WEINGUT ZIEREISEN

[Note, this report has been updated with three new wines I received in a later delivery, to be found at the end of the report].

 

The first thing to report is that every red wine changed markedly from day-1 to day-2, and all for the better. If you note a tonal shift in the notes, that is why. In essence, the wines need air to access their sweetness. And I don’t mean sugar; I mean the qualities of kindness and solicitude we sometimes infer from delicious wines.

I did find myself wanting to consider other causal variables, but there weren’t any important enough to weigh. Even the weather was the same both days. I looked at the biodynamic calendar, and neither day was propitious for tasting wine. So there were in effect four encounters – so far – two days’ tasting and also drinking some of the wines with dinner. I’m about to do a 3rd look tasting, and now we do find a significant variable: the fill levels in the bottles, which of course have sunk.

I must say, though, that it makes a certain sense for Ziereisen’s wines to be “moody.” Everything about them is animate. We love this quality, and it’s rare that we find it. As such it’s tailor made for my full-immersion essayistic kinds of tasting and writing, and I found myself lamenting the mistakes I (or anyone) might have made by assigning absolute evaluations based on first impressions. If you’re looking to me for any sort of guidance, if you own any of these wines – and man, you really really should – then decant them, even the whites, several hours out. I’m tasting the reds at 62º and the whites at about 58º, and it seems perfect. I’m using various glasses but you don’t have to. If you want the wines to cover you in cuddles of vinous bliss, I suggest the Karen MacNeil glasses from Oneida (either the “Silky & Creamy” or the “Bold & Powerful” for whites and reds respectively) and if you want the wines to describe themselves with delicious precision, Jancis is the way to go.

The wines from “The End Of Germany” are full of surprises. If you drive there, you keep going south south south until you can see the border to Switzerland, and that’s where you find Ziereisen. Look west over the Rhine valley and the Vosges have faded off to the north. A big undulating hill looms over Ziereisen’s village, and if you climb high enough upon it you are looking at the city of Basel resting in its furrow between the hills. The northernmost slopes of the Swiss Jura are behind it, and Hanspeter Ziereisen swears that “On a clear morning you can see the Berner Oberland,” with its peaks like great white giants, as if bride’s veils were rippling on the horizon. Beaune is closer than Stuttgart. To the extent Baden means anything at all to American lovers of German wine, it’s either the big names (and their big reds) from the Kaiserstuhl or perhaps the tangy volcanic whites from the impossibly gorgeous Ortenau.

But down here where “the buses don’t run” (in Hunter S. Thompson’s coinage) (Or was it George Carlin?  Either way….) Mr. Ziereisen is creating a fine rebellion. He is also part of a group of like-minded producers who wish to wriggle free of the strait jackets of the German wine law, and simply make the best wine they can. Meeting Hanspeter for the first time, his first words were “What you need to know about me is, everything I do is forbidden.” Then we should get along just fine, I thought.

This is just my second full-immersion into the wines – and not all of them, just the Spätburgunders, Gutedels (aka Chasselas) and Syrahs. At the estate I tasted everything (and lusted after the sold-out Muskateller in a most unseemly way), and as a merchant I sought to focus on the wines where the estate staked its claim. But there are no mundane wines at Ziereisen. 

Those Pinots are serious business, of another order from any other Spätburgunders I’ve tasted from Germany. Several metaphors offer themselves; they’re the chewy flavorful cuts, not the butterly bland filets….they show a 5-o-clock shadow at 2-o-clock. But what keeps amazing me about them is their articulation poised improbably against a ruggedness of body and contour. You are thinking “This wine is as chewy as crags” and then in a flash you think “But there is a brilliant mind in them,” and I don’t mean a brilliant mind behind them pulling the levers. I mean the wines themselves embody the kind of lucidity that indicates the presence of high intelligence. And when they do reveal their fruit they offer a miraculous sweetness poised in unfathomable ways over the stones and scree. There are loads of excellent wines in the world, but we also know right away when we’re drinking something of consequence.

Consequential wines seem to step off the roads whereby their  inherent quality is measured and judged. They matter no matter how good they are – but they don’t matter unless they are good. (Ya know? Zen, baby!)

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2017 Blauer Spätburgunder

(The “estate” PN is hardly a mish-mosh of the lesser casks or the youngest vines; it’s sporting 13% ABV without chaptalization – admittedly in a ripe vintage. If it misses the specificities of the single vineyards, it brings a heartiness and candor to compensate. It is not entirely estate-grown fruit.)

