Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
Here is a wine full of flavor and elegance, intense, focused, long in both finish and life span, evoking fruits, flowers, even minerals, yet amazingly transparent and ethereally light. No other wine possesses this combination of qualities, no Riesling grown elsewhere either.
Can we explain? Is it the slate-rich soil, the vineyards precipitously sloping down to the river, the south-facing exposure of the best sites, the cool temperatures at this northerly limit of vine ripening, the low yields, the tension of the perfect balance of acid and sugar, the nature of the grape variety itself, the cool, slow fermentation, the low alcohol content? It is certainly not any one of these. More likely, all are needed for optimal results (but oak is not invited).
The prized soil here in the prime vineyards of the Middle Mosel and its tributaries, the Saar and the Ruwer, is composed of layers of finely decomposed slate laid down 4OO million years ago. The dark slate surface is thought to reradiate heat to the vines at night, to hold moisture, and to supply minerals to the vines clinging to dizzying slopes that must be worked by hand. A degree of minerality in the wine adds complexity and, according to Randall Grahm, suppresses too-obvious fruitiness and provides deep flavor focus. Raimund Prum distinguishes three different slates, each informed by its own metal base. Blue slate, based on copper, is found in several vineyards in Bernkastel, including Lay, which means "slate." Prum believes that blue slate creates a full-bodied mineral taste, with notes of green apple, peach, apricot, even tropical fruits. Gray slate, based on tin, is found in Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Graacher Dompropst and Himmelreich. It creates finesse, elegance, and fragrance, and evokes green apple, white peach, and pineapple. Wines of both the blue and gray slates pair well with seafood, white meats, and Asian food. Red slate, based on iron, and found in Urziger Wurzgarten and Erdener Teppchen and Pralat, imparts warmth, smoothness, and softness, especially to wines with residual sugar. They tend to be lower in acidity, but well endowed with fruit, and are said to be fit company for terrines, cheeses, and fruit-based desserts. I've also heard it said that red slate risks imparting some bitterness. I can't help wondering whether all this may be too precious.
My enthusiasm to write about Mosel Rieslings was stimulated by a recent visit from Raimund and Saskia Prum. Raimund has owned and managed the S.A. Prum estate since 1971. Saskia, his daughter, is a recently qualified winemaker. Raimund's wife, Erika, supervises business aspects and hospitality at the guest house. Second daughter Jennifer is studying business. The estate's 4O acres of primarily QmP (Qualitatswein mit Pradikat, "Quality wine with distinction"), Riesling are in Bernkastel, Graach, Wehlen, and Zeltingen, of which more than 25 are in the revered Wehlener Sonnenuhr. The vines are generally quite old. Prum also makes wine from other grapes - Pinot Blanc, for example - grown at other sites, but these need not concern us here. Production totals 42,OOO cases, of which one-third are estate-grown, estate-bottled QmP Rieslings, wines we'll be sampling herein. The winery is in Wehlen.
The Prum family has owned vineyards in the area for 85O years, and produced wine commercially for more than 2OO years. Sebastian Alois Prum, Raimund's grandfather, founded the S.A. Prum firm in 1911, when various branches of the family diverged. Familiar and respected names are related: other Prums, Loosen, Bergweiler, Weil. An ancestor Jodocus Prum, erected the famous landmark sundial - sonnenuhr - in 1842.
S.A. Prum is a founding member of the Association of German Premium Wineries (VDP), a consortium of top producers probably established to overcome the inadequacy of Germany's wine laws. Some of Prum's wines have secured certification as Erste Lage ("First Growth"), Rieslings of high quality of at least spatlese level, from low yielding top vineyards that are subject to strict comparative tastings. Initially this was a category for dry wines, but this is evolving. As we'll see from the concluding tasting, the S.A. Prum estate is a worthy exemplar of the miracle of the Mosel.
Essence Riesling, 2OO3 The only wine from purchased grapes - long-term contracts - and the only one not QmP (it's QbA). Steely. Good sugar/acid balance. Still youthful. Laudable that even the low end shows such character. Long finish. Had malolactic in ten percent.
BLUE SLATE RIESLING, 2OO3 A QmP Kabinett grown in very steep blue slate soil. Fermented for eight weeks. Fuller, with more minerality, longer. Fine typical fruit.
BERNKASTELER LAY RIESLING ERSTE LAGE CASK #15, 2OO3 Floral, dry, mineraly, long, reserved. Smells sweeter than tastes. Made by wild yeasts. Spent 4 to 6 months on lees in old oak after a three-month fermentation. Don't serve ice-cold.
WEHLENER SONNENUHR RIESLING KABINETT, 2OO3 Still more concentrated and intense. Complex, long, young. Very fine. Terroir tells.
GRAACHER HIMMELREICH SPATLESE 2OO3 Fresh, clean, mineraly, long. This vineyard is well supplied with aquifers, a signal advantage in a drought year like 2OO3, but a liability during wet growing seasons.
WEHLENER SONNENUHR AUSLESE 2OO3 Ripe and sweet, balanced and light, yet concentrated, long, young. No Botrytis (was too dry). Needs time; has time - will evolve slowly.
GRAACHER DOMPROPST AUSLESE ERSTE LAGE CASK #7, 2OO3 Fatter. Balanced and long and lush. Botrytis apparent. Fermentation lasted four months.
GRAACHER HIMMELREICH EISWEIN 2OOO Harvested during deep frost on December 23, after a wet, fungus-plagued growing season. Clean and concentrated, with high acidity. Very long finish. Still too young. This and the last two wines bottled in 375ml.
WEHLENER SONNENUHR BEERENAUSLESE 2OOO Young and balanced. Long. Has Botrytis. A nice hint of bitterness sets off the intense sweetness. Remained in the fermentation tank until March.
WEHLENER SONNENUHR TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE 2OO3 The rare ultimate product of German winemaking art. Selected Botrytised grapes, highly concentrated, fermented eleven months. A honeyed syrup needing years to show its stuff; it will then live for many decades. Alcohol only 6 percent, acidity 9 grams per liter, residual 37.4 percent. Costs about $28 per ounce.