John Trombley on Wine



Some Notes On The Production Of The Jordan & Jordan 1999 Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese,
including some details of cellar technique never before discussed
Written and © copyright by John H. Trombley, Jr.
John Trombley on Wine

IN response to a question about the health of a certain lot of wine, which I assumed, was already merrily fermenting away in its barrel, Peter Jordan shared some of his initial cellar techniques on the way to the fermenter. Thought that they were unusual and interesting enough to share.

This method applies only to a TRUE TBA, one made from dried noble grapes, picked one at a time with enormous care and labor.

Peter obtained his approximately 440 pounds (200 Kg) of Trockenbeeren on the Scharzhofberg, in the famous old "Knepp plot in its historic heart that has been in der Familie for well over a hundred years The woods at the top of the conical hill look like a breaking wave hundreds of feet high, ready to rush over the workers. The tiny band of fifteen spent the whole ten-hour day, with an hour off for a sausage, in this 2-HA (5-acre) vineyard, spending perhaps 135 person-hours at it. If that were done flat-rate at Green Book prices, the labor bill would come to just about $10,000.) Picking was done this past Saturday, the 30th of October.

The results, the precious 200 kilograms, were carried back in small containers into Wiltingen to the cellars underneath the old Jesuit friary. The harvest consisted almost entirely of dried, leathery material, out of which it would have been hard to squeeze a single drop of juice.

There's no sense trying to press the grapes at this point, because you wouldn't get any juice. They need not be destemmed, either, because little stem material has been included. So another difficult decision and investment has to be made. That very evening, the Kellermeister unlocks the Schatzkammer. In he goes, and picks out a quantity of a previous, and extremely rare, Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese Eiswein from his Jordan and Jordan estate. He didn't share with me which one he chose*, but I'm sure it hurt. In order to 'prime the pump' so to speak, five liters, about fourteen half-bottles (that's a full liter for each 40 Kg of grapes), have to be deliberately sacrificed. At DM 125 a half-bottle ex-cellars this year, there goes another thousand dollars, conservatively. The grapes are disrupted with a crushing machine, and the Bacchus-libation of this precious fluid is added to the crushed, or more accurately, perhaps, torn-up grapes to loosen up and soften all that crystallized TBA must that's in the mass, or at least start it working. It now is the consistency of a stiff dark bread dough, or of moist loam. A light dose of sulfur is added, enough to stun bacteria but allow the vineyard yeasts, accustomed to sulfur through centuries of exposure. A blanket of the naturally-occurring inert noble gas, Argon, which is found naturally in our Earth's atmosphere, is spread over the mass. Then watchful waiting ensues, while biology takes over. Another winemaker might use a lesser wine, hoping that the final must-weight would still be high enough, but that's not the way things are done here. Indeed, there is an advantage to using a racy Eiswein—the steep total acidity figures of the Eiswein will not hurt the final balance of the wine at all, indeed, it will help to counteract the tendency of extremely ripe TBA grapes to sometimes be low in acid.

I can also imagine the other processes, beside softening and dissolution, are going on. are going on, like enzymatic liquefaction by the lysozymes in the grape cells, and the pectolytic enzymes in the grapes now breaking up their own pectins. In any event, the must is macerated on its skins in the cold cellar until this liquefaction takes place. Because the inherent grape enzymes which do this work, an eye must be kept on the temperatures. Too warm and problems can start. Too cool and the enzymes don't work.

This maceration process is one reason for the color of a true TBA -- very high extraction from the dissolving skins and even some seed extraction, and so lots of anthocyanins and even some tannins are to be expected.

WHEN I Email Peter Sunday to ask him how the must is doing, he replies that he can't even call it must yet, it's still vatting and not yet pressed. I write him back to ask what's up, and am advised to be patient, and another exchange finally elicits the information upon which this post is based.

NOW it's at least three days later: Tuesday, November second, All Soul's day, the day after the All Saint's holiday in Germany, and the mass has partially liquefied. Sometimes this can take up to a naibiting week, but we're finished with this step now. The winemaker can finally put it in two batches through a slow, gentle pressing with a small 100-kg-capacity hydropress. These pressings can take as long as ten to twelve hours each, and one can hear the must, falling drop by drop into the receiver, sounding for all the world like a leaky faucet at four in the morning. It must go slowly. The weakened seeds and bits of stems must not be further disrupted by an impatience, which would use more pressure than is good

