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The Winemaker Dinner

One of the traditional ways to market and sell your wine was, and always will be, to organize a Winemaker Dinner. Essentially you try to attract a number of key customers to come and break bread with you. They taste and enjoy your wines, and you strengthen your relationship because you just fed them delectable food and poured copious quantities of expensive wines. It often ends with everyone getting inebriated and, at the end of the night, expressing their love for one-another. My company employed this tactic ALOT.

But this term “Winemaker Dinner” can be a tad misleading. Because more often than not there is no winemaker within 8,000 miles of the fancy private room at the 5 star hotel. No, YOU are playing “Winemaker” for the evening, because the real one doesn’t speak English and frankly his personality might put buyers off.

In our case we would bring vintages of all our own chateaux dating back to 1952. There would be a 20 year vertical of most estates available for tasting pre-dinner, along with a handful of the 1st growths that we brought along for prestige, and to get the most stubborn buyers to come out. And then, at dinner, we would serve 2 wines with each course, and aim for 5 courses. The wines were spectacular. Yes, we did it up real grande baby. No expense spared. My boss knew how to do it right, and when he and his gorgeous wife came on a trip it was like royalty had arrived.

The results were staggering. We created a brand image that was second to none. Buyers were impressed. One morning back in the office in Bordeaux we woke up to an 18,000 case order from our main Japanese importer, for immediate collection. So the moral of the Winemaker Dinner story is that if you are going to do it then GO BIG and make a splash, otherwise it could even work against you if Buyers are not wowed.

But no two Winemaker Dinners are ever quite alike. In London they expect someone to speak with insight and intellect, humor and quick wit, and the guests are always politely silent during the speeches. In Detroit you better make it short and sweet before the crowd starts chattering, and you can blatantly request that people fill out the order form NOW. And in Tokyo, well, you get ready for the toasts. About every 15 minutes, and with increasing frequency, someone in Japan proposes a toast. Yes darling, sometimes it’s Bottoms Up. This requires a lightening fast evaluation of the terroir expression in your glass, filled to the brim for the toast.

To call this work for some people would seem like a joke. But in fact there is a skill in the organization of a Winemaker dinner. You need to ensure the food and wine are paired well by speaking to the chef in advance and ideally sampling him on the wines and making menu suggestions. Seating arrangements must be carefully done so the biggest Buyers are made to feel important and not seated with competitors. Speeches need to be mentally prepared so they look off-the-cuff, and should be tailored to the audience and their level of knowledge, as well as the occasion. Every guest should be welcomed personally and an effort made to talk to each of them, even if it is much more tempting to stay slumped in a chair guzzling Cheval Blanc with your chatty neighbor. And inevitably you meet a dozen people so you need to scribble down what you promised them on their business card otherwise in the morning the follow-up is a disaster. Ok it wasn’t quite as elaborate as Chanel launching their Spring Collection, but a lot of work went into a successful event.

Finally, after the dinner is officially over, you must invite the stragglers to the closest bar for more wine, and more toasts. But you yourself must never totally lose the plot because you might end up having to carry your Japanese importer home. And yes, it was him with the 18,000 case order.

Temperature Control – Chateau Recougne, Bordeaux Superieur, 1993 harvest

Once the cellar was safe to enter we went in and got ready for the day ahead. The first job was to take the temperature of each tank, which was a good way to start the day as it required zero intelligence or physical effort. In most cellars these days it would be as simple as looking at the gleaming computer panels that display the precise temperature of each tank, but no, in my cellar there were no computers. The vats were cooled by wrapping a hose around the neck of the tank, and then puncturing the hose so that cold water trickled out. Very sophisticated…

That said, temperature control during fermentation is still done in remarkable ways in some parts of the world. In the Alentejo in Portugal there are still producers that use huge clay pots which they burry underground to keep the wine cool. In Canada some producers put tanks or bins on forklifts and move them outside at night to cool ferments down. And I’ve seen producers add large blocks of ice into a tank too – no names mentioned.

Of course temperature control has become such a critical metric in managing fermentations.

