Tag Archives: Riesling

Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 2)

This story is continued from “Wine is too cheap: Working Harvest in South Africa (Part 1)


Cradling Riesling. Paul Cluver makes far too little of this wonderful wine.

As a tasting exercise during meals, Burger pulled two bottles of wine for me and the assistant winemaker Drew to sample blind and guess the grapes and origin. We could ask four strategic questions to narrow down the answer. Swirling and sniffing, we discussed the attributes in each glass. “This wine has the aromatics of a Sauvignon Blanc,” I’d comment, and we’d ponder whether it included Sémillon as a blend. The cellar hands, peculiarly, had little interest in tasting wine with us, despite spending all day in the pursuit its production. Only one team member extended his glass for a sample, although he contemplated the wine quietly at the other end of the table. The rest preferred to drink hard cider (a new Cluver product using their orchard apples.)


The inside of the Cluver cellar.

In my mind, I could ascribe reasons for the local black employees’ lack of interest: they perceived wine as a white person drink or possibly it seemed complicated or expensive or maybe they felt intimidated to talk about it around their white, educated employers. Maybe they didn’t like the taste, or maybe working at a winery was as much a job to them as picking apples or working in a factory; a job they desperately needed in a country with 25 percent unemployment. Too desperate to worry whether the Pinot showed red or black cherry fruit. Whatever the impetus, their disinterest carried a tinge of sadness that seemed to allude to a larger socioeconomic dynamic within the country.


Part of the cellar crew.

When I first arrived at the farm, I asked Burger if any other interns would be joining us. “A few months ago I had two German wine students emailing me about flying down” he said. “However, this season I decided to give the work to the local men who needed the position – and pay – more than a foreign intern student [interns are unpaid].” His decision demonstrated a smart and solicitous attitude towards the welfare of his community.

Speaking to some of the cellar staff over punch downs or mopping, they seemed happy for the work they had. But few believed moving up in the wine industry – beyond a cellar rat role – would ever be possible. Did they want for enterprise, or believe in the existence of an employment ceiling, knowing better than I with my American optimism, that black South Africans just don’t get assistant winemaker jobs? (It’s important to note that most winemaking positions require viticulture and oenology degrees, and have become scarce even for those holding one, due to increased competition. Of course, aspiring winemakers need money to attend school in the first place.) Clearly these are complicated questions with roots deeper than my time in South Africa afforded me to dig.

According to Burger, programs to provide training and certification to cellar staff interested in pursuing long-term employment in the industry are growing. Also, the Cape Winemakers Guild, of which Burger is chairman, instituted a protégé program to help young students with demonstrated aptitude, finish school and gain winemaking experience through a three-year paid internship at Guild member wineries. It seems there is progress afoot.


Most gals sorted and cleaned, but she ran the forklift.

For two weeks, I aided a tight knit team of people in the process of moving grapes from vine to barrel (obviously I wasn’t there long enough to see any wine through to bottling). Ascending and descending ladders; lifting, bending, squatting, and standing all day on one’s feet. Winemaking isn’t for out-of-shape acrophobes afraid of injury and long hours. And, frankly, it is still a male-dominated industry, from the head winemaker, down to the cellar hands (at the majority of wineries I’ve visited around the world, not just in South Africa). It’s not that women can’t do the physical labor (yes we can, dammit), but it could be a limiting factor for some women when considering winemaking versus wine marketing, as a career path.

The experience also cemented my belief that consumers demand too much wine for too little money. The number of hands (and risks) involved in turning healthy grapes into a characterful, lively drink, let alone one with a soul that speaks of a singular time and place, are numerous.

Vines only bear usable grapes several years after planting. Pruning, pests, disease, weather, and now a changing climate: all these variables demand management and determine the quality of the fruit. Add training in proper picking and sorting technique, ensuring healthy ferments, keeping the power on so your temperature controlled tank stays cool. There are many critical points in the process where mistakes (not catching bacterial spoilage in the wine), accidents (falling into a tank and dying), and natural catastrophes (birds wiping out a vineyard), can lead to long-term consequences. Producers only get one vintage a year from which to earn an income.

Winemaking IS washing.

Winemaking is washing.

And what about the farm workers: the cogs in the wheel of the wine industry? Minimum wage for agricultural labor in South Africa is 130 rand a day (about $10 U.S. dollars). Many employees live on the farms of their employers; those that don’t, and can’t afford cars (most), are transported by trucks en masse from their villages to work and then home again at night. The Cluvers commendably provide education and health care for employees and their children, but these basic securities aren’t accessible to many others around the country. (Not to single out South Africa, the U.S. has a troubling reliance on cheap Mexican and Central American labor.)


Fermentation cap on an ambient yeast Chardonnay.

The wine business is fraught with fragility, tenuously held together by people who share a common devotion to its cause, not big salaries and handsome margins. But that doesn’t justify forcing producers to price wine arbitrarily at $11.99 because consumers have decided that’s all they want to pay or because they perceive, to use South Africa as an example, the wines to be cheap because they historically were. Government and our three-tier distribution system all take big bites out of that figure, too. Writers that argue solely in favor of drinking cheap wine do an injustice to the industry at large by perpetuating the notion that wine should be inexpensive and accessible to all at all times, while failing to acknowledge that often the only way to achieve low price points is at the expense of someone else’s livelihood, or quality, or worse, both.

Shouldn’t the producer turn some profit to compensate for their risk and investment in the business? Shouldn’t winemakers afford to pay off education loans and save for their future? Shouldn’t a laborer earn a living wage to buy a $20 dollar bus ticket to see a sister in Johannesburg, the equivalent of two bottles of weeknight Merlot from the supermarket?

Before my sojourn to South Africa, I admired winemakers for their labor of love, but mostly as a notion, an ideal. After spending two weeks with one – especially one making wines of purity and finesse (now that I’ve tasted Burger’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), while balancing the well-being of his team and minding the pesky bottom line – I’ve found that ideal chiefly congruent with reality. While I’m not sure I want to follow in his footsteps permanently back up that ladder, I might work another harvest; after all, in their line of work, I’m cheap labor.


