sweet success

Friday, August 14, 2009

The prospect of tasting all 10 vintages of Eroica, Ste. Michelle’s landmark riesling project with Germany’s Ernst Loosen (http://www.eroicawine.com/), lured a motley group of writers to the winery’s library room yesterday afternoon. Winemakers Ernst Loosen, Bob Bertheau, and Wendy Stuckey were in attendance also, and all ten vintages, from 1999 up through the just-released 2008, were poured together, so we could sniff and swoozle our way through them at our own pace.

As is my usual practice, I skipped around vintages, first getting a sense of aromas, then dipping into flavors, going back and forth and jotting notes as I did. After about 20 minutes of this, Bob Bertheau fired up the PowerPoint and took us through a presentation that touched on vineyard sites, optimal ripening cycles, Brix at harvest, fermentation practices, and so on.

Eventually we got back to the wines and everyone agreed that all 10 were drinking well; there is no question that well-made Washington riesling can age for a long, long time. Better yet, the oldest vintages, from 1999, 2000 and 2001, had developed fascinating aromas. My notes on the 1999 begin this way:

“Spicy scents of pine needles, apple, some buttery banana, caramel; inviting and rounded out. Delicate in the mouth, with fine details of spice.”

For 2001: “Light honey, apple, pear, and peach – lovely fruits, spice, good length and elegance.”

The first few vintages were made under the direction of Erik Olsen, now at Clos du Bois; Bob Bertheau began working at the Chateau in 2003, Wendy Stuckey in 2008. The 1999 and 2000 Eroicas were both three fifths Cold Creek vineyard grapes; but Bertheau and Loosen have increasingly moved toward cooler, higher elevation sites. The 2007 Eroica, whose youthful, primary fruits and scents are already delicious, was half from the Evergreen vineyard (in the Ancient Lakes region), the rest a mix of Yakima valley, Horse Heaven Hills, and Columbia valley sites.

There was, of course, little or no agreement among the writers as to which wines were best. A long discussion was launched regarding the use of the term “petrol” which Loosen ascribed to the British. “Not a word that is ever used in Germany,” he insisted. There is a German word instead, and for the life of me I can never say it or spell it, but it sounds a bit like someone stifling a sneeze. For me, I’m happy to use a phrase such as ‘fresh pine needles’ to get at the same idea as petrol – it’s an intense, forest floor/herb/terpene aroma that develops over time in many older rieslings. For an excellent (highly technical) discussion of the chemistry behind it, go here (tinyurl.com/me3bhx).

Overall, the cool vintages (1999, 2001, 2007, 2008) were my favorite Eroicas. The middle years (2002 – 2006) seemed less complex, a bit fatter, and in some instances, over-sulfured. But it could also just be a transitional phase. If you have Eroica in your cellar, I suggest giving it at least eight years if you want to see it evolve; otherwise, drink it very young, when fruits and acids are at their peak of freshness.

A final surprise was a second vertical, of all six vintages of the Eroica Single Berry Select. This is a late harvest, botrytis-affected, unctuous dessert wine modeled after the legendary TBAs of Germany. Ernie Loosen described in great detail the sturm und drang he suffered when first proposing that it be made. It is highly labor and time intensive, and production is usually quite small. Hence, the $200 (for a half bottle) price. Ultimately, he prevailed, and the wines proved him right.

The six SBS’s were lined up, from vintages 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, and 2007. What happened in the middle there? I asked. No 2002, 2003 or 2004? Apparently, there was too much of the 2001 stacking up unsold, so the powers-that-be decided to halt production. Mistake!, said Loosen. In his view, the wine shouldn’t even be released until it’s at least a decade old. As evidence of this, he mentioned a recent tasting in Germany where TBAs dating back to the late 1700s were yarded out, still drinkable.

I doubt I’ll be around to taste these unctuous Eroica single berry selects when they reach 40 or 50 years of age, but at 8 to 10 they were showing significant improvement over the younger wines. They acquired a lovely, burnished mahogany color, with complex aromas of candied fruits, marmalade, honey, toasted nuts, caramel, and sometimes vanilla cream or burnt sugar. The younger vintages were loaded with fruit and sugar, concentrated and long, but primary and not yet knit together. This is definitely a wine that rewards lengthy cellaring. My favorite of the flight was the 2001, the darkest and most thickly unctuous of them all. Second favorite was the 2000, a smooth mix of candied fruits, honey, orange marmalade, butter, acid and caramel. Sweet success.

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