2016: The Year of Spätburgunder! (aka German Pinot Noir)

2016: The Year of Spätburgunder! (aka German Pinot Noir)

German Pinot Noir (a.k.a., Spätburgunder) has been receiving attention from many quarters lately, some within the trade (Jancis Robinson, John Gilman, Tyler Coleman, Jon Bonné), and some in the mainstream (Forbes Magazine’s #1 trending wine topic for 2016). At a time when Burgundy prices have skyrocketed out of reach for many consumers and American Pinots seem to be following suit, Germany is suddenly looking like an untapped goldmine of well-made, well-priced, terroir-driven Pinot. What are the salient characteristics of German Pinot, versus its American and French analogs? To find out, we tasted six German Pinot Noirs at our last sales meeting, presented by German Portfolio Manager Evan Spingarn.

The old guard of #probowlers — industry vets who *maybe* haven’t tasted German Pinot Noirs in a while — voiced their skepticism, recalling bottles of “thin” and “astringent” German Pinot in days of yore. Their doubts were well-founded! As Tyler Coleman pointed out in his blog post last year (http://www.drvino.com/2015/03/16/spatburgunder-german-pinot-noir/): Beaune, whose Burgundies are hardly known for their voluptuous maturity, lies at 47 degrees north of the equator, while their German counterparts are at 48-51 degrees. As little as forty years ago, the impact this had on the wines was much more severe. But in this era when higher-toned reds are “on trend” and rising global temperatures are pushing the fine wine map of Europe ever northward, Germany’s position now reads as an advantage.

Spatburgunder wine map

Map of German Rhine regions with a Rheingau inset added. All of our Spaetburgunders come from these areas.

The most northern winery in our German Pinot Noir portfolio is Anthony Hammond, located in the Rheingau, and in our recent tasting it was easily distinguishable as such. His quintessential Rheingau Pinot Noir grows on slate soils and elevage takes place in large old barrels. Cool, fruity, modest in alcohol and quite pale in the glass, David Bowler characterized the wine as “savory,” while others found it, “spicy” and “restrained.” It’s intended as a casual sipper—but the fact is, a single vineyard Pinot made biodynamically in small amounts with no chaptalization and priced at $15 or $16 retail offers a value almost extinct from the world’s more recognized Pinot growing areas.  

Other #probowlers remembered the days in which “Spätburgunder” was synonymous with “oaky.” But among the six we tasted, oak seemed to be used more as a textural element than a flavoring one, when it was used at all. Generally agreed upon as the finest, most age-worthy wine in the lineup, the Rebholz Pinot Noir Spätlese Trocken “Tradition” 2011 came from limestone and saw time in a mix of French and Pfalz barrels, some new, some used. But the taste of new oak was nowhere in evidence; it possessed instead a pronounced mineral complexity and the smooth, rounded edges of a wine that has been through neutral oak elevage. Also from the Pfalz — and aged with no new oak at all — was another group favorite, Borell-Diehl’s Pinot Noir Trocken 2013. Fermented in steel and aged in big old oak foudres, this was a friendlier, fruitier iteration of Spätburgunder.


The stalwart of our German Pinot Noir portfolio, Friedrich Becker, lived up to its reputation. Also in the Pfalz, the “Becker Dry Estate” 2012’s ripe berry fruit upfront belied a surprisingly long, layered finish. If it seemed to some of us almost French in its elegance, that might be because 60-70% of the fruit technically comes from Alsace! The whole operation is in many ways a hybrid of French technique with German tradition. The energetic Fritz Becker (Jr.)  gleefully experiments with French vs German clones of Pinot Noir and French vs German barrels—including numerous casks he picked up (used, bien sur) from Romanée-Conti and Comtes Lafon.

Having tasted its slate- and limestone-based iterations, we thought we knew Spatburgunder. But Evan had another trick up his sleeve, and pulled out two new additions to our portfolio from loess-covered VOLCANIC soils: Salwey.  Out of the market for several years and brought to us by Rudi Wiest Selections, this is a very fine, very old (1720s), family-run estate in the Baden, Germany’s warmest and southernmost wine region that makes up half of the white-hot area known as Swabia. Salwey’s specialty is Pinot (including Noir, Blanc, and Gris), the finest of which are grown atop a high, sunny plateau called the Kaiserstuhl (“the King’s throne”).

