Erich Weber of Hofgut Falkenstein makes ultra-traditional, mostly dry-tasting Saar Rieslings. He likes to call himself “Winzer Weber.” (Winzer is German for winegrower.) The emphasis is on the work in his vineyards. With his tan and rugged face, he looks the part, too.
Erich ferments exclusively with wild yeasts in old wooden casks in a deep, cool cellar, and most of his wines end up either naturally dry (trocken) or off-dry (feinherb). Falkenstein, therefore, is one of the rare Saar producers that specializes in distinctive bracing, light dry-tasting wines bottled traditionally by the cask. The bone-dry wines can be a little of a shock, when first tasted, even for fans of Saar Riesling. Some tasters might find them a little too sharp.
At the moment, Falkenstein has about 7.5 hectares planted in and around the remote village of Konz-Niedermennig. The holdings could double when his son Johannes, who is finishing up at Geisenheim, takes over in a few years. Erich’s youngest son, Paul, and his eldest, Franz, also help out, especially during harvest. The vineyards, all in Tälchen (“little valley”), include Krettnacher Altenberg and Euchariusberg, Niedermenniger Herrenberg and Sonnenberg, and Falkensteiner Hofberg. Krettnacher Altenberg (on some 19th-century maps listed as “Crettnacherberg”) has mainly a gray slate soil, plus diabase (Diabus), a green balsaltic rock, also found in Saarburger Rausch. Euchariusberg has a gray-blue slate soil.
Krettnacher Altenberg and Euchariusberg are two of the few top-ranked sites on the Saar, according to the Saar und Mosel Weinbau-Karte, a Prussian viticultural tax map from Clotten, which was first printed in 1868. Herrenberg, Sonnenberg, and Hofberg are mostly gray slate. Though parts of Herrenberg and Hofberg have red slate, too. Their well-placed, old-vine plot on the slope of Hofberg includes flint, which imparts a grassy note to the wines from this site. On various old Mosel wine maps, the highly rated Herrenberg was sometimes listed under Zuckerberg—a name that is still used among the local growers.
Like other wine villages, Niedermennig once had many more Lagen, or sites. According to Friedrich Wilhelm Koch, the top ones included Euchariusberg (then a part of Niedermennig), Zuckerberg, Schock, Sonnenberg, de Nysberg, and Herrenberg (Die Weine im Gebiete der Mosel und Saar, 1914).
The average age of his vines is between 40 and 50 years old, the oldest are from 60 to 80 years old, over 70 percent ungrafted. These are wire-trained with 2.5 meters between rows. He works close to organic, except for preferring one synthetic spray to Bordeaux mixture (copper sulfate and hydrated lime) to fight against downy mildew or peronospora. “Copper is a toxic heavy metal,” Erich says. “This one synthetic treatment doesn’t build up in the soil like copper does.”
Besides Riesling, he has some Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) and Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder), the latter one of the best examples on the Saar and Mosel. It’s a rare dry red wine in that it naturally doesn’t go through malolactic fermentation and is never chaptalized. The wine has—as one would expect—a mineral taste, lean texture, and wonderful bite. It reflects the Saar quite well.
The harvest is usually done in three stages—lower, middle, and upper sections of each hillock. The small harvest team then does three separate passes in the middle and upper parts. The crest of the southern slopes is the most privileged area. Erich likes to pick the gold-yellow grapes first, then those affected by botrytis followed by the rest. Yields are small, because of a relatively low-density planting and strict harvesting from old vines.
Whole grape bunches are directly put into an old spindle press (which is on its last legs and will be replaced by a Slovenian NIKO pneumatic press in the 2013 vintage). The grapes are gently pressed for three to four hours and the resulting juice flows via gravity into the cellar below for a natural sedimentation in Fuder and then racked into another traditional 1,000-liter cask, where the must and later wine stays on its lees anywhere between three to nine months until bottling. All wines are fermented with ambient yeasts. He doesn’t use enzymes, protein stabilizers, clarifying agents; nor does he chaptalize, concentrate, or de-acidify his wines. “Kontrolliertes nichts tun,” he says. In other words, he does as little as possible.
Erich Weber also only sulfurs the casks, before putting the grape musts into them. He doesn’t sulfur either during fermentation or at bottling. In addition, his various parcels are vinified separately in old Fuder.
