CHOCOLATE and SAUERKRAUT (9): Sweet Torture
I called my American friend Sarrita from the lobby of the Hotel Palace: "Sarrita, I'm at a wine tasting in Charlottenberg. It's going on till five o'clock. There are at least 60 wines to taste from the Ahr, Nahe, Pfalz and Rheinhessen. This is like the Super Bowl of German wines." I was so excited that I barely gave her a moment to answer. Finally she said, "Hmmm. I don't know. I'm kind of tired. I was going to work on some stuff. Maybe next time, though." Americans, I thought, and proceeded back into the ballroom for more sweet torture.
Mainly I wanted Sarrita there so there would be another American witness to the glory of German wines. And I refer to this tasting (by far the largest I'd ever attended) as sweet torture because after the thirtieth or so sample I tasted, I could no longer smell all that accurately and the taste may have been objectively good, even perfect, but my mouth could no longer enjoy what it was tasting. My stomach felt a bit raw as well. I spit and spit and spit throughout the whole tasting, I spit into a basin so full of spit-up wine that my little trickle caused an upsurge to shoot back in my face, but at some point my palette became slack and tasting another exquisite Riesling seemed like very hard work.
That being said, I did taste some extraordinary wines and I met some of the growers whose wines I have been enjoying since I arrived in Berlin. One of the perks of the wine business is that the people who make wine tend to be really enthusiastic and fun to talk with. I learned about 'petrol-tone' which is a term for the smell of gasoline that is often found in old-vine Rieslings. I learned about the different growing sites and their reputations and I developed some generalizations of my own. The Oelberg site, for example, developed wines that, for me, had a nose very much like freshly cleaned linens drying in sunshine. The St. Anthony 2006 Oelberg Riesling had the most strongly developed laundry nose out of all the wines I tasted. The Kuhling Gillot 2006 Pattenthal Riesling had a much more pungent nose in which I detected everything from nectarines to St. Marcellin cheese.
When German wine makers talk about their wines they tend to use words like elegant, developed, and balanced. German wines, from what I've gathered, do not go out of their way to be earthy, rustic, or singularly set on conveying one scent note, like the very out of fashion 'oaky' Chardonnay's of California. This makes German wine tasting more difficult than wine tasting in Sonoma, for example, because if you were trained to notice the nose, mouth feel and acidity and grew up with wine growers who wanted you to be smacked over the head with their wines, then German Rieslings can be tough to distinguish between. There constructions are subtle, ethereal, even shy. That being said there were some wines I tasted at the beginning of my long journey into nacht that had exceptionally distinctive characteristics.
The Wittmann Aulerdere 2006 had a sharp and flowery nose, which gave way to a yeasty hay smell and then to something much greener that reminded me of photosynthesis and the fact that grapes and grape leaves are really just sunshine junkies. The Schaefer-Froehlich 2006 Halenberg Riesling at first smelled so clean I thought of this ridiculous 'new car smell' my Dad used to have sprayed in his car after a trip to the carwash. As it opened up though, the 'new car smell' gave way to overripe tropical fruits. The structure of the taste was slow to open as well, a bit tight and acidic at first but then it smoothed out and balanced itself and the finish was quite long.
I suppose what I'm learning from German Riesling is that it's not enough to rely on scent cues and to revel in shocking, distinctive descriptions. What I seemed to have passed over in my years of drinking and studying wine is how taste the stuff. Tasting is a much more inexact, frustrating process for a writer. When wine is good, balanced, elegant, and smooth, there's nothing to do but close your eyes and enjoy it. But how do you write about that?