Let’s talk about wine!

An estate which plants only one variety on steep slopes perfectly suited
to yield ingenious wines and a grower who loves and lives his work:
Enough reason for wine journalist Michael Schmidt to conduct an interview
with Riesling maestro Johannes Schmitz.

Let’s talk about wine!

An estate which plants only one variety on steep slopes perfectly suited to yield ingenious wines and a grower who loves and lives his work: Enough reason for wine journalist Michael Schmidt to conduct an interview with Riesling maestro Johannes Schmitz.

Herr Schmitz, your wine estate Rebenhof  in Ürzig is totally dedicated to RIESLING – what is so special about this variety?

Our vines are primarily located on the steep slopes of the two sites Ürziger Würzgarten and Erdener Treppchen, where in prolonged phases of dry weather water can become a sparse commodity. The advantage of Riesling is that it does not need as much water as other varieties. A thin layer of wax on the surface of the leaves and fine hair on the underside aid water retention. At the same time the vines are spurred on to send their roots deeper into the subsoil to get to the water tables. This is where they absorb a profound minerality not found in this concentration nearer the surface. The leaves of the vines perform the task of concentrating the fruity aromas of the wine. The exemplary cooperation between roots and leaves allows the grapes to unfold the full potential of Riesling.

The variety also has a unique ability to express the minutest of microclimatic differences. In a period of more than 100 days between flowering and full ripeness the vines use every day to project minerals and aromas to the grapes and thus create wines with exceptional individuality which reflect the unique properties of their terroir.

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Johannes Schmitz im Gespräch mit Michael Schmidt

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A word about terroir: The ÜRZIGER WÜRZGARTEN and the ERDENER TREPPCHEN are your most important sites. What are their special attributes and how do they differ from each other?

What is particularly remarkable about the Würzgarten is that the vine pest phylloxera never managed to settle in its famous red soil. This is the reason why until 2008 it was still permitted to plant ungrafted vines there. The wines from this site exhibit a unique composition of notes of pepper, nutmeg and herbs. The Würzgarten is divided into two different red soil types: red slate, which promotes a profound spicy minerality, and volcanic rock which tends to produce a softer expression of these attributes. The deeper structure of the volcanic rock allows for more water to be stored and as a rule the wines grown on this soil type exhibit more body, whereas those from the slate tend to show a sleek elegance.

At the Treppchen our 40-year old vines are located within a very dry section of this site and therefore produce only small yields, which in turn gather a high concentration of aromas and minerality. There are many days when assimilation is slowed down by lack of water. This produces wines with very moderate alcohol, but plenty of complexity and minerality.

What is your understanding of TERROIR, a term frequently used nowadays in wine descriptions?

By terroir I understand the synthesis of soil, microclimate, vines and the grower. The grower knows how to express the potential of individual parcels in their prospective wines with common characteristics that can be identified in every vintage.

Whether a site is particularly sheltered from the winds, its angle of exposure to the sun, its gradient, these are all factors which determine its microclimate and therefore the growing conditions of its vines and ripening process of its grapes.  Riesling is not only the variety physically best suited to our steep slopes, but also uniquely predestined to reflect the differences between various soil types in their individual sensory expression of mineral, spicy or floral attributes. This inseparable relationship between soil, microclimate and quality had already been recognized by the government of Prussia when they used it to grade the vineyards of the Mosel in a special map for tax classification purposes in 1868.

For further reading: R. Löwenstein: Von Öchsle zum Terroir – Ein oenologisches Manifest

 

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A significant proportion of your wines still comes from UNCRAFTED VINES. Is this not unusual for Germany?

It is not only unusual for Germany, but worldwide! Because of the danger of phylloxera since the beginning of the 20th century vineyards in Europe have all been planted with grafted* vines. In the geographical loop of the Mosel at Würzig we have one of the largest reserves of vines on their own roots, which have been neither cloned nor grafted. The result is low yields of small-berried grapes with high quality. At our estate we have used the precious gene material of old Riesling vines to produce new plants. Many other growers used our ungrafted vines for the production of their top wines, before in 2008 bureaucracy in its ultimate wisdom finally prohibited the use of such material.

In our own vineyards more than 75% of our vines still stand on their own roots. Many of them are over 60 years old, some of them even up to 100 years of age. As their grape clusters are not as compact as those of cloned vines, we get lower yields, but far greater concentration of constituents. Being naturally more resistant to diseases they tend to be more reliable with regard to their ability to produce healthy grapes.

*grafted vines: Indigenous European varieties such as Riesling, which belong to the species Vitis Vinifera, are grafted onto the phylloxera-resistant rootstock of American vines from the species Vitis Riparia/Rupestris. Apart from the envisaged resistance to the vine pest phylloxera this measure is also associated with higher yields, or a so-called yield optimization. Cloned gene material has been raised and propagated for over 100 years. One of the goals of cloning is to guarantee higher yields. Vines on their own roots are never grafted and also most of the time not cloned. They are the foundation for the creation of wines of a very special quality.  

 

There appears  to be a very liberal use of the term ALTE REBEN by the wine industry. How do you define this term at your own estate?

