Auszeichnungen 2014

 

Jancis Robinson

Written by Michael Schmidt

15 Sep 2014

Stern - a new Pfalz star

As titillation while we await Michael's report on all the Grosse Gewächse he tasted recently on their release in Wiesbaden, he offers this insider tip on a promising new producer.

Dominic Stern has probably heard the cheap pun based on his being a rising star (Stern translates as star) more often than he cares to remember, but it is true that his wines have begun to attract the attention of all major German wine guides over the last two or three years.

His estate is located in Hochstadt in the southern part of the Pfalz region, and it would be true to say that even many well-informed German wine lovers have never heard of the village. But top producers such as Dr Wehrheim and Rebholz operate in the immediate vicinity in far better known wine communes such as Birkweiler and Siebeldingen, and there is no reason why Hochstadt with its identical loess and limestone soil should not be able to produce wines of similar quality.

The origins of the Stern estate go back to the mid 1950s when Dominik’s grandfather Josef added one hectare of vines to his flourishing cooper’s business. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, demand for wooden barrels and vats declined, and when Josef Stern’s son Wolfgang took over he had to look for an alternative source of income. He expanded the already existing family distillery and became a full-time schnapps producer, but at the same time also planted another five hectares of vines.

Today the estate comprises nine hectares of vineyard in and around Hochstadt, and in addition to the traditional varieties of Riesling, Silvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Spätburgunder and St Laurent, they also cultivate Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I admit that I questioned the inclusion of the ubiquitous Chardonnay, but although Dominik sympathised with my doubts, his hand is forced by demand. Apparently the white burgundy look-a-like sells like hotcakes, whereas the Cinderella Müller-Thurgau, whose beauty could not find any admirers despite Dominik’s best make-up efforts, will not be allowed to go to the ball any longer. Portugieser seems destined for an equal fate.

Dominik took over the running of the estate 10 years ago. Before that, from the age of 16, he served an extensive apprenticeship. He worked one year each at Weingut Hubert Müller of Maikammer, Messmer in Burrweiler, and finally at the Schweigen estate of Spätburgunder guru Friedrich Becker. He also did some time with Reinhold Schneider in Baden, Wachau maestro Hirtzberger, and at the Laibach Vineyards Lodge in Stellenbosch under the guidance of the experienced German consultant Stefan Dorst, who, among other things, taught him to make a mean South African Trockenbeerenauslese from Chenin Blanc.

Although Dominik had plenty of respect for his father’s work, he felt that some changes were needed to progress in terms of quality. One of his first steps was to virtually halve the yield to better conserve the fruity and floral properties of his grapes. At the same time he took great care not to over-extract nor get too much power in his wines. In terms of role models, he cites Bürklin-Wolf and Klaus Peter Keller as producers whose wines he admires, although he modestly concedes that he will probably never be able to ascend to the dizzy heights of their ranks. I hope he took comfort from my assurance that I believed him to be very close to the true holy grail of wine lovers on an average income: excellent quality at affordable prices.

In the vineyard all work is done by hand. Herbicides and insecticides are taboo but, although working according to organic principles, Dominik is not aiming for certification. It comes with too many bureaucratic obstacles for his liking.

He also remains pragmatic with regard to fermentation, and although for his three-star wines he likes to use ambient yeasts, he is not averse to using cultured yeast where necessary such as for his basic estate and the two-star wines.  His top reds are vinified in 1,000-litre wooden vats with regular punching down of the cap. Where he uses barriques for ageing they are 100% French oak, although in the past it has been known that up to 20% were actually of German origin - even if, having been shipped to tonneliers in France, they miraculously assumed French nationality.

His mother and girlfriend are in the business, too, handling sales and other office tasks, while practical help is available from his close friend Tobias, who not only shared the apprenticeship years with him, but also enjoyed a thorough grounding at the reputable Franken estate of Ludwig Knoll. The team is completed by two Polish seasonal helpers, who, as with so many other estates, are appreciated for their loyalty, dependability and sheer hard work.

As for the case of poor old Müller-Thurgau, I was curious whether the problem would be solved by total replanting or re-grafting scions of new varieties onto the American rootstock. Although this topic is more fascinating for the vine spotter than the wine lover, I found it interesting that the practice of re-grafting is generally not considered effective enough, as too many new grafts are either rejected or take too long to deliver results. Does the world need more Chardonnay? Apparently so, but if drunk in Germany, at least let it be German! 

The wines are listed in the order tasted.

