“I don’t make riesling,” winemaker Nik Weis said with a sly smile. “I make Mosel.”

Thus began a fascinating two-hour vertical tasting of six vintages of Nik’s St. Urbans-Hof Laurentiuslay riesling spatlese in Miami last month.

The small private event took place in a beautiful condo on Biscayne Bay, but it was organized by one of the newest members of Orlando’s wine community, Jean K. Reilly, Master of Wine. (More about Jean in a later post!)

st-urbans-hof-tasting-jan-2017
Winemaker Nik Weis of St. Urbans-Hof leads a private vertical tasting of his wines in Miami, Jan. 2017

A Philosophical Enologist

Nik Weis is a jolly, personable guy – I can’t bring myself to refer to him by anything but his first name. He’s the third generation of his family to run St. Urbans-Hof in Leiwen, in Germany’s Mosel region.

Like so many winemakers, he’s passionate and thoughtful about his craft – from the technical details of acidity and sugar levels, pesticides and sulfur … to the philosophical, metaphysical, and even spiritual aspects of creating wine.

An opening question, for instance, prompted a ten-minute soliloquy on the vagaries of winemaking techniques. They will always vary from year to year, Nik said, even if, the methodology stays the same. The moon might be in a different phase when the wine is fermenting. Even the personal lives of the people involved in the winemaking might affect their decisions, and therefore, the resulting wine.

The discussion strayed into the spiritual realm when Nik described what he called the “birth” of a wine. He was referring, not to the chemical process of fermentation, but to the almost mystical transformation of grape juice into something higher and deeper.

You can taste the fermenting liquid on Thursday, he said, and it’s still juice.

Taste it Friday, and it’s different, but still juice.

Saturday at 2pm – still juice.

But taste it Saturday at 2:05pm … and suddenly, it has become wine.

This transformation, he said somewhat sheepishly, is proof enough to him of the existence of God.

There was something a bit surreal about the way Nik wove these deeply philosophical nuggets into what was often a very technical discussion about the six wines we had on the table. Somehow, though, it all fit – his memories of each vintage’s weather woes, his decisions about vineyard management and harvest dates … and a deep philosophical reverence for the things that are beyond any winemaker’s control.

Petrol in Riesling is a “Fault”

On the technical side, the evening included a surprising discussion about petrol.

The smell and taste of petrol (aka gasoline), which some perceive as kerosene or rubber, is often a dominant characteristic of riesling. It brings a smile and a sigh of relief to anyone lucky enough to be asked to identify the varietal in a blind tasting exam; and many oenophiles love it for its fascinating singularity.

The first pair of Nik’s wines we tasted – the 2011 and 2010 – didn’t show much petrol at all. When someone questioned him about that, most of us were surprised when he said emphatically that too much petrol is a “fault” in a wine.

Those aromas and flavors, he explained, come from a chemical that grapes produce when they get too hot, particularly in areas that, unlike his Mosel vineyards, don’t cool down much at night. (Here’s a more technical explanation from the International Riesling Foundation.) Nik feels a wine is flawed when the gasoline aromas and flavors are overpowering, as is the case in many a riesling.

On the other hand, he says, there’s a different quality that comes into play with older rieslings – an aroma of tar, smoke, or burnt rubber – that can integrate with a wine’s other qualities and can even be desirable.

Nik is not alone in his views on petrol. Renown producer Michel Chapoutier, best known for his Rhone wines, told Decanter in 2011 that petrol notes are caused by a mistake in winemaking. But it’s definitely an active debate in the wine community, as you can see from this defense of petrol, inspired by a tasting of Australian rieslings, which tend to be very petrol dominant.

Nik touched on another controversial subject that night, with a little jab at the natural wine movement. Natural wine devotees generally eschew the addition of sulfur to wine. Winemakers have long used the additive to prevent oxidation and maintain freshness. Nik says any move away from that practice is “a step back in wine culture.” Without the protection of sulfur, he says, wines oxidize quickly, suppressing “any terroir or varietal or vintage character.”

Tasting Weather in the Wines

We tasted six of Nik’s Laurentiuslay riesling spatlese in pairs of two: 2011 & 2010, 2007 & 2006, and 2003 & 2002. Nik said he pulled the wines from his own cellar – they’re no longer available for sale from the winery.

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The lineup: Six vintages of St. Urbans-Hof Laurentiuslay riesling spatlese

Nik described the conditions of each vintage – wet vs dry, warm vs cool, etc. The wines were excellent, and the weather was evident in the taste and smell of each one. The most obvious and interesting example was the 2003 – the year of the historic European heat wave, which killed well over 20,000 people on the continent. I was in the UK and Italy that year, and it was indeed miserable. The vines in Europe had a terrible time too. Nik remembers a period of 7-8 weeks with no rain.

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The most interesting wine of the night: St. Urbans-Hof Laurentiuslay riesling spatlese 2003 – year of the historic European heat wave

This wine had an almost beer-like nose of buttered popcorn, corn mash, and yellow flowers. On the palate, the acid was medium, with the same funk that was present on the nose, plus notes of cooked apple & pear. 

If you read that description and nothing else, I doubt you’d have guessed I was talking about a riesling. It was a fascinating example of what happens to a cool varietal in an extremely warm and dry year.

An Evening Worth Celebrating

After the tasting, Nik was kind enough to invite me to dinner, along with Jean K. Reilly, Gary Russell of Orlando’s DoveCote (who’d also come down for the tasting), and Chantal Gonet, head of sales for Champagne Philippe Gonet and a longtime friend of Nik’s (she’s spending two years in Miami promoting her champagnes). We had a lovely time celebrating wine and life and new friends. It was most definitely an evening worth toasting!

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Nik Weis (right) and Chantal Gonet at Miami’s Alloy Bistro
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