It is officially permitted to use the term “Alte Reben” for vines from 25 years old on. Unfortunately this has led to an inflationary use of the description in wine marketing. From 40 years on would be more acceptable, but we at the Rebenhof only put this term on the label if the wine comes from plants at least 60 years old. This is an assurance that the natural yield reduction of our old vines has led to an extent of concentration and complexity which younger vines are not capable of.

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What are the particular attributes of RED SLATE (roter Schiefer)  in your vineyards?

The colour of the red slate in our Würzgarten is derived from iron oxide compounds. Their proliferation was made possible by the fragemented rock formation and subsequent ability of water to circulate. Because of its many fissures red slate has a higher water absorption capacity than other types of slate and vines grown on this substrate suffer less from dry stress in prolonged periods without precipitation. Wines grown on red slate tend to have a more pronounced piquancy and spiciness, which forms an ideal partnership with the residual sugar of feinherb.

What is the morphological difference between red slate and GREY SLATE and how does it express itself in wine?

Contrary to red slate, grey slate, as we find it in the Erdener Treppchen, is tectonically so compact that it does not allow any water circulation. The water storage capacity of this rocky substrate is extremely limited. Withered grey slate tends to be transposed into a floral expression by Riesling. The proverbial spiciness, which with red slate tends to absorb a fair amount of residual sugar in our sensory perception, leads to a more pronounced expression of fruity sweetness in wines grown on grey slate.

Many tasting notes and wine descriptions refer to MINERALITY. What does this term mean to you?

Minerality is an important constituent of wines grown on slate, which together with fruit, acidity and residual sugar content determines the flavour profile of fine Mosel wines. Whether this minerality shows itself more in flinty, herbal or spicy aromas, they are all an expression of the minerals in the substrate they are grown on. Minerality is frequently a hallmark of wines made from the grapes of old vines, which send their roots many meters down into the ground and thus have access to layers of soil high in mineral content.   

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What significance do you attach to the MICOCLIMATE (Mikroklima) in terms of winegrowing and winemaking?

Microclimate gives wine an individual personality. Even within a single site there are often variations in terms of landscape, thermal conditions, open spaces or others well sheltered from winds, geological idiosyncrasies, and they all have an influence on the specific climatic conditions of individual plots. As a point in case we produce two different wines from 70 to 100 year old vines grown on the terraces of the Ürziger Würzgarten, one the “Alte Reben” (old vines), which comes from a location more open to winds, and the “Grosses Gewächs” (Grand Cru), which is produced from vines in a hollow between to higher points, well protected from easterly winds. This sheltered position alone leads to slightly warmer temperatures, which result in more body and depth, whereas the “Alte Reben” tend to be a little leaner and tauter.  

 

What is so special about the particular parcel URGLÜCK?

The “Urglück” was already rated a top site by the Prussian tax office in a classification of sites in 1868, as shown on its detailed map of vineyards of the Saar and Middle Mosel. This parcel of vines lies to the west of the massive rock called the Grand Ley, through which it is protected from easterly winds.

The wines from the “Urglück” express the uniqueness of its terroir. The original intent of a classification of single sites in 1868 was to reflect their individuality in terms of microclimate and minerality, and our “Urglück” still proves the validity of this connection today.

 

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Can you explain what the term DEGREES OECHSLE (Oechslegrade) means and how it relates to site and microclimate?

The German wine law of 1971 decided to make the sugar content of grapes and the subsequent must weight the determining factor for quality grading. This meant that frequently wines from different parcels were blended merely because they had the same sugar content, in order to achieve the various predicates from Kabinett to Spätlese and noble sweet Auslese to Beerenauslese. The mid-90s saw a change of mind set and producers returned to a philosophy which put the personality of a wine first, meaning its site-specific attributes determined by microclimate and soil conditions. Priorities changed, and the optimum time for picking the grapes was now determined by their physiological ripeness rather than their sugar content. Location and microclimate are responsible for the individual aromatics of a wine, while degrees of Oechsle are useful tools for the determination of prospective alcohol content and residual sugar.

WINE and FOOD are an important topic. Is it a fallacy that only dry wines go well with food?

It’s a persistent prejudice that only dry wines make good food companions. What is true is that the usually higher alcohol content of dry wines helps to carry flavours. Nevertheless, we have learned from our own long experience that our wines in the feinherb category with their moderate sweetness go particularly well with spicy foods. Whether this be a Kabinett feinherb, a Spätlese from old vines or a compact “von den Felsen”, their piquant nuances and salty minerality enter a harmonious alliance with the gentle residual sweetness and therefore make them a very good accompaniment to fine cuisine. As an almost classic combination I would recommend our Feinherb from the red slate with asparagus. The residual sugar of the wine is well suited to absorbing the delicate bitter constituent of Spargel, thus managing to promote its juicy texture instead.

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Herr Schmitz, what on earth are VEGAN WINES?

Generally, grapes, must and wine too are all vegan. But in today’s cellar management fining and filtration of the young wine are often carried out with the assistance of animal-based products such as gelatin or casein. They attract proteins and other turbid substances floating in the young wine and are then deposited at the bottom of the tank or cask, from which they will be removed by racking and filtration.

Of course it is important for vegans to know that there are no substances in the wine that do not comply with their requirements, such as for example animal-based proteins or fish gelatine. This is why since 2015 we have dispensed with the use of animal-based additives, so our wines can be enjoyed by vegans too.