Saar Diary: An Impressive Tasting at von Hövel

“My philosophy is to produce wines that are authentic and show the Saar region; you think it’s just the southern part of the Mosel, but that’s wrong, the elevation here is 200m, most vineyards are on the Devonian slate, there is also some volcanic rock, we are surrounded by the mountains,” says Max von Kunow as we begin a marathon tasting at Weingut von Hövel.

“Wine has been made here for 1400 years, and my family has owned the estate since the early nineteenth century,” he says. The range is extensive, from entry-level dry wines to the top Grosses Gewächs, and for the full extent of sweet wines from the Prädikat range. When I ask about the proportion of dry to sweet wine, Max says, “You have asked about sweet but we call the wine fruity. People especially in Germany taste Kabinett and say, ‘it’s sweet,’ I hate this: sweet is not what we produce. We produce 20% dry, 20% medium dry, and 60% fruity.”

The winery practices sustainable viticulture. “We don’t want our vineyard to look like a golf course, we want lots of flowers, it’s only when you have soil with a lot of life that you can produce good grapes. The important thing is to find the right moment to harvest, not too green, not too ripe. We use natural yeast but we are not dogmatic, if the wine needs yeast, we give it yeast.” All the Grosses Gewächs age in 1000 liter fuder.

Max took over from his father in 2011. Production today is 80% Riesling, The dry range starts with a Saar Riesling, and  then there are three village wines, Niedermenning, Krettnäch, and Oberemmel. After tasting these from the 2019 vintage (the current release here, while elsewhere it’s mostly 2020), we tasted younger and older vintages of the Grosses Gewächs from Hütte (in Oberemmel, a monopole that is the estate’s largest vineyard with 5.5 ha) and Scharzhofberg (one of the most famous vineyards in the region). The same herbal character runs through all the Scharzhofberg vintages and really beings complexity as a contrast to the fruits. Hütte seems tighter and more saline.

All the Grosses Gewächs really do  taste dry or very close to it (as opposed to the slight touch of perceptible sweetness found at many houses which take advantage of the derogation allowing up to 9g/l residual sugar if acidity is high enough). The 2019s are relatively forward, 2017 is beginning to round out, and when you get back to 2015 or 2012, flavors really begin to come out. You see what Max means when he says, “The problem with our wines is that they all need time. We produce wines for long ageing. The first few years the wines show winemaking. Then after a few, 10 years or so, they really return to showing the terroir.”

Moving away from dry wines, the range starts with GL wines (having a couple of grams more sugar than the off-dry Halbtrocken category), and then the Prädikat range. Those herbal impressions in Scharzhofberg continue through the sweet wines to provide a delicious contrast with the fruits; Hütte shows a counterpoise of a slight austerity to offset the fruits. It’s a great range.

Tasting Notes for Rieslings

Niedermenning (trocken), 2019

The most mineral and most racy of the village wines, this really expresses the elegance of the Saar. Acidity is between balanced and crisp. Lots of iron in the soil. 89, drink-2026.

Krettnäch (trocken), 2019                                                                                                  

A light nose lads into a palate showing the racy acidity of the Saar. Light citric fruits on palate lead on to saline finish. Devon slate. 89, drink-2025.       

Oberemmel (trocken), 2019                                                                                    

Intensely herbal nose leads into spicy palette with peppery notes, backed by balanced acidity, showing citric notes on palate with hints of bitter lemon and lime. 88, drink-2026.

Hütte (Oberemmel), Spätlese trocken, 2008                                                                

Nose is only a little more developed than 2012 and shows subtle nutty, buttery hints. The racy acidity is there on the palate, which shows some tertiary notes: not tired yet, but there is a touch of sourness, and the wine is moving into a different, more tertiary flavor spectrum. 11%,  92, drink2022

Hütte (Oberemmel), GG, 2012                        

Nose shows some developed notes, not quite tertiary, but moving towards nutty and buttery. Although the racy acidity of the Saar shows on the finish, the palate has really softened, the fruits cut by a touch of bitter lemon on the finish. Delicious sweet/sour catch on finish, even though wine is quite dry. 12%, 92, drink-2025

