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BY DAVID SCHILDKNECHT | JULY 5, 2017
Entering its sixth year in 2018, “Rieslingfeier – A Celebration of Riesling” reflects increasing enthusiasm among North American consumers and the wine trade for Germany’s great white wines. Those who annually brave New York City’s winter weather and share precious bottles from their cellars to celebrate a beloved grape are not just self-obsessed citizens of a strange and distant Planet Riesling. Most consider themselves the proselytizing leading edge of an unstoppable vinous wave.
Creation and Evolution
On October 1, 2012, I received an e-mail from Stephen Bitterolf, then Wine Director at Crush Wine & Spirits and recent founder of Vom Boden, a German wine import company to which he would subsequently transfer his full professional allegiance. “I would like to ask you about one rather unrelated thing,” he wrote. “I'm going to be throwing what I'm tentatively calling ‘RieslingsFeier’ – it will be a VERY small-scale ‘La Paulée-type’ event to be held in New York. I would love it if you'd consider being a part of it. So far I have the following winemakers coming: Katharina Prüm, Klaus Peter Keller, Thomas Haag and Andreas Adam.” By late 2012, the notion of bringing together lovers of a particular wine genre around a Paulée-style event had already enjoyed a more than decade-long North American run with Daniel Johnnes’ bi-coastal edition of Meursault’s eponymous La Paulée. A year earlier, Antonio Galloni had inaugurated La Festa del Barolo; and Sherryfest had just commenced its roving run with a New York City event, the brainchild of Peter Liem, who in 2014 would team up with Johnnes to inaugurate La Fête du Champagne.
I replied enthusiastically to Stephen’s invitation, with two reservations: I insisted that German grammar dictated removing that “s” from the prospective title of his event, and expressed doubt that it could possibly be kept small-scale – let alone “VERY small-scale” – with the likes of Prüm, Keller, Haag and Adam having already signed on. Two Saar vintners, Florian Lauer (whose wines Bitterolf imported) and Dorothee Zilliken, eventually joined in the inaugural February, 2013 Rieslingfeier, which Eric Asimov in his enthusiastic New York Times coverage was, admittedly, correct in calling “a modest event by Paulée standards.” I led a seminar highlighting the stylistic diversity of Mosel and Saar Rieslings, and the gala dinner itself drew a hundred German Riesling enthusiasts, including some of that genre’s most dedicated merchant-advocates and collectors, to Rouge Tomate, where we enjoyed an impressively orchestrated menu with an array of rare, at times downright ancient (but by no means fatigued) Rieslings whose sheer diversity I had never experienced in one place. In-between, Bitterolf and the growers organized an afternoon-long “crawl” of selected Manhattan retail establishments, at each of which, in overlapping time slots, one of the featured growers poured current releases to consumers determinedly standing elbow to elbow. Not a few of us hoofed our way through Midtown and Downtown to hit every stop.
Even before that first Rieslingfeier happened, Bitterolf and I were getting excited by the prospects for, in his words, “more exposure, and hopefully more growers next year,” hopes that proved well-founded when Rieslingfeier 2014 hosted Clemens Busch, Cornelius Dönnhoff, Eva Fricke, Florian Lauer, Johannes Leitz, Egon Müller, Hansjörg Rebholz, Christoph Schaefer, Frank Schönleber and Christian Vogt (then of Eitelsbach’s Karthäuserhof, which Bitterolf at the time represented). Subsequent installments brought the total of the dinner participants to 140 (about one-third from beyond the U.S. Northeast), a number that seems to satisfy the Goldilocks principle by justifying the moniker “grand gala” while ensuring that each table represents a small gathering presided over by a grower, that attendees can comfortably make the rounds of every other table to meet old friends and each of the growers, and also that a waiting list will inspire eager, timely action on the part of next year’s would-be attendees. As Rieslingfeier’s format evolved, independently sponsored winemaker dinners sprang up in the day or two beforehand, and the “retail crawl” gave way to a Grand Tasting in conventional stand-up fashion, which last year supplanted the grower seminars that I had initiated, and this year drew nearly 400 visitors for a collection of recent releases sprinkled with older bottlings and the occasional under-the-table taste of an as yet unbottled 2016.
