Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jews and German Riesling: the untold story

I'm in Seattle enjoying Riesling Rendezvous, an international meeting of Riesling producers, and one said something very interesting at a panel I attended.

Roman Niewodniczanski is the owner and winemaker of Van Volxem. He's a very serious, sincere guy who returned to Germany after a peripatetic existence visiting the world's wine regions. In the 1990s, Californians Jim Clendenen and Randall Grahm urged him to return home to the Mosel because it was one of the world's greatest terroirs.

At the time, German Riesling was in a low ebb on the world market.

"I went to the library and discovered wines from the Mosel in 1900 were some of the most expensive in the world," Roman said. "I have seen the records. They cost more than Chateau d'Yquem, and more than all the best Bordeaux."

"I asked myself, what happened in the meantime? One thing we did was kill all the Jewish customers. It's true. The wine trade was Jewish."

It's a provocative point and one I hadn't heard before, and I leave it to German historians to put it in perspective. I give Roman credit for addressing a topic most Germans would rather not. But he's that kind of guy -- he thinks about history, and he's honest.

"I asked myself, 'what kind of wine did people in the Mosel make in 1910 when it was so expensive?' Ten years ago, German winemakers would apologize for our wines not being bone dry. I'm very proud our wines are not bone dry. This is the best style our wines can be -- the fruit, the minerality, the balance, low alcohol. It's best when it's not bone dry and I'm proud to make it that way."

We tasted Van Volxem Wiltenger Gottesfuss Riesling from 2008 and 2001 as part of a panel to see how Riesling changes with age. I really liked both. The younger wine is quite floral, with notes of jasmine, apricot and white pepper, and even some tannin for mouthfeel. Roman says this is another historic point -- Germans from a century ago would have tannin in the wine from skin contact, whereas most modern Riesling winemakers, especially in the U.S., eschew it.

The older Van Volxem had developed mandarin orange character along with apricot, jasmine, petrol and caraway. Both were delicious; I'd drink Roman's wine old and young, no matter what the annoying panel moderator said (he was a self-adoring Brit who claimed "young people" could be conditioned to hate rock and roll if they were locked in a room and played Bach for a week; he thought the same treatment could wean them from enjoying young, fresh-tasting wine. This guy is like a nightmare sommelier who makes average folks fear wine. I want to lock him in a closet and subject him to the Ramones' first four albums. But I digress.)

There were other German winemakers on the panel, and they looked uncomfortable when Roman mentioned the Jewish-Riesling connection. Unfortunately we didn't explore it. But I'd like to. It makes intuitive sense: Jews are required by their religion to drink wine on religious occasions. Germany was chock full of Jews, and was the closest good wine-producing nation to other large Jewish communities in Poland and Russia.

We concluded the panel tasting with an amazing wine from 1946 Germany: a Staatsweingut Kloster Eberbach "Cabinet" Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling from the Rheingau that was so aromatically complex and interesting that I found myself reaching for new descriptors, like 'new car smell' and 'plum marmalade.' The point was to show us that Riesling ages almost indefinitely, and this wine succeeded.

I wished I had more than the tiny tasting pour as the annoying Brit prattled on about the world in 1946, telling us that the US had shown off its military might by blowing up Bikini Island and England was short of heating oil for its government offices. Hello! Germany, 1946! Poverty, drastically reduced population, occupation, national sense of deserved humiliation! And no Jewish wine trade. And yet, somebody somehow made this great wine that we could enjoy 64 years later while I, for one, pondered whether or not Germany had murdered a generation of winemakers along with some of its best customers. I guess like most great wines, some conversations are good if they leave you wanting a bit more.


Terroir Stickermeister Steven said...

Anyone who loves Riesling, is honest & inquisitive about historical truth and sees the Ramones first album as the cure-all is OK in my book! L'Chaim!

Andrzej Daszkiewicz said...

Roman Niewodniczanski is half Polish, in fact he was born in Poland. This might explain a bit his more open attitude towards German history.

Greetings from Poland!