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Markus Hüls of Mosel’s Weingut Markus Hüls

When it comes to the Mosel, I feel like seeing is believing. Not that Mosel’s reputation as the riesling mecca requires an eyewitness experience to confirm – tasting alone can make someone a true believer. But reaching an inherent understanding of what makes so special does necessitate a physical experience beyond the wine itself. I draw this distinction from my own recent experience. We spent a few days there earlier this summer, and though I have no brilliant idea of how I’m going to adequately convey my own Mosel journey in writing, I’m going to try because now I get it.

Riesling itself can be a hard grape to get, which complicates things for Mosel (or any other riesling region). I, like many people I think, didn’t immediately get its appeal. It can be made in so many different styles that it’s hard to think about how to think about it. That it’s made in sweet, semi-sweet and dry styles, and aren’t labeled clearly as to which level of sweetness is in the bottle, is the first obstacle, and a major one.

Flavors and aromas can throw one off as well. Some smell like petrol – which is a hard thing to grasp in wine – while some don’t. How am I supposed to know how lanolin tastes? What bizarre descriptors those two are. The acid can be bracingly strong, which isn’t always managed well and doesn’t always appeal. This can lead to dominating and biting citrus flavors, which aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. And the stuff from Germany, man, good luck reading the label, let alone understanding what you’re getting (this can be true even with American riesling). Is it more accurate to classify Alsace as German or French given its history and the people who live there? The questions abound.

By comparison, understanding more popular white grapes like chardonnay can be done in your sleep. Because riesling doesn’t easily fall into simple dichotomies or straightforward categories, it can be intimidating to approach. No wonder riesling has a hard time selling.

Going to Mosel doesn’t make riesling more approachable so much as it organizes the learning process in a way that makes it more manageable. Being able to match a word from a label with the place you’re standing in helps a great deal, and being able to compare where you are to the vineyards across the river (while putting a name and image on those vineyards as well) helps ground you – and the label – in reality. It’s like finding an anchor word or two for an otherwise empty Friday New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s like finally putting a face to that name you’ve emailed with many times over, only the face isn’t what you expected and that 60 second interaction EXPLAINS SO MUCH (amiriiiiiight?).

Even still, Mosel is itself a complicated place, and it begins with the name. The region was referred to as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the names of the three rivers in the region, prior to 2007, when wines were categorized that way regardless of which river valley they came from. However, in a pyrrhic victory for consumer education, wines from any of the three river valleys are now all called Mosel.

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A map of the Mosel river from 1897

In any given wine region, terroir within that region can differ enough from locale to locale to impart differences, small and large, among the region’s wines. When it comes to Mosel, there are significant differences across the region; we’re dealing with one of the more diverse regions out there. The geography is as physically striking as it is challenging to understand from a wine perspective. The rivers form incredibly curvy spines that leave little flat land available for planting grapes, and it’s downright crazy that people prefer to use what limited flat land there is to build, you know, towns, instead of plant vineyards. So up the incredibly steep slopes the vines go.

Many of the vineyards are planted on these slopes. Over 40% of Mosel’s vineyards are planted on slopes at least 30 degrees in pitch. That’s ridiculous, and also breathtaking. The northern Mosel is home to the Bremmer Calmont vineyard, which leans upwards of 65 degrees in slope, making it Europe’s steepest vineyard (which makes me very curious as to which vineyard outside of Europe goes steeper). Further, many vineyards are broken up by small cliffs, a nice little complicating factor for vineyard work. Spoiler alert: there will be a follow up post about Bremmer Calmont because we hiked through it and tried several wines from it.

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As the vineyards track the curvature of the rivers, they are planted on all aspects of orientation with the sun. Further, the soils change as one travels from one end of the Mosel to the other. Here’s how the industry group describes Mosel’s soils:

“Clayish slate and greywacke in the lower Mosel Valley (northern section); Devonian slate in the steep sites and sandy, gravelly soil in the flatlands of the middle Mosel Valley; primarily shell-limestone (chalky soils) in the upper Mosel Valley (southern section, parallel with the border of Luxembourg).”

That’s some serious range. When combined with slope, orientation and other factors, it’s no wonder Mosel produces such diverse rieslings.

