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  • January 16, 2014
  • A Fuder of Mosel Wine

  • by Lars Carlberg

On the Mosel, before vinification in stainless steel and fiberglass became more prevalent in the 1960s, a wine merchant would taste and select his Riesling from wooden casks—usually the traditional 1,000-liter oak Fuder.*

Once the merchant selected his wine, that particular Fuder would either be transported to the merchant’s cellar for further maturation in cask or bottled at the producer. In addition, some merchants were both producers and wholesalers (Weinkellereien).

In the late 19th century, the major wine merchant towns in the Mosel Valley, besides Trier, were Dusemond (Brauneberg), Mülheim, Bernkastel, Zeltingen, Trarbach-Traben (Traben-Trarbach), Zell, Cochem, Winningen, and Koblenz.

Today, most of these small and mid-sized wine merchants have all but disappeared in the various towns and villages. (The same goes for barrel-makers. See my interview with Rudolf Biewer.) Instead, most grape growers in the Mosel region sell to the large Winzergenossenschaft, or co-op, called Moselland, or to one of the big shipper-bottlers, such as Schmitt Söhne or Peter Mertes. Others sell their grapes to colleagues, often well-known estates. In fact, many of the best producers make their basic Estate Riesling (Gutsriesling) using a percentage of purchased grapes from contract growers. On the label, this is indicated by the term “Abfüllung”—rather than “Erzeugerabfüllung.” The latter means bottled by the producer's own grapes. Since 1992, there is also the term “Gutsabfüllung” for estate-bottled wines, which has more strict requirements for the producer.

Buying grapes from other growers is a way to increase production without having to own or lease more land, as well as to keep costs down in order to meet lower price points, as labor costs are high—in particular, on the steep slate slopes. These purchased grapes, however, can be very good, especially those from quality grape growers with old vines on slate. (See also Ulli Stein's “A Call to Action.”)

There are various wine merchants in the United States who import Mosel wine. Some purchase a lot of wine, even though merchants in other countries are important as well. The Netherlands is the second largest market behind the US. In Norway, there's a strong demand for dry German Riesling. It's become one of the fastest-growing markets over the last several years.

The other day, I had an opportunity to speak with an American importer during his wine buyer’s tour. What follows is reminiscent of buying Mosel wine in the old days. I also write about Piesport and other US importers of top-quality producers in the Mosel region.

Stephen Bitterolf, who formerly worked as the wine director at Crush Wine & Spirits and who now runs his own Brooklyn-based vom Boden, an up-and-coming wine import company focused on Mosel wine, selected a Fuder of 2013 Riesling from Julian Haart, a promising young grower in Piesport.

"What should I name it?" Stephen asks me. "I'm thinking about calling it das Fuder." His decision to buy all the wine from an entire cask harkens back to a 19th-century Mosel wine merchant, who would taste from Fuder to make his selections, especially before the series of Trier auctions in March or April. On a smaller scale, this tradition continues to this day. (And I'm not talking about the September Grosser Ring auctions that focus on fruity and nobly sweet wines.)

During the Mosel’s heyday in the late 19th century, growers sold most of their production by the Fuder at the spring auctions. These wines were raised in Fuder and, more often than not, stopped fermenting on their own and thus tasted dry—or, at least, dry-ish. The exceptions were some of the best Auslese wines, which could have residual sugar, leftover from fermentation in a cold cellar. In addition, before the 1920s, there were hardly any Mosel wines designated on the label with other Prädikats, like Spätlese or Trockenbeerenauslese, much less the term “Kabinett.”

In Karl Heinrich Koch's Moselwein (Mosel Wine, von Zabern, 1897), he writes about the celebrated 1893er Piesporter wines from Kesselstatt’sche Majorates (Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt), which included a total of 38 Fuder casks at Trier’s spring wine auction in 1895. The prices ranged between 3,270 and 9,060 marks per Fuder, which was defined at 975 liters. A year later, at the 1896 spring auction in Trier, an 1893er Maximiner Grünhäuser Herrenberger sold in cask for an unprecedented price. It was actually two Fuder casks. One sold for 11,010 marks, the other for 12,750, which were the highest prices ever paid for a Mosel wine—and a Heckenwein to boot. Back then, Ruwer wines were called "wine from the hedges" and grouped under Mosel. The Saar was a subregion of the Mosel, too, but often listed on its own. (Note: Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg was sold under the name Herrenberger back then.)

