I’m weirdly delighted to confess that I struggle to write about Johannes Hirsch and his wines. I just got off a zoom call with him, in which I asked him how he would contrast his wines to those of the other Kamptal titans, and he also fumbled about trying to answer. It’s not the man I can’t describe; that’s easy. It’s the wines, which are shape-shifting beings. If you wanted to find the diametric opposite to “formulaic,” it would be these wines. And if you’re thinking that “formulaic” means modern denuded antiseptic paint-by-numbers wines, that is only half of what it means. Many wines in the “natural” community follow formulas, but we approve of those and so we don’t perceive them as formulas.
Many of Hirsch’s wines are excellent, and some of them are superb, but very few of them are ingratiating. Nor do they really speak the prevailing “languages,” neither the impeccable diction of (what we call) the great Classics, nor the charmingly rough dialects of the “alt” gang. They’re not so much in-between these as they’re on the other side of a large body of water.
Johannes never set about to be a lone wolf; it came naturally to him. In the 22 years I represented him I came to feel his wines were like a hiking trail that kept winding around blind corners, but each time you turned a corner the view was fantastic.
I said the wines don’t ingratiate, but neither do they really explicate. They do not seek to explain themselves. Mind you, they do express themselves, in their generously interior ways, but when you drink them you might become aware of how other wines do for you, how they create a response. And this is perfectly fine. Hirsch’s wines are simply there to be found. But what exactly do we find?
Johannes is biodynamic – he’s a founder member of Respekt – and he picks everything by hand, even his entry-level wines, and he ferments strictly with ambient yeast. “Some of my colleagues say they do only wild-yeast fermentations but then they say Of course, if we have one that won’t start or won’t finish, then we inoculate, and I think this is cheating,” he insists. His wines spend a seriously long time on their primary lees. Wild ferments and long lees contact can be a recipe for various reductions, and Hirsch’s wines are not invariably free from this. Neither are they spit-shined when first released. Often they need a few years, which means often they’re underrated in their youth. Not by me, of course, I’m way too sophisticated to make such a rookie mistake. (Except I’ve done it too.)
So, what can be said about these? They come from remarkable land; 65% of the holdings are from Erste Lagen. They may convey an anything-goes nature but in fact they’re tightly controlled. They have to be. “In the old days before climate change, if you needed a break from picking you could wait a few days, even a week. But today there’s always a moment where you have to pick, and if you miss it your wine will suffer.”
A Hirsch wine is like wine in the form of food. They lead with umami. They entail a sort of honeyed core, but you have to consider the taste of honey without the sugar. They can show the allusive “sweetness” of bread baking, the first moment where it starts to perfume the house. I find them Autumnal in their ambiences – pumpkins, roasted squashes, the first parsnips. They’re sometimes malty like a good Assam tea with milk added. They are, I suppose, savory. They are deliberately intended to be aged, as though their fundamental soul lives in tertiary flavors.
All of this is truer for the Veltiners than for the Rieslings, but even the Rieslings have a certain Otherness. Anyone who’s never seen the expressive possibilities in a Hirsch Riesling (and in Hiedler also) is missing a key piece of the Riesling portrait.
Johannes Hirsch is a believer in late-bottling (which hails from his belief in long lees-contact) and so this first round of wines comes from 2019. I’ll have a subsequent report on the ‘20s, at least the first releases, later in the year.
2019 is hailed as a “great” vintage but I’ve tasted almost none of them. Couldn’t get there. With a single exception all of these are terra incognita to me.
2019 Grüner Veltliner “Hirschvergnügen”
12% alc, and estate-bottled, which for this wine is a recent development). The aroma is rich and leesy, and a little aldehydic the way a Nikolaihof Federspiel can sometimes be. Blind, that would have been my guess.
This was always the most vinous of the entry-level GVs, and this ’19 has “ideas;” it’s a miniature version of the higher-level wines rather than a snappy little guy from another family. Even at this “modest” level there’s a mid-palate creaminess and a surmise of the vetiver notes of the big boys. Tastes like a stock from guinea hen or pheasant bones. It didn’t work to treat it like a little wine; I poured it into the glass I’d use for the more august among its larger siblings, and it justified my confidence.
