Over the past two decades, grower-bottled Champagne has become increasingly prominent on lists and shelves at virtually all serious restaurants and wine retailers. What was once viewed as a branded commodity is now plumbed as a source of intrigue for its reflection of terroir and vigneron vision, not to mention its culinary compatibility. How long will it take for a similar shift in perspective to elevate perceptions of sparkling wines grown elsewhere?
Regions closely associated with sparkling wine typically market it as a commodity, and too often their very success stymies growers who aspire to wines of distinction. This dilemma is nowhere more evident than in Germany and Austria, where Sekt is a cultural institution, but relies mostly on industrial-scale bulk methods. In Germany, a recently introduced sparkling wine category is designed to circumvent any commercial stigma associated with Sekt: “Crémant,” when conjoined with the name of a German growing region, henceforth designates wine that meets not only the criteria requisite for “Winzersekt,” notably a grower’s own grapes, traditional bottle fermentation and labeling for region, cépage(s) and vintage, but also a maximum yield in juice per weight of grapes and a minimum of nine months’ lees contact in bottle. In Austria, the imminent completion of a three-tiered classification of sparkling wine signals a welcome desire to recognize hand-harvested, classically made sparkling wines that showcase a grower’s chops and place of origin.
Several inspiring sparkling wine efforts have recently emerged from the Saar. This Mosel tributary, known for a climate whose rigors challenge the ripening of riesling yet result in some of the greatest, has a century-old Sekt tradition. Sent by his father in 1900 to study in Champagne and copy its success, Adolf Wagner parlayed his experience into an impressive Sektkellerei, Schloss Saarfels. Though large-scale production was curtailed by well-known vicissitudes of German history, descendent Heinz Wagner and others began reviving Saar Sekt at an estate level in the 1980s.
Another turning point in the Saar’s viticultural history came when Bitburg Brewery scion Roman Niewodniczanski acquired Weingut Van Volxem in 1999. Recognizing this region’s extensive acreage of old vines as a treasure, he began taking out contracts on vineyards. Determination to, in his words, “rediscover a style of wine for which people once paid more than for Bordeaux First Growths” soon encompassed sparkling ambitions. Beginning with the 2010 disgorgement of a 2007 vintage riesling, Van Volxem’s Brut 1900 has accentuated the leesy textural richness that’s become a hallmark of this estate’s still wines, albeit one controversial for deviating from Saar riesling styles of the late 20th century.
Van Volxem’s neighbor, Max von Kunow, is also part of the history and contemporary renaissance of sparkling wines in the Saar. His Von Hövel 2008 Riesling Brut Reserve was “the first product I truly made at the winery myself,” he says, noting that his father was in a coma at the time. “I went through the cellar and selected casks that I thought would be really good, assembling a cuvée with Spätlese trocken from Hütte and Scharzhofberg”—the estate’s flagship sites. This was hardly the sort of “base wine” an earlier generation would have “sacrificed” for Sekt, but in other respects, young von Kunow aspired to build on a family tradition, his grandparents having helped found a grower-owned Sekt winery in 1983. “In those days,” he relates, “the base wines spent two years in cask and then four years in the bottle. So I made my wine just like that, in our cellar, which has a stable, low temperature and high humidity critical to obtaining a super Sekt. Most German growers turn over their base wine to specialists, giving as justification that it’s exorbitantly expensive to purchase disgorgement equipment and a specialized bottling line. But that’s bull. You can rent everything you need nowadays. I took the wine to a Luxembourg facility, took complete control of the process, and dosed with Hütte Auslese.” From a bottle disgorged this July, finely toasted nuttiness was married to piquant peach kernel and mouthwateringly maritime mineral notes suggesting oyster liquor; 11 grams of residual sugar sloughed off; the weight of 12.5 percent alcohol evident but not oppressive; the finish animatingly penetrating.