Piesporter has been synonymous with Mosel wine for a long time, including in the States. Koch describes how “Piesporter” was sold by the pitcher as cheap wine in the inns and bars of northern Germany in the mid-1800s. Today, it remains a popular wine and has a large area of production, both on the grand slope of Piesport and from the plain, across the Mosel River from Old Piesport. This single vineyard is called Piesporter Treppchen, a misnomer, as there are no "little steps" in this large flat section of Treppchen, which use to only designate the terraced-slate hillside close to Wintricher Ohligsberg. "Flachland," or flatland, would be a better name, though there are some choice areas, sadly overlooked, with deep, well-drained gravel soils. (See “Digging Up the Gravel” for more on this.)

Yet much of the plonk sold as Piesporter has given the wines from this village, and, by extension, the Mosel a bad name. These are often sold under either the aforementioned Einzellage of Piesporter Treppchen or the Grosslage of Piesporter Michelsberg, which extends well beyond Piesport, in order to take advantage of the name—much like the Grosslage of Wiltinger Scharzberg, which covers nearly the entire Saar. (The original Scharzberg was integrated into Scharzhofberg.) Even before the 1971 Wine Law, there was overproduction. Collective sites, known as Sammellagen, existed as well.

“It must be admitted, however, that a great deal of Piesporter (and even a great deal of Piesporter Goldtröpfchen) is sold—far more, I suspect, than the 12,000 cases which constitute the township's average annual production,” Frank Schoonmaker wrote in his book on German wines from 1956. He pointed out that the “specific vineyard names” are important, and “to be sure that the labels carry the words Original-Abfüllung, plus a producer's name [in other words, an estate-bottled wine].” In recent years, there have been abuses reported of estate-bottled, single-vineyard wines in the Middle Mosel. I'm not going to name any names, though. Schoonmaker listed some of the following producers: Bischöfliches Konvikt (a part of the present-day Bischöfliche Weingüter Trier), Tobias, the Pfarrgut, von Kesselstatt, Dünweg (a once-famous producer and shipper), and Dr. Hain. A few of the small growers included Haart, Bomberding, Lehnert, Weller, Reuscher, and Veit. Some of these names are familiar today.

Schoonmaker, who helped convince many of the well-known Burgundy growers (Armand Rousseau, Marquis d'Angerville, Henri Gouges, and Tollot-Beaut) to domaine-bottle their wines in the 1930s, was an accomplished wine writer and importer, much like Kermit Lynch and Terry Theise today. Schoonmaker was also an expert on German wines, including Mosels. His Wines of Germany, especially the early editions published by Hastings House in the 1950s and 1960s, is one of the best books on the subject. Beginning in 1936, he imported wines under Frank Schoonmaker Selections. In vom Boden's first online journal, Stephen pays homage to Frank Schoonmaker.

Stephen selected his aforementioned Fuder of 2013 Piesporter and placed a pre-order on his recent visit to Piesport, where Julian makes his wines at his uncle’s estate, Johann Haart. Julian, like many other winemakers, has mainly stainless-steel vats but also some old wooden casks. Stephen chose (for a fraction of the 1893er prices) a Fuder of light, dry-tasting Mosel Riesling. “It's about 15 g/l residual sugar, with a little over 9 g/l acidity,” Stephen says. Pre-1971 Wine Law, this would have been called a Naturwein, or “natural wine.” The grapes are from the esteemed Piesporter Goldtröpfchen.

In this large vineyard, Julian took over most his uncle’s plots. He now has added prime parcels in Goldtröpfchen, plus his well-placed old vines in the first-rate sites of Piesporter Schubertslay, an enclave of Goldtröpfchen, and Wintricher Ohligsberg.

In most cases, Stephen, like other importers of Mosel wine, makes his selections on buying trips to the region in the winter and spring. Yet it is rare that he gets offered an entire Fuder for himself. A Fuder is about 1,300 bottles, or 108 12-bottle cases, the common unit for import. (In Germany, a case usually means only six bottles.) That’s a lot of wine to sell for a small importer. On the other hand, not many top-notch producers, except for the large estates, can afford to offer a single Fuder of wine to just one buyer. To begin with, most producers have either stainless-steel tanks or a mix of tanks and wooden casks. If a winemaker still uses Fuder, he or she often blends among different casks or tanks, depending on the wine in question. Moreover, fewer winemakers do separate cask-by-cask bottlings over several months.