Rieslingfeier Chef Sommelier Raj Vaidya (Restaurant Daniel) and Michael Engelmann (The Modern) seeking a bill of health from Egon Müller for a rare gold capsuled Scharzhofberger
The fifth annual Rieslingfeier took place on February 17 and 18, 2017, expanded to include not just a Grand Tasting and Paulée but the return with a vengeance of seminars: four of them, one of which I again had the privilege of leading, and all of which – at 44-person capacity – sold out within 48 hours of having been announced. Participating growers included for the first time two guests from outside Germany, the Wachau’s Leo Alzinger Jr. and Franz Hirtzberger Jr. The rest of this year’s illustrious, 14-estate line-up was represented by Hans-Joseph and Eva Becker, Jochen Beurer from Württemberg, Clemens Busch, Caroline and Sylvain Diel, Cornelius Dönnhoff, Eva Fricke, Thomas Haag, Andreas Hütwohl of Von Winning, Johannes Leitz, Egon Müller IV, Johannes Selbach, Daniel Vollenweider, and Johannes Weber of the Saar’s Hofgut Falkenstein. The Paulée was for the third year running deftly and deliciously coordinated (with five courses) by Restaurant Reynard in Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel. And once again, a crack team of New York City sommeliers volunteered their time to tackle the daunting task of organizing and delivering to their appointed tables several hundred bottles of Riesling – many with corks whose fragility defied their contents’ good health – in sync with the cuisine on offer as well as with participants’ whims.
Inevitably, generosity and the sheer number of attendees guarantee both an exhilarating and a vexing experience, trying to decide with whom beyond one’s tablemates to share the precious contents of a favorite bottle and watching as one after another such bottle is whisked past or shared with you. Before long, a good third of the diners are waltzing about and each table is accumulating an enticing array of empty – but, if you’re lucky, not all entirely empty – bottles, conspicuously including large formats. Unsurprisingly, the accumulated liquid treasures once again heavily favored estates whose wines were already well established in the U.S. marketplace four decades or more ago. And insofar as that means numerous 1971s, 1975s, 1976s, 1983s, 1989s and 1990s from the likes of Maximin Grünhaus, Fritz Haag, Egon Müller and Joh. Jos. Prüm, one can scarcely complain. (If I had to pick one favorite from among those tasted, it would be the Grünhaus 1989 Auslese Nr. 96, at once candied and freshly, coolingly herbal, and harmonious, yet for its vintage amazingly animated and transparent.) But there were also numerous bottles from growers whose collectible status is more recent: rare “R” reserves from Koehler-Ruprecht (what a 2001!); Prädikat Rieslings from Dönnhoff and Schaefer; and numerous Grosse Gewächse from Keller.
1974 Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Brudersberg Spätlese Riesling
The most intriguing and exciting tasting opportunities, though, came once again thanks to Rieslings that were not only rare but also unusual. My own contributions included a wine that Terry Theise had encouraged me to ask for when, on my first (1984) German wine tour, I visited grower Peter von Weymarn at his family’s Weingut Freiherr Heyl zu Herrnsheim. Terry opined that the 1974 Niersteiner Brudersberg Spätlese, among the few Rieslings from that year with upper-Prädikat aspirations, represented a high point of its vintage. At ten years of age, it had proven a dazzling representative of von Weymarn’s monopole vineyard and demonstrated Nierstein’s potential for ripening, even in challenging vintages, Riesling with strikingly carnal and floral as well as fruity and mineral characteristics. When (also in 1984) von Weymarn helped me kick off retail sales of Heyl wines in Washington, D.C. with an extensive tasting, we went back to that great Auslese vintage 1975; but the only other time I got to taste the 1974 Brudersberg was on a subsequent visit to Nierstein, when von Weymarn consented to my purchasing the case to share with my customers from which this bottle remained – still firm, lively and complex, though now virtually dry-tasting. I had to reflect on the passage of time and the vicissitudes of viticulture in order to remind myself why a number of those who tasted from it were unfamiliar with the name Freiherr Heyl, much less with the history of that once-renowned estate.
And there were again this year wines from estates of which I had never heard. I had been told that, at least until fairly recently, several growers in the notoriously insular but historically important Mosel wine village of Thörnich (whose sensational top slopes are today amalgamated under the Einzellage Ritsch) were still selling older wine. But a 1969 Thörnicher Enggass from K. H. Botzet-Zisch brought by Valerie Masten of Skurnik Wines represented the first such I had ever encountered.
