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Last week, on a Tuesday with the distinct flavor of summer I had plans to attend one of the most anticipated tastings on my calendar year—the Terry Theise portfolio tasting—unveiling the 2011 vintage offerings of Germany and Austria. This marked one year since I last stepped foot in Hatfield’s on Melrose. The distributors—Winewise—had traded settings, exchanging 90038 for the high profile 90211 zip code that encompassed Red Medicine, current vanguard of the Los Angeles culinary scene and event headquarters, to showcase the magnificent collection of wines.

Bearable traffic and parking relatively close at a metered spot, there was hardly any delay in my arrival. Coins to buy three hours worth of parking allowed me to trot down to the corner where South Gale Drive intersected with Wilshire Boulevard, arriving in my restaurant-best-duds and my camera slung tautly over my shoulder ready to check in. I grabbed a glass and entered a kinetic buzz. There was a healthy turnout, sommeliers, restaurant and retail buyers, bloggers and fellow tradesmen stood shoulder to shoulder huddled over bantam tables bearing ice troughs that held dozens of Rieslings, in the hopes of assessing the newest vintage.

German wines may not be consumer-friendly, with difficult names and even more confusing ripeness scales; it would be an understatement to say that these wines were not fully understood. I study German and Austrian wines regularly and I am still perplexed by their individuality. The difference between three separate Spätlese Rieslings, all hailing from the same blue slate soils and sharing an identical birth year can be staggering. What could I do to share my passion with the consumer? I made the rounds looking to answer that question.

Beginning at the first table, I tasted through twenty-four different trocken Rieslings, bereft of residual sugars, leaving only minerals and the essence of stone fruits in their wake. I rounded thirty-seven wines in a heartbeat, trying my best to keep in line with the wine buyers of the Wine Exchange who tasted with celerity.

I sojourned to the Rüdesheim vineyards, of the Rhinegau, where Tobias Fiebrandt poured eight variations under the Leitz label. I drafted behind the swift pace of my running mates (those two buyers) and tasted the delectable lineup at my own leisure. My palate was pleasantly shocked to a variance of dry to off-dry levels of fruits, minerals and faint herbal notes. My deference for Riesling, no matter how commercially unsuccessful, was dwarfed by our German liaison, inked earnestly with his Riesling tattoo.

From the Leitz table, I transitioned into a heavy assortment of Kabinett wines. With mouth-searing acidity I was particularly drawn to the Jakob Schneider Kabinett Riesling, along with the softer and more attractive Spreitzer Oestricher Lechen Riesling Kabinett (I wasn’t kidding about the difficulty of the names).

I whipped through seventy-four wines before I landed at the manned tables of two different Mosel producers, with German representatives behind the brand standing by to acquaint me with their unique offerings. Selbach-Oster bowled me over with more than one example but I nerded out over the halbtrocken, or officially, the Zeltlinger Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken. Affording a blend of summer stone fruits that had been rinsed in a zesty lemon juice and spearmint cocktail that was balanced by a nice weight in the mouth and an unrelenting finish. Next door, it was time to taste Meulenhof before departing for the wines of Saar and concluding with the Nahe.

There were too many sterling examples, in all ranges, starring my pricelist repeatedly since there was nearly a winner in every third bottle. After about one hundred and forty Rieslings I took a break, excusing myself from the tight gauntlet of Rieslings. I snacked on a smattering of treats and slugged some water to alleviate the palate before I would even entertain the Austrian flight.

My tongue recovered and I turned the page in my packet (pricelist) ready to begin sifting through the assorted Grüner Veltliner. Unlike the German portion of the tasting, by the time I made it to Austria the crowd was thinning and I found more elbowroom to swig, spit and note comfortably. I would unscrew the majority of the tops, pouring through the miscellaneous wines. Among the similar characteristics there were a few clear favorites; those Austrian whites that showed more finesse in the palate, with notes of celery and cabbage leaves, aspirin and hints of green fruits as they sloshed over my tongue. Between Kremstal and Kamptal I found my favorites, with producers like Nigl and Hirsch surging ahead of their brethren for their drinkability and definition.

