The highlight of my recent trip to Germany was several hours spent tasting at the Weinbörse. If not familiar, the Weinbörse is one of Germany’s top annual wine events held in late April in the beautiful medieval city of Mainz. Every spring some 200 members of the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter), Germany’s top quality wine growers association, gather to preview the new vintage for press and the trade. Even though the wines have literally been bottled just days or weeks before, it’s a great opportunity to taste the new vintage from Germany’s--and some of the world’s--top white wine producers.
2012 is a classic vintage with excellent fruit-acid balance in the wines promising great longevity. By contrast, the 2010 vintage yielded leaner wines with intensely high acid levels and little botrytis while the 2011 vintage is known for wines of wonderful richness with slightly lower acid levels. Here is a list of wines I had an opportunity to taste with notes.
*In place of numerical scores I use a tasting chart created by
Peter Granoff, MS. It creates a profile of a wine using seven criteria: intensity of flavor, sweetness/dryness, body, acidity, tannin, oak, complexity. The tasting chart also makes use of a one to seven scale, one being lowest and seven highest, and breaks down as follows:
Intensity: simple 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 very intense flavors
Dryness/sweetness: dry 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 very sweet
Body: light-bodied 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 full-bodied
Acidity: soft, gentle 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 very crisp
Tannins: none 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 very tannic
Oak: no oak 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 very oaky
Complexity: direct 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 very complex
Although not exactly a botrytis year in terms of noble sweet wines, 2012 for the Mosel yielded delicate Kabinett and delicious Spätlesen. Especially noteworthy were the bottlings from the Saarburger Rausch by Zilliken, the Juffer Sonnenuhr from Fritz Haag, the Piesporter Goldtröpchen from Rheinhold Haart, and both Kabinett and Spätlese from the Karthäuserhof estate. Special mention has to be made for Bert Selbach of Dr. F.Weins-Prüm whose entire range of 2012 Rieslings from the Graacher Domprobst and Himmelreich to the Wehlener Sonnenuhr was simply superb.
Hanno Zilliken’s Rieslings from the outstanding Saaburger Rausch vineyard combined precisely etched fruit with pronounced slate minerality and high natural acidity. Good vintages of Rausch Spätlesen easily age 25 years and more.
1. Saarburg Riesling Trocken, Alte Reben
White flowers, lime zest and Pippin with pronounced mineral blast—almost peppery on the palate; sleek, balanced, tart, and long.
2. Saarburger Rausch Spätlese
Orange, honey, floral, mango, lime, slate; laser-like in focus with very long with mineral-dominant finish. Touch of botrytis?
3. Saarburger Rausch Auslese
Luscious attack of orange, lime, white peach and honey then ferocious minerality that doesn’t end. 5/4/4/6/1/1/5
II. Von Kesselstatt
Anagret Reh’s Rieslings offer opulent peach/tropical/tart citrus
fruit with intense minerality. Always approachable on release they still have great potential to age. I found her dry wines, particularly the monopole Josephshöfer, to be the best I’ve tasted from the estate.
1. Riesling Trocken Alte Reben
Notes of lime/lemon, sour apple, honey and white peach. Slate throughout. 4/1/4/5-6/1/1/4
2. Scharzhofberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs
Rounder and more generous but still intense minerality with almost a peppery finish. 5/2/4/5/1/1/5
3. Josephshöfer Riesling Grosses Gewächs
Intensely apple-y (Fuji) with notes of honey/honeysuckle, lime and slate; very sleek and seamless. 5/2/4/5/1/1/5
4. Scharzhofberg Spätlese
Honey, white rose, lime/lemon and white peach; Bach French Suite No. 5 - 4/3/4/6/1/1/5
In the past I’ve called Karthäuserhof Rieslings “liquid piano wire” or “liquid laser beam” simply because of the insanely high acidity and searing minerality. The 2012’s did not disappoint and will be enjoyed over the next several decades.
1. Karthäuserhof Schieferkristall Riesling Kabinett Trocken
Light floral, lime, yellow grapefruit with an almost chalky minerality; acid is extreme on the palate. 5/1/4/7/1/1/4
2. Karthäuserhof Schieferkristall Riesling Kabinett Feinherb
A bit of residual sugar compared to the wine above; rounder and gentler but very deceptive with a mineral/acid blast on the finish. 5/1/4/7/1/1/4
3. Karthäuserhof Spätlese
As always, the acid/mineral combo is so extreme that the wine
quickly loses sweetness in the mouth. Tightly wound and needs 7-10 years before even looking at it again. 6/3/4/7/1/1/5
IV. Fritz Haag
Wilhelm Haag’s Rieslings combine power and finesse on a delicate
frame. Sometimes closed when young they can continue to develop for decades.
1. Brauneberg Riesling Trocken
Intense! A grapefruit, lime, slate blast. 6/1/4/6/1/1/4
2. Juffer Riesling Spätlese
Orange creamcicle with white flowers, white peach, lime and
slate; delicate, precise and crystalline. 4/2/4/6/1/1/4
3. Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese
Succulent, luscious, juicy with lime, orange, white peach and
mango framed by slate and tart acidity. 5/3/4/6/1/1/5
4. Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese
Hints of botrytis with honey/honeysuckle, peach, lime and kiwi;
still lots of intensity in terms of slate and acid on the finish. 5/4/4/6/1/1/5+
V. Rheinhold Haart
Theo Haart easily the most important producer in Piesport; his wines are known for their intensity, opulence and power with notes of red currant, peach, lime and slate.
1. Goldtröpchen Riesling Kabinett
Honey, red currant, peach and lime; luscious texture with the
predictable Haart power on the finish; a great Kabinett. 5/2/4/6/1/1/4
2. Goldtröpchen Riesling Spätlese
Wow! Intense, concentrated and vibrant with key lime, white peach, honey and slate; a very impressive Spätlese. 6/4/4/6/1/1/5
VI. Dr. Loosen
Ernie Loosen has a long track record for producing delicious Rieslings from old parcels of some of the Mosel’s top vineyards. The 2012’s did not disappoint and his Grosses Gewächs wines are some of the best Mosel dry wines I’ve ever tasted.
1. Weissburgunder Trocken
Very polished, seamless Pinot Blanc with apple/pear, lime and
2. Blauschiefer Riesling Trocken
Lots of slate for an entry wine with racy lime and tart apple notes. 4/1/3/5/1/1/4
3. Himmelreich Riesling Grosses Gewächs
Mosel Grosses Gewächs has come a long way since the
last time I tasted it—or climate change is really noticeable in the Mosel. Whatever the case, there’s lots of green tea, lime, white peach and mineral here with a long, vibrant finish. 5/1/4/6/1/1/5
4. Sonnenuhr Riesling Grosses Gewächs
Prettier and more floral than Himmelreich; rounder and more elegant palate with green pear/apple, peach and lime. 5/1/4/6/1/1/5
5. Würzgarten Riesling Grosses Gewächs
The most intensely mineral of the GG trio; very spicy, peppery
palate with honey, sour apple and peach notes. 5/1/4/5/1/1/5
6. Erdener Treppchen Kabinett
Just off-dry in style with succulent lime, kiwi, white peach and slate notes; very focused and long—an excellent Kabinett. 4/2/4/6/1/1/4
7. Würzgarten Spätlese
White floral, lime, peach and peppery mineral; vibrant and juicy
VII. Dr. F. Weins Prüm
Burt Selbach has long been one of my favorites in the Mosel and I
don’t think he gets near the credit he deserves. This was my favorite Mosel set of the entire day. The wines were elegant, understated, shimmering and complete; utterly delicious on release and they age very well.
1. Graacher Domprobst Spätlese Trocken
Balance of succulent youthful fruit and seamless texture; kiwi, spice, lime and slate. 4/1/4/5/1/1/5
2. Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett Feinherb
Passionfruit, lime, peach blossom, and slate; delicate in style with just the right touch of residual. 4/2/4/6/1/1/4
3. Graacher Domprobst Kabinett
Orange, lime, white peach and Pippin; perfect sugar-acid balance and easily the best Kabinett of the day. 4/2/4/5/1/1/5
4. Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese
Delicious! Peach, orange, lime and kiwi; finishes with slate and surprising vibrancy. 5/2/4/6/1/1/5
5. Erdener Prälat Auslese: 15% botrytis fruit
An orange-mango blast with luscious fruit, honey/honeysuckle and
slate notes on the finish. 5/4/4/4/1/1/5-6
The Robert Weil Estate in Kiedrich
With just three hours scheduled for tasting I spent most of the time in the Mosel. However, I was able to hit a couple of favorites in the Rheingau.
Günter Künstler’s dry Rieslings from vineyards in Hochheim are
some of my favorite wines made anywhere.