Stephen buys almost all the entry-level Blauschiefer trocken from Ulli Stein in Bullay. Though Stein’s Blauschiefer trocken is usually more than just one large stainless-steel tank or wooden cask. Doug Polaner of Polaner Selections was the first to choose this dry Mosel wine, via the then-Mosel Wine Merchant, and it remains an exclusive US import for vom Boden. In Germany, Ulli Stein has Blauscheifer feinherb for his private clients.

Stein’s top single-vineyard Rieslings, which are mainly aged in old oak Fuder, are usually more than one Fuder per wine in a normal vintage. Blauschiefer means "blue slate." Selbach, Dr. Loosen, and Markus Molitor all name a basic dry Riesling from blue slate as Blauschiefer trocken.

Julian Haart—whose good friend and mentor is Klaus Peter Keller of Flörsheim-Dalsheim, in Rheinhessen—also owns, together with Andreas Adam of A.J. Adam, a parcel of old vines on a steep, terraced section of Goldtröpfchen, called “Laychen,” above the hamlet of Ferres. The two also share another parcel within today’s large Goldtröpfchen vineyard, which is more upstream towards Grafenberg. Their wines from these two Goldtröpfchen sites (now under the “Adam & Haart” label) and the A.J. Adam wines from Dhroner Hofberg are imported in the States by Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik, which is, by far, in addition to Rudi Wiest Selections, the most important US importer of German estate wines over the last 30 years.

Theise has built up a strong following over the years with his selections and annual catalogs, and, most recently, he wrote an eloquent book titled Reading between the Wines (University of California Press, 2010). Besides Dönnhoff in the Nahe region, a couple of Theise's best producers are Selbach-Oster and Willi Schaefer in the Middle Mosel. He selects his Piesporters from Reuscher-Haart. Along with his German portfolio, Theise also has Austrian and grower Champagne portfolios.

Other significant US importers of German estate wines are P.J. Valckenberg, Dee Vine Wines, and Loosen Bros. USA, the latter has added, in the Mosel region, both Fritz Haag (formerly imported by Rudi Wiest) and Maximin Grünhaus (ex-P.J. Valckenberg) to go along with Dr. Loosen. Dee Vine Wines, in San Francisco, is an importer, wholesaler, and retailer in one and has begun to specialize more in Mosel wine, though it has carried the wines of Josef Rosch and von Beulwitz for a number of years. P.J. Valckenberg is based in Worms but also has an office in Oklahoma. It sells the wines of von Kesselstatt and Schloss Saarstein, as well as Joh. Jos. Prüm, which is the rare estate to have two national US importers, the other being Rudi Wiest. Understandably, most American importers seek exclusivity, or a producer has a different importer for various regions or states, such as Ewald Moseler Selections in Portland, Oregon. (Update: a new importer is Schatzi Wines by Kevin Pike, who use to run Terry Theise Estate Selections and now has Leitz in his portfolio. He recently added Heinrich Spindler in the Pfalz and von Hövel on the Saar. Justin Christoph of Crystalline Selections has various German producers, including Lother Kettern and Staffelter Hof in the Mosel Valley.)

Schmitt Söhne USA, with its “little German” character who writes tweets with a French accent, imports Markus Molitor, as well as Bischöfliche Weingüter Trier and Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium.

Louis/Dressner Selections specializes in French and Italian growers but also started to import German wines. Their portfolio now includes Knebel, Clemens Busch, and Immich-Batterieberg on the Mosel and Koehler-Ruprecht in the Pfalz.

Speaking of young growers in Piesport, there’s Andreas Adam’s other good friend, Johannes Haart, who has taken over the reins from his father, Theo, of Reinhold Haart, which is, without question, the leading estate of the village over many years. Theo, however, is still involved and has demonstrated a skillful touch in blending wines from different tanks during his time as winemaker. In addition, the Reinhold Haart estate has a new look, which now just has the name of "Haart" on the front label.