Growers with deep cellars delight in bringing to Rieslingfeier not just superb wines from renowned older vintages but also their own share of surprising, bluff-the-taster libations. Egon Müller’s contributions this year included a 1973 Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese Eiswein whose identity other than as aging Eiswein I would not have guessed in a million years. I caught several of the fascinating 1970s and 1980s Rieslings from veteran Hans-Joseph Becker, wines marked by minimal winemaking but extended cask exposure, and which with rare exceptions he had never attempted to sell in the United States despite having for three decades been sales commissioner and logistics point man for Frank Schoonmaker and subsequently Chateau & Estate Wines. Today, J. B. Becker is among the very few top German estates to field a price list featuring wines of numerous vintages – a couple of dozen, in fact. (For more on this estate, whose wines Bitterolf now imports, see my soon to be published account of this year’s Rieslingfeier seminars, as well as my upcoming report devoted primarily to Rhine Rieslings of vintage 2015.) But it’s a measure of how much excitement has been brought to German Riesling in recent years by “outsiders” like Bremen-born Eva Fricke (who began her career working for Becker) and Swiss Daniel Vollenweider or by lifelong denizens of wine-growing areas who have founded new estates or completely revitalized longstanding ones, that half of the growers represented at this year’s Rieslingfeier could not contribute bottles more than 10 or 15 years old. Their relative youthfulness, though, was more than made up for by their quality and vintage diversity – as well as at times by sheer bottle capacity.
1969 Weingut K. H. Botzet-Zisch Thörnicher Enggaß
Several of my most memorable wines of the evening were totally unexpected despite issuing from the proverbially great as well as copious vintages 1971, 1975 and 1976. As I was checking in my bottles with the attendant sommeliers, I caught sight of a label both familiar to me and incredible in this context. It featured the logo of a long-defunct estate, Weingut Notar Tappen-Mungenast, along with that of the Lauer family who had taken over the attendant vines. Wines so labeled had still featured on Ayler Kupp Rieslings that I imported in the early 1990s. I knew that Peter Lauer habitually sold out wines down to the last bottle and that those remaining in my own cellar were more numerous than what few Florian Lauer had subsequently been able to buy back from old-time customers or had been lucky enough to discover hidden away. Yet here was a beautiful Auslese from 1971 that Cari Bernard of Chambers Street Wines had somehow acquired through Stephen Bitterolf, making it the oldest Lauer wine I had ever tasted, despite my having begun visiting that estate in the late 1980s. And although the first wines I tasted from Johannes Leitz, then just out of high school but already in his fourth vintage, were his young 1989s, I had never tasted a wine from his mother, Doris Leitz, widowed in 1965, who ran this estate (along with her florist’s shop) through 1985.
Up came Johannes at this year’s Gala Dinner with a pair of wonderful Beerenauslesen: a 1976 Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland and (despite theoretically lesser terroir) an even more poised and expressive 1975 Bischofsberg at once liqueur-like and coolingly cleansing, tinged with botrytis pungency and quinine-like piquancy. It was one of many such demonstrations I have witnessed that a grower responsible for bringing his or her family’s wines to prominence built on the impressive foundation of a father or mother whose achievements went unheralded.
1975 Weingut Josef Leitz Rüdesheimer Bischofsberg Riesling Beerenauslese
Stephen Bitterolf’s avowed intention in founding Rieslingfeier was “to bring more awareness to German wines and the greater cause of Riesling.” He chose to launch at a moment when for the first time since the mid-1970s fresh momentum seemed to be gathering behind German Riesling, both in its homeland and abroad. On the other hand, the enormous energy and sacrifice (particularly to his young family) that Bitterolf has been investing in this venture continue to serve a wine genre widely misunderstood and one whose ardent fans still represent a relatively small niche among enophiles. Even as he was observing that “in its early years, Daniel Johnnes told me his Paulée also didn’t have big corporate sponsors” and dreaming of the day when one might materialize to underwrite Rieslingfeier’s shoestring budget, Bitterolf soberly added that “being seen in the company of great Burgundy or Champagne is probably always going to hold an attraction that joining our yearly band of Riesling diehards never will.”
Having broken the nationality barrier with Austrian Rieslingfeier participation, Bitterolf says he still intends his event to remain focused on Rieslings of Germany and to confine guests to Old World growers. I’ll be very interested to see whether he manages to hold to that resolve, since the substantial queue of would-be participants from Germany is now bound to have international company pressing to gain admittance. And a job of choosing invitees that was already tricky – balancing grower magnetism, importer interests and a desire to highlight new talent – can only become more difficult.
A subsequent posting will report on the four seminars at this year’s Rieslingfeier.
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