Drew, Andries, Me, and Dr. Cluver

Leave a comment

Filed under Harvest, Harvest Paul Cluver

Like Christie Brinkley, White Wine Can Age Spectacularly

King Estate Winery in Oregon produces age-worthy pinot gris.

As beach season draws to a close (today, September 23rd, is the Fall Equinox, not Labor Day), I want to address a global wine-related epidemic that hits its zenith in summer. Throughout July and August, I visited several white wine producing regions in Oregon, Germany, and Switzerland (the Swiss not only make wine, but I’d argue it’s better than their chocolate and more affordable than their watches). With each vintner visit, our discussion of their carefully crafted whites and demand for their latest vintages inevitably led to the following conclusion: Consumers are sucking them down long before they should be opened. In other words, we drink white wine too young.

This deduction contradicts conventional wisdom. We’ve been taught the rule that the majority of whites should be consumed within a year or two of production, and that only sweet wines and expensive Old World expressions — the finest white Burgundy (chardonnay) in particular — truly deserve cellar time. During the summer, writers and retailers tout young, fresh wines as “porch pounders” and “poolside sippers,” employing reader hooks by comparing sauvignon blanc to a Harlequin beach read or pairing it to OMI’s catchy seasonal tune, “Cheerleader.” While such descriptors seem innocuous and fun, and may be meant to demystify wine, they also perpetuate the “white wines are simple and best drunk young” stereotype that shapes consumer behavior and the cycle of the industry.

A gift from Swiss winemaker Philippe Gex — he made me promise not to open it for at least four years.

A few weeks ago, I tasted a vertical of Oregon pinot gris (the same grape as pinot grigio). The King Estate Winery near Eugene presented me and several other journalists with a lineup of butter-hued bottles spanning a decade, pulled from their library. The wines were not their most expensive single-vineyard or domaine bottlings, but rather represented their entry-level “signature” line, retailing upon debut for approximately $17.

The current release, a 2014, drank straight, snappy, and undemanding, evocative of an electrified bellini (more voltage than fruit, due to high level of acid). Without the opportunity to compare it to older vintages, a regular Jane in the tasting room probably would conclude the wine good, but simple and best drunk young, and pick up a bottle or two to quaff at her upcoming weekend patio party.

As a journalist — admittedly with insider access — tasting the ’14 alongside the ’11, ’08, ’07, ’06, and finally the ’05 proved not only that Oregon pinot gris ages spectacularly (really, spectacularly!), but that comparatively, with no disrespect to the taut and vibrant ’14, drinking the latest release tasted akin to biting an underripe peach. Extra time in bottle — even just two more years — gently softens sharp edges, while allowing the wine to develop weight, texture, and layers of flavor (marmalade, tropical fruits, nuts, and honey), transforming that tart rock into a juicy, sun-kissed, tree-picked pleasure. Unfortunately, wine requires more time and patience to “ripen” than does a piece of fruit.

So why do we drink our wines so young, and what can we do about it? (To clarify, this discussion does not encompass cheap, mass-produced wines of vague origin.) Certainly, the freshness of a wine may be its chief draw, depending on the occasion; I won’t deny the pleasures of a young Txakoli or Muscadet paired to lemon-spritzed seafood. But we also have a culture that embraces youth and perpetuates the myth that complexity is somehow too demanding on the senses, especially in the summertime. “I want an easy wine that doesn’t challenge me or make me think” is a commonly sung refrain. But complexity in wine doesn’t equate to a tedious, cerebral exercise; “complex” is a synonym for evolving aromas and flavors, which tend to deliver more deliciousness, resulting in more pleasure. Yes, there are some wine drinkers who love the sharp, steely edge of an austere infant wine. But even the makers of such wines argue they need — deserve — a few years to harmonize in the bottle, too.

Tending the steep vineyards in the Valais, Switzerland, requires hard work and handpicking.

Unfortunately, producers and retailers don’t make it easy to find older vintages on the market. Winemakers admit they release wines far earlier than they’d like, often to meet demand, citing customers (including exporters, distributors, and consumers) who refuse to buy previous vintages once a new one comes due for release. But they also do it for the infusion of cash. The old adage that vintners in Europe could count on one vintage in the vineyard, one in the cellar, and one in the bank no longer holds true given the tough economics of the modern winemaking business.

Retailers generally don’t have the space or financial means to take on the task of cellaring wines, especially ones that won’t yield a worthwhile profit from the time investment — to wit, white wines lacking in pedigree and price point like Soave, or, frankly, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, which ages surprisingly well. Restaurants are a better source for indulging in developed examples, but prices can be off-putting. Other ideas include calling up wineries to ask about purchasing library wines and seeking placement on email lists with specialty retailers like Chambers Street Wines, to be notified when they make cellar acquisitions. Ultimately, however, the onus falls on us to change our drinking behavior. Try holding back a bottle or two, even for just a year (assuming you have the storage space and optimal conditions, like a wine fridge, to do so), to increase the wine’s pleasure factor. After all, isn’t deriving pleasure the point of drinking wine?

Below are a few examples of whites worthy of extra time in the bottle, but the list goes on: grüner veltliner, Muscadet, assyrtiko, savatiano, chasselas, gewürztraminer, Bordeaux grapes (sauvignon blanc, semillon), Rhône grapes (viognier, roussanne, marsanne), albariño, savagnin (a/k/a heida, paien, traminer). If you find older examples of these wines (ranging from two to ten years, depending on variety, producer quality, and vintage) in a reputable retail shop or restaurant, don’t hesitate to select one; they likely stocked it on purpose.

The Swiss grape heida, also called traminer and savagnin

Riesling With its high acidity and propensity over time to reveal layers of exotic flavor like a vinous Dance of the Seven Veils, riesling is one of the most suitable — and rewarding — wines to age in the world: the Christie Brinkley of grapes. Aromatics range from mineral, spice, and smoke to citrus, stone fruit, and honeyed, luscious tropical notes, depending, again, on the region, producer, and vintage, but also the amount of residual sugar left in the wine, a factor found mostly in German riesling.

