Calgary Wine Life: Weingut Thörle Tasting @ Vine Arts

2 06 2017
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Christoph Thörle

It’s been a bit of a banner wine week, seven days tailored to the precise preferences of my palate.  My personal favourite types of red and white wine are Washington Syrah and German Riesling respectively, and late May has seen visionary producers specializing in each of these areas visit our fair city.  My Washington wine prayers were answered last week when Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars put on a remarkable Master Class in Calgary; this week it was Germany’s turn, thanks to an eye-opening portfolio tasting put on by the dynamic Christoph Thörle of the eponymous Weingut Thörle, from the global home of Riesling’s Rheinhessen region.  Through four different earth-shattering Rieslings and seven total wines, Thörle took us through what must be some of the world’s best expressions of my first vinous love.

If you say the word “Rheinhessen” to a wine person, the tenor of their reaction might be a generational one.  The region, located in west-central Germany, due south of Rheingau and southwest of Frankfurt, is the largest in the country in terms of planted acres and is tailor-made for grape-growing:  it’s dry, sunny and relatively warm, with limestone-based soils overlaid by a variety of alluvial deposits, as long ago it was largely part of an underwater seabed.  Rheinhessen once had a reputation to match its physical advantages, and was long considered one of the pinnacle areas of German viniculture.  But a mid-20th-century flirtation with new lab-crossing grape varieties and mass-market, quantity-focused bottlings turned into a 1970s and 80s Liebfraumilch obsession that saw lesser varietals dominate much of the vineyard area and Blue Nun and Black Tower nearly obliterate the world’s prior impressions of German wine.  If you stopped paying attention to Rheinhessen then (as many did), you will have missed out on what’s going there now:  a quiet quality renaissance, and a return to the right grapes properly planted and tended on the right sites, perhaps not better personified than by Christoph Thörle and his brother Johannes.

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They took over the operation of the Thörle family winery in 2006, when Christoph was just 22 and Johannes 24.  Together they have overseen an expansion of the estate’s vineyard holdings and a corresponding increase in annual production, paired with a return to simple, hands-off viticulture and winemaking practices:  no pesticides or herbicides in the vineyards, multiple-pass harvests, all natural yeasts and no additives in the cellar, minimal sulphur at bottling.  Weingut Thörle now has 80 acres of vine holdings, remarkably spread over 100+ different vineyard parcels but largely centered around the town of Saulheim in north-central Rheinhessen.  The area features a wide array of different slopes, soils and sun exposures, allowing for the production of multiple different varietals, and Saulheim itself is surrounded by Thörle’s three crown-jewel vineyards:  Probstey, Schlossberg and Hölle.

Thörle has been generating increasing acclaim for both its white (Riesling, Silvaner, Chardonnay and more) and red (Pinot Noir, known Germanically as Spätburgunder) wines and made its glorious entrance into the Alberta market last year.  Now some new offerings are on their way to the province, and we were fortunate enough to have Christoph talk us through most of them, including a few bottles that might change your perspective on, well, everything.

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2016 Thörle Riesling Feinherb

The term “feinherb” on a German Riesling bottle indicates that an off-dry wine awaits inside; this one has around 17 g/L of residual sugar and clocks in at a svelte 11% abv.  As a regional blended bottling of Rieslings sourced from multiple Rheinhessen parcels, it is, in Christoph Thörle’s candid words, “a blend of the barrels that didn’t make it” into the higher-designation wines.  The Feinherb was fermented 90% in stainless steel tanks and 10% in large old oak casks and starts off somewhat quiet aromatically before unleashing almighty fire on the tastebuds, bursting with candied lemon, honeydew, green apple and grassy flavours.  It is lean but still mouth-coating, almost powdery in texture – a pinpoint balance of sugar and acid with a surprisingly lengthy finish.  Crushable to be sure, but layered too.  Would that all “entry-level” wines show up like this.

