My secret wine crush

The gorge at Watkins Glen State Park, one of the sights we took in on our way to Toronto, and right near several good wineries.

The gorge at Watkins Glen State Park, one of the sights we took in on our way to Toronto, and right near several good Finger Lakes wineries.

Often when I’m leading tastings people ask me what wines I like to drink.  Of course, I’m tempted to point to one of the wines I’m pouring.  That’s what sales are about, after all!  But depending on who’s asking I have two different replies.

The first is that it depends on what I’m eating, since I generally don’t drink wine without some food, usually as part of a meal.  While I’m not a strict wine/food pairing person, I also like each to have a nod to the other, for a better experience.

The second – and I only say this to people I think will understand – is that I love Alsatian wines, and also some German wines made from the same varietals.  The combination of a bit of residual sugar along with the acidity (and great fruit flavors too) just lights up the right parts of my brain.  Many wine folks I know recoil from sweetness.  But when it’s balanced, you don’t so much register it as sweet.  For example, think of really good Thai food.  There’s always a bit of sweetness to round out the other flavors and sensations.

Two weeks ago, Cy and I got to taste some excellent Alsatian- and German-style wines in the Finger Lakes region of western New York state. We drove from DC to Toronto by way of Seneca Lake, so naturally we decided to visit some wineries.  We didn’t have much time, but we got lucky and based on good recommendations managed to stop at two that were excellent:  Hermann J. Wiemer and Kemmeter.

The two wineries are a study in contrast.  Wiemer is well-established and very well-known.  Hermann Wiemer, the founder, was one of the pioneers of grape growing and wine production in the Finger Lakes region.  Decades later, he turned operations over to winemaker Fred Merwath and agronomist Oskar Bynke.  The other, Kemmeter Wines, is practically brand new.  Johannes Reinhardt, the owner and winemaker, bought land and started planting only a few years ago, although he comes from a winemaking family and has had more than a decade of experience as a winemaker for another Seneca Lake winery.  He plans to do more planting and phase out buying grapes from other producers in the future.

We got a tour and tasting at Wiemer by Oskar, who is a friend of a friend of friends (hey, we take these connections anywhere we can find them!)  The main feature of the tasting room, other than its beauty (it was designed by one of those friends in the friend chain), is an ingenious map that manages to show location, soil types, terrain, planting orientation, and age of the vines all at once.  It really is a wine-lover’s dream.  I’m not showing you a detailed photo because I wasn’t sure how to take one that would do it justice.  You really have to go and see it.  Cy, who studied geography and worked as a cartographer, was entranced by it too, even though he’s not the wine geek that I am.

Oh, and you’ll want to taste the wines, too.  Wiemer has two different vineyard properties along Seneca Lake, and the varying terrains (and amounts of breezes off the lake) make for different styles of grapes – more or less acidic, more or less lush, etc.  Some of the original Riesling clones planted by Hermann Wiemer are still thriving.  They tend to produce the more austere juice, and while some of the wines are blends of grapes from the different properties, you can also taste the single-vineyard wines and see the differences.  That’s just the kind of tasting I love to do, so I really had fun.  And, of course, the wines are tasty and well-balanced, too.  We had various Rieslings, Chardonnay, and a white blend, plus two reds:  Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch (also called Lemberger, the name used at Wiemer).  We left with a late-harvest Riesling (my favorite) and a bottle of the Chardonnay-based sparkling Cuvée Brut, which we didn’t get to taste at the winery.

Oscar Bynke, an agronomist working at Willem J. Wiemer Winery on the left, I'm in the middle, and the very cool map of Wiemer's vineyards on the right.

Oscar Bynke, an agronomist who co-manages Hermann J. Wiemer Winery on the left, I’m in the middle, and the very cool map of Wiemer’s vineyards on the right.