These vineyards appear unbelievably difficult to harvest. Incredibly, it’s done by hand – though perhaps it’d be more incredible if machinery could be configured to work on such steep and narrowly-planted rows of vineyards (the spacing I saw on the steeper slopes was around two to three feet, which is objectively narrow). Both seem impossible.

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For thousands of years, Mosel has been and continues to be one of the most human-intensive places to grow and harvest wine grapes. Despite the intimating geography, winemaking in Mosel dates back to the Roman times and some of the cities that dot it date back even further to the Stone Age. Wine is a significant part of Mosel’s history and identity.

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Notice the monorail running straight up the middle of the vineyard

Many wineries have installed “monorails” in their vineyards to make harvesting grapes easier, safer and more efficient. These are long metal tracks that wind their way up and down the vineyards with small “cars” that carry 1-2 people and several baskets of grapes. Though picking the grapes requires getting off the monorail to walk the rows (the monorails bisect the rows rather than run parallel with them), the monorail allows workers to get from one area of the vineyard to another with greater ease, and makes transporting the grapes easier as well. This video from Wine Enthusiast’s Anne Krebiehl and this one on Youtube give POV perspectives of riding these monorails. Both are must-watches, so go ahead and click them. Just promise to come back, pretty please.

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As we hiked through the 65 degree slopes of Bremmer Calmont, I had to fight to keep my fear of heights in check and my vertigo in hibernation. Walking by (and under) these monorails made the thought of riding them damn near mind-blowing. I just can’t imagine riding these metal slides, built for small people, on such steep slopes while handling containers of such delicate and prized contents. How there aren’t deaths every year during harvest is beyond me, and helps the case of those who argue for the existence of an omnipotent and merciful creator.

We tasted a number of wines while in Mosel, but it was the experience we had with Markus Hüls of Weingut Markus Hüls that connected the visuals with the grapes and the winemaking in a way that made sense (“weingut” means “winery” in German). Hüls is a Weygandt-Metzler Importing discovery, which is a good indication that the wine carries a unique and precise personality.

The slogan on Hül’s website is “A 100% passion for steep slope wines,” which is more or less how Markus began describing the genesis of his winery during our tasting. Markus isn’t the first generation winemaker in his family; his dad makes wine as well. After interning for the highly esteemed Weingut Markus Molitor and working for his dad, Markus struck out on his own with the 2012 vintage. Part of his decision to start his own label came from disagreement with his father about where to plant vineyards: he wanted to find the steepest slopes he could while his father preferred the (relative) ease of flatter vineyards. Hence the slogan. Markus’ three vineyards – Kirchlay, Letterlay and Steffenberg, respectfully – are on steep slopes.

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The author with Markus

Hüls is set up in the village of Kröv, with the winery and tasting room in town by the river and the vineyards on the hills that rise up from it. Markus does everything organically, and puts an immense amount of attention into maintaining healthy vineyards. He made the decision to go organic because it “produces the best wine – nature does the best winemaking by itself. It needs time, not intervention, to do this.” To this end, Markus does native fermentation and allows it to kick off on its own. While most big Mosel producers go from harvest to bottling in around three weeks’ time, Markus’ fermentations alone take 2-4 weeks just to start. Low and slow. While the majority of his production is riesling, he has 0.7 hectares of spätburgunder, the German name for pinot noir. In total, Markus produces 40,000 bottles (about 3300 cases) of wine.

Riesling lovers tend to have at least one thing in common: they like acidic wines. Acid is integral to good riesling, so let’s discuss it for a moment because the most impressive theme of Markus Hüls’ wines are the acid they carry, and despite the region being known for acidic wines, Markus’ deliver a particularly engaging and twitchy version that adds really cool texture and structure. As the coffee roaster in Syracuse who I bought beans from every week while I was in graduate school there once told me, acid means flavor, and this as true in coffee as it is in wine. Though far from chemically accurate, the comparison of acid to salt in this context helps. Salt not only brings its own complex flavors, but also elevates other flavors that it comes into contact with and adds brightness to the situation.

Note: If you ever find yourself in Syracuse and in need of a good cup of coffee or coffee beans, The Kind Coffee Company delivers more than anyone else in town.