The length of the Salwey Estate Dry 2012 was remarkable, and Evan cited extended contact with the lees as one possible explanation. Longer barrel aging sur lie coupled with a generally slower, more natural approach toward viticulture and viniculture at this estate has been Konrad Salwey’s signature since he took over in 2011. The Käsleberg 2012 was full-bodied and elegant, with gentle supporting acidity. For lack of any better reference point, it’s tempting to call these wines “Burgundian” with their barrique influence, rich textures and saline minerality, but the truth is that not only are they distinctly Germanic, they are distinctly reflective of the Southern Baden and its ancient volcanic terroir, which is unique in the world. 



Eater Reports: Great Lakes Distillery’s Pumpkin Spirit is an “Awesome Bottle”

Thanks for pointing out how delicious our Pumpkin Spirit is, Eater! Check out the write up here: http://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/10/30/9604548/10-awesome-drinks-eater-october


Try it in a Pumpkin Maple Old Fashioned….


2 oz Pumpkin Spirit

1/2 oz pure maple syrup

2 dashes Angostura bitters

small disc of orange zest

Instructions:  Over a mixing glass squeeze orange zest through a flame to expel burnt oils into the glass. Drop into glass.  Add Pumpkin Spirit, maple syrup, and bitters to glass. Fill with ice, stir for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled rocks glass. Garnish with orange zest spiral.

What do 100 year-old Grenache vines look like at harvest time?

What do 100 year-old Grenache vines look like at harvest time?

French Portfolio Manager Michele Peters received a lovely collection of photos from brother-and-sister team Julien and Laetitia Barrot at Domaine la Barroche in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. They made us smile so we wanted to share them with you. 2015 looks like a gorgeous récolte of Grenache and Mourvedre for Barroche.

Bon courage pour la suite, nos amis les vignerons!

2 Grenaches centenaires Terres Blanches IMG_0053

Julien with his beauties — bunches of Grenache from centenary vines.

6 Grenaches centenaires Pure IMG_9982

These bunches are destined for the “Pure” bottling.

4 Grenaches centenaires Terres Blanches IMG_0016b

Bunches from Terres Blanches.

10 Grenaches centenaires Palestor IMG_1382

17 Dechargement cave IMG_9773

Hi Laetitia! Hi Julien!

“In an era when Anderson Valley has chased the stylistic lure of Big Flavor, Drew is a beautiful reminder of its roots.”

“Their wines have become some of Anderson Valley’s most restrained and potentially long-lived specimens, reminiscent of old Littorai and Williams Selyem from the 1990’s… In an era when Anderson Valley has chased the stylistic lure of Big Flavor, Drew is a beautiful reminder of its roots.”

– Jon Bonné, New California


One of the most surprising visits from our summer journey to California was Jason Drew’s property in the little (Pop. 208) town of Elk. After driving through winding roads capable of causing even the stoutest of heart to have a little motion sickness, you slip out of reach of things like cellular service and GPS and are forced to rely on old-fashioned things like ‘paper directions’ and ‘your eyes’. After those failed us we turned around and found the correct unmarked gate. We were immediately greeted by Jason Drew’s shameless Corgi (photo below). After David Gordon took a few shots at the basketball hoop, Jason took us around and showed us his awesome property up there.


Having done stints at Corison & Joseph Phelps among others, Jason Drew stared his own label in 2000. He initially worked in the Santa Rita Hills, but he decided he wanted to find a region that would produce wines of greater restraint and leaner structure. In 2004 they found the right place, and Jason and his wife Molly purchased their property way up on the Mendocino Ridge. For the first year they lived in an airstream trailer on the 26-acre Apple Orchard with their two sons while they built their combination home/winery.



Despite the cramped conditions they finished work on the house and winery and Drew was reborn. Though he planted a vineyard on the property it only started producing enough fruit in 2014 for a potential release next year (of which we tasted some excellent barrel samples), so he began working with small family managed vineyards throughout the region.


Mendocino Ridge is a fairly unique vineyard in that it is defined not only by borders but also by elevation. You must be at or above 1200 feet to be included in the appellation. Few qualify, and for the moment there are only 5 wineries and 17 vineyards (including Drew’s) that qualify. His other vineyard sources are from the nearby Anderson Valley and Yorkville Highlands.


