It is a truism that dog owners look like their dogs. The breed is etched into the fabric of the owner. Winemakers are no different. Their personalities, philosophy, politics, dress, you name it are etched into the liquid they produce. This is not meant to imply criticism. It stands to reason that we make what we like, bringing our convictions to the table. So it was with some surprise that I tasted, grappled, and was conquered by the wines of Clemens Busch.
Based in the village of Punderich, Clemens Busch farms 16 hectares of vines, almost all, Riesling. Clemens started working at the family estate in 1974 and has increased the family’s holdings, most notably in the Grosse Lage of Marienburg. Unusually, Marienburg encompasses grey, blue and red slate. Coupled with the south to south east exposure and the fact that it lies on a sharp bend on the Mosel River; Marienburg offers an incredible array of interpretive opportunities for the inquisitive and quality obsessed Clemens Busch.
Fahrlay, Rothenpfad and Falkenlay
Obsessing over the minutiae, the VDP will classify small plots within existing vineyards as Grosse Lage, similar to the practice in Burgundy, where the difference between good and great can be a matter of metres. The Marienburg region suffers no such debasement. In spite of its diverse riches of exposure, gradient (between 50 and 80 per cent and soil composition, the vineyard is classified as a Grosse Lage in its entirety. Greatness is everywhere it seems. Clemens Busch approaches the vineyard in a unique fashion, parceling the vineyard on the basis of soil type, and producing distinctly different wines.
The three parcels are named Fahrlay, Rothenpfad and Falkenlay. The Fahrlay parcel – stoney, terraced and south facing, consists of predominantly blue slate lying closest to the river next to the Punderich ferry dock. Traditionally in the Mosel, the very best sections of a vineyard are located closest to the river. In virtually all other wine regions where the vineyards are located on slopes, it is mid slope where the finest wines predominate. You be the judge.
Rothenpfad is historically considered the finest section of the vineyard, and it is where the very rare red slate is found. Located directly above the Punderich railroad viaduct, prior to 2006, parts were overgrown with weeds due to access difficulties. Clemens has since consolidated his holding – clearing, replanting and saving some of the old vines.
Falkenlay lies between Rothenpfad and Fahrlay and has the deepest soil, with grey slate predominating. This is the most protected parcel, sitting mid slope next to the a rocky outcrop in the centre of the vineyard.
It’s not just the rocks!
All three sites offer the wine taster some of the most mouth watering decadences, the vineyard laid bare in all its stoney glory, with unsurpassed transparency and scrupulous adherence to traditional practices. Vineyards are multifaceted places, with gradient, exposure, soil types, vine age and extraneous influences, such as man made structures and proximity to rivers, bush and rocks all influencing what you find in the glass. The obsession with soil and it’s influence on wine has taken up far too much space in our thinking and relationship to wine. German Riesling, more than any other fine wine epitomises the coincidences and interplay between the vine, site, tradition, culture, philosophy, maker’s tastes and their ability to harness the capricious temperaments of all variables. It would be hard to argue that the nature of the soil does not have an effect on the flavour, feel and finish of any wine. But what I think makes Clemens Busch a great producer is not only his ability to carve up a vineyard and exhibit differences, but his adherence to his roots and traditions and acknowledgment of their role in producing some of the world’s finest Rieslings. It ain’t just the rocks!
Tradition to the fore
The words natural and traditional are like the word ‘like’ – used too often. Surely, the first rule for any wine producer, or anyone producing anything, is to fashion the finest product from the materials at your disposal. The Mosel, with Jungian synchronicity, has as close to the perfect ingredients and traditions for the finest expressions of place, anywhere in the world. Think of the arguments of typicity in Piedmont and Burgundy surrounding oak ageing (percentage of new oak, toast, size, time, forest, etc), what a ripe grape actually is, use of stems (if at all, or what percentage), ideal ferment temperature, duration of extraction, the use of lees (to stir, or not), the role of the winemaker (vis a vis “ego”) and the use of sulphites. In the Mosel, there is no such argument. There is broad agreement as how to make the best possible wines, and as it turns out, that way is tradition.
Bold and brave winemaking
Clemens Busch employs natural winemaking, and as far as Clemens is concerned, this is to say traditional. Hand picked grapes (they have to be anyway, what with the slopes) are crushed and left on skins for 24 hours. The ferments are all wild and take place in large format old oak, and are allowed to run for as long as it takes. The ferments generally last for roughly 6 months, but have been known to persist for up to 18 months. At no stage are cultivated yeasts used, and absolutely no additions. There is no forcing the issue. Clemens is completely philosophical about this. It is as if he has Goethe in his ear, hinting, pressing “be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid”. Lengthy fermentations entails risk and uncertainty, but wines that wish to be welcomed into the pantheon musn’t hurry and their bubbling birth will run for as long as need be. The uncertain beginnings of vinous Busch will always harvest a quantity of residual sugar after the ferment has exhausted its labour. Dry, or trocken, in this case usually hovers at around 8 to 9 grams, but you cannot sense it. The wine’s intense voluminous fruit and huge acidity ensures a total envelopment of the sugar.