Acid is also part of the physical structure of a wine, which means you can feel the acid as well as taste it. Since white wine doesn’t carry tannins like red wine does, it means acid is the most important component of the physical structure. Good acid levels and integration lead to a complete wine that dazzles the taste buds while poor acid levels or integration can put one off riesling for life.

Riesling is naturally high in acid, which means every winery making riesling has to deal with it. The ideal situation is that the grapes are grown such that they get to the winery with desirable levels of acid and the winemaker doesn’t have to intervene by either acidulating (adding acid), deacidifying (removing acid) or moderating (e.g. doing at least some oak aging, which adds tannin and therefore reduces the percentage of the structure that is acid). I harped on the role of good farming in winemaking in the Emidio Pepe post a few weeks ago and in my Cork Report profile of Virginia’s Barboursville Winery recently, and Hüls is another case-in-point: as Markus said, if you grow good grapes then you don’t need to intervene. The evidence of this theory can be found in the wines of Hüls, Pepe and Barboursville.

I’ve also said in multiple Good Vitis posts that when it comes to tasting wine, it’s often times best to start with the lower acid wines and move to the higher ones, even if that means going from red to white (e.g. pinot noir before chardonnay in Burgundy or Oregon). The same holds true for Mosel, and I was thankful when Markus pulled his pinot noir first.

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Enjoy8ing Hül’s Spätburgunder

We started with the single vineyard Spätburgunder 2016 from the Letterlay vineyard, which comes from French vines planted at fairly high density (over 3,200 per acre) with the aim of building greater complexity and concentration. These vines, like all those that Markus cultivates, receive zero irrigation. The earthy nose has a lot of crispy red fruit on it – think strawberry, rhubarb, plum and cranberry – and funky soil and fungus aromas. The palate is very fresh and spry with a variety of crushed red berries that suggest they will get sweeter with age, and modest bell pepper. I’m rarely a fan of German or Austrian pinot noir largely because they seem to lack depth or complexity, but I could crush a bottle of this now while letting a case age for another five to ten years because it has enough guts to develop into something more.

We also tried the 2017 Spätburgunder, which I found very special. It offered a nose that reminded me of my favorite Oregon pinot producer, Cameron, who is known for beautiful combinations of spiced fruit and funk. The nose offered ripe and spiced red and black fruit that comes off beautifully sweet to go with a variety of damp and dry soils and rose hip. The light body has spry acid that is slightly tart at this stage, which carries the mineral-driven profile that balances red and purple fruit with scorched earth and a taste I couldn’t pinpoint, but called “almost peppermint.” These are the first grapes harvested in any of Hüls’ vineyards.

As we tasted the Spätburgunder, Markus prepped the rieslings, explaining the differences between the 2017 and 2018 vintages as we were going to try wines from both. The earlier vintage produced more acid and resulted in wines made for the long haul. By comparison, 2018 was a riper year (read: less acid, more sugar, bigger wines) and led to wines better for immediate drinking.

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We began with a side-by-side of Markus’ entry-level rieslings that illustrated the vintage difference. The 2018 Riesling has a very fruit-forward, very ripe nose. The high alcohol (12%, so high is relative to region) really boosts the ripe cantaloupe, tropical fruits and baked pear. It’s full-bodied and round with soft streaks of acid that carry banana, pineapple and green and red apples. It’s a pure, very clean and enjoyable wine. The 2017, though, is more complex (remember, higher acid vintage, and acid means flavor). The nose is higher-toned with a profile that has a distinct lees character. Sharper citrus aromas, less tropics and more stone minerality (flint stands out) than its younger sibling. The acid carries some wonderfully sweet citrus and perfumed (think potpourri) flavors. Starfruit, mandarin and green papaya feature as well. The somewhat chalky texture speaks to the elegance of the acid and build of the wine. This one has good a good ten+ year life span. At around $20, this is an unbelievable value.

We moved on to the 2017 Schieferspiel, a blend of the Letterlay and Steffensberg vineyards. The nose is very concentrated and wrapped up tightly, indicating the wine’s youth. Stone fruit, grapefruit, white flowers and flint are just starting to emerge. The palate, which is exceptional, balances banana, young coconut, perfume, white pepper and green apple. It carries an acidic tension that pulls the wine along the sides of the mouth, a sensation that captivates the mind as the finish carries on for ages.