A perfect intro to the world of Hanspeter Ziereisen’s Spätburgunders, which seldom showcase the “sweet” side of the variety, but rather the iron. The expressive and compelling fragrance is markedly ferrous and the palate is as firm as a sledgehammer. It’s both more refined from the Jancis glass but also more determinedly peppery.

The first time I tasted one of these it was blind, and I was fumbling. “Clearly Old-World, but where??”  I got as far as Pinot Noir but eliminated Burgundy, and it also lacked the sweet ingratiating sheen of most German examples. I wondered about Gantenbein, and finally settled on Switzerland, but something less “international” than Gantenbein. I was somewhat reassured to learn the wine came from near the Swiss border!

The texture is nicer from the Spiegelau “red wine” stem. Juicier. Dustier. 2017 is a vintage with a kind of char; the Rieslings also show it. This wine is tough but not rustic; it’s a hangar-steak of Pinot Noir, a wine with attitude, possibly too much so. We’ll see how time treats it, but on first glance there’s more to admire than to love.

Yet on second glance it’s entirely sweeter and more inviting. Say what?? Even the texture is creamier. On day-3 I tasted from the Jancis exclusively – I’m getting tired of washing wine glasses! The wine was betwixt. So I tried something I haven’t done before, and slugged it straight from the bottle.

This was interesting! The wine was all middle, and all Burgundy-bloody middle at that. Probably don’t try this at home, or rather, don’t try it in a restaurant, but you can risk it at home if no one’s looking.

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2017 Tschuppen                                                                              +

(Only on the back-label do we read Blauer Spätburgunder.)

The color is paler and more limpid now. It’s from a cadaster on the hilltop with a loamy soil overlain with loess. Vines are young. The aroma is really fine and really bloody; ripe, visceral “nature” but not feral or funky. On the palate we find some PN sweetness but stopping short of ingratiating – thankfully. It’s happily chewy. Yet the Jancis glass renders it silky, lucid and appealing.

It’s hardly “bigger” or more “intense” than the estate wine. If anything it’s more delicate. But it is in every way finer. It has some of the sinew of Hanspeter’s PNs but encased in a lovely fruit. Like fire-roasted eggplant, it gives you the sweet umami but also the agreeable scorch.

I just went outside to taste it – the weather is finally mild and dry enough to permit this – and startled a rabbit who’s been browsing around the last week or so. We’ve never had rabbits, only squirrels, but this one scampered off a few feet and stopped to regard me. If the creature plans to hang out with us, we need to give it a name. I decided on “Dorothy” if she’s a girl and “Toby” if he’s a boy.

If the empty glasses are a guide, this wine will blossom over the next few days.

As indeed it has, evolving into an angular prettiness that reminded a fellow taster of Pernand Vergelesses, one of my favorite communes. He also notes “pencil-shavings,” which is a sharp pickup. Yellow tomatoes and marjoram also comes close. Are there facets of greatness here? No, but there are all the facets of fine-ness.

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2018 Schulen                                                                                    +

(Again, Blauer Spätburgunder only appears on the back label. I note also the moderate alc, 12.5%.)

I rarely write about color – but this color is beautiful!

If a color could be called “articulate,” this one can. The first of Ziereisen’s limestone PNs, the vineyard is layered with alluvial stones from the ancient Rhine.

The fragrance is seriously beautiful, and the palate has the slippery-dream quality we love (and cannot fathom) in excellent Pinot Noir. It runs in three channels. One is the pungently herbal; lovage, sea fern, conifer, juniper. Another is spices and umami; Tasmanian pepper, soy and sandalwood. And finally we have sweet fruit (cooked tomatoes) and nightshades. Its 2018 refinement exposes a certain coarseness in the ‘17s. This wine ripples and glides – yet it has vertebrae and shape and contour. And it finishes with the firm iron all these wines seem to show, as though it contained 5-10% Blaufränkisch.

It’s not a popular-kid wine, but boy, it is absorbing. A flowing, almost haunting tertiary finish develops over the days. It has changed the least of all the wines so far. I think it’s always a “fruit-day” for this wine.

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2018 Talrain                                                                                         ++

(Blauer Spätburgunder on the back label only.)

The only non-local vineyard; in fact it’s a 30-minute drive away, to the lower hills of the Black Forest, at 2,000 feet, on limestone layered with iron-rich clay.

The wine is basically drenched with terroir. It’s the red wine cognate for one of Nigl’s Pellingen Veltliners, no “fruit” but waves of everything else, especially a rampant fir-tree character that is deliciously stinging.

