- December 25, 2012
Unlocking the Kabinett (Continued)
- by Lars Carlberg
For the second part of my two-part article on Mosel Kabinett, I also interviewed a number of top producers to hear more about this misunderstood Prädikat.
Stefan Steinmetz of Günther Steinmetz likes to produce a Riesling Kabinett feinherb from parcels near the top of the famous Brauneberger Juffer. His family’s plots for this off-dry Kabinett are steep and close to the trees that shield the vineyard from the northerly winds. The soil in this upper section has lots of slate, but is more prone to drought. The Kabinett feinherb, mostly from 20-year-old vines, has finesse and a marked mineral taste. In the 2010 vintage, for example, the wine had close to 30 grams of residual sugar.
Carl von Schubert at Maximin Grünhaus explains that residual sugar levels for Riesling Kabinett have significantly jumped since the 1970s and 1980s from about 20 to 30 grams of residual sugar to 60 or more grams per liter. Of course, Carl is only referring to the fruity-sweet Kabinetts, not those labeled as halbtrocken or feinherb. In 2010, Carl decided to stop labeling a Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg and Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett trocken. Instead, he chose to follow the VDP’s lead, as many other non-members in recent years, by leaving off the Prädikats—Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese—for all the dry Rieslings. Like Steinmetz, the only exception at Grünhaus is their Kabinett feinherb, which is from Herrenberg (deeper, more red-colored soil) and sells well in Germany. Moreover, this wine is actually closer to the residual sugar level of their fruity Kabinetts of the 1970s and 1980s, even though the must weight is higher.
Up until 2004, Grünhaus also employed 10-hl pressure tanks, which gave the wines an added spritz and reductive stink.
Maximin Grünhaus started to bottle their dry-tasting Rieslings with a Prädikat in the late 1970s. Before then, certain batches of wine might have fermented dry, but were only noted by their AP number and, before 1971, by a tank or cask number. Carl says that he had to convince his father, who favored sweet wines in this period, to bottle a wine labeled Kabinett trocken in 1979. The first Kabinett halbtrocken from Herrenberg was a 1980 vintage. Even so, their fruity Kabinetts were usually just above the legally designated halbtrocken at about 20 to 25 grams of sugar per liter. Pre-1971, the chaptalized (verbesserte) wines of the 1960s had on average no more than 15 to 20 grams of sugar per liter, the Naturweine a little more. Once again, the style of wine at Grünhaus and other properties in the heyday of the late 19th century was certainly different from the 1960s and 1970s. Carl was also an early proponent of the revival of dry Rieslings on the Mosel.
Carl’s friend and colleague Ulli Stein of Weingut Stein, likes to make from his old vines in the stony blue-gray slate of St. Aldegunder Himmelreich both a Riesling Kabinett trocken and feinherb. From an east-facing site with ungrafted old vines, some up to 100 years old, the grapes fully ripen at lower must weights than modern clones do and are therefore ideal for Kabinett-designated Rieslings. He doesn’t want to make a fruity Kabinett, much less a Spätlese, but rather a true dry-tasting Mosel Kabinett, as he sees it.
Besides his excellent Himmelreich Kabinett feinherb, he also makes a Kabinett trocken. For the latter, Ulli also seeks to get it under 10 percent alcohol. In order to do this, though, he typically does two pickings and then assembles them afterward, one so that he can guarantee the low-enough must weight and the other to guarantee ripe-enough flavors. He says Kabinett should be delicate and light, like a “ballerina.” Unlike Maximin Grünhaus and others, Ulli prefers to keep—for now, at least—the term Kabinett to indicate certain light-bodied trocken and feinherb Riesling.
Between 1949 and 1971, Ulli says that his father had three quality wine categories:
- The lightly chaptalized wines, mostly herb, which translates to “bitter.” In this instance, it means dry. His father’s wines were rarely sweet, he says, and always light.
- The naturreinen Weine, or “naturally pure wines,” which corresponds to Kabinett—i.e., no chaptalization, Oechsle between 70° and 80°, mostly dry, rarely sweet.
- Spätlese, from between 85° to 90° Oechsle, often dry, one-third sweet.
