BITS AND PIECES
Geezers like me might possibly remember, if we ever developed film, watching the print materialize in the liquid. I think of it as I start collecting impressions of the last two vintages, neither of which I was able to taste in my old accustomed ways.
I used to really scan through a vintage by tasting the total hell out of it in the early Spring that followed. Mostly cask-samples. About 80% of the wines were presentable; the rest were riddles I had to guess the answers to. An impression formed, like the image forming on the photograph. I knew the impression was just part of a fuller truth, I allowed for that, but I had decades of experience, which offered context.
Then came the rift that interrupted my merchant activities, but even if that hadn’t happened, I’d have been called back to the States by the COVID emergency, with only half the 2019s tasted. As it was there was a vintage – 2019 – with a grandiose reputation, that I barely tasted at all. Obviously 2020 was similarly elusive to my usual full-immersions. And so my experience getting acquainted with the two vintages is a much slower process.
It is the middle of August 2021, and the outlines of hypotheses are starting to form. These will change. And I’ll share that process with you.
I’m getting the impression I’ll really like 2020. They are like a clement Fall day with a cool breeze under a warm sun. The hazes of summer are gone. You can see the color of a bumblebee’s eyes from twenty feet away, you can count the pears on a pear tree across the orchard. You can see hills you forgot were there. Crisp, outlines, definition, with a charming push-pull between warm and cool, like a day where you take your jacket off and put it back on every few minutes.
2019, in contrast, seems to sometimes feel self-serious, asserting its dignified mass in a way that sometimes seems ungainly. I also question its botrytis in the sweet wines. I can easily imagine having fallen under its spell 15 months ago; it’s easy to overrate a vintage like this. Thus my working hypothesis for 2019 (Germans) is to approach with caution, and “all that glitters…” and all that.
That hypothesis, like all hypotheses, will (and ought to) change as new evidence arrives.
INTRO TO HEXAMER
It feels like an epoch ago that I got a tip from David Schildknecht, fresh back from a tasting trip in Germany, that an interesting young man who had apprenticed at Dönnhoff and apparently impressed Helmut, was also making wine at his family’s winery all the way in the boonies in Meddersheim.
I mean, the Nahe is already the boonies, and when you get to its upstream reaches you feel like someone should have examined your passport before letting you proceed. But it happened I knew Meddersheim, because in my very early days I tried to sell some good (and cheap!) wines from a little coop there, and I also had a hankering for Rieslings from the site Rheingrafenberg, a Cru of consequence that no one knew about.
Samples were sent to me, and I was jazzed by them. (I was also tasting samples from a then-obscure estate called Schaefer-Fröhlich, but the contrast between their adamantly sponti style and Hexamer’s steely gleam worked in the latter’s favor. Tim Fröhlich’s superb estate has gone on to join the elite, but I’m not bothered by the choice I made; I think a portfolio can be suffocated by having too many elite producers crowding together, and I had Dönnhoff…)
Young Harald Hexamer was making the kinds of wines I adored: explicit and vivid, fruit and mineral and terroir crashing together in a giddy extroverted revelry. When that style fails it is too clamorous, and when it succeeds it has a magnetism that’s awfully tantalizing.
No-longer “young” Harald retains a certain youthful absence of guile. His wines are a bit less brash now. He’s added land in the porphyritic sites of the central Nahe, and these wines are better suited to a cask regime, and so the Rieslings have sometimes broadened texturally. This benefits the dry wines, as you might suppose. Harald has also shown a striking talent for Sauvignon Blanc and Scheurebe, and for a while I had an improbable success with a white Pinot Noir, which nobody minded was “Halbtrocken” because it was so bizarrely delicious.
Though the cellar remains predominantly (90%) stainless steel, he’s been adding casks from nearby wood as finances permit.
In general terms Hexamer’s strengths have tended to be the aforementioned Scheu/Sauv-B, plus the best among the many dry Rieslings, and finally the (very) sweet wines, especially Eisweins, which are still sometimes possible in Meddersheim’s cool corner. Basic RS Rieslings (Kabinetts especially) are on-the-money, but lately I have seen the wines differently than before. I have changed more than they have.
Some of Harald’s wines show what I’d call a symmetry of extremes, which is stirring when it works and screechy when it doesn’t. Over the last years we tasted together we talked a lot about pulling the wines away from the radical expressiveness (which can pall after a while) and more toward an accommodating center.
