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The Mosel River Renaissance

January 29, 1997|STUART PIGOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Stuart Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer

Flowery, thin and cloyingly sweet is the way many Americans perceive the wines from the Mosel Valley in Germany. There's a reason. During the 1970s and '80s, rampant commercialization encouraged by a lax wine law made kitschy, mass-produced wines the normal product of the region. About a decade ago, a new generation of vintners committed to making varietal wines from the classic Riesling grape started a quality renaissance there, but it is only during the last few years that the leading members of this group have begun to attract international attention. The excellent 1995 vintage has given them their best chance yet to demonstrate their talents.

Ernst Loosen: Awakening the Valley

Ernst Loosen, 39, of the Dr. Loosen estate in Bernkastel is the best-known winemaker of the Mosel renaissance. It makes sense at first: His parents came from prominent winemaking families. (Indeed, their marriage joined the two properties, creating the Dr. Loosen estate.) But Loosen had not wanted to be a winemaker; he wanted to be an archeologist. His grandfather, Anton Adams, designed civic monuments, including the extension to Berlin's State Library, and during the first half of the last century, his great-great grandfather Peter Josef Lenne was Europe's foremost garden architect, creating the Tiergarten park in the center of Berlin.

Ernst's father, however, insisted he first study at Germany's famous Geisenheim wine school. In spite of ignoring his studies, Loosen passed his exams on the first try, then enrolled the next day in archeology at Mainz university.

"I don't believe in fate," Loosen told me, "so let's call it chance. My father was suddenly taken ill, and I was forced to organize the 1983 harvest. Before I knew it, wine had gotten under my skin."

For the next four years Ernst was in constant conflict with his father about wine quality and the way the estate was run. The largest investment his father made was buying a barrow for moving cases of wine around the cellar. Ernst finally got control just before the 1987 harvest.

After the first day of picking, all the employees resigned because Loosen insisted that they pick all the vineyards selectively, separating the best grapes from the less-ripe ones, something that had never been done at the estate before. Undeterred, he appointed Bernhard Schug, a (beer-drinking) friend who had studied agriculture, as winemaker and hired new pickers.

Later Loosen and Schug visited the great winemakers of Europe and California together and developed winemaking ideas that were revolutionary for the sleepy Mosel Valley. These included fermentations with wild yeast that lasted months instead of days and abandoning the use of fining agents to help clarify the wines (a normal practice not only in Germany, but around the globe).

There are 31,650 acres of vineyards in the twisting valleys of the Mosel and its tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer. Just over 17,000 are planted with Riesling vines. A further 2,850 acres are planted with the ancient Elbling vine and the remainder with inferior modern varieties. But this is really Riesling country. The combination of a cool northerly climate and the precipitous slate-covered vineyards (that act as natural solar collectors) results in Rieslings that are low in alcohol, yet packed with aroma.

"Why should the Mosel be different from anywhere else in the world?" asks Loosen. "Our best wines come from old vines planted in the top vineyard sites that give small crops." He is lucky to have inherited nearly 25 acres of Riesling vines up to 100 years old, all ungrafted. (Since the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, nearly all European vines have been grafted on phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. But in the Mosel, the slate rock that covers the slopes weathers to a sharp, sandy material in which the destructive phylloxera lice cannot live.)

His uncompromising insistence that only small crops can give superior Riesling wines, and his campaigning for a classification of the region's best vineyards, have earned Loosen the reputation of being a rebel with a cause. After one television appearance in which Loosen literally pointed the finger at inferior vineyards that had been planted with government subsidies during the 1970s, an incensed local vintner cut off more than 100 of Loosen's vines just above the ground.

The estate's wines are no less revolutionary than Loosen's ideas. Most Riesling wines from the steeply sloping Mosel vineyards are light-bodied and pleasantly tart. The Loosen wines marry this with a richness and power seldom found in the region.

Packed with the scents of freshly chopped herbs and minerals, the 1995 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett is a classic example of Loosen's wine style. In spite of a touch of unfermented grape sweetness, the aftertaste is very clean and dry.

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