He lets Stefan Fobian, the cellarmaster at Egon Müller, analyze the wines. Most important is that the pH value should be low, best under 3, in order to avoid any micro-biological spoilage and instability and for aging the wines. “It’s the quintessence,” he says. He then knows that his wines are stable for the élevage. The slate soil of the Mosel, along with parts of the Rhine regions, has naturally low pH values thus high concentrations of acidity, though certain areas of the Saar, like Falkenstein, have especially low pH.
His ancient Fuder casks are adorned with candlestick holders and most of them come from a former mayor who was also a Küfer, or cooper, and received the best local oak from around the village. Erich still gets sentimental when he points out two smaller barrels that his late father made. Built into a hillside, the low-tech cellar is cool and damp with a healthy growth of molds on the walls and ceiling.
Even though it’s becoming more and more outmoded (and for many good reasons), Erich continues to stick to the 1971 Wine Law by labeling his dry and off-dry Rieslings with a Prädikat. The Mosel and especially the Saar have a long tradition, before today’s Prädikat system, of naturrein (“naturally pure,” or non-chaptalized) wines that were more often dry-tasting. He wants to show this on the label for buyers. The trend today, led by the VDP, an elite association of German wine estates, is to keep the Prädikats only for the fruity and nobly sweet style Rieslings. Top dry-tasting wines, such as the VDP’s Grosses Gewächs (GG), are now oddly listed under Qualitätswein, a quality wine that can be chaptalized or concentrated and is usually a designation for simpler wines than those with a Prädikat.
Erich likes to bottle each Fuder separately, which is unheard of today, even though it was the standard in old times. He therefore can have two or three casks from the same site and with the same Prädikat. These can have an identical AP Nr., as the wines come from the same batch, but were fermented, aged, and bottled separately. If the grapes come from different parcels of the same site, he will then bottles these under different AP numbers. Moreover, he did not always indicate feinherb on the label; hence a Spätlese without a designation might be closer to dry (slightly above 9 grams of sugar per liter) than off-dry. Unlike most producers, he usually doesn’t blend among casks to make one wine.
Because he neither chaptalizes nor makes a Gutsriesling (an entry-level estate Riesling), Spätlese trocken has often been the starting point at Falkenstein over the last several vintages. Wines not deemed good enough are sold in bulk to the local co-op. It’s been several years now since he made a Riesling Kabinett trocken. The last vintage was a dry 2008 Kabinett from Niedermenniger Herrenberg. Thus his longtime private clients, many well-to-do or in academia, drink Falkenstein’s dry or off-dry Spätlese as their house wine. Erich personally delivers them their orders (often without a label), zipping around in his car from one end of Germany to the other when he’s not in his vineyards from morning to evening. He has also begun to produce more Auslese wines, which are very discreet in sweetness and taste more like another producer’s off-dry Spätlese. His wines are meant to be bekömmlich, or easily digestible.
Erich, who studied at Geisenheim, began from scratch in 1981 and moved from nearby Krettnach to the then-dilapidated Falkensteiner Hof in 1985. He fixed the building up himself. “It was a lot of hard work,” he says. In 1901, the place was originally built as a Kelterhaus, or press house, with cellar for the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium, a school and once renowned estate in Trier that is now a part of Bischöfliche Weingüter Trier. Behind the press house, on a slope (a part of Niedermenniger Herrenberg not Falkensteiner Hofberg), Erich and his wife have a beautiful garden overlooking Konzer Tälchen, which runs down from the town of Konz to Oberemmel and was once an old branch of the Mosel River. He says that the Abbey of Mettlach governed Oberemmel, and St. Matthias in Trier the area around Niedermennig and Krettnach.
The packaging at Falkenstein matches the wines, too, ribbed-paper labels and modest 33-centimeter Schlegel bottles in dark green, called massongrün. Erich avoids capsules. Occasionally, he’ll put a paper strip over the top of the bottle with the words “Hofgut Falkenstein.” Old labels, before the early nineties, had the same look and design, except the title (above the logo) had the words “Falkensteiner Hof” with “Weingut” underneath, such as the 1989 Falkensteiner Hofberg Riesling Auslese trocken courtesy of the wine critic David Schildknecht. An excellent 1992 Krettnacher Euchariusberg Riesling Kabinett trocken looks the same as today’s labels, but still had the old-style font, rather than Times New Roman.
