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  • March 19, 2014
  • 2006 Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg Superior

  • by Randall Grahm

label_superior_maximin_gruenhausEditor's note: Randall Grahm's piece, which has been updated and revised for my site, was originally commissioned in 2010 for the Hearth and Terroir wine lists in NYC, where the restaurateur and sommelier Paul Grieco invited various "Terroirists" to write about their favorite Rieslings. In addition, Randall's now 11-year-old daughter, Amélie, included her own tasting impressions of this wine from one of our favorite producers: Carl von Schubert, proprietor of Maximin Grünhaus.

I’ve been to visit Carl von Schubert, the owner of the beauteous von Schubert – Maximin Grünhaus estate just once in situ. He was rather preoccupied that particular day with various and sundry crises1 (despite the bucolic veneer, this is what the wine business is generally about), so his wife showed me around. The Ruwer tributary is not the most prepossessing place in the world, but the Grünhaus estate is absolutely magnificent, encompassing 34 contiguous hectares of grapes (that’s enormous), as well as a number of hectares of fruit trees, meadows, woods, and a grand manor house. But more to the point, the estate produces arguably the most consistently sublime Riesling year in and year out, (since the 10th century, possibly earlier.) The Abtsberg vineyard is my favorite of their holdings, the most mineral intensive, sometimes the most reticent when young, but the longest-lived. A Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg Spätlese with a fair bit of age on it (12–15 years) is my desert island wine—one that I would happily drink for decades until the rescue boat arrived (or didn’t).2

I don’t really know what the deal is with their “Superior” bottling—this is supposedly a selection of “the best of the best.” My guess is that it is likely some sort of marketing initiative to re-establish the company’s credentials as a “top dog” estate, after the somewhat unfair maligning of a few vintages of the late 1990s, early 2000s by some howling jackals of the wine press. (The estate never lost a step, at least in my book.)

Here is what is interesting: I didn’t get this first-hand from Carl, and probably it is very indiscreet and irresponsible of me to be bruiting about hearsay testimony, but hey, this is not a court of law. I have it on reasonably good authority that when he was in San Francisco not too long ago, Carl was absolutely overjoyed that he was able to finally, at long last, able to make a personnel change with the winemaker/vineyard manager, who had worked at the company for more than fifty years. Carl had inherited the property from his father (and has been in charge since 1981), but apparently owing to some seemingly passive-aggressive provision of his father’s will, Carl, despite being the owner of the property, could not make this crucial personnel adjustment, a state of affairs that caused him no end of grief. My point is this: Things are never what they appear to be on the exterior. To the casual observer, Carl von Schubert is a member of the vinous pantheon, an Olympian demi-god, the owner of what I believe to be possibly the greatest wine estate in Germany, and further, incredibly lucky to work with the noblest white grape on the planet. In my fevered imagination, I reckon him to be the Thor, Zeus, or Odin of the grape universe, but a divinity afflicted with a titanic case of, say, hemorrhoids.3 I am so happy that Carl now feels so much freer; no question that the wines will become ever more exciting in the coming years.

So, about this wine: It is, of course, utterly magnificent, a real pity to drink so young, but certainly capable of providing great vinous joy and satisfaction tonight. The “Superior” is slightly higher in alcohol than a typical fruity-style Spätlese or Auslese, as well as significantly drier; in some sense, it really is a new style for German Mosel wines—a middle ground between so-called classic “Spätlese/Auslese” and the trocken, or dry, style. What is typically most enchanting about the Grünhauser wines is their immense fruitiness, balanced by a steely acidity and mineral component. The ’06 seems to be relatively softer and more approachable in acidity, but the fruit—it is riotous. One aromatic element that is quite typical for G’haus is apricot and peach—flavors that one typically associates with botrytis. The other quality I often find is a haunting citrus note—mostly lemon (and sometimes lime); what you get in Grünhaus is not just lemon but lemon chiffon—that ethereal quality that makes you just wonder how it is that you are personally worthy enough to be consuming this juice.

I really wanted to get the description of the wine right, so last night I thought to bring in another palate to help me with some of the heavier organoleptic lifting. My daughter, Melie, who is six, has heretofore humored me in my obsession with things gustatory. I have occasionally handed her a glass of wine, asking her, “So, Melie, what do you smell?” “It smells like wine, Dad,” she usually responds, rather amused at her own wit. But last night, something very unusual happened. Instead of responding in a dismissive, off-handed manner, Melie gave me very detailed tasting notes.

“So, what do you get?”

“Smells like peach ice cream, Dad. And apricots, maybe some nectarine.”4 It’s also very lemon-limey.”

“What else?”

“Mango, definitely mango... And what’s that tree outside our yard, Dad? Kumquats. No, not kumquats… Loquats.”

Here’s where it started to get a bit freaky. “Dad, you know, to really smell it, you need to twist the glass. (She meant, “swirl.”) She started swirling the glass, very, very creditably.5 (We’ve practiced this before.) “Now, the smell is really starting to come out and change,” she said. (I swear I am not making this up.)

“What do you smell?”

“I smell honey.”

“What kind, sweetheart?”

“Lavender honey. Definitely lavender honey.” (She’s been brought up well.) “And there’s also pea-flower.6 And cantaloupe.”

“You’re scaring me, sweetheart.”

