Reflections on Old Vines Riesling
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.
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.
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.
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.”