In the 1920s, both Reinhold Haart and Johann Haart, among five other siblings, divided the holdings from the much larger Josef Haart estate. Reinhold Haart’s US importer, Rudi Wiest, prefers only to represents VDP estates, with the exception of Robert Eymael’s Mönchhof. (Eymael was once a member of this association several years ago.) Two of Wiest’s most accomplished producers are Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken and Schloss Lieser, on the Saar and Mosel, respectively.

In Piesport, one should keep an eye on Später-Veit (Bonhomie Wine Imports), Lothar Kettern (Crystalline Selections), and Kurt Hain, among others. Like Johannes Haart, Philipp Kettern of Lothar Kettern and Niklas Welter of Später-Veit are part of the new generation. Niklas works with his father, Heinz. There are also very good producers of Piesporters which are based in other places, such as Nik Weis of St. Urbans-Hof in Leiwen (HB Wine Merchants) and Stefan Steinmetz of Günther Steinmetz in Brauneberg (Grand Cru Selections). Stefan has produced Piesporters from different plots of old vines, such as the 2011 Piesporter Falkenberg "von den Terrassen" and 2012 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen.

See below for a list of Mosel producers from the leading US importers:

  • Rudi Wiest Selections: Mönchhof, Dr. F. Weins-Prüm, Joh. Jos. Prüm, Schloss Lieser, Reinhold Haart, von Hövel, Willems-Willems, and Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken.
  • Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines: Meulenhof, Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben, Alfred Merkelbach, Selbach-Oster, Kerpen, Willi Schaefer, A.J. Adam, Reuscher-Haart, Carl Loewen, von Othegraven, and VOLS.
  • Loosen Bros. USA: Dr. Loosen, Fritz Haag, and Maximin Grünhaus.
  • P.J. Valckenberg: Joh. Jos. Prüm, von Kesselstatt, and Schloss Saarstein.
  • Louis/Dressner Selections: Knebel, Clemens Busch, and Immich-Batterieberg.
  • vom Boden: Lubentiushof, Stein, Weiser-Künstler, Vollenweider, Julian Haart, Hild, Karthäuserhof, and Peter Lauer.
  • Schatzi Wines: von Hövel, Franzen, and Knebel.

Note: These importers have a number of producers in some of the other German wine regions as well. The strikethroughs are the changes since I published my article. ♦

* See "An Interview with Rudolf Biewer" for more details on Fuder.

Photograph of a Fuder in the cellar at Hofgut Falkenstein in Niedermennig.

  • Martin Kössler of K&U, arguably the top wine merchant in Germany and a very good writer, still selects a Grünhäuser by the cask. Last year, from a smaller barrel, he chose a 2012 Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Faß N°17. It’s a special edition for K&U. He says that Herrenberg seems to be K&U’s favorite. The Oechsle was about 84° and the wine tastes dryish, despite the 21.7 grams of sugar per liter. He feels that it’s a real Kabinett (only 10 percent alcohol) in the tradition of Naturwein—i.e. before the wines started to become overly sweet, especially from arresting fermentations early on. Let’s hope that more winemakers let the wines naturally ferment to what is more halbtrocken, rather than have so many Kabinetts with 40-plus grams of sugar.

    In Frank Schoonmaker’s Wines of Germany (Hastings House, 1956), he points out that the VDNV (today’s VDP) would sell their casks at auction and then bottle the wines with a branded cork for authenticity.

    Along with stainless-steel and fiberglass tanks, some estates (Maxmin Grünhaus, Carl Schmitt-Wagner) also used pressure tanks beginning in the 1960s. Grünhaus no longer uses these tanks, and Carl Loewen owns Carl Schmitt-Wagner’s holdings in Longuich.

  • I recently learned that Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt is no longer with P.J. Valckenberg, hence the strike-though in my article. Maximin Grünhaus had also been with them.

    I should note, too, that Friedrich Wilhelm Koch writes about an “Auslesefuder” of the 1904 Piesporter from Gräflich Kesselstatt’sche Majorates (Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt) that sold for an unprecedented 25,000 euros (Die Weine im Gebiete der Mosel und Saar, 1914).

  • By the way, Stephen Bitterolf ended up choosing the name “1,000L” for his vom Boden selection of Julian Haart’s Fuder that comes from a 0.5-ha parcel in Piesporter Goldtröpfchen.

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