Saar Riesling 2018: Beating the Heat
BY DAVID SCHILDKNECHT | JULY 02, 2020
The precocious 2018 vintage with its hot, dry summer, held the potential for wines short on acidity and high in alcohol. Fortunately, adept growers worked successfully to avoid that outcome, and estate owners nearly everywhere saw a combination of generous ripeness with unexpectedly abundant yields, as detailed in the account of this growing season with which I began my recent coverage of the Nahe. Still, one can imagine more than a few growers having wished they were on the Saar, whose hills and side valleys are known for being cooler and breezier, and for birthing Rieslings correspondingly more acid-retentive and buoyant. But wishing oneself on the Saar was probably rare until recently.
The Euchariusberg Einzellage incorporates several hillsides stretching from Obermennig to Krettnach. Its once-renowned Gross Schock sector, not visible here, hosts Hofgut Falkenstein's oldest and best parcels of vines, and now also reveals excellence from Stefan Müller.
Ripe for the 21st Century
Writing in 1897 at the height of the Mosel’s fame, Karl Heinrich Koch marveled that “the Saar contributes only one-tenth to the total production of [the] Mosel, [yet] its qualitative significance becomes immediately clear when one assesses its contribution to the great Trier wine auctions,” where close to half of the barrels sold from the great 1893 vintage were of Saar Riesling, and averaged 20% higher hammer prices than did those from the rest of the Mosel. Sixty years later, Frank Schoonmaker, in his classic German Wines, was no less awed by what he termed “the great and exceedingly rare wines of the Saar,” but emphasized “rare.” “Once, twice, or at most three times in a decade,” he opined, “nature is kind,” a claim echoed for subsequent generations of oenophiles by Hugh Johnson, who wrote in his World Atlas of Wine: “The battle for sugar in the grapes rages fiercest in this cold corner of [Germany]. It is won perhaps three or four years in ten.”
Before 1988, it was considered normal when Riesling grapes failed to properly ripen even in privileged sites; only years in which hail or frost wiped out the crop or in which the grapes had scarcely even softened come November were deemed genuinely calamitous. The rare great Saar vintage was typically one featuring an exceptionally hot, dry summer - 1959, 1976, and 1983 being classic examples - or fine weather combined with low yields, as in 1953, 1969 and 1971. On rare occasions, as in 1975, both growing season and yield proved felicitous. And ripeness in top years conduced to wines with tasteable residual sugar.
That was then.
The excellence of the best Saar Riesling is today no less awesome. But this region’s top sites now render such excellence annually. And it is no more difficult to achieve harmonious, complex dry Rieslings than it is sweet ones. Moreover - something Frank Schoonmaker would have found just as unthinkable as would Karl Heinrich Koch - there are now vintages like 2018 in which Saar growers would be happy with a bit less warmth, sunshine and grape sugar. Few growing regions can have gained more from what we now recognize as gradual climatic warming that began steadily accelerating during the last decades of the 20th century. For the time being, at least, Saar vintners will happily live with excessive heat and high must weights being the occasional annoyance. And even that problem, as vintage 2018 shows, can be surmounted to a surprising degree.
In a vintage from which many estates presented their largest collections in modern times (and certainly their largest in my experience), Egon Müller by contrast fielded one of his smallest in three decades.
Seemingly Paradoxical Successes
While traditionally, great Saar vintages frequently featured freakish meteorological conditions and wine analyses, a good vintage was one in which this region’s wines lived up to another characterization that many 20th century observers shared with Karl Heinrich Koch: like Mosels, but even more so, featuring alcoholic levity, brightly fresh fruit, animating acidity and stony but mouthwatering mineral nuance. The exemplar par excellence of those virtues is arguably Kabinett, and as codified in 1971 that term was, at least ideally, meant to designate Riesling from a vintage just generous enough to render a completely satisfying wine without recourse to chaptalization.
For the past two decades, growers of German Riesling in regions from which wines labeled Kabinett still hold cachet have been wanting to emphasize that the combination of low must weight with appealing aromatics and high but ripe acidity demanded for this category is no longer the norm. Indeed, most years it takes greater viticultural effort to secure a satisfying Kabinett than it does to render a Spätlese or a harmonious dry wine of 12-13% alcohol. And one would certainly expect such to have been the case in 2018. “It wasn’t easy to attain levity in such a sun-rich vintage,” confirmed veteran Hanno Zilliken, whose Kabinetts are notoriously delicious but also close in analysis if not also in personality to the Spätlesen and Auslesen at other addresses. And yet, as numerous bottlings from Hofgut Falkenstein, von Hövel, von Othegraven and Stefan Müller delectably demonstrate, Kabinett delicacy from grapes of modest must weight was possible even in this warm, precocious vintage. That fact will seem slightly less paradoxical once one considers the strategies employed.