In Uwe Kristen’s Der Kellermeister, he writes “[the label] looks like it has been printed on an old ink-jet printer sitting on one of the large barrels.” Erich is one of the rare producers today to hand bottle his own wines cask by cask, rather than use a contract bottler. And in his typical old-fashioned way labels each by hand. Like his Saar wines, he’s an original.
Falkenstein makes tangy, wholesome dry-tasting Saar Rieslings with a natural light sparkle (spritzig), as well as lightly sweet Auslesen. These are old-style wines for drinking. In other words, they go down well—Trinkfluss in German. The Spätlese trocken from Krettnacher Altenberg is usually the driest and most austere wine of the bunch—for die-hard Falkenstein fans. Even the Riesling Spätlese feinherb wines tend to be closer to dry than off-dry. Moreover, the Webers don’t aspire to make trophy wines that will win blind-tasting competitions.
“Drink-ability, digestibility and versatility are cardinal Falkenstein virtues” —David Schildknecht
Despite the difficult 2013 vintage, which Erich calls the hardest growing season and harvest of his career, the Webers’ wines are pure and very fine.
On March 21, 2014, I tasted cask samples once again. Erich would like to keep the 2013 Rieslings a little longer on the lees before bottling. The two casks of Niedermenniger Herrenberg Kabinett trocken are from two different parcels. Fuder number 2 comes from 60-to-80-year-old vines in blue slate, whereas Fuder number 1 is old vines from a more red slate soil. Number 2 is a little harder, which is typical of blue slate. Both are fine wines. The old-vine parcel of 2013 Krettnacher Euchariusberg Spätlese trocken is salty and has a long aftertaste. This tastes different from the 2013 Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Spätlese trocken, which has more of a vibrant, smoky character. We also tasted the two different casks of 2013 Niedermenniger Herrenberg Rieslings that will be blended to make the Spätlese feinherb. The first cask is drier and quite impressive. The second one is still cloudy and reduced, with a sweeter taste. It needs to ferment more. We also tasted Auslese casks of Falkensteiner Hofberg and Krettnacher Euchariusberg. Both have about 90 grams of residual sugar, but taste more off-dry than sweet. These are well balanced. The surprise wine of the tasting was a cask of 2013 Niedermenninger Herrenberg “Alte Reben,” or old vines. In fact, this dry Saar Riesling, which has about 88° Oechsle, comes from 80-year-old vines and will be bottled for a few die-hard private clients of Falkenstein. Erich probably won’t even label it and few people will have tasted it.
On February 6, 2014, I re-tasted the casks of 2013 Riesling before my trip to Central Texas and NYC. The Webers have two separate Fuder of Herrenberg Kabinett trocken. I found them both very good. The second one comes from their plot designated “Muny.” They’ve one cask of Altenberg Spätlese trocken, which tastes typical Altenberg, with a hard, salty character. This comes from their south-facing plot of old vines. The two casks of Herrenberg Spätlese will be blended together to make one wine. One Fuder fermented naturally dry and was quite impressive, the other is from a parcel called Ilse. It’s still fermenting and is a lighter and sweeter wine, with about 30 grams of sugar. The Webers could bottle this second cask as a fruity Kabinett. Yet this will make an excellent part of a blend. The cask of Sonnenberg fermented towards dry and is really good. The Webers also have two casks of Euchariusberg. One is primarily from the parcel called Arthuro and has 98° Oechsle. They also have one cask of Hofberg. These are all Auslesen and quite delicious.
On February 9, 2013, I tasted cask samples of Falkenstein’s 2012 Saar Rieslings. The Webers’ 2011s are all but sold out. They will begin bottling some of their 2012s in late March, early April. We first tasted a Fuder, designated “Ilse,” of dry Riesling with about 86° Oechsle, which will be their first Kabinett in several years. This was quite brisk and delicious. Most of their wines have finished fermentation and are all on the gross lees. In the corner, the next Fuder, called “Schilly,” had about 87° Oechsle. The Webers write in chalk different names on each cask. In most instances, the names refer to the former landowner of a specific parcel of vines. Each cask, as mentioned above, is bottled separately. We also tasted several Fuder from Euchariusberg, where they have added some extra old-vine plots. The different casks of wine from this vineyard were all about 95° Oechsle and will be labeled as Auslese. The Euchariusberg wines naturally stop fermenting on their own with some residual sugar leftover.