“And some herb. What do you call that herb, Dad? Lemon… Lemon … What do you call it? Lemon balm (!!!!)”

“Uh, anything else, Melie?”

“It just smells like earth, Dad.”

This last comment—and I solemnly swear that my account is 100% accurate—persuaded me that my ancestral line of DNA had absolutely, positively replicated itself successfully, that the fruit of my loins, was at least instrumentally, up to any and all gustatory challenges that would present themselves. Thank you, Carl, for your magic elixir. ♦

1. I’ve met Carl a number of other times on market visits to the US, where he has generally been a lot more relaxed.
2. I don’t know quite why we wine guys are always being asked the somewhat inane question about getting shipwrecked and what would then constitute our fantasy desert island wines.
3. I am also amazed by the fact that Carl imagines that a significant percentage of his wines (maybe more than half?) must be made in a dry or dryish style, a function of the dry wine mania that has swept through Germany in recent years. (In fairness, the quality of dry wines in the Mosel has dramatically improved in recent years.) Max Grünhäuser often seems to have perhaps a bit too much acid to work perfectly as a dry wine. But, as a Spätlese, I would reckon it to be perfect or perhaps even better than perfect.
4. We had actually made peach ice cream earlier that day, so the comparison was fresh in our minds.
5. Last year, Melie attended an unusual private school that teaches “circus arts” and has become a proficient stilt walker and unicyclist; she is still learning how to spin plates.
6. Nailing of this descriptor was particularly astute.

Image courtesy of Carl von Schubert.

Randall Grahm is the founder, winemaker, and self-styled "President-for-Life" of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, CA. While he began his career in the wine business as the so-called Rhône Ranger, he is also known in some parts as the "Rhine Ranger," possibly due to his obsessive fixation on the Riesling grape.

  • Thanks to Randall and Paul for letting me republish this wonderful piece.

    Since the 2005 vintage, von Schubert has the category Abtsberg and Herrenbeg Superior, designating from both sites the high-end near-dry wines, which are spontaneously fermented with native yeasts in traditional Fuder. The carefully selected grapes come from some of their best plots of old, low-yielding vines. The Superior bottlings tend to have a slate spiciness, creaminess, and raciness. For example, the 2012 Abtsberg Superior is my favorite Superior to date. (They didn’t produce a 2012 Herrenberg Superior.) The 2012 Abtsberg Superior has both lightness and finesse, and it outclasses most VDP Grosse Gewächse, because it is neither forced under 10 grams of residual sugar (to be legally dry, or trocken) nor is it made in an overly big style.

    Beginning in 1983, such riper dry-tasting wines would have been called Auslese trocken or halbtrocken. In order to make it easier on consumers, Auslese is now reserved for sweet wines. This is following along the lines of the somewhat controversial new VDP classification, which more or less reserves the Prädikat terms for only the fruity and nobly sweet wines. Other non-VDP members are following this approach as well.

    The designation Superior comes from the historical name of “brother or father superior,” also synonymous with the abbot of a monastery. Because Maximin Grünhaus was connected to the history of the Benedictine monastery of St. Maximin’s Abbey in Trier, it’s an appropriate designation for this top-quality wine. Another well-known estate that once belonged to St. Maximin’s Abbey is von Hövel.

    The Superior wines are deluxe and packaged in a taller (350-mm), antique-blue bottle with the original edition of their 19th-century Jugendstil label. I kind of prefer the more modest 330-mm, dark-green bottles.

    Since the 2012 vintage, all of the Grünhaus dry-tasting Ruwer Rieslings—except Herrenberg Kabinett feinherb—have this retro label. The Kabinett feinherb and the rest have the more well-known Jugendstil label with a matching neck label.

    Today, less than half of the production at Grünhaus is trocken. Carl, however, was an early backer of dry Mosels. In my opinion, his dry wines tend to be underrated in some quarters. They’re not showy wines.

    In fact, Grünhaus has made some great dry Rieslings in the past, though many drinkers much prefer the so-called classic fruity and nobly sweet style from this famous estate. The formerly designated Abtsberg/Herrenberg Kabinett trocken and Spätlese trocken wines can be a little sharp for some tasters, including many Germans. By the way, these dry wines no longer carry a Prädikat. The Spätlese trocken Rieslings from Abtsberg and Herrenberg are now called Alte Reben trocken—just like at Karthäsuerhof.

  • Uwe Kristen says:

    I wish all tasting notes of memorable wines would tell stories like this. After reading your comment, Lars, I put the 2012 Superior on my “Must Have” list. I checked: Chambers has it!

  • Daniel Darahem says:

    Don’t know what lemon chiffon is, but agree with his conclusion. Lars, a bottle of 2012 Superior bought per your recommendation is waiting to be tasted this weekend. Thanks, as always.

  • Daniel Darahem says:

    Had it last night. Wow-material. Unmistakable Grunhauser nose. Perfect balance, with an acidic bite that comes in the back to cleanse the palate and ask for the next spoon of lemon chiffon (I guess I get it now, without googling chiffon). Defines feinherb precisely — I had a US-imported bottle with that Dry-to-Sweet ruler on the back; the arrow pointed just right of trocken, lightly into medium dry territory; that stupid arrow doesn’t realize how sharp it was in this case.

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