You can use cooling to cold soak must on arrival at the winery. You can keep ferments moving at a nice pace by preventing them from taking off and spiking in reds over 35 C which would likely result in a stuck fermentation. Of course in white wines it is even more important, especially for aromatic whites like Sauvignon Blanc done unoaked in tank. Cold temperatures can help preserve the vibrant youthful aromatics.

RIESLING – the best white grape in the world?

Riesling produces some of the most spectacular white wines in the world. If you want to see a wine lover get really excited then open up an old vintage Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace or a fine Mosel from Germany. In my opinion, drinking a top quality Riesling is one of the greatest experiences in wine. It’s heavenly.

Outstanding quality Riesling is a model of purity. The taste reflects the nature of vineyard where the grapes were grown. The fact that they are not aged in new oak enables the character of the grapes to shine, and in a fine Mosel you can taste some of the minerally nuances that come from the blue slate soils.

Very few other grapes show the complexity that you can find in Riesling and the depth and layers can be astonishing as they unfold on the nose and in your mouth. I’ve constantly got my nose hovering over the glass because there are so many lovely nuances to enjoy with each sniff.

Riesling also produces wines with incredible longevity, more than almost every other grape. In some of the cellars in Germany you’ll find stocks of wines going back over 100 years.

It’s with age that the wines really start to shine because it takes time for the complex nuances to evolve. With a few decades of maturity you can find a combination of elegance and power, delicacy and intensity, and a vast spectrum of flavors and nuances. And to cap it all off, Riesling refreshes the parts that other wines don’t reach.

So, where are the classic regions and what should you buy? If you like dry white wines then Alsace is the classic area for outstanding Riesling. It’s situated in north eastern France, just across the Rhine River from Germany. I love it here because there are so many small family-owned wineries that have been making stunning wines for hundreds of years. In fact, it’s my favorite region in the world for white wines, which include the fabulous Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers.

The towns and villages can resemble something out of Hansel and Gretel. Think thatched roofs, cobblestone streets, small cozy restaurants, and everyone seems to know each other so there’s much kissing and a constant exchange of “bonjour” as the locals go about their business.

Alsace produces wines that are much fuller in body and higher in alcohol compared to the Mosel in Germany. This is largely thanks to the dry and sunny climate that is the result of the rain shadow effect of the Vosges Mountains, which are high enough to ski on. So most of the Rieslings are in the 12-14% alcohol range, are typically medium in body, dry, and have crisp acidity. The aromas and flavors can include a beautiful citrus and green apple note, with a hint of ripe peach, and a touch of the classic petrol aroma that develops with age. The top wines inevitably have a streak of minerality that’s to die for, and the length that can last for hours.

My favorite producers are Domaine Weinbach, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht and Ostertag. But there are so many other excellent producers like the reasonably priced wines from the co-op Pfaffenheim. One of the tricks to buying good Riesling is to buy Grand Cru, which can retail for around $30 per bottle all the way up to $100+. And if you’re keen on specific recommendations then you can’t do much better than the Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile, the Weinbach Grand Cru Schlossberg, and if you are looking for rich, fat and powerful wines then Olivier Humbrecht is your man.

Alsace also produces a late-harvest style of Riesling called Vendange Tardive and, in exceptional years, a sweet botrytis effected wine called SGN, standing for Selection de Grains Nobles. One of the greatest bottles I ever had was from Domaine Ostertag, whose sweet wine showed sublime flavors of honey, pineapple and apricot with just the perfect amount of acidity to counter-balance the sweetness. That’s the art of achieving balance in sweet wines.    

Another classic Riesling producer is, of course, Germany, albeit in a totally different style. Most of the wines are sweeter, to one degree or another, and have less body, lower alcohol and more delicacy. That said, there is a strong movement towards dry wines, called Trocken, and so the old adage that German wines are sweet is no longer true. Regardless, they can age for decades, and once upon a time they were the most expensive white wines in the world.

My favorite region is the Mosel where the wines can be as low as 7.5% in alcohol, which means you get to enjoy more of them whilst still remaining coherent. What never ceases to amaze me is the steepness of the slopes in the Mosel, which are not far off being precipitous cliffs. The angle and aspect of the slopes is all important because you are so far north that ripening grapes can be a challenge. Exposure to the sun is critical here.

