Monday, April 8, 2013

Reflections on Old Vines Riesling

German vintner Nik Weis

Producers and consumers of Riesling from the Okanagan owe a debt to a fine Riesling producer in Germany’s Mosel region, Weingut St. Urbans-Hof.

I was reminded of the connection when I met with Nik Weis Jr., the proprietor of St. Urbans-Hof during the Vancouver International Wine Festival; and then visited two Kelowna wineries with Riesling plantings that originated with Nik’s grandfather.

The grandfather was Nikolaus Weis, a one-time shoemaker who decided in 1947 to establish a winery and a vine nursery in the Mosel village of Leiwen. Among other accomplishments, he identified a particularly good strain of Riesling. It came to be known as the Weis clone or Clone 21-B.

Subsequently, Nik Jr.’s father, Hermann, sold the clone to other German vineyards and to vineyards around the world, including vineyards in Canada. In 1979, Hermann invested in the development of Vineland Estates Winery in Ontario, primarily as a demonstration project for clone 21-B. By the time he sold his interest in 1992, numerous vineyards in Ontario and in British Columbia were growing 21-B.

In the Kelowna area, there are at least two blocks of 35-year-old vines of the Weis clone Riesling – one at Tantalus Vineyards and the other just a few kilometres away, at St. Hubertus Estate Winery. These are two of the oldest vineyards in the Kelowna area. They were planted initially about 1927 by J.W. Hughes who subsequently sold them to his foremen.

In the 1970s, both vineyards were selling grapes to a Victoria winery, called Jordan & Ste. Michelle which employed several German winemakers. They recommended that these vineyards should plant Riesling. Since Jordan had a winery in Ontario as well at the time, it is likely they were dealing with Hermann Weis there as well.

In any event, clone 21-B came to the Okanagan in 1978. It took much longer to have an impact here than in Ontario where stunning Rieslings had soon emerged from Vineland and other wineries. (And they continue to emerge: Ontario producers excellent Riesling wines.)

In the 1970s, the most widely planted white in the Okanagan was a labrusca hybrid called Okanagan Riesling. The wines were mediocre but they also crowded out genuine Riesling until 1988, when most hybrids were pulled out.

But genuine Riesling had fallen out of fashion. When Nik Weis Jr. graduated from Geisenheim in 1997 and joined his family in selling wine, it was a tough slog.

“There was no German wine section in liquor stores,” he says, remembering sales trips to Canada.

By coincidence, in 1997, Sue Dulik, opened a winery on the property now owned by Tantalus. Her grandfather, Martin, was one of those foremen who bought a J.W. Hughes vineyard. Her father, Den, was running it when clone 21-B was planted.

Sue chose to call her winery Pinot Reach Cellars because she wanted to concentrate on the Pinot varieties. That certainly tells you that the Riesling market was not perceived very robust. However, her winemaker was Roger Wong (now the owner of Intrique Wines) who is a Riesling partisan. Pinot Reach made several vintages of Old Vines Riesling. When British wine writer Jancis Robinson first tasted it, she raved about it. Sue regretted the choice of winery name, which became academic when the Dulik family sold the vineyard and the winery in 1994.

Fast forward to today’s environment for Riesling. When Nik Weis Jr. goes into wine stores now, he finds shelves stocked with German Rieslings. There are 72 listed in British Columbia alone.

 “The presence of Riesling has increased,” he says, explaining that “the presence of good Riesling has increased.”

That is everywhere Riesling is enjoyed. “In the 1990s, even Germans did not drink much German wine in their restaurants,” Nik recalls. “Today, it is the most important category.”

Weingut St. Urbans-Hof produces 25,000 cases of estate-grown Riesling and a similar volume from purchased grapes. Urban Riesling 2011 ($18.49) is a crisp and refreshing Riesling in the British Columbia market. Up-market estate Rieslings include Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett 2011 ($30), a lovely expression of the variety, with notes of lime, apple and peach.

Vancouver investment dealer Eric Savics bought the Dulik property and Pinot Reach, renamed the winery Tantalus. Once he discovered he had great terroir for cool climate varieties, he replanted almost the entire vineyard but the Old Vines block. He added several clones of Riesling as well as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And Jancis Robinson has raved about the Tantalus Old Vines Riesling as well.

David Patterson

If she is lucky, she will also get to taste a sparkling wine from these grapes. In the 2012 vintage, David Patterson, now the winemaker at Tantalus, split the Old Vines juice into two lots. One is being finished as a dry table wine and the other is being turned into a dry sparkling wine. To be sold as Brut Natural, with no dosage added, it promises to be another exciting wine.  

Tantalus Riesling 2012 ($22.90) is the winery’s current release, made with grapes from its younger vines. Again, it shows lime and minerals notes, with the refreshing clone 21-B acidity balanced with 15.5 grams of residual sugar. 90.

Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2010 ($29.90) is about to be released. It shows why vine age makes such a difference. The aromas of honey, peach and petrol explode from the glass. Because this dry wine aged for a time on the lees, it has a rich texture, along with flavours of lime, peach, apple and minerals. 95.

The St. Hubertus winery just down the road also grows young and old vine Rieslings on soils and slopes comparable to Tantalus. Traditionally, this winery has made just one Riesling, crushing old and young fruit together. In my view, it has been leaving money on the table, which is a bit puzzling, since one of the brothers who owns the winery, Leo Gebert, trained as a banker in his native Switzerland.

Dominic McCosker
There may be some change ahead at St. Hubertus, which hired a new winemaker last year, a lanky Australian named Dominic McCosker. Born in 1976, he arrived in the Okanagan in 2007. He spent a year at Tantalus and four at CedarCreek Estate Winery. Along the way, he has fleshed out his Australian science degree with Okanagan College training in winemaking and with two vintages at top Australian wineries.

The 2012 wines that St. Hubertus is beginning to release show that Dominic is making a positive impact, bringing a little more complexity to the St. Hubertus wines, which always have been easy to drink.

St. Hubertus Gewürztraminer 2012 (not released yet) is an example. This vintage has the depth of flavour and the oily texture of a good Alsace Gewürztraminer. That was as Dominic intended: a serious, textural wine. It was barely through bottle shock when I tasted it but I gave it 90.

St. Hubertus Dry Riesling 2012 ($15.75) is medium-bodied, with citrus aromas and flavours and tangy notes of lime on the finish. It also has been finished a little drier than in the past. Both Leo and Dominic like their wines dry. 88.

With any luck, the St. Hubertus owners will let Dominic pick and ferment the Old Vines Riesling separately. “We have an awesome vineyard,” Dominic says. “I would like to show its fruit as best as I can.”


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