A gentle touch
Malolactic fermentation is rarely needed, except in years where there is a high pH. Not only does the malo soften and balance the wine, wines with high pH’s are unstable, particularly when you consider the low level of sulphur used. Sulphur, for dry wines is only used at bottling and in the smallest quantities, to ensure stability. Let’s not forget that these wines have the heft for immense ageing, sulphur providing extra armour for the long haul. Clemens is a master of the Pradikat wines. When producing the sweeter styles, he uses sulphites to kill the ferment, thus preserving the sugar in the wine. Once again, the sulphites are crucial in ensuring the wine’s ability to age into the long term. His Pradikat wines are amongst the longest lived in Germany.
A balanced approach
Clemens releases his finest dry wines, Grosses Gewachs, roughly two years after harvest. According to Clemens, one of the keys to the wine’s ability to age is leaving the wine on it’s lees in Fuder, for as long as possible. Traditionally in the Mosel, it was quite normal for up to eight years of barrel ageing, on full lees. Watch this space, for in my view, the next frontier, dare I say fashion, in German wine, will be extended ageing on lees for dry Riesling. Bear in mind, the lees are not stirred, but their effect, beyond the textural, is to better integrate the wine’s components, ensuring greater balance. Something that has always amazed me when it comes to structure and ageing potential, is that wines that are elegantly balanced have greater ageing potential than those who wear their structure like an exoskeleton.
During a tasting of Busch wines, a fellow imbiber asked Clemens the temperature of his cellar. An excellent question and not one that I had considered. Neither it seemed had Clemens. After some thought, he replied “12 degrees. Hmmm, no more than 15. It’s very constant”. To my way of thinking this was the last piece of the puzzle. Everything that could possibly be brought to bear had magically coincided with the creation of great wine, through natural and unforced means. Carl Jung believed in meaningful coincidences, that he termed synchronicity. Jung explains “Synchronicity is the coming together of inner and outer events in a way that cannot be explained by cause and effect that is meaningful to the observer”. Just so, the mighty wines of Clemens Busch. Just imagine. Indigenous Riesling rooted into the diverse stony soil, subtle differences of exposure, differing angles of gradient, man made structures, the soothing warmth rising from a river, the unseen local yeast, ancient Fuders, the cold coaxing cellar and the indefatigable man and his family gazing upon their traditions; and all for the exquisite edification of what earth and humanity can achieve in synthesis.
Bang, bang for your buck
I love a good generalisation, and there are some shared general characteristics of all the wines of Clemens Busch. Firstly, let’s consider the price. Having a good time is knowing you’re getting your monies worth, no matter what you’re paying. And if you’re like me, the more you spend, the more you like to feel confident that it’s money well spent. No doubt, the points of a critic add weight to buying influence, but it’s also a sure way to circumvent cranial activity and the loss of a titillating opportunity to exercise your personal sense of taste. Surely the art of connoisseurship is nothing more than a close study of one’s accumulated knowledge, prejudices and a measured evaluative response of the tasting experience.
As with the general tenor of the wines feel and flavour, the prices are eye watering. Eye wateringly cheap that is. When you consider that uniqueness of the vineyards, the 80% gradient, all the tasks are labour intensive requiring true grit, the biodynamic vineyard practices and the attention to detail in every aspect of wine production, quite frankly wine lover, you should be paying more. Riesling of this quality is hard to come by in Germany, and more to the point, does not exist anywhere else in the world.
Stick ’em up
Clemens has massive hands, and to satisfy my own curiosity, I asked him to show me. His hands that is. Calloused, chubby stumps, etched with dirt, the hands of a man who does physical work and doesn’t leave it all to others. Most successful wine producers leave the fields, and enter the world of marketing, sales and spreadsheets. Clemens does all this too, but just look at those hands and you know there’s so much more to the man.
The wines were totally unexpected, but the hands should have been a give away. My impressions were of a gentle man, with the wit and sparkle of someone who knows what he’s about and knows his business. Diligent, professional, shrewd, humble, tough, compassionate. But his wines are ruthless.Typical flavours include white flowers, apricots, yellow peach, red and white cherry, plum, paw paw, green apple, mushroom, nougat, nectarine, blackcurrant, grapefruit, kiwifruit, lavender wood, spice, herbs, green snake confectionary, lemon, lime, orange, nettle, minerals, salt and smoke.
The complete package
Beyond the incredible flavour spectrum, is weight, texture and length. Textured and full of dry extract, the dry wines are full bodied, all muscle and no chub. Spending around 24 hours on skins, absorbing the vineyard flavour and nuance. But let us not forget the cold cellar, extractions are therefore not excessive. Skinsy flavour and texture tends to smother or hide a wine’s quality or limitations, but thank heavens, this is not a skinsy wine.
Components are all very well, and we are apt to break up a wine into the sum of its parts. However, in this case, what perhaps draws a truly unique picture is you feel and taste the finish, minerals, salt, texture and fruit, from beginning to end. Proportions, as huge as they are, are all in balance. You couldn’t say simply that the wines of Clemens Busch were fruity, mineral, bracing, powerful or textured. So they are, but to put one forward as a definitive appropriate epithet, does not do justice to the completeness of the wines and the equality of the wine’s components. Surging, ruthless explosive power, intensity and length of pleasure that closes with an unfathomable grip. These are the wines of a conqueror and for the wine lover there is nothing left to do but a brief, delicious surrender. Until, the following sip, for the drama to begin all over again.