Now he can finally measure his must weight to see if he's still in the TBA ballpark. In all of Germany, this means that the specific gravity of the must has to be over 1.150, heavier than water by a factor of 15 percent due to the dissolved sweetness and extract. This measurement is expressed, leaving off the 1 and the decimal point, as 150 degrees Oechsle. This is a potential natural alcohol of 18.8 percent, and means that the juice measures 31.8 percent Brix. These are MINIMUM figures, and we have yet to hear what this particular batch measures. Of course the wine will never ferment itself dry; the yeasts will stop working long before then, leaving some rich sugar and glycerin in the wine. This step of measurement was actually taken today. The total acidity is also checked to see if he can allow this lot to be declared a Trock. It won't be any good to do so unless there's sufficient counterbalance for the great natural sweetness. Other qualities must be searched for, too. At this time he gets to take a first tiny sip of the must and from that will know if the qualities for a great rare one are there. Some wines fail at this stage and are declassified to BAs. All this important stuff was completed in the last 24 hours while the rest of us went about our business. Now the must can be carefully moved by hand (NEVER with a mechanical pump, which can shear the mixture and disrupt the alchemy going on) to an old oak fermenting barrel. This will be an unusually small one, since there's so little to go into it, and it's going to be there for quite a while. A fermentation lock is put in place.

The marc from the press, still quite moist from its fluids (a fine maker would NEVER use anything but a first pressing), is precious and saved to create the fiery vanilla-honey tasting spirit of that name. Perhaps half the moisture in the press cake was left behind, another necessary sacrifice.

THESE wines are very reluctant fermenters in that cold cellar not only because of the temperature, but also because it's their own vineyard yeasts that dusted the skins while they were growing that will do the work, and not some genetically selected 'superyeast'. A natural ecologic relationship has already been born between the grapes and their yeasts over the long sunlit hours in the vineyard. Why destroy it? In addition, the Botrytis fungus, also part of that vineyard ecology, is thought by some to secrete an antibiotic complex known as botrycin, which slows the yeasts down further. Some of these wines struggle to achieve 5 percent alcohol. This one will be allowed to find its own balance, over a fermentation that will last many months in cask. The winemaker will intervene only to lightly sulfur the wine when fermentation has ceased of its own accord solely to protect the wine from oxidative stress once it's been bottled. Then an inert gas will be used to cover the wine and it 'percolates' some more.

You will immediately see the reason why these wines have to be aged in bottle like Vintage Porto. All these strong extractive flavors have to meld in bottle, in a molecular dance not really understood, to help form a truly drinkable wine. That's why you don't open one of these bottles to check how it's doing in 5 or 10 years.

Meanwhile, this wine will be allowed to 'fall bright' by itself, a difficult process with a liquid so thick and high in specific gravity, and will be moved only once, and that is to be bottled off the lees.

So the results? Perhaps 60 liters of precious stuff, a bit over six cases or eighty precious bottles in which he has just invested maybe $11,000 hard cash (not counting the expense of maintaining the vineyards and growing the grapes, to say nothing of the value of his own time). Of course these are my rough estimates, not Peter's, but they figure out to about $70 out of pocket for every HALF bottle, just to bring the grapes in and crush them.

Incidentally, a wine such as this is a very recent thing in the Mosel Saar Ruwer. Such wines have been made on the Rheingau since early in the nineteenth century, and perhaps by accident before that. They were then called

'Spätlese', a term so debased by modern usage that it is nearly devoid of meaning. However, in the Mosel Saar Ruwer, no grower would allow his grapes to hang so long. There was simply no market for sweet wines. It was only after the Second World War that practices began to be changed, in part due to changes in the law, which encouraged the change from the almost entirely bone-dry MSR wine to one with considerable residual sugar, which was needed to cover up the lack of substance that resulted when extreme overcropping, unsuitable cultivars, and the plantation to sites better suited to potatoes than Riesling. This tendency to debase the MSR wine goes on today, and one wonders where it will stop. The average Mosel Riesling is less than half Riesling, and it is produced in such great quantities without regard to quality that the current bulk market for a "Riesing Spätlese" per bottle is thirty cents, about the same as good quality bulk spring water, which it resembles (except for the sweetness and unripe acidity).

Even most commercial "TBAs" are degraded by being made by harvesting whole bunches and not grape by grape, in an effort to save some money, and if there is a small deficit in ripeness that can be made up by adding concentrated sterilized frozen grape juice. This is possible because the 1971 wine laws defined Trockenbeerenauslese by sugar content, instead of by harvest methods. A TBA produced by a cooperative has the added advantage of being able to use a majority of quick-ripening but inferior hybridized grapes instead of the late-ripening, but completely superior, Riesling, and to plant them just about anywhere there's a scrap of waste land. No slate or vertiginous vineyards are required at all, and as a matter of fact many of the anciently planted steep vineyard sites are being abandoned as losing propositions, the old Riesling vines being killed by brambles. Such a process is quite evidently in full swing to the traveler on the train from Koblenz to Trier. Unless the vineyard has a famous name overseas that will command high dollars, it matters not what qualities it has.

