Sven Nieger : a welcome rebel in Baden

During a recent stop over in Baden-Baden, I had time to visit only one winery. The wine region Baden is mainly known for Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder in German. It is also known as the hottest wine region of Germany. Everything is relative of course  if you think of summers in the south of Europe, but still, there is a clear difference between the Spätburgunders of the Ahr, situated further north, and those of Baden, the latter being richer and more full-bodied. Not being a huge fan of big and bold wines, I looked for wine makers who dare to go off the beaten track. When I read about Sven Nieger, I knew that he was my man.

Sven Nieger is a relative newcomer in Baden. He only started in 2010 and did not have the advantage of being born in a family of winemakers. He did, however, Go to the Geisenheim institute and worked in other wineries in Germany and New-Zealand before he started on his own. When he came back to Baden, he had to start from scratch, having no land and no winery. Nieger was able to buy vineyards, amongst which three Grosse Gewächse (grand cru), from older colleagues who had no successors and sold off their lands. He showed me a few pictures of the early days, when he was literally making garage wine. He now has a new space with more professional facilities. “But it was more fun working in the garage”, he laughed.

Despite Baden being a red wine region, Nieger focuses on riesling. “Many people don’t like riesling because it’s too sour, but I want to prove that riesling can also be a wine they like”. That is also why he doesn’t mention the grape on his labels. He wants people to judge the wine without any prejudices they might have about riesling. I told him I’m surprised that he is confronted with such opinions on riesling, the grape after all being the nec plus ultra for certain wine drinkers. “We are in Baden”, he reminded me. “People here are used to wines that are round, creamy, and more full-bodied”.  And this is also the second reason why he has rather unconventional labels. The 2014 vintage was not an easy one, producing wines with very high acidity, his rieslings fetching 9g/l instead of the 5,5-6g/l he has in other years. We tasted the Underdog 2014 and indeed the acidity here was high, but not higher than you’d expect in riesling. And then there is Nieger’s rosé : it is bone dry! Again not very much in the tradition of Baden’s wines. The committee judging the region’s wines on their typicity didn’t think much of Nieger’s wines. Eight times he had to send in a bottle. Not wanting to play that game anymore, Nieger decided from then on to declare his wines as Badischer Landwein. And that was the end of that. And of his ambitions to join the VDP at some stage, a German group of top wine makers. When I tasted the 2014 Underdog, it was simply amazing, enormously complex. I think Baden will regret having lost Sven Nieger.

Anyhow, he seems very happy with the path he has chosen. Also no lack of ambitions : “When people drink my wine, I want them to say: This is a Nieger wine.” And so far, things have lifted off quite fast for him, being chosen “newcomer of the year” by Falstaff magazine and getting good press in Germany and abroad.

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We started off with his 2016s. His Riesling range consists of three Grosse Gewächse (Grand Crus), one wine that is a blend of grapes of these three vineyards, and one entry level Riesling. Because of the fact his wines are now declared as Badischer Landwein, he cannot mention the names of the vineyards on his labels, and for sure not call them Grosse Gewächse. So he gave them other names : Ungeschminkt (without make up), Underdog, Unbestechlich (incorruptible), Ungeniert (unashamed), and Ungezähmt (untamed). The message is quite clear.

The entry-level Ungeschminkt was already a nice starter, with lots of fruit and refreshing acidity. The Underdog is  a step up, being the blend of the three Grosse Gewächse. The grapes come from the foot of the hills, where there is more loam. The wine was still a bit shy though, and still needs to develop a bit further. Of the three Grosse Gewächse, the Unbestechlich was my favorite. Here the vineyard is based on granite soil. Slate or schist are probably the types of terroir that are most associated with Riesling, but granite is not unusual either. Alsace’s Charles Baur describes the acidity in riesling from granite soils as “delicate”. And that’s the perfect word to descibe the acidity in Nieger’s Unbestechlich. It is perfectly integrated, leaving the front stage for a beguiling mix of saffran, summer blossom, green herbs, and orange peel. The saffran very much reminded me of the 2014 Rieslings of Mosel’s Markus Molitor. But whereas most of Molitor’s Rieslings are sweet, semi-sweet or have at least some residual sugar, this Unbestechlich is completely dry. The Ungeniert, also from granite soil, was similar to the Unbestechlich but more timid at this stage, and will benefit from further ageing. The Ungezähmt, finally, does have some sweetness, but also a mineral touch and sufficient acidity to keep it nicely balanced.