There will be several different bottlings from each site. The 2012 Kabinett trocken will come from Niedermenniger Herrenberg, like the 2008. They will also have 2012 Spätlese trocken from Krettnacher Altenberg and Niedermenniger Sonnenberg. The former is more firm and stony—classic Altenberg. The Webers also have another impressive Herrenberg Spätlese feinherb. The Fuder of Falkensteiner Hofberg and various casks of Krettnacher Euchariusberg will be bottled as Riesling Auslese, though one cask of Euchariusberg has a little less ripeness and will most likely be bottled as a Spätlese feinherb. We tasted an excellent, mineral, and taut 2011 Spätburgunder from Herrenberg, too.
Cask tasting 2011s: Erich began bottling a few of his 2011 Rieslings at the end of March 2012. I first tasted some samples from Fuder several months ago. He harvested Riesling between 85° to 110° Oechsle; acidity is very good at 8 to 11 per mil.
Erich initially wanted to vinify an old-style “Tischwein” (table wine) for quaffing this vintage and label the wine as Kabinett trocken. It would have been his first in many years.
He has already bottled three 2011s: Krettnacher Altenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken, Niedermenniger Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese feinherb “Fuder 3” (AP Nr. 2)—from the foot of the slope and with about 15 grams of residual sugar (RS)—and Krettnacher Euchariusberg Riesling Auslese. The Altenberg Spätlese trocken is classic Falkenstein. In 2011, this section of Altenberg was bottled first with the AP Nr. 1. Erich has another dry-fermented Altenberg that’s in Fuder. It’s somewhat softer, if you can say that about Falkenstein. (As of November 2012, a third cask has yet to be bottled. It’s lighter in style. He also bottled a very good Altenberg Riesling Spätlese feinherb.) In addition, he has a drier Herrenberg Spätlese feinherb still in cask. The Auslese from Euchariusberg (in the 19th century often spelled Euchariusberger) had perfect gold-yellow grapes harvested just before noble rot set in and has 50 grams of sugar per liter with 10.7 per mil acidity. “Euchariusberg,” Erich’s son Johannes says, “is ideal for Auslese.” Before the high-sugar levels in the 1999 vintage, most of Falkenstein’s Saar Rieslings fermented bone dry.
The 2011 Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken, which is in Fuder, has about 3 grams of sugar. The grapes were harvested at 90° Oechsle from a parcel of 80-year-old vines called “Muny,” purchased from an old grape grower some six years ago. Also in cask is the 2011 Niedermenniger Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken designated “Arthuro.” This has more schmelz, or glaze, and about 10 grams of sugar per liter. As with the 2010 vintage, the 2011 Falkensteiner Hofberg Riesling Auslese has a distinct grassy, herbal note. It’s gulpable. The flintstone in the slate soil of Hofberg seems to impart this flavor. Johannes aged the 2010 Hofberg Riesling Auslese in a separate cellar and bottled it in an antique-green, 35-centimeter Schlegelflasche topped with a screw cap. The 2011 was vinified in the main cellar and has the old, standard look in the shorter massongrün bottle with a natural cork closure. Their plot of old vines (0.30 ha) in Hofberg is located on a knoll below and to the right of the cellar.
Last year, Weber heeded my advice and put his 2010 Spätburgunder—no chaptalization, no malo—into a plain Burgundy bottle. He had formerly used a high-shoulder Bordeaux-style bottle. The 2010 Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Spätburgunder Kabinett trocken is a bracing wine and already sold out. Like his Rieslings, his Pinot Noirs are not for everyone. Although you have to love a grower who still labels a wine “Kabinett trocken,” much less a Pinot Noir from the Saar. Admittedly the nomenclature is outdated—both the actual minimum must weight and the Prädikat. The trend nowadays, led by the VDP, is to leave off Prädikat designations except for fruity and nobly sweet Rieslings.
