Were it not for sport, I would never have made it to Germany in 1972 and discovered the delights of Riesling wine. In a rare moment of spontaneity, I bought a ticket to Munich where that year’s Olympic Games were held and ended staying at the home of the South African consul who, besides having passes to the magnificent Olympiastadion, entertained lavishly. Fellow diplomats from South Africa, Britain, Australia, Switzerland and the United States descended on Mr Willem Retief’s rambling Munich home where he and his wife entertained us with barbecues, Mrs Retief’s famous bobotie and enough Riesling to drown a pod of orca whales in.
I did see Valeriy Borsov, the ace Russian sprinter, win the 100m gold and was able to marvel at the legs of German high-jumper Ulrike Nasse-Meyfarth, while at nights I joined the merriment at Casa Retief. Before terrible things happened with that terrorist incident inflicting mayhem and murder on the Israeli athletes’ compound.
What I do remember as well, was truly falling in love with the German Riesling wines that were laid on each evening, one of the reasons being that their low alcohol count meant I could spend the full night imbibing without having an oompah band playing in my head at the next day’s wakening. Being a connected diplomat, Mr Retief hauled out some big-gun German wine names: Weingut Gunderloch, Kloster Eberbach, Schloss Johannisberg – to name a few. And there were even some local winemakers around with whom one could discuss matters vinous between bites of bratwurst and pickles and the frequent bouts of song the German guests would break into.
German Riesling, I discovered then, was intriguing stuff. But much like South African Chenin Blanc, you never quite knew what you were getting. Under one grape’s name, the wine could be drier than the humour of a Berlin accountant, fleshier that a model in a Leni Riefenstahl film or as sweet as the lipstick John F Kennedy tasted when he canoodled Marlene Dietrich. This being the case, of course, before one had learnt to decipher the German wine-labels. Gothically confusing, these bottle adornments made ancient Cyrillic script seem as legible as a Dick Bruno kiddies’ book.
But, astoundingly so, in all its variety of renditions, good Riesling for me remains intensively true to its classic fruit origin. Even the sweet stuff has a spatial, glowing sunniness about it backed by a goose-step run of fine acidity. The dry stuff matches white Burgundy for the riveting expression of geography, and like Burgundy, the wine houses of Germany were founded by monks choosing to grow grapes in challenging environments so as to remain true to the maxim of “the more you suffer, the closer you are to God”. Well, try telling that to someone tackling a cloggy natural armpit wine from the Swartland of South Africa.
I had fond memories of my introduction to Riesling back in ’72 when German winemaker Christoph Hammel breezed into Cape Town recently to talk about the state of wine-play back in his motherland. He was also here to introduce a new label he had made in conjunction with the Delheim Estate from a Riesling spread on Stellenbosch’s Simonsberg. Christoph is a ninth generation winemaker at Hammel&Cie, out in the Pfalz, and during his visit he was keen to share the direction the newer generation of Riesling producers were taking.
He laid-out some German wines from Künstler in the Rheingau and Kruger Rumpf in Nahe, as well as a beautiful number from his own Hammel&Cie outfit, and Herr Hammel enjoyed hearing my noting the lack of a character that one often found in Riesling, namely a slight petrol, turpentine feature. Christoph explained that, yes, that feature was being discarded. Obsessed with the little sun Germany’s wine regions get, the wine-growers had always opened their canopies to invite light and warmth. But, this caused tough, tanned skins which, during fermentation, encouraged the fermenting Riesling to literally fart-out a slight petrol-whiff into the wine.
Subsequently, the German farmers are limiting the Riesling vines’ exposure to sun, creating purer, cleaner white wines with brilliant focus and unhindered varietal accuracy along with vivid terroir manifestation.
Of the three German wines, the Hammel&Cie offered more fun-filled enjoyment in one glass than a whole team of Prussian comedians could provide. There was freshness and lustiness in the wine, but also a poised delicacy and tender coolness. I loved it, have ordered a case.
The Künstler Riesling, made with a touch of oak, offered a clod of apple-peel and smoke, yet was still true and whistle-clean, while the Kruger-Rumpf – from vines planted in 1937 – was just statuesque. White wine at its most complex and engaging.
Of course, Herr Hammel was most enthusiastic about his collaboration with Delheim in making the maiden Staying Alive Riesling 2022, which was cobbled together in partnership with Delheim’s Roelof Lotriet. Christoph had worked at Delheim in 1985 under patriarch Spatz Sperling, fell in love with South Africa and when Spatz’s kids Victor and Nora asked if he would collaborate on a Riesling, it was like asking a Berlin night-club bouncer if he’d like another tattoo. Jawol!
The juice was kept cold for six weeks before fermentation. And this was done with the 1895C yeast, a strain discovered in the residue left in wine bottles aboard a ship that in 1895 had sunk in Lake Zurich, Switzerland. The wine was then aged in barrels consisting of oak staves and acacia wood head to finish-off the uniquely singular approach to Staying Alive.
Tasting the Staying Alive Riesling truly reminded me of experiencing this variety for the first time in the celebratory air of Munich in 1972, also allowing me to relive the sombre, despair-filled atmosphere that set-in over the city after the attacks on the Olympic Village. It is a very fine wine, and one that truly introduces a new taste-offering to the brilliant palette that is South African wine.
Staying Alive takes a line from the Riesling playbook Christoph had recited, the accent being on taut restraint but not without expression, character or personality. The nose is clarion and unobtrusive, just a tickle of dry grape perched on a shard of clean, brittle slate. As it opens up, a brief heather-scented airiness rises from the glass, not the colourful honey-laced scent of spring fynbos, but a northerly smell of broad valleys where rocks and plants precariously perch with expansive views of wide, strong flowing rivers.
Oh, but the taste is delicious, actually more experience than taste. A prickle of aroused acidity does disco on the palate, settling down to give the soul of the Riesling chance to take the beat. Fresh, dew-moist petals of white flowers abound, a lick of grated grape-fruit peel drifting around the essence of green-apple, raw almond-skin and just a slightly teasing spot of bitter thick-peel Cape lemon.
Structurally, Staying Alive Riesling makes John Travolta’s solo-dance scenes in Saturday Night Fever resemble a Bavarian folk dance by ten buxom Fräulein wearing cement loafers. The wine hits the mouth with a frosty clarity, a surge of crystal-clear taste creating experiential enhancement on the mid-palate and ending in a slice of surgical precision, like a samurai-sword effortlessly cutting through virginal Egyptian cotton.
It is a stupendous wine, the art of its structure and its classic framework deftly offset with the warm, fun-hearted label.
If Riesling tasting were an Olympic event, one would have to clear the podium as currently, to my mind there is only one winner. And it’s staying.
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