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It became clear during the tasting how passionate Nieger is about his wines. Even though the 2017s were not on sale yet, I could still taste the whole range. I could also taste the 2015s and certain 2014s. What I thought would be a one hour visit, turned into a three hour one, but time passed as if it were only one hour. Tasting through all these Rieslings was very interesting and clearly showed the differences from one year to another, the 2014s being very fresh and dry, while the 2015s were richer and riper. Nieger decides every year whether he will make the Rieslings dry, off-dry or semi-sweet, letting the vintage decide. While that is probably the best for the wines, that might make it harder for the consumer in terms of knowing what you will get. His experiments do not help to make that any easier, his 2017s having aged in oak barrels, again not a very typical thing to do with Riesling. The oak is not very present, however, only adding a hint of smoke here and there. I’m very curious how the 2017s will evolve, as they were rather shy when I tasted them. Nieger agreed that they are still too young, but is convinced that they will open up with further ageing. That is also why he will put the 2018s on the market before the 2017s, as the 2018s will be more straight-forward and easier to drink, a consequence of the hot vintage.

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19 bottles further, aroma’s of homely cooking started entering the room. I visited Sven Nieger because I wanted something different, and not only did I get a fantastic overview of his wines, I also felt the passion and ambition of an untamed wine maker. I am convinced that that will take him very far.

 

Riesling with Asian food – an all-time favorite

It’s classic stuff… Riesling with Asian food. If you’re a bit of a foodie, then you surely know that Riesling is an often recommended companion for Asian dishes that are built around sweet and sour contrasts. Riesling basically has very similar characteristics : often you’ll find pine apple, candied lemon, peach, and honey if it’s sweet or evolved. And of course that magnificent acidity that makes that Riesling hardly ever comes across as flat or plump, no matter how sweet the wine is… When the dish has more spicy flavours coming from cardamom, cloves, cumin,… then muscat or gewürztraminer will also be a very good match.

Today I prepared Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian version of a Chinese classic dish : Black pepper tofu. This is one of our favorites here. But mind you, this is an extreme dish, in every possible way! In his recipe, Ottolenghi uses 8 chillies, 12 garlic cloves, three table spoons of ginger, and 5 (!) table spoons of crushed black pepper. It made me laugh when I read his version is already a milder version than the original… I can have a bit of pepper and chili, but I toned things down another notch or two, bringing the quantities down to 4 chillies, 6 garlic cloves and a few whiffs of pepper. Believe me, I found that hot enough.

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There’s a funny anecdote to this dish. You’re supposed to dust the tofu with corn flour to make it a bit crusty when you fry it. I had corn flour, but it was yellow corn flour to make polenta. That’s a much rougher version than the white corn flour, which is so fine you can hardly distinguish a single grain. On the picture above you can clearly see the corn flour I used. Well, this sure gives a crunchy coating! But we actually liked it. By now I’ve prepared this dish quite a few times, and I’ve tried both white corn flour and yellow corn flour. We actually prefer the yellow corn flour as it adds structure to the dish, which is interesting.

The wine we drank with it was a Riesling of Domaine Meyer-Fonné, a winery in the Alsace, France. It was the Pfoeller 2012. That’s a “lieux-dit”, a single vineyard coming from a specific place with the name Pfoeller.  On the website they describe the wine as follows : “The palate has a clean attack, distinguished, and an athletic acidity. As a slowly developing wine this is a riesling without compromise for the enlightened connoisseur.” Well, I can confirm that this wine has an “athletic” acidity (what a nice description, don’t you think?), but as is so often the case with Riesling, the acidity is not disturbing at all. This is a mouthwatering wine, very elegant, racy, complex. I also love the minerality in the nose, and there’s a hint of honey suckle as well. It’s true that this wine is no where near the point that it needs to be drunk. This wine will still develop for many years to come and will still get better, probably developing more mellow flavors alongside the racy acidity.

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The glass is empty and so is the bottle!

The combination worked really well. This black pepper tofu dish was very rich, and the riesling was a refreshing break in between the chili-loaded tofu. If you decide to make this dish and use the original amount of chili and black pepper, then by all means do not hesitate to take a riesling that’s slightly sweet, such as a Mosel Kabinett. It’s wrong to think that such wines are dessert wines. The sweeter versions, think of Spätlese, are indeed good partners for a fruit dessert. But a Kabinett can perfectly be paired with hot dishes and will help not to burn your tongue with the chili and pepper…

If you try this dish out, let me know how that went. Especially if you go for the hot version 🙂

 

 

 

Never waste a good climate change : Part II – Polska!