David Salinas, wine buyer for Chambers Street Wines, not only agrees (not about Christie Brinkley), but pointed out that Jancis Robinson does, too. Salinas said that a few years ago the English wine critic “conducted a head-to-head tasting of older red Bordeaux and older Riesling with the aim of evaluating, as a group, which wines had aged more gracefully, and for her panelists, the winner was riesling.” Look to Germany, Austria, Alsace, Australia, and American regions/states like the Finger Lakes, Oregon, and Washington.

Garganega Known for dry, medium-bodied, moderate-alcohol wines showing lemon-citrus, yellow fruits, bitter almond, and often a whiff of white flowers or chamomile on the nose, you probably know Garganega better as the predominant grape grown in Soave, a historic region in Italy’s Veneto. Soave has suffered an image problem as a cheap wine region; producers capitalized on the wine’s popularity in the Seventies and churned out insipid, industrial-quality wine. But the region has enjoyed a quiet revival, with quality-minded producers like Gini, Pieropan, and Inama making a range of age-worthy wines from Classico DOC, Superiore DOCG, and single-vineyard sites experimenting also with oak-aged styles.

According to Evan Goldstein, MS, “quality Soave can age and age well…high-end cru Soave can age for a much longer time than people think. Volcanic soils produce bigger, richer, ‘oilier,’ longer-lived wines.” Recent vintages have expressed riper, weightier, and richer wines balanced with a minerality that builds a solid case for the aging potential in the region, thanks in large part to Soave’s ancient volcanic soil.

Viura Also known as macabeu/maccabéo in southern France’s Roussillon, and macabeo in much of Spain, viura is the primary grape variety of white Rioja. Dry, fruity, and low in acidity (for an age-worthy grape), many simple, low-quality wines have been made from it due to the vine’s troublesome nature in the vineyard. But in the hands of producers like Lopez de Heredia, Allende, and Marqués de Murrieta, the wine develops character and verve in the bottle. Rioja as a region has touted its aging of tempranillo-based red wines as a reason consumers should buy them. Lopez de Heredia does the same for its whites, regularly releasing older vintages onto the market. (Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit in Chelsea recently stocked the 1999.)

Carrie Strong, wine director at Aureole, loves aged expressions of white Rioja, and rotates them into her list when available. “Older Rioja blanco wines are absolutely beautiful, showing off like a sassy chardonnay wearing a flamenco dress complete with castanets, daring white Rhone Valley varietals to age nearly as well. These sultry whites show off their salty, almond, and herbaceous notes with an irreverent snare but embrace the dance that is a perfect food-and-wine pairing.”

Chenin Blanc Thanks to Pascaline Lepeltier, wine director for Rouge Tomate and staunch advocate for chenin blanc, many wine lovers now have a deeper appreciation for this versatile grape. It’s light body and naturally high acidity, especially when grown in its spiritual home the Loire Valley in France, means chenin can produce dry, sweet, still, and sparkling wines, all of which can age successfully, sometimes for decades. South Africa may be the biggest competitor to the Loire in terms of quality, especially from old bush vines found in places like Swartland. Mullineux, Sadie Family, and Botanica are all putting their personal stamp on the grape.

Juliette Pope, wine director at Gramercy Tavern, likes to introduce chenin to customers looking for older whites. “Chenin, like riesling, typically has that very food-friendly acidity level, as well as buckets of fruit, honey, and minerality, especially when we are talking Loire Valley, which is where any of our older ones come from. All of this can meld with age into such savory, layered, lamb’s-woolly beasts that cry out for drinking with all manner of stronger cheeses, dark-meat poultry, fattier pork, and lobster.”

Pinot Blanc In youth, this grape often comes off bland and neutral, offering, at best, white florals, delicate fruit, and fresh, moderate acidity; but with age, the best examples from Germany, Italy, and Alsace shed their ugly-duckling feathers to take on a nutty richness, roundness, and creaminess. However, it took a deep dive into Austria’s terroir and treatment of pinot blanc, especially around Styria and Burgenland (look for wines from Leitner, Heinrich, and Beck), where the wines often see oak aging, to convert me into a pinot blanc believer. During a recent conversation with an Austrian producer, the vintner reminded me why they call the grape “weissburgunder,” or white Burgundy: “because it mimics Burgundian chardonnay without the price tag,” he exclaimed gleefully.

Rosé I added this category of pink wine after Tom Geniesse, owner of Bottlerocket Wine & Spirits, pointed out that the same question regarding the aging of white wines applies to rosé wines, too. “Some rosé,” he said, “improves with a little bit of age. Not all. But to generalize and say they all MUST be new, new, new is an oversimplification of this complex beverage.”


Filed under Aging Wine

If You Live in NYC, Here are April’s Best Wine Tastings


Spring makes her stunning debut not with the blustery, wet weather forecasted for this week, but with a knockout lineup of wine tastings from three stellar regions: Willamette, Oregon; Corsica, France; and Portugal. Rather wine than sun, right? Here’s where to taste this month.

Wines of Corsica Presents “Being” at Openhouse Mulberry Gallery (201 Mulberry Street), April 9 through 11
Transport yourself out of Manhattan and on to the rustic and beautiful Mediterranean island of Corsica with “Being,” a one-of-a-kind, artistic event series dedicated to the dreamy French Isle’s finest export — wine. Attendees will sample an array of local vins while viewing depictions of daily life through the eyes of two artists.

For three days — Thursday, April 9, and Friday, April 10, from 6 to 9 p.m., and Saturday, April 11, from 7 to 11 p.m., nine Corsican producers will be on hand to discuss their wines, walk patrons through the process of winemaking, and describe the various grapes commonly grown on the island.