The tasting at Kemmeter made me re-evaluate one thing I thought was a truism of winemaking:  that the vines have to have a little age on them, like at least five years, to start making juice that will make good wine.  As I mentioned, Johannes at Kemmeter just planted his own vines a few years ago and is using the juice from those grapes in his wines.  A couple of his 2015 wines contain grapes from these young vines.  I’d never had wine from vines that young before, but they were well-made and delicious.  Since production is small, I’m not sure that there’ll be enough bottles sitting around in a few years to see how they age, but that won’t stop me from enjoying them now.

Johannes makes one wine entirely from his own young grapes and it’s an interesting one.  He calls it his Pinot Cuvée:  63% Pinot Noir and 37% Pinot Blanc.  The juice has no skin contact, so it’s a white wine.  In fact, it tastes very much like wine you’d taste at a champagne house before it undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle.  (If you’re lucky enough to taste the pre-champagne wine, that is.)  Delicious and unique.  His new-vine Riesling grapes also go into the 2015 Seneca Lake Riesling, which contains some grapes from another producer.  Johannes describes his grapes as adding “sparkle” to the wine, which I think is apt.  I’m putting a bottle away for at least a year to revisit it.

I’ve singled out these two wineries in this post, but we also had a nice tasting at Glenora Wine Cellars, which is one of the few regional wineries that produces Gewürztraminer.  The vines are less tolerant of extremely cold weather, so a bad winter means fewer wineries will be producing it unless they replant.  Glenora has enough land in the right spots to produce Gewürztraminer consistently.  It’s worth seeking out.  And we decided to stop at Finger Lakes Distilling after having Manhattans made with their McKenzie rye whiskey.  Definitely worth a visit.  Be warned, they take their responsibilities in preventing drunk driving seriously there – you are allowed three small pours in a tasting, and can only have one tasting per day.  I didn’t feel shortchanged by any means.

So if there are other closeted Alsatian-type wine lovers out there, it’s definitely worth the drive up from DC for a long weekend.  The scenery is beautiful, and there’s the Corning Museum of Glass nearby if you want a day without wine tasting.  Even we wine pros want those occasionally!


Cy and me at Maison Kammerzell in Strasbourg in Alsace in 2009, eating Choucroute Formidable.

Cy and me at Maison Kammerzell in Strasbourg in Alsace in 2009, eating Choucroute Formidable.

Alsatian wines pair with a number of different cuisines, and you’ll see them on Asian and Indian menus.  But Alsace also has its own hearty cuisine, and the wines go beautifully with the food.  I decided to open the bottle of Wiemer Late Harvest Riesling with a classic Alsatian dish:  Choucroute.  It’s the French word for sauerkraut, but it’s also a dish based on sauerkraut with potatoes and any number of smoked and unsmoked meats.  You’ll also find seafood and vegetarian versions, but I can’t personally vouch for those.

In October 2009, Cy and I visited Alsace and had a meal at a very old, famous restaurant in Strasbourg right next to the cathedral, Maison Kammerzell.  Our dinner companions told us we were there at the right time because the sauerkraut was young – the year’s cabbage had been harvested, then shredded and packed in layers of salt to ferment – and we were getting some of the first results.  We decided to have what the menu called “Choucroute Formidable,” which was the new sauerkraut, potatoes, and about eleventy-seven different kinds of meat on it.  Truly amazing.  And the wine, beautifully balanced with acidity and residual sugar, really made everything sing.

It’s probably easier these days to get young, fresh sauerkraut, but I came up with a way to approximate it:  Mix some raw shredded cabbage with drained packaged refrigerated sauerkraut (the kind you get at the deli counter in plastic bags).  You can shred your own, of course, but I bought a 12-ounce package of finely-shredded cabbage for cole slaw because I didn’t want to work that hard.  The result was very good.

While all the ingredients get layered and cooked together, you will have to pre-cook the potatoes at least mostly through.  The acidity of the sauerkraut does something to the starch in the potatoes that prevents them from cooking properly in a reasonable amount of time if you put them in raw.  And if you cook them long enough to get soft, everything else will be unrecognizable.  On the other hand, the acidity also prevents the pre-done potatoes from overcooking, so the extra work is worth it.

