April 15 2012 issue


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PAGES (88-95) April 15 2012

The Saar: Forging its own path David Furer, CWE

Germany’s Mosel River snakes generally east-west, but its tributary, the Saar River, runs north-south. The two merge at the village of Konz; from there, the Saar winegrowing region follows the river southward for 12 miles to the precipitously steep vineyards of Serrig. Since the 2007 vintage, when the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer appellation was divided, local vintners have been allowed to put the Saar designation on their labels, making it an even more significant region for sommeliers and other lovers of high-quality German Riesling. The Saar’s 70 producers have planted about 80% Riesling across 1,800 acres—a higher percentage than in the Middle Mosel.

Saar soils are predominantly slate, which appears in many forms in combination with quartz, promoting efficient drainage and low fertility. Temperatures are typically cooler than in the Middle Mosel, since the Saar Valley lacks the dramatic peaks and river bends that would protect its vineyards from chilly winds; the best sites in the Saar are located mainly along the south-facing slopes of small side valleys. Springs and summers are unpredictable, but long, dry sunny spells can occur as early as February and as late as November. Largely sheltered from westerly precipitation, the Saar was spared from catastrophic hail that decimated vines throughout the Middle Mosel on Aug. 26, 2011. Although Saar growers are known for pulling together when conditions are tough, no one needs to call in favors in a vintage as easy as last year’s. "You can’t believe how happy I am to have picked the final grapes today," exclaimed Schloss Saarstein’s Christian Ebert on Oct. 31. Chaptalization won’t be necessary; indeed, Egon Müller of Scharzhof in Wiltingen is reported to have harvested a Trockenbeerenauslese at 345º Oechsle—a record for the Saar and certainly one for this German vintage.

As for 2010, rain during the flowering period led to the development of irregularly sized grapes, but a warm summer and dry autumn ensured that ripening was relatively uniform. "It was a crazy year, with so little wine, but with so many disparate examples" in terms of quality, said vintner Florian Lauer, "due to heavy triage both in the vineyard and winery." The acid-dominated 2010s are now on the market (see Outstanding Recent Releases).


This winery, owned by the Catholic church, is really four estates in one since the 2004 acquisition of neighboring Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium. The portfolio is currently being restructured by new sales and marketing director Anna Reimann, who formerly worked with Markus Molitor. Having once produced more than 130 bottlings from 312 vineyard acres, BW is merging three of its estates into one overarching label while keeping FWG as a separate brand. Holding equal amounts of land in the Mosel, Ruwer, and Saar—a new line named Three Rivers will feature the three regions under separate labels—BW produces Qualitätsweins from vines averaging about 50 years old. "We ripped out our red grapes in the Kanzemer Altenberg and replanted to Riesling, making our total wine production 90% Riesling," Reimann reported. BW’s winery complex in the center of Trier includes a retail shop and a restaurant called Cumvino.


At her family headquarters in the Schloss Marienlay, director Annegret Reh-Gartner told me that in 2010, she began reclaiming vineyards she had previously rented out "because we hadn’t enough wine"—a prescient decision given the year’s short harvest. "I think people don’t buy Saar for Saar but rather for the personalities," she observed. "Twenty or 30 years ago, people were buying more based on sites; now it’s more about branding, even in the U.S., where our dry wines are slowly becoming more popular." Kesselstatt is exporting a range of older wines to the States as full or mixed 3x4-bottle cases, which may be more labor intensive for importers, but can certainly drive current vintage sales.

Like many producers in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer area, Reh-Gartner is not fond of the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter’s new Ers-te Lage system. "If we have a classification by vineyard sites," she asked, "why then should we be considering must numbers? I want profiles, but if wines become too monstrous, for instance due to the downgrading of Auslese-level must, it’s difficult to make a real Kabinett style." Some of her Qualitätsweins and Grosses Gewächs bottlings have undergone malolactic conversion, but "it’s not something I like. It detracts from the region’s classic style. It’s nice keeping a regional profile, and now that minerality is desired, our region wins."


Schloss Saarstein is a consistent performer, making wines that appeal to a broad range of palates at reasonable prices. Leaning over the railing of a balcony at his 26-acre home and winery above the village of Serrig, looking out onto the hill of Saarstein, Ebert was positively beaming when I arrived on an unusually mild late-October afternoon. "The weather’s been like this throughout harvest," he said. "My pickers today"—including his daughter Charlotte, who joined us for the tasting—"were wearing only T-shirts and jeans." His grapes reached at least 96º Oechsle, including those used in his first commercial vintages of Auxerrois and Pinot Gris as well as in one of Germany’s best-known Pinot Blancs, which he sells as much of in the United States as he does in his homeland. Ebert was thrilled that 2011 yields had doubled compared to 2010, a sparse vintage throughout the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.


In 2000, after purchasing an estate that had languished for decades, Roman Niewodni-czanski was able to realize his dream of reviving and creating great Saar wines. Since the millennial vintage was notorious for harvest-time rains, he endured hardships no first-time wine grower should, but his efforts immediately drew the attention of German critics. Ebullient as he was in showing me photos of vines with healthy grapes from the 2011 vintage, Niewodniczanski became all the more emotional upon receiving telephoned confirmation of his purchase of an additional acre. "Niewo," as he’s nicknamed, owns the second-largest share of vineyards in the Saar (after BW) at 127 acres; he leases another 42. From the beginning, he has been a proponent of minimal filtration with no fining, mostly spontaneous fermentation, mostly organic vineyard practices, and hand harvesting. He rediscovered the Braunfels site in Wiltingen, setting aside and promoting the Volz parcel; later, he championed the vineyards of Wawern, the source of his Goldberg Erste Lage. All Van Volxem wines receive two days of skin contact and are fermented down to between 8% and 14% residual sugar.


