German Riesling Adventure: Southern Saar – Peter Lauer and Geltz-Zilliken

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Reviews | Posted on 11-12-2012

This entry is part of my German Riesling Adventure, a week long trip to wine country last August. To read the introduction, click here.

We landed early in the morning in Frankfurt and, after trying in vain to figure out how to operate the car’s navigation system in German (which neither of us speak), headed out toward Trier, not far from where the Mosel River snakes its way into Luxembourg. We did some sightseeing but, as this was a wine tasting trip, we quickly had to make our way south into the Saar, a wine region along a main tributary of the Mosel. The Saar is a small area of winegrowing (so much so that it is easily forgotten now that it has been folded into the larger Mosel region on wine labels), but it has a handful of strong producers working with excellent terroir.

Our destination was Saarburg, in the southern part of the valley, and specifically the estate of Weingut Forstmeister Geltz–Zilliken. Our visit happened to coincide with the SaarRieslingSommer festival, a weekend tour where nine different wineries – and several guest producers – opened their doors to visitors, and for a small fee you could taste all day at any of the stops. Therefore, while at Zilliken, we also were able to taste the wines of Peter Lauer.

Like David, I was introduced to Lauer’s wines by Phil Bernstein, and was immediately hooked. The wines are made by Florian Lauer, part of the new generation of up-and-coming winemakers I mentioned in the introduction to this series. Four generations of winemakers preceded Florian, who is in his early 30s. The 2012 vintage will be his eighth, after taking over from his father, Peter.

The Lauers do a few things differently than other producers in the Saar. For one, they label most of their wine by the site from which the grapes were harvested, preserving the individual subplots of the Ayler Kupp that were lumped together by the 1971 Wine Law. Second, they bottle their wines by individual cask numbers (called “fass” in German), although it is more accurate to say they keep certain bottlings from certain sites the same from year to year, even if individual casks or tanks end up being blended together. Third, they use their own internal classification of style, from trocken to feinherb, and some that are “trocken to feinherb,” which usually means the wine is just above the legal limit of residual sugar to be labeled trocken. Finally, Lauer’s wines are grouped together in three tiers: silver swirls on the label indicate the entry-level wines; green are the mid-range; and gold are the “beste parzellen,” or the top sites. It is worth noting that the handwriting on the labels belongs to Florian’s mother, Julia. (Also note: According to Lars Carlberg, Lauer is set to join the VDP next year, so some of the wines may get renamed.)

I was very excited to taste through most of the 2011 lineup. Starting with the green range of Ayler Rieslings, Fass 25 (trocken) was fully dry, but with pure fruit and a nice mineral finish. It has citrus on the nose, but crisp apple/pear on the palate. Fass 6 (trocken-feinherb) is also known as “Senior,” because it was the preferred style of Florian’s grandfather (Peter Lauer, Sr.). This was my favorite of this range. It has grapefruit on the nose, stone fruits on the palate, and a subtle chalkiness. It finishes dry, but then the fruit returns. It’s magic. Fass 1 (trocken-feinherb) didn’t give off much on the nose, and had less minerality than the others, but tasted like nice crisp red fruit. Fun, but not complex. The last wine was Fass 3 (feinherb), which was all creamy green apple, with an almost yeasty nose and an amazing mouthfeel. It was almost like a white Burgundy in style.

The gold range lived up to its reputation as the best of Lauer’s wines. Fass 12 (trocken-feinherb) had a grassy and wet nose, like a garden fountain, but finished dry and chalky. Fass 18 (trocken) was more floral, and sweet fruited, with a pleasant oily mouthfeel. Fass 11 (trocken) smells of straw and is completely dry, with a long, clean finish of stones. It is a very different style from the others, almost like an Alsatian wine (which might make sense, given that Alsace is very close to the southern Saar). Fass 17 (trocken-feinherb) is higher in acid, with crisp Asian pears, a long finish, and a touch of spice. It was the clear favorite of the entire lineup. Fass 15 (feinherb) had a stinky nose, a sweet tart palate, and a clean, slate finish. Fass 9 (feinherb) was more on the tropical fruit side, lifted by nice minerality on the finish. It is more “Mosel” in style.

Overall, Lauer’s 2011s are stylish and exciting, and the estate is deserving of its cult status. Driven by a sense of place, with a wonderful balance of acidity and fruit, underscored by distinct minerality. I will be a buyer every year from now on.

The estate now known as Geltz-Zilliken has endured for over 250 years, despite the destruction of the cellars in a World War II bombing raid and many marriages and deaths that separated and reunited various vineyard holdings. Hanno Zilliken, the winemaker, is a legend in the Saar, and while very busy with the festival, spent a few minutes with us pouring a selection of wines before we had to head to our next appointment. Unlike Lauer, who produces mostly dry wines, Zilliken’s range only is about 20% dry. The estate’s reputation is one of steely minerality, and the sweet wines have an ability to age for many years.

We began by tasting the 2011 Rausch GG (trocken), which certainly started us off with a bang. This is an intense wine. Tons of extreme minerality, but with incredible finesse. Pure, stone fruit. It’s over 12% alcohol, but not hot at all. The 2011 Saarburger Riesling (feinherb) was medium-dry, with perfectly balanced fruit and acidity. This is an elegant wine, and an incredible value. The 2011 Rausch Diabas (feinherb) was also well-balanced, with a delicate spiciness to it that makes me think it would be a good food wine. We also tasted a few off-dry wines. The 2011 Saarburger Riesling Kabinett had sweet fruit on the nose and tasted of crisp apples and pears. The 2011 Rausch Spätlese was clean and simple, with red fruit flavors. Both of these wines were underwhelming in comparison with the others. But then we ended with the 2010 Rausch Auslese Goldkapsel, which was stunning. Floral nose, tropical mango fruit flavors, an oily mouthfeel and a finish that lasted forever. I was still tasting this wine when we arrived at the next winery. It ain’t cheap, but it’s one to seek out.

I get the sense that Zilliken is focusing his efforts on the top wines in his portfolio, both dry and nobly sweet, which leaves a bit of a hole in the middle. Overall, our time with these two producers at the festival was a great way to kick off our trip. Next, a drive up to the northern Saar to visit Hofgut Falkenstein.

Special thanks to Lyle Fass at Grapes The Wine Company, who provided me with the invitation to the SaarRieslingSommer festival.

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