Although this Pinot Gris, grown on a loess-loam soil, sports the traditional colour of an angostura-assisted pink gin, there is nothing old-fashioned about its nose or palate. It shows plenty of fruit with notes of apricot, melon and greengages, and the full body and creamy texture are successfully moderated by a cool acidity. The merest hint of vanilla and a slightly nutty aftertaste add interest to the finish. (MS)

Drink 2014- 2017
16.5

Lively appearance with a hint of effervescence. Some green aromas on the nose include pear and a mildly aromatic elderflower scent. Like so many trocken of 2013, the Klostergarten cannot entirely suppress its botrytis connotations, giving it a moderately medicinal edge. A lively lemony acidity does supply the refreshing component that true Riesling lovers might be looking for, but green herbs rather than fruit shape the flavour. (MS) 

Drink 2014- 2017
15.5

Deep straw hue seems to point to a high proportion of botrytis, but the nose is not at all medicinal. Passion fruit and even a hint of blackcurrant make for quite an aromatic fragrance. On the palate the Roter Berg is essentially dry, but shows a quite intriguing flavour combination with elements of grapefruit, elderflower and meadow herbs. (MS)

Drink 2014- 2017
16

I have had enough of my fair share of Chardonnays over the years from all corners of the globe not to get unduly excited any more about another well-made Burgundy wannabe. Obviously at this infant stage the barrique is doing all the talking, with quite a smooth tongue at that. Vanilla and icing sugar on the nose, tobacco, coconut, almonds and cedar spice are all making an appearance. Surprisingly low in acidity for 2013, which adds to an almost sweet impression of a dry wine, the Chardonnay is just a little too smooth and slick for me. (MS)

Drink 2014- 2017
15.5

Most of the time wine descriptions make use of associations, and rarely does a wine just taste of blackcurrants, rhubarb or chocolate. Stern’s Rieslaner however, in the best possible taste, gets as close to grapefruit as vinously possible. Fruit, pith and zest of ripe grapefruit combine with a sprinkle of icing sugar and a dusting of spices to produce a most delightful Auslese that is none too complex, but all the more delicious. The residual sugar has been well tamed to give priority to freshness, well accentuated by a nuance of fine bitterness reminiscent of Seville orange. The drinking man’s Auslese. (MS) 

Drink 2014- 2021
17.5

St Laurent seems to be experiencing a new surge in popularity with growers in the Pfalz and seems quite capable of playing the part of the poor man’s Pinot Noir. This rendition does not only show a cherry colour (with ruby rim), but it also sports a delightful cherry expression on the nose. On the palate marinated plums and milk chocolate perform a polished if slightly unexciting duet, but lovers of a softer style of red with very little tannin should be very happy. A slight nudge of acidity on the finish wins my approval. (MS) 

Drink 2013- 2016
16

Out of Dominic Stern’s two cuvées of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot this one is the softie. On the nose it comes across as quite spirity, cedar wood and spices dominating an almost perfumed aromatic profile. On the palate the cherry spectrum is covered from juicy black to sweet glacé cherries. Notions of marzipan and chocolate contribute to a soft and ‘sweet’ image, making it another favourite for enthusiasts of the ‘mellow is beautiful’ school of drinking. (MS) 

Drink 2013- 2017
16

Palish raspberry red with salmon pink rim. Quite gentle on the nose with cherries and a whiff of smoky bacon. On the palate, cherry and raspberry fruit show a lively acidity, which is softened by a light milk-chocolate flavour. Despite barrique ageing the tannins are quite restrained, keeping astringency at a moderate level. (MS) 

Drink 2014- 2019
16.5

This cuvée does not just come from two different vineyards, but also represents a co-production of two growers, hence it does not bear the Stern label. The fruit is sourced from parcels of old Pinot vines in St Martin and Hochstadt and vinified by cousins Dominic Stern and Philipp Kiefer, both avid fans of anything Burgundian. The result is impressive.
Raspberry colour of medium depth with ruby-red rim. At first the nose is all fruit with blackberries, cherries and plums, but given a little more air, is enhanced by a gentle earthy note and the smell of fresh mushrooms. On the palate, cherries in brandy reflect the ripeness of fruit, although there is enough acidity to add a juicy tangent. A firm tactile astringency supports the structure and at the same time indicates that the PinoTimes has plenty of backbone for further ageing. The use of oak has been moderate enough to leave plenty of room for pure varietal character. A smidgeon of light toasting accompanies the finish of a delightful Pinot Noir. (MS) 

Drink 2013- 2020
17.5

If 66 is the number of the beast, 55 is the number of the mini-beast. For this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot the winemaker has chosen a long-term strategy, combining power, backbone and structure for a Bordeaux blend with considerable ageing potential. A very deep plum to blackberry hue with intense purple rim demonstrates youth and concentration. Aromas of fruits of the forest and spices indicate an equal partnership of wood and grapes. A significant amount of astringency gives the fruit a canny resemblance to sloe berries for now, but cherries, plums and blueberries already signal their intent to take over once the tannic corset is loosened. A dusting of white pepper and a deft touch of dark chocolate finish off a powerhouse more reminiscent of New World Cab Merlot than classic Claret. (MS)

Drink 2014- 2023
17

Cuvée of Pinot Blanc Barrique, Blanc de Pinot Noir and Blanc de Pinot Meunier.
Hue of old gold, lively mousse. A gentle biscuity fragrance is refined by the scent of fresh hazelnuts. The palate is truly soft and creamy. The acidity has been well restrained and this Sekt should appeal mainly to those who find the more austere and steely style of Blanc de Blancs too challenging. Gets its kicks from a consistent and fine sparkle. (MS) 

 

Drink 2014- 2018
16

 
 
 

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