The choice of meats is up to you.  Pork tends to predominate, and I made my Choucroute with bratwurst, kielbasa, and thick slices of bacon.  But you could use turkey-based smoked sausages if you like, and they’d be very tasty.  Be sure that the bacon is very thick, like about 1/3-inch.  One of my local supermarkets will slice bacon to order, and you may have a store that will do it near you.  Otherwise, I’d go with a good smoked ham because thinner bacon won’t hold up well.

Mr Chicken

We didn’t check the menus of local restaurants for Choucroute, but we did stop at this one in Watkins Glen. Who could resist that sign?

If you don’t have an Alsatian style wine on hand to serve, Viognier is a good choice.  While Cave la Romaine Viognier ($16) isn’t sweet, the floral aroma gives the impression of sweetness.  We tried it with some leftover Choucroute and it was very good.  You might even call it “formidable!”



Choucroute Formidable

Serves 6 to 8

1-1/2 pounds unsmoked fresh bratwurst links (6 to 8 links)

1 pound smoked kielbasa

5-6 ounces very thickly sliced bacon (about 1/3-inch, this will be about 3 slices), or ham slices

3 pounds packaged refrigerated sauerkraut

12 ounces finely-shredded fresh cabbage (a bag of coleslaw mix is fine, with or without carrots)

1 Granny Smith apple, cored, and cut into matchsticks

4 large red-skinned potatoes, about a pound

1 large onion, sliced

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Vegetable oil

Cut the potatoes into 8 wedges each.  Put them in a large saucepan and cover with cold water.  Add about a teaspoon of salt to the water, and bring to a boil.  Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are just barely tender.  Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a little vegetable oil in a large Dutch oven.  Cut the bacon slices crosswise in thirds.  Prick the bratwursts with a fork in a few places on each link.  Cut the kielbasa into 6 or 8 pieces.  When the oil is hot, add the bacon and cook for a couple of minutes per side, until lightly browned.  Remove them with a slotted spoon and add the kielbasa.  Cook, turning occasionally, to brown them a little.  Remove the kielbasa and add the bratwurst links.  Brown well on all sides and remove the links.  Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of fat and cook the sliced onion with a little salt and pepper.  Make sure to scrape up the bottom of the Dutch oven and incorporate the browned bits into the onions.  Cook until the onions are lightly browned and remove them from the pot.

While the meats are browning, drain the sauerkraut (but don’t rinse it) and put it in a large bowl.  Stir in the shredded fresh  cabbage.  When the onion is browned, stir it in, too, along with the apple pieces.  If there is still some browned stuff clinging to the bottom of the Dutch oven, then pour in the vegetable or chicken stock and heat up the pot, scraping the bottom.

Put the sauerkraut mixture into the bottom of the Dutch oven (right into the stock if you added it already).  Put the potatoes on top in one layer, then the bacon slices and the various sausages.  Pour the stock over if you haven’t already.  Cover the pot and bring it all to a boil.  Lower to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes to an hour.  You’ll know it’s all cooked when you prick one of the bratwursts with a knife and the juices are yellow or clear.  Replace the lid, turn off the heat, and let the whole thing sit for 20 minutes or more.

Taste for salt and pepper.  Serve hot or warm, giving everyone some of each of the meats, some potatoes, and lots of sauerkraut.

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2 Responses to My secret wine crush

  1. Sue says:

    That’s so fun to combine travel with wine tasting (your specialty). And I love learning new things too. That’s so interesting about young vines being capable of good wine.

    That Choucroute Formidable picture is fantastic! And what an apt name for the impressive display on that plate. I always, no matter what the recipe says, cook or brown the meat first and then have all that deliciousness to cook my onions in. That recipe looks divine.

    • firstvine says:

      Hi Sue,

      I had only tasted wine from really young vines when one of our producers made it for himself (his vin du garage). My French producers sell the very young-vine grapes for non-alcoholic grape juice. But this was really tasty. I’m afraid I’ve aged a bit from the Formidable photo. Cy looks the same, though!

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