My path crossed with that of Ernie Loosen no fewer than four times in the past year or so; in London, San Francisco, Bordeaux and finally at this informal tasting in Edinburgh. A particularly nasty case of stalking perhaps? or is it just that Dr Loosen’s tireless efforts to promote the wines of the Mosel make him one of the wine world’s most travelled and hard-working ambassadors.
Ernst Loosen (pronounced “LOW-zin”) is the current guardian of this family-owned estate, continuing 200 years of ownership. Since taking over in 1988 he has instigated numerous changes, not only in vineyard and winemaking practices at their famous Mosel estate, but by buying the J.L. Wolf estate to make dry wines in the more southerly Pfalz region of Germany, and recently by forming a transatlantic partnership with Chateau St Michelle to make “Eroica”, a premium riesling wine, in Washington State.Ernie is an advocate not only for his own wines, but for Riesling in particular, and German wine as a whole. Under Ernie’s control Dr Loosen has dramatically improved the quality of the wines made from some of the finest vineyard sites in Germany.
At a time when the quality of the bulk of German wine was under scrutiny, he has adopted a very modern-thinking approach to winemaking, which itself is based on historical good practice. He has drastically reduced crop sizes, has abandoned chemical fertilisation and has improved cellar practices to make for much more natural winemaking with a minimum of “technological meddling” as he puts it.
The vineyard sites that make up Dr Loosen’s premium wines are predominately formed from slate, and bear ancient vines, the majority of which are over 50 years old. Ernie has a real beef with the way German wines are perceived, and to an extent, the way they are marketed: “we market our wines as being ‘light and fruity’: I ask you, is that what they French would do? As if light and fruity is all we aspire to? It’s bullshit!” he concludes. “The 13 Bereich of Germany added together are only as big as the Bordeaux region in terms of production. The emphasis has to be on promoting our wines to connoisseurs at the quality end”. He offers a specific example: “Look at my Riesling Bernkastler ‘Lay’: that is a totally hand-crafted wine, made from 70-year-old vines, that is fabulously labour-intensive: it takes 2,000 person-hours per hectare to manage that vineyard, yet it sells for £7.99!”. His target switches to the German Wine Institute, the generic promotional body for German wines, “they think that constantly trying to upgrade Leibfraumilch is the way forward, but this is fatal: it is starting from such a poor perception and makes no sense. Concentrate on the top end.”.
Once I’d calmed him down with another few sips of ürziger Würzgarten, we turned to his own unique classification system for his wines as “Grands Crus” and “Premiers Crus”. This is a totally unofficial classification, but one Ernie has based on historical wine maps of 1868. It shows that of his six premium vineyards, four would be Premiers Cru, and two Grands Cru. He is keen that such distinction should be recognised. I also asked him about Eroica, his Washington State Riesling, and why he wanted to make a wine there, when surely his own Mosel vineyards were the supreme expression of his winemaking art. “I did it for Riesling”, he declares. “Others wanted me to put Eroica in a Burgundy or Bordeaux bottle, but I said no; if we do this, we do it for Riesling”.
Ernie Loosen then, is both a visionary and an upholder of age-old traditions. He was recently named as “Winemaker of the Year” by Gault Millau, the influential publishers of the German Wine Guide, and his star is very much in the ascendancy. If he can continue to break down barriers with his transatlantic collaborations, re-defining of classifications, and willingness to make wines of widely different styles that retain a sense of place, then the future of German quality wine-making has at least one powerful advocate in its corner.
Notes are from a meeting with Ernie Loosen in Edinburgh, and a tasting in London, within a few days of each other. Approximate prices are given in pounds sterling (about £5=$7.50US). UK agent for the wines of Dr Loosen is Alwin Barrett Seigel. Major stockists include Waitrose, Berry Brothers & Rudd, Booth’s, Adnams, Tanners and the Wine Society, as well as many independents.
The dry wines of J.L.Wolf in the Pfalz
Pinot Gris 1999 – £5.99
Pinot Gris is usually known as Rülander in Germany, so the deliberate naming along with the Burgundy-shaped bottle, is obviously a statement from Ernie that these wines are different from his Mosel wines; more “international” by design. 50% barrel fermentation in one year-old oak has given a smoky, toasty edge to ripe, quite fat peachy fruit on the nose. This is rich and toasty on the palate too, with toffee-apple flavours and good citrus acidity. Fresh style, and quite a Burgundian profile. Very good.
Riesling 1999 – £5.99
Vibrant, with lots of juicy pear fruit and a punch of minerality. Quite buttery on the palate, with a rounded quality of fruit, hints of spice and good balance. Good.
Wachenheimer Riesling Belz Spätlese 1998 – £10.49
Herbal, slightly honeyed and beautifully nutty nose. Dry and quite savoury, this has wieght and texture and plenty of fruit combined with racy mineral and citrus acidity. Very good.
Forster Pechstein Riesling Spätlese 1998 – £11.99
Fine mineral nose with hints of waxy lime. On the palate plenty of ripe, sweet attack from full fruit, then a tightly-wound core of acidity grips and extends the finish. Very good.
The wines of Dr Loosen in the Mosel
“Dr L” Riesling 2000 QbA – £5.99
Lightly nutty nose, with a herbal, nettly quality over crisp apple and some citrus fruit. The palate is smooth-textured and has a nice sweetness, peach fruit, pear and again an apple acidity that maintains balance. Quite straightforward, but a full-flavoured and impressive wine. Very good
Bernkastler Lay Kabinett 1999 – £7.99
“Lay” is a local dialect word for slate, the material that covers this vineyard being blue Devonian slate for the most part. Even at this price level, Ernie describes this as a “hand-crafted wine from 70 year-old vines”. This has a very distinctive mineral nose which is gravelly, with a finely-honed quality of fruit. The palate is just off-dry, with that racy core of mineral acidity carrying through, and plenty of lemony fruit leading to a long, dry finish. Very good.
ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese 1999 – £13.49
The remarkable “spice garden” vineyard is composed entirely of un-grafted, pre-phylloxera vines. There is a definite sense of lushness here, with a soft, spicy character, precise notes of ginger and clove, smokiness and sweet stone fruits. The palate is suffused with a sweet richness of fruit and has a full texture. There are notes of melon and white peach. This is lovely silky stuff that has fine balancing acidity and a long finish. Very good indeed/excellent.
Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 1999 – £14.49
The “sundial” vineyard is covered in a metre depth of loose stones, which any rain washes through without eroding the soil beneath. Because of this, this vineyard does not need to be terraced like many on the steeper slopes of the Mosel. This has a fabulous nose, redolent of luscious nectarine and peach, with highlights of flowers and spice, and a stony minerality at its core. On the palate it is surprisingly light and elegant, with dancing lemon acidity that just manages to restrain bursting, lush fruit which is almost tropical with notes of pineapple and guava. The acidity maintains into a long, pure finish, and this is well-balanced for considerable cellaring potential. Excellent.
Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 1999 (price not known)
Beautiful touch of honey on the nose. The quality of fruit is lively and bright, and the palate is fresh though sweet and unctuous with tropical notes of guava and mango, melon and citrus. Delightful finish, with lovely length and a fine citrus acidity. Very good indeed/excellent.
Erdener Prälat Riesling Auslese 2000 – £12.99 per half bottle
Racy minerality adds a keen edge to a complex mix of peach, tropical fruit and sherbetty crispness. On the palate it is tight and youthful with focused, well-defined fruit and deliciously sweet, pure length. Lovely balance and a sense of tightly-bound power, but needs a little time to loosen up a touch. Very good indeed/excellent.