With the 1971 Wine Law, the Steins began using the Prädikat Kabinett, along with the 1971 terms trocken and halbtrocken. But the style of wines stayed the same with 70 percent dry, 20 percent off-dry, and 10 percent sweet wines. Up to 75° Oechsle would be chaptalized. Above this must weight, they produced dry and off-dry Kabinetts. And at about 90° Öchlse, they made Spätlese wines. Ulli says that their Kabinetts, in general, were seldom sweet, mostly off-dry, with between 8.5 to 9.5 percent alcohol. These wines, tasted today, are still drinking well and “represent the delicate, light Mosel Rieslings.”
The family property of Peter Lauer in Ayl no longer produces a Kabinett, regardless of sweet, lightly sweet, or not sweet. According to winemaker Florian Lauer, the Riesling grapes are nowadays too ripe for this Prädikat, even in the cooler Saar region.* “In the past, Kabinetts had much lower must weights,” says Florian Lauer’s father, Peter (II). He adds that the 1987 vintage was the last year before ripeness levels began to increase.
Before 1971, Peter Lauer’s unchaptalized, low-alcohol, dry-ish Saar Rieslings had the words Original-Kellerabzug, or estate-bottled, and naturrein.
For Peter Lauer, the key word in defining Kabinett is “light.” He feels that this style of very light, dry Riesling is a wine of the past and that clients for dry Kabinetts are slowly dying out. The modern taste is for riper, dry-tasting wines.
Over a period of time, the Lauers always made dry as well as sweet Saar Rieslings. Peter Lauer says that before the advent of modern cellar techniques—in particular, sterile filtration—in the 1950s and 1960s, it was not possible to make sweet wines in the style of today. The key was to remove the yeasts from the wine via filtering. “Sulfuring wasn’t enough,” he says.
“Spätlese used to be 76° Oechsle,” Peter says. Today, the legal minimum ripeness level is 80° Oechsle, which is still quite low. Most quality producers harvest the majority of their Riesling grapes in the mid-80s to low 90s. A typical delicate “Möselchen” (“little Mosel”) chez Lauer had 9.5 to 10 percent alcohol with anywhere from 6 to 10 grams of sugar per liter. Peter points out, too, that many estates unfortunately made their sweet Prädikat Rieslings with Süssreserve, or sweet reserve, a practice frowned upon by most quality-oriented growers.
Today, the Lauers make some alcoholically light Rieslings that are labeled differently. Instead of using Kabinett trocken/feinherb, they just write, for example, “Ayler Riesling” with a specific Fass, or cask, number.
At the cult family estate of Willi Schaefer in Graach, they bottled before the 1971 Wine Law various Fuder casks of Naturweine, comparable to Kabinetts. These were most often off-dry, though some casks fermented dry, while others had a little more residual sugar. In general, Willi Schaefer says that the wines had residual sugar somewhere between 10 and 20 grams per liter. Much depended on the vintage of course. In addition, their underground cellar—like many old cellars in the Mosel region—remains cool, with some areas cooler than others, and therefore certain casks of Riesling ended up having a little more leftover sugar. These were often the most prized wines.
Willi Schafer also says that the cool cellar, the low pH values, and the high acidity, all help to make fresh, stable Mosel Rieslings. In addition, he doesn’t need a lot of sulfur to protect the wine, unlike in other regions with higher pH values and lower acidity.
In the 1970s, he says that the fruity Kabinetts had between 30 and 40 grams sugar. Nowadays, their Kabinetts from both Graacher Himmelreich and Domprobst, are about 45 grams plus. Willi Schaefer always made dry and off-dry Mosel Rieslings. He says that these are versatile and drunk often at his home. He began adding the terms trocken and halbtrocken in the mid- to late 1970s for his Prädikat wines. When we spoke, he recently drank his 1980 Auslese trocken. Nonetheless, the Schaefers specialize in making delicate, fruity and nobly sweet wines. Today, Willi Schaefer’s light, dry to off-dry Rieslings are now sold as Qualitätswein, with neither a Prädikat nor a vineyard name. Their high-end dry Riesling is labeled GG and always comes from Himmelreich.
