Traditions and typicity are key to our understanding of classic wine regions. Style, flavours, textures and classifications are signposts and, to a degree, a generalisation of what may be in the bottle. The acceptance of the VDP by the German wine fraternity and wine drinkers all over the world, has coincided with a shift in our drinking habits. We are now far more likely to drink dry German Riesling and our understanding of the Pradikat system (Kabinett, Spatlese, etc) is almost always defined as sweet. But how sweet?
Not all VDP
Last year I wrote a blog titled Understanding Grosses Gewachs (GG) which became our most read article, testifying to the interest in this style and classification. One point I failed to mention is that we have become accustomed to the notion of Grand Cru, First Growth. This gross over simplification (a GG must be “dry” and hence rules out all Pradikat wines), has warped our perception of what the best German wines are.
Firstly, not all German wine producers are VDP members, including some of the very best such as Hofgut Falkenstein. They may make a dry wine from a vineyard that the VDP classes as GG, but are not entitled to use the term, no matter how grand the final result. Secondly, and more importantly, is that by defining a wine as Grosses Gewachs within the confines of an absurdly narrow definition, the nuance, subtly and infinite permutations of German Riesling are restricted. Keeping it simple stupid certainly sells wine, but it’s killing traditions too.
As natural as it comes
Hofgut Falkenstein is not a VDP member and none of their vineyards are Grosse Lage, according to the VDP classification. All bottlings are Pradikatswein, although their adherence is to natural wine production, favouring the traditions of the pre-1971 wine laws. The wine laws of 1971 gave producers greater autonomy to ‘adulterate’ musts and, to a degree, made uniform the wine production processes of the various Pradikats. In other words, many estates, including the most famous were given greater latitude in regards to adding sugar, taking acid away, using enzymes, cultivated yeasts and so on. These laws enshrined the Pradikat system of Kabinett, Spatlese etc and essentially encouraged wine producers to make wines to fit within these categories.
The Webers of Hofgut Falkenstein, apart from small additions of sulphur, don’t add anything. Saar based, there are 13 hectares of steep south facing vineyards, mostly of old vines. One hectare is ungrafted and the grapes of young vines are sold off, rather than make an inferior product. Fermentation and ageing is in 1000 litre fuder, plus a couple of 500 litre halbfuder. The musts are allowed to ferment without any help whatsoever, and when it stops, that’s it, finished. In other words, if the must ferments dry or with a level of residual, it doesn’t matter. The pH is very low, usually under 2 and the acidity levels are high, ensuring stability, freshness and long ageing potential.
Forget what you know
Most German wines that use the Pradikat system of classification do not tend to use such natural wine processes. Even the most reputable estates are determined to place their wines into a style that they themselves wish to achieve. There is of course nothing wrong with this. Most great estates wish to craft wines that are familiar to their customers, and few are willing to just let a ferment run until it stops.
Most Australian lovers of German Riesling are familiar with the terms Kabinett, Trocken and Spatlese and, I would argue, have an expectation of what they will taste like. Kabinetts will be light and fruity, Spatleses similar but with an extra level of density, concentration and complexity. Ausleses are usually sweeter, though not always, but often would be characterised as a dessert wine. Hofgut Falkenstein’s wines do not fit so easily into these classifications, at least as most of us would imagine them.
Sweetness under shadow
If for example a Falkenstein wine is labelled as a Kabinett Trocken, then you will find a “light” dry wine. They are indeed light, being picked at the required Oeschle (between 67 and 82 degrees), but there is a vibrant density of flavour, unimaginable in a Riesling from anywhere else. Going to the other extreme, pick an Auslese, and you will find sweetness, but nothing along the lines of a Prum, Haag or, closer to home, an Egon Muller. Rippling, tense and charged, with the volume of a white burgundy but the vibrancy and thrashing intensity of crashing surf. Sugar is the balancing act, under shadow. Imagine ethereal, silken Prum, the luxurious decadence of an Egon Muller, or the pristine linear grace of Fritz Haag. All familiar, all great, but not Falkenstein.
I saw a comparison from another retailer, claiming that Hofgut Falkenstein is “building a reputation to rival Prum”. Reputations aside, I would only compare the two producers to highlight the difference in style and approach. In the Australian market, Prum is clearly a reference point for most German Riesling drinkers. The Prum style is delicate and sweeter, with a higher level of residual sugar. Texturally, silken. Always a caress, and never a punch. Falkenstein is altogether different. Tense, virile and rippling with energy, and a texture that holds and holds. The acidity is more prominent, indeed front and centre as is the sweetness in Prum. Prum is very much a Mosel producer, whilst Falkestein is most defiantly Saar.
Down to the fuder
Further, the Falkenstein wines are classified according to their Pradikat level (Kabinett, Spatlese, etc) and vineyard name (Niedermenninger Herrenberg, Krettnacher Euchariusberg etc) along with an AP number. The AP number denotes a precise cask or fuder which also carries a name, usually the previous owner of the vineyard. Most estates will bottle with the name of the vineyard and Pradikat level, or occasionally denote a special parcel or cask, but not fuder. Bottling by fuder is a Falkenstein tradition and it is a truly wonderous experience to taste and drink the different ferments. Not even the Burgundians bottle barrels!
The Saar as it should be
And lastly, the bottling. Completed at the estate, by hand, without machine, straight from the fuder. I love this notion. Vineyard expression, as important as it may be, is only as important as the traditions and processes of wine production. Capturing expressions has no meaning without the human and cultural factors behind them. Drink these wines. The Mosel, or strictly speaking Saar as it was, as it still is, as it should be. Beyond the history, the wines are simply thrilling. Thrilling enough for me to state that they are amongst the worlds finest and at prices that a great many of us can afford. A new benchmark, on so many levels, is set.