German Riesling Adventure: Northern Saar – Hofgut Falkenstein

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Reviews | Posted on 12-26-2012

"Winzer Weber"

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

After our visit to Geltz-Zilliken, where we also tasted the wines of Peter Lauer as part of the SaarRieslingSommer festival, we drove to the northern Saar for an appointment at Hofgut Falkenstein.

Hofgut Falkenstein is a relatively young (for Germany) winery, having existed around 30 years, yet everything about the place is traditional and makes it seem like it’s been around forever. The vines are old (over 70% are 30+ years old, the oldest are between 60 and 80). The grapes are harvested by hand and crushed in whole clusters with an old spindle press. The wines are fermented with natural yeast and aged in ancient 1000-liter oak casks before being bottled and labeled by hand. Like I said, old school.

Erich Weber, the winemaker and proprietor, is himself something of a throwback. He calls himself “Winzer Weber,” which means wine grower, as he prefers to let the land and the grapes do most of the work. Lars Carlberg describes Erich as “one of the most genuine and modest growers in the region.” Hofgut Falkenstein is a labor of love, not a financial investment. As Erich told me during our visit, “Too much money is something not so good.”

We tasted through the lineup of 2011 wines with Erich and his son, Johannes, one of three brothers, but the one most likely to take over from his father some day. The curly-haired Johannes attends Geisenheim, the famous winemaking school I mentioned in my introduction, and is every bit as passionate about the land and the wine as his dad. If I had to guess, we were meeting with another future “Winzer Weber.”

Hofgut Falkenstein grows a bit of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir, but as this was a Riesling adventure, that’s what we stuck with. The wines overall are of tremendous quality. Pure and precise, subtly sweet, and refreshing. I had no history with the estate before this visit, so I cannot compare the 2011 lineup to prior vintages, but I can say that we enjoyed every wine we tasted. I should add here that this tasting was conducted in perhaps the most serene setting of our entire trip. We gathered with the Webers around a picnic table, surrounded by brick-walled gardens, overlooking steep, slate vineyards beckoning down towards the village below. It was a relaxed tasting, punctuated by wide grins and hearty laughs; the epitome of how good wine and good people can elevate an experience into something magical. Join me below for my impressions of the wines… Read the rest of this entry »

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.)

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German Riesling Adventure: Introduction

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 11-05-2012

This really was the “Summer of Riesling” for David started exploring the grape, sampling some excellent examples. Salil enjoyed some brilliant older vintages, and reported on the Theise/Skurnik 2011s from the Nahe, Rheingau and Mosel. Me? I decided to go straight to the source for my education: my wife and I set out for Germany in late August.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reporting on my trip, the wines we tasted, the producers we visited, and the vineyards upon which we gazed. But first, a few themes emerged during the trip and upon further reflection at home.

Germany's Mosel Valley

German Winemakers are True Terroirists. Other than perhaps Burgundy, Germany might be the epicenter of “terroirism.” Jancis Robinson thinks Riesling is “the greatest white wine grape in the world,” in part because it is so good at expressing terroir.  In my opinion, no other wine is able to showcase a truer sense of place than German Riesling. Visit after visit, the winemakers were proud to show off the different soil types from which they farmed their grapes – trays filled with gray, red and blue slate are almost as ubiquitous in German tasting rooms as Schnitzel is on the village menus. But handling a piece of slate at a table is nothing like standing in a vineyard and seeing for yourself just how rocky the terrain really is. In the Mosel Valley in particular, there are vineyards planted on hillsides where giant slate rock formations interrupt the perfectly parallel rows of vines – and others where winemakers actually had to blast through rock with dynamite to make use of their land. In Germany, minerality is reality – not just a marketing slogan.

The German Wine Industry is in Good Hands. At a great majority of the wine estates we visited, the next generation has taken over from their parents, and the future is bright. Young winemakers across the country are banding together to make quality wines, modernize winemaking techniques and raise the profile of the German wine industry. Many of them attended school together at Geisenheim – the premier oenology program in Germany. In addition to sharing tips and tricks, this group travels together, parties together, and shares a camaraderie and passion for wine that is refreshing. Some, like Stefan Steinmetz, were thrust into huge responsibility through tragedy. Others, like Florian Lauer and Christoph Schaefer, work side by side with their fathers, learning to preserve tradition while still pursuing innovation to improve the product.

The Dryness Craze is For Real. Many articles have been written recently about the trend toward dry Riesling in Germany, primarily for their domestic market, but also creeping into their exports. This is readily apparent when visiting winemakers. Almost every tasting included a pronounced emphasis on the trocken end of the range, especially if the vintner has holdings that include an Erste Lage or Grosse Lage (top sites from which Grosses Gewächs wines are made) or vineyards of similar quality for those wineries who aren’t in the VDP. (Joh. Jos. Prüm was a notable exception – it continues to make beloved off-dry Rieslings, trends be damned, and its wine remains some of the best in the world.) So, get ready to see more and more dry wine in your local shops. Unfortunately, not everyone who is making wines on the drier side should actually be doing so, because not everyone has the terroir to do it successfully. Thankfully, most of the estates we visited, and that you’ll be hearing about in the coming weeks, are not in that category. We drank very well in Germany, and I look forward to sharing our experience with all of you.