For those who believe that red wines have no tradition on the Mosel, think again. Reds are indeed traditional, even in the small Ruwer Valley, despite playing a minor role. On the Saar, the village of Könen (old spelling Cönen) was once well known for its reds. A 1922er Cönener Schaberg, Wachstum Weingutsbesitzer Robert Zimmer is on an old price list at the Trier city archives, one of many references to this vineyard. Schaberg is just downstream from Kanzem and lies fallow today.
Falkenstein’s Spätburgunder is picked in small crates and then brought to the press house, where the Webers put a layer of grapes in whole bunches at the bottom of the vat and put the rest through a crusher-destemmer which goes on top. In addition, they add back the ripe stems of the crushed grapes. The bottom layer then goes through a quasi semi-carbonic maceration. Most of the grapes, however, macerate traditionally on the skins for a period of time before going into either old wooden Fuder casks or smaller used barrels.
Erich Weber also has Riesling Sekt, or sparkling wine, made in the traditional manner with the second fermentation in bottle, called Flaschengärung. A 2009 brut was most delicious when tasted in July 2012. His terroir and grapes are ideal for Sekt production, as was the tradition on the Saar and Ruwer in the latter half of the 19th century.
So far, Erich says that 2012 vintage looks promising. The late flowering means smaller grapes. He adds, “old vines are a mystery.”
Before the 2012 harvest got underway, Erich and Johannes used a high-pressure cleaner with water to remove the mold from the cellar walls. Erich last cleaned them over 20 years ago. The mold was fine, but they didn’t want to scare too many customers away.
Some favorites: It won’t be for everyone, but the 2012 Niedermenniger Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett trocken ♥ is taut and mineral, but such a delight. I drank an entire bottle at home last night (May 5). This was the first cask of the Herrenberg Kabinett trocken. The Webers have yet to bottle the second cask of this wine. Since 2008, they have not produced a Kabinett. The 2012 Krettnacher Altenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken ♥ can be stahlig, or steely, and needs time to open up, but it’s my go-to wine from vintage to vintage. Other favorites this vintage include the very fine 2012 Niedermenniger Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese feinherb ♥♥ and the 2011 Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Riesling Spätlese feinherb ♥.
An early pick is 2011 Krettnacher Altenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken ♥ (AP Nr. 1). It’s less austere than the 2010s from this vineyard site, but still has a lightly sparkling taste with good tension and a saline aftertaste. The Webers have three Fuder casks of this wine, each bottled separately under the same AP Nr. One cask has yet to be bottled as of October 2012 and is quite light, fine, and briny. In general, the Altenberg needs a little time to open up. Initially, it can be a little tart. A vin de soif, or a wine for gulping down, is the 2011 Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken ♥. It’s juicy with citrus and grapefruit notes. The 2011 Niedermenniger Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese feinherb ♥♥ (AP Nr. 6) is bright (8.5 per mil acidity) and very fine. On Falkenstein’s price list, it’s designated as “Fuder 5.” It comes from Falkenstein’s best parcel in Herrenberg, which is higher up the slope and formerly belonged to von Kesselstatt. This plot has more red slate and once had low dry stone terraces. The 2011 Niedermenniger Euchariusberg Riesling Auslese ♥♥ is crisp and for drinking. Also, a fresh, light, and piquant 2011 Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spätburgunder Spätlese trocken ♥.
The 2010 Niedermenniger Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese ♥ was delicious upon release last spring but sold out quickly. Despite no taste profile, like trocken, on the label, it had only 9.5 grams of sugar, hence legally dry with the new tolerance limit of 10 grams. The first bottling (AP Nr. 1) of 2010 Krettnacher Altenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken ♥ is briny and pure. Although lightly effervescent (spritzig) at first, it gains a savory and subtle creaminess, but doesn’t have the “blast” of 2010 Immich-Batterieberg C.A.I., for example. In general, Falkenstein’s wines are less punchy. The last and third bottling (AP Nr. 7) from another Fuder of 2010 Krettnacher Altenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken ♥ has a fresh, salty flavor with bright acidity. “It’s fresh, racy, and pure,” Erich says. It comes from an old-vine plot on the slope. These are old-style Saar wines. If you give them some time and an open mind, they might sneak up on you.