Gernot Kollmann, winemaker at Immich-Batterieberg, avoids Prädikats except for a traditionally noble sweet Auslese. He, however, designates the “basic” C.A.I. (Carl August Immich) Riesling—depending on the vintage, dry or off-dry—as a “Kabinett” in order to justify a higher entry-level price, as well as to highlight a light, unchaptalized, and a dry or near-dry Mosel Riesling. This harkens back to the original style of Naturwein, which Kabinett replaced in 1971.
Erich Weber of Hofgut Falkenstein, a throwback producer of primarily dry-tasting Saar Rieslings, has not bottled a Kabinett trocken for a few years now, despite making various light, tangy Riesling Spätlese trocken and feinherb wines. He refuses to bottle a wine as Kabinett unless it tastes like one. Even his sweet Auslese wines taste like other growers’ Kabinetts. The residual sugar of 30 to 50 grams is quite moderate for an Auslese. By contrast, the excellent Geltz-Zilliken, for example, has bottled Kabinetts with well over 60 grams of sugar per liter.
Clemens Busch stopped labeling a “Kabinett trocken” from Pündericher Marienburg, because the site was declared an Erste Lage (now Grosse Lage) when his estate became a member of the VDP, which initially wanted to keep Kabinett only for their members’ sweet wines. As a result, Clemens chose to label his dry Kabinett as a basic Gutsriesling trocken with neither a vineyard name nor a Prädikat. The grapes come from the upper steep section of Marienburg, above Fahrlay and in the direction of the castle. It’s now labeled a Qualitätswein, which means it can be chaptalized, unlike a Prädikatswein. The VDP’s Grosses Gewächs (GG) is oddly a Qualitätswein, too. Nonetheless, it remains unclear under the proposed restrictions how a VDP member can call attention to the fact that their dry, non-GG Riesling is unchaptalized, light, and most important from a single vineyard. Not all of these dry or off-dry Rieslings are basic and from outlying or lesser vineyards.
Christoph Tyrell of the famed Karthäuserhof renamed their Karthäuserhofberger Riesling Kabinett trocken and feinherb bottlings Schieferkristall. Schiefer means slate, and Kristall is crystal. Christoph says that he wanted a wine that reflects the slate and remains light, mineral, and transparent; thus the wordplay. As the Karthäuserhofberg is a Monopollage, or monopole site, and rated Grosse Lage, he had no choice but to “declassify” his non-GG dry Ruwer Rieslings with names like Schieferkristall and “Alte Reben,” meaning “old vines.” The latter is the former Spätlese trocken. (Beginning with the 2008 vintage, Carl von Schubert followed suit and renamed the former Grünhaus “Spätlese trocken” wines Alte Reben trocken, as well.) Christoph, however, bottled a special wine in 2012 listed as Spätlese trocken. It’s called 2011 Tyrell’s Edition, as he thumbs his nose at the new VDP requirements.
Apropos VDP, Dönnhoff in the Nahe, stopped labeling their single-vineyard Kabinett trocken as Oberhäuser Leistenberg. It’s Tonschiefer Riesling trocken now. Tonschiefer refers to the weathered clayey gray slate soil of Leistenberg. The 2006 vintage was called Grey Slate Riesling trocken in some markets.
Although the Pfalz tends to produce more full-bodied wines than the Mosel, a couple of VDP members still want to keep the Kabinett designation for their dry Rieslings. For example, Anna-Barbara Acham of Acham-Magin specializes in refreshing, light Riesling Kabinett trocken from some of the best sites of Forst, Deidesheim, and Ruppertsberg in the Mittelhaardt. Because these sites are Grosse Lage, the wines should only carry the single-vineyard name for GG.
Koehler-Ruprecht is old-school and another holdover. In fact, they don’t even bottle a GG, preferring instead to continue labeling from their excellent Kallstadter Saumagen a Riesling Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese trocken. Dominik Sona, who manages the estate, says they want to keep doing this, rather than follow the new VDP classification model. Their 2010 vintage was excellent, and the Saumagen Riesling Kabinett trocken was actually higher in alcohol than the superb Spätlese trocken. Go figure.