Please understand, I have limited regard for “cerebral” wines because too often they seek to justify a simple lack of sensuality, using concepts instead of flavors. On the other hand, my skin starts to tingle when I sense an assertion of identity where one feels This could only be one wine…

I’m thinking back to Dautel’s Spätburgunders, and I realize you can’t compare the two – but you can compare this to Christian’s Lembergers,and that juxtaposition is revealing. Nor is it far fetched to liken this wine to really good Teroldego. Hanspeter may well scream to read these words, but this PN is a shape-shifter, as well as being stunningly detailed and original.

With air a sweetness emerges that’s not at all succulent. Currants, black cherries, but <whew>… hard to resist. The wine is a keen dark lyric that has access to an occult world of beauty that has excluded everything sentimental.

On day-2 it shows, of all things, a little bretty. It’s fleeting and doesn’t affect the palate, but it surprises me. And on day-3 it was gone. Here the MacNeil glass came into its own. 

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2018 Rhini                                                                                          ++

(Blauer Spätburgunder on the back label.)

This is the “cult” wine among aficionados of Ziereisen; the best site on the great hill, pure limestone, old vines.

 

To me it recalls Clos de la Roche. The color is more earnestly dark now. The fragrance is searching, layered, strong.

 

There’s more tannin now, but not too much; more new wood but not too much. It needs a half-hour to unfurl itself. It’s large but not huge, smoky but not bitter, intense but not sharp. Yet it has the limestone bite.

 

Till now I’ve just used the Spiegelau and the Jancis, as mentioned, but I had to try this in MacNeil’s “Bold And Powerful” glass, whose paradigm is along lines of Napa Cab, or so I infer. Our Rhini is sumptuously expressive in it. It offers the Grand Cru experience, and nothing wrong with that. It lets the wine stretch. I often enjoy the compression of detail, but now I want the wine to show its breadth. It also mitigates the tannin. It’s what I’d use if I weren’t “tasting” but just drinking for pleasure.

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2018 Ziereisen Jaspis  Zipsin Pinot Noir                                   ++

(heavy bottle alert….)

(Hanspeter told me this was a cask-selection of his favorites rather than a specific site-origin, so I’m trying to learn about “Zipsin.”)

Turns out it’s not a site-name at all. “Everything is in flux with us, currently also the names of some of our wines,” says HP’s wife/partner Edel. “In the future our Jaspis wines will be called Nägelin - Zipsin - Däublin - Würmlin - Bürgin - after the surnames of the previous owners or the landlords of the corresponding vineyards.  We need to arm ourselves for the future in view of some upcoming changes in the wine law, in which we may no longer be able to write Landwein on the label, which also means we can’t show the grape variety. We are introducing the new names so that you can still clearly recognize our Jaspis wines for the time being.”

 

These top wines are ambitious (and expensive) and massively impressive. And this wine is indeed magnificent, as we generally understand that term. It has the breadth and dynamism of Rhini but with a length and juiciness that distinguishes it from the single site wines.

But I fear I’m being a snob. This wine is “great” in ways that most (wine) people will easily appreciate, whereas something like Talrain requires another kind of discernment. Okay, fine. But why sneer at an outstanding wine that’s easily apprehended? No good reason! Except I’m pissed off that I can’t afford it. But I also can’t afford Romanée St. Vivant, and I’m not squirming with pique about that.

No, the problem is mine. Some part of me doesn’t want this wine to be so fabulous. But fabulous it surely is.

In what way, particularly? Well, in a way that isn’t ineluctably Pinot Noir, though it also couldn’t be anything else. The Jancis glass makes that point quite firmly. It makes the wine smarter. Let me also acknowledge that conventional “scorers” will probably give this more points than the Rhini or Talrain, and they’re not wrong. I’m just tied up in a knot of my own making, recoiling perversely from something that, to silly me, feels plausible.

But you know? If you asserted the point that this wine was a kind of cultural monument to the possibilities of Pinot Noir from Germany, and that its “monumental” nature was best appreciated in that context, I’d be right there with you. By any reasonable measure this wine is superb.

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2018 Gestad

(WATCH OUT! This is now Syrah, as can only be gleaned from the back label.)

The vineyard is Jurassien limetone overlain with loess, and Hanspeter describes it as “Syrah for Pinot Noir lovers.”

Densely colored after the Pinots, and it helps if you relish a stanky wine. But don’t most of us who cherish Syrah make allowances for a certain tang of brett? 

I’d only ever tasted one vintage of this wine, and it was much lighter than what’s in my glass now. This is true, albeit it is slinkier and more vertical than its northern Rhône brethren. Varietally honest (blackberries, violets, peppercorns) but without the charcuterie sweetness that can make Syrah so enticing. It’s like someone told you “Inside of every Syrah is a little spindly skeleton that’s surprisingly strong, and when you taste the hickory-smokiness and the (Sarawak) peppercorns, that’s this skeleton rattling his bones.”

