Reviving German wines

MINHEIM, Germany — When Christoph Koenen vowed to bottle his own wine in his family's pocket-sized vineyard on picturesque, steep hills overlooking the Moselle River, his parents implored him to reconsider.

"My parents said I was crazy," the chunky, fresh-faced, 35-year-old Koenen recalled. "But their opposition made me only more determined."

Today, Koenen produces 20,000 bottles of top-quality wines from his three hectares, 90 percent of them from the region's signature Riesling grape. Delicate and delicious, his Rieslings brim with fresh tropical zest, flavors of apricot, mango and passion fruit, their slight sweetness balanced by a racy acidity. Best yet, like most Moselle wines, Koenen's Rieslings are budget priced, most selling for less than 10 euros, or about $13 a bottle.

In Europe, most wine lovers head to France and Italy. They should also consider Germany, and particularly the Moselle, where Koenen's determination to bottle his own wines (his parents sold grapes to the local cooperative) illustrates a Riesling revival by a new generation of young German winemakers. A series of good-to-great vintages starting in 2001 (perhaps thanks to global warming), and the fact that these wines can be enjoyed young for their zesty fruit or aged to add a mellow complexity, make the Moselle wines even more appealing. (See my Moselle tasting notes.)

While this region long has been famed for making fine white wines, it, for the most part, lost its way after World War II. All too often, winemakers turned away from their traditional, zesty, racy sweet wines to produce sweet, cheap and almost always unpleasant concoctions, or tart, subpar dry wines.

In 1900, the region had 4,000 hectares of vines, almost all Riesling and almost all on steep, south-facing hillsides. Throughout the next decades, accelerating in the 1960s and 1970s, almost 10,000 hectares of additional vines were planted, many on north-facing slopes, and many with undistinguished grape varietals such as Muller-Thurgau. These grapes required adding sugar to ferment, and produced bitter wine.

"We destroyed a great reputation," Ernst Loosen said with regret. His family has produced wine in the Moselle for more than two centuries. Loosen studied to become an archeologist, but when his father readied to retire in 1987, he felt the urge to keep alive the family's Dr. Loosen estate. Ernst Loosen instituted organic viticulture, cut back grape yields (which produced thin wines), and became a tireless promoter of what he calls the traditional "zingy" low-alcohol Moselle Rieslings.

Like the Koenens, Loosen's father sold most of the estate's grapes to wine merchants. Loosen began to bottle wine himself. His father farmed a mere eight hectares. He cultivates 22 and his family-run firm produces 200,000 bottles and exports around the globe. He also produces highly regarded Rieslings in Washington State in a joint venture.

Throughout the region you can hear similar stories. When he was growing up, winemaker Nikolaus Weis remembers how "sweet wines were politically incorrect." His father went "dry" and produced tart Rieslings. After he retired in the 1990s, Nikolaus took over Weingut St. Urbans-Hof, returned to the traditional sweet style, and began exporting around the globe. His wines are particularly popular in the United States, where they have received top ratings from critics in magazines such as The Wine Spectator.

 

The generational shift has brightened the Moselle's fortunes. Many wine lovers, tired of buttery Chardonnays, have turned to Riesling. Ernst Loosen says Riesling sales worldwide have tripled over the past two decades. At the same time, many of the Moselle's poorest vineyards have been ripped out. All told, Loosen says the Moselle vineyards are down to less than 9,000 hectares, from their maximum of 13,000.

Admittedly, a few caveats remain in order. All too many German producers continue to make bitter, watery wines, so it remains advisable to stick to the best names. And if your taste runs to rich, buttery, oaked, high alcohol white wines, stay away. Moselle whites, courtesy of their far northern provenance, are pungent, low alcohol (often only 8 or 9 percent) affairs.

Also, a word remains in order about price. Without a doubt, the best-value German white wines are the budget basic Kabinetts. Even at most top estates, they sell for about 8 to 10 euros (transport and distribution costs often double that price in the United States). Expect to pay about double or even triple for richer, more concentrated Spatlese and even more for even richer and more concentrated Auslese. These last two types are suited to a special occasion and are more dessert than table wines.

Christoph Koenen still cannot make a living from his own small wine estate. So he consults for many other wine growers. His wife works with him — the two met during oenology course.

It's a family story that exemplifies the revival of the Moselle: Koenen's parents never studied winemaking, but their son earned a degree in oenology. When Christoph began bottling his own wine nine years ago, he had no customers, so he went to wine fairs and little by little built up his business.

Now, almost all of Koenen's sales remain inside Germany. But he would like to find foreign merchants to begin importing his wine. And he hopes soon to buy or lease additional vineyards and eventually live off of his own wine.

"Many young winemakers here share this vision," he said. "We build our business little by little, year by year. It is hard, but fun. If we make fantastic wines that make customers happy, I am confident we will succeed."

Moselle tasting notes

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