The mad dash to Weingut von Hovel in Mosel to enjoy kosher German Rieslings – Gefen Hashalom

When I last left off on the story of my trip to Israel and Europe, I had just ended with the Flam Winery, my last post on the Israeli wineries that I visited that trip. Well, after that Friday, we had the shabbos post, and then another tasting (those tastings were not very successful), after that I made my way to the airport for a trip to France.

When I arrived in France I had the epic tasting of all of the Royal French wines, minus one 2015 Rothschild Haut Medoc. The next day, I get on a train and I head towards Alsace, to meet up with Nathan Grandjean and JK. JK was in Alsace for some wedding, and I was coming originally to have a tasting with Nathan on wines I had missed so far. However, the best part of those horrible tastings in Jerusalem, this one and this one, were the Rieslings. In the first one, the epic Riesling was brought by AS, and the second tasting’s Riesling I brought to the party.

I have already posted before about my love for Riesling when we did a horizontal of what we could find. However, up until that first tasting in Jerusalem, there were VERY few humans that had tasted the epic Von Hovel Rieslings.

Gefen Hashalom

The story behind this kosher German wine reimagination – is a group of four people and three wineries – called Gefen Hashalom (“Vine of Peace”). It started with Dr. Mark Indig and Benz Botmann who were interested in making kosher German wines. They approached Nik Weis – a sister winery to Flam Winery of Israel, as I explained here, during a twin city wine event, and the outcome was the 2014 Nik Weis Riesling, that all of us raved about and wrote about already last year. However, there was another partner – Max von Kunow, the owner of the Weingut von Hövel in Oberemmel in the Saar. that made kosher Rieslings as well in 2014 and 2015.

The shocking part of this kosher reimagination of wines in Germany was that the wines were made by top-notch wineries of Mosel. The wineries (Nik Weis and Von Hovel) are world-class wineries in Mosel and for the partnership to have been created with these extraordinary wineries is the true blessing of Gefen Hashalom, IMHO.

There is a third winery that is part of the partnership, Hans Wirsching, which made the very nice Silvaner.

Between these three wineries are hundreds of years and multiple generations upon generations of history in winemaking within their own families and that history is evident when you taste the Rieslings – they are expressive and truly unique.

The three German wineries have sister wineries in Israel. As explained previously, Flam is Nik Weis’s Sister winery, Bazelet Hagolan is Von Hovel’s sister winery, and Weingut Hans Wirsching’s sister/twin winery is Kishor Winery!

Also, another very fascinating aspect is that both Nik Weis and Von Hovel made kosher wines from the Saar region. Now, Von Hovel’s vineyards are indeed all in the Saar region, but Nik Weis has regions in Mosel as well, but so far the three vintages we have had (2014, 2015, and 2016) they have all been sourced from Saar, even the new 2016 vintage that used a more expensive vineyard, Ockfener Bockstein, was still from the Saar wine region.

The Saar region, which as I will explain below is freezing cold, and for the wines to attain their fruit and acidity requires nerves of steel, deep prayer, and sheer endless hope. The prayers are normally rewarded with wines that are extremely low in alcohol and high in acidity but are picked as late as November at times, if that is possible, or sometimes it never reaches peak ripeness.

Traveling to Mosel

Well, when I tasted that epic 2014 Von Hovel Riesling – it was an eye-opener! At that second tasting in Jerusalem on Sunday, I was telling the guys that I would be seeing Nathan in a few days. All they wanted to know was why the heck was I not going to Mosel!! I said, well, I have no way to get there. They said rent a car in Alsace and go! I said I have a better idea, I will get Nathan to drive me! Well, that was my idea anyway, Nathan had entirely different plans for that day! However, what sealed the deal, other than his wife begrudgingly agreeing to this mad dash across the border, was the fact that there was indeed more of the 2014 Von Hovel wines! This fact was the best thing I had heard in weeks. For the longest time, we were all told that the kosher Von Hovel wines were all sold out! When I called twice, to check again and to make reservations for our visit, they assured me that they had some of the kosher wines left and that Max von Kunow would make time for us to visit, even though they too were in the middle of harvest.

So, because AS and AD pushed me to go to Mosel, I had what I needed to convince Nathan to drive me to Mosel. Throughout the entire drive to Mosel, all Nathan did was complain! What are you doing to me? Why can we not just get the wines shipped and not make me drive three hours to Mosel? The funny thing was that Mosel was closer to where I started than Alsace. On top of that, it was pouring, like cats and dogs, I mean just torrents of rain – incredible! However, by the time we arrived at the area, the rain stopped, the clouds cleared up and then we could understand all that is Mosel. Crazy hills, majestic hillsides that sour above the Saar in ways that make Alsace look like child’s play. The trip was worth Nathan beating on me (and maybe even rightfully so) because we both had the rare opportunity to sit with one of the founders of Gefen Hashalom,  Max von Kunow – and to taste the wines that were until then almost impossible to buy and appreciate.

