Joelle Thomson Writer

Author, journalist, speaker

Month: January 2019 (page 1 of 2)

Wine’s best kept secret? Germany’s great whites

The village of Piesport in the middle Mosel, home to some of the greatest Riesling vineyards in the world

It’s often said that the journey is more important than the destination but when cycling 80 to 90 kilometres each day in 35 degrees Celcius heat (and warmer, in parts of the journey), the destination starts to take on an extremely appealing allure. This is how my travel companion and competition cyclist boyfriend and I felt as we peddled our way past many of the world’s greatest Riesling vineyards, in August last year. Surrounded by wine but not a drop to drink, due to the long cycling days and hot nights in front of us. Even the Mosel River felt warm on the frequent occasions that I plunged into it to cool down. Actually, the part about not drinking wine is not strictly true, I devoured an extensive tasting at the beautiful Weingut Schloss Leiser, hosted by Lara Haag; grand daughter of the great winemaker, Wilhelm Haag, who I met last time I was in Germany back in 2001 (and whose 2000 Weingut Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr I was lucky to have bought, cellared and drank with my daughter when she turned 18 in 2018). Talk about come full circle. And there was plenty of wine at the end of each cycling day, proving that the destination was worth the amazing journey.

And here, by popular request from food and wine friends, is the story, for those who missed it a couple of months ago.


The following story first appeared in NZ Winegrower magazine, October/November 2018

Another day, another impossibly steep vineyard perched on the slopes of the Mosel River.

We are here to cycle and I can’t help but marvel at the mountainous terrain above the flat pathway we are speeding along in the 35 degree European heatwave. It’s enough to give anyone pause for thought, let alone those of us cycling upwards of 80 kilometres a day.

Now we’re talking steep… Pundericher Marienburg Vineyard

German winemaking has changed changed over the past 20 years. Climate change has significantly altered the types of wines made – and the grapes they are made from. German wine production in the 1990s was 90 per cent white, 10 per cent red. Today, it’s 60 per cent white wine, 40 per cent red. Pinot Noir has doubled and there is now more of it in Germany than in New Zealand and Australia combined. Germany has 11,783 hectares of Pinot Noir and they call it Spatburgunder. It’s not new there either; Spatburgunder has been in Germany since the Middle Ages.

I first visited this region nearly 20 years ago when my wine writing career was in its infancy and so was my daughter, Ruby, who took her first steps on the banks of the Mosel River while her father and I watched on proudly.

That journey was a combined work trip and family holiday and I have wanted to cycle the length of the river ever since. This year I finally did, although my new partner and I trimmed the trip in half, peddling 220 kilometres in three days rather than six, due to time constraints.

One of the steepest and rockiest vineyards along the Mosel River in August 2018

The Mosel has many claims to fame. It’s the best known of Germany’s 13 main wine regions. It’s the longest tributary of the Rhine River and it’s home to the steepest vineyards in the world with gradients of 65 to 70 degrees showing a spectacular determination to ripen grapes in a cool climate. It is hard to imagine how these grapes are planted or pruned, let alone harvested. Many appear to be growing on ledges that look like a challenge to a skilled abseiler. Needless to say, it’s all about hand harvesting.

Riesling is queen of the Mosel, occupying at least 60 per cent of the region’s vineyards. The balance is a smidgeon of Pinot Noir (approximately 10 per cent) a little Muller-Thurgau and a smattering of other whites.

The best wines from the Mosel have historically tended to be light in body and alcohol with high residual sugar but change is afoot. Climate change is having a dramatic impact here.

The region’s winemakers now pick earlier than in the past and at higher oeschle (the German must-weight – grape sugar – measurement, which determines the alcohol content of the wines). This means the wines often contain higher alcohol levels and are drier than they used to be. This doesn’t mean they taste austere or hot. Far from it. The wines of the Mosel that used to contain 7% alcohol are now nudging 10% or 11%, at a pinch.