1. Rüdesheim Trocken
Very dense and concentrated for an entry level dry wine; white flower, key lime, tangerine and both stone and earth; sleek, focused and long. 5/1/4/5/1/1/4
2. Hochheimer Stielweg Trocken
More concentrated than previous wine with richer dark earth notes. Flavors suggest honey, mango, lime and yellow peach. 5/2/4/5/1/1/5-6
3. Hochheimer Hölle Erstes Gewächs
Meursault-like in terms of power and focus; seamless palate of
Fuji, lime, mango and mushroom/earth; elegant, concentrated and impressive for its dry extract. 6/2/5/5/1/1/5-6
3. Rudesheimer Berg Rottland Auslese
Lime sorbet rocket fuel with honey and orange notes. Palate has the viscosity of Eiswein. 6/5/4/5/1/1/6
II. Robert Weil
Wilhelm Weil is one of Germany’s—and the worlds—very best winemakers. For over a decade Weil has produced outstanding bottlings at every prädikat level. His 2012 Eiswein and BA were two of the best wines tasted on the trip—and two of the best wines I’ve tasted thus far this year.
1. Kiedricher Turmberg Spätlese
Elegant and graceful with lots of acid lift; not as concentrated
as Gräfenberg; lemon/lime, Fuji, peach and slate with a lingering finish. 4/3/4/5-6/1/1/4
2. Kiedricher Gräfenberg Spätlese
Dense with amazing dry extract; it’s like Spätlese concentrate; white fruits with sweet and tart citrus; mineral and laser acidity on the finish. 5/3/4/6/1/1/6
3. Kiedricher Gräfenberg Auslese
Apricot, lime honey; some botrytis notes but not overwhelming; seamless—this is great winemaking! 6/5/4/1/1/6
4. Kiedricher Gräfenberg BA
Lots of botrytis character here; it’s deceptively
concentrated but very light and ethereal at the same time; very precise, focused and concentrated; honey, lime, green tea, mango, citrus blossom; saffron and white chocolate. 7/6/4/6/1/1/6
5. Gräfenberg Eiswein
A citrus blast; even more extract than the BA; the acidity is off
he charts. 7/7/5/7/1/1/6
I’m just back from ten days on the road, a trip split between three Alto Adige wine seminars in Denver, D.C. and New York; and a trip to Germany for the Weinbörse, the big annual spring wine fair. While the likes of such a sojourn may sound glamorous, anyone who travels for a living will tell you that most of it is spent looking at the inside of hotels, cabs and planes, not to mention the long periods of time in various inert, semi-functioning states. But there was plenty of upside to this trip with the buzz generated by Alto Adige wines (http://www.timgaiser.com/
1/post/2013/04/the-wines-of-alto-adige.html) and tasting the outstanding 2012 vintage for German Riesling. More on the latter will follow in my next post. Until then, here are bits of wisdom gained from the road:
Bee Death Smells Like Bananas
This gem offered by Haley Dale from Omaha who was on the Germany
segment of the trip. Haley’s restaurant, the Grey Plume, is a farm-to-table concept and her commitment, no make that obsession, to deliver the freshest local ingredients to her guests includes the likes of keeping bees in her back yard for their prized honey. But, she warned, the worst thing one can do before working with bees is to eat bananas. That’s because the
hormone given off by a bee that’s just stung you, as in a bee that has just
given up its life by stinging you to protect the rest of the hive, smells like
bananas. So those ripe banana slices on the breakfast cereal you’re enjoying as you read the celebrity column right before you amble out to check out the hive will signify serial death to the inhabitants and give the signal to attack. Bee forewarned.
They Have Wine Queens in Germany
On the first morning of our German itinerary we were graced by
the presence of one Sabine Wagner who, as it turns out, is the 2013 Rheingau Wine Queen. I’m not sure about the selection process or the requirements for being a wine queen, but I will tell you that Sabine was lovely, charming and wore a very cute tiara that would surely be the envy of gaggle of little girls. She was also accompanied by another woman who was the wine queen from a smaller region. They both provided color commentary in English about the drizzly landscape as we sped past in our uber-designed German bus. They also excelled at photo ops which I gather is part of the job description. For the record I also have to mention that there was a grape queen at the spring wine ball that night pictured below.
Her costume was pretty amazing. It probably weighed a ton as well.
It’s Spargel Season
It’s spring in Germany and that means it’s time for spargel or white asparagus. Spargel is truly a delicacy, far more subtle than its aggressive green cousin. The Germans obsess about spring and Spargel. How do they enjoy it? Simply steamed and served with Hollandaise sauce an accompanied by Speck (thinly sliced cured ham) and roasted potatoes. Wine pairing? Silvaner from Franconia is ausgezeichnet (excellent). Han Wirsching’s Spätlese Trocken would be a perfect match. Does eating spargel make your pee stink? Yes it does, but not nearly as much as green asparagus. However, eat enough spargel over a period of several days and everything about you, from your clothes to various aspects of your fabulous physique, will indeed have a delightfully pungent vegetal air. That’s not a bad thing. I think it’s called personal terroir.
The Shower Challenge
What’s the greatest road challenge when it comes a hotel room? Remembering your room number? Not quite although that certainly makes life a bit easier. It’s not figuring out the thermostat either. That’s a close second because some of them are either so arcane or so complicated as to be unworkable. When it doubt, turn it off unless it’s either freezing or boiling in the room. In which case, call the front desk and make them fix it.
No, the greatest hotel room challenge of all is the shower, specifically
figuring out how the shower works. I’m firmly convinced that there are completely evil and/or monumentally stupid individuals who design hotel bathroom showers; that there are hotel showers so utterly lacking in functionality that it’s almost as if the job of designing them was handed to a herd of goats. But let me get beyond my rant for just a moment by providing the following bit of sage advice: make sure you know how the shower works before you actually have to use it—as in the following morning. I say that from more than one tragic experience. In fact, I’m saving my best shower memories for a future post. Stay tuned for that one.
Unless you’re one of the compulsive types who gets up two hours
before they actually have to be anywhere, the last 20 minutes of your morning routine—as in when you shower and actually get ready—are crunch time. There’s absolutely no room for error and that’s exactly when the unsuspecting bather is waylaid by the dark gods of crap hotel bathroom design. That’s when the panic-stricken bather, not unlike the newsprint besmeared victim of Psycho, realizes that it takes ten minutes for tepid—not hot—water to appear from the faucet; that the drain doesn’t work and one is quickly up to their knees with water that looks like toxic waste; that the towels are not in the bathroom as they should be but are, in fact, in another room as in Nairobi; that there are multiple lethal shower heads that will attack with shocking force from all angles with ice cold water if the precise combination of several dials is not applied. Showers, my friends, can be dangerous. Test-drive them the night before needed use. You will be glad you did.
Last weekend the classical music world lost one of its long time great
performers. Adolf “Bud” Herseth passed away at his Oak Park home outside
of Chicago. He was 91. Herseth was the former principal trumpet in the Chicago Symphony—for 53 years. His name may be far from familiar but to anyone in the brass world he was not only a living legend but one of the greatest, if not the greatest, orchestral trumpet players of the last century.
Herseth was born in Lake Park, Minnesota, the son of a band director who gave him his first trumpet. His first musical experience was playing trumpet and cornet in school bands and at music camps. He graduated from Luther College in Iowa with a degree in mathematics before playing with service
bands during World War II. After the war he studied with Marcel Lafosse
and Georges Mager at the New England Conservatory in Boston with the
expectation of eventually landing a high school or college teaching job.
But while at the conservatory Herseth received a telegram from Artur Rodzinski, who had just been named music director of the Chicago Symphony, asking him to come to New York and audition. He later recalled:
“I didn't know much of the orchestral repertory at that time so I checked out the trumpet parts for as much music as I could find in the libraries. Then I went down to Rodzinski's apartment on Fifth Avenue and dumped the music on the rack of his grand piano in his enormous living room. I wasn't nervous because I thought I was auditioning for the third-trumpet position. So you can imagine my surprise when, after listening to me for about an hour, he said, ‘You will be the new first trumpet of the Chicago Symphony.”
The rest, as they say, is history with Herseth assuming the principal trumpet chair at the beginning of the 1948 season and performing under six music directors over the next 50-plus years; directors that would include Rodzinski (1947-1948), Rafael Kubelik (1950-1953), Fritz Reiner (1953-1962), Jean Martinon (1963-1968), Sir Georg Solti (1969-1991), and Daniel Barenboim (1991-2006). It was during the Fritz Reiner years that the CSO brass section became one of the worlds finest, known for its brilliant, focused and powerful sound; at the center of the section was Bud, whose playing became the standard for orchestral players and students for many generations to come.
