Cornelius Dönnhoff: thoughtful, humorous and precise.
A few words that describe the man I had the pleasure of dining with on July 19th, at Lark restaurant in Seattle. The occasion was a special dinner hosted by Skurnik Wines (Dönnhoff’s importer) and Cavatappi Distribuzione (the distributor of Skurnik wines here in Seattle). Lark’s Chef John Sundstrom prepared an elegant meal, with each of 5-courses paired with wine made by Cornelius. (see menu below)
Lucky to be seated near Cornelius, I made a point to chat him up throughout dinner, thus gleaning fresh know-how on German wine, and his personal taste. Here are a few insights from our conversation:
- Residual Sugar in German wines varies greatly based on region, used to strike a balance with acidity. Higher acid demands some sugar to find balance, less the wine be undrinkable. Northerly regions such as the Mosel, Rheingau and Nahe have a tradition of using residual sugar to varying degrees. By contrast, the wines of the Pfalz and Baden, with more richness and a bit less acidity due to warmer climate, have a tradition of dry expressions.
- Detecting specific levels of r.s. on the palette is very challenging, if not impossible, without measured context for acidity. A wine with a great amount of r.s. will taste sweeter, should it be lacking in acidity. Therry Theise is one of the few savants who can nail r.s. levels to the gram, but this skill is uncommon. The challenge was evident at dinner, as the ’15 Oberhäuser Leistenberg Kabinett tasted of similar sweetness to the ’14 Oberhäuser Brücke (pr. brew-ka) Spätlese, despite the latter containing nearly twice the r.s. (see figures in menu below).
- Wines with residual sugar (and lower alcohol) are no more caloric than those fermented to dryness. With dry wines, the sugar is simply converted to a higher degree of alcohol, thus preserving the energy in the sugar, less a bit of energy that is dissipated as CO2 in fermentation. The way that our bodies make use of the sugar versus alcohol metabolically is another story.
- Riesling can be fermented fully dry to a maximum of about 15 percent alcohol by volume (assuming normal yeast is used). That level of alcohol would be achieved from 110 Oechsle, aka 26 Brix. To maintain some amount of residual sugar, used to balance acidity, a winemaker will chill the fermenting must below the point where yeast can survive, thus halting fermentation. The ripeness terms Kabinett or Spätlese are generally not used on trocken wines, to prevent any confusion by consumers.
- Wines labelled trocken in Germany must have 9 grams or less of residual sugar. Either by law or tradition, dry wines will surely be labelled trocken, thereby offering clarity to consumers. Within Germany, both dry and off-dry wines are enjoyed at volume, with tastes varying by region.
- The terms Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese are defined by must weight at harvest, aka Oechsle. They can all be left sweet, or fermented to dryness at the discretion of the winemaker. Should a wine be made with grapes picked at Spätlese ripeness, but results in a lighter style than expected, a winemaker can declassify that wine to Kabinett level. The declassification assists with consumer expectations, as Kabinett wines are often lighter and less-rich than Spätlese counterparts.
- Wines at Beerenauslese ripeness or higher are typically not declassified, due to the intense amount of work required to cultivate such grapes. Beerenauslese literally means “selected harvest of berries”, with individual grapes being picked for special sweet Riesling wines. Eiswein is a unique style made in occasional vintages, where non-botrytized berries are left on the vine into January or February, and picked once the temperature drops to -7° C. The frozen water is retained, with tiny amonts of sweet nectar available for pressing.
- In vintages where eiswein is possible, only a tiny amount of wine is gleaned, thus justifying a high price per bottle. Should the conditions be too warm to freeze the berries, the hanging fruit may just rot and be picked off by birds. Eiswein will not be made with botrytized berries, as the resulting wine would have an over-the-top character from the noble rot, akin to wet socks…
- Speaking of botrytis, very few affected berries will be used in a Kabinett or Spätlese wine. Perhaps a touch of ‘light botrytis’ might be used in a Spätlese, just to add a honeyed tone, but not much more.
