Bikiniblick and the devil's pitchfork.
Winter is hanging on to Traben. Crossing the bridge from Trarbach on foot I’m pelted by cold rain. A handful of pizzerias, cafes, and shabby casinos are open, the wine shops and cellars of both villages facing each other across the lazy high Mosel are unremittingly closed. Stray dog walkers and joggers save the place from being entirely deserted.
For two decades at the beginning of the 20th century Traben Trarbach’s wine merchants were the most successful in Europe. At the end of this golden era they left behind clusters of beautiful art nouveau buildings, the bulk of which seem to have been converted into luxury hotels with spas, conference hotels, and sleepy restaurants. One particularly imposing stone structure is now a Buddha museum, full of metal statues of varying size and provenance. The building itself retains its original century-old architectural embellishment: improbable aesthetic dissonance.
There are star wineries in Traben today, Weiser-Kunstler, Martin Mullen. I’m not here to see them, and like the rest of this off-season riverside tourist stop, they appear devoid of activity. I’m in Traben to make sure Olaf Schneider ships me the last 350 bottles of 2016 Weingut O. Riesling hiding out in his tiny cellar. We meet in the late afternoon. He is tired, returning from a long day in Trier and wearing the dust of an ongoing construction project/new house that he recently acquired across the river from his home, in Trarbach. Olaf and his partner Simone Pollmann run an increasingly successful and wonderfully idiosyncratic boutique hotel next to their home, a building that must have been a stable at some point in history: a large painted black horse head juts from above the side doorway. Their economic success is threatening mine. I heard from the horse’s mouth that rumours are true. Olaf has sold his 2 hectares of vineyards! Tourism is filling their hotel, more each year, and the busy season for vignerons is the same as it is for hotelliers. I can’t blame him. Working the dangerously steep slopes he farmed is a young man’s folly. The new owner has plans to reclaim additional portions of the concave (a shape that’s hot during the day, cold at night: perfect for Riesling) hillside bordering Schneider’s Ungsberg and Bikiniblick vineyards. The former is terraced and ungrafted, over a century old, possibly the oldest vines in the Mosel. It produces tiny berries of otherworldly concentration. As the name implies, Bikiniblick overlooks the public pool at a distance of perhaps 200 meters. It’s vines are staked, and 60+ years old. On hills this steep poles are essential. To work a vineyard with wire trellises would mean positional repetition for the farmer: murder on the back. A staked vine can be worked from all sides. We are humans, not machines! Our bodies like diversity of motion.
From Weingut O’s precarious grey slate slope you can also see the oldest mini golf course in Europe. This town has everything. Except places to eat dinner. On a Tuesday evening, options are confined to a kabob shop (already ate there) and haute cuisine. The hotel Bellevue is perfectly frozen in time. Emily Post would approve of the silver service, the calm officiousness of the waiters, the timeless appeal of the menu. Venison consommé, dove cooked in a clay pot, braised ox with indescribably perfect mashed potatoes. The room is empty. I can hear old German voices drifting across the hall. There is a bar with red leather chairs and Belle Epoque paintings. The wine list is a tome containing every Mosel producer of interest. I began my meal with Martin Mullen’s Riesling trocken and ended it with an older Abtsberg Riesling from Maximin Grunhaus. Framed fading photographs provide border to the dining space and offer impressions of Traben’s golden age. So many unsmiling faces. A patriarch from the industrial age looks down from a place of prominence, painted in somber oils with no shred of embellishment. Stern, functional, unsentimental.
Our hello/goodbye moment with the wines of Weingut O. will begin in spring. One of the things I appreciate about wine is the reminder that everything is temporary. All estates pass into history. If they don’t they change. The morning’s conversation with Lars Carlberg and Johannes Weber at Hofgut Falkenstein centered on the topic of historic estates in their region (the Saar) that perhaps have gone off the boil a bit. Succumbed to success, turned their attention from farming to marketing. Isn’t it inevitable Olaf Schneider later opined, for a winery to take this path once they reach a certain size? Someone has to sell the wine. It’s hard to stay in the perfect moment forever. Hofgut Falkenstein are there, Weiser-Kunstler, too. The latter estate is making (in Lars’ opinion) the best wines in the Mosel today. But only 30,000 bottles. Olaf, who lives on the same street as Weiser-Kunstler, observes the wines are basically bottled and sold out on the same day.