The next day I tasted it right after a Setzer Ausstich, and that was a contrast! This one’s the leesy exotic, less varietal and more temperamental. Finally on day-3 I sensed the wine was showing its true self, free from the leesy shroud, now suave and salty. Insistent “study” reveals an echo of the aldehydic notes present upon opening, but no sensible drinker would study so maniacally.
All of which is to hail this wine’s tertiary depth, and to establish my great admiration for its generosity in what is after all an “everyday” tier. But I have to wonder, just how do you use it? It’s not crisp and snappy, not an aperitif nor a hot-weather slug-it-backer, yet it’s also not “big” enough for the moment where a “big” GV is asked for.
Maybe I’m foolish to worry about that.
2019 Grüner Veltliner Kammern +
(alc 12.5%, and the “village-wine” in the new system, a wine which had several different names in the past.)
Aroma again leesy and a teensy bit aldehydic. Also something grainy, like raw bread dough, and also like the smell of a cask-cellar empty of wine, where you can still imagine the breathing of the trees.
I’ve always liked this wine. I recall when Charlie Trotters ran it by the glass and I was so happy, not because I had my wine at Trotters – I’d had many wines there by then – but because they were so smart to pick this one to pour; good enough to reassure the guest that “significant” wine was being served, yet not so good as to wrest attention away from the food.
In some wines, usually more “important” wines than this, there can come a moment where you taste something in the mid-palate that seems like a demi-glace of the wine, a concentrate. We all love that. We call it “length” among other things. It’s the emergence of the non-grape, the bridge to foods, things we want to chew. This wine has more than a hint of that juicy pith, the rusk and toasted rye and veal-chop, and if ‘Hannes tells me (in our zoom call) that he had some young-vines Ried Lamm in here I’ll be like “Yes! I tasted it. Yay me!” (If he says otherwise I’ll just chalk it up to him forgetting what he put in here…)
The second day, and from a bottle we drank at dinner and which is more depleted (and thus more oxygenated), there’s still more articulation and nuance than most mid-range wines show.
The “plus” is for sheer sophisticated stylishness in a countrified idiom; these are biodynamic wines but they show the aspect of the earth that feels sweet, not crude or rustic. That feels like a friend.
2019 Grüner Veltliner Ried Gaisberg +
(13% alc, full name Kammerner Gaisberg, not to be confused with the Zöbinger Gaisberg from which the Riesling hails. Same hill, different soil and exposure.)
This is the one wine I drank before, but this is a much better bottle, and time to trot out the Jancis glass….
It’s a parfait of esoteric peppers. It’s GV at its peppery best. It is also a radishy beast. It could stand to trim its fingernails. Don’t search for mid-palate thickness; this is cress-pepper-cress-arugula-pepper-mizuna-marjoram…and interestingly it’s the first wine not to smell leesy. An expressive little critter that really thwangs! the palate, and leaves a finish like drinking a medicinal herb tea based on mountain raspberry leaves. Only on the third day open did it reveal a cucumber note that softened – if only a little – the wine’s attack.
It’s also a wine where GV and Blaufränkisch seem to overlap, or intersect. This will really be interesting to track over the next few days – is there something hidden beneath the resinous snap?
Well, yes and no. The tall Spiegelau is the most flattering, and the Jancis the most stark, nettle-y. A jot of physio-“sweetness” seems to poke its head out – or do I dream this because I’m looking for it?
“Needs time” is winespeak for when you can’t bear to tell a grower that his wine isn’t very good. Yet here it’s appropriate. The wine is zany and hyper freshly opened and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s showing all its cards. The evolution of a certain quietude over three days suggests a more complete wine down the road – well down it. I’d lay this away at least fifteen years.
2019 Grüner Veltliner Ried Renner ++
(13% alc, full name Kammerner Renner, detritus of eroded soil from the Zöbinger Gaisberg at the bottom of the terraces, thus a “Riesling” soil in which GV appears to thrive. It’s my favorite GV from Gobelsburg, for instance….)
Initial aroma is pure vetiver (and a little reduction), and that leesy reduction needs a few minutes to disperse.
(A few minutes later)…and subject to the predations of the Jancis glass, this feels like a masterpiece. My god, Renner is a great site for this variety.