I will be the first to tell you from personal experience that the trumpet is probably the most physically challenging instrument to play. Combine the volume and concentration of air needed to play the instrument with the fact that the medium that actually produces the sound is part of your physical body and one has the recipe for a lifetime of immense frustration. I’ve always believed that 90% of the people who play the trumpet never physically master it and spend most of their time trying to do just that. For the record I count myself among that number having played through graduate school and several years professionally before putting the horn down permanently due to issues with my release/attack, similar to a hitch in a golf swing.
On any given day a really good player can completely take a dive and have a disastrous performance. I’ve seen it many times. Trumpet recitals, moreover, are something akin to gladiators vs. lions in the coliseum. When things go wrong as in someone losing their “chops,” or their endurance, the results are painful to hear much less witness. I’ve been there too. As for the other 10% for whom playing the trumpet comes easily, half get bored with it and give it up. The other half usually end up with careers and become names we know—Wynton Marsalis is a good example.
It’s no surprise then that the principal trumpet chair in a major orchestra is one of the most stressful jobs of any kind. I liken it to being a top closer in baseball always throwing 95-plus mile-an-hour fastballs to the best hitters in the game. When you screw up the entire world knows it. For the principal trumpet it’s much the same, playing the most difficult literature night in and night out with any mistake broadcasted at high volume to the listening audience if not a radio audience of untold thousands. There is literally no place to hide and conductors expect perfection all the time. So Herseth’s tenure of five decades at the helm of the CSO’s brass section is all the more remarkable and literally without precedent.
Herseth’s playing combined consistency, precision, power, an immense sound and impeccable musicianship. His recordings with the CSO were one of my go-to resources as a student when it came to getting an interpretation of an orchestral excerpt or just an example of great playing and a beautiful sound. Here’s a handful of my favorites, many recorded during the Reiner years:
1. Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra: CSO, Fritz Reiner
One of the great pieces of 20th century music and one of my very
favorite classical recordings. A tour-de-force of orchestral brass
2. Mussogsky:Pictures at an Exhibition: CSO, Fritz Reiner
The CSO recorded Mussogsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” six times and Reiner’s recording is widely considered the best.
3. Mahler: Symphony No. 5, CSO, Sir Georg Solti
During Solti’s tenure in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s the CSO became one of the most accomplished Mahler orchestras in the world. The fifth symphony became their signature piece and I was fortunate to hear them perform it in Davies Hall in San Francisco in 1987. It’s one of the great orchestral performances I’ve ever heard and Bud did not disappoint.
4. Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade: CSO, Fritz Reiner
Scheherazade is one of the great “war horses” of the 19th century
repertoire. It’s rarely performed this well and the last movement here was recorded in one take—remarkable when you listen to how well it’s played.
5. Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben:
CSO, Fritz Reiner
Two of Strauss’ greatest tone poems brilliantly played. And yes, the beginning of Also Sprach is the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s actually more than 30 minutes of music after that. Check it out. It’s pretty
6. The Giulini Recordings: CSO, Carlo Maria Giulini
Giulini was the principal guest conductor with the CSO during the ‘70’s and made several outstanding recordings with the orchestra. This set is a great introduction to the CSO with stellar performances of Brahams Symphony No. 4, Mahler Symphony No. 1, Stravinksy’s suites from the Firebird and Petrouchka, and Brucker Symphony No. 9. BTW, one of my professors in graduate school called Bruckner the “stupidest person who was ever considered a great composer."
Finally, here’s a You Tube clip of Daniel Barenboim conducting the CSO in a stellar performance of the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony for the opening concert of Carnegie Hall's 1997 season. It more than
demonstrates the virtuosity of the CSO brass section with Bud front and center— in his mid-seventies and entering his 49th season with the
For a country about half the size of Texas (thanks, Carla!) Italy is a land of extremes. In the south Sicily is closer to Tunisia than Rome with Mediterranean and African influences visible across the cultural spectrum.
I’m sure that if they had their way the Sicilians would elect to secede tomorrow. In the far north Alto Adige is almost as equally removed from the universally held stereotype of a Tuscan landscape of misty hills lined with Cyprus trees dotted by the occasional terracotta topped villa.
Alto Adige was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end
of WWI. Bolzano, its major city of some 100,000-plus, is a leisurely 90 minute drive from Innsbruck Austria, site of the 1976 winter Olympics. So
it’s no surprise that over 70% of the people in Alto Adige primarily speak German and rarely Italian. Several times during my stay I overheard one of the local winery contacts say that they had gone to school in “Italy” or were about to head south to vacation in “Italy.” I would remind said person that we actually were in Italy only to be met with a shrug and the briefest hint of a smile. Regionality, as it does elsewhere in Italy, runs deep.
But I can’t blame any of them. One look at Bolzano and its
surroundings and you’re definitely not in mainstream Italy much less Kansas. Take for instance the remarkably steep hills encompassing the Santa Magdalena DOC that jut up dramatically from the northwest section of the city you’ll know why. With its black diamond slope terraced vineyard one could easily be in the Wachau of Austria or the Mittel Rhein of Germany.
In terms of wine production Alto Adige is one of the Italy’s smallest regions with just over 5,000 growers farming some 13,000 acres. Napa Valley, mind you has over 39,000 acres under vine while the Chianti DOCG has over 41,000 acres planted. But quality here is king with over 98% of the wines produced of DOC level. The region’s climate combines alpine influence with warm temperatures during the growing season; that’s because the Dolomites and the Swiss and Austrian Alps in the north act as an enormous rain shadow protecting the area from temperature extremes during the winter. Mediterranean influence from the south makes for some of the hottest temps in Italy during the summer. Together both create wide diurnal shifts with a marked separation between high daytime and low night temps. For all things viticulture that means the fruit—both apples and grapes-- achieves good ripeness levels and yet retains high natural acidity, a magic combination that makes the wines versatile and in some cases sets up considerable aging potential.
The Alto Adige region is patchwork of valleys and mountains with
vineyards planted between 600 and 3,300 feet. The soils range from calcareous and limestone near the ever-present Dolomites to volcanic porphyry and moraines, the remains of glaciers that retreated from the region some five to six million years ago. The sum total is home for over 20 grape varieties with the soil determining the variety planted; whites on the chalk and limestone closest to the Dolomites and red grapes thriving in the Moraines and porphyry-based soils.
Geography: the Flux Capacitor
Think Back to the Future
movies and the Y-shaped circuit that enabled the stainless steel DeLorean to journey through time(http://backtothefuture.wikia.com/wiki/Flux_capacitor
). But the comparison works. Alto Adige’s three major valleys form a letter “Y” with Bolzano as its hub.
To the northeast is Valle d’Issarco, just minutes away from the Austrian border. Chiusa and Bressanone are the most important towns and the historical abbey, Abbazia di Novicella, is one of the leading coops - producers. The abbey dates from the 12th century and the Santa Maria Assunta is one of the most beautiful small basilicas I’ve ever seen—it’s a must see. Here in d’Issarco the soils are mainly granitic and whites predominate with some excellent Schiava produced as well.
The Val Venosta lies to the northwest with Merano the major city.
The Venosta is the driest region in Alto Adige and also one of the centers for apple production. It’s the most scarcely planted valley of the three with poryphry and volcanic soils; whites predominante plantings. The region is also known for its mild climate and Merano has long been regarded as an excellent spa town.
The Oltradige valley in the south is the largest of the three valleys and the heart of Alto Adige wine production. Appiano and Caldaro are the most important villages. Limestone and porphyry soils are found as well as moraines. White wines account for 56% of the production with vineyards planted between 1,000 and 2,300 feet. The village of Tramin, spiritual home to the Gewürztraminer grape, is also located here.
At the center of the flux capacitor is the city of Bolzano and one of the warmest parts of the entire region. Here the vineyards of the Santa Maddalena DOC rise steeply out of the northwest part of the city. The soils are poryphry-based and perfectly suited to Schiava-based reds as well as Lagrein.
Coops: a Reality Check
One belief I had to quickly shed while in Alto Adige was a long-held notion that coops are mere factories cranking out oceans of wine mediocre in quality at best. Over 70% of the wine in Alto Adige is coop-produced and a lot of it is very good to outstanding. In talking to winemakers I learned that the region’s vineyards are severely fragmented in terms of ownership just like Burgundy. Thus like Burgundy commercial winemaking on any scale can only exist in a cooperative context. However, the relationships I witnessed between coop winemakers and vineyard owners (many of whom are in non-wine professionals and have had the vineyards passed down to them by older generations) were closer to a négociant/owner in terms of the emphasis on quality fruit and lower yields. Terlano is a perfect
example of one of the several Alto Adige coops making exceptional wine.
Here’s a quick survey of the major varieties from the region.
Pinot Bianco: grown throughout the region. Pinot Bianco isn’t usually a grape that gets everyone dangerously excited but I was surprised, no make that shocked, at how well it can age give the right conditions. To point, Klaus Gasser of Terlano opened bottles of the winery’s Pinot Bianco from 1982 and 1955. The ’55 was deep golden in hue and still very fresh and alive. So much for the black and white belief that whites don’t age well. Old wine aside Alto Adige Pinot Bianco shows bright citrus fruit with white blossom notes on the nose and steely minerality on the palate. A
delicious shellfish wine.
