Varieties of a Lesser God

There are a few great varieties and a few terrible ones. However, most sit in the middle quality-wise and what gets in the bottle is totally on the shoulders of those that make the wines. Put a great variety in a great vineyard and it’s your fault if you screw it up. Put an ordinary variety in an ordinary vineyard and you better know what you’re doing if you’re going to make a good wine.

Such a variety is müller thurgau, the workhorse grape of Germany and the black sheep of Oregon winemaking. Perhaps its bad reputation in Oregon is understandable considering the simple, sugary wines that wineries made there over the decades. Producers were only interested in pumping out cheap, sweet grocery store wines selling for under $10 a bottle. The resulting bad reputation made müller thurgau the butt of the local joke:

What’s the leading cause of teen pregnancy in Oregon?
Answer: müller thurgau

Anyone who has tasted the wines of the great producer Rudolf Fürst in Germany’s Franken region understands that in the right hands this rather ordinary variety can produce a very, very good wine. His Pur Mineral Müller Thurgau is easily the finest example of this variety that I have tasted. It is dry as a bone with a mineral intensity hard to describe. Firm, elegant, racy and complex with a lacy flowery character that makes it both charming and briskly refreshing.

For the first time that I know of, there is an American producer taking a more serious stab at this variety and I’m sure the teenagers will hate it, but that you’ll love it. The 2007 Château Benoit Müller Thurgau Estate Vineyard, produced by Oregon’s Anne Amie Vineyards shows what can be done with such varieties when you actually try to make a good wine. In this case the combination of an outstanding winemaker, Thomas Houseman, and a passionate viticulturist, Jason Tosch made all the difference. By simply trying to make the best wine they could Houseman and Tosch have produced a lovely wine. It is on the drier side of off-dry with a charming bright, fresh fruity character laced with notes of fresh pineapple and wildflowers. It’s hard to think of a easier white wine for summer parties and picnics. It’s important to note that in vintages prior to 2007 you’ll find the Benoit more akin to those wines that spawned the joke mentioned above.

I do not intend to say this is a wine on the level of the Rudolf Fürst Pur Mineral Müller Thurgau, but it is a very good wine that is a pleasure to drink. What it proves that is that effort and attention pays off when it comes to varieties of a lesser god.

Wine Notes

Recent wines I’ve enjoyed:

  • Weiβburgunder, pur mineral, Trocken Franken, Fürst, 2006 - Pur mineral indeed.  This is a razor blade of wine with electric acidity and flavors that slap your taste buds awake. Served with fresh Dungeness crab it was an amazing match. It took me three days to finish this bottle and it never changed a bit.
  • Riesling, Winninger Uhlen Kabinett, Mosel Saar Ruwer, Freiherr von Heddesdorff, 2005 - Bright and refreshing and a wonderful aperitif. Clean apricot with just a hint of petrol, I enjoyed the first two glasses as an aperitif on two days after work and finished the bottle with some Thai carryout. I think it is better to drink this younger rather than cellaring it as it seems all about the fruit.
  • Pinot Noir, Littorai, Sonoma Coast, 2005 - One of the best California pinot noir wines I’ve tasted. Great balance, weight and structure. One of those pinots that deftly blends both bright fruit and funk into a wine of unending interest. The finish lasts longer than you can wait to take another sip.
  • Pinot Noir, Walter Hansel, Hansel Family Vineyards, Cahill Lane Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 2005 - An excellent pinot noir that had the unfortunate luck of being served next to the Littorai. However, this is an very good pinot noir that exhibits what could be called the best characteristics of a balanced California style. Rich without being jammy with an lush balance and a lingering finish.
  • Syrah, Dry Creek Valley, Michel-Schlumberger, 2005 - Appropriately big, but not over the top.  You won’t confuse this syrah with grape concentrate. Meaty and oaky with a firm structure and more than enough fruit to carry the alcohol. I liked this wine quite a bit as it’s so hard to find a California wine that knows how to be big with dignity.
  • Nebbiolo Langhe, Serralunga d’Alba, Germano Ettore, 2005 - A real classic angular nebbiolo with tannin to spare. So many nebbiolo wines these days seem to try do disguise themselves as zinfandels these days, it’s wonderful to taste a wine like this that lets the true character of its variety sing its own song. This wine will be much, much better in two or three years, but I drank my three bottles anyway. Note to self: buy more ASAP.
  • Rioja Riserva, Muga, 2003 - What’s the deal with Rioja? The overt oaky character that I would hate in most wines just seem to work in Rioja. Muga is one of the premier estates in Rioja and this wine does not disappoint. Fragrant and elegant with a sweet oaky character that slides silkily across the palate with an underlying acidity that lifts and brightens the rich oaky fruit.
  • Brandy, Germain Robin, Anno Domini 2000 - I’m a long time fan of the California brandies produced by Germain Robin, but I had not heard of their 2000 Anno Domini when a bartender friend recommended I give it a try. I was stunned at the quality of this brandy, which literally blows all the big commercial Cognac houses out of the water when it comes to quality. The depth and complexity displayed by this spirit cannot be overstated. Except for a few producers, buying Cognac is a waste of money these days when there are spirits like this outstanding brandy.