Still, more than the visit which was wonderful, there was Mosel, the place is crazy. The hillsides remind me of photos of Porto and the hills we drove up in Priorat with Moises. The entire hillsides lined with row after row of vineyards growing Riesling for the vast majority.

Mosel is one of those places that defies words, the images are insane, the history is timeless, and as you enter it all you feel is a fusion of the past mixed with a large dollop of respect for the people who work these environments. Forget the formidable slopped hills that hug Mosel, Saar, and Ruwer, those are crazy enough. Throw in the absolutely unpredictable climate that changes every 300 feet, talk about micro-climates, and you cannot come to Mosel and not be in awe.

Mosel is a river that starts in France and serpentines its way through Germany with two river tributaries – Saar and Ruwer. Throughout the path that the river cuts, there are hillsides that hug it like a bear as they rise on an incredible slope up and towards the sky. The region has multiple microclimates, many of which we saw in real life on this trip, but also there are six districts (Bereiche), four of the six districts are situated on the river Mosel, and one each on rivers Saar and Ruwer.

Saar is one of the coldest regions within Mosel, and it was really cold when we arrived in mid-September. Most are afraid of rot with rain that Germany sees, but in Saar that is not a problem, as mold requires some heat, and in this region that is a quality that is in dear need. The most ideal vintages allow harvest to take place between late October and mid-November when the grapes can develop enough sugar to produce floral and honeyed notes (from Wikipedia).

The wines are low in alcohol, fruity, but balanced well with great acidity, and floral notes to start. With age, the glorious petrol that we all love from Riesling appears.

The Saar originates in the Vosges mountains, which separate Germany from Alsace. The soils are less uniform and stonier than those downriver, and they retain less heat. Additionally, the Saar and her tributaries are smaller bodies of water than the Mosel, which limits their ability to serve as a moderating factor on the region’s microclimate (AKA COLD!). As a result of these factors, Rieslings from the Saar often struggle to ripen and have a reputation for being harvested even later than on the Middle and Upper Mosel.

Remember that there is a classic tension between wanting heat in the summer and disliking it at the same time! The hotter a region is the faster the fruit hits maturity before the fruit can build its needed acidity to balance the overall fruit makeup. By contrast, a very slow ripening area will cause the opposite, in that the fruit will never reach its maturation and the fruit will have nice acidity, but no fruit flavors that you desire so much, and the phenolics will also be missing. The perfect situation is when you can leave the fruit on the vines for a long time, allowing the fruit to naturally and SLOWLY acquire its fruit flavors, phenolics, while not giving up its acidity.

Mr. von Kunow took over production from his father, Eberhard von Kunow, in 2010, and the direction of the estate has changed with Max’s ideas. He is the 7th generation winemaker in the family, dating back to the 1800s. His father made sweet Rieslings, and while Mr. von Kunow makes those, he really likes dry Rieslings, and he is moving the winery in that direction. He is also moving towards organic vineyards, longer macerations, tighter control of the cooperages, longer fermentation, wild yeasts, but really it is all about the old begets new. In Germany, you are allowed to add sugars (chaptalization), but max is against that. Which means that to get the proper sugars and fruit, he needs to wait longer for the fruit to come to him. He wants the wines to be fruity, but fruity in Mosel means wines that have the correct sweetness to balance the incredible acidity that comes with his fruit. The longer seasons give max the massive acidity, what he really wants is for the fruit to ripe as well to get a perfect balance, while keeping the alcohol low.

Max von Kunow - Weingut von Hovel

Weingut Von Hovel

When the clouds parted, we arrived at the winery and it was time to taste these wines in their proper place – a winery surrounded by the very vines and hills that sourced them. The Von Hovel winery has been in place since 1803 when they purchased Maximinerhof in Oberemmel and renamed it Weingut Grach after Napoleon secularized the vineyards of the Saar and Mosel from the churches and monasteries. Max’s great-great-grandfather bought it then and moved it into the building they are in now. The building was completed in the 12th century, where it initially served as an abbey retreat for the famous wine monastery of St. Maximin in Trier.

We arrived at the back entrance and we walked through to meet Max von Kunow. He was very kind to sit with us for an hour, even though he was right in the middle of harvest season. He was also very kind to share with us the famous 2014 kosher wines and his (at that time – yet unreleased) 2015 kosher Riesling as well.