90-91 points

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2015 Thörle Riesling Saulheimer Probstey

After that one quick welcome wine, we immediately launched into the heart of the Thörle lineup, a 1-2-3 punch of its Riesling grand crus (or, more accurately, Einzellage Lagenweine – top designated single vineyards).  All of the Probstey, Schlossberg and Hölle vineyards are found within minutes of each other just north of Saulheim (hence the addition of the “Saulheimer” identifier in the wine’s name, although Thörle has opted for less visual clutter and left it off of the front label, a remarkable and highly unusual show of minimalist restraint from a German winery).  Probstey is the smallest of the three sites, located at the lowest point of the area elevation-wise and situated on 25-30% grade slopes which are lined with ancient drainage-aiding yellow sea sand and are continually exposed to wind.  All of the Riesling vines are at least 30 years old, and the resulting Einzellage wine is fermented fully dry — and I mean fully, with a scant 1 g/L of residual sugar left over.

Interestingly, all of the fermentation for these top-vineyard Rieslings is performed in old oak casks, a relative rarity for global Riesling outside of Germany.  The neutral oak does not add any flavours to the wine (a sacrilegious concept for Riesling), but it gives them a textural roundness and creaminess that they would otherwise lack, something I found helped balance out their daunting acidity in the absence of any leftover sweetness.  The Probstey Riesling was an electrically coloured wine whose friendly tropical pineapple/white grape aromas belied a lurking powerhouse, pristine and precise and insanely, almost angrily focused, red apple and wet rocks and icicles just saved from austerity by a lush, luxurious mouthfeel. This is Wine #2??  There’s somewhere more to go from here?

92-93 points

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2015 Thörle Riesling Saulheimer Hölle

“Hölle” is a worrisome sort of thing to name your vineyard, because it means “Hell” in German.  Thankfully it is also an old-dialect way of saying “hill”, which is a more accurate depiction in this case:  the Hölle Einzellage is a south-facing valley slope that features the highest concentration of limestone and chalk in the area and is somewhat sheltered from the elements.  At just under 2 g/L of sweetness, this Riesling is equally as dry as the Probstey, but as of the first sensory interaction with the glass it is even more terrifying, positively quivering with nervy pent-up energy and presenting a grandness of scale most wines do not even consider.  Like its sibling, it manages to be simultaneously lean and racy and yet also rich and expansive, with cheek-puckering acid playing off multiple gravelly layers of texture.  Stony, spicy, salty, somehow honeyed without any remote impression of sweetness, the Hölle is achingly taut, built for decades ahead but already displaying its raw power and awesome control, a tightrope of rock and ice.  This is an all-world bottle of Riesling.  I’ve probably drank more bottles of this varietal than anything else in my wine-loving life, and without question this is one of the very best I’ve ever come across.  Oh, and did I mention it’s going to be on the shelf at a shade under $50?  Run, don’t walk.  And be afraid.

94-95+ points

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Actual items recently pulled from the Saulheimer Schlossberg vineyard:  fossilized sea shell, calcareous limestone, raw iron nugget.  Soil complexity!

2013 Thörle Riesling Saulheimer Schlossberg

If Hölle is the king of Thörle’s vineyards, Schlossberg might be the queen, Saulheim’s highest-elevation amphitheatre to the Rhine that is lined with dark clay and iron-based soils (and by “iron-based”, I don’t mean high in Fe mineral content; I mean there are chunks of raw iron in the vineyard dirt).  This bottle was two years older than the previous single-vineyards, giving the Riesling inside a welcome opportunity to stretch out and settle down, which was almost surely a key reason why the Schlossberg was by far the most expressive wine of the trio.  It was craziest mind-bending example of a wine that your brain incessantly tries to convince you is sweet when it’s actually not at all:  despite being only at 2.5 g/L of residual sugar, it smells almost Spätlese-y, mixing swirling intense florals, honey, candied pineapple, mango and brûlée.  The ripe, layered palate is open and inviting, its age lending celery salt, black jellybean and maybe a hint of diesel to the core of mandarin and stone, but this lush expansiveness and dessert-style flavour set are not actually accompanied by perceptible sweetness on the tastebuds, making you constantly check your premises with every sip.  Maybe not as driven and determined as the Hölle, but a remarkable wine in its own right.