The visual component to the tasting was conceived by Aaron Zebrook, a photographer and the wine director at NYC’s Beatrice Inn, and Gabriela Bravo Clavello, a Mexican painter and industrial designer. Both artists spent ten days on the island during the harvest season in order to capture the essence of Corsica, from the wine culture and the natural surroundings to the people who call it home. Bravo Clavello creatively incorporates organic elements into her paintings by using Corsican soil, vines, and rocks. Zebrook will present his inspiring photographs.

Tickets for “Being” are $30 and include the wine tasting, cheeses by Artisanal, and the art show.

Oregon “Pinot in the City” at City Winery (155 Varick Street, 212-608-0555), April 14
2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Willamette Valley’s first pinot noir plantings. Pioneering winemakers, compelled by a vision to create an American “Burgundy,” riskily staked their hopes on a finicky grape in a wet and cool-weather-plagued valley. But the gamble paid off, propelling Oregon into the global spotlight for its delicate, nuanced, often achingly honest Pinots, and the region never lost its soul to corporate, moneyed interests in the process. Many farms and wineries are still small, family-owned operations.

Fifty of Willamette’s top wineries will showcase their favorite selections, including the Valley’s signature pinot noir and pinot gris, along with chardonnay and riesling. Familiar names include Penner-Ash, Erath, Ponzi, Drouhin, Adelsheim, and Domaine Serene. Hors d’oeuvres from City Winery will top off the evening.

Purchase tickets in advance for $75.

Wines of Portugal Progressive Tasting at Lobster Place (75 Ninth Avenue), April 16
Spend a joyous evening drinking Portuguese wine while noshing on small bites at Chelsea Market’s Lobster Place to offset the depression-inducing deluge of April showers slated for the month.

Organizers of this maiden event hope to introduce patrons to the incredible range of Portugal’s wine and regions, from the dry reds of Bairrada, to the crisp whites of Vinho Verde, to the elegant expressions of the Dão, and the rich and concentrated wines from Alentejo and the Douro. Guests will progress from station to station sampling regional offerings paired purposefully with appetizers from Lobster Place and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats.

The event takes place on April 16 from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets can be purchased in advance for $60.

Leave a comment

Filed under NYC Wine Tastings

Here’s Why You Should Care the Lowest pH Riesling in the World Comes From Okanagan Valley, British Columbia


All Images by Lauren Mowery

If you missed my Village Voice column, here’s a second look…

Acid: wine needs it for balance. It makes your mouth salivate, cuts through fat and cream, keeps wines fresh, especially sweet ones, and helps them age gracefully in the bottle. But too much of it, and the drinking experience mimics sucking a tart, mouth-puckering lemon. Too little of it, and the wine tastes flabby, or flat, or even syrupy like bad, store-bought Margarita mix.

Bright, zesty wines have long been considered the provenance of the Old World. Self-proclaimed “acid freaks” who love the crackling, electric tension (myself included, to the detriment of my teeth), track regions where high-acid levels occur naturally. Chablis, Austria, Germany, and Northern Italy, for example, reliably produce laser-sharp, racy whites. But pH levels taken from a global pool of rieslings uncovered an interesting phenomenon: the semi-desert grape-growing region of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada — the New World — delivered some of the lowest numbers ever recorded.

Acid, naturally occurring in grapes, diminishes as they ripen, especially in warm climates. The general backlash against the over-ripening of fruit, and trend towards picking earlier to create wines with “balance” (simplified: less ripeness in grapes means lower sugar levels and higher acid, which makes lower alcohol and higher acid wines) is in full-throttle, but not all growers have the luxury of retaining acid levels naturally after fermentation. Wines from hot zones like South Australia and Central California often require an addition of tartaric acid (which comes as a big bag of white powder, and gets measured and dumped in like sugar in a cake recipe).

Let’s geek out for a moment on pH. This scale from zero to fourteen measures acidity versus alkalinity. A pH of seven is neutral. The higher the number, the more alkaline or basic the substance, like root vegetables. The lower the number, the more acidic the substance is, like apples. Most white wines fall between three to four pH; reds lean a bit higher, depending on the variety.

Riesling specialist Stuart Pigott ran a story on the variety’s range of pH levels in the December 2013 issue of Wine & Spirits. The lowest pH wine he’d ever encountered in the world was “the off-dry 2012 Platinum from Cedar Creek in the Okanagan, with an astonishing pH 2.73.” He noted that “the only wines that sometimes match that figure are chardonnay base wines for Champagne, deliberately picked early to get that acid.”

You might be wondering why anyone would want to drink a wine with such a low pH if high acid levels equate to a jarring tartness. Well, sometimes you wouldn’t. Just as acid can be added to wine, it can also be removed. But the key here is balance; Okanagan rieslings have equilibrium because their fruit expressions soften sharp edges, as do the occasional, small amounts of sugar left in some wines. (Think about lemonade: the synergy of sugar and lemon juice is greater than the sum of its parts.)


While this isn’t exactly fresh news to the industry, the revelation lacked relevance to the average New York consumer because British Columbia’s wines weren’t available in our market. Until now.

Recently launched on the Wines of B.C. website, an e-commerce platform makes available select bottles from a small portfolio of boutique producers, directly to New York consumers. The selection won’t overwhelm you into indecision, but there’s enough to whet your palate. Plus, shipping costs are relatively nominal (although the wines are rather expensive).

Located a four hour drive east of Vancouver in south central British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley has around 130 producers spread across sub-regions like Kelowna, Naramata, Oliver/Osoyoos, Summerland, and the neighboring Similkameen Valley.
The Okanagan is considered the northernmost fine wine producing region in the world. (Although climate change is pushing the latitudinal reach of vitis vinifera further into Northern Europe).

The lake- and wilderness-dense countryside encompasses a stunning 125-mile swath of patchwork vineyards running south to the border with Washington State. The semi-arid desert climate provides hot, dry summers and long sunlight hours for the ripening of grapes, with cool nights helping to retain fresh acidity.