The Von Hovel wines are IMHO the best of the Gefen Hashalom Rieslings, so far. Others disagree, which is 100% fine with me. The Von Hovel Rieslings are insane, deep, rich, incredible, with complexity that lasts forever. They are also double to triple the price of the Nik Weis wines. Price aside the wines are better, but given the higher prices they could not really be a QPR wine, but wow they are incredible. I had previously tasted the 2014 Von Hovel Hutte Oberemmel Riesling, just a few days before being in Germany, with the gang in Jerusalem. Here the wines showed better, and we continued tasting them all night and the next day as well at Nathan house, as Max let us take them home.

Weingut von Hövel Label (and Mosel wines overall) understood

If you look at the labels on the wine, other than the varietal, and the vineyards which are clearly and proudly stated on the label the rest of the label is really foreign to most kosher wine drinkers. So, I thought I would write a quick primer on Mosel and Germany’s wine label information. Before we dive into this – please note – Germany’s wine classification is NOT wrapped around the subjective quality of the wine as it is in France, Italy, Spain, and so on. Rather, it defines quality by ripeness. Now before you say what? Understand that Germany is a cold place to live and their priority when making their wine classification in 1971, was to make sure the buyer knew the wine’s weight (AKA sugar content) before buying. An underripe wine is really not fun, especially from Germany. Finally, I used two sources for this information – Tim Gaiser’s great work and Wikipedia of course.

On the front of the label, you will find some basic information, on this label in particular – you get the Gefen Hashalom name, the name of the vineyard, in this case, the famous Scharzhofberg vineyard. Next, you will see the varietal, which is Riesling for all of Von Hovel’s wines. Finally, you will see the first German specific word – Kabinett. Of course, you also see Von Hovel – the name of the winery, which is slightly off to the side, only because there are “two” wineries here, Von Hovel and Gefen Hashalom.

Kabinett: The minimum requirements, under current wine law, for a wine to be labeled Kabinett are as follows:

  • The wine must have a must density of between 67 to 82 degrees Oechsle, depending on the region.
  • The wine must not undergo chaptalization.

On the back of the label, things get very unique and very interesting quickly. First, you will see an Eagle on the top right side of the label – that is the VDP logo.

VDP: The logo of the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates (Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter, or more commonly VDP) which is awarded to the top 200 producers, as voted among themselves. The logo is a black eagle with a cluster of grapes in the center. The winery in the image example has the VDP logo. While not a guarantee, the presence of the VDP logo is a helpful insight into the quality of the wine.

PLEASE NOTE! VDP is NOT a German government-controlled wine classification. VDP was founded in 1910, Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, an association of Germany’s best producers. Think of it akin to Napa Vintner’s or any other wine region associations “owned” by the wineries and used to promote what they think is correct and special about their region.

VDP’s logo is a German Eagle with a bunch of grapes in its mouth and is shown proudly on labels and wine bottle capsules. Remember they were an association for 61 years before Germany made their attempt and classifying German wines. The VDP does NOT have government protection and it also does not have its control either. So, if you are part of the VDP association, there is very little, as of now, that can be done to protect members from using classifications that are not officially part of their wines.
With the creation of the German wine classification in 1971 all people got was an idea of how ripe/sweet the grapes were upon harvest – not much else. So as German wines slowly lost their syrupy and cloyingly sweet reputation, there was a need to promote from within what was actually quality and not just ripe.

The VDP keeps changing the classifications like Britney Spears changes outfits in a concert (never been to one), they started in 2002 and have changed things many times since then. What matters now – for Mosel region wines, is that the current scheme looks like this:

csm_2016_Klassifikationspyramide_alle_Stufen_warmgrey_by_VDP_ff879df51a.png

Grosse Lage should not be confused with other VDP regions classifications, but for Mosel, it means top dog. Specifically, it means:

GRAPE VARIETIES
Traditional varieties that are best suited to a particular site or parcel, as prescribed by each region. For additional details, please see the regional list of permissible grape varieties at the end of this section.*

MAXIMUM YIELDS
Reduced yields of 50/hl/ha**

HARVEST METHOD AND RIPENESS LEVEL
Grapes are harvested selectively, by hand. The harvested fruit must be physiologically fully ripe.

VINIFICATION
The wines are produced exclusively by traditional winemaking techniques.

CERTIFICATION
In addition to regular VDP estate inspections, VDP.GROSSE LAGE© wines are subject to additional examinations. Quality-oriented measures in the vineyard, particularly those affecting yields, are monitored at every site throughout the growing season and before the harvest. Prior to and after bottling, the wines are critically tested and evaluated to determine whether they meet VDP.GROSSE LAGE© criteria.