After roughly twenty Grüner, I continued to the following stations, each representing three individual producers, two more from Kamptal—Schloss Gobelsburg and Willi Bründlmayer—and the last, for my purposes was Nikolaihof from Wachau. In addition to Grüner Veltliner each of the three producers were showing their Austrian Rieslings—those lithe beauties.

A memory came fleeting when I tasted the Willi Bründlmayer lineup. I had served older vintages of those wines  at the restaurant for a foie festival at the hest of my superiors at Wilshire. It all made sense to me when I put the stemware to my lips.

Palate fatigue had set in around 180 wines, so any tasting notes I scribbled after that would be dubious. I was impressed with the Austrian leg of the tasting this year, something that failed to grab my attention last time… perhaps I wasn’t in the right frame of mind then. I closed my price guide, trying best to remember the question I had asked myself before I had entered at the head of the queue. After seeing a man literally wearing a tattoo that read Riesling, someone with a serious conviction for the grape, I knew that there was a lot more that I could do. The easiest thing though, would be to let people taste them—the rest would naturally fall in place. I thanked the host and my rep, departing for my metered spot before time expired and I journeyed home with flavors that were still sounding loudly, replete with everything I love about summer.

Never in my wildest dreams did I intend to pair a burger with a Riesling; even with my excitement for the high-acid white wine, it seemed taboo. I wouldn’t underestimate Riesling, with its lithe acidity and sprightliness on the palate, but it just does not spring to mind when I am entertaining the notion of having a gourmet burger or any incarnation of red meat nestled in a bun. Nevertheless, it transpired and I am living to write about the experience. Buckle up—your pairing world won’t be the same again.

I was at The Standing Room again, recently, to tackle the crab sandwich with a buddy of mine—writer of Detroit OnLion—and enjoy a nice chilled Riesling with the highly touted lunch item. I brought the tumblers and a few packs of ice to keep the tall tapered flute chilly while driving down from the Westside of Los Angeles. We went in and perused the menu and when comfortable placed our order for the sandwiches… only to have our request denied—the Crab was not ready. We scrambled to find alternatives and when Jeremy audibled he went big ordering the Napoleon—a behemoth that consists of short rib, fried egg, half pound patty, two different cheeses, French fries, bacon, arugula and some other standard accompaniments—for nearly fourteen dollars. I tried two more times to get something that might match the Spätlese but the items were out or had been 86’d, and I was forced to settle with the Cash burger (crispy onions, Chinese barbeque sauce, avocado and bacon). It did not strike me as an ideal partner for the wine and I was losing faith, a little dispirited at the thought of an unintended pairing.

We waited for our order in the car and poured the wine, making the most of what I thought was a lost scenario and would ultimately mean another dash to Redondo Beach to eventually try that elusive crab sandwich. The 2008 Braunerberger Juffer (#199) from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer had a light straw color and a fragrant bouquet of green apple, lime and some notes of new tires (strong fresh rubber). On the palate the wine was nearly off dry with a healthy dose of RS on the tongue and bountiful green apple coating the buds. Light, zippy and refreshing, the Riesling was falling further from my mind as I had pondered a different pairing. It just didn’t seem realistic for the meal at hand.

When we got the burgers, we created a mock photo shoot and began tweeting our experience before eating. We took our first bites—it was cumbersome for Jeremy—and both of us were smitten with our selections. I urged him to drink his iced tea since I was confident his burger was off limits for the Spätlese and he heeded the recommendation. Midway through the burger, with its sweet flare, I reached reflexively for my tumbler full of wine and took a sip. My eyes went wide with astonishment, the sweet flavors of the bbq sauce and the crispy onions matched with the residual sugars in the wine, and the acidity was enough to ready my mouth for another bite of beef. I would say that there was a weight issue with the wine, the body not quite as big as the burger but, nevertheless, it made nearly an outstanding pairing because of the signature attributes of the Riesling. Another reason the Cash burger was almost a perfect partner was its delicate nature, not strictly focusing on a big patty as much as it was on the Asian fusion vibe of the Standing Room and it happened to be a successful combination of ingredients all around.