Not sold on Wines of B.C., but available in the New York market, are the rieslings of Tantalus. Winemaker David Paterson and vineyard manager Warwick Shaw are experts at transforming the grape into a transparent, piercing expression of their vineyard sites. Tense, almost quivering, lemon-lime notes snap like pop rocks above a chalky, mineral complexion.

Riesling isn’t the only grape to enjoy the favor of the climate and soils. Vivid pinot noir, chiseled syrah, savory cab franc and attractive Bordeaux blends, show promise in the red category. Available on the B.C. site, Meyer Family specializes in pinot, and Black Hills Estate and Painted Rock produce some of the region’s most serious red blends. Until more producers penetrate the competitive NYC market, however, my best advice for exploring Okanagan Valley wines: go there, and bring along a big suitcase.

Leave a comment

Filed under British Columbia, Okanagan Valley

Q&A with Paul Cluver Winery in Elgin, South Africa

Paul Cluver and Winemaker Andries Burger

Paul Cluver and Winemaker Andries Burger

Yesterday’s post posited the argument that wine writers should join a harvest at some point in their careers in order to better grasp the fundamentals behind the bottle. I’ve decided to take that challenge and have joined the winemaking team at Paul Cluver Winery for a short, but hopefully illuminating, two week stint over February and March.

The Cluvers pioneered winemaking in the Elgin Valley, touted as South Africa’s answer to the global call for “cool-climate” wines. A review of their line-up confirms it: they produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. The family has owned the property since 1896, but came from Bremen, Germany originally. The vast farm boasts a renowned mountain biking track, and an amphitheater employed for summer concerts, in addition to commercial pear and apple orchards (and two zebras).

Prior to my arrival, Paul Cluver, managing director of the family business, answered a few questions about the farm, his best memories in 20 years at the winery, and the wines he likes to drink (other than his own Seven Flags).

Striped Donkeys or Zebras?

Striped Donkeys or Zebras?

When were the first vines planted and how have the vineyards/winery evolved since inception?

My father planted the first vineyards in 1987, and in 1990 Paul Cluver Wines became the first wines bottled as wine of origin in Elgin. We planted a wide variety of grapes in the beginning, including varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz.  Over time we have focused more on the varietals which we found we excel at: cool climate white varietals and Pinot Noir.   Our winery was founded after apartheid, so the dissolution of it did not affect our business.

How many wines do you currently produce? How did you decide on those varieties?

We produce a total of 10 wines from five different varietals.  Sauvignon blanc, two Chardonnays, three Rieslings, three Pinot Noirs, and a Gewürztraminer. Our focus is to produce the best wine we can within South Africa for each wine we make given the area we are in and what our terroir can produce.  Over the last 20 years we have started to better understand our terroir and which varietals do well here.

What are some of your best memories at the winery?

Being rated in the top ten wineries of South Africa, our winemaker joining the Cape Winemakers Guild, the release of our first Seven Flags Pinot Noir, and being recognized for our contribution to sustainable production.

Has keeping the winery a family operation been difficult?

We have an amazing family that has worked well together through the generations. Sure there have been challenges, but those challenges have helped us become better at what we do.

Has climate change impacted your region yet?

No, although it is something that we are very conscious about.

How has Elgin changed in the last decade?

The fruit industry in Elgin experienced a very negative cycle from the mid-nineties to about 2005. During this time, the wine industry took off in Elgin Valley.  Luckily, the fortunes of the fruit industry have improved in the last couple of years.

How has the South African wine industry changed in the last decade?

One of the major changes has been the fact that the world has opened up for South Africa.  This has given us the opportunity to travel and learn. Most South African winemakers end up working at least one season overseas, learning and experiencing the quality of what the world has to offer. At the same time, we have been privileged to be visited by some of the most passionate wine personalities in the world.

What excites you most about South Africa’s vinous future?

Our ability to pursue excellence without being limited by legislation like in European wine growing regions.

What frustrates you most about South Africa’s wine industry? What could be improved?

The fact that we have such a low image overseas.  I believe our wines offer exceptional quality but they are not recognized for the quality they offer.  We all need to work together to improve our image overseas.

Do you ever visit the U.S.? 

Yes.  I have been there every year for the last several years.  I usually go to the East Coast (New York, Boston, Richmond and Florida), Chicago and recently have also been to Seattle and Dallas.  I love New York City

Where do you like to go for a holiday?

My wife and I love going on safaris, although we also love travelling in general.  We have our favourites like New York, Paris and Burgundy although we also love discovering new places.

What non-S.A. wines do you like to drink?

I try to drink as many different wines from as many different places as I can in order to learn as much as possible.  My favourite areas are Burgundy, German Rieslings and Pinot Noir, and Loire wines.


1 Comment

Filed under Paul Cluver Winery, South Africa

Should Wine Writers Join a Harvest?



Cradling Riesling Grapes

The fundamental physicality and mechanics of winemaking have eluded me until now. Raised in the uniformity of America’s Midwestern suburbs, and seeking their antithesis for the last fifteen years living and working in New York City, neither locale has afforded any opportunity for immersion in vineyard life.

As a wine journalist, I’ve often wondered if it’s fair to producers of this highly romanticized elixir, to proffer opinions, particularly harsh criticism, without having learnt in situ how it’s made. I’ve studied books, and taken courses in viticulture and vinification (and earned my WSET Diploma doing so); I’ve traveled to vineyards as close to home as Long Island and far-flung as New Zealand and Namibia. The countless tank and barrel room tours, and long repasts with winemakers discussing the trials of a particularly tough vintage, have been illuminating, but knowing and doing sit on two different planes of experience. I’ve never beheld firsthand the hand-wringing over picking in the face of inclement weather, or witnessed the minutiae of decisions, as they occur, that lead to a wine’s final expression in the bottle; decisions that culminate with the consumer’s delight or dissatisfaction, and a critic’s reputation-making or -breaking score.