I went out onto the back porch to taste it. We have a sea-breeze today and it’s pleasantly cool, for once….and I looked out onto the cheerful disorder that is my wife’s garden. It’s kind of higgledy-piggledy, and seemingly random, awfully sweet, cheerfully colorful, fragrant as all get-out, not entirely tamed, like my sweetheart herself, and I had one of those unity-moments, you know them, I hope….the breeze, the air, the garden, the wine, all a single fine thing, and I know now, that this moment isn’t a chimera – it is pure life, and only the finest wines bring it.
The wine is all yellow and bronze. Yellow like buttercups, bronze like alpenglow. There’s also an inference of green like Chartreuse or Balsam Fir, and again a yellow like lemon and ginger. It’s all there, however you access it. And for all its complexity it is also hale and delicious. It loves you back.
Someone will eventually tell me, yet again, that GV isn’t a “great” grape variety, and yet again I will oscillate between pity and contempt. How can you possibly miss this, and what a shame.
2019 Grüner Veltliner Ried Grub +
(alc 13.5%, grown in “deep loess” in a declivity between the Gaisberg and Heiligenstein hills.)
Can I take a detour to stemware? I poured this into my “control” glass, the Spiegelau “white-wine” 1.0, and also into the MacNeil “creamy and silky” glass, which is more capacious. Grub is a big wine, rich, thick, sometimes a little crude, and it’s clear the control glass constricted it. But it also gave shape to all that belly-muscle and made Grub into a thing I could understand. MacNeil’s design was made for just such a wine as this; it instinctively groks the body and mid-palate umami, and it sings in just the right key. It also trims off a couple curious edges, but that doesn’t do a lot of harm – Grub is a rich wine, a wine of mealy murmurs. It is also broody, inscrutable, ample and yet translucent. The opposite of limpid, lucid or lapidary.
It was only on the third day, when I tasted it from the smallest glass, that it stretched and yawned and spoke a few words. There’s minerality embedded in it somewhere, a hidden fossil of nuance you really have to eke out.
But this is a fine vintage. I often wonder whether a 15-20 year old Grub would reveal the secret the wines seem to preserve. I’ve never quite gotten it, and still don’t except to say it’s a bigly kind of GV that you should decant 3-4 hours in advance.
The (upcoming) Lamm is more clearly great because the Lamm has lift along with its mass. It’s an easier wine in that sense. Grub, in contrast, talks almost entirely to the mid-palate, the place where the taster infers and where the message surrounds her, and she has trouble finding words for it.
Tonight’s dinner will be a little brash for a wine like this, but I’ll try it anyway. I keep needing to unlock this guy. I need an Elder to come along and reassure me “It’s OK Terry, Grub really is often opaque…” but failing that, decant and serve it as close to 55-58º as you can, try it with a mushroom risotto, and tell me if you can guess at its belly-rich riddles.
2019 Grüner Veltliner Ried Lamm ++
(alc 13.5%, the Chambertin of the Kamptal, full-name “Kammerner Lamm.”)
Lucky buyers of the “library releases” of this wine have marveled at the resonance and complexity it achieves with the age it deserves – or at least some of that age.
OK, well, this is simple; it’s a perfect confluence of a great site, a top producer, and a superb vintage. It is everything it should be, including that it is a little misshapen in its current youth. The same is often said about Corton Charlemagne – and in both cases correctly. What is clear now is the seamless poise among mass, detail and mineral, but it’s always like that. If Grub holds its weight in the belly, Lamm holds its weight in the shoulders and thighs. It’s paradoxically articulate in the littlest glass. Because it has high notes!
With Lamm the complexity is right there on the surface. It’s as if you had a big massive roast of spring lamb, with an herbal crust with mint and lemon and butter and crumbs, and there was the sweet delicacy of the meat with the zinging restlessness of the crust.
Not very many white wines can do what this wine does. Let’s look at it over the next bunch of days…
It shows some leesiness the next day. It is a riot in the Jancis. I don’t know many wines with this equipoise of power, delineation and drinkability.
2019 Riesling Zöbing
(12.5 alc. The village wine in the DAC system.)
Begins by smelling like caraway seeds – and lees, and aldehydes. Curious, how it’s only the lighter wines that seem to expel their lees this way. It’s borderline off-putting.