In the cellar Jason does as little as possible. Native fermentations, partial whole cluster, 5-30% new oak for 11-18 months, then bottling without fining or filtering. The resulting wines make up one of the most diverse and expressive lineups of Pinot Noir (and awesome Syrahs) I’ve ever tasted. From the basic cuvée to the single vineyard bottlings each wine has a distinct personality. Restrained, balanced, earthy, spicy, this is exactly why Pinot Noir makes certain people foam at the mouth.

-Bram Johnson, Domestic Portfolio Manager

“This is Probably Napa’s Shittiest Chateau”

It starts with the drive up there.

Winding roads lead you deeper and deeper into the trees, and cellular phones struggle to maintain a connection to the outside world. The roads get rougher and less maintained; the trees are huge looming things; the drops alongside the road are steep and serious. When you finally get to the turnoff to Sky, it is marked only by a number. From there you proceed down a steep dirt hill and, fueled by faith in your GPS and your car, you rattle along the road toward more trees that contain no promise you will find anything up there. Finally, you get to one last turn and it takes you down a tiny wooded alley at the end of which is a metal gate emblazoned with a single word: SKY.

Sky the Front Door

Proceeding through the gate you emerge from the shelter of the trees, now at the top of Mount Veeder. 2100 feet up grow Zinfandel and Syrah vines, the source of Sky’s inimitable élan vital.

Sky Vineyard

Driving down (or walking, if you are at all concerned for your car’s wellbeing) you pass among the vines until you come to the main house. There you will find Lore Olds, the Bukowski-esque force behind the whole operation.

sky 3

“This is probably Napa’s shittiest château” he has been quoted as saying, and the house does little to contest this notion. It is a humble, unpainted building,

sky 4 sky 5   sky 8 sky 6

A short walk through the woods and you will find yourself at the similarly architecturally humble winery.

sky winery

Filled with used barrels, an old basket press, and little else, the winemaking is consistent with the scenery. This is a wild place, and little effort is made to tame it. The wines are honest, unique, and devoid of pretense. The speak volumes about their origins, and that life carries through into the bottle, and throughout the years. Last year I had a 1984 Zinfandel to celebrate my 30th birthday and it was alive as ever: spicy, complex, and thrillingly feral.

winerysky 10

Feral might be the perfect word for these wines, in fact; an animal living in the wild but descended from a domesticated creature. Down in the valley, much of the wine has been domesticated, become predictable and easy to control. But here at Sky they have returned to nature, forgotten how to behave, and constantly surprise us. A rare thing, indeed.

-Domestic Portfolio Manager Bram Johnson // bram@bowlerwine.com

Insights from Danny Meyer on Wine Appreciation via Food & Wine Magazine

We enjoyed reading Danny Meyer’s “Wine Rules,” by Ray Isle in the latest issue of Food & Wine Magazine. Despite the hard-line title, the article was full of humility and an appropriate emphasis on context in wine appreciation. Our favorite quotes are selected below, and here’s a link to the full article: http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/2015/07/06/danny-meyer-wine-rules

“What’s the most extraordinary wine you’ve ever tasted in your 30 years as a restaurateur?
I think it’s dangerous to expect wines to be extraordinary! The best bottle you’ve ever had in your life could be a simple Pigato, if you’re sitting in the right spot on the coast of Liguria, eating the right fried little fish, with the right person. That could be the perfect wine, because context is just as important as anything.

Is there a wine in your life like that?
In 1989 or 1990, I got a call from Good Morning America saying that Julia Child wanted to do a report on my home kitchen, and would I let that happen? I said, “Well, who the hell wouldn’t?” Afterward, we had lunch at Union Square Cafe. We walked there, and, I mean,taxi drivers were stopping to wave to her—I felt like a celebrity just being near her. We had short ribs and a Beaujolais, which you’d think would be too light, but it was just perfect. What made things even better was that she ordered a second bottle and pounded the whole thing back by herself. Seeing how happy it made her was one of the best wine experiences of my life. Either that or my wife and I going to Fèlsina in Tuscany to taste wine with our then year-and-a-half-old daughter, and watching her teethe on a Chianti cork.

[On why he loves the 2011 Sky Zin:]
“I’ve always liked Zins, but as they became more alcoholic over time, I largely gave up on them. This Napa one hits all the right notes, though: It has fruit and ripeness yet also does this mysterious trick of coming off restrained and lovely.”
Sky Zinfandel 2011