Some varietal sweetness emerges as the funk subsides. We’ll keep an eye on this guy, because it’s clearly more than a curiosity-project for Hanspeter. And on third glance, after being open 48 hours, there’s a streamlined element that seems to align fennel and mineral.

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2018 Ziereisen Jaspis  Syrah                                                          +

Quite dark in the glass, with aromas recalling Côte Rotie, which yes everyone always says but I can’t help that this time it’s true. In fact I’d be very happy to drink this presented as nearly any northern Rhône from a cool, fine vintage. (Alc. Is 13%, what bliss!)

Quite a panoply of aromas, sleek and stylish, and for this producer, rather polished and sophisticated. If it were a pedigreed Rhône wine we’d be thinking in terms of “altitude,” “shade,” and “breezes.” I think we’d also be incredibly happy.  We’re receiving a kind of list of flavors – expressly including cardamom – in a markedly transparent element; we’re getting all the savory sweetness we love in Rhône Syrahs but now it’s all coolly digital and improbably articulate.

We also have length, and class, and balance. To me this constitutes a laudable achievement, to get all the explications of Syrah without any of the associated sultriness. I’m not drinking hundreds of Syrahs per year, but I’d be shocked if anyone could show me one with this combination of virtues.

WHITE WINES:

As a group these were (even) more sous-voile than previous vintages I tasted. That said, unlike Jura wines (or those Austrian wines of Johannes Hirsch, which these resemble superficially) we’re looking at blissfully moderate alcohol levels ranging from 11-12.5%. Somewhat to my surprise, the best time to drink them was when they were opened. They “kept” perfectly well, but the aldehydic leesiness seemed to surmount the fruit after a day or two. 

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2018 Heugumber                                    glug-glug-glug! and      +

(The back label explains that this is Chasselas, a.k.a. “Gutedel”, and that “Heugumber” is “grasshopper.” It’s a wee fellow indeed, with 11% ABV.)

Even this light entry level wine isn’t steel-vinified and bottled before Three Kings Day. Thirteen months on its fine lees makes me think of Nikolaihof, where this easygoing guy would be quite at home.

Hanspeter’s whites seem to look to the Jura for their paradigms, and I have sometimes thought that they’d be among the best in the Jura, were they in fact located there. This wine, seriously, is just stupid-good, and I happen to know we can all afford it and that every restaurant on earth should be pouring it. The leesy savor is addictive, the walnut-oil umami will make a slave of you, the buoyancy will have you gulping the bottle down in record time. The finish is a gorgeously weird amalgam of ginger and hay and phyllo.

I haven’t tasted a more exciting wine yet today! All those stupendous Pinots and Syrahs, and this little dickens done stole my heart away.

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2019 Heugumber (Gutedel)                              glug-glug-glug!

Even their basic level of Gutedel is only bottled after 19 months in cask on the lees. Clearly these people are nuts.

I tasted the 2018 a few months ago; it was kind of them to send the new vintage. In common with most of Hanspeter’s whites, it’s decidedly leesy and shows a more or less vivid flor note. But while the bigger Gutedels are greater in affect, this one is content to be its nutty irresistible self, giving you an entirety of vinous delight with all of 11% alc.

Look, I love Gutedel (Chasselas) and I’ve hardly ever had one that wasn’t delectable, bearing in mind I haven’t had them randomly but rather from good growers who resisted the tendency for the wines to be attractive but mundane. This wine is anything but mundane, though it strikes me as a teeny bit more slight than was the ’18. But what a useless cavil that is! If I ever went to a restaurant that poured this by the glass, I’d never go to any other restaurant.

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2018 Viviser                                                                                      +

Not a site name but an archaic word for Chasselas, this wine spends up to two years in big barrels (3,000 liters); it comes from a high-elevation limestone site with a lot of wind. Each of the three vintages I’ve drunk has had a hint of Jurassien sous-voile character – which I accept. Still just 11% ABV, it’s not “bigger” than the Heugumber, but deeper and saltier. The vines are 35 years old now.

Think toasted nuts, basmati, brewer’s yeast over popcorn.  Light as it is, it’s almost too dense to glug – I tried! Admittedly I love Chasselas, and to quote a saying I cherish, “Doubtless God could have made a better Chasselas than this, but doubtless He never did.”

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2018 Steinkrügle                                                                              +

Still Chasselas, still (somehow) 11.5% ABV, longer cask-aging (and has the gold color to demonstrate it) and the closest thing to Meursault of anything that isn’t actually Meursault.