The wine appears to contain two hemispheres, the first being the turbulent leesiness and the second being the classic iris-y Austrian Riesling aromas. Oxygen seems to repair the breech, with some effort.
This entry level Riesling should offer a certain studiousness, a chance to study the basic genre without the …complications of greatness, let’s call them. But those lees are stubborn here. The wine is stormy. I have it in three glasses (control, Jancis, and MacNeil “crisp and fresh”) and the control glass is the friendliest. In all the glasses there’s lavender and caraway and purple iris. It emerges first from the Jancis, but this is a complicated temperamental being, and we need to see what happens over the next 72 hours. That said, for the regular drinker’s sake, you’ll have “issues” if you don’t wait a few years for this, or decant it an hour in advance. It reveals an esoteric beauty in the Jancis, after 20 minutes or so. But who has the patience for that? Not to mention, why would a wine demand that degree of patience? My guess is, this was bottled prematurely.
What I cannot know is whether this wine is stunted in some basic way, or whether it’s simply squirming in its chrysalis. Open three days, tasted many times, the enigma persists.
2019 Riesling Ried Gaisberg +(+)
(alc 13%, full name Zöbinger Gaisberg, the terraced hill on mica-schist, granite, amphibolite and other primary rock derivatives)
In general, Gaisberg sits just a little in the shade of its neighbor Heiligenstein, but in any given vintage at Hirsch it’s a toss-up which of them is “best.”
This seems to be the fecund/stinky earthy side of Gaisberg – which I love! Sometimes you get the ethereal blueberries and other times you get the “funky-iris” side and god help me I love them all. But three minutes in the glass…appearances may be deceiving.
Can we agree that many (most?) “natural” wines are said to require – to insist upon – time in the glass to shed their….well, the things that need to be shed, let us say…. ? And if we do agree, then let’s take the same attitude here. Only with the proviso that what lies below the skin-deep issue is something truly beautiful….
And also subtle, and allusive. It’s best from the Jancis, and in two days it will be screaming from any damn glass I pour it into, and even now if all you do is sniff it, you’ll be transported to the WTF space with wine (How can anything possibly smell like this?), but give it a couple days for the palate to catch up., because when it does – and I know it will – a rare pleasure is waiting for you.
Jancis is too adamantly explicit, but the tall Spiegelau is the bomb, at least here and now, and into the second day also.
But what’s with the “second day” shit anyway? How many of you make a practice of not finishing a wine the day you open it? Believe me, I drink them bad boys up. But here I’m engaged in a different business. I want to offer more than a superficial a-la-minute “tasting” impression of these wines – because I can – and because some wines don’t reveal themselves out of the gate.
I used to wince inwardly when I had to subject a grower’s whole year of work to the glancing skim I was forced to offer when I sat there under time pressure and social pressure, and tried to make sense of the wines. I learned how to do it, and called it “professional,” (as indeed it was) but it was a necessary imperfection I don’t have to accept today.
2019 Riesling Ried Heiligenstein ++
(alc 13%, full name Zöbinger Heiligenstein)
This is the Romanee-Conti of the Kamptal, and one of the very greatest Riesling vineyards on earth – just sayin’. This fucker (and no other word will do) is blazing from whichever glass I slop it into, and without laboring the point, here we have an instance of, um, terroir making itself known.
Even from the “little” Spiegelau this wine rocks the world. Do you know the smell of really fresh ground sweet Paprika? Inferentially, do you know the smell of Espelette pepper? It’s kind of the same. But then Heiligenstein is a site beloved of associations, and you could gather a few dozen if you collated everyone’s tasting notes.
There’s a sense in which it isn’t even “Riesling” any more. Except what else could read this terrroir so clearly?
Jancis rocks this wine. The mineral underpinning shows, and you get a hint of where the wine will go in a few years. It’s wonderful to taste now but also absurd to drink now. I’m not pouring another glass for three days. To drink it now is like listening to someone reading a poem while the TV’s on. Turn it off and listen, or forget it until all of you is there.
It is the classic wine that defies the craving for explicable, instant gratification. You’d need to be into wine. You’d need a decent cellar, and a modicum of patience. But I’m not sure you can fathom what waits for you on the other side…