Pinot Grigio: there’s an ocean of Pinot Grigio made all over northern Italy, much of it unremarkable. The best wines from the variety are definitely from Alto Adige and combine bright green pear/pear skin and juicy citrus fruit with wet stone minerality.
Gewürztraminer: it’s interesting to note that in Jancis Robinson’s just published and completely brilliant tome “Wine Grapes” (over 1,200 pages and weighing in at 6.7 pounds) a listing for Gewürztraminer is missing in
action. Searching the index one is pointed to the Savignin entry with the explanation that what we call Gewürztraminer is actually a genetic mutation of the other Alsace grape. Not sure what that does to the village of Tramin’s claims to be the ancestral if not spiritual home for Gewürztraminer
but there you are. In terms of style the Alto Adige Gewürztraminers have all the pungent floral and spicy fruit qualities one expects from the grape
without the blowsy, low acid, 1970 Chrysler Imperial out of control kind of a
thing; balance, in other words. At best the wines are luscious, spicy and
perfumed; they’re also delectable with soft-ripened
Riesling: the few Rieslings I tasted during the week reminded me of scaled down versions of Austrian bottlings with tart citrus fruit and stoney minerality.
Grüner Veltliner: one comes across Grüner in the north near the Austrian
border. Here the style resembles the lighter versions from the Austrian Kamptal region versus the richer Federspiel and Smaragd wines of the Wachau. Still there’s plenty of the peppery and slight vegetal notes that make Grüner so delicious.
Kerner: another grape that usually goes under the radar and for
good reason—it’s not exactly riveting. But I did find several wines, most notably the Praepositus from Abbazia di Novacella, to be delicious with ripe Fuji apple and quince notes and a wonderful floral quality.
Sylvaner: I’ve long thought the Silvaners from Franconia (especially those from Hans Wirsching) to be the best on the planet. Now I’m more than willing to concede that there are several producers making outstanding Sylvaner in Alto Adige with all the smoky succulent apple/pear and sweet citrus fruits and tart acidity one could hope for.
Sauvignon Blanc: here is really the only instance I found a bit of identity crisis among all the Alto Adige wines. Not really a surprise given that Sauvignon Blanc suffers the same wicked fate in California as well, not knowing whether to emulate New Zealand or Sancerre and sometimes heading directly in between with unique, sometimes bizarre results. The best Alto Adige Sauvignons were sharply etched and citrus-dominated while others suffered from either too much sulfur or too much oak. There is great promise for the grape here.
Moscato Giallo: thought to have been brought to the region by the
ancient romans. Both succulent fully dessert sweet and dry versions are
White Blends: blends based on Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon
Blanc and Pinot Grigio are a long-held tradition in Alto Adige and they can be quite good as well as ageworthy. In particular, Manicor’s Reserve della Contessa and Terlano’s Nova Domus Riserva are outstanding.
Schiava: I’ll go out on a limb here by saying the next uber geek hipster red wine will be Schiava. It’s a wonderful combination of Pinot-elegance and tart Barbera acidity with unique savory qualities. Light in color, fairly concentrated and Beaujolais-like, it can be served chilled and goes with any and everything. You might see it also labeled as Vernatsch or Edel Vernatsch (remember the German influence!). The best Schiava-based wines are from the Santa Maddalena DOC where they are blended with a maximum 10% Lagrein. Try one—delicious!
Lagrein: other than ease of pronunciation (it rhymes with wine) Lagrein could also be the next total geek wine. Malbec-purple in color with Merlot-soft tannins and a tart, savory, floral character all its own. Another must try.
Pinot Noir: the Pinots I tasted during the week reminded me of
Spätburgunders from Germany with tart cranberry/rhubarb fruit, beet, tea/herb and earth notes. Elegance and finesse are common hallmarks.
Merlot: primarily grown in the warmer south closer to Trento. Bottled both as a single varietal and blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. The best examples have lush black fruits, herbal notes and minerality.
Cabernet Sauvignon: ditto above with the best examples showing
vibrant blackcurrant and herb notes with clay earth.
Moscato Rosa: my new favorite sticky. Moscato Rosas are luscious, just-right sweet and spicy. Chocolate wine!
Knödels - dumplings!
Apples! Alto Adige is the center of apple production in Italy and one of the major suppliers to the European continent. The valley floors are filled with apple orchards with vines on hillsides and terraces. However, a high bounty is placed on top orchards grown on steep hillsides.
Foods: when in Bolzano makes sure to try the local dumplings called knödels, made from cheese, beets, speck (local ham like prosciutto) or spinach. The crunchy unleavened bread is called schüttelbrot is also delicious.
Restaurants: Patscheiderhof is an old farmhouse restaurant outside Bolzano built in 1776 that serves traditional local fare including delicious knödels.
Favorite wines from the week of tasting:
1. 2012 K. Martini & Sohn Pinot Bianco “Palladium”
Lots of intensity and ripe fruit for Pinot Bianco with vibrant acidity and a touch of chalky minerality.
2. 2012 Castelfeder Pinot Grigio
Racy citrus and Pippin Apple fruit with notes of bitter almond and mineral.
3. 2012 Erste Neue Pinot Grigio
Sleek supple texture with tart acidity; flavors suggest green pear, citrus blossom and chalk.
4. 2011 Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner “Praepositus”
Ripe pear/green melon, key lime and blossoms with mineral underlay; focused, concentrated and racy with an intense mineral mid-palate. Outstanding.
5. 2006 Cantina Terlano Sauvignon Blanc “Quarz” (from
magnum) Tart citrus, restrained grass/herb notes and pronounced salty
mineral; racy, seamless, superb; wonderful balance and length.
6. 2010 Cantina Terlano Nova Domus Riserva
A blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Blanc. Vibrant Fuji apple/green pear and white flowers with bright lemon citrus notes.
7. 2011 Cantina Val Isarco Gewürztraminer “Aristos”
Ripe peach, tangerine and ginger spice flavors with pronounced floral
8. 2012 Elena Walch Schiava
Tart cherry and cranberry notes with savory herb and a touch of
9. 2011 A. Egger-Ramer Santa Maddalena “Reisegger Classico”
Richer the regular Schiavas with more depth of fruit and earth/mineral notes. Juicy, ripe and forward with tart finishing acidity.
10. 2011 St. Michele Appiano Pinot Nero
Smoky cranberry and sour cherry fruit with beet root, tea, leather and spice; lots of mineral on the mid-palate with older wood and tart
acid on the finish
11. 2011 Castel Sallegg Lagrein
Ripe crunchy black fruits with violet, anise/herb, green leaf and
earth/mineral notes; more restrained on the palate than expected but still very juicy and fruity with sappy acidity and minerality on the finish.
12. 2009 Kellerei Kaltern Passito Moscato Giallo “Serenade”
Fruit dried for 4-5 months and then aged in wood for two years; 210 grams residual with nine grams total acidity; crystallized pineapple and preserved lemon with honey; luscious fully sweet with honey, dried flower and anise notes; utterly delicious.
Neuroscientists tell us that we have taste receptors on our tongues predicated to seven things: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami, kokumi (calcium) and fat. Sweetness is near and dear to us as children supposedly due to the sweetness we inherently crave in our mother’s milk. Bitterness is by far the last of the seven tastes we acquire a fondness for. That’s simply because bitterness is a biological trigger for anything poisonous or unhealthy in food and drink. Our natural response/aversion to something that tastes bitter probably goes back thousands of generations when our major concern was where we last saw the saber tooth tiger before hitting the hay. Nowadays it’s only with age and the onset of adulthood, whatever that is, that a fondness or even craving for all things bitter develops. Hence our love of coffee, espresso, radicchio and digestifs such as amaros. Many, however, will go throughout their entire lives with a hightened sensitivity to and utter dread of bitterness in food and drink. Ah such sadness.
Enter Fernet Branca, the amaro extraordinaire. The original Fernet was the creation of Bernardino Branca and his three sons. It was first offered for commercial sale in 1845 and advertised as a healthy tonic for a variety of malaises. In its early days Fernet was described as a “renown liqueur” that was “febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, invigorating, warming and anti-choleric.” To the latter, the Branca family showed exceptional business acumen by having several local physicians officially validate their bitter elixir as a preventative and curative to cholera whose frequent outbreaks in the local region were a cause of great concern.
I first came across Fernet Branca over 25 years ago during my bartending days in San Francisco thanks to good friend Michael Bugella. A few years later Fernet later came to save my life socially (and one might argue ecumenically as well) when it restored me from a monumental hangover and enabled me to stand in as best man at a good friend’s wedding (see previous blog post at www.timgaiser.com/1/post/2012/3/the-breakfast-of-champions.html). I have been a devotee ever since.
