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  • April 28, 2019
  • Half the Truth, Three Sides to It

  • by Håvard Flatland

Markus Molitor has within a relatively short time become a big player in the Mosel Valley. From modest beginnings in 1984, when he took over 3 hectares from his father, Markus is now producing wines from a whopping 102 hectares of vineyard that stretch from Serrig in the Saar to Traben-Trarbach in the Middle Mosel. During a visit to the Mosel in 2004, I noticed already back then his sweet Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese wines were fetching high prices in the different wine shops. His wines are well represented in Norway, and his more reasonably priced wines have vast distribution throughout the country.

The vineyard holdings of Molitor have become so large that he doesn’t necessarily need VDP membership to attract attention. Besides, there are aspects with the VDP’s rules regarding dry wines from Grosse Lagen (grand crus) that don’t mesh with Molitor’s philosophy. He likes to produce more than one expression of dry Riesling from his many top sites. In a site designated as VDP.GROSSE LAGE, the vineyard name is only allowed for a single dry GG wine and sweet Prädikat wines. In some vineyards, Molitor has large holdings and parcels with vines of different age. He then makes several different wines from these vineyards, whether dry (trocken), off-dry (feinherb), or the so-called classic residually sweet Prädikat wines. At Molitor, these bottles are given either white, green, or gold capsules, respectively.

Which brings me to one of the things I was curious about: Why bother to make four different dry wines from the same vineyard? How substantial can the deviation be? How do the small variances in must weight (measured in Oechsle) and intensity in the grapes play out in the wines? When I say dry wines, I’m referring specifically to the wines Molitor bottles with white caps. These don’t have the word “trocken” on the label, but the Norwegian label has the word “tørr,” which translates to dry in English or trocken in German. Most of his white-cap wines are slightly above the 9-grams-per-liter limit for residual sugar in trocken wines. So, I summoned three guys to get more than one viewpoint on the wines I would like to test. One is the leader of the local wine retail shop. One is a trained sommelier. And one is an engineer with a big heart for Riesling. The wines were served blind to my co-tasters. They were told the wines were dry Riesling. To make things more interesting for me as well, I got my wife to pour the wines into three decanters marked with the numbers 1, 2, and 3, so the wines would be “half blind” for me. I had made a form where I wanted each of the participants to score the wines from 1 to 10 for various characteristics, including lightness, balance, concentration, joy of drinking, length, and overall quality. The idea was to see if there were any deviations in the wines.

I purchased three wines with a white cap from Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, one of Molitor’s core vineyards. In this top site, he farms 7 out of the total 21 hectares. Several parcels are very old, with some vines approaching 120 years old. These are on original rootstock as well. The meager slate soil is not the preferred home for phylloxera. Moving upstream, Zeltinger Sonnenuhr begins at the southern end of Zeltingen and ends at the border with Wehlener Sonnenuhr. The vines are planted just above the road by the river and go almost all the way to the forest on top of the ridge. Most of the area is steep, especially the middle and upper parts. In some places the vines are planted on terraces. The soil is mostly blue Devonian slate. In 2016, Molitor made four wines with white caps from this site. We were going to taste the Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese**. The Auslese*** was not available at the time of purchase, so not included here. Molitor likes to harvest late, but the Oechsle is not very high for these three wines. The alcohol is listed at 10.5%, 11.0%, and 11.5%, respectively. The stars * to *** on the Auslese wines indicates increasing concentration. They are featured on the wines with all three colors on the caps. Molitor ferments his wines spontaneously with an upbringing in large neutral oak casks. These are casks have a capacity from 1,000 to 3,000 liters. (The traditional Fuder is 1,000 liters.)

It was no problem to identify which wines were Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese**. My fellow tasters, to whom the wines were fully blind, were pretty sure it was Mosel. One mentioned the name Molitor as well. The wines showed clearly increasing weight. On the nose, the wines also had an increasing sense of sweetness.

The wines:

Markus Molitor Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett White Cap Fuder 6 2016
Nose: Light, flowery, and with some sweet fruit. Aromas of Granny Smith and crisp red apples. Palate: Very fresh and light, almost a bit green. Long and concentrated, but a bit closed. Nice taste of pink Chinese apples. More open on the next day. 10.5% alc. 8.1 g/l acidity, 13.2 g/l residual sugar.

Markus Molitor Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese White Cap 2016
Nose: Nice crisp scents of lemon, white peach, and local red apples from Sogn. Palate: A nice fresh and dry wine with slate, apples, grapefruit, and flowers. Concentrated yet light. A bit tight. A few years cellaring should do. 11% alc. 6.4 g/l acidity, 12.7 g/l residual sugar.