Hütte (Oberemmel), GG, 2017                                                                  

The nose shows a little development with some roundness, but the palate is tighter than 2019, with citric notes including bitter lemon reinforcing an impression of salinity on the finish.. The racy acidity makes this seem close to bone dry. Coiled spring waiting to open, needs time to open, and should then become rather elegant. 11.5%, 92, drink 2022-2032

Hütte (Oberemmel), GG, 2019 Already there is some complexity here, with herbal notes to counterpoise fruits that some stone elements as well as citrus. Some residual sugar shows a softness on palate more than direct sweetness although there is just a catch of sugar at the end. Developing relatively quickly, but promising real complexity in a few years. 12%, 91, drink-2028

Scharzhofberg,  GG, 2019  

Faintly herbal nose, already developing some flavor variety (this seems to be a more quickly developing year). You can just detect that sugar is above 4g. Overlay of savory herbs adds complexity, relatively soft and round for GG in the Saar. This is a forward vintage, 12.5%, 91, drink-2028.

Scharzhofberg,  GG, 2018  

More austere impression to nose than 2019, some sweet and savory herbs contrast with salinity on the palate, which is already showing complexity. There are beautiful contrasts here, 12.5%, 92, drink-2030.

Scharzhofberg,  GG, 2017  

This is tight and austere, reflecting the year, but already showing quite a bit of complexity with the typical herbal character of the vineyard coming through the austerity. It is readier to drink than Hütte. There are some faintly nutty notes in the background, 12.5%, 92, drink-2032.

Scharzhofberg,  GG, 2015  

Some development shows in some nutty buttery notes on the nose. Has really softened on the palate, there are some tertiary notes on the palate. This is the most complex of the flight. Delicious herbal versus fruit contrasts. This is à point, 11.5%, 93, drink-2030.

Saar,  GL (off-dry), 2020  

Light fragrant nose, just a touch of sweetness on the palate, pretty serviceable for category and price,  87, drink-2023.

Scharzhofberg,  GL, 2018  

Sweetness is quite evident and you no longer see the herbal character, but there’s a delicious sweet/sour catch at end,  88, drink-2024

Höreck,  GL, 2018  

Relatively complex for the category, with distinct herbal notes contrasting with the sweetness. This is the most concentrated of the off-dry category (yields only 10 hl/ha).  88, drink-2024.

Saar,  Kabinett, 2020  

Faint spicy herbal notes on nose, hints of sweet/sour on finish, quite good flavor variety for a generic level. 8%, 88, drink-2025.

Hütte,  Kabinett, 2018  

Some austere herbal notes to nose. Sweetness is an elegant overlay, citric fruits meld into peaches and apricots, a little on the weighty side for the Saar. 7.5%, 90, drink-2028.

Hütte,  Kabinett, 2019  

Austere and drier compared with the 2018, unlike the dry wines where 2019 was the most forward, this is the most backward. Lovely contrasts of herbs and fruits, promising complexity to come. 10%, 91, drink-2032.

Scharzhofberg,  Kabinett, 2019  

Faint herbal impressions lend a note of austerity to the first impression. The herbal character is a lovely contrast to the fruits and the sweetness, really bringing complexity to the Kabinett level. This is more forward and a lot more complex than Hütte. Lovely texture to the palate.  93, drink-2032.

Scharzhofberg,  Kabinett, 2020  

Faint cereal impressions to nose, more straightforward on palate then 2019, more of a standard Kabinett.  89, drink-2028.

Saar,  Kabinett Lilly, 2018  

Complex herbal and nutty notes offset the fruits and the sweetness is quite elegant in the background, Plate is quite textured,  91, drink-2030.

Saar,  Kabinett S, 2020  

More overtly sweet although it comes from the same source as Lilly, here the sweetness dominates the palate.  89, drink-2026.

Hütte,  Spätlese, 2018  

Faintly austere herbal notes on nose. Sweeter and richer than the Kabinett, deeper fruits, peaches and apricots with citrus more in background, delicious sweet/sour catch on finish.  91, drink-2031.