Scant wine is the theme of my work in the Mosel. Hofgut Falkenstein can’t sell us all the wine we request. They are apologetic, doing their best, but global demand for their wares is rising. Johannes flew back from Tokyo the day before we met. They are critical darlings, conservatively rated (by people including me) as one of the top 10 wineries in Germany today. Not that it’s a horse race. Erich (Johannes’ father) began in 1984 with a vision and less than an acre of land. He struggled to bring a singular style of Saar Riesling to our attention. Ultimately it’s a traditional style, a courageous embrace of old cellar techniques and proper farming that creates wines with brilliant focus and shocking purity/transparency. His life’s work is paying off at last, and we are in the right place and time to share in the beauty of his/their work.
“It was cold until March when I was young.” Erich joins us from a moment. He is sweating from his work clearing a field close to the Falkensteinerhof. “Winter would be snow. Now it is rain.” He is suffering, a lumbar issue that started yesterday. “I’m being stuck with the devil’s fork!” He pantomimes a jab in the lower back, and comments the pain either comes from Satan, or his mother-in-law.
Erich was born in Krettnach, a neighboring village where he now owns vines. His father was a railway man. His uncle had two daughters uninterested in vineyard work. So in 1984 Erich stepped in, and started farming a tiny sliver of land, barely .4 of a hectare.
We walk to the cellar behind their home, past Falkenstein’s patch of 30-year-old Weissburgunder, south-facing vines planted in grey slate. The cellar has a brand new grey slate roof. The artistry of overlapping fish scale tiles really impresses me. In front of the cellar is a beautiful kitchen garden created by Erich’s wife from a piece of land where they used to grow Muller Thurgau.
The underground cellar is cold, and covered in mold. Johannes explains it is good fungi, if you spill wine on the ground in this space it will not turn to vinegar. There is noticeable airflow through the room, which is a relief. My fear of carbon dioxide in enclosed fermentation spaces has grown in recent years, based on a few dicey moments of oxygen deprivation.
Here’s a short summary of our afternoon tasting. Most of the wines are still in barrel. Everything at Falkenstein is excellent. We can’t bring them all to N.C. As I mentioned earlier, demand now outstrips supply at this estate. Contact your Piedmont Wine Imports sales representative today to secure last scant bottles still available from the outstanding 2017 vintage, or to reserve some 2018s (ETA summer 2019.)
2018 Pinot Blanc – Lean, linear, clean, dry. The wine fermented for a week and a half. It finished fermentation two weeks ago. Falkenstein always bottles off the gross lees (sur lie) with no filtration.
2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Kabinett Trocken (Egon) has a faint pleasant green note, followed by Meyer lemon, some rind flavors, and lovely salinity on the finish. Dry wine at it’s finest.
2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Kabinett trocken AP1 has more pronounced fruit, also more green apple and grip on the finish.
The wines are bottled via gravity. They don’t add CO2. Falkenstein wines are naturally spritzy because of gentle handling in cellar. “The less you pump, the better,” Lars said. “It feels right to do less.”
There are some new Slovenian 1000 liter barrels in the cellar. For a few years they will be used for Pinot Noir. “Eventually they break.” Johannes said Falkenstein only switches out barrels when older ones start to leak. Sadly there are not remaining barrel makers in the Mosel. Lars said that every vintage used to have several. But technology has taken over the production of most wineries in the region, and a room full of 1000 liter barrels is now anachronistic. Stainless steel is king in the Mosel. I can’t reconcile the absolute precision and clarity of the wines at Hofgut Falkenstein with the larger Mosel wine community’s movement away from these traditional methods. Erich and co. have retained the soul of Riesling without sacrificing purity or stability.