Trimming Riesling Grapes

A deeper understanding of a subject always leads to a greater appreciation of it (e.g., oft bewildering modern art, with context, can become less so), so should participation in a harvest, then, be a prerequisite for a wine writer? What about a wine critic who calculates scores? Will knowing firsthand, for example, the struggle to grow healthy, sustainable grapes, while fighting pests and a changing climate, cultivate greater compassion, forgiveness even, towards the end product, especially a wine that might otherwise be determined unremarkable? Could it abrade objectivity? Conversely, a behind the scenes experience might dispense with part of the “backstory” illusion employed as a marketing tool (sometimes genuine, sometimes deceptive), and result in a more informed, and thus critical eye at tastings.

With these questions in mind, I arrived in South Africa last Saturday, to join the team at Paul Cluver Winery in Elgin, for two weeks of harvest.

My internship at Paul Cluver Winery came about after I learned of a global search for female interns by the PIWOSA group (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa). In an effort to encourage women to explore careers in the wine industry, the member wineries accepted applicants holding either a winemaking or WSET Diploma certification. The Cluvers, including longtime winemaker Andries Burger (married into the family) selected my application, and invited me to their winery and into their homes.


Winemaker Andries Burger

Prior to departing, I emailed a few questions about the farm, the region, and South Africa in general, to Paul Cluver, the managing director of the family business. To read that interview, click here.

I hope the culmination of my time at the farm will conclude with clarity on the winemaking process, and lend a deeper respect for the people who get grapes from the vine, into a bottle, and to our tables. But as is often the case with learning, it rarely settles curiosity and questions, but rather drives deeper inquiry.


Filed under Paul Cluver Winery, South Africa

People Make Wine in Idaho. I’ve Got Proof.


I write this post sitting in a log cabin in the middle of the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho. I’ll be lighting a fire and, dreadfully, donning my winter jacket for the first time this season; tonight’s expected low: 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Summer concludes precisely — cruelly — on Labor Day out here.

Not anticipating functioning wifi, I flipped open my laptop and the connection light blinked on.  Is there no place left in the world detached from the grid aside from the far western Sonoma coast? Regardless, here I type, at the base of stony, jagged peaks in a state to which cartographers had oddly apportioned a wide bottom with a long, slender finger that stretched north to Canada. I’d stare at maps as a child (and still do now), imagining life in the American West of this exotic state, so it feels odd to finally be here  — with my dad — because the fascination I held for Idaho (and surrounding states) was partly an extension of my father’s.


My dad grew up a little bit country in Circleville, Ohio, where my great-uncle bred horses for harness racing. Likely a product of the era of his youth, one in which country western films featuring icon John Wayne pervaded the imaginations of growing boys, my dad took a curious shine to all things cowboy and Indian Native American. The toys of his youth reflected this interest which never abated with adulthood.

He’s the only lawyer in Columbus who wears cowboy boots to work and before judges in court, often dressed in a suit. He admits to not owning a single pair of dress shoes but several pairs of Tony Lama and Ariat boots. I believe he once subscribed to Cowboys & Indians magazine, and I know he acquired two reproduction Remingtons to conciliate his dream for an authentic one. (Remington was the equine sculptor who worked bronze into taut, sinewy horses and cattle ropers frozen mid-action.)


Although unable to afford him the gift of a collector’s piece, I offered my dad passage to visit Idaho as a co-captain of my rental car to explore this curiously unadvertised and sparsely populated slice of the West. In addition to traversing the Sawtooth Mountains to ride horses and fish at the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, we’d visit nearly a dozen wineries in Boise and its surrounds. Characteristically, his first question was not “wine? In Idaho?” but rather “can I bring my cowboy boots?” Yes dad, bring your Tony Lamas. And your Stetson.

They Make Wine in Idaho

My thin knowledge of the Snake River AVA, approved in April 2007, stemmed from my WSET Diploma exam studies. I’d never actually drank an Idaho wine, let alone seen or heard of one in NYC. The Idaho Wine Commission was prescient in selecting me to visit; I immediately said yes. Intrigued by the chance to visit this state still unknown to me, especially one about which so little was written, I crossed my fingers I’d discover a pioneering wine scene to accompany the state’s unspoiled rivers and mountains.


Quick Idaho Wine Stats (provided by the Idaho Wine Commission)

Idaho had one winery in 1976 and 51 by 2014. The Snake River AVA encompasses 8000 square miles with a little less than 1300 acres planted. Most vineyards are in the Snake River area which lies 30 minutes east of Boise, the best found around Sunny Slope.The leading varieties are, for whites: Chardonnay, Riesling, and Viognier; and reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, and Tempranillo. Elevations range from 600-3000 feet.  The climate is desert-warm with cold nights, and well-draining soils with access to irrigation from the river and reservoirs.

Day One:  Wineries of East 44th Street, Garden City

This industrial strip by the river, ten minutes from downtown Boise, functions like many wine ghettos that have sprung up around the country (Lompoc near Santa Barbara, California and Woodinville near Seattle, Washington), in that it provides young, enterprising winemakers affordable space to pursue their craft when owning vineyard land for a winery is not yet feasible. A particular strip of East 44th street has attracted several small optimists: Cinder, Telaya, Coiled, and Split Rail. The first three are located in a renovated warehouse, the latter in a former auto body garage.


Cinder: 7 Days a week, 11-5 p.m.

Telaya: Fri. – Sat., 12-6 p.m.

Coiled: Fri. – Sat., 12-5 p.m.

My review of the wineries…



Filed under Idaho

Winemaker Interview: Anna and Martin Arndorfer, Kamptal, Austria


annamartin annamartinkids

Anna and Martin Arndorfer, Owners/Winemakers for Arndorfer Wines

Signature Wines: Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Neuburger, Chardonnay, Zweigelt; Riesling die Leidenschaft

Importer: Indie Wineries

I first met Anna and Martin Arndorfer in New York. My favorite NYC-based Austrian from the Austrian Wine Commission, Stephanie Artner, hosted a dinner party in Brooklyn to celebrate the Arndorfer’s arrival that day. Naturally, they had a slew of wines with them which kept us tasting and talking late into early morning.