Hofgut Falkenstein began harvesting their 2018s on September 14. “We managed to pick grapes in the mid-80s [Oechsle],” reported Johannes Weber, “but if we had waited another week to begin, it would have been impossible to harvest any Kabinett.” At von Othegraven, Andreas Barth emphasized that his Kabinetts - featuring acid levels of 9-9.5 grams, nearly as formidable as those at Falkenstein - were brought in within a two- or three-day window after which Kabinett became unthinkable. And he added that he and his team got to the Wiltinger Kupp first - but already too late. That Riesling grapes picked record-early did not want for expressive aromatics and ripe acids reflects the fact that flowering in 2018 also set records, so that by mid-September grapes had experienced well more than the proverbial hundred days’ hang time. Most growers will tell you that higher yields translate into lower must weights - which accords with common sense, since the metabolizing vine then has “more mouths to feed” - and those among them who strive to render Kabinett will usually report letting additional clusters hang (typically on two canes) in those parcels earmarked for that category. Shading of the fruit zone is another obvious strategy for must weight mitigation. And in recent years, some partisans of Kabinett have taken to letting huge canopies grow up and flop over in their Kabinett-destined parcels, creating what Klaus Peter Keller fondly calls a “jungle.”
And yet, paradox remains. While the Webers at Hofgut Falkenstein, almost never deleaf in the vines’ fruit zones, they do hedge their canopies, albeit late. Moreover, they prune almost identically regardless of vine age or anticipated Prädikat, with a single “flat” (i.e., straight as opposed to bowed) cane. There are even instances in the Greater Mosel - Julian Haart's ancient vines in Wintrich's Ohligsberg a glaring example - where Kabinett is routinely (and even in 2018) picked late. Such experiences suggest that vine age and genetics - as well as, of course, site - play important roles in determining which parcels can yield memorable results at low must weights.
The once-model State winery in Serrig on the Saar: long-neglected grand cru terroir incorporating two monopole Einzellagen, here slumbering in August 2017 after having been bought by Markus Molitor.
A Realm of Discovery…
A huge source of excitement on the Saar is the rediscovery and restoration of vineyard sites that long suffered from lack of attention, often including outright physical neglect. Most of the so-called Konzer Tälchen, a broad side valley of the Saar, is a case in point. One might understandably be tempted by the remarkable wines emanating from the Webers at Hofgut Falkenstein - wines whose quality has only recently come to widespread international attention - to imagine that theirs is a case of personal stylistic vision, viticultural expertise and hard work (all of which they indeed exemplify) compensating for less-renowned terroir. And I confess that such was my own intuitive interpretation when I first visited with Erich Weber 30 years ago. But in fact, slopes in this sector were long considered among Germany’s finest sources of Riesling. In the outgoing 19th century, only the Scharzhofberg was taxed at a higher rate than was the Euchariusberg, with the Herrenberg and Zuckerberg in neighboring Niedermennig being close runners-up. And as vineyard owners have discovered in the three decades since Prussia’s tax maps resurfaced to public consciousness, these are not merely a handy public relations tool, they also remain remarkably predictive of viticultural potential. But one could set aside all save very recent history and simply trust one’s palate: the Niedermennig Rieslings produced throughout the 21st century’s first decade by Markus Molitor (with vines leased from Kesselstatt) and the Rieslings being generated by Stefan Müller since taking over his family’s estate in 2013 - wines as stylistically different from one another as they are from those of Hofgut Falkenstein - offer unimpeachable gustatory evidence of the Konzer Tälchen’s prowess.
For much of the previous century, when the subject was Saar Riesling, the preeminent vineyards named were Scharzhofberg, Euchariusberg, Bockstein and Geisberg. “Geisberg?” you ask. Contiguous with Bockstein, most of this side valley slope lay fallow for decades until Roman Niewodniczanski and Markus Molitor undertook (not without controversy) a massive facelift and replanting whose first fruits we shall only experience with the 2019 vintage. Another side valley of the Saar, east of Serrig, hosted one of the most massive viticultural endeavors of its era when in the first decades of the 20th century the Prussian state cleared and planted more than 60 steep acres. These connected to a new state-of-the-art, gravity-fed cellar (featuring eight massive basket presses) via a small-gauge railway. But the prestige of Riesling from those slopes was destined to last for barely a half century. When Markus Molitor acquired this former state domain in 2016, it had fallen into dilapidation, its original vine stock long since replaced with high-yielding clones in an effort to render it economically viable in the waning 20th century. “It’s unparalleled,” he said of the opportunity. “Where else in Germany are 25 hectares [62 acres] on offer, all in one piece, of grand cru terroir, encompassing two monopoles?” In a single season, Molitor replanted 80% of the surface with an array of his own massal selections. “In the fourth year [of production] at the earliest,” he said, “I’ll come on the market with wines under my own label: ‘Domäne Serrig - Markus Molitor’” of which there could eventually be 17,000 cases.