Markus Molitor Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese** White Cap 2016
Nose: Sweet sensations speak of mature fruit. Peach, flowers, and slate. Palate: A concentrated wine with nice balance. Dry, but with a hint of sweetness, verging on feinherb. Tastes of ripe apples and with a slight bitter note of grapefruit in the finish. 11.5% alc. 5.9 g/l acidity, 13.9 g/l residual sugar.

It is difficult to ignore that these wines have received high scores from more than one reviewer. Maybe that is why I am a bit disappointed. Both my fellow tasters and I scored all three wines high on balance. In hindsight, I think the wines were a bit austere, lacking in charm. Perhaps the wines need more time? Maybe the vintage 2016, with less weight and lower sugar compared to 2015, would have produced more charm in a wine fermented to fit the green cap/feinherb category in Molitor’s range? Molitor has bottled many different wines from Zeltinger Sonnenuhr in 2016, but only one wearing the green cap. I assume there is a greater market for dry wines than the less-known feinherb. Maybe Molitor feels the dry wines gives a more detailed expression of the terroir. Molitor has bottled an Auslese*** in green cap in 2016. I would have liked to have green-cap wines in the lower Prädikats as well. I think the feinherb wines have an appeal in their youth. And I think they will age at least as good as the dry versions. Before tasting the wines, I thought I might enjoy the lighter Kabinett, but in comparison with the two bigger brothers, it falls behind. The Auslese** is an impressive wine, but not showing all the goods yet. I liked the Spätlese and think it showed best at this time. One of the tasters was not happy with it, saying he found a green, slightly herbaceous note. All the wines have an integrated acidity. I think that is partly because the wines are raised in either Fuder or larger-sized casks. What is truly interesting when having these three wines side by side is the diverse expression. After all, it is the same vineyard, same producer, same vintage and probably the same vineyard workers who have tended the vines during the year. ♦

Håvard Flatland is working as a pastry chef at a local bakery in Førde, Norway, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He has worked as a sommelier and is now a freelance wine writer.

  • Mark Ellenbogen says:

    Thanks for the interesting notes. Although it is a site with great terroir I’ve never found that Molitor makes the best expression of it. One question: when you say “original European rootstock,” I assume you mean *no* rootstock; in other words vines planted on their own roots.

    • Thanks for your comment and correction. Who do you feel makes the best expression of Zeltinger Sonnenuhr? Selbach-Oster?

      Håvard translated his article into English, and I edited it. He wrote, “on original roots.” I changed this to “original European rootstock.” I’ll correct my mistake.

      • Mark Ellenbogen says:

        Thanks, Lars. I’ve had some truly great ones from Selbach-Oster over the years, but I can’t really say who captures its essence as I have not tasted all the producers who make wine from it. So perhaps my use of “best” was not the best choice of words. Perhaps you or some local folk could shed more light on this?

        • You’re welcome, Mark. Markus Molitor probably thinks that he makes the best wines from Zeltinger Sonnenuhr. The style of his wines is different from Selbach-Oster. They are considered far and away the top two producers of this vineyard. I’ve tasted a few other producers’ wines from Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, but not enough to say who makes the best expression from this site.

        • The other producers of Zeltinger Sonnenuhr that come to mind are M. Schömann, Gessinger, Heinrichshof, and J.J. Prüm.

  • Håvard Flatland says:

    I think Molitor does a great job at displaying many shades of Zeltinger Sonnenuhr. The Kabinett with gold capsule, apparently only available in Norway, has been a favorite among the more reasonable priced wines, in several vintages. But my favorite so far, is the Selbach-Oster Spätlese Feinherb Ur-alte reben 2015, with an incredible depth. Worth a try.

  • Gilberto Colangelo says:

    Thank you for the article Håvard! Interesting that you mention the Selbach-Oster Spätlese Feinherb ur-alte Reben 2015. A glass of which was put in my hand to try at Weinhaus Porn as I was glancing through the many wonderful bottles on display. They gave me a few other wines to try but that one impressed me deeply with its subtle sweetness and very powerful minerality. The play between sweet and salty made the wine stand out among others and still sticks in my memory. I left the shop with a few bottles of that, and I bought it again in 2016 without trying. It’s been my only encounter with that vineyard so far.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks for your insights Håvard!