Fast forward to last week: I was in Italy visiting wineries and vineyards in Alto Adige, arguably the most unique of country’s 20 wine regions. German is the main language spoken there and the climate is a curious mix of alpine influence with the Dolomites hovering on all sides with some of the hottest summer temperatures thanks to warm air currents from the south. I’ll write about Alto Adige and the superb wines I tasted there in a future post.
One of the highlights of the trip was an extra day spent in Milan, specifically a tour of the Fernet Branca distillery. Fellow MS Geoff Kruth and I drove the three-plus hours from Bolzano to Milan early that morning to make our appointment. The distillery takes up an entire city block in an older industrial part of the city. Original photos and illustrations show it surrounded by farms and pastureland when first built. It’s now surrounded by urban sprawl and graffiti. Once there Geoff and I were greeted by Marco, a fine young lad well versed in all things Fernet. He led us into the superbly appointed Fernet museum which was first opened in 1980. Its halls are filled with old presses, stills, production tools, photos, and memorabilia as well as the original artwork produced by the company over the last 150 years
I’ve heard forever and a day that the ingredients in Fernet were a top secret. Not true. Rounding a corner we came upon a large raised circular display offering all the 27 active ingredients in Fernet. The list includes the likes of chamomile, myrrh (for bitterness!), star anise, grains of paradise, juniper, green coffee beans, cinchona bark, gentian, rhubarb, white agaric, linden, cocoa beans, mace, laurel leaf, bitter orange peel, orris, Colombo root, Zedoary, cardamom, Greater Galanga (whatever that is), cinnamon, marjoram, Musk Yarrow, tea leaves, small Centaury, aloe, saffron and peppermint.
But while the Branca team is more than happy to let the world know what ingredients are in its wonderful elixir its actual production methods are indeed a trade secret. To point, Geoff, Marco and I donned gauzy paper clean suits and strolled through the production area for Café Borghetti, the company’s coffee liqueur. We also saw the enormous vat used for aging the Stravecchio Branca, the company’s brandy. But we were not allowed to see any the area used for distillation and production for both Fernet and Branca Menta. We were, however, taken into the sacred aging hall filled with dozens and dozens of huge wooden vats filled with Fernet quietly sleeping away for the required year to age and marry all the exotic components.
The tour ended with a stop at the Fernet reception bar in a large room filled posters and a burgundy colored Fernet Fiat sedan from the 1930’s complete with logos. Marco first poured tastes of the entire line of outstanding Carpano vermouths (acquired by the Branca family in 2001). The bitter Punt e Mes and the utterly delicious Antica are two of my favorite aperitifs. We also tasted the Stravecchio Branca (great value) and Café Borghetti.
Marco then pulled shots of Branca Menta out of the Branca Brrrr machine, a small refrigerated unit resembling a snow cone maker. Menta was created in 1960 for the legendary opera soprano Maria Callas who liked to drink her regular Fernet with mint. The family obliged by concocting the Branca Menta which is slightly sweet and intensely minty. We capped off the tasting with a shot of Fernet which brought everything go a perfect close; it was ninety minutes of heaven.
From the very earliest days the Branca family’s maxim has always been Novare serbando—renew but conserve. I couldn’t have said it better. Salute!
At some point near the end of a recent dinner in Singapore my friend and fellow Master Brian Julyan and I suddenly thought we smelled natural gas in the restaurant where we were dining--or mercaptan, to be precise, which is added to natural gas to make it detectable. The odor was strong enough that we called a server over to let them know about it. He answered quickly, “no gas, just durian.” The phrase had barely left his mouth when another server put down a plate of white puffy pastries in front of us. Brian looked at me and said tersely, “no way.” After all, he’d been burned once before and had never really forgiven me for it. “I’m going in,” I announced to the table. I then took one of the spongy pastries off the plate and quickly popped it into my mouth without further thought. What followed was an instant descent into a wormhole of culinary/sensory hell with the most bizarre combination of horrific aromas I’d ever experienced.
This wasn’t my first encounter with durian. In 2006 I went to Singapore for the first time with Brian and Evan Goldstein to teach the first ever MS Introductory Course in Asia. As we headed out to dinner one night we drove past a fruit stand on the side of the street that had an enormous stockpile of bizarre green fruit. Someone in our party asked Tommy Lam, our local contact, about the fruit which resembled a cross between a green football and an armadillo. “Durian,” Tommy said. “Tastes good but smells really awful.” Being the ever curious and compulsive Americans we had to know more. After all, how bad could something possibly smell? To satisfy our morbid curiosity Tommy drove around the block and then rolled down the windows on our second pass. Instantly a stench assaulted the car—a combination of shit, road kill and the essence of the putrefaction decay cycle (remember that from junior high science?). It was overwhelming. That people could even consider eating something that smelled so foul was beyond belief. But I was to learn more.
In Asia durian is called the “king of fruits.” It’s known for its large size (up to 12 inches long) and can weigh up to seven pounds. But more than anything durian is legendary for its remarkably strong, repulsive odor—an odor so pungent that it’s banned on public transportation throughout Southeast Asia. The name durian comes from the Malay world “duri” which translates as thorn. There are some 30 known species of which nine produce edible fruit. Durian has been consumed in southeastern Asia since prehistoric times but has only been known to the western world for about 600 years. The earliest known European written record of the fruit is by Niccolò Da Conti, who traveled to Asia in the 15th century.
I remember asking students in that first Introductory class about durian and whether they liked it or not. The group was split right down the middle with half crooning at the mere mention of the word and the other half utterly repulsed. There was no middle. Those that loved it professed to be addicted to it. One young woman said she considered durian to be an aphrodisiac or at the very least a delicacy. She went on to say that the combination of sweet melon-like fruit with jalapeno-peppery spiciness was to die for. However, someone else in the class said it should be outlawed completely. Several in the group also said that eating too much durian in a short duration of time could cause dangerously high blood pressure. I’m thinking that the olfactory bulb in your brain would probably explode long before that.
After that initial drive by experience Brian, Evan and I taunted each other for days about actually trying it. But it wasn’t until the very last day in the basement of one of the city’s well-known shopping mega-complexes that we actually had our opportunity. Wandering through the glaring fluorescent aisles Brian and I came face to face with a kiosk called “Four Seasons Durians.” We looked at each other knowing that if we were ever going to taste durian this would be it. And as fate—either fortuitous or cruel—would have it, there next to the register was a plate filled with small wafer cookies with a thin green filling. “Come on, Brian,” I said, “how bad can it be?” (Note to self, anytime someone asks that question the answer is probably going to be some variation of “as bad as possible”).
I took two of the cookies and handed one to a very reluctant Brian. As I popped the cookie into my mouth I experienced something that’s happened every time I’ve tried durian since—the slowing down or stoppage of time. Let me explain: whenever I’ve tried durian I’m reminded of the times when I was a kid riding my bike on a hot summer day and I wiped out on a neighborhood street that's just been repaved. Just as I’m about to hit the pavement time slows down and almost stops so I can smell the tar of the pavement, feel the heat coming off it and then feel myself hitting it and bouncing a few times all in Sam Peckinpah slow motion. Eating durian is similar probably because the olfactory experience is so overwhelming that it short circuits the part of the brain that tracks time.
After eating my cookie I looked at Brian. His expression was somewhere between mortified and stunned. He looked at me and said with quiet desperation, “coffee! Now!” We raced up four endless escalators to a coffee shop and waited five very long minutes to be seated while the taste of green radioactivity bubbled away on our palates. Finally we were seated and ordered black coffees. Brian didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, as he finished the second cup that was so strong it could revive a corpse he turned to me and said, “You, sir, have betrayed my trust.” I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me for it.
Back to the most recent incident. As I popped the durian pastry into my mouth I was assaulted by that unique durian stench and experienced time stopping once again. Tragically. Gearoid Deverny, the third MS in our trio described my expression as “like someone being electrocuted.” I sat quietly managing the sensory overload as best as I could while the conversation at the table and the din of restaurant went on around me. The experience was reminiscent of having a natural gas line installed in your mouth. I reached for water several times and then downed the most tannic red on the table in front of me. The stench and taste diminished after a few minutes but was still there in force. It would remain for hours with the last remnant more than willing to make its presence known the next morning after repeated brushing and flossing. But I would survive to tell the tale.
What wine pairs well with durian? None is strong enough. Only something in the spirits world could possibly match the intensity and I’m not curious enough at this point to do any constructive research. As for your own durian adventures:
You have been warned.
Several months ago I wrote a post on Mozart and how you can help save the classical music universe by purchasing/downloading some of Wolfgang’s music. Practically all the comments I had from readers were very positive but then most asked, “What’s next?” “Where do I go from here?” “What should I listen to after Mozart?” I’m more than happy to help with this post which lists some of my favorite symphonies.
