Saturday, November 5, 2011

Wine Tasting Marathon

Last weekend I lived through a wine tasting Marathon. Freiburg's Adult Education Center (Volkshochschule) had chosen the cultural asset wine the principal topic for their 2011/2012 courses. It happened so that the center of gravity of the events was located on three consecutive days.

On Thursday we had a presentation on the History of Wine in Freiburg at the beautiful Wentzingerhaus. In focus was the city's oldest documented winery the Heiliggeist Spital  (Holy Ghost Infirmary) of 1298. In the Middle Ages its residents had the right to six liters of wine per day. Note that the alcohol content of the then rather bad wine was much lower than today and above all it was dangerous to drink the generally polluted water. We tasted four white and two red wines of the Stiftungsweingut Freiburg starting with the classical local wine of the Markgräfler Land a 2010 Gutedel, the German name for the Chasselas grape. Next was a 2010 Riesling from the Freiburger Schlossberg.

Entrance to the Schlossberg vineyard of the Heiliggeist Spital
Because of its slopes facing south the wine growing there is of an exceptional appellation. The next two wines were a 2009 Grauburgunder (Pinot gris) and a 2009 Chardonnay. Due to its abundance in California some wine drinkers in the States coined the abbreviation ABC (Anything but Chardonnay). The two red wines following were both 2009 Spätburgunder (Pinot noir) with the latter coming from the Schlossberg.

The wines we tasted on Thursday evening.
The Friday evening  in the Baroque Hall of the Black Monastery was devoted to the Cultural Asset Wine.  Vinissima or Wine and Women presented their wines and offered the bread. This is an organization of female vintners showing to a male world that girls are better wine makers than boys. We listened to a couple of presentations and were subsequently complimented for our attentiveness with six wines, two served after each episode all coming from wine growing estates run by female vintners.

Before the tasting session proper started we were offered half a glass of sparkling wine brut from the Blankenhorn vinery south of Freiburg made from Nobling a relatively new cross-breeding of Sylvaner and Chasselas grapes. While we were still sipping the opener the attractive German wine princess of 2009 gave a talk about the history of wine. The origin of wine making is lost in the darkness of history but one is sure about the Romans giving wine to the world by spreading vineyards all over Europe. The princess' presentation was followed by two wines, a 2009 Kloster Heilig Kreuz Weißburgunder (Pinot blanc), dry, late vintage from Meißen, Saxony, and a 2010 Junge Wilde (Young and Wild) Grauburgunder (Pinot gris), dry, from Tuniberg near Freiburg.

After that we listened to a medical doctor praising the virtues of wine drinking. Wine savoured in moderation, i.e., one-quarter of a liter (Viertele) for men, one-eighths for women will lower the risk of stroke and cancer due to its polyphenol content of up to 1000 mg per liter. One Viertele per day corresponds to 20 grams of alcohol. Since she had studied psychology too she added that for drinking in an animated company more than a Viertele would not harm but rather be beneficial. On the other hand up to 4 million people in Germany are alcoholics turning the health effect of wine into the contrary.

The third wine presented was a 2009 Rüdesheimer Klosterberg Riesling Kabinett, half-dry, Rhinegau. Riesling is the most important grape in Germany covering 11% of a total of 160 square kilometers of vineyards. The Riesling was followed by a 2009 Bornheimer Hähnchen, Malvasier, last vintage from Rhine-Hessen. Malvasia is an old grape already known in the Middle Ages when Greece was still an exporting country with wine in quantities from the port city of Monemvasia. Already at that time the Malvasia wine must have been too sweet like the one we tasted.

The last talk was about flora and fauna in the vineyard and centered on the vine fretter or phylloxera. These sap-sucking insects were brought into Europe from the States in the middle of the 19th century. By 1870 phylloxera had developed into a plague that had destroyed most of France's vines. The remedy eventually consisted in grafting European vine cuttings onto phylloxera resistant American root-stocks, a practice still used today.

The end of the lecture brought us to the tasting of two red wines, a 2009 Reicholzheimer First Schwarzriesling (Pinot meunier), dry, from Franconia on the Tauber river and a 2010 Lemberger or Blue Frankish Edition, dry, from Fellbach Württemberg the first one somewhat sweet, the second much too young for consumption.

On Saturday we were informed about Wine Adulterators and Fortification Grapes. Following a taste of Gutedel, at the Alte Wache on Münsterplatz - Home of the Wines from Baden - we started for a tour of the above mentioned Freiburger Schlossberg, a vineyard that was built on the ruins of Vauban’s fortifications. Normally the place is closed to the general public but our guide had the key.. The weather was exceptional and we felt nearly sorry when we had to return to the Alte Wache for our last wine tasting in three days.

The sunny slopes at the Schlossberg
Again we were offered six different wines. First a 2009 Tiengener Rebtal, Rivaner (a cross-breed between Riesling and Sylvaner grapes like Müller-Thurgau), dry  from the Vintners Association Tiengen followed by two wines from the Stiftungsweingut Freiburg (see above), a 2009 Freiburger Weißburgunder (Pinot blanc), dry, and a 2008 Freiburger Schlossberg, Grauer Burgunder (Pinot gris), dry. The last white wine a 2009 Opfinger Sonnenberg Gewürztraminer with 25 grams of sugar per liter was described as lieblich which translates into English as sweet. My grandchildren would have called it Limonade. Of the following two wines the first one was a rosé 2010 Tiengener Rebtal Spätburgunder (Pinot noir), dry from the Vintners Association Tiengen. This is not to be confused with the traditional Weißherbst (Vin gris) made from red grapes where the reddish color results from pressing the grapes with their skins whereas for a red wine the skin is left in the grape juice during fermentation. It is common that if the color of the final product does not show the desired saturation juice of Färbertrauben (Teinturier) is added. The last wine was a 2009 Freiburger Kapellenweg Spätburgunder, dry, from the Vintners Association Munzingen.

The topic discussed between serves was wine making and adulteration. Here I learned why I do not experience headaches anymore when drinking German wine. Although not consuming wine in excess I remember that as a student and even later I was never immune to a hangover the following morning. Since the Middle Ages these hangovers have been attributed to the quantity of sulfur added stopping the full fermentation of the grape juice in order to keep some residual sugar. As the only tangible result of the Imperial Diet held at Freiburg a Statute and Order for Wine (satzung unnd ordnung über die weyne) was passed as early as 1498. This Order fixed limits for the quantity of sulfur allowed in wine making. Violations called for Draconian measures sometimes ending up in hanging. Minor infringements were punished knocking out the bottom of the barrel concerned (dem Fass den Boden ausschlagen).

With the advent of modern cooling techniques there is no reason that people drinking wine should get headaches. Nowadays, before fermentation starts a small quantity of the grape juice is set aside and kept cool. The fermentation of the bulk is no longer stopped by adding sulfur but goes on until most of the sugar has turned into alcohol and the fermentation stops by itself. The wine is then filtered and left to repose. Before selling the wine part or all of the grape juice that had been set aside is added to achieve the desired residual sugar concentration in the final product. And indeed, following Goethe’s dictum: Das Leben ist zu kurz, um schlechten Wein zu trinken (Life is too short to drink bad wine) or I don't suffer from headaches anymore.

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