Polish wine, would you believe it?! Poles consider beer to be lemonade. Something you drink to refresh your mouth in between the shots of vodka. I reckoned they considered wine to be something similar. It actually turns out they produce it! In one of the airport shops in Warsaw they even have a full rack of Polish wine. And of course, I had to try it… I will not deny that I bought the bottles wondering if I really wanted to throw away my money just like that?! But actually, this turned out to be an interesting experience! Here they are : Continue reading “Never waste a good climate change : Part II – Polska!”

Weingut Günther Steinmetz in the Mosel

I was in the Mosel Valley, Germany, in November last year. For family holidays in the first place. But if you’re reading this, chances are high that also you choose your holiday destinations in a way that you can visit a winery or two… Everybody happy (that’s what I tell myself), win win for sure!
And even if you don’t like Mosel wines, the region is absolutely beautiful. Think of the most picturesque wine landscapes you can think of. Well, that’s the Mosel valley. Vineyards as far as you can see, crawling up some of the steepest hillsides I’ve ever seen in a wine region. Only to be interrupted by tiny white villages here and there. Impressive!IMG_0786
The Mosel is riesling land, of course. And even though I like riesling, I never really had a chance to explore riesling in great detail. All the more reason why I definitely wanted to squeeze in a visit or two. I visited the wineries of Markus Molitor and Gunther Steinmetz. I will tell you more about the stunning tasting I had at Molitor’s another time, because today I had my first riesling of Gunther Steinmetz since my visit in November. It was the 2015 Kestener Paulinshofberg. 2015 is hailed as a very good vintage, combining ripeness with good acidity. So I was happy of course that I could sample the 2015 Rieslings at Günther Steinmetz’. For your information, don’t look for Günther in case you visit. It’s his son Stefan who’s in charge now and who makes the wines. I saw Stefan on his way out when I arrived, because there was work to be done in the vineyard. It was All Saints’ Day, so most people don’t work then, but that’s not the case for winemakers. When there’s work in the vineyard, it’s need to be done! IMG_0669So I tasted his wines with Sammie, his wife. Sammie is actually American and quite new to the wine business. But she obviously learned really fast. I was impressed by her knowledge, and I had a great tasting. My German is lousy, by the way, so that was very convenient…
Before I go further, let me just share today’s experience with the Kestener Paulinshofberg. When I tasted it in November, it was still a bit closed, so I was happy today to see that it had opened up quite a bit. The nose was very fine, with mineral aromas and pine apple at the first sniff. But more came out after a little while, with lemon, aniseed, spring flowers, orange zest and sage. Yes, sage! I think that’s the first time I spontaneously smell that in a wine. Lovely nose. The wine confirms what I had read about the vintage : ripe fruit, but also very fresh. The tension that I love in Riesling was also nicely present here. Not a very long finish, but a wine I really enjoyed with the Asian style salmon we had for dinner. The great thing about this wine is that you get bang for your buck. This bottle cost 12,50€ at the winery. And that’s what I like so much about the wines of Stefan. They are pretty darn good, and they don’t set you back too much. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the wines of Markus Molitor. Outstanding for sure, but a bit more expensive…
I will not go through all my tasting notes but just give you my favorites :

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  • Dhroner Hofberg 2015 : another price/quality stunner. At first there was animality in the nose, but then came beautiful aromas of grapefruit, wisteria and honeysuckle. Not completely dry, but good acidity to balance the wine. 11€.
  • Wintricher Ohligsberg GW 2015 : White pepper, a bit timid still, but then also citrus coming through, a touch of safran, and a hint of petrol. This is still young, but great potential. I expect this to age nicely. Can’t wait to see how this will turn out in a few years. 17€.
  • Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Spätlese 2015 : This was Sammie’s personal favorite and I had no problem seeing why. While the nose is still a bit reductive, it is also very subtle, with a hint of petrol beginning to come through. The wine is creamy, rich, with pine apple and again great acidity to keep this wine in balance. Even though this is a Spätlese (generally a sweeter style), the freshness of the wine is beautiful. Everything I expect from a Riesling. 15,50€.

So in a nutshell : the wines of Stefan Steinmetz are really beautiful. He makes more dry wines than sweet wines, but I liked both, the sweet wines being real charmers! The wines were still very young, but I expect them to evolve really nicely, developing more depth and complexity. I will tell you in a couple of years how they turned out. If I will be able to wait that long…

Hopefully, Stefan will keep his prices at this level. His wines receive very positive reviews and are being served in New York restaurants. So I’m obviously not the only one who appreciates his wines. Time will tell. In the meantime, I got myself a little stash…