And yet, several of the best wines among this current group are old-school Hexamer, with a peyote shimmer and brilliance. Overall it was strangely bifurcated; the wines I liked I really liked, and I was oddly cold to several others. Read on.
JUST WHAT IS IT WE DO HERE?
Five times in the last week I’ve drunk wines with which I had “issues” when tasting them, and all five times the wines gave great pleasure. The flaws I discerned as a taster were nowhere to be found as a drinker. The wines were fun. The flaws were hidden away.
I first described this phenomenon (if memory serves) in my 2017 catalogue, while discussing a particular wine from Strub. As a taster we deconstruct and micro-analyze the wines we sample; we’re looking up-close and trying (in my case at least) to immerse in the landscape of that wine. We assume this activity is worthwhile and serves a useful purpose, and perhaps it does. At the very least it rewards the work of the vintner with a sustained and respectful attention to her wine. Let’s set aside the question of whether she’s pleased with the judgment. It’s safe to say she is pleased that her work produces something that warrants close attention.
And so we give it, and in the process we may apprehend all manner of little blemishes and imperfections, which we dutifully report to our readers, or to the readers we imagine would want to know such things. I think that each of us (reviewers) is continually making tiny judgments about which “imperfections” are worth identifying – because some of them are not, they’re just little blips. A furtive whiff of reduction, maybe, that goes away in two seconds, or a puppy-tooth nip of tannin that’s washed away by a rich vinous finish. These are incidental. But when we find something more obtrusive, we decide to write about it, and underlying that choice is a thing we presume upon: that you want (or need) to know.
It seems obvious – but it’s rarely discussed – that we’re dealing with parallel realities; wine as it is evaluated and wine as it is used. While reviewers are skewed toward evaluation, all of us are both users and evaluators. It’s when the realities diverge dramatically that I start to question: what is the utility of all our nit-picking?
Clearly if you follow this idea to its conclusion there’d be no reason for wine reviewing at all. I think I might demur at demolishing the very reason my (current) work exists. Actually! And yet I’m ever more persuaded we need to remember to distinguish between wine as it is analyzed and judged, and wine as it is simply consumed. Again clearly, nasty wine is just nasty wine, and there’s no reason it should be consumed, but there’s a substantial world of “good” wine with some blemish or other that a given reviewer finds irksome. And then what do we do?
We don’t pull punches. We report on what we taste. Ideally we remember that tasting is a country with its particular customs and language, into which we venture and then leave again. The reader has some responsibility to appreciate the limits of the “tasting” approach, but honestly not much. I think we writers need to do the heavy lifting, and remind our readers that it’s our job to nit-pick but it doesn’t have to be theirs.
Without my consciously intending it, this sensibility has crept into my own wine reports. It is conspicuously evident in the Meulenhof reviews, most tangibly in the very first wine. I tasted that wine three times in multiple circumstances, because I wanted to be certain that the flaw would repeat itself. I had a feeling the wine would “present” better with food, and last night I had a couple glasses at the table, and totally enjoyed them. Is one impression more valid than the other? Is one impression more accurate or truthful than the other? Is one impression more useful than the other??
Perhaps we can justify the particular aesthetic that underlies our assumption that it’s appropriate to examine wine as we do, but we must take care not to let it strangle us. Our reader should feel we are relevant to his life as a wine lover, but I wonder sometimes whether our writing makes him feel we’re speaking from a country for which he does not have a visa.
Do not mistake me; this isn’t populism or anti-intellectualism. I am emphatically neither of those things. I am arguing that we must remember the distinction between wine as it is assessed and wine as it is used.
“We” being writers, because it’s different for merchants. At least it ought to be. What would I have done about that Meulenhof Spätlese Trocken? I’d have been disappointed that its many appealing qualities were finally hijacked by a forcefully rasping finish. I would have hoped for a better dry wine elsewhere in his offering, because now I wanted to find a good Trocken wine here. I would not have yielded, because if I did it would be like telling my customers This wine is really a knockout as long as you don’t pay too close attention to the finish, and that’s not what a merchant should do. But I’d have felt kind of lousy about it. Is it inhumane to “punish” (by excluding it) the wine for flubbing a few final notes when it was so good overall? Well, yes, I think, but that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.