What stood out to me about Anna and Martin was the not just the eagerness with which they poured and discussed their wines, but their inability to stop smiling and giggling all night. It reminded me why I love winemakers who actually love farming and winemaking. They spoke giddily about each bottle as though it were a loved member of their growing family, one not any better than the other, just babies with unique personalities they are only meant to foster not manipulate.

Like hands off parents, each wine picks its future. All juice ferments spontaneously; sometimes it finishes and sometimes it doesn’t. Whatever the wine chooses, the result will be its destiny for that vintage. The Arndorfers won’t force a dress on a little girl who wants to play in the mud.

They happen to also be parents of real children – two small girls, in fact, who help out around the vineyard, in the dirt, back home. I didn’t ask if they wear dresses.  Although the Arndorfers like to speak about themselves as though they are just a pair of aging, old souls who are mere stewards of the land, they have an unusual freshness of spirit; they view the world with wonderment that’s more grade school than grandparent. Jaded New Yorkers could rip a few pages out of their book.

Their winery is located in Kamptal, Lower Austria. It has been family-owned since 1770, and they are the third generation working with wine as a main business. Their first vintage together was in 2002. I attended Vie Vinum in Austria in June where I tracked down their table and tasted through their wines again, including my first ever Zweigelt rosé fermented on Grüner Veltliner skins (they explain why that’s logical, below).

Through an email interview, we touched on a number of topics including the benefits and drawbacks of working and living in Kamptal; whether winemaking in such a historic place can inhibit progress; and where they’d like to be traveling right now (hint: Denmark).


What philosophy guides your viticulture?

We think that the most important part of the vineyard is life and balance. Both things are very closely connected with our soils and the work/management we do with the soil. There are lot of little animals and partly very big mycelium in the soil which help the vine to get water and nutrients, but they need their “home” and food. So in our viticulture we try to provide them what they need so they will provide our vines what they need… if we assault our vines (fertilizer and herbicide) we will not have life and balance in our soil.

What philosophy guides your winemaking practices?

We think a lot about our work in the cellar, but at the end of the day, we just press good grapes, ferment the juice, age the wine, bottle it, sell it and get paid for it – usually. We try to give the wines a good environment and home to feel comfortable developing the character of the vineyards. The thing we use most in our winemaking is water to clean, and patience combined with a bit of risk and strong nerves.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)?

Time is probably the biggest challenge. If some wines need longer to develop because of a slow fermentation, it would be nice to have more time. The problem is if your customers and partners need/want the wine. You see that you could be selling it right now, except that it is still fermenting in barrels. The situation does not help your expense to income ratio – especially in “expense-intense” seasons like summer and harvest. It would be very nice to get in the situation where you don’t have to worry about the market and we could just be worried about our vines and wines.

Next to time are two more things which are not really nice: lack of water and hail. All the other things are more or less manageable but if we/our vines don’t have water we are not very happy. If hail goes over our vineyards it is not nice either – of course you know why…

Describe some of the unique wines/projects you are working on?

Since vintage 2012, we have produced a Zweigelt rosé fermented on Grüner Veltliner skins. Why? To get a rosé with more structure, complexity and expression… sounds pretty logical, no?

There are centuries and generations of winemaking history in the Kamptal, and Austria in general. How do you feel that history impedes your progress, if it does? How does it help?

We’re absolutely proud to live and work in Kamptal, especially in Strass im Strassertale. There is a very long history of winemaking and viticulture, but we don’t feel it creates problems for our personal work. Talking with the older generation provides a way of learning and understanding about the vineyards of our village; to see pictures of the vineyards from the past is very inspiring.

For example, why was the vintage 1947 so outstanding? Maybe the sun, maybe the small crop, maybe the pruning, maybe the” trellising system”, maybe crushing the grapes in the vineyard, maybe not having a tractor, nor herbicides and fertilizers, or maybe a little bit from everything. Anyway, I think it is good to learn from our history and use the experience from older generations, but combine it with the knowledge of the present time. The cheapest thing we can do is keep thinking about our work and our decisions…History gives us a bigger background for this idea…

Is the region, or perhaps other winemakers, ever resistant to change or new ideas?

The question is: what are new ideas or changes? Most of the wineries want to produce wines that show the character of the origin – village or single vineyard – to show a very typical wine from the region. Sometimes people call it traditional. We have these kinds of winemakers in the region, which is good.

The region itself is not resistant to new ideas (we can’t avoid them). It would be a pity if it were like this, because of all the diversity of soil, microclimate, varieties, and individuals, it would be a loss of resources if we just did the same thing forever. It is necessary to have new ideas and changes…

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region?

At the moment, Kamptal is a really nice region in which to work with vines and wines. Climate, soil, varieties…nothing to complain about! One little thing is that we can’t write on most of our wines Kamptal even if they all grow in Kamptal, in Strass im Strassertale. They don’t fit into the “system” or model expected from Kamptal DAC wines… It is nothing to complain about really, because it is our decision that our wines should taste like they do!

What excites you most about Austrian wines right now?

Thanks to the work of a few very intelligent people Austrian wine has become known and now we can go to the “next” level. There is still big potential in our vineyards and it will be very exciting to see/taste/enjoy these wines.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected?


What do you drink at home when relaxing?

Wines with personality, preferably a little bit cloudy. It does not matter from where or from whom.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?

I spend it with my family. Work and free time are always very closely associated. It is a question of definition, really. Is it work if our daughters join us for a little vineyard tour?  For us it doesn’t matter if you call it free time or work, it is something we enjoy!

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be?


Give one surprising fact about yourself.

We have never been to Jura!