 

Hanspeter calls it “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and it can stand among my most precious white wines.

If you’re a wine-person seeking to amuse yourself, you will totally fuck your wine friends over when you serve this to them blind. You’re welcome.

This ’18 is leesier than the other vintages I’ve had, but it shares their fervent minerality. It has the mien of white Burgundy allied to a ridiculous drinkability no white Burgundy can offer. You can imagine a Burgundy vigneron returning from an excursion to the Jura, wondering what if……..

The limestone is taut here, and the butter is carefully browned, and some Grand Cru Chablis have this aroma, and these waters are deep but clear all the way down, yet the surface is as crazy-delicious as the toasted upper surface of a potato galette. With the finest nutty brown-butter for you to dip it in.

But drink it the day you open it, or maybe a day later if at least half the bottle remains. I nursed it over four days, and by the end it had grown unpleasantly beery, more (dubiously?) recherché than its forbears.

The following three were received later as a second batch.

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2018 Ziereisen Jaspis Gutedel 10(4) Alte Reben                           +

10,000 vines per hectare, hence “10-4” Perhaps Ziereisen’s most controversial wine, as he has likened it to a “Montrachet” and priced it accordingly. The vines were planted in 1968 and 2006, the alcohol is all the way up to 12% (!), and we are bathing in lees.

So, okay, just how good or great can Chasselas be?

 

This wine is certainly intense, feverishly so. It has that seethe of “important” wine. It’s hyper-expressive in all facets. Its length is overt; it clamors on the front of the palate, moderates in the middle and fades a bit in the back. That is finally the deciding factor for me. 

 

But what can you do but be stunned with admiration at the ballz of the ambition? And in fairness I need to let this spread its wings for a few days. I think I see what Hanspeter seeks to do here and I think he is partially, and intriguingly successful. But we must judge according to the task he’s set himself to, and I need more input.

 

Yet the wine didn’t really blossom, or perhaps more accurately, it didn’t add blossom to what was already there. 

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2019 Weißer Burgunder

There is one level above this, so let’s call it the “basic” wine insofar as anything at this winery is “basic.”

I just finished the last of a few bottles of 2018 I had in the cellar, and this one is much better. The flor aroma isn’t there, and in its place is a lovely, envelopingly toasty fragrance with a masa harina note, toasted corn, reminding me of Hiedler’s Maximum bottlings of PB (at least before climate-change hijacked their alcohols). The palate is suave and redolent of autumn squash but also fennel-pollen and chamomile. 

I’m also finding it compellingly drinky. That is, I find I want less to study it than to just take it to the table. I am also so happy that vintages actually do vary at Ziereisen; this is radically different than the ’18. If I hesitate at all before these whites, it’s that the flor thing is, in the end, boring, because it always tastes the same.

This wine has real vinosity, saltiness, and a farm-butter quality I find hard to resist. I want food with this wine because this wine is food in some elemental way. I don’t “thirst” for it; I HUNGER to drink it. So, we did take it to the table. The meal was roasted black cod (a.k.a. sable) in olive oil, with sautéed wild-gathered (by my sharp-eyed wife) chanterelles, puff-balls and black trumpets, brown jasmine rice and shredded napa cabbage. As I suspected, the wine was seamless and perfect, a true table wine.

I often wonder, if I place myself in the mind of the grower, what (s)he would rather hear. “I gave your wine 91 points in my tasting group,” or “My sister-in-law came for dinner and we roasted a fish and drank your wine and it was exactly the best wine to drink.”

I think we both know the answer, don’t we?

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2019 Grauer Burgunder

There are two levels above this. Also, Hanspeter told me he probably would never have planted white varieties at all except that his wife (Edel) insisted on it, and his own favorite variety is this one, Pinot Gris, probably due to its mass and muscle.

Its mass and muscle is much of the reason I’m cool toward the variety. Hanspeter and I had a wry discussion on this topic. One can approve of the idea of a truly dryPinot Gris with “only” 13.5% alc, but approving is one thing and relishing is another. I have full respect for this wine, but as a matter of true taste, I’d have to say it’s “good for those who like this kind of thing.” Maybe time and air will unlock elements that seem obtuse to me now.

Here are some things the wine is not: it isn’t brutish, it’s not overstated, not over-alcoholic, not clumsy, not crude, not overly massive. Not sweet. Also no sign of the flor thing we see in several other Ziereisen whites. And now a few things this wine is: it is seriously interior, implosive, and at first, obscure. It also impresses as blankin some way, as though one had painted a picture of a huge muscular person but forgot to draw the features on the face. Something tells me this will change, but…into what?