Die Riesling Manufaktur

Johannes Schmitz isn’t your typical Moselian, his Rebenhof winery on the southern edge of Ürzig is testimony to that. In contrast to an otherwise traditional Mosel village his glass, steel and concrete monument to the 21st Century proudly pronounces the establishment as a “Riesling Manufaktur”.

As a self-confessed Riesling lover I’ve known about Ürzig and its Würzgarten (Spice Garden) vineyard for many years, so I was thrilled when I saw the name appear on the Sat-Nav screen as I drove up the Mosel, heading for the town of Bernkastel-Keus. The scenery matches much of the region – slopes with impossible angles rising from the riverside, carpeted with vines – but stands out more than most with gashes of red on the cliff-face as the river loops past the village of Erden, on the opposite bank (famous for its Prälat and Treppchen vineyards).

It’s the rock colour that helps make Ürzig wines distinctive from the neighbours; the Würzgarten grows on Permian (299 to 251Mya) sandstone, volcanic rhyolite and red Slate, contrasting the primarily Devonian (416 to 359Mya) blue-grey slate that much of the Mosel (-Saar-Ruwer) sits atop. The dark, iron-rich soil retains heat well and affects Riesling’s flavour profile, giving an earthy spiciness that explains the vineyard name.

A short walk around the village initially didn’t throw any surprises;

  • Steep Riesling vineyards … check
  • Quaint, old-style houses, narrow streets and alleyways … check
  • Traditional, Gothic script “Weingut” frontage signs … check
  • Everything looking shut even though it’s Saturday afternoon … check!

After a good hour wandering I ended up on Hüwel street, on the southern edge of the village, and the last building suddenly came into view with banner-flags flying, a patio-style seating area out front and framed by vines on the slopes behind. Intrigued by this sharp contrast of modernity plus the fact that it was clearly open for business (people visible at the tasting bar confirmed this, a bonus of glass fronted buildings!) I walked in and let the tasting begin.

A charming woman obligingly poured a first glass and we exchanged pleasantries in her broken English and my broken German, but when I started asking some more involved questions she hesitated, clearly not completely comfortable with the language, and called over a man to take her place at the bar. This turned out to be Johannes Schmitz, the owner and winemaker of Rebenhof (the woman was Doris Schmitz, his wife) who was more confident with English and we quickly got talking about each of the wines he poured, as well as the winery and winemaking.

Rebenhof (literal translation, Vineyard) was founded in 1875 or 1884 (depending where you read) but it wasn’t until 1990 that its current incarnation began when Johannes took over from his father, Paul. There are 4.4 hectares producing 35-40,000 bottles of Riesling with an average vine age of 60 years, although some are over a century old. 80% of the plantings are on original, ungrafted rootstock with average yields of 65hl/ha – the Kabinett often comes in at 80hl/ha while the Alte Reben (Old Vine, from 80+ y.o. plants) is less than 40hl/ha.
Normal harvest time is late October, however, in line with other European wine regions, the 2011 harvest is likely to be early with the Riesling grapes already 4-5 weeks ahead of normal development, as discussed in my June Greybeard’s Corner post.

I asked about the new building we were standing in, only opened last year, and the obvious difference to the rest of the village. Johannes is happy to admit he is not enough of a romantic to blindly follow tradition and practicality won out when expanding from the old building just down the street (which now doubles as a guesthouse).

This modern business attitude is carried through into the winemaking and general running of the winery as well with the use of Stelvin closures and a high export rate of wines outside Germany. Unfortunately things like this haven’t made him too popular amongst his Ürzig peers – one can almost imagine the older generation gathering behind closed curtains complaining of this “upstart” and his new fangled ideas!

Unsurprisingly Johannes doesn’t shirk away from media attention either. Along with the likes of Ernst Loosen, Markus Molitor and others he is an outspoken critic of the controversial Hochmoselübergang bridge which will be painfully visible as it crosses the river just upstream from Ürzig. German speakers can read more of Schmitz in this anti-bridge article from the Stuttgarter Zeitung and see him talking about Rebenhof on a YouTube clip from earlier this year.

