A Visit with Ernie Loosen

Not only is Dr. Loosen one of the top producers in the Mosel, but Ernie Loosen is one of the most interesting people to visit, as he has a wide range of activities and trenchant opinions on many issues. A day spent with Ernie is an insight into trends in wine production in Germany in general and the Mosel specifically.

Ernie’s mother and father were both single children who inherited wine estates. He is the first dedicated winemaker in the family: his grandfather was in business, and his father was a lawyer. The estates were regarded as an investment, although Ernie’s father later became fully involved as a retirement activity. Ernie took over in 1988, and combined the estates under one name (previously they had been separate in Bernkastel and Urzig). Bernkastel is his mother’s estate, which produced only sweet wines. His paternal grandfather thought that sweetness was a fault, and his estate produced only dry wine until 1953 when it changed to fruity-style wines. Ernie introduced dry wines when he took over. Here in a microcosm is the great change in Germany to trocken (dry) wines.

Ernie recollects that sweet wines took over after the war because the technology became widely available. Ernie’s view is practical. “Before the technology the only way to have sweet wines was to do it naturally. The barrels of sweet wines got the higher prices, so this led to a drive to have technology that would make it generally more feasible. After the war, sweet was absolutely big, everybody wanted sweetness. I remember people drinking only Auslese. The demand for dry wines shrank so dramatically there was no market. My father stopped producing them when he took over in 1953. In the 1990s the whole fashion in Germany switched from fruity to dry; now we hardly sell any fruity wines in Germany.”

The ability to make high quality dry wines is relatively recent, and owes much to global warming. “It would have been more difficult for my father or grandfather to make great dry wines in their cooler conditions. We did make some great dry wines when the cellarmaster forgot to stop fermentation – there was some good 1985. But every time I drink it – it’s nice now – I wonder how it was 30 years ago; it must have been sour and not at all attractive. So I don’t see global warming as pessimistic here.”

In fact, Ernie is quite pragmatic about global warming. “The reaction to global warming is a bit fatal – we are not in the hands of global warming, we will not have to plant Syrah here in ten years. We have enough viticultural tools, we can alter yields; you used to have to reduce yields drastically to get ripeness, but we don’t have those really cool vintages like 1984 any more. My father and grandfather had only three ripe vintages per decade. We get our fruit ripe every year, but not over-ripe, that is the difference. We jumped up in the last 30 years from average ripeness at 8.5% alcohol to 10.5% alcohol – but that’s not high.”

A major difference in approach from the past is that now it’s the grapes with greatest potential alcohol that go into the dry wine. “There is selection in the vineyard right from the first day of picking, with different buckets for healthy fruit, partially botrytized (Auslese), and totally botrytized (BA etc). For the healthy grapes, if potential alcohol is less than 10.5% it goes to Kabinett, at 10.5-11.5% it goes to Spätlese, over 11.5% it goes to dry wine. We would never be able to produce only dry wines because being on the river and having moisture, we always have some botrytis.”

One of Ernie’s major concerns today is to produce dry wines that age well. “For me a great wine can only be a great wine if it has aging potential. Before 2008 we produced our dry wines mostly in stainless steel with cultured yeasts. They performed beautifully as young wines – the stainless steel really brings out beautiful fruits – but I call them poppy wines because as soon as the fruit lightened after a year they became one dimensional. The driving force (for rethinking) was a 1950 Urzig Würzgarten which was brilliant now. So what did my grandfather do? I wanted to make dry wines that will age again. So we are now making wines with more aging potential – they may not be so charming when young. I have changed many things to make the wines longer aging.”

Now there is a Reserve program for the oldest vineyard in each of the three major terroirs, with 20,000 bottles being set aside each year. In due course, these will become late releases. With lunch we had a Reserve wine from Wehlenner Sonnenuhr (not yet released): just one cask was produced, and the wine spent 24 months on full lees. It shows more depth and body than the Grosses Gewachs Sonnenuhr, with more grip and less delicacy. “This is exactly what I’m looking for,” says Ernie, “it should be closed now or it can’t open out with age.”

Comparing Loosen wines is always an exercise in understanding terroir. In the estate wines, Blue Slate is more precise and fragrant than Red Slate. In the Trocken single vineyard wines, Wehlener Sonnenuhr is delicate and elegant, Urziger Würzgarten has more weight with hints of the famous spice, Erdenner Treppchen shows slightly more herbal aromatics. Moving to Kabinett or Spätlese, the same relative differences show, but the wines are fuller bodied, with more of a delicious sweet/sour edge to the finish. As the Reserve wine program matures, there will be more opportunities to see how these differences play out with age.

DrLoosen copySince this photo was taken, a major expansion has been undertaken and new cellars are being constructed to the right of the house.

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