One of the biggest pleasures of working in wine has always been meeting passionate people, especially when visiting wine producers in situ. Recently I had the chance to meet two contrasting giants owning vineyards on the Saar River, part of the Mosel winegrowing area. Each one demonstrated a true passion about their very special piece of Germany’s winelands which produces some of the world’s finest Rieslings.
The first was Egon Müller (above) of the Egon Müller Scharzhof wine estate, not a very tall man, but someone with an aristocratic bearing befitting his long family history in wine and his reputation as a giant amongst German wine producers. The second was Roman Niewodniczanski (below) of the Van Volxem estate, a giant of a man (over 7 foot tall) who is a relative newcomer to wine, but with a passion and drive that is helping to revitalize this sometimes neglected region.
Roman was our host for a day discovering the Scharzhofberg vineyard, which lies above the Saar tributary of the Mosel near the village of Wiltingen and is amongst the most famous steep vineyard sites in Germany. From the family owning the Bitburg brewery (“Bitte ein Bit”), Roman has invested some of the family fortunes into reviving an estate with a recent chequered history, but that once owned some of the finest vineyard sites. With an enviable amount of energy he has managed in a few years to add greatly to the vineyard holdings by buying steep, often abandoned sites; to convert the farming of the vineyards to organic and biodynamic methods; to re-build the estate house and winery; and to carve out a niche for the estate as a producer of food-friendly dry to off-dry Rieslings. I confess his energy in telling us all about it was at once exhausting and exhilarating. One example was that in 2007 he concluded the purchase of a further 8 hectares (20 acres) of vineyards, owned by no less than 140 people – in fact his lawyer phoned him recently to congratulate him on the 500th purchase contract concluded since he took over Van Volxem.
Roman is quite the philosopher, as well as being a historian. His family were originally from Lithuania, though has been in Germany for several generations, and he firmly believes in the cyclical nature of which nations hold the balance of power and money. Whereas western European countries have held sway in the past century, he believes this will shift to eastern European countries quite soon. In the meantime, he employs Lithuanians and other eastern Europeans for the simple reason that they are prepared to work harder and longer than German employees will.
On entering the Scharzhofberg vineyard, Roman extravagantly announced: “Welcome to terroir” and went on to explain in detail the three things that make the vineyard so great. Firstly, the minerality provided by the purity of the slate soil; secondly the cool climate (one of the coolest vineyards in the world with a dramatic diurnal temperature swing – a difference between very warm summer days and very cool nights of above 20°C); and finally the human tradition. In explaining the last point he evoked the fact that his neighbour Egon Müller has achieved the highest price ever for a white wine with a half bottle of Scharzhofberger Trockenbeerenauslese topping £4,000. It impressed me that Roman demonstrated the deepest respect for Egon Müller, whilst not trying to emulate him.
Egon Müller is discretion and humility personified. His family once owned the whole Scharzhofberg vineyard, but through Napoleonic inheritance laws ownership was split up and splintered over the years. Today he has the largest holding, about 8.5 hectares (21 acres) of the total 27 hectares (66 acres) of steep Riesling vineyards, with more valued old vines than anyone else. Egon speaks quietly, listens and answers our questions politically. We heard his take on the Scharzhofberg vineyard too and he explained that what made it great was the fact that it was on the extreme limit between grapes achieving proper ripeness and being under-ripe (as recently as in his father’s era you would expect only 3 good vintages per decade, with 1 or 2 being catastrophic and 3 or 4 being less than ripe). Egon like Roman welcomes climate change for their particular region as it signals a revival together with a reliability for winegrowers that never existed before.
So, what of the wines? With Roman, we tasted wines from recent vintages (his first was 2000) and in particular I enjoyed his wines with a casual lunch at his home – they have a purity of fruit and are extremely balanced, made as all Saar wines to be aged for several years. He has come to the Saar at the right time to make these wines – a somewhat warmer climate than before means that with the low yields he uses, balanced dry wines are possible to make successfully and there is great promise here. We tried two lighter and sweeter wines with Egon Müller, both decanted and both frankly jaw-dropping – even though it was still only 11.30am there was no question of asking for a spittoon here. The first was Scharzhofberger Spätlese 1988 – a mere 20 years old which had a matured, honey character, and a roundness that built on the palate to a fabulous length indicating plenty of life to come. The second was from the much written-off, too hot year of 1976, this was a golden-coloured Scharzhofberger Auslese which showed great life in it yet with a gorgeous smoothness, providing pure liquid pleasure.
Most of all, the wines from both Ronan and Egon tasted of the passion, hard work and energy shown by these two giants of the Saar. They indicate wines from the Saar region in general and the Scharzhofberg vineyard in particular will in future uphold the great reputation of the past, embracing climate change at least in our lifetimes.
Wine Travel Guides plans to have guides to the Mosel region on line by the end of 2008.