Buying wine from Germany can be a challenge because the labels have so much complex terminology on them. The key words that I always look for relate to the level of sweetness you will likely find in the wine, and that is determined by the so called Pradikat level. You see, German wines are classified according to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest time.

If a producer picks some grapes earlier in the season, at lower sugar levels, the wine could be classed as a Kabinett, which is typically the driest of the Pradikat levels. If you leave the grapes on the vine for longer and pick later, when there is more sugar, the wine could be classified as a Spatlese which are usually a touch sweeter. Then comes Auslese which is generally a pretty sweet wine.

But there is a trend in Germany to produce drier wines and so you need to watch out for the word “trocken” on the label, which means dry. You see it is feasible to find some Auslese trocken wines, which means that the winemaker has picked the grapes at Auslese sweetness but then fermented it into a dry style. German wine labeling can be so complicated that you’ll need a glass or two just to recover from the brain strain.

And yes, there are other categories too, including an even sweeter Beerenauslese and then Trockenbeerenauslese, which are botrytis effected sweet wines. Icewine is also made in vintages when it gets colder than -8 degrees Celsius.

My favorite wineries are Dr. Loosen, Fritz Haag, JJ Prum, Dr Thanisch, Selbach Oster and Egon Muller. For a life altering experience try to get your hands on a Spatlese or Auslese with a few decades of age and feel the acidity dance across your tongue as the ripe stone fruit and honey flavors seduce you.

You can’t talk about Germany without mentioning the Rheingau, which is the other classic region for Riesling, and lies just outside Frankfurt. The Rheingau is home to some of the oldest and most famous wine growing estates in the world. Because it is a little warmer here the wines tend to have a touch more body and alcohol compared to the Mosel. One of my favorite places to visit is Schloss Johannisberg. They have a lovely restaurant where you can sit on the terrace and feast on asparagus, a specialty in Germany, and drink copious amounts of divine low alcohol Riesling.

Australia is another major player on the Riesling scene. The Clare and Eden valleys are the classic areas for high quality Rieslings. They are certainly in a very different style to the German wines in that they are very dry and often so sharply acidic that they can taste austere. But they can be excellent quality, with flavors of lime juice, a petrolly character, and a piercing acidity that certainly refreshes under the hot sun. Grosset, Yalumba, and Heggies all produce good wines.

Speaking of Canada, we do make some fantastic Riesling, especially in Ontario. Although it’s the preferred grape for icewine production, there are many versions in a dry to off dry style. I have always admired Cave Spring winery because they have this beautiful delicacy in their wines, and are often leaning closer to a Germanic style.  

Closer to home, I’m a huge fan of Tantalus winery out in the Okanagan. The vineyard is on the outskirts of Kelowna and was planted back in 1978. The only problem is that it seems to evaporate in the glass. I love the almost dry style, the racy acidity, and the combination of lime juice and stone fruit flavors. The label design is perfect for British Columbia, with depictions of the masks worn by the original native settlers.

So when it comes to Riesling I would buy the dry wines from Alsace and the sweeter wines from Germany. I would definitely try to find some older vintages and be on the look-out for Grand Cru designations on the labels. As an alternative, I might venture off to Australia or stay closer to home in Canada, just for a change of scene.

In terms of food and wine pairing the dry or off-dry wines can be delicious all by themselves, but usually pair well with seafood like scallops, prawns, crab cakes and white fish. When you find wines with a touch more sweetness then start thinking about spicy dishes such as many Asian foods, especially Thai dishes, because you need intensely flavored wines to stand up to the strong flavors of the food. All this is making me very hungry and thirsty.

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SUGGESTED FOOD AND WINE PAIRING

Style — Winery — Pairing

Dry Riesling — Tantalus Old Vines, Okanagan — Prawns, scallops, goat’s cheese

Off-dry Riesling — Selbach Oster Kabinett — Sushi, German sausages

Medium sweet — Dr Loosen Spatlese — Spicy Thai chicken curry

Sweet — Fritz Haag Auslese — Fresh fruit plate

Dry Riesling — Domaine Weinbach, Alsace — Munster cheese