As for the wines, we tasted our way through a dozen different styles and vintages of Riesling starting with a dry Kabinett, the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett Trocken, Von wurzelechten Reben (from ungrafted vines, 12% abv). This was the only reference in print to the 80% of all the Rebenhof vines being on original rootstock, a key marketing point for some other wineries but not for Schmitz who lets the wine quality speak for itself.
This had a creamy nose with a little perfume, a rich texture, a dry mid-palate with a little spice and a strong honey finish – a solid 3 star wine.
The 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Trocken (12.5%) had a similar nose to the Kabinett with more concentration and a richer texture, a spritz at the front, more minerality and a long finish with a touch of honey at the end.
The 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Trocken Alte Reben (13.5%) had a deep, dark nose with dense flavours and an earthy rawness to it – a truly delicious 4 star wine. At 13.5%, it was a full percentage point higher partly due to the old vine grapes but also the 2010 vintage itself, something of an aberration in the region producing ultra low-yield wines compared to previous vintages. This was recently highlighted by Jon Bonné in his SFGate post “Germany’s Bizarro 2010 vintage” (memorable for the line “a vintage that wants to Taser me into appreciation”).
Next we moved up in residual sugar to the 2009 Vom Roten Schiefer Riesling Kabinett Feinherb (11%). Without the Würzgarten provenance Schmitz identifies the soil type as the wine’s selling point, Roten Schiefer being the famous red slate of the area. The wine had a clean yet creamy nose with good acidity to balance the increased sugar and a marked minerality.
Feinherb is simply a term used to denote wines of approximately 9 to 18g/l of residual sugar, replacing the less fashionable Halbtrocken (half-dry) in today’s marketing conscious world.
We stayed with that style with the 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Feinherb Alte Reben (11.5%) which had a warm, buttery nose with a sweet lemon & lime spritz at the front. This was a well balanced 3+ star wine with restrained sugar, a dry mid-palate, classic minerality and a grapefruit finish.
The vintage contrast became apparent with its younger sibling, the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Feinherb Alte Reben (13%). This was golden in the glass with a honey and candied tropical fruit nose, a big wine with more noticeable sugar to go along with the hike in alcohol. Unfortunately it didn’t have the elegance of the ’09 with the fuller flavours not marrying together, give it a few more years though and this could be superb.
We moved away from Ürzig as Johannes poured a taste of 2010 Grauer Schiefer Riesling, grown on the grey slate of the Lösnicher Försterlay vineyard further downstream. This was intended to contrast the Würzgarten and indeed showed a different fruit profile, sweeter and in a more easy drinking style, almost a palate cleanser for the high sugar wines about to follow, starting with the 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Alte Reben (9%).
This was much richer with a smoky nose and a pleasant fresh apple aspect along with its delicate sweetness. Delicate was not an apt descriptor for the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Alte Reben (8%) which continued the theme of this vintage having extra depth. It was beautifully complex with a perfumed nose and a honeyed richness – another 4 star wine.

Then came the 2008 Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese (9%), although, as the grapes were picked at -10ºC on 30th December, it met all the criteria for an Eiswein (but Schmitz didn’t want to label it as such, only putting “Kleine Eiswein” on the back label). This was a very dense wine with a sweet baked honey nose and a very long finish, another 4 stars.
The 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese, Fass Nr. 12 (7.5%) was a more traditional Auselese with a tropical fruit nose. It was good, but I felt it suffered in comparison to the little Eiswein as it had a simpler sweetness.
Following the principle of saving the best until the end the final wine poured was simply superb, as long as you don’t mind a bit of sugar! The 4 star 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Beerenauslese showed candied fruit on the nose, deeply sweet but beautifully balanced with gentle elegance and preserved fruit flavours on a long finish. The wine had a long life ahead of it where it would develop greater complexity, but for now it coated the mouth with rich, sweet fruit.
Unfortunately for €45 a half-bottle this was too rich for my budget, almost twice the price of the ’08 Auslese (€24.50) and over three times as much as the various Alte Reben bottles (€13.50). Still, I happily put together a mixed 6 bottle case from these as I finished off interrogating Herr Schmitz for a few last facts.

I mentioned earlier that Rebenhof is unusual for many Mosel wineries as it exports the majority of its wines, 65% to be precise as far afield as Beijing and Shanghai.
Schmitz shows common sense here as well as he keeps each individual allocation small and spread over many countries to shield against the normal market fluctuations. It’s a principle that has saved him a lot of pain as, in 2002 & ’03, his US importer (based in Chicago) offered to take the entire production but Schmitz declined, which was just as well as the same importer hardly ordered a case in ’07 and ’08.

I finally closed my notebook, paid for my wine and left Johannes and Doris preparing for the arrival 100 guests that evening for a wine & dine party, another good use of that polished new building on the edge of Ürzig.

Prost!

Subsequently published on Reign of Terroir, July 31st 2011.

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