93-94 points

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Now THAT is a screwcap.  Peak Stelvin.

2015 Thörle Silvaner Saulheimer Probstey

After three straight full-bore Rieslings delivering the grandeur and intensity of a Wagner opera, there may have been no better time for this Silvaner, one of my favourite recent additions to the Alberta retail scene and a serious bottle unafraid to show all of the quirks of its personality.  In the middle of the 20th century, Silvaner took up nearly half of Rheinhessen’s growing area thanks to its natural vigour and high yields, making it an ideal blending component for large-scale wines.  Its star has since dimmed, but this has proved a blessing in disguise, as some wineries are now taking the time to pull back on yields and allow for greater concentration of flavours in the grape.  And what flavours they are:  this bottle spews out potpourri, maple syrup, anise, white peach, vanilla bean, banana Runts and butterscotch in a carefree but not chaotic sort of way, and its luscious, oily texture hides underlying tensile strength that bites down on the finish.  Captivating and absurdly expressive, this keeps you coming back to the glass searching for something more.  It joyfully punches any Viognier you might think of in the face and says:  “Check this out.”

91-92 points

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2015 Thörle Spätburgunder

We closed with two escalating expressions of Weingut Thörle’s red portfolio, both Spätburgunders.  Pinot Noir now makes up a significant proportion of Thörle’s production and is clearly a point of focus; Christoph called it “the red Riesling” during the tasting, which a German compliment of the highest order to any grape.  Thörle organizes its wine lineup much like a Burgundian producer would, with the wines climbing a pyramid of quality as they zero in on more and more specific growing locations.   Regional bottlings like this one form an entry tier, followed by village-level bottlings (like the one below) one step up and single-vineyard expressions at the peak.

This Rheinhessen version of a Bourgogne Rouge was made from Pinot blended from a variety of younger vineyards and was fermented and aged in old neutral oak.  It is a completely transparent ruby in the glass and exhibits a similar aromatic/flavour dichotomy as the Riesling lineup, smelling lush and extroverted (baked raspberry, cherry, roses) and then sharpening up and tasting locked and linear (rhubarb and strawberry and savoury herbs).  Christoph called it “just a wine you can drink”, and while its purity and pitch-perfect varietal expression certainly make it a bit more than that, there is something to be said for expertly fulfilling that prime objective.

88-89 points

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2015 Thörle Saulheimer Spätburgunder

Thörle’s mid-level village Pinot is sourced from 15 to 35 year-old vines from higher quality vineyards located in an around the winery’s home base of Saulheim; the Saulheimer name finally gets front-label focus because the wine does not come from one single vineyard (though incidentally, I did get to taste the Grand Cru-level Saulheimer Hölle Spätburgunder just now and could barely assess it through the choirs of angels singing).  The oak is more prominent on this bottling because fermentation and aging were barrique-based, with the level of the toasting on these smaller casks adjusted annually to account for the characteristics of each vintage.  Only 20% new barrels and 80% neutral barrels are used, but their effect is immediately noticeable in the Saulheimer’s dill, sage and bakers’ chocolate aromas laced around potent cherry, raspberry and violet notes.  This is unlike whatever image you might have in your head of a German red, lithe yet powerful, its raw energy kept on track by parallel streams of acidity and rounded out by toasty complexity.  As compared to the base Spätburgunder, the Saulheimer sacrifices fruit purity for expansiveness and complexity, a risk with Pinot but one that elevates the finished product in this case.  This is definitely keep improving with more time and integration, but in the meantime it remains one of the best quality-to-price Pinot Noirs available in Alberta.  I think Weingut Thörle has found a permanent home here.

91-92 points

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