Leave a comment

Filed under Arndorfer, Kamptal

NYC EVENT: Death by German Riesling and Other Musings, Led by Paul Grieco

(or anyone willing to drive/fly/bike/run/skateboard to get in on small-group action with Paul Grieco):
Next Wednesday, July 30th from 7-8 p.m.,  Terroir Murray Hill is offering an “awesome, super affordable German Riesling tasting.”
The Terroir folks are still doped up on the natural high of Germany’s World Cup win, so to celebrate, legendary Paul Grieco, will host a tasting of eight Rieslings, from dry to sweet, for only $34.
Get yer tickets here and preview the wines here (hint: it’s the same link).
Terroir Murray Hill, 439 Third Avenue (30th-31st Streets), wineisterroir.com, @terroirny


Filed under Germany, Riesling

Pyramid Valley Vineyards, North Canterbury, New Zealand

Gorgeous lunch prepared by Claudia

Gorgeous lunch prepared by Claudia Weersing

After departing Pinot-centric Central Otago, I carried on north to the next New Zealand wine region of Canterbury, located about 45 minutes outside of Christchurch. One of my three winemaker visits included the eye-opening Pyramid Valley, known for being the first vineyard in New Zealand — and one of only a few in the world — to be established from nascency under strict biodynamic principles, as well as stick to a strong non-interventionist/natural winemaking philosophy.

My lovely host for the afternoon, Brittany Thompson, Assistant Winemaker and Production Manager, picked me up in her truck full of energetic dogs. Our visit started not with a traditional winery tasting, but rather a picnic on top of a nearby hill with wine box “baskets” prepared by winery co-owner Claudia Weersing, who dabbles, quite effectively, in cooking. Apparently, I was the guinea pig for the wine box-cum-picnic basket concept, and I wholeheartedly gave it a green light, suggesting they make it available to future customers. The box included a clever dessert in a jar, smartly wrapped sandwiches, and the elusive greengage plum–my first. I was also introduced to the country fun of sliding down a hillside hay field on one’s belly or back, an activity apparently never endeavored with journalists — until meeting me.

Set in Northern Canterbury, Pyramid Valley Vineyards, was founded in 2000 by Mike and Claudia Weersing. They spent ten years working to find the perfect tract of land with the ideal limestone and geology make-up for the vines they wished to plant. They knew they’d hit proverbial paydirt when the consultant back in France reviewing their soil sample asked where they were in Burgundy. After pulling the hay from my hair and out of my shirt, and socks, and pants, we sat down at the tasting bar to go through their entire line-up of wines. I had a hard time holding back my surprise at how characterful, how evocative of place each wine was. Certainly no poker face could I project. I was particularly fond of the Cab Franc — it was the best I tasted in all of New Zealand. I recommend tracking down their Pinots, Chardonnays–frankly, anything from this winery.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Mike and Claudia Weersing came to New Zealand in 1996, when Mike began making wine with Tim and Judy Finn at Neudorf Vineyards in Nelson. After a long and intensive search to find a site for their own vineyard, they purchased a farm in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in North Canterbury, in 2000.

Mike studied oenology and viticulture in Burgundy, beginning at the Lycee Viticole in Beaune, and continuing at the Universite de Bourgogne in Dijon. He has worked extensively in the vineyards and cellars of Europe, for producers such as Hubert de Montille, Domaine de la Pousse d’Or, and Nicolas Potel in Burgundy; Jean-Michel Deiss and Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace; and Ernst Loosen in the Mosel. He has made wine in France and in Spain for Randall Grahm of Bonny DoonVineyards, vinifying in the Rhone Valley, the Languedoc-Roussillon, and the Navarra. New world vintages include apprenticeships with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley of Australia, and with Russ Raney at Evesham Wood in Oregon’s Eola Hills.

Claudia was born in Schleswig, Germany.  A fashion student and skilled clothesmaker by trade, she  is now a committed biodynamicist which guides her approach to the land.


Wine to us is a genie, genius loci; our job is to coax it from its rock to bottle. Every gesture we make, in vineyard and winery, is a summons to this spirit of place. Biodynamics, hand-based viticulture, low yields, natural winemaking – these are some of the means we’ve adopted better to record and transmit this voice.

For example, all of our wines are fermented with their own yeast starters, cultured every year, from the vineyard itself. If wine is meant to be the bottled breath of a certain place, from a certain moment in time, then we feel that working with yeasts from that site, of that season, is an important step towards transparency and authenticity. Our cultures allow very long, very regular ferments: most of our whites ferment for more than a year. During this time, the wine is protected, so no sulphur is necessary. After so long a ferment, the wine is stable: thus most of our wines are bottled unfiltered, again with little or no sulphur.

Each wine is allowed to flower as it wishes. If the Pinot Blanc stops with 4 grams RS, so be it. If the Gewurztraminer ferments to dryness, that is its choice. As my friend and hero Edmond Vatan once replied when I asked him about malolactic fermentation, “Pwah, le malo, si ca se fait, ca se fait.”

So, at home we’ve sponsored a marriage of clay-limestone soils to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, hoping to bring to the wine world a special, new place-voice. With the Growers Collection, we are allowed to work with admired colleagues, and with sites, soils, varieties different than those at home. All of our wines are devoted to people and place; all bring rich rewards of community.


The home vineyard has been established according to rules that Mike grew to respect and inherently to trust during his time studying and working in Burgundy: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been planted, on clay-limestone soils on scarp slopes, at a density of 10,000-12,000 vines per hectare. The vineyard has been biodynamically managed from inception.

Each block is planted to reflect a specific soil type hence the somewhat irregular looking blocks. In total we have only 2.2 hectares planted in 4 separate blocks. The differences you can taste reflects the soil and climatic differences between each block, which is never more than 400 metres at most. We vinify each block and variety separately but identically in a mixture of old oak and clay amphorae so  the outside influences on the grape are minimised.

The blocks themselves were named by Claudia after the weed varieties predominant in each, which also reflect the different soil. The Angel Flower is a more exposed block, north facing that reflects a lightness, delicacy and an ethereal scent. The Lions Tooth with its golden dandelions and obvious lime rich soil shows a rich golden colour with a toasty sulphite nose. The Earth Smoke is a heavier clay, with a denser, wild, gamey outcome. The Field of Fire slopes away to an eastern aspect and into the heaviest clay and makes typically a green-hued delicate wine.


Filed under New Zealand, Pyramid Valley Vineyards