Hanno Zilliken is a font of generosity—he served no fewer than 20 wines at a recent tasting I attended, including rare sweet wines of considerable age. A visit to the family winery is a highlight of any Saar tour. Zilliken’s effusive daughter Dorothee, a Geisenheim graduate and recent newlywed, stepped in as the full-time winemaker in 2008; soon to follow were new tasting and press rooms. Her mother Ruth manages domestic sales. "It doesn’t fit into our business model to expand by hiring someone to oversee the work of others," Dorothee noted. Their compact site on the southern outskirts of Saarburg comprises just 26 acres; they make only 2,000 cases per year of their popular entry-level label, Butterfly, most of which go to the United States. "2010 was a great gift of nature, one we’re very happy with," Hanno told me. "This is why we’re not buying grapes, even for our QbA." As for 2011, he smiled and said, "This is the vintage we dreamed of—excellent yields with great quality. The grapes are so good, we’ve never eaten more in the vineyard."


Since joining his father Peter at this family wine estate, Florian Lauer has been joined in turn by his brother Peter, his girlfriend, and her infant daughter, who represents the sixth generation to reside in the house of Lauer. Like many winemakers in the Saar (and throughout Germany), Lauer has produced many bottlings that don’t make their way to our shores; unlike the majority of his colleagues, he labels almost every wine as a numbered Fass, much as the Australians use bin numbers. While he has focused solely on Riesling, he has lent his talents to a university project in his village of Ayl, where the effects of adjacent oak trees on grapevines trained by an ancient Roman method are being studied. A proponent of spontaneous fermentation, Lauer called the 2010 harvest "very complicated, with a lot of botrytis forcing us to make three passes. We had a lot of acidity, too, so we had to macerate all the wines 12-14 hours, and we worked very hard in the cellar to at least make a partial malolactic, because we didn’t want to deacidify." With so little wine produced in 2010—yields were down 25% from a normal year—it’s unlikely you’ll find this vintage outside New York.


The St. Urbans-Hof winery is located in the Middle Mosel village of Leiwen, but the Weis family has been farming the Saar vineyards of Bockstein, Saarfeilser, and Schlangengraben (the latter marketed as Wiltinger Alte Reben) since 1989. Proprietor Nik Weis had another week to finish picking his Saar parcels when I showed up on Nov. 2. Though the 18-mile distance from the winery can create problems, he assured me that "we take great care with the vineyard management. We do everything from Leiwen, but I’m in the Saar every working day." Of his 82 acres, 43 are in the Saar, "making us even more invested in the Saar than we are here along the Mosel." With a nursery operation on the side, St. Urbans-Hof has a wealth of clonal material from which to choose in planting and replanting vines; as Weis noted, "I think this is the basis of true complexity."

Asked about the food-matching capability of his wines, Weis replied, "I think that among our products, the Saars get used the most because of their piquant minerality and acidity, making them easier to pair with many dishes over the more opulent Piesporter Goldtröpfchen [from the Mosel]. They’re more crisp and so appear drier due to the greater acidity."


Helmut Plunien is a native of Wiltingen who, after working for many years at Burgerspital in Franken and for a brief period at BW, began his own operation in the Saar. Vols was the old name for Wiltingen’s second-best vineyard (after Scharzhofberger). Plunien soon expanded his portfolio to include an S from the Schlangengraben vineyard and wines from the Wiltinger Kupp and other Wiltingen and Ayl vineyards. In 2010, he purchased the former Altenhofen winery in Ayl. There, he’s growing grapes on 17 acres, 80% planted to Riesling, the rest to Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and—oddly enough—Cabernet Sauvignon left over from the previous owners, which he intends to vinify. "I do a lot of pruning throughout the season, generally later rather than earlier," Plunien reported. "I do a little leaf pulling and as little spraying as possible. I’m in close contact with organic organizations, but it’s difficult working organically with steep vineyards."


In July 2010, Günther Jauch, Germany’s most recognizable TV personality, purchased von Othegraven from a fellow distant relative of founder Max von Othegraven. "Jauch had spent many childhood days holidaying here," vineyard manager Swen Klinger told me toward the end of an exhausting, 33-day 2011 harvest. Jauch wisely retained winemaker Andreas Barth, who had already raised the standards of this venerable estate. The Kanzemer Altenberg, rising dramatically above the winery, is considered by many experts to be one of Germany’s top sites, and von Othegraven owns the largest share. Other estate holdings are spread among such great Saar vineyards as the Wiltinger Kupp and the lesser-known Wawerner Herrenberg. "You have to have a feeling for the vines," said Klinger. "We take what we can from organic and biodynamic vineyards to see what works, but sometimes we must use chemicals." He does avoid chemical fertilizers, though, and Barth hasn’t added commercial yeasts for several years. The effects are clearly beneficial, as ripeness reached a record 280º Oechsle on the Altenberg in 2011.

What distinguishes the Saar from a sommelier’s perspective is that, more than any German wine region or subregion—including the neighboring Ruwer and greater Mosel—it produces Rieslings of the utmost finesse. Even in warm vintages such as 2003, the Saar’s unique terroir ensures that its wines exhibit freshness and minerality, accompanied by a high tartaric-acid content that provides the delicacy to accompany a wide range of dishes. "Riesling with everything!" is a mantra often repeated by enthusiastic Saar vintners, and they’re nearly correct. German Rieslings in general, and those from the Saar in particular, are always a top choice for sommeliers around the world.

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