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The Mosel River Renaissance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Stuart Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer

Flowery, thin and cloyingly sweet is the way many Americans perceive the wines from the Mosel Valley in Germany. There’s a reason. During the 1970s and ‘80s, rampant commercialization encouraged by a lax wine law made kitschy, mass-produced wines the normal product of the region. About a decade ago, a new generation of vintners committed to making varietal wines from the classic Riesling grape started a quality renaissance there, but it is only during the last few years that the leading members of this group have begun to attract international attention. The excellent 1995 vintage has given them their best chance yet to demonstrate their talents.

Ernst Loosen: Awakening the Valley

Ernst Loosen, 39, of the Dr. Loosen estate in Bernkastel is the best-known winemaker of the Mosel renaissance. It makes sense at first: His parents came from prominent winemaking families. (Indeed, their marriage joined the two properties, creating the Dr. Loosen estate.) But Loosen had not wanted to be a winemaker; he wanted to be an archeologist. His grandfather, Anton Adams, designed civic monuments, including the extension to Berlin’s State Library, and during the first half of the last century, his great-great grandfather Peter Josef Lenne was Europe’s foremost garden architect, creating the Tiergarten park in the center of Berlin.

Ernst’s father, however, insisted he first study at Germany’s famous Geisenheim wine school. In spite of ignoring his studies, Loosen passed his exams on the first try, then enrolled the next day in archeology at Mainz university.

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“I don’t believe in fate,” Loosen told me, “so let’s call it chance. My father was suddenly taken ill, and I was forced to organize the 1983 harvest. Before I knew it, wine had gotten under my skin.”

For the next four years Ernst was in constant conflict with his father about wine quality and the way the estate was run. The largest investment his father made was buying a barrow for moving cases of wine around the cellar. Ernst finally got control just before the 1987 harvest.

After the first day of picking, all the employees resigned because Loosen insisted that they pick all the vineyards selectively, separating the best grapes from the less-ripe ones, something that had never been done at the estate before. Undeterred, he appointed Bernhard Schug, a (beer-drinking) friend who had studied agriculture, as winemaker and hired new pickers.

Later Loosen and Schug visited the great winemakers of Europe and California together and developed winemaking ideas that were revolutionary for the sleepy Mosel Valley. These included fermentations with wild yeast that lasted months instead of days and abandoning the use of fining agents to help clarify the wines (a normal practice not only in Germany, but around the globe).

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There are 31,650 acres of vineyards in the twisting valleys of the Mosel and its tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer. Just over 17,000 are planted with Riesling vines. A further 2,850 acres are planted with the ancient Elbling vine and the remainder with inferior modern varieties. But this is really Riesling country. The combination of a cool northerly climate and the precipitous slate-covered vineyards (that act as natural solar collectors) results in Rieslings that are low in alcohol, yet packed with aroma.

“Why should the Mosel be different from anywhere else in the world?” asks Loosen. “Our best wines come from old vines planted in the top vineyard sites that give small crops.” He is lucky to have inherited nearly 25 acres of Riesling vines up to 100 years old, all ungrafted. (Since the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, nearly all European vines have been grafted on phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. But in the Mosel, the slate rock that covers the slopes weathers to a sharp, sandy material in which the destructive phylloxera lice cannot live.)

His uncompromising insistence that only small crops can give superior Riesling wines, and his campaigning for a classification of the region’s best vineyards, have earned Loosen the reputation of being a rebel with a cause. After one television appearance in which Loosen literally pointed the finger at inferior vineyards that had been planted with government subsidies during the 1970s, an incensed local vintner cut off more than 100 of Loosen’s vines just above the ground.

The estate’s wines are no less revolutionary than Loosen’s ideas. Most Riesling wines from the steeply sloping Mosel vineyards are light-bodied and pleasantly tart. The Loosen wines marry this with a richness and power seldom found in the region.

Packed with the scents of freshly chopped herbs and minerals, the 1995 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett is a classic example of Loosen’s wine style. In spite of a touch of unfermented grape sweetness, the aftertaste is very clean and dry.

“The more power a Riesling wine has, the better it carries the natural sweetness,” Loosen says. His 1995 Erdener Pralat Riesling Auslese certainly possesses abundant power. It smells and tastes like a mango-and-passion fruit essence; its richness, acidity and concentrated fruit are perfectly balanced. It is a truly great wine.

Willi Schaefer: A Gentle Guide

The fact that the new winemaking stars of the Mosel are good friends does not prevent them from being strong individualists.

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Although some of his vineyards lie within a few yards of parcels owned by Loosen, Willi Schaefer produces a completely different style of Mosel Riesling at his tiny five-acre estate. Here, the emphasis is on crystalline purity and vibrancy, qualities that have brought his wines first places in numerous blind tastings of young wines in the German press.