I finished my burger, while Jeremy had to roll up his sleeves and get medieval on the Napoleon burger; drippings from the egg, pieces of tender short rib as well as Parmesan Truffle Fries were strewn about the wrapper and basket. He was in hog heaven (stating later that it may have been his favorite burger on the West Coast) and I was left scratching my head over a Riesling that had the power to stay with the Cash burger. I still have to try the crab sandwich (one day making it back to Redondo Beach), but this pairing proved to be another fortuitous experiment in burgers and wine.

Riesling has become a sidekick in my most recent epicurean escapades, calling on its aromatic powers and ripping acidity to pair with my tendency for favoring overly spiced—capsaicin and exotically rich—Asian fare. This wine is fast taking root in my crowded cellar, displacing all the Zinfandel from Sonoma County with the ever-vibrant whites wines of Germany, Alsace and Austria. These wines have run with my palate, merging into an already extant love for Indian and a newfound interest in Thai cuisine, they are the perfect compliment to the best Asian foods that Southern California can offer and that will certainly translate into a good thing for this blog. With this build-up you can imagine how exhilarating it was to experience the lineup of wines below, presented in class, two Tuesday’s ago.

German heavy whites dominated the billing; it was reminiscent of seeing the Largo Lineup almost every month. Everything appealed to me, even the wines I was not familiar with, knowing that I would get to taste and smell an attractive assortment of bouquets of fresh white flowers and perfectly ripe summer stone fruits, emblematic of the best summer memories of eating peaches and apricots until my taste buds cried uncle.

In class we tasted ten different wines, fulfilling my Riesling desire—temporarily—and getting me closer to 500 (only 264 left to go) on the year. We sipped and spat:

09 Weingut Gysler Sylvaner Halbtrocken

01 Weingut Darting Durkheimer Nonnengarten

08 Schmitt’s Kinder Randersackerer Ewig Leben Bacchus Kabinett QbA

09 Dr. Loosen Red Slate Riesling

09 St. Urbans-hof Piesporter Goldtropfchen Spätlese

Broadbent Vinho Verde

Fonseca Siroco White Port

08 Quinta de Roriz “Prazo de Roriz

03 W& J Graham’s LVC

It would be fair to mention that our class also covered Portugal but still, my interest lay with the first half, understanding the differences of the Nahe and Phalz as well as the residual sugar that is found in the different levels of ripeness. The wines required our focused attention; they rewarded us a complex blend of auto body shop, minerals and fuzzy fruits (varied between dried characteristics to freshly picked from the vine) all with different levels of acidity, and consequently, brightness.

One of the most memorable wines I tasted that night was the 01 Weingut Darting from Phalz, with a darker hue akin to the glow of sage blossom honey and tied to aromas rich in smoke like a recently lit firecracker, apricot and some more honey. The wine displayed great acidity, a lean medium body and long finish of marmalade that would not quit. There were some other wines with equally astonishing characteristics but the age cast a different light on the wine—suggesting a trove of possibilities when aging any Riesling, a grape with so much acidity inherently—,nevertheless it stood out amongst its peers.

While I was left with amazing images of Portugal and some nice wines from that country, Germany stole the show. I am Dutch, so I am not quick to tout Deutschland as the best place in the world for wine, but I can honestly tell you that I am beginning to see why Riesling is so important. While barely scratching the surface of what was capable with the Riesling grape and what, at most, 27 dollars could afford you, I have seen enough character to woo me, faster than the indie sounds of Elecrtelane and more substance than a Joyce novel. “[Riesling] you’re my only friend.”