“We studied in Geisenheim (Germany’s top wine university) but we work very well with our methods” Johannes stated. I commented that winemakers should be diagnosticians who apply a lifetime of learned knowledge and experience to their specific situation. Otherwise we might as well use robots to make the wine. We segue into a conversation about natural wine dogmas, injudiciously applied. It’s a trend the three of us all view with a rising sense of alarm. Good wine is made in a variety of ways and following a diversity of philosophies, but checking a series of boxes and wearing those (at times arbitrary) decisions on one’s sleeve veers close to the danger I fear at the heart of many ideologies. It divests the human intellect, our ability to adapt and synthesize information in the moment, from the winemaking process. To assume you can make wine in the Saar in the same manner that you would make it in Beaujolais or Puglia is absurd.
Back to the wine. 2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Spatlese Trocken AP9 (Muny) has perceptibly more fruit weight (duh.) According to Johannes,“We always have low pH and high acidity. We don’t have to worry much (in the cellar.) We are not scared.”
2018 Riesling Krettnacher Altenberg Spatlese Trocken was still fermenting. Hazy unfiltered raw apple juice flavors and aromas. I can’t read this one yet. It will have a pH between 2.6 and 2.8: that really low!
2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spatlese Feinherb AP 11 is showing remarkable balance for a wine so young. It impressed me.
The 2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spatlese Feinherb AP23 is showing more forest berry fruit today. It has nice coolness on the palate.
2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spatlese Feinherb AP3 (Deutschen) old vines is normally a part of their AP3 bottling. Today the wine is focused, with spicy apple aromas the drift through the foreground.
2018 Riesling AP4 (Peter) has a hint of yeast/fermentation aroma at first, then becomes really clean, with red apple and perfect acidity. The vines for this barrel of wine are over 60 years old. It’s a notch up in terms of layers of flavor.
2018 Riesling Spatlese feinherb AP3 dials up the concentration. I’m riveted.
2018 Riesling Kabinett (Im Kleinshuck) is from a southwest-facing site and is the first fully fruity/sweet wine we tried. Forty grams/liter of residual sugar, 86 degrees Oeschle. According to Johannes, It was sunny and 20 degrees Celsius at harvest. They pressed the fruit to 1 bar of pressure, and then dumped the remaining juice (more coarsely pressed) to the co-op. Also (according to Lars) fruit from young vines, or parcels where they don’t like the grapes, get sold on to cooperative. “It’s painful, but necessary. We don’t make an entry-level wine.”
2018 Riesling Kabinett Euchariusberg (AP 12) has a pH of 2.6, and 45g/l rs. It is all old vines planted in a large south-facing block. It is a wine we will import. Bright acidity, and a really clean finish given the level of residual sugar.
2018 Kabinett Alte Reben (Gisela) was harvested at 88 Oeschle. Very vibrant. Once again, nice balance! Faintly lemonade, if lemonade was my favorite drink.
2018 Riesling Euchariusberg Riesling Spatlese AP14 (Furster) is a touch closed now aromatically. It hails from a special steep plot. On the palate the wine has really nice persistence, a long finish that goes on for ages and seems an appropriately lovely end to our tour of the farm’s Rieslings.
The 2017 Red wine has fine, chalky tannin. It’s drying at present, lean tart cherry/raspberry. I’ll start taking home bottles of this wine in autumn to consume with little birds and farmstead cheeses. The wine is evolving. Now they use whole cluster and foot-treading of the bunches before the 20-day fermentation. Johannes jokes about how hipster wineries would post pictures of this en vogue process to Instagram, when it is the hard vineyard work pre-harvest that really matters to the eventual quality of the wine.
It’s time to go. Lars is infamous at this moment for an article he wrote delineating farmer-wineries from commercial-corporate wineries in the Mosel. I look forward to reading it. There’s room for both kinds of winery (of course) but it’s important to disseminate the difference, and his position on the ground in the Saar is the right place to be doing this work. I don’t think notoriety will hurt him, or Hofgut Falkenstein. They are really nice people, hard to dislike. And they are doing the right thing for Riesling, to the benefit of us all.
Falkensteinerhof, built in 1901, extensively restored after a fire several years ago.