A yet more startling recent example of Saar Sekt potential arose by accident. Sekt was significant but not prestigious at Weingut Peter Lauer, essential to a portfolio, most of which was, into the 1990s, sold at the Lauers’ hotel restaurant Ayler Kupp. This outlet mopped up residual stocks with such thoroughness that a small-scale former US importer (the author of this column) owned considerably more well-aged specimens of Lauer Ayler rieslings than did the family that grew them. But mopping up did not extend to a considerable cache of undisgorged Sekt from the 1990s stumbled-upon five years ago by Florian Lauer. His father, Peter, apologized for this rare negligence, and suggested to Florian that the contents get sent to a firm that distills marc and fin for the family. “How about we at least taste them?” Florian recalls saying, “and after the first surprised sip I said: ‘Stop! We’re going to sell this wine.’” And they did, briskly, at 40 euros—almost twice what the Lauers ask for their dry single-vineyard wines. A bottle of 1991 Brut Reserve disgorged this September was at once creamy and refreshing, displaying hauntingly mossy, bittersweetly floral aromas, its piquant buckwheat, fruit pip and quinine notes allied to juicy, appley fruit and saliva-inducing, oceanic salinity.
Lauer and von Kunow aren’t alone in recognizing the enormous potential of extended bottle aging. Southern Pfalz quality pioneer Hansjörg Rebholz inaugurated his uncannily complex, late-disgorged Pi No cuvée in 1991. Renowned Nahe vintner Armin Diel rendered his first Cuvée MO Brut Nature, from barrel-fermented wines of the pinot family and never disgorged before 40 months, with vintage 2004, selling it for more than half again as much as one of his Grosse Gewächse. Both wines are remarkable for their balance of creaminess and autolysis with invigorating refreshment and mouthwatering length, Diel’s cuvée having inspired him and daughter Caroline to make late-disgorged sparkling riesling as well.
“How about we at least taste them?” Florian Lauer recalls saying to his father about a cache of undisgorged Sekt from the 1990s. “After the first surprised sip I said: ‘Stop! We’re going to sell this wine.’”
The aforementioned successes, though, represent diminutive lots from estates dominated by prestigious still wines. To reach a significant turning point in public sparkling wine recognition, you need wines at prices that can encourage restaurant glass pours and uninhibited home consumption. In the land of Sekt, that’s now happened at Reichsrat von Buhl. Shortly before his untimely 2013 death, Pfalz entrepreneur Achim Niederberger hired away Champagne Bollinger chef de cave Matthieu Kaufmann to take charge in the von Buhl cellars. Kaufmann’s first still wines proved radical for being picked early (“If the grapes taste good, they’re ripe,” he insists, “I don’t need to look at the analysis to tell nature has done well.”) and taken to analytically near-absolute dryness. An equally striking debut in Sekt is the popularly priced 2013 Riesling Brut released this spring. There was a tradition of Buhl Sekt, but this bottling from contract grapes shows alluring lees integration and texture seldom experienced from its genre. A range of estate bottlings will follow, including riesling from the Pechstein vineyard and several barrel-raised pinot-family blends. “These, though,” notes Kaufmann, “will have to rest for at least five or six years. The Niederbergers understood that we would have to accumulate many, many hundreds of thousands of bottles in the cellar. There are few Sekt producers with such ambitions, patience or willingness to invest.”
Bringing ambition, patience and capital to bear on the potential of site and vine is doubtless a recipe for fine wine in general. But innovative high-quality sparkers can quite by stealth become commercially significant. Witness recent developments in Austria. A vacation in Champagne inspired Karl and Brigitta Steininger to try their hand at Sekt. A quarter century later, it accounts for half of their substantial output, not to mention their strong reputation. In fact, the impending three-tiered classification of Austrian Sekt according to qualitative rigor and geographical specificity would never have come about without the encouragement of this wine-growing couple. Their best-known neighbor, Willi Bründlmayer, admits he launched his first Brut Cuvée “simply to satisfy my Parisian wife. I thought maybe we’d sell a bit within Austria.” Today, Sekt is a major, prestigious export for him, and these two stylistically divergent estates form the nucleus of a sparkling wine movement emerging around Langenlois and seeking its own appellation. Perceptions of vinous effervescence are indeed being transformed, but to what extent we’ll only know in a decade or two.
This story appears in the print issue of December 2015.
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