Now before you freak out, go on Facebook or check your phone for something, take a deep breath. It’s going to be alright. And if the mere sound of the word “symphony” causes mental distress, anxiety or even agita, it’s going to be OK. My criteria for the symphonies on the list below are simple: all the movements/sections of each piece have to hold your attention; that at no time will you experience baby head or feel the urge to change the channel, so to speak. In particular, the slow movement where all the coughing, sneezing and hacking takes place during a live performance has to be beautiful and move your waffling brain right along the lily path. So read on and then go online to download, purchase or mainline the following works. Check them out. You will be sore amazed at how great they are.
1. Beethoven: Symphony No. 7, Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic
You’ve heard forever and a day that Beethoven is the greatest and if I had to prove that to you I would simply play the first several dozen measures of the second movement of his seventh symphony. The primary tune is so simple you could literally play it on a piano with one finger after a minute of practice. But what Ludwig does with this oh-so simple tune in the movement’s opening bars is nothing less than astonishing; and the combination of brilliant conducting by Carlos Kleiber with playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is considered one of the greatest recordings of the piece ever.
2. Mendelsohn: Symphony No. 4, “Italian,” George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra
Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony is brilliantly orchestrated and filled with great tunes; the beautiful lilting scherzo and a finale that moves at break-neck speed are favorites. The Cleveland/George Szell combination is as good as it gets.
3. Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 “New World,” Rafael Kubelik, Berlin Philharmonic
Composer Antonin Dvorak was compulsively attracted to everything having to do with steam locomotives. All things considered, that’s really not that bad given other famous composers penchants for weirdness including Wagner’s fixation on wearing fur-lined undergarments or Brahms’ intense hatred of cats which led him to shoot at them out of his second story window with a bow and arrow. I digress. Knowing of the Dvorak’s fascination with trains and our country’s superior rail service at the time the board at the National Conservatory of Music was able to lure the composer to New York for a residence as director from 1892 to 1895, as well as a guest conducting stint with the New York Philharmonic. Not a bad gig, as they say. The Philharmonic also commissioned a piece from the composer and he penned the last of his nine symphonies titling it “From the New World.” The work was an instantaneous hit with its first performance and has been a mainstay of the symphonic idiom ever since that time. Dramatic and beautifully lyric by turn it has some of the most haunting melodies in all of classic music. My favorite recording is with Rafael Kubelik and the superb Berlin Philharmonic.
4. Sibelius: Symphony No. 2, Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra
By and large Swedish composer Jean Sibelius’ works are dark, somber and even austere. His second symphony is one of the bright exceptions and filled with beautiful lyricism. Eugene Ormandy and the gorgeous strings of the Philadelphia Orchestra provide a perfect match. Highly recommended.
5. St.-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 “Organ,” Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
After the premier of his third symphony the Parisian press dubbed Camille St.- Saëns the “next Beethoven.” Unfortunately, it was the last major piece he ever composed. But, as they say in Texas, it’s a doozy. St.- Saëns’ third makes use of a full-sized orchestra, piano and organ. The results are spectacular with soaring passages between orchestra and organ and unforgettable melodies in every movement. Of special interest is the primary theme of the last movement which became popular as the song in the movie “Babe.”
There are a slew of recordings of the piece but the Barenboim/CSO is my favorite because the orchestral sound—specifically the brass section (of course) is unbelievable. Purists, however, hate this recording because the orchestra and organ were recorded separately and dubbed together. Gaston Litaize, the organist, plays the spectacular instrument in the Cathedral de Notre Dame in Paris. In short, it's a great performance.
6. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5, Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra
Musicians complain about having to perform his music and critics sometimes pan his works as tired, overplayed and trite, but orchestras will forever play the music of Tchaikovsky because the tunes are so completely beautiful. The fifth symphony is all that and more and the lush, beautiful sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra is superbly suited for just such a piece. The French horn theme in the slow movement is unforgettable.
7. Mahler: Symphony No. 1, Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony
I’m a huge Mahler fan and not just because of my former trumpet playing days. To me, Mahler more than any other composer including Beethoven, tried desperately to cram the entire range of human experience into each and every one of his symphonies. Those who criticize Mahler symphonies as too long and boring simply don’t have the attention span to appreciate them. We’ll let them keep listening to their tinker toy music. For the rest of us, listening to Mahler’s first symphony is a wonderful experience with the beginning of the piece easily one of the most beautiful musical representations of nature ever written; the finale of the work ends with some of most heroic music ever heard.
I own over a dozen different recordings of Mahler one but the Seiji Ozawa/Boston Symphony is a sentimental favorite because it features Armando Ghitalla on principal trumpet. I studied with Ghitalla in grad school and believe he’s one of the greatest musicians to ever play the instrument. One final note, this recording also features the rarely performed original second movement called “Blumine” that Mahler removed after the piece’s initial performances in the 1880’s. A shame as the movement features the principal trumpet in a haunting melody and also shows a clear stylistic connection between the Viennese school (think Strauss waltzes) and Mahler’s music.
8. Cesar Franck, Symphony in d-minor, Pierre Monteux, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Franck’s only symphony can only be described as uber French and completely dramatic. French conductor Pierre Monteux’s reputation for getting the most out of any orchestra is in force here with top-notch playing from the CSO.
9. Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven perfected the symphony with his ninth and less than five years later the French composer Hector Berlioz blew the idiom completely up with his “fantastic symphony.” Berlioz’ work is a full on program piece in five movements. The story, autobiographical in nature, involves a young man in the form of a composer desperately in love with an actress who spurns his affections. Desperate, he smokes opium and has a series of dreams represented by the five movements in the piece. Mind you, there have been more than a few program pieces written throughout music history to illustrate themes or stories (think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony). But Symphony Fantastique is way beyond anything previously written. Think David Lynch combined with Sam Peckinpah and you get the idea.
The piece is also a tour de force of orchestration, something so far beyond the conventions of the time it’s hard to believe it was written just a few years after Beethoven’s passing. Berlioz ties the work together using an “idee fixe,” or fixed theme representing his beloved that appears throughout the five movements. Worth noting is the fourth movement, the “March to the Scaffolding,” where the hero dreams he has murdered his beloved and is about to be executed at the guillotine. The idee fixe appears just before his head gets lopped off with a nice use of pizzicato strings to portray his head bouncing away after the fact. But best of all is the fifth movement which is called the “Witches’ Sabbath.” It must be heard to be believed. As for a favorite recording, once again I turn to the Chicago Symphony because of their remarkable brass section led by the incomparable Adolf Herseth on principal trumpet and Arnold Jacobs on tuba.
It was April 2006. I’d been in Portugal for the better part of a week with good friend and fellow Master Keith Goldston. We were guests of AMORIM, Portugal’s largest cork producer, and had toured cork factories, seen cork forests and sat through seminars on all things cork with emphasis on TCA-related issues. The week also afforded many great meals including numerous opportunities to taste black pig, the most delicious pork in the known universe. But now it was afternoon on the last day and we were sitting on the beach in Porto watching the huge golden sun set over the Atlantic while sipping ice-cold Sagres beers and eating the freshest, briniest oysters I’ve ever tasted. Life was grand.
It was precisely at that moment that Maria Rosita, our lovely guide for the week, suddenly rushed up saying she had managed to get tickets to the first ever winemaker dinner to be held in Porto. Further, the meal would be prepared by one of Portugal’s hottest chefs and would take place at the modern art museum. She was simply giddy at the prospect like she had scored back stage passes to a Stones concert.
Maria was therefore understandably shocked when we barely registered any response at all. “So let me get this straight,” I said, “you want us to leave this gorgeous beach, the sunset, the cold beer and the oysters to go to a winemaker dinner? Really? Seriously?” She was visibly crestfallen, even hurt. After all, she had been our cheerleader, our biggest fan and our insane-crazy-ass driver for the entire week. Needless to say, the guilt of it all quickly sunk in and we caved in mere seconds. We would go to the dinner forsaking the Hallmark moment of golden beach and cold beer.
Less than half an hour later found us at the entrance of the stark white exterior of the museum. We were quickly ushered to the room designated for the night’s gala event. Once inside it took just moments to realize that the venue may have worked for a museum but it was a completely horrible space for any kind of formal dinner. The ceilings in the “dining room” were barely ten feet high which wasn’t exactly a problem except for the fact that everyone—except us—smoked. Constantly. Heavily. Smoking, if you’re not familiar, is Portugal’s national sport along with football. To top it all off and to complete the psycho-killer kind of a feel to the room was the fact that there weren’t any windows at all. What followed can only be described as a quick descent into the darkest reaches of culinary hell. But as the wise Inigo Montoya once said, “It’s too long to explain. Let me sum up.”
