Oh, what a treat…but not without a bit of risk.
I’m talking about buying a bottle – a half-bottle, in fact – of Eiswein (better know as Ice Wine to the English-speaking crowd). A bottle of Riesling Eiswein, in itself, would not be such a big deal, but this particular bottle is from the 2000 vintage, so it had nearly 18 years of bottle age already when I picked it up for a small fortune at one of my favourite local wine retailers (who also happens to be a Riesling specialist).
I haven’t had much experience with aged Eiswein, and the 2000 vintage was not an easy one. This contributed to the perceived riskiness of the purchase.
After being brought home, the little bottle swiftly disappeared into my “cellar” for the next 19 months. Biding its time until an appropriate occasion presented itself, where an appreciative audience could (hopefully) coo about its sweet hedonistic gifts. But, as with so many bottles saved for a “special occasion”, the time just never seemed right. So, one day, I opened it for the most appreciative audience of all: myself. Okay, I shared it, too, but it was essentially for myself.
The wine is from Germany’s Rheingau, found on the Rhein west of Mainz (which is, itself, west of Frankfurt). The producer, Peter Jakob Kühn, has a family winemaking tradition stretching back 230 years, though the estate carries the name of the current family patriarch. Biodynamic since 2004, and a member of Germany’s vaunted VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter) since 2002, at the time of the creation of this Eiswein, the family was operating completely conventionally in the vineyards.
When I finally cut the capsule on the wine, I was, frankly, shocked, dismayed and more than a little worried to see that the closure they had used was an artificial cork. These are rarely good for long-term storage. Finding it used on an ultra-premium wine that lives from primary fruit flavours, I was seriously concerned. Pouring the wine and seeing its toffee colour only heightened my trepidation.
And then I tried it.
What an extraordinary, unexpected wine!
The Tasting Note
A precise, clean nose of lime confiture, burnt sugar and and buttertart from my grandmother’s oven. Saffron and rum tantalise and tease, while ginger and salt caramel are more assertive. But the palate? A voluptuous expanse of candied lime peel, pear jam and red currant – followed with dried cranberry.
Intense. Long. Vibrantly fresh. Sweet, but not remotely as sweet as expected – particularly considering the colour, which is so, so reminiscent of that syrupy Pedro Ximinez from Jerez.
Talking to Peter Bernhard
Naturally, I wanted to learn a bit more about the wine and the circumstances surrounding its birth. Why was it so dark? Why that awful cork?
I phoned the estate and got Angela Kühn, the family matriarch. She passed me immediately to her son, the current winemaker and heir to the throne, as it were: Peter Bernhard. Peter Bernhard is all winemaker; in fact, he is likely a bit of a PR Agent’s nightmare. Great for a journalist to talk to, though.
As it turns out, the estate had a run of terrible corks in the 90s (sound familiar, New Zealand?), leading to the decision to move away from natural cork entirely. New alternatives were tried out, including Stelvin and screwcaps. In 2000 there were not as many alternatives on the market as today. That artificial cork was simply one of the attempts.
The colour? Even though the estate was not yet biodynamic in 2000, the wines were only minimally sulphured. This does play a role for the colour, which oxidises easily.
The wine is a product of the 2000 vintage, which was very difficult – in stark contrast to 2004, which was a clean, classic vintage for Eiswein, as well as being the last vintage of Eiswein made by the estate. In 2000, there was a lot of rain in the fall – which was both damp and warm. This created perfect conditions for rot. Selection in the vineyard was critical and brutal: Eiswein is harvested at one time; there are no successive passes through the vineyard.
Peter Berhnard says, himself, that the 2000 “limps” in comparison to the 2004. But if this is the case, I neither noticed nor cared. On the contrary; I often prefer the complicated vintages from good producers. That’s where you get the most interesting wines. That’s when the wines really have something to say, even if – or particularly if – they need time to say it. And that’s where you can see who’s working effectively, who’s making hard choices. Anybody can make a good wine in a good vintage. But beauty is not always easy, nor is it always conventional.
The wine was lightly fined and filtered before bottling – rather essential with low sulphur use if the wine is sweet, since microbiological stability is critical with sweet wines to prevent a secondary fermentation after bottling, among other potential problems.
To read more about Eiswein, see my post here.
The One-Line Takeaway
If you want your horizons broadened, try this wine – if you can find it.