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Three Men and a Grape

Riesling is reaching a new high, thanks to these winemakers.

The precipitous vine-covered hillsides and tight, twisting valleys that surround Germany's Mosel River make up one of the most beautiful wine landscapes imaginable. Some of the finest white wines in the world are produced here, made from the noble Riesling grape. And while the past several years have been good to the Mosel, a northerlyregion often subject to bad weather, the work of three gifted winemakers has arguably had an even greater influence, as their high standards and innovative techniques have helped to make Mosel wines that much more spectacular.

ERNST LOOSEN riesling revolutionary
Every winemaking region needs someone like Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen winery, a risk taker capable of defying conventional wisdom. Loosen, 40, took more than a few leaps of faith in order to realize his revolutionary vision of what a Mosel wine should be. "I asked myself, Why should things be fundamentally different here than in other grape-growing regions?" he says. "Why shouldn't old vines and low yields produce more intense and expressive wines in the Mosel just as they do in Bordeaux or Burgundy?" The questions first arose when Loosen inherited a number of vineyards from his father that ranged from 50 to more than 100 years old. The age of these vines inspired Loosen to implement a low-yield policy (along with many other changes) as soon as he took over the almost 30-acre family estate in Bernkastel before the 1987 harvest.

On the day Loosen suggested selective picking to his staff, they responded by walking out. He immediately appointed Bernard Schug, an out-of-work friend and a former student of animal husbandry, as his winemaker. From that moment on, neither man looked back.

Loosen's methods have created wines with phenomenal concentration of flavors and astonishing individuality. Each of the top vineyards where Loosen has significant holdings--the Würzgarten of Urziger, the Sonnenuhr of Wehelen and the Treppchen and Prälat of Erdener--produces wines with strikingly different personalities. For example, the wines from the Würzgarten, or spice garden, as the name implies, are intensely spicy, and the wines from the Sonnenuhr, despite their lavish peachy fruit, are graceful and demure. But Loosen's most notable accomplishment is probably his Auslese wines from Erdener Prälat, which are among the greatest white wines money can buy.

Meanwhile, Loosen's ambition has grown with every successful year. His goal is not only to make the estate in Bernkastel into what might be called the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti of the Mosel but also to resurrect a rundown estate in the Pfalz region of Germany. No doubt wines from there will one day be every bit as famous as the Loosen wines of the Mosel.

THEO HAART piesport partisan
Although he is now 48 years old, Theo Haart of Reinhold Haart winery still speaks with a youthful enthusiasm when he describes the vineyards of his hometown, Piesport, Germany. It's easy to see why: few people would fail to be moved by the sight of Piesport's famous Goldtröpfchen. After all, the Goldtröpfchen is no mere vineyard but more an amphitheater of vines covering the steep slopes that surround the Mosel River. Onlookers have marveled at the beauty of this place since the Roman poet Ausonius described Piesport's vineyards in his poem "Mosella," written in A.D. 371.

And, as Haart readily explains, the Goldtröpfchen's beauty is equaled by its suitability for grape growing: "It was not by chance that the Romans planted 150 acres of vineyards here. The hills around Piesport shut out cold winds, and the steep slopes where the vines are planted collect the sun's heat." He also notes that although the vineyard's soil may look the same as the soil elsewhere in the valley--a stony, slate gray--it is particularly deep and claylike. The result is that the Goldtröpfchen, which stands on the site of those original 150 acres, gives Riesling wines an aromatic extravagance that is positively baroque. Nowhere else in the Mosel do you find Rieslings in which the aroma of black currants mingles so perfectly with that of peach and exotic fruits.

It's likely that such wines would be far better known and regarded if Piesport hadn't been so over-commercialized, especially as it has been during the past few decades. Most of the wines sold under the Piesporter Michelsberg name, for instance, do not even come from the town's own vineyards, a kind of legally sanctioned fraud that has helped ruin Piesport's reputation. But for the last 10 years, Haart has been trying to restore Piesport's once glorious stature. Although his 1988, 1989 and 1992 vintages are the only ones that are fully mature to date, his wines are rich and elegant, seductive in their youth yet capable of aging gracefully--a credit to both the region and its most passionate native son.

THOMAS HAAG star student
It must be a mixed blessing for Thomas Haag, 32, to have star winemaker Wilhelm Haag as a father. On the plus side, this meant that he had the best teacher possible. This also meant that merchants and journalists alike lined up for tastings when he began to make his own wines at the formerly defunct Schloss Lieser estate (located in the village of Lieser near Bernkastel). On the negative side, having a famous father meant that Haag had to face extraordinarily high expectations and inevitable comparisons.

Initially, Haag made a less than impressive showing. As he says, "Although Schloss Lieser was once one of the region's most famous estates, when I arrived I had to start from scratch." In 1992, his first year, the wines were accordingly modest, as Haag was unable to make many changes right away. But the years that followed yielded one magnificent Riesling after another. His Kabinett wines, which are usually sold without a vineyard designation, are almost entirely dry yet possess a wonderful juiciness. But it is the sublime Spätlese and Auslese wines that he crafts from the tongue twister Lieser Niederberg-Helden vineyard that have made him internationally prominent. The Rieslings from this vineyard are simply stunning: a combination of crystalline purity, muscular strength and ample fruit.

Haag's reclamation of these vineyards is not unlike a great pianist's interpretation of a well-played musical score. While any musician can play a score by Bach, only a master like Glenn Gould can expand our understanding of the music; so, too, can any viticulturalist identify the potential of a vineyard, though only a gifted winemaker like Haag can add to the dimension of the wine it produces.

This is a comparison that the self-effacing Haag would probably eschew. When I asked him about the ageability of his wines, he cautiously replied, "They ought to age well because they have all the elements a Mosel wine needs to do so." This seemed like a response from someone who has not yet realized what amazing wines he is making. However, I am sure that the coming years will provide such solidproof that even a man as modest as Haag will not be able to deny the evidence.

Stuart Pigott is a freelance wine writer and a leading authority on German wine.

Published May 1999
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