To begin, the cast for the evening’s performance:
The crowd: dozens of Porto’s top foodies all fashionably attired were there in force eagerly waiting the night’s repast as they smoked cigarette after cigarette non-stop.
The winemaker: from a small estate in the Douro Valley that produced both Port and dry wines from Port varieties. He resembled a short, beardless Santa Claus and was perpetually smiling as if someone had dialed up his medication for the evening. He spoke only Portuguese which to my ear has always sounded like Russian pirates trying to speak Spanish.
The winemaker’s son: would be joining us at our table which meant that Keith and I actually had to behave and pay attention. The son had gone to school in New York and spoke very good English. He was a timid sort but truly excited about the evening because it was a grand opportunity to show off his family’s winery and wines. After all, it was also Porto’s first winemaker dinner and how bad could that be? The gods were just about to show us.
The Chef: soon after arriving Maria arranged for Keith and me to meet the chef. Moments later he appeared from the kitchen in impeccably clean and starched whites with his tiny assistant trailing behind. Said assistant was a short, mousy woman who looked as if she’d experienced one too many explosions at close proximity. We would quickly learn why. The Chef shook our hands vigorously and in perfect English regaled us with tales of his recent opening of a multi-million dollar restaurant in Rio de Janeiro. He then went on to provide his thoughts on the menu for the night’s extravaganza.
It was about ninety seconds into the conversation when I noticed the chef’s left eye begin to twitch. Odd, I thought, but really no big deal. But as he went on describing the menu and how he would, and I quote, “flaunt convention,” things got weird. His speech became increasingly punctuated with loud staccato words and jerking gestures. Several minutes in and our chef was shouting and literally spitting words out as he finished describing the dessert course. Keith and I looked on more than a bit concerned. We weren’t quite sure what had just happened but in watching him and then looking at his tiny cowering assistant suddenly everything became crystal clear. The thought of this guy in a hot busy-ass kitchen working with knives also became an unsettling picture.
Punctually at eight o’clock the proceedings began with an elegantly dressed socialite, cigarette in hand, welcoming the group and introducing the evenings’ important personalities. First the winemaker stepped up and over the course of the next ten minutes or so told the story of the family winery all the while mewling in sotto voce Portuguese. Every few minutes Keith and I turned to his son and asked, “What did he just he say?” The response was something like, “he said the winery is really old,” or “the hills are very steep.” Finally, the winemaker showed both wisdom and temerity by sitting down. Next up came the chef with his assistant. Any doubts about the earlier script being repeated were quickly resolved as the chef sputtered his way through the description of the first course. The crowd, bless them all, listened with rapt attention and smoked recklessly on as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
As the first course hit the table I remembered the chef’s phrase “flaunt convention.” It was a soup course, in this case a cream of almond soup with a texture not unlike Malt-O-Meal. But the crowning touch was a raw egg yolk floating in the center of the bowl looking for all the world like an enormous evil yellow eye. Memories of the black and white Twilight Zone commercials with the huge blinking eye quickly came to mind. All around me diners with spoons in hand pierced the evil yellow eye and tucked into the almond soup which was remarkably salty and a stark contrast to the slimy texture of the egg yolk. To top it all off the soup was paired with an oxidized over-oaked Douro white wine that reminded me of an unfinished bedroom set that had seen better days. I will leave you to imagine the combination of gloppy soup, slimy egg yolk and oaky over-the-hill white. It was definitely not conventional.
With each successive course the bizarre tableau repeated itself. The foodies chain-smoked as if it were their last day on earth with the smoke getting so thick you could, as they say, cut it with a chef’s knife. The winemaker would stand up and quietly mewl away for 5-10 minutes about the next wine. Finally, mercifully, he would stop talking to the smoky applause of the diners. Then the chef would reappear from the kitchen to describe the next course with his tiny assistant hiding behind him. As before he would start speaking to the group with authority and conviction but within minutes start to melt down. After sputtering and barking through the end of his presentation the audience politely applauded through the haze. To say it was surreal is a bit of an understatement.
Between courses Keith and I would stagger outside through a side door gasping for fresh air. Any and all urges to grab the nearest cab back to the hotel were quickly thwarted by the appearance of Maria who was concerned about our sudden absence. We complained vociferously about the cigarette smoke but there was nothing really to be done. To her credit, Maria tried to get the people around us to give the smoking a rest several times but it only worked momentarily.
The high point, the pièce de résistance, of entire evening was surely the entrée. It consisted of a large chunk of cod, a staple of the Portuguese diet, which had been pan-seared and supposedly finished in the oven. Beneath the cod was a puree of roasted pearl onions and on the side a lettuce leaf–burrito looking affair filled with soggy mashed potatoes. As I went to cut into the cod for the initial bite I quickly realized that it was all but raw. In fact, it had the same texture as a piece of flesh just carved from the bone of basically any kind of dead animal--as in hard and alarming.
Accompanying the dead cod, onion puree and mashed potato burrito was the brettiest, most tannic Douro red wine I’ve ever tasted. Imagine the essence of stables and barnyard combined with a texture similar to licking the floor of a machine shop. The brett in my glass was so extreme my eyes watered. At that point I looked up and across the table at Keith. He was equally stunned. We put our dinning utensils down in unison and picked up a glass of one of the other wines and quickly slammed the remaining contents. All around us Porto’s top foodies noisily wolfed down the raw cod and potato burrito with alarming relish and aplomb. It was completely disturbing.
The end the meal was kind of/partially/sort of saved by a delicious flourless chocolate cake prepared not by the chef but by a local caterer. It was paired with the winemaker’s vintage port which had a smoky edge due either to the wine’s age or the tainted air in our lungs. I’m not sure which. Four-plus hours later and we emerged from that hazy den of gastronomic disaster practically begging for another beer. Back at the hotel bar we did our best to tell Maria that it was OK--that we would be just fine. After the second beer even she had to say, “Wow, that really sucked.”
Over the last ten-plus years I’ve taught a classed called Mastering Wine II at the Rudd Center in St. Helena. In most respects MWII, as I like to call it, is a second level wine survey class organized by focusing on a different grape variety or varieties each of the five days. The schedule alternates between lectures and tastings with two field trips thrown in to keep everyone from falling into a deep classroom trance. However, over the years I’ve morphed the class into a professional tasting seminar with the express purpose of making sure that the students exponentially increase their ability to taste by week’s end.
During the week I assign a discussion topic for after lunch with the lofty goal of trying to solve or at least examine some of the wine industry’s biggest issues. Tuesday’s topic is the use of the 100 point scale in wine. I split the class into two groups and assign one group the task of coming up with everything good about using numerical scores for wine. The other group’s job is come with everything wrong about it. Here’s a sampling of answers from hundreds of students and dozens of classes over the last decade (Remember, these are student answers and not mine).
100 Point Scale - Pros:
·Helps wineries sell wine.
·Helps PR and marketing people sell wine.
·Shelf-talkers in retail shops that use scores help sell wine and make it easier for consumers to find quality wines.
·Helps collectors buy futures.
·Provides an impetus for winemakers and wineries to make better wines, i.e., better wines theoretically should get better scores.
·Provides an easy-to-understand system for consumers to understand.
·Creates a level playing field for comparing wine quality.
·Creates instantaneous markets for regions, appellations and wineries that were previously non-existent (Priorat a perfect example).
100 Point Scale - Cons:
· The entire scale is not used—scores practically always fall between 70-92 points.
·A score reflects the opinion of either a single taster or is an average of several different tasters.
·Scores presuppose we all like the same style of wine.
·Wines with high scores tend to be riper styles with higher alcohol and more use of new oak. Delicate wines don’t get high scores as often.
·All grape varieties are not created equal; certain grapes/wines such as Sauvignon Blanc rarely get high scores like Cabernet Sauvignon.
·Winemakers have consciously have adjusted their winemaking to produce riper, richer wines to get higher scores. As a result, winemaking and wine styles are becoming homogenized.
·Wine is a living, ever-changing thing; how can a score based on a single tasting experience accurately reflect a wine?
·There is such a thing as a perfect 100 point wine.
·What’s the difference between wines rated at 89 and 90 points?
·Scores presuppose a precision in wine that does not exist.
·Scores don’t take context into account—how the wine will ultimately be enjoyed. Will a given wine be consumed with food? By itself?
The last point is always my favorite. While I certainly get the use of scores as an attempt to convey a wine’s quality they simply do not take context into account. Last year I wrote a post on context and wine called “The Beautiful Imprecision of Wine” (http://www.timgaiser.com/1/post/2012/6/the-beautiful-imprecision-of-wine.html). I put forth that there are three variables in any wine experience: the wine, the taster and the context. I argued that the context was by far the most important variable because it took into account everything from the time of day the wine was tasted, the glassware, the wine temperature, the temperature of the tasting room, how many wines were being tasted, the order of the wines in the tasting and much, much more. Change one of these variables and you change a taster’s experience of a given wine.
In case you’re wondering the first group of students always does a good job coming up with the benefits of using the 100 point system. However, when we get to the cons everyone inevitably piles on and it’s usually not pretty. But after hashing it out for the better part of an hour I ask the students to do one last thing: given a wine that’s well made and of good quality, come up with a system that can convey the most important aspects of said wine to a consumer without using any kind of numerical score, be it a 20 point or a 100 point scale.
After much deep thinking and serious discussion every class comes up with a strikingly similar system using the most vital components of wine such as sweetness/dryness, intensity of flavor, acidity, tannin and the use of oak. From there the students take each component and set extremes as baselines, as in a little of something versus a lot. For example, with sweetness or dryness they list “bone dry” at one end with "dessert" at the other; for intensity of flavor they usually list “delicate” and “intense.” And so on. Then the extremes for each component are filled in either by using low, medium, high and variations thereof or with numbers in increments of three, seven or nine (Remember, no base ten!). The results look something like this:
Intensity of flavor: Delicate 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Intense
Sweetness/dryness: Bone dry 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Dessert
Body: Light-bodied: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Full-bodied
Acid: Light acidity 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Tart acidity
Tannin: No tannin 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Astringent
Oak: No oak 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 100% new oak
At this point the students all sit back feeling pretty good. After all, they’ve just come up with a fairly creative system that manages to convey a great deal about a wine without using a numerical representative. I end the session by giving them the bad news: their brilliant system was created and used quite some time ago.
In the summer of 1994 dear friend and fellow Master Peter Granoff opened the cyber doors to Virtual Vineyards, not only the first online wine retail “shop” but also the very first online retailer of any kind. Peter and his brother-in-law Robert Olson started Virtual Vineyards on a server literally in Olson’s garage.
To avoid using scores Peter devised a system almost exactly like the one above to convey the most important information about every wine in the VV portfolio. His system used intensity of flavor, body, sweetness/dryness, acidity, tannin, oak and complexity represented in one-through-seven increments.
As with so many other online ventures of the time Virtual Vineyards grew slowly at first. I was the 13th employee joining the company in April of 1996. Then with the help (or curse depending on how you look at it) of tens of millions of dollars of VC funding Virtual Vineyards grew dramatically becoming the original version of wine.com before acquiring a competitor in mid-2000 and ultimately being unplugged by VC’s in April of 2001. I will say no more. But aside from being remarkably ahead of its time—there is nothing like it even today—Virtual Vineyards managed to sell over $50 million of wine in five years using Peter’s system and without ever using a single numerical score.
Finally, on the subject of wine and numbers I will leave you with this: in December I had the opportunity to join five other fellow Master Sommeliers from the US, UK and Germany in Istanbul to taste Turkish wines and meet Turkish winemakers. It was a great opportunity to have a first look at the country’s wines. Our tastings were scheduled over three days with the fourth day spent meeting with the winemakers to discuss our impressions of their wines as well as opportunities for export to the U.S. It goes without saying that in a country that is 90% Muslim the Turkish government is very conservative about the production and enjoyment of alcoholic beverages. No surprise then that it’s remarkably challenging to distribute and sell wine inside the country with the government clearly moving winemakers to sell their wine on the export market.
Several days before our departure our contact in Istanbul e-mailed the tasting schedule, information about hotels and the tasting venue as well as the news that we would be scoring the wines on a 100 point scale. Further, our contact would be tracking and calculating the validity of our scores by using the Pearson Correlation Coefficient for every 10th wine tasted. I’ve included it below for your curiosity and enjoyment (Sorry that the scan is a bit muddled).
Further, all six Masters would be tested randomly for reliability during the three days by having a selected wine served multiple times at random intervals during each tasting session. A Modified Fisher (one-way random average measures), whatever that is, was used to compute the “intra-class correlation.” Again, the formulas are listed below.
I must confess that Algebra II in my junior year of high school marked the end of my math career. From then on it was a steady academic diet of a music, world history and literature dotted with the odd volleyball or tennis class. But how did the numbers actually work out using the complex logarithms listed above? I’m not completely sure but I can tell you that several times during the three days a quick check among the six of us tasters found that our scores were almost always within 3-4 points of each other with rare exceptions. And that’s not bad for numbers.
First, a belated Happy New Year to everyone. Here’s to a great 2013 in all possible ways. For those of you that don’t know, I live in the Sunset district of San Francisco, completely ill-named because it’s the coldest and foggiest part of the city. To point, while the rest of the country is sweltering under July summer sun I can be out back grilling something for dinner with a jacket on as the fog whips through the yard. The house we live in was built in 1926. It has all original windows and most of them either don’t open or don’t close. It is, in short, a drafty abode and that means wearing a fleece indoors is de rigueur practically year round and flannel sheets can be found on the beds for at least nine months out of the year.
You might wonder what happens when it actually gets hot here which it does once or twice a year. At those odd times the breeze shifts from on shore and foggy to off-shore with hot winds from the central valley. In mere hours the air quality goes to hell and the temps climb up above 90° and everyone is miserable. Why? Because no one has air conditioning! Suddenly, movie theaters and shopping malls are the best places in the universe.
But it’s cold today even by San Francisco standards. Last night it was in the high 30’s. When I got up this morning to get Patrick off to school it was 56° inside the house thanks to those beloved leaky windows.
Yes, it’s winter and that means it’s time to do our primal ancestors proud by eating more red meat. Braises and stews are a natural during the cold months but there are times when then there’s nothing better than a good New York strip steak. One can either grill or do stove top but regardless the problem always is how to get it just right—as in a perfect medium-rare temperature. Dear readers, with the help of noted chef and cookbook author Molly Stevens, I have the solution. Just follow the instructions below, paraphrased from Molly’s “All About Roasting,” for a perfect medium rare strip steak every time.
Two 12-14 ounce New York strip steaks: don’t mess around with something from Costco that comes in 12 packs. Make a trip to a good butcher and buy quality meat. It’s worth it. I like Golden Gate Meats in the Ferry Building here in the city.
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper—and lots of both
2 tablespoons neutral oil such as peanut or vegetable oil: as much as I love cooking with olive oil it simply won’t do here as the searing temp is too high.
1-2 tablespoons softened butter
Heat the oven: place one of the racks in the center of the oven and heat to 375°
Heat the skillet over medium heat: a cast iron skillet is the only way to go here—a non-stick pan simply won’t do.
Season the steaks: let the steaks come to room temperature. Pat them dry with a paper towel on all sides and season WELL with the kosher salt and pepper. If you’re one of the compulsive types like me who needs to measure everything, use ½ to ¾ teaspoon of salt and ¾ to 1 teaspoon of pepper for each steak. Make sure to salt and pepper the entire surface of the steaks including the sides, pressing the seasonings into the meat as you go.
Sear the steaks: once the pan is hot increase the heat to high then add the oil to the pan coating the entire surface. After 30 seconds (or when the oil starts to shimmer in the pan) place the steaks in the skillet side by side but NOT touching. Let the steaks sear for two minutes undisturbed and then flip, generously coating the tops with the softened butter. Note: if you move the steaks while searing it will interfere with the browning or, in effect, screw things up.
Roast: immediately transfer the skillet to the oven. After six minutes check for doneness with an instant-read thermometer. You’re looking for 125° for medium rare so taking the steaks out just over 120° is not a bad way to go. If anything undercook as there’s no greater tragedy than an over-cooked piece of good beef. Baste the steaks with the pan juices every time you open the oven.
Rest: when done immediately transfer the steaks from the oven to a cutting board (boards with a trough are best). Cover the steaks loosely with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Serve: pour the pan juices over the steaks and serve. I like simple accompaniments with my steaks such as mashers and sautéed Blue Lake Beans with sliced garlic. A wedge of iceberg with a blue cheese vinaigrette is the perfect mate.
The wines: although a host of other reds could do in a pinch this truly is a go-to time for new world Cabernet and Cabernet blends. Here are some I’ve tasted recently:
2001 Corison, Napa Valley: I’m a long-time fan of Cathy Corison’s wines because of their restrained elegance, high natural acidity and superb balance.
2001 Parker’s Coonawarra First Growth: this was our Christmas bottle and one of the new world’s great Cabernet-based wines. Intensely focused with the hallmark mint/eucalyptus and pronounced mineral notes of Coonawarra.
2008 Yalumba “The Signature” Cabernet Shiraz: this one of my favorite Australian Cabernet-based wines. The 2008 is about 50-50 Cabernet to Shiraz; the spice elements of the Shiraz and Cabernet structure are a match made in heaven.
1992 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley: one of a handful of the great Cabernet terroirs in California and arguably the most distinctive of all the state’s Cabernet wines. I had the pleasure of working for the Heitz family for several years and the privilege of tasting and drinking more than my fair share of Martha’s. It is the one and only.