popularity and cult following here because in Franken, Silvaner acts like nowhere else in the world. As a matter of fact, Franken is the single wine region in Germany (perhaps the world) where Silvaner is considered world class, makes wine that turn out astounding and complex and is, at times, even capable of outperforming the white, German powerhouse that is the majestic Riesling.
And that, my friends, is probably what made the obscure offerings of our borderline unknown wine geek all the more interesting, as his lineup included both a Riesling and a Silvaner, both from minuscule plots and both given tender, loving care from start to finish. In other words, they allowed me to try some truly unique wines all while pondering the question: Could a Silvaner, in the hands of supposedly skilled winemaker, outperform one of my all-time favourites: German Riesling? I was sceptical to say the least, but up for the challenge. And so I dived into it head first, starting with what my personal favorite amongst the two grapes… Amongst most grapes, actually… The Riesling!
2013 Weinbau Nölting/Barthel – Riesling Trocken
Ask me for my favorite white wine grape and I’m usually torn. Do I go with the beautifully subdued and classy Chardonnay that produce some of the world’s most elegant and complex wines in the hills of Champagne and Burgundy. Or, do I go with the cool, fresh, slightly more edgy and brightly acidic Riesling? It’s never an easy choice, but in later years I’ve tended to lean towards Riesling in the beginning of summer. Usually, though, I’ll play it safe and go with one from a traditional and recognised area such as Alsace or Mosel, not from somewhere as exotic as Franken. Okay, so, Franken is not exactly exotic, but it’s also not exactly known for great Riesling.
Which is why I initially found myself a little perplexed holding a bottle of Franken Riesling of borderline obscure origin in my hands. With trembling hands (not really), I poured myself a glass and gave it a sniff.
Right off the bat, the nose hit you with a discrete whiff of wet flint mixed with white flowers and subdued green apple notes. This one will pack an acid punch, I though, and was not disappointed when I gave it a whirl in the mouth: Pomelo and lime zest notes gave way to layers of exotic fruits, but not in a sweet fruit punch sort of way. Au contraire, the wine was completely dry with a bright and prickling acidity that is so typical for Riesling. “I like it when wines tickle the tongue,” one beautiful co-taster said in response to the pronounced acidity. “Mm-hmm,” I concurred as the acidity faded away into a long mellow and fruity aftertaste.
Bright, crisp, young and acidic, this was drinking perfectly at the time of tasting. Which is probably a good thing as I don’t see the entire 250-odd bottle production lasting very long in the hands of me and my fellow wine lovers.
2013 Weinbau Nölting / Barthel – Silvaner Trocken
If Riesling is uncommon in Franken, Silvaner is the polar opposite. Nowhere in the world is Silvaner more popular than in Franken, and with good reason if you ask me. If I’m frightfully honest, I find most Silvaner to be pretty dull, sort of subdued and watery with weak fruit and very little complexity. If said Silvaner is grown anywhere but in Franken, that is. Franken Silvaner is a totally different story. For whichever reason I can’t explain, the Silvaners produced in Franken are perfumed, puzzling, fruity and complex – completely in a league of their own. And the 2013 Nölting/Barthel Silvaner is no different.
Right from the pour, it almost jumps out of the glass with clear aromatic notes of candied pineapple and granny smith apples. On the palate, it has an immediately clearly focused steely bite coupled with bitter lemon notes and even more granny smith apple to match the aromas of the wine. There’s an obvious acidic bite to it, but it’s not as focused and dominant as that of the Riesling and in this case that’s a good thing as it makes way for the more subtle yet incredibly complex notes of aromatic white flowers, and exotic stone fruit that follow. With a bit of air and warmth, it almost threatens to fall apart for a minute, then thankfully comes back together with an almost slightly oxidized yet still wonderfully complex fruity apple-like profile balanced by a vibrant but not overpowering acidity and loads of minerality.
The Nölting/Barthel Silvaner is a wonderful example of what Silvaner can (and should) be and with a surprisingly large portion of the entire world allocation currently resting in my cellar, it’s sort of a shame that more people won’t ever get to taste this stuff. But such, I guess, are the rules of engagement on the topic of niche wine production.
Which reigns supreme? Silvaner or Riesling?
So, completely disregarding the fact that our little experiment is so limited in size that no conclusions could and should be drawn from it, can a Silvaner from Franken outperform a Riesling from the same winemaker in the eyes of a Riesling lover and major geek? Well, the scores above speak for themselves, right? Or do they? See, here’s the thing. While I rated the Silvaner higher, I probably personally enjoyed the Riesling more. But I’m man enough to admit that I’m not only biased but also a total sucker for Riesling from mineral rich soil because of the intensely vibrant, steely, tongue-biting acidity they bring to the party, especially when young. From a largely subjective point of view, though, the Silvaner is a much more complex and slightly better wine with a more subdued yet broader palate of flavors. Hence the extra point for the Silvaner, personal preferences aside. I don’t mind when my wines bite back a little, but if I were to please everybody, I’d probably go with the Silvaner. Either way, both were great wines and at DKK 125 per bottle an absolute bargain!
Reviewing niche wines: Why on earth do it?
So, all of that being said… Does it even make sense to review something that most of you probably won’t get to taste and that all of you will have trouble even procuring? Maybe not, but look at it this way: How many people really get to taste the Corton-Charlemagnes or the Riglos Gran Cortes I have reviewed in the past? These, in a sense, are niche wines, too, but unlike the Weinbau Nölting/Barthel, these have a cult following and substantially larger volumes. In the case of these humble German white wines, someone poured their hearts and souls into these products and believed enough in them to travel north and share with a few fellow wine geeks. That dedication alone warrants a few words, I think.
Another type of niche wine. This is a Montrachet Grand Cru from the grand hills of Burgundy. This is probably about as rare as the humble Silvaner and Rieslings consumed in the making of this post. The difference? Name, location and a $400 price tag!
It is – in a strange kind of way – an honor to try such rare and overlooked gems. They may not be famous, hyped or highly sought after, but there’s no denying the quality of work here and it is, in an odd sense, humbling to be one of the relatively few people in the world to try a product that someone totally unknown hundreds of kilometers away have poured their hearts and souls into perfecting. Thank you, guys!
My recommendation? If by some sheer stroke of luck, you can get a hold of these (Kolding Vinhandel or Vestergaard Wines may still have a few in stock) then by all means, try them! Now! And repeatedly! Realistically, though, chances are you won’t be able to find them. If so, my second best recommendation would be to try something similar. Go out there, grab your wine guy, shake him for a bit, find something small scale, something you’ve never heard of, something you might never consider buying, try it, with an open mind… You will at the very least be smarter and more educated and you might even, as I did with Weinbau Nörtling/Barthel, be blown clear out of the water.
My only complaint regarding these niche wines? I’m running out quicker than I’d like to admit, and I’ve no way of getting more. So, if anyone from Weinbau Nötling/Barthel ever gets to read this. I love your stuff, please send some more!
What’s your favorite and most surprising wine tasting experience?