A Winemakers’ Oktoberfest
Photos by Sasha Antonov
While Munich is drowning in hops for its Oktoberfest, the more serious business of grape harvest begins in western Germany along the Rhine and Mosel rivers. And though Munich now celebrates Oktoberfest in September to accommodate the weather (and tourists), nature has its own schedule, and serious German winemakers must patiently wait and watch the sugar levels of their Riesling grapes. Though the German grape harvest may actually begin in September, grapes for the best wines are taken during a few weeks in October. In a lucky year, the “noble rot” will take some grapes that will produce Germany’s great intense, very sweet and rich dessert wines.
Left to Right: Michaela Steinhauer, John Ortega, George Ocean, Jeff Combs
When we decided to have our own German Oktoberfest in Moscow, this presented a number of challenges: Could we really find good German wines in Moscow? Would our wine tasters be able to judge them? Was there a German restaurant to accommodate us? The answers: Maybe, yes, and no respectively.
Our difficulties started with the restaurant. Though there are a number of reasonable German restaurants in Moscow, beer appears to be their forte, and Oktoberfest is actually (and logically) celebrated in October in Moscow. Hence, these restaurants would be full and noisy. We finally settled on Simple Pleasures, an aptly named location for our type of Oktoberfest.
German wines fall into a class by themselves; they are almost entirely white, usually made from Riesling grapes, and are commonly perceived as “sweet.” Unfortunately, almost all the German wines you will find in a Moscow supermarket are mass-market German wines such as Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun. These are German wines in the same sense that Chianti in a straw-wrapped bottle is Italian. I have never bought one in Moscow and probably never will.
The “real” German wines are something else. The steep banks and cliffs above the Rhine and Mosel river are lined with hundreds of small estates, and many wineries are tiny with less than a hectare of vineyards. Only a trip along these rivers, one of the most beautiful drives in Europe, will provide you with the opportunity to partake of the simple pleasures of these wines. The wines are inexpensive and wonderful to enjoy on a sunny, fall day. I have fond memories of just such a trip with a couple of Russian winemakers in the mid-90s.
There are larger, good and excellent wineries in Germany’s wine areas, and the wines of some of these have found their way to Moscow’s wine boutiques. John Ortega made the harvest of the usual boutiques on Kutuzovsky to round up our selections for this tasting. This produced a reasonable selection of well-known producers. The prices for the fifteen bottles we tried ranged from about $15.50 to $81.00. Surprisingly (or not for Moscow), some of the best wines were priced at the lower levels, and one of the more expensive, at $60, had the most dismal of scores, though it did come in a pretty flask-type bottle.
To judge a German wine, it is necessary to set aside globalism – in the form of the worldwide tendency of winemakers to emulate California Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay or French Bordeaux. A German wine is a white wine, with a perceived sweetness that may not actually be sugar, but a pleasant balance of acidity and flavor. The three principal classifications of quality German wines are Kabinett, Spatlese, and Auslese. These generally correspond to harvest date – the Kabinett (also Trocken) being earlier, with Auslese from selected late harvest, high sugar ripened grapes. There are other grapes grown in this region, notably Muller-Thurgau, Gewurtztraminer – which is particularly well-matched with spicy food – and even an Ortega grape that is known for its extremely high sugar content.
We started with a broad selection of the Kabinett and worked our way up through the Spatlese and Auslese. The tasting was topped off with dinner at Simple Pleasures – despite the fact that our German wine tasting, particularly one ending with several Auslese wines, was like starting with the dessert course. Fortunately, Simple Pleasures, a personal favorite in Moscow in both form and substance, is always prepared to provide a suitable balance for every occasion, in this case our own special Winemakers’ Oktoberfest.
LOCAL WINE OF THE MONTH
Tsimlanskoye Red Sparkling Wine (Cossack Method)
Tsimlanskoye Winery, Rostov Region
Sweet, red sparkling wine produced by an old Cossack method
It’s getting to be sparkling wine season in Russia. Although most of the cheap Sovietskoye Shampanskoye sold in Moscow is actually made from imported bulk wines that have been put through the USSR’s trademark “reservoir” process, there are several very good authentic Russia sparkling wines. Without question, the sparkling wines of Tsimlanskoye Winery are the most original and unusual. Tsimlanskoye Winery is located in Rostov region near Volgadonsk, on the lake formed by the canal that was constructed to connect the Volga and Don rivers. Tsimlanskoye’s premium sparkling is a deep purple-red, sweet wine produced by an “old Cossack method (kazache sposob)” from local grapes such as Tsimlanski Chorny. I have found this wine at Sedmoi Kontinent during the holiday season, but it quickly disappears from the shelves. This is definitely an authentic Russian gift item to take home.
- Charles Borden, Director, Meridian Capital
- Jeff Kershaw, Vice President, Noble Gibbons
- Michaela Steinhauer, Jazz Musician
- John Ortega, Publisher, Passport Magazine
- Jeff Combs, Director, NCI Telecommunications
- Eric Boone, Consultant – Corporate Services, Colliers International
- Tony Wong, Director, Schering-Plough Russia
- David Klein, Partner, Helvig, Klein, Usov
- George Ocean, Director, Ocean LTD
Ortega Easy Rating System
||I love this wine|
||I really like this wine|
||This wine is good|
||This wine is not that good|
||I don’t really care for this wine|
|TASTING NOTES: KABINETT/TROCKEN
WeinHaus Ress, Hattenheim (Rheingau) 2003, 441 rub, $15.53
Balthasar Ress, Hattenheim (Rheingau) 2003, 609 rub, $21.44
Wittman Morstein Westhofen (Rheinhessen) 2003, 2310rub, $81.34
Rappenhof Herrenberg, Oppenheim (Rheinhessen) 2002, 533 rub, $18.77
Schloss Saarstein, Serrig (Mosel Saar Ruwer), Kabinett 2002, 731 rub, $25.74
Himmelreich Max Ferd Richter, Grach (Mittelmosel) 2000, 685 rub, $24.12
Scharzhofberger 2002, 1674 rub, $58.94
Weingut Dr. Loosen, Mosel (Mosel Saar Ruwer) 2003, 910 rub, $32.04
TASTING NOTES: SPATLESE
Weingut Dr. Loosen, Mosel (Mosel Saar Ruwer) 2003, 1000 rub, $35.21
Ress Berg Rottland, Rudesheim (Rheingau) 1996, 1033 rub, $36.37
Kieselberg, Deidesheim (Pfalz) 2001, 1140 rub, $40.14
Franken, Franken 2001, 1690 rub, $59.51
TASTING NOTES: AUSLESE
Marimin Grunhauser Abtsberg 1999, 890 rub, $31.34
Ress Nussbrunnen, Hattenheim 2001, 1890 rub, $66.55
Reiterpfab Plaza, Ruppertesberger (Pfalz) 2000, 1540 rub, $54.23
Key: Shown above are winery, village (district), harvest year, ruble price, equivalent USD, and rating.