From there we went into the single vineyard wines – which he refers to has his cru wines –  starting with the 2017 Steffensberg. Markus said this vineyard, he believes, has the best promise of his holdings. The nose offers a basket of stone fruit aromatics, dominated by apricot and nectarine, dusted in nutmeg. The palate is dominated right now by a big variety of citrus – lemon, lime, under ripe orange and Buddha’s Hand – that is kept in tantalizing tension by the bright, juicy and tense acid with starfruit and green apple. This one offers a strong promise of developing that profound nuttiness that the best rieslings take on with significant age. Among the best of the tasting.

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Next came the 2017 riesling from the Letterlay vineyard and vines around 45 years of age. In the summer, Markus drops around half the fruit in these blocks, and at harvest takes the grapes closest to the vine where the flavors are the most concentrated. Then, during sorting, he takes the best 10% of the clusters, destems them, and does whole berry fermentation. This process results in a compelling profile of citrus, sweet and tangy apricot and pear, and bit of skin tannin that adds weight and another dimension to the structure while slightly reducing the acid’s prominence, which remains taught and long. It also has a small amount of residual sugar, but it’s barely perceptible. Though the grapes for this wine are grown only 300 meters from Steffensburg, it is distinctive from the other site in more ways than just the procedural differences.

At this juncture, Markus introduced the 2017 Alte Reben, which at 30 grams of sugar per liter that registers a four out of ten on Markus’ sweetness scale (each Hüls wine is labeled with a number on this scale in an effort to educate the consumer, a labeling feature I believe every winery should adopt with riesling). The aromas are mouthwatering and dominated by a variety of peach and peach dishes: fresh peach, preserved peach, peach pie, peach stewed with vanilla, the list goes on. The palate is very tropical with juicy mango, pear and lychee that are highlighted by honey and vanilla. It finishes with juicy peach and pear sprinkled with baking spice. This was my favorite wine of the lineup.

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We then moved on to the 2018 Kabinett, a classification of wine under a designation called Pradikatswein that refers to the ripeness of the grapes when they are harvested, and is applied to wines typically with some residual sugar. Kabinett is the least sweet of the six Pradikatswein classified wines. Hüls’ opens with a nose dominated by Asian pear, candied lime peel, vanilla and sweet cantaloupe. The fruit on the palate is honeyed in nature, featuring banana, limesickle and carmel-vanilla flavors. At 9% alcohol and 48 grams of sugar per liter, Markus pointed out that this is very “true to the type for Kabinett from Mosel.” It’s a killer wine, and was my wife’s favorite.

We finished with the 2017 Auslese bottle, Auslese being third of six levels of harvest brix (a measurement of sugar content) in the Pradikatswein classification. High quality Auslese wines famously age well for decade after decade after decade. One of my notes on this wine is that I would love to come back to it thirty years from now. Depending on the vintage, it carries between 100 and 115 grams of sugar per liter, which limits the alcohol to around 8%. The acid is remarkably sharp given these other figures, which only adds to its complexity and ability to improve with time. The nose smells tantalizingly wonderful with an array of dry and sweet notes that suggest botrytis, though I did not ask for confirmation. Markus selected the grapes for this specifically with making this wine in mind. At first it seems a bit unsettled – it needs time in bottle to become one with itself – but the juicy acidity does wonders for the honey and sweet fruit and vanilla. This will eventually be a real stunner.

Our time in Mosel was a very fun learning experience for us. Riesling continues to wow me. As I try more versions of it I taste, I’m internalizing how it’s one of the most diverse wine grapes in existence. Its ability to be produced in so many different styles and its natural tendency to take on terroir-specific characteristics combined with the ability of higher quality riesling to develop wildly cool characteristics with age make it one of the most exciting and surprising wines in the world today (despite the fact it’s been around for centuries). Within this context, Markus Hüls is a revelation in steep slope Mosel wine that delivers an acid profile defining something both unique and exceptional. Whether you have a chance to visit or purchase the wines closer to home, it’s all worthwhile when it comes to Hüls.

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