The harvest of this particular batch of grapes from the Scharzhofberg has possibly another fortunate effect: the following day, Sunday, another harvest, this time of bunches from which the botrytized TBA grapes had been removed, will provide the basis for an unusual Long Gold Capsule Auslese Trocken. Botrytis can be a foreign flavor in a dry wine if too much is there, and the grapes without botrytis had started to shrivel in the autumn dry and windy warmth up on the hillside so that they were impressively ripe, well over 100 degrees Oechsle. In this wine, if it is made successfully, we should have the pure clear signal that says to the winelover, 'this wine comes from the old Scharzhofberger', and the calcitic composites in the soil will encourage the production of substances that are responsible for the highly prized flavors of this world-class vineyard.

True TBAs by historic standards are NOT an economic proposition, but a real gift from the winemaker to posterity. The price of the bottle is just our way of saying we recognize that this stuff is to be savored sip by sip after long cellaring, and not swilled down casually.

What will a fortunate taster experience, twenty years from now? Even in the bottle the wine will be thick and rich in color. As soon as the cork is removed, the perfume of the wine will shoot throughout the room , and people who know nothing of what is going on will look up quizzically. The wine will pour with the consistency of maple syrup, but there's no need for very much in the glass. The merest drops are all a human mouth can assimilate at once. Both the scents and flavors are so complex, so forceful, yet so delightfully poised, that they defy description. It's actually difficult to taste such a wine with anyone else in the room, since nothing can add to the experience, and capturing it in a tasting note, which is very hard work at a moment like that, requires a protean and poetic vocabulary. Not only that, but the wine changes from moment to moment, and it brushes its fingers across places in memory, calling forth poignant scents from early childhood that had and have no name.

The flavors linger in the mouth almost indefinitely, continuing their kaleidoscopic change. No other human experience compares with it. I have been known to linger the entire night over a small half-bottle, kept vividly awake in a state of consciousness which only can be hinted at. It's not all pure pleasure, either, but as rich as life itself should be.

Although I have spoken for two bottles of this liquid gold, I may not live to taste it I have hopes, however ...

Cheers, John

* Later on, I found out that the wine used was the 1995 Wiltinger Braunfels Riesling Eiswein, which could have been legally sold as a Trockenbeerenauslese, with its unusually, indeed record, high must weight. A tasting note follows from my trip to Germany in October 1999:

This wine was tasted last Tuesday night, October 5th with Peter Jordan (the owner), in his library, and I'll just intersperse my notes with the comments Peter had about the wine.

Wiltinger Braunfels Riesling Eiswein 1995; note that we had the '94 Beerenauslese from the same vineyard on Sunday. There you will perhaps remember that the Braunfels is a pure slate vineyard with a higher amount of loam than the others in the vicinity. These wines are therefore quite typical Mosel Saar Ruwer wines but they only whisper 'Saar', being broader and more accessible.

This wine was picked at 151 degrees Oechsle and fermentation stopped at 10 percent. No botrytis was evident at picking; date of harvest an early 11/6. (Peter says that to avoid inclusion of botrytis grapes the vineyard was deliberately pre-harvested to remove them.) The temperature at harvest time was -12 degrees C (10 degrees F). This wine had a MSR must weight record for this harvest. (Those of you who read know that there is a good correlation between must weight and temperature at press time which is expressed by a simple mathematical relationship.) The wine sells for DM250/750 mL. This is equivalent to about $65 for a half bottle ex cellars.

The wine has that deep copper again with those pink hues (I think that an enterprising taster might pick out a Jordan wine by that fact alone). High sulfur at opening (deliberately added for technical reasons as an oxidative reserve, says Peter.) After airing, I could have sworn this wine was full of botrytis, because of its 'sproingy' honey-and-petrol nose, with lots of flintiness when the sulfur has blown off. There are apples and butter in the scent (or would that be more correctly an apple-butter scent with a bit of yeastiness?) The wine is well balanced to sweetness (the sweetness coming across as a rather delicate component); acids astonishingly malic (apple-like) for such a ripe wine. Viscosity is very thick. Finish is very, very long and tart. The wine is just a touch clumsy at this stage, and is less enjoyable than the 1994 Beerenauslese. Perhaps the 'faux botrytis' impression is due to the vineyard style, also. ****, but perhaps in 10 years I'll like it better. It lacks the transparency and focus that are so typical of Peter's dry wines but there will be plenty of time for further development, as noted.

By the way, there were some technical questions about Eisweins, and Peter spent some time discussing them. There is a common conception that the later an Eiswein is harvested, the better must be, and we are always encouraged to hear of wines harvested on Christmas or Epiphany day (Dreikonigenweine, January 6th), as if that made them something really special. In reality, Peter says, it is much better to look for an early hard frost, because it is almost impossible to keep the grapes fully healthy in most years beyond the end of November. Doing so often leads to the inclusion of some unwelcome flavors and especially scents in the Eiswein musts, which causes the winemaker to try to remove them with activated charcoal fining. This process of course removes the desirable flavors unselectively also with the undesirable ones, even though activated charcoal holds the reputation among some winemakers of being a benign treatment. Peter says that if he can't harvest a healthy Eiswein, the grapes are allowed to rot in place and are not picked. From my tastings of his Eisweins, I must agree with him.

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