IDENTIFICATION MARKS
A dry wine from a VDP.GROSSE LAGE© is designated VDP.GROSSES GEWÄCHS© and is bottled in a special bottle embossed with the “GG” logo. The use of the adjective trocken is mandatory. Off-dry wines need no additional terminology – the use of the adjective halbtrocken is optional. The same applies to the adjective feinherb.***

VDP.GROSSE LAGE© wines with residual sweetness are labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese), provided they qualify for a specific Prädikat.

The name of the site (without the name of the village) is the appellation of origin of a VDP.GROSSE LAGE© wine. It is indicated on the label along with the name of the wine estate and the grape variety. The use of a strip on the capsule to identify a VDP.GROSSE LAGE© wine is mandatory.

As an exception, the GG logo can be printed on the front label in place of using the embossed bottle.

I will close on the VDP discussion with a wonderful article that I read which brings up the issues they see with the VDP and what can be done to improve it.

Prädikatswein: As explained in the Wikipedia article, there is a simple two-level classification by the German government that does attempt to define quality the classifications are either:

  • Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA)
  • Prädikatswein (renamed from its original: Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) (superior quality wine) in August 2007

Again, the quality here is just the fruit’s weight, meaning ripeness or sugar content, not subjective quality. Within the Prädikatswein, there are a few other classifications – defining the weight and the style of the wine – which are VERY important to those buying wine blindly. Pulled from Wikipedia again:

The different Prädikat (superior quality wine) designations used are as followed, in order of increasing sugar levels in the must:

Kabinett – literally “cabinet”, meaning wine of reserve quality to be kept in the vintner’s cabinet
fully ripened light wines from the main harvest, typically semi-sweet with crisp acidity, but can be dry if designated so.
Spätlese – meaning “late harvest”
typically half-dry, often (but not always) sweeter and fruitier than Kabinett. The grapes are picked at least 7 days after normal harvest, so they are riper. While waiting to pick the grapes carries a risk of the crop being ruined by rain, in warm years and from good sites much of the harvest can reach Spätlese level. Spätlese can be a relatively full-bodied dry wine if designated so. While Spätlese means late harvest the wine is not as sweet as a dessert wine, as the “late harvest” term is often used in US wines.
Auslese – meaning “select harvest”
made from very ripe, hand selected bunches, typically semi-sweet or sweet, sometimes with some noble rot character. Sometimes Auslese is also made into a powerful dry wine, but the designation Auslese trocken has been discouraged after the introduction of Grosses Gewächs. Auslese is the Prädikat which covers the widest range of wine styles, and can be a dessert wine.
Beerenauslese – meaning “select berry harvest”
made from overripe grapes individually selected from bunches and often affected by noble rot, making rich sweet dessert wine.
Eiswein (ice wine)
made from grapes that have been naturally frozen on the vine, making a very concentrated wine. Must reach at least the same level of sugar content in the must as a Beerenauslese. The most classic Eiswein style is to use only grapes that are not affected by noble rot. Until the 1980s, the Eiswein designation was used in conjunction with another Prädikat (which indicated the ripeness level of the grapes before they had frozen), but is now considered a Prädikat of its own.
Trockenbeerenauslese – meaning “select dry berry harvest” or “dry berry selection”
made from selected overripe shrivelled grapes often affected by noble rot making extremely rich sweet wines. “Trocken” in this phrase refers to the grapes being dried on the vine rather than the resulting wine being a dry style.

Finally, you will find the VDP Grosse Lage again – which was described above and you get the very important information – alcohol level.

Alcohol Level in Mosel wines: Please understand that the driest Riesling from Germany would have a higher alcohol level than a wine with residual sugar, with all things being equal. Why? Because alcohol is a byproduct of sugar fermentation. So, if the sugar does not ferment and is left as residual sugar than the alcohol level is lower. Again, this comparison ONLY makes sense when looking at a single wine that was fermented to different alcohol levels.

We have had now a few Rieslings from Germany thanks to the Gefen Hashalom guys, Von Hovel, and Nik Weis. The 2014 Nik Weis was pretty dry and then it was not actually dry, it had residual sugar. The difference is the acid, it can be so incredible with these Mosel wines that it makes the wine feel dry when it is actually not – from a chemical perspective anyway.

If you are interested in these wines, they are not wines that will be coming to the states. If you want them, email Nathan Grandjean about how to get them: Contact@yavine.fr (I DO NOT work for wine stores, never have and never will. I get no kickback or payment for this). I state this here only as information.

So, there you have it – find these wines and enjoy!

A video of Max von Kunow talking about his winery:

My thanks to Max von Kunow and the winery for a wonderful tasting. The wine notes follow below – the explanation of my “scores” can be found here:

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Posted on December 18, 2017, in Kosher White Wine, Wine, Wine Tasting, Winery Visit and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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