Exactly one year later, 80% had been replanted with massal selections. The nearly 150,000 stakes alone cost a fortune. "In the fourth year [of production] at the earliest," said Molitor, "I’ll come on the market with wines under my own label: ‘Domäne Serrig - Markus Molitor’,” of which there could eventually be some 17,000 cases.
…Not to Mention Stylistic Diversity
It is hard to overemphasize the stylistic multiplicity that flourishes in the Saar. That is thanks in no small part to the vision of relative newcomers. Erich Weber established Hofgut Falkenstein in 1985 after four years of vineyard-building and vinificatory experiment; Claudia and Manfred Loch founded Weinhof Herrenberg, equally from scratch, in 1992. Then there are those who have purchased and revived historical estates, as Jochen Siemens did with the former Serrig estate of von Schorlemer in 2006, Günter Jauch that of von Othegraven in 2010, or Roman Niewodniczanski, in spectacular fashion, that of van Volxem, a revival begun in 1999 that now encompasses close to 200 vine acres. To be sure, there have also been critical generational changes, ranging from Hanno Zilliken’s assumption of the reins at Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken in 1981 and eight years later Christian Ebert’s of those at Schloss Saarstein, through Florian Lauer’s and Stefan Müller’s takeovers of their familial estates in 2005 and 2013, respectively.
I struggle to think of any winegrowing region from which exemplary wines as well as cellar regimens differ as dramatically as do those of Egon Müller from his friend Roman Niewodniczanski’s, or those of Hofgut Falkenstein from those of Weinhof Herrenberg. Even within an estate, the stylistic range can be virtually unprecedented, as witness Weingut Peter Lauer under Florian Lauer. The interactions between different viticultural intuitions or methodologies and the challenges of any given vintage are fascinating to consider, as I try to do each year. But suffice it to state unequivocally: 2018 proves yet again that there are many paths to glory, and once again the Saar offers thrills in Kabinett trocken as well as in Trockenbeerenauslese.
A few years ago, I subtitled a column on Style and Typicity “No Czar for the Saar.” And anyone tempted to conflate regional vinous identity or fidelity to terroir with a typical taste character - an “anyone” that, sadly, encompasses most alleged wine authorities - could benefit from a strong dose of diverse Saar Rieslings to break that mindset. Meanwhile, there is likely at least one style of Saar to satisfy every Riesling lover, not to mention a style or two with which few Riesling lovers, let alone oenophiles generally, are as yet acquainted. I have done my best to convey the stylistic dimension in my tasting notes, and to urgently commend this region’s fruits to your attention.
My report is based on visits with a dozen Saar growers in late August, early September and mid-November of 2019, supplemented by subsequent stateside assessment of samples. I remind readers that growers are grouped in my reports according to winery location, so this one omits the extensive and important Saar Rieslings of Markus Molitor, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt and Nik Weis (St. Urbans-Hof), which will be reviewed as part of my coverage of the Middle Mosel and Ruwer, where those estates are based. Conventions regarding nomenclature and scoring are those followed in my previous reports and detailed in the introductions to my coverage of vintage 2015 and 2014 German Rieslings. I reference A.P. (official registration) numbers only where this is necessary to disambiguate two otherwise eponymous wines, and the registration number is assumed to be that of the year following the vintage, unless otherwise indicated. Following usual Vinous practice, scores on those few wines that I have not tasted since they were bottled are expressed in parentheses as point ranges. Wines that I rated 86 points or lower are detailed only if I still deem them good values or think a tasting note will demonstrate some important point (which could be my belief that the wine in question is routinely overrated, or that its latest, disappointing performance requires special explanation).
You Might Also Enjoy
Germany 2018: The Nahe – Leading by a Nose, David Schildknecht, June 2020
The Saar’s Deliciously Diverse 2017s, David Schildknecht, October 2019
Saar & Ruwer: Beauties Despite a Bumpy 2016, David Schildknecht, March 2018
The Saar 2014: Stress for Success, David Schildknecht, July 2016