Are those little pieces of glass? Okay, its definitely not glass, but what are those crystals adhering to the cork? Tartrates… huh? Never heard of ‘em, are they dangerous? Do they affect the wine? This battery of questions follows shortly after yanking a discolored cork, encrusted with beautiful salt-like barnacles of a wine you are planning on serving. They are appropriate (but unfounded) concerns and it suggests you are paying attention. While it is true that it can be a unnerving the first time you spy the formations dwelling contentedly on the end of a stopper, let me guarantee you that it is a cooler experience than a scarier one.

So what are they? The formations are potassium acid tartrates that have precipitated out of the wine, nesting on the sides and bottom of the bottle and cork. Some casual wine drinkers will go an entire lifetime without seeing them so I like to think of tartrates positively, sharing the experience with the people around me, with the nerdy enthusiasm of an amateur astronomer viewing a meteor shower on the sands of Anita street beach with my first girlfriend.

They are most commonly found on aged bottles but can also be detected in the process of fermentation. Tartrates come directly from tartaric acid; the crystals that appear at the end of the cork are actually the potassium salt but they are a result of the sediment from the bottle in the form of lees (dead yeast cells—the same thing that makes wine soooo creamy), pulp and tannins.

The next time you encounter tartrates please do not be alarmed; try instead to embrace the glasslike chards glued to the cork of your aged seven fifty of Riesling, knowing that they are a natural phenomenon in wine.

There is one glaring difference between America and the “old world” (those wines of France, Spain, Italy…etc.) with grape growing and that is the heat. In some of our top producing AVAs—American viticultural areas—the grapes bask in the sun’s rays. When this happens more sugars are produced in the grapes by the time of harvest (when they are picked) and that ripeness produces higher alcohol during fermentation. If the winemaker is not careful his end product may become unbalanced and tiresome. The heavy wines have the propensity to exhaust the palate; the alcohol can obliterate and desensitize the receptors on your tongue making it tough to pick out flavors.

“Hot”—a pejorative, bandied around by experts when they experience this kind of wine that is too heavy in alcohol, is generally not associated with “old world” wines.

Lately, people have been inclined to rebuke Robert Parker (the legendary wine critic) for his inclination to favor and award great scores for big (high alcohol) wines. Critics assume that Parker’s influence on winemakers has created a huge demand for this style of wine-making.

Wednesday (4/21) I headed out to the LA Sports Club to attend “California vs. The World”—another informative class created by Wally’s Wineto see just how warm our wines were.

The class was divided into four separate rounds, blind tasting in each; the onus was on the class to see if we could locate the origin of the wine. Our instructor selected the wines carefully to exhibit the nuances of California and battle the stereotypes. Nine were sampled; the first round showcased the Rieslings, second were Chardonnays, then Sangiovese and finally ending with a mystery varietal.

The first round was the most intense, the alcohol in the California Riesling soared, nearly double that of it’s German counterpart. Reinforcing the stereotype. Another surprise came when I tried Malibu Vineyard’s Sangiovese, which was mildly astringent but otherwise possessed a lot of bright fruit. The “old world” Sangiovese was a rosso di Montalcino that left my mouth devoid of moisture, a typical expression of the Italian varietal.

As the rounds continued, my tongue became savvier, quickly sourcing the grapes until the final round; we would have to determine what we were being given. The class was poured a ruby-hued liquid that was burned around the edge (indicative of age). Notes of spice, leather and meat were present on the bouquet—these intense fragrances made the wine more enigmatic. After an anxious bout of guessing the mysterious grape was classified—Mourvedre also dubbed Monastrell in its native Spain. A dark grape with thick skin that is often used as a blending varietal in Rhone or straight like the 100% Mourvedre we were served from Spain.

“California vs. The World” allowed me to try producers and varietals of which I knew little. It was an interesting approach too, allowing all of the attendees to rely strictly on their senses. “Hot” or not, California winemakers can successfully recreate the “old world” varietals while still retaining the higher alcohol and maintaining the balance.

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