German wine-tasting melts his fillings but wins his heart

VINTAGE POINT

November 08, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Two days before the big wine-tasting, Terry Theise called with important advice: Go out and buy some Sensodyne toothpaste and start preparing your teeth to play with pain.

He should know.

Mr. Theise is the country's leading importer of German wine -- only 39 years old, he has tasted his way up the Mosel River and down the Rhine dozens of times.

He loves it. German wine is his passion. But even he will admit that tasting 220 young, highly acidic German wines over a two-day period would be a form of torture -- albeit a most exquisite one. Mr. Theise says that before a big round of wine-tasting he starts using the desensitizing toothpaste five days in advance.

Each year for the past four vintages, Mr. Theise has staged a marathon tasting of his portfolio of wines for Robert M. Parker Jr., the Maryland-born writer whose reviews in the Wine Advocate can determine whether a wine gathers dust in a warehouse or flies out of stores like a startled pheasant.

So as not to waste a lot of good wine, Mr. Theise also has invited me to each of those tastings, along with a changing cast of other writers and wine merchants. And every year I go because I know Terry will be pouring some wines of such mind-shattering beauty that it will take every tattered shred of my professionalism to keep from dancing on the table.

So there we were at the Milton Inn on the morning of Oct. 22 -- Mr. Parker, Mr. Theise and his wife, Deborah; David Schildknecht, a Washington wine merchant; and John Blinder, wine consultant at Pop's, a revered Long Island wine shop, and )) myself. Our assignment: to taste and evaluate more than 100 wines and come back prepared to do it again the next day.

Now in case any of you were wondering, no, we were not drinking all these wines. If we had, we would all have been carried out on stretchers.

What we did all day was spit. With varying degrees of delicacy we would take a generous measure of wine into our mouths, swirl it across our finely tuned palates, scribble some profound -- thoughts, then lean over a bucketand go sploosh.

You may have noticed that wine tasting does not rank high as a spectator sport.

We start with German sparkling wines, sekts, which inspire admiration and some obvious puns.

And the jokes never stop. Mr. Theise likes wordplay as much as he likes wine-play. Why does he prefer tasting German wines to tasting Bordeaux? Because while they might be "Teutonic," they're not "too tannic."

It goes down from there.

After three palate-awakening sparkling wines, the real work starts: dry wines, "trocken" in German.

Work

This is work. Trocken wines are not cuddly. They are all bone and muscle, with no sugar to add baby fat.

Most of the wines are rieslings -- the jewel of German viticulture and to my mind the noblest white wine grape of all. And most are 1991s, a new vintage with a tough act to follow since 1990 was the greatest German vintage since 1971.

We taste through a series of solid, well-made dry wines from the Mosel and Nahe River valleys.

Then, zing! We move into the Mitterhein, a little-known wine region of storybook castles and vineyards on steel slopes overlooking the Rhine River. Here we find the 1991 Bopparder Hamm Gedeonseck Riesling Trocken from Adolf Weingart -- and my pleasure meter takes a big jump.

The wine is pure crystal. Riesling at its best transmits the flavors of the soil better than any other grape known to man -- and this is a pure, dazzling gaze into the soul of German wine. It's a wine with an electric presence. It grips the tongue and won't let go.

For me it is the first great wine of the tasting, but there will be many more -- most with names just as long and unpronounceable. That's a big reason why you probably haven't been drinking many German wines lately.

Heaven

Soon we are encountering wines that put the Weingart to shame. We've reached Wines No. 22 and 23, from the great Pfalz (formerly Rheinpfalz) estate Muller-Catoir. Here, the concentration of the wines is almost surreal. I taste them and the favors are so big they just don't seem to fit in my mouth. I'm in heaven, and there are still 80 wines to go. Not counting tomorrow.

Then there's an interlude -- five German red wines. Never heard of German red wines? There's a reason. Tasting German reds is like watching a ballerina mud-wrestle. She might do it passably, but it really isn't her forte.

"They're really earnest about it," Mr. Theise says of German red wine producers. "But are they Julio about it?" shoots back Mr. Blinder. Call it Gallo humor.

At about 2 p.m., after about 80 wines, Mr. Theise finally lets us each adjourn for lunch. And, naturally, who can eat at the Milton Inn without wine? Mr. Parker supplies four wines in brown paper bags -- pinot noirs, from California, Oregon and Burgundy. They're excellent, but we all leave a lot in our glasses.

Back to work. Kabinett wines, not too dry, not too sweet, but plenty of acid.

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