Mosel Diary: The Terrassen of the Upper Mosel

My first impression of  Heymann-Löwenstein was dominated by the striking new cellar, a  cuboid contemporary building, covered by a skin that has a poem by Neruda (The Ode to Wine, translated into German, and running in stainless steel letters across the front). Next to it is the old house, built in 1899, with cellars underneath. (Actually it was originally occupied by negociants, who used the cellars to age wine that they had purchased; it became a full winery when Heymann-Löwenstein moved there in the nineties.) I asked Sarah Löwenstein whether the contrast between the buildings was some sort of statement, but she explained that because the old house is a listed building, when they got permission for the extension in 2013, the town required them to build it in a modern style.

The new winery space is a contemporary cube adjacent to the old building.

Her parents established the winery.  “They were not happy with the way wine was made in the area and took the iconoclastic approach of vinifying separate vineyards. They started with stainless steel because it doesn’t have a large influence on taste so they could see the characteristics of individual vineyards.” In 1992 they started to use natural fermentation. “It was revolutionary then, it was like playing with the devil,” Sarah says. “In 1999 they decided the wines were too reductive and too tight and they bought the first wood cask. Then they added another cask every year. All come from oak trees grown on slate, but sources vary from Germany to Czechoslovakia.”

“Natural fermentation was tricky at first and we had some stopped fermentations. My father worried about how he could get more energy to motivate the yeast. Because cows make better music when you play them Mozart, he wondered whether yeast would respond and he installed organ pipes at the end of the cellar: they make sound when the wind blows. Sound is the sign of control by Apollo, so there is also a constant flow of water along the floor (Dionysus represents uncontrolled).”

The unusual feature here is that almost all the vineyards on the Terrassen. “My parents had no money to buy a tractor so they had to buy the terraces, which no one else wanted. So we are a bit different, we don’t have the entry-level vineyards, we are lucky to have so many high quality vineyards.”

Schieferterrassen is the relatively (entry-level) wine, from slate terraces (mix of different colors but soils all the same age), a blend from about 10 parcels, always the same, plus some declassified lots from the grand crus. Sarah describes it as premier cru level. “The work is the same as in the grand cru vineyards.” The front label doesn’t mention trocken or even Riesling. “The details, that it’s dry or Riesling, are not important for me, what’s important is the wine.”

There’s a grand series of 6 Grosses Gewächs, with the heart in Ühlen, an amphitheater round the river with three parts, each with different terroir. Blaufüsser Lay at the north is blue slate. Lauben is the middle section, with chalky aspects due to a lot of fossils in the slate, which gives higher pH to the soil. Ühlen Roth Lay is at the south, with hard red slate.

“After fermentation I like to keep the wine on the full lees,” Sarah says. “I sulfur then to stop MLF unless acidity is so high that I don’t need it. The wine stays until March or May and then is racked on to the fine lees until it’s filtered and battled in July.” The three Uhlens spend one year longer aging (with 3 months on full lees followed by 9 months on fine lees). The first to do this was Ühlen Roth Lay, the other two are making the transition  as of 2020 – which means they’ll be off the market for a year. “It would be great for all our wines to age longer but it’s not practical.” Sugar levels are low in GG but not below bone dry (4g), but sweetness is not usually directly perceptible, it’s more evident by a roundness that softens the finish.

Many producers have switched to screwcaps for at least the basic wines. The Löwensteins did experiments and decided that that they could not see any adverse effects; “the variation between cork and screw cap is within the range of individual bottle variation for either,” Sarah says. “We switched to screwcaps in 2009, now everything except just a few wines is under screw cap.”  We tried a 2012; it was aging beautifully, in fact I would say in oxidative style (blind I would have assumed it was under cork).

The dry wines are great demonstrations of terroir, and the sweet wines move to botrytis with the Auslese. Grapes are sorted in both vineyard and winery. “I don’t want botrytis in my dry wines.” Botrytized grapes go into the Auslese (occasionally BA or TBA). “Recent years have been 100% botrytis for the Auslese – that’s what I prefer. It’s botrytis but it has to be healthy – I don’t like a fungal smell. The refreshing quality even in the BA and TBA is very important for me.”

Tasting Notes on Grosses Gewächs 2019 vintage

Kirchberg (Hatzenport)

Red slate and quartz. Sense of restrained power, not quite austerity, stone and citrus fruits on palate with balanced acidity and citrus lingering on stony finish. A touch of softness suggests some residual sugar, although actually it’s marginal. 90 drink-2028

Stolzenberg (Hatzenport)

More of a yellow slate. A slightly softer impression to the nose with a faint hint of spice that follows through to palate. A more mineral impression to the palate, with quite a stony, almost austere finish. 90 drink-2028

Röttgen (Winningen)

Blue slate vineyard. Nice tension, faint sense of spice, balanced acidity with racy edge. Some peaches as well as citrus on the palate, peachy edge to the finish. It’s only just not quite dry, more as a sense of roundness on mouthful than overt sweetness. Relatively forward and more expressive than the two crus from Hatzenport. 91 drink-2029

Ühlen Blaufüsserlay (Winningen)

Hard blue slate. Real sense of tension to nose follows to palate. Citrus palate shows flavor variety (this is all citric compared with the tinge of stone fruits in Röttgen) and there is an austere minerality on the finish, more linear,  ending with a touch of bitter lemon. Very flavorful. 92 drink-2030

Ühlen Laubach (Winningen)

Slate with fossils. Subtle mineral impression to nose. More linear impression than Blaufüsserlay. Racy impression to palate with lot of tension, although acidity is balanced. Might describe the acidity as edgy. Palate is restrained citrus with some bare hints of bitter lemon. Sarah describes it as a bit wilder. 92 drink-2031

Ühlen Roth Lay (Winningen)

Hard deep colored red slate. Aged a year longer, so this is due to be released in September. Deeper color. Getting away from racy Riesling to a deeper more textured palate. Stone fruits mingle with citrus, supported by balanced acidity. No impressions of sweetness at all (although tech specs are same as other GGs). Very textured impression to long finish. You could describe it as earthy. 93 drink-2033.

Tasting Notes on Grosses Gewächs 2020 Vintage (from VDP Preview tasting in Wiesbaden)

Nose is quite different from the Winningen GGs, more driven towards minerality, and the palate is more herbal. Nice complexity developing already, this is relatively approachable. There is just a suspicion of residual sugar on the finish. 90, drink-2029
A slightly more granular texture than Kirchberg, a slightly rounder impression on the palate with more sense of stone fruits than citrus and a hint of spice adding complexity, 91, drink-2030
Faint sense of spice to nicely rounded fruits on palate, although residual sugar is less obvious than Kirchberg,  showing stone as well as citrus, with impression of white fruits at end. A very fine complex expression,  quite close in style to Ühlen Blausfusser Lay. 91 drink-2030
Ühlen Blaufüßer Lay
Lovely sense of texture with hints of spice, more advanced than Laubach, not as spicy as Roth Lay, stone fruits ending in citrus on palate, already showing a sense of complexity. 91, drink-2030
Ühlen Laubach
Acidity with a lemony edge, flavor variety developing on palate broadens citrus flavors beyond the nose, quite a silky texture, just a suspicion of residual sugar to soften and round out the palate. I would wait a few months to let flavor variety round out further. 90, drink-2030
Ühlen Roth Lay
Palate broadens from Ühlen Laubach with a sense of spice in the direct of cinnamon, stone fruits as well as citrus, very attractive and immediately approachable. More sense of complexity than Ühlen Laubach. 92, drink-2030