- Many delicate Riesling wines are bottled using a screwcap, to protect and emphasize freshness for early drinking. More serious expressions use a cork, such as the ’14 Oberhäuser Brücke Spätlese, ’15 Felsenberg Felsenturmchen GG and ’12 Niederhauser Hermannshohle Spätlese. The cork promotes and optimizes age-worthiness for wines of special richness and character.
- GG stands for Grosses Gewächs, or ‘great growth’, a designation used by members of the VDP. The VDP, or Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, is a collection of 200 top-tier German winemakers who are united in the pursuit of quality and excellence. Their GG wines must be sourced from Grosse Lage (grand cru equivalent) sites, from grapes at minimum Spätlese ripeness, and be fermented to trocken level. White GG wines may not be released until the 1st of September following the harvest, and red GG wines receive an additional year of aging.
- Dönnhoff produces four GG wines, with Oberhäuser Brücke being the most recent addition to the collection, made for the first time this year. The trend toward high-level dry German wines is in stark contrast to the 1980’s, when brands like Blue Nun and Black Tower colored the reputation of Deutsch wines, with low-quality sweet plonk.
- Cornelius is a man of distinct taste. He believes that each occasion is suited to a particular drink, and therefore is open-minded to many beverages. He avoids beer due to its bitterness, and prefers white wines about in roughly 85% of occasions. White Burgundy is a favorite style of his outside of Germany, perhaps due to its delicate nature, a common thread to Riesling. Due to the nature of its production, he avoids Foie Gras, although Razor Clam chowder with black truffle is fair game. Cornelius is a slow drinker, and fast eater. He probably drives fast too!
- Regarding German wines, Cornelius is not stuck solely on his local Nahe examples. He enjoys sweet Riesling from the Mosel, dry ones from the Pfalz, and Spätburgunder from the Ahr and Baden.
My conversation with Cornelius was enlightening and fun, and I hope to visit him sometime soon in the Nahe. To make a personal connection with a winemaker is a special moment, and this occasion definitely solidifies my personal affinity for the Dönnhoff brand.
My favorite wines from this dinner include the following:
- Dönnhoff Tonschiefer Riesling Trocken 2015
- Light and dry, a delicate example perfect for an aperetif or afternoon sipper.
- Dönnhoff Felsenberg ‘Felsenturmchen’ Riesling Grosses Gewachs 2015
- A serious dry wine, with extended finish on the palette, and powerful expression.
- As shown on the lablel, Felsenturmchen refers to the ‘little rock tower’, which is found in the vineyard. This tower was built in the 1800’s as a gift by the landowner to his wife. In a gesture of supreme romance, the tower is build at the position on the hill, where the last ray of sun shines on the longest day of the year.
- Dönnhoff Niederhauser Hermannshohle Riesling Spätlese 2012
- Effusive and complex, this is a wine with supreme aging potential, and ethereal character.
July 19th Dönnhoff menu, courtesy www.larkseattle.com:
- Dungeness crab with yuzu kosho ponzu, tomato & nori
- Mt. Lodge Wonderland cheese with gooseberry & rosemary cracker
- Speck with butter, cornichon & walnut toast
- Dönnhoff Estate Riesling (off dry) 2015
- First Course:
- Razor clam chowder with potato, turnip, summer truffle & charred leek
- Dönnhoff Tonschiefer Riesling Trocken 2015 (5 g/L residual sugar)
- Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett 2015 (42 g/L r.s.)
- Second Course:
- Pleasant View Farm foie gras torchon with lacquered peach & crispy chicken skin
- Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese 2014 (72 g/L r.s.)
- Third Course:
- Tails and Trotters pork pressa, kohlrabi choucroute, hazelnut butter & rosti potatoes
- Dönnhoff Felsenberg Felsenturmchen Riesling Grosses Gewachs 2015 (<9 g/L r.s.)
- Vanilla Savarin cake with blueberries, buttermilk granita & plum confit
- Dönnhoff Niederhauser Hermannshohle Riesling Spätlese 2012 (80 g/L r.s.)