“Europeans often poke fun at Americans for drinking wines as soon as they are available,” he told me, “but for our wines, this is correct. You should drink them for their youthful vivacity during the first year after release, or else wait for a decade for them to develop mature character.”

Schaefer has no problem proving the aging capacity of his wines with the help of his well-stocked cellar. His favorite mature wines for drinking now are the ’71 and ’75 vintages, “because they are still lively and invigorating.”

Asked why he thinks he and a small number of colleagues in the Mosel have shot to prominence in recent years, Schaefer replies, “First, the trouble we take to prevent the crop becoming too large, which would rob the wines of character, and second, the trouble we take to precisely time the harvest of each parcel of vines, and to select the best grapes.”

In the cellar, he lets nature take its own course. “I guide the wine’s development very gently,” he says. The result is wines like his 1995 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spatlese, which has the fresh black currant character typical of Domprobst and a scintillating interplay of fruit and acidity. Schaefer’s 1995 Riesling Auslese “Gold Cap” from the Domprobst is a late-harvest masterpiece, rich in the lush exotic fruit aromas from botrytis (noble rot), but still exceptionally clean and fresh.

Thomas Haag: Gifted Jungwinzar

In Germany it sometimes seems as if the age limit for “jungwinzar” or “young vintner"--a coveted description that implies dynamism and innovation--has crept up as high as that for “rock star.”

At just 30 years of age, Thomas Haag can still justifiably claim the title, although his achievements are already greater than those of many Mosel vintners twice his age. Since 1992, he has pulled the once-famous Schloss Lieser estate of Lieser out of the dustbin of history and put it back in the first rank of Mosel estates, where it had stood until the early 1970s. As the eldest son of Wilhelm Haag, owner and winemaker of the famous Fritz Haag estate in Brauneberg, he had the requisite experience, but expectations were also high.

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With his magnificent 1995 wines, he has amply fulfilled them. His Riesling Kabinett (without vineyard designation but from Bernkastel and Graach vineyards) is a sleek, dry wine with a delicate white peach flavor. The 1995 Lieserer Niederberg-Helden Riesling Auslese is a monster in comparison, but it has an acidity that perfectly balances its opulent apricot and spice flavors.

“If I taste a young wine and I can already taste 95% of what is in it, then it will not have a long life and cannot be a great wine,” he says. “Thankfully that is not the case with this wine. It does require patience, though.”

Haag’s quiet self-confidence makes him seem older than his years, but as a winemaker, he is just coming into his full stride. He is surely set to become one of Germany’s most famous winemakers; it can only be a few years before collectors start fighting one another to obtain his best wines, as they do for the Fritz Haag wines.

Theo Haart: Shunning Bombast

There is hardly a wine village in Germany that has suffered more from the combination of over-commercialization and the 1971 wine law than Piesport. Since 1971 a group of neighboring villages, including Rievenich, whose vines are planted among the forests of the Eifel Hills far from the sheltered slopes of the Mosel Valley, have been allowed to sell their wines as “Piesporter Michelsberg.”

Little of the wine sold under this name comes from Piesport, a situation that many journalists have characterized as “legalized fraud.” This together with the mediocre to inferior quality of Michelsberg wines has ruined Piesport’s reputation. In fact, Piesport has two of the greatest Riesling vineyards in the entire valley: the Goldtropfchen and Domherr.

A Roman wine press found nearby indicates that wine has been made here for at least 1,600 years. The Goldtropfchen and Domherr wines made by Theo Haart, 45, of the Reinhold Haart estate show why these areas enjoyed the highest international reputation until recent decades. Their bouquet of black currant, citrus and peach is positively baroque for Mosel Rieslings.

“I’m always looking to harvest the ripest possible fruit,” says Theo Haart, “but the last thing I want to do is make bombastic wines. My aim is to combine intensity with charm and elegance.” His 1995 Piesporter Goldtropf Riesling Spatlese achieves exactly this. The succulent peach and dark berry fruit flavors are set off by a lacy acidity. The 1995 Auslese “Gold Cap” from the same vineyard site is a full-throttle dessert wine that is dense and creamy. It should finally begin showing its best this year.

Plenty of other producers in the region also made excellent wines in 1995. On the Mosel, Joh. Jos. Christoffel, Fritz Haag, Heymann-Lowenstein, Heribert Kerpen, Carl Loewen, S.A. Prum, Max Ferd. Richter and Studert-Prum are particularly recommended; on the Ruwer, Karthauserhof (Tyrell), and on the Saar, Von Hovel, Egon Muller, Schloss Saarstein and Zilliken.


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