    Deviation “from the VDP’s rules regarding dry wines from Grosse Lagen” barely begins to describe the massive discrepancy that exists between “System Molitor” and “System VDP.” Molitor utilizes Prädikat designations for virtually all wines regardless their degree of dryness, an approach that was standard among German Riesling growers through the 1980s but nowadays is less-and-less practiced even outside the VDP.* An arguably more profound Molitor deviation from VDP practice is stylistic. Many Molitor “white label” bottlings are legally halbtrocken rather than trocken (neither of those two terms is utilized: If you have to ask, then you are too fixated on numbers!) and his entire “green label” range represents wines that are either legally halbtrocken or feature levels of residual sugar barely in excess of halbtrocken norms. As such, a large part of the Molitor repertoire – and in fact, volume-wise, the majority – is being played on those middle octaves of the keyboard (roughly 10-25 grams residual sugar) that at VDP-Mosel addresses are accessed by at most several wines, and nowadays usually by one or none!

    To address in a general way the questions: “Why bother to make four different dry wines from the same vineyard? How substantial can the deviation be?” Second question first. Deviations can be substantial even in instances where we are not talking about that remarkable chameleon Riesling. Differences in terroir – i.e. soil- and microclimatic-borne – can arguable vary over quite short distances. And while “the same vineyard” is ambiguous, assuming one means “the same Einzellage,” Einzellagen can be notoriously huge and heterogeneous. Vine genetic and vine age can also make for significant differences. Naturally the course of fermentation – especially if spontaneous – and time of bottling can also account from some highly-perceptible differences. And sometimes a grower will encounter a striking difference from one lot to another without being able to assign responsibility to any particular factor. Then of course there is Riesling’s amenability to rendering complete, complex wine over a wide range of must weight and finished residual sugar and the answer to the first question – even though nowadays Molitor is among the few growers who has to answer (for) it! – is fundamentally rooted in that malleability of Riesling. And while outright botrytis is (at least allegedly) foreign to any Molitor Rieslings “below” the level of gold capsule “three-star” Auslese and is usually only present beginning with Beerenauslese, the condition of berry skin from one parcel to another can still be influenced in aroma and flavor by microbiological factors. And naturally, one can make very different wines by harvesting selectively under different aspects, though as just adumbrated, at Molitor, it’s generally only in the upper echelons of concentration and sweetness where you will encounter that factor; whereas most Molitor wines represent the full taking of what was deemed worthy from a given parcel, perhaps less a “pre-harvest” pass that ended up in a generic blend.

    Among the wines you tasted, it’s worth noting that “Fuder #6” – among Molitor’s very few wines to have such a nickname – always issues from the same parcel of centenarian ungrafted vines near Zeltingen’s sundial, vines with a proclivity to hang long without accruing significant must weight, hence designated “Kabinett.” The vintage 2016 white capsule Spätlese comes from close to the original core Zeltinger Schlossberg, the sector on which Molitor’s holdings as a whole are focused. It also owes its significant differences from Fuder #6 to having undergone malo-lactic transformation, which applies as well to the especially rich and in my experience headily floral “two-star” white capsule Auslese. That wine routinely carries the A.P. #43 and in my experience tends to typify the mystery of Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, frequently featuring strong floral, mineral and animal elements, often, by turns, musky, mossy, even downright funky.

    Regarding green capsule Molitor wines, there is indeed less demand, and from Zeltinger Sonnenuhr there is typically a single bottling, a “three-star” Auslese A.P. #59, extremely rich, often sensational, albeit at times – at least, in its youth – just plain over-the-top.

    Incidentally, if you follow the Prüm Zeltinger Sonnenuhr bottlings (long from the Sonnenuhr and Rotlay sectors; nowadays only from the former) and those from Selbach-Oster – most of whose best holdings are in the Rotlay, the portion of Zeltinger Sonnenuhr that abuts Wehlen – I think you will note family resemblances with Molitor despite striking stylistic differences. And Selbach often bottles nearly as wide a range of different Zeltinger Sonnenuhr as does Molitor. In particular, I tend to find pronounced, often musky floral notes; rich nuttiness; and sweet-saline scallop-like animal-mineral interface that render them quite distinctive from wines from the same teams grown in Wehlener Sonnenuhr or (today’s) Zeltinger Schlossberg. Apple and vanilla cream aspects tend in my experience to be equally shared between Wehlener and Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Rieslings.

    *Among the sixty-some Greater Mosel growers whom I am apt to visit annually, only five others follow this practice, namely Karlsmