As I hinted at yesterday, tonight’s wine is special to me. It’s one of my “eureka” wines, one of those rare bottles that turned my general interest in wine into a huge passion and that continues to drive me to learn, read, taste and write about wine. If you’re wondering why German Riesling is my favourite kind of wine, this bottle can take a lot of the credit. The first time I had it was at a casual tasting that some friends and I organized a couple years ago. I picked the wine as a curiosity, as something new to try en route to the more expensive and exciting big reds waiting at the end of the evening. Instead, the first sip of this Riesling stopped time and drowned out everything else. I couldn’t tell you what any of the other wines I had that night tasted like, but I remember this one intensely. I haven’t had it again until tonight.
While this bottle hasn’t yet been featured on Pop & Pour, its label has: it was a guest star in my post back in March about how to decipher German wine labels. Believe it or not, German labels are a consumer’s best friend, because they tell you almost everything you need to know about a wine. The side label of this bottle says “Qualitätswein mit Prädikat”, which is the legal term for the highest quality level of German wine (it literally translates to “quality wine with special attributes”); it also says “Riesling” (the grape, which isn’t shown on most European labels but is always shown in Germany), “Mosel” (the region in Germany where the wine is from) and the alcohol level (9%). The front label shows the producer (Joh. Jos. Prum, one of Germany’s best), the vintage (2007) and the ripeness designation of the wine (Kabinett, the base designation for German quality wines — it basically indicates that the grapes used were at normal ripeness levels at harvest). It then says “Wehlener Sonnenuhr”. If you apply the Two Word “Er” Rule I have discussed in prior posts, you can determine that the word ending in “er” is the name of the town closest to the wine’s home vineyard (Wehlen) and the word after the “er” is the name of the vineyard or group of vineyards where the wine’s grapes were grown (in this case it’s a single vineyard, Sonnenuhr, which means “sundial”). Wehlener Sonnenuhr is one of the top vineyards in the Mosel valley.
In order to fully appreciate this wine, you need to understand just how hard it is to grow ripe grapes in this area of the world. Grapevines generally only grow in latitudes between 30 and 50 degrees from the equator, both north and south — all of the world’s main wine regions fall within these bands of latitude. The town of Wehlen is at 49.9333 degrees North latitude; in other words, it’s at the absolute northern limit of where grapes can properly grow. That means that German producers in the Mosel have to use every trick at their disposal to get their grapes to ripen. As a result, (1) almost all of the good vineyards are right along the banks of the Mosel river, which regulates temperature and keeps the immediate surroundings from getting too cool, (2) the most well-regarded vineyards are on the northern bank of the river so that they get the southern sun exposure, (3) these vineyards are usually planted on extreme slopes (up to 70 degrees…only 20 degrees away from completely vertical!), which let more of each vine can get sun at once, and (4) the soils are predominantly dark slate, which absorbs heat and reflects it back out to the grapes so they can ripen further. The Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard looks like this:
Can you imagine trying to harvest that? All this just to get ripe grapes! The next time you see a forlorn little section of German Rieslings in your neighbourhood wine shop, just remember the levels of human ingenuity and effort that went in to putting them there!
But I digress. What I love about the 2007 Prum Sonnenuhr is that it has all the underlying ingredients to be a potentially classic example of German Kabinett Riesling — top producer, top vineyard, excellent vintage — and then it delivers on that promise. In the glass, it’s a pale clear lemon/straw colour that shows a slight hint of effervescence on opening. Like most Rieslings, it is intensely aromatic, although like some Prum wines, it tends to start a little funky (burnt rubber, charcoal, and some oily note) before opening up to reveal green apple, pear, slate, floral and mineral characteristics — think apple cider at a mountain hot spring. Then that first sip, which brought me right back to my very first taste of this Sonnenuhr. The wine is just so alive on the palate, teeming with energy, life and soul but also focus and precision. Although light in body like most German Rieslings, it is creamier and more luscious than the standard Kabinett, expertly balanced, with a touch of sweetness that is kept in check by laser-like acidity. Fresh flavours of lime and wet river rocks mix with exotic fruits like white peach and Asian pear, all leading into a long (well over a minute), persistent, mineral-driven finish.
I defy anyone to dislike this wine. It somehow manages to be delicate and intricate, but still intense and focused, but still lush and pleasurable, all at the same time. It’s not cheap (I think this bottle was $42), but for a classic example of what one of the best white grapes in the world can do in its ancestral home, it’s a steal. I am now out of bottles, so if any Calgary retailer is reading this and has some Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr in stock, give me a shout! This wine opened my eyes both to Germany and to Riesling and remains one of my all-time favourite bottles of white wine, and even though it’s only in the base Kabinett ripeness designation, it will still be able to age for at least another 10-15 years. The bottom line: if you see any bottle of JJ Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling anywhere, don’t hesitate: buy it, drink it, and then tell me about it. I promise you that you’ll be glad you did!
$40 to $50 CDN