Jefford on Monday: Europe’s screwcap kings

Jefford on Monday: Europe’s screwcap kings

Andrew Jefford finds out why cork looks finished in Franconia – and much more…

European wine-producers are generally reluctant to adopt screwcap closures; consumer disaffection is often said to be the cause.  Not so in Franconia: screwcaps, I discovered recently to my astonishment, are now used for 99 per cent of white wines (and whites constitute 81 per cent of production in this region of Northern Bavaria).  They’re used for four out of every five bottles of red, too.  This surely constitutes the most comprehensive adoption of screwcap by any European region. I had the chance to taste one or two older bottles when I was there … but we often had to hunt around for a corkscrew.

Why?  “In 2001 and 2002 we had a lot of problems with natural cork,” explained local wine consultant Hermann Mengler.  “Our white wines are very sensitive to cork issues in any case; two or three wineries were bankrupted because of that.  We had a lot of synthetic corks for a few years, but from 2006 screwcap took over.”  It’s important to note that four out of every five Franconian wines are consumed within 100 km of their birthplace: many wineries sell more than half their wine directly to consumers, and have a close communicative relationship with them.  The region produced a leaflet about screwcap closures to give to consumers; common sense and German cultural respect for chemistry and engineering did the rest.  The quality and style of screwcaps and bottles used in Franconia is high and the results are stylish; Alsace take note.

The flask question

Anyone who has ever visited the Main river vineyards will know that the squat, rounded bocksbeutel is a local cultural icon which, for better or worse, made drinking Franconian wine a distinctive experience.  Even in its heyday two or three decades ago, it was never used for more than the top 50 per cent of wines, but that usage has now dropped back to 27 per cent or so.  In 2015, the Hamburg designer Peter Schmidt came up with a ‘contemporary’ bocksbeutel (a little larger, with bevelled edges) to update tradition.  Alsace-style flute bottles and slope-shouldered burgundy-style bottles are much used for ambitious wines here, and Bordeaux-style bottles for simpler wines.

Is the bocksbeutel an asset or a handicap?  I think the original versions are gorgeous objects, comforting and rounded, and they can look exquisite with elegant labelling – just check out those of Castell, for example, or Bürgerspital.  Internationally, though, they’re probably a handicap and might well hold back the region’s export potential.  As several of those commenting on last week’s Silvaner article pointed out, they’re a catastrophe for restaurant storage, failing to fit any known wine rack other than a specially designed one.  Mateus Rosé’s global success, as both wine and lamp holder, probably didn’t help the cause of this noble, eighteenth century pilgrim’s flask, either.

The geologist’s playground

Everyone who enjoys a dash of geology in their wine should note Franconia, as it’s the key global wine region for ‘drinking’ the Triassic period (which began with the worst extinction episode the world has yet seen, around 250 million years ago).  The earth’s landmass was concentrated into a single continent, Pangaea, at that time, and the hot, dry conditions and shallow seas led to deposits of red sandstone (buntsandstein), shelly limestone (muschelkalk) and shales, claystones and evaporites (keuper).  Each is found in succession in Franconia as bedrock contributing to the soil formation of vineyards: sandstone dominates in the west, shelly limestone in the centre (where most of the great vineyards lie, including Würzburger Stein and Escherndorfer Lump), and keuper-derived soils in the east – including at Castell, where you can find pebbles of alabaster (a milky white evaporite) in the vineyards.  Whether any of this has a direct effect on wine aroma and flavour I don’t know; topography and climatic factors strike me as more important.  But each contributes to propitious vineyards soils, and it’s rare to find the divisions of a single period represented with this level of clarity in a wine region.

Trocken: the real deal

Franconia can, with some justice, claim to be the original home of dry German wine; moreover trocken is defined differently here to elsewhere in the country.  In Franconia, it means a maximum of 5 g/l sugar regardless of acidity, whereas elsewhere in the country a trocken wine can contain up to 9 g/l of sugar providing that the acidity level exceeds the sugar level by 2 g/l.  The result is a firm, structured dryness in Franconian wine which you struggle to find elsewhere in Germany (though Baden comes close).

Grand Cru questions

Followers of German wine will know about the term Grosses Gewächs used by VDP estates to denote dry wines produced from sites classified by the VDP as Grosse Lage or ’Grands Crus’ (completely different, remember, to the general German wine term Grosslage or ‘collective vineyard’).

Many wine lovers assume that the use of this term on labels is restricted to those estates paying the substantial VDP membership fees, and thus guaranteed by the organisation – but no.  As Wendelin Grass of DIVINO (the commercial name of the co-operative at Nordheim) pointed out, “Grosses Gewächs cannot be copyrighted,” and it is, moreover, “up to each producer to arrive at his or her own definition.”  This decidedly hazardous state of affairs is why the VDP definitions of some Grosse Lage vineyards take a different form: VDP Grosses Gewächs wines from the Escherndorfer Lump, for example, are called ‘Escherndorf Am Lumpen 1655’, covering a core 10 ha within the overall 25 ha vineyard.  So if you want a real German Grand Cru, take care.   (This is the briefest of allusions to what may be the most complex debate in today’s wine world and I’ll spare you the rest … for now.)

Riesling: the missing link

I’m fascinated by Australian Riesling.  This fine wine (especially wonderful from Western Australia’s Frankland and Porongurup, South Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys, and Victoria’s Henty) strikes me as providing the world benchmark for structured dry Riesling, and I have never come across anything quite like it in Europe or indeed elsewhere in the world.  Most German dry Riesling is fruitier, while the dry Rieslings of Alsace and Austria (especially the Wachau) tend to be more richly dry, lacking the divine austerity which is such a strong part of the appeal of the Australian versions.

Then I went to Franconia.  Franconian Rieslings are not the same as their Australian counterparts (they tend to be greener, sappier and more planty in flavour), but they have enough in common to strike me as being ‘the missing link’ between the European and the Australian incarnations of this great grape.  So, to conclude, here are notes on five outstanding examples.

Weingut Arnold, Erste Lage, Marsberg Riesling Trocken 2016

A finely scented wine: subtle fruits in the pear-quince repertoire, with a teasing, pure, softly poised palate.  There are crystallised fruit and green angelica flavours despite the dry orbit, and a seamless, creamy, graceful finish.  (Technically a Grosse Lage, but Bruno Arnold declassifies the wine since the vines are still young.)  91

Brennfleck, Himmelsleiter, Escherndorfer Riesling Trocken 2015

Like many Franconian Rieslings, this smells more of Franconia than Riesling, with its sappy freshness.  On the palate, it’s lively and vivid, bracing yet firm, with ample green apple and lime fruit, structure and stony purity.  91 

Bürgerspital, Erste Lage, Randersacker Teufelskeller Riesling RR Trocken 2016

Hints of coriander and melon on the nose, then an Eden-Valley-like palate of long, stony lime-cordial fruit.  Pure, gratifying and food-friendly.  91

Fürstlich Castell’sches Domänenamt, Erste Lage, Casteller Hohnart Riesling Trocken 2016

The slightly cooler conditions at Castell in the east of the region give a prettier style of Riesling: ginger, whitecurrant and pale red cherry scents and an almost honeyed palate: honeysuckle and more ginger, with an understated tenderness.  Stylish and delicious.  91

Weingut Schmitt’s Kinder, Grosses Gewächs, Pfülben Riesling Trocken 2015

Articulate scents of spice, rose and citrus, then a taut, tense, crunchy palate full of dry drama: both sappy and lime-fresh, with a big shake of the non-fruit notes we call ‘minerality’ on the finish.  Shockingly good.  94

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