Wine Review: 2008 Ratzenberger Bacharacher Riesling Sekt Brut

13 12 2015

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Redefining the world of German bubbly.

Redefining the world of German bubbly.

What’s this?  A wine review?  Isn’t this a whisky blog now?  OK, I probably deserved that.  But Advent only comes around once per year, and since no one yet has taken up the torch of my idea to find 24 good half-bottles and make a Wine Advent Calendar, this is what you get instead.  For those wine lovers out there just dying for the calendar to turn to January, this one’s to tide you over.

This bottle is another selection from Cellar Direct (cellardirect.ca), the online Canadian Natural Wine Club that allows people from all over the country to have high-quality, artisanal, naturally made wines shipped to their door via an array of tailored subscription packages ranging from $40 to $80 per month depending on your location and the package selected.  Since I last wrote about the service back in September, it has revamped its website, introduced an offer of two free bonus bottles for every 24-bottle annual subscription, and added an online shop (which will be operational in January) where Cellar Direct members can order more of their favourite bottles over and above their subscription.  It has also gotten rave reviews in BC, where price increases and regulatory chaos have otherwise made reasonably priced access to many good wines a pipe dream.

The one thing I can so far say for sure about Cellar Direct is that its selections are not fooling around; each of the three bottles I’ve now had the chance to try from their library have been of exceptional quality and proud ambassadors of where they’re from.  These are wines from somewhere as opposed to wines that could be from anywhere, and this gets all the more impressive given that this latest wine is a bottle of Sekt.  Nobody usually makes quality and terroir proclamations about Sekt (German sparkling wine), and for good reason:  most Sekt doesn’t deserve it.  In fact, it’s hard to say anything specific about Sekt as a category because it might be the least regulated category of Old World wine I’ve come across.  German wine law doesn’t mandate that Sekt be made of any particular types of grapes; it doesn’t even require those grapes to be from Germany; and it doesn’t require the wine to attain its bubbles any particular way.  Sekt is required to be at least 10% abv, but after that, all bets are off.

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In practice, about 95% of Sekt is made using the Charmat or tank method, which I described in detail recently here in this post about Prosecco, bubbles that are produced in the same way.  The tank method is a way to carbonate wines more cheaply on a broader scale, where a base wine is made and then yeast and sugar are added to it to induce a secondary fermentation in large airtight steel tanks, a process which generates carbon dioxide that dissolves into the wine in the form of bubbles.  About 90% of Sekt contains at least a portion of imported grapes, often from Italy and France; the most common grapes used are Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the actual laundry list is longer than that.  Almost all of it is non-vintage.  The result, as you might expect, is cheap, drinkable, generally uneventful fizz.

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This bottle is the exact opposite of everything in the above paragraph.  It falls within that 5% of Sekt that is not made in a tank, instead employing the traditional method made famous by Champagne to get its bubbles.  Instead of being carbonated in batch, traditional method wines are carbonated by adding the sugar/yeast combination to each individual bottle of base wine, starting individual secondary fermentations that result in smaller, finer, more persistent bubbles and more yeast-induced flavour characteristics.  This one actually sat on its dead yeast cells, or lees, for 2 full years after secondary fermentation was complete for flavour and textural development.  It is 100% Riesling, Germany’s (and the world’s) greatest grape, and not only are all the grapes in it from Germany, they’re all from a few select vineyards surrounding a specific village in Germany (Bacharach — the “er” in “Bacharacher” on the label means “of Bacharach” or “from Bacharach”.  Also, while we’re here, “Ratzenberger Bacharacher” has to be both the most fun-to-say and the most Germanic wine name I’ve seen in a while).  And it is a single-vintage wine, new to market despite its grapes being harvested in 2008.  Some serious work went into this one.

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Ratzenberger’s wines are from the Mittelrhein (literally translated, “middle Rhine”, due to its position along the length of the Rhine river), which is due west of Frankfurt at the point where the Mosel River — and thus Germany’s most famous wine region, the Mosel Valley — runs northeast and hits a T intersection with the Rhine.  The town of Bacharach is just south of this T, and the Mittelrhein is often seen as a continuation of the Mosel due to this proximity and the similarly strong river influence on grape-growing and winemaking.  Just like in the Mosel, vineyards in the Mittelrhein are focused on northern slopes (which face south and thus get the sun exposure necessary for full ripening) and are extremely steep, to the point where they can’t be farmed by machines.  Ratzenberger has holdings in 3 slate-soiled vineyards in the area that are angled at between 50 and 60 degrees down towards the river.  Seriously, get out a protractor and see what 60 degrees looks like.  Imagine farming on that.  That’s insane.  The grapes for Sekt mainly come from the Bacharacher Kloster Furstental vineyard south of the town, but since other vineyards’ grapes are also used in the wine the label can only designate the town and not the vineyard.

Cork & Cage Rating:  6.5/10 (All bubble corks look the same, but cool cage!)

Cork & Cage Rating: 6.5/10 (All bubble corks look the same, but cool cage!)

That was a lot of set-up, but people (including me, before this) see “Sekt” on a label, think Henkell Trocken and shut down their critical senses, so it’s important to differentiate this from that.  Think of this bottle like vintage Champagne (farmed off a 60 degree rock wall) and you will be in the right frame of mind.  The 2008 Ratzenberger was a deep lemon colour in the glass, with fine, quietly persistent bubbles; it actually wasn’t as dark as I expected given its age.  The traditional method production is evident on the nose but is met with a surprising lush sweetness despite the lack of any dosage, mixing autolytic notes like toast and walnuts with marmalade, lychee, golden apple, caramel corn and white flowers.  The palate is just off the deep end:  the rich lusciousness of ripe Riesling, matched with the sparkling electricity of the bubbles, circular saw acidity and the aristocracy of flavour brought about by lengthy lees aging.  It tastes fresh, vibrant, layered and mature at the same time, exuding a whirlwind of salted caramel, poached pear, chalk, fresh croissant, white peach, tree bark, spice and black licorice — about four or five totally disparate flavour types, all at once.  The finish just sails.

This is the best Sekt I’ve ever had, by a vast margin.  While it shares a quality pedigree with a good Champagne, its German roots and Riesling soul give it a different feel from its French counterpart:  more piercing fruit, more prominent mineralogy, less brioche and biscuity notes.  Whoever gets this in their Cellar Direct shipment is extraordinarily lucky, and should invite me over.

92 points

$35 to $40 CDN (on the Cellar Direct online store)

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