The highlight of our three day cycle tour was the beauty of the place and the great wines of Weingut Schloss Lieser. And being there. Our journey began in Trier, the oldest city in Germany. We finished in the city of Koblenz. Its name means confluence and it’s where the Mosel and the Rhine meet. On the first day of our trip, we popped in to Weingut Schloss Lieser for an extensive tasting that I had arranged prior to leaving New Zealand. The winery was originally established in 1875 and was taken over by winemaker Thomas Haag in the 1990s.

Talk about a blast from the past. When I first visited the Mosel region 17 years ago, I met his father, Wilhelm Haag, of Weingut Fritz Haag. This time round, it was another generation – Thomas’ daughter, Lara, who gave us an outstandingly insightful tasting through the great Rieslings of this small family owned winery.

Her grandfather (who I met all those years ago) is a member of the powerful VDP (Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter); a body of people who have transformed the quality, style and the perception of German wine.

Her father, Thomas, is following in his father’s footsteps with great wines made from vineyards such as Wehlener Sonnenhur, Piesporter Goldtropfchen, Graacher Himmelreich and Niederberg Helden.

This trip was all about coming full circle, for me. In January this year, I finally opened one of the bottles I brought back from my first visit to the Mosel all those years ago. The 2000 Weingut Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Auslese is from my  daughter’s birth year, so we opened it to celebrate her 18th birthday. And we did so with trepidation. Wine lightly chilled and good glassware on hand, I gingerly tried to extract the cork, which disintegrated, so I sieved the wine into our glasses. It was fresh, luscious, like lemon zest and liquid honey. It was an incredible wine. Just like the region it comes from – and the 18 year old I shared it with.


Vineyards in the village of Alken hint at the precipitous slopes typical of vineyards growing on the banks of the beautiful Mosel River

Cochem is one of the biggest towns on the Mosel River with its distinctive castle hovering formidably over its residents

Our 220 kilometre cycle in Germany’s heatwave was incredible. Hot, fresh, breath taking and, at the end of each long cycling day, also delicious.

Next time, I’m going to take it slowly and drink Riesling along the way. I’ve seen Koblenz now. And it’s the journey that counts, after all. Apparently.

German wine importers in New Zealand

MacVine International,

Oh So Pretty,

Dhall & Nash,

Great Little Vineyards,

The Wine Importer,

Wine of the week… 2009 Forrest The Valleys (dry) Riesling

If you’ve ever heard the old saying that there are no great wines, only great bottles, then hopefully you’ll have moved with the times and realised that great winemaking (and good closures) mean there are many outstanding wines in the world today. 

My wine of the week is one of the best I have tried over the past year…

2009 Forrest Estate Valleys Riesling $26.99

This dry 10 year old Riesling is a library release from winemaker Dr John Forrest in Marlborough. It’s a medium bodied, intensely refreshing wine that combines the best characters of a well cellared wine – it tastes fresh and has interesting developed flavours, in this case, concentrated lime zest, dried peach and a long, lemony finish. It is technically dry in winemaking terms and it tastes dry.

Best of all, of several bottles now tasted, shared and enjoyed, I can vouch for its consistency. Every bottle has the great characters of the first one I tried because it is sealed with a consistent closure (screwcap) and has been aged in impeccable conditions (dark, cool, temperature stable) in the wine cellars of Forrest Estate Winery in Marlborough.

A word on screwcaps

  • John Forrest was one of the first to make screwcaps his preferred method of wine closure because, like many New Zealand winemakers in the 1990s, he was fast tiring of poor quality cork and the disservice it did to his wines. Enter the brave new wine world of consistent closures – also known as the screwcap, which he began using in 2001, along with a group of 27 other New Zealand winemakers. He has never looked back. All of his wines from his humble, light bodied and low alcohol Doctors’ Riesling up to his very best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the deep south (Waitaki and Central Otago) are aging superlatively – remaining fresh and clean – under this wine closure.
  • Screwcaps are a testament to technology and to open mindedness on the part of winemakers that there can be great wines rather than random, inconsistent bottles of great wine, which is unfortunately the case with many wines sealed with traditional cork and other closures.
  • The biggest positive attributed to screwcaps by those in the New Zealand wine industry is their airtight seal. This means they do not allow oxidation, which varies wildly under other types of wine bottle closures.

I find it interesting that many people I meet (when teaching wine and hosting tastings) will say they find cork a romantic closure for wine but they are happy to purchase other perishable food items now sealed with screwcap closures, without question. It is not that long ago that many spirits and food products, such as olive oil, were sealed with corks.

Top 5 summer drops – wines of the week

Tune in to RNZ National just after 2pm today to hear me wax lyrical about these five top summer drops…

Ten years ago, Central Otago was the fifth biggest wine region in New Zealand, more famous for majestic mountains than Pinot Noir.

Now it is the third biggest wine region in this country, having displaced Gisborne and left North Canterbury in the wake of its Pinot Noirs, which continues to dominate consumer perception and demand – and the region’s vineyard area, which is devoted to the tune of 80% Pinot Noir. Impressive as all this sounds, this most southern of all wine regions on Earth does have more than one string to its wine bow, as a couple of my top summer drops show.

Top southern sparkling

Quartz Reef NV $34

Austrian winemaker Rudi Bauer was the first to make sparkling wine in Central Otago, using the same grape varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and winemaking techniques as champagne makers. The results are amazing – both in flavour and especially in value for money.

It just so happens that Pinot Noir plays the lead role in Quartz Reef NV Brut – a dry bubbly made mostly from Pinot Noir (62% of the wine) with crisp and creamy fresh back up from Chardonnay with 38% of the blend. All the grapes in this wine are biodynamically grown (and certified) from a single vineyard in Bendigo.

Bauer ages this wine for two years in the bottle after its second fermentation. This wine’s fresh baked bread aromas and dry taste (it contains 4 grams residual grape – drier than most champagnes) make for an amazing combination of deliciousness.


2016 Amisfield Fumé Blanc $45

Amisfield may be rocking the Sauvignon vibe but it’s doing so in a pretty modest fashion with its three hectares of Sauvignon Blanc – a virtual drop in the bucket in Pinot Central (aka Otago) where red wine rules the roost.

This is a Sauvignon worth beating a long path to for its full bodied, creamy and fresh vibe. It’s a wine that reminds me slightly of the fumé blancs I fell for back in the 90s, only this time round it’s so much better. Dry, crisp, flavoursome with freshness, aged characters, a full body, what more could you ask for?


Canterbury tale

2013 Crater Rim Waipara Riesling $23

This wine speaks volumes about Riesling’s amazing ability to age, thanks to being five years old and still tasting as fresh as a daisy – it also rocks an amazingly fruity vibe while tasting crisp and dry in every succulent, citrusy and peachy mouthful. An amazing wine from North Canterbury – the region I think is the most under rated, over performing one when it comes to high quality dry whites.


Marlborough marvel

2015 Dog Point Section 94 $37

It’s Sauvignon Blanc but not as we know it.

Marlborough is one of the leading wine regions in the world with 67% of New Zealand’s producing vineyard area and 23,102 of this country’s 37,969 hectares of grapes – the vast majority being Sauvignon Blanc, but here’s a new take on the fruity theme.

There’s no ‘Sauvignon Blanc’ wording on the label, for starters because its makers, Ivan Sutherland and James Healey, want to highlight other aspects of this grape in this full bodied dry white.  It’s matured for 18 months in old French oak barrels on lees (decomposing yeast cells, the tasty left overs from fermentation), which release savoury, creamy, nutty flavours into this outstanding wine. It’s a costly exercise that turns up the volume on this big, bold, dry white.


Pinot power

2017 Providore Pinot Noir $39

This is a new brand from an experienced hand – winemaker Pete Bartle, who  sources grapes from four different areas in Otago to make this wine. The tasty raw material he uses comes from Queensberry, Bannockburn, Gibbston Valley and Alexandra. The result is a smooth, velvety and powerfully juicy dry Pinot with great balance, a medium body, a long finish and succulent flavours that keep you coming back for more.

It’s one of my top 10 new Central Otago Pinot Noirs from 85 wines tasted with their identities concealed in spring last year.

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