Erich Weber of Hofgut Falkenstein makes ultra-traditional, dry-tasting Saar Riesling. 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 wines bottled traditionally by the cask. The wines can be a little of a shock, when first tasted, even for fans of Saar Riesling. Some tasters might find the dry wines 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 attends 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 located in Tälchen (“little valley”), include Krettnacher Altenberg and Euchariusberg, Niedermenniger Herrenberg and Sonnenberg, and Falkensteiner Hofberg. Altenberg (on some 19th-century maps listed as “Crettnacherberg”) has a gray-blue slate soil, and Euchariusberg consists of more blue slate. Both are two of the few top-ranked sites in 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 a mix of slate and colored sandstone. Their well-placed, old-vine plot on the slope in Hofberg even has some flint, which gives the wine a grassy, smoky note. 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.
The average age of his vines is between 40 and 50 years old, the oldest are from 60 to 80 years old, some 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) in order 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 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 (1950s). They’re 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. 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 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 indicate this on the label for buyers. The trend nowadays, 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 simpler 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 Rieslings (casks) from the same site and with the same Prädikat. Most of these 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 doesn’t blend among casks to make one wine.
Because he neither chaptalizes nor makes a Gutsriesling, or an entry-level estate Riesling, Spätlese trocken has been the starting point at Falkenstein over the last several vintages. It’s been several years now since he made a Riesling Kabinett trocken. The last vintage was a 2008 Niedermenniger Herrenberg. Thus his longtime private clients, many well-to-do or in academia, drink Falkenstein’s dry Spätlese as their house wine. Erich personally delivers them their orders, 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.
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. The place was originally built in 1901 as a Kelterhaus, or press house, with cellar for the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium, a high 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 rather than 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. Occassionally, 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.
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 manner labels each by hand. Like his Saar wines, he’s an original.
Falkenstein makes tangy, wholesome dry-tasting Saar Rieslings. These are old-style wines for drinking. In other words, they go down well, Trinkfluss in German. His Spätlese trocken from Altenberg is usually his driest and most austere wine—for die-hard Falkenstein fans. Even his feinherb wines tend to be closer to dry than off-dry.
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 additional 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 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.
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 did’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 ♥ is more stahlig, or steely, and firm. It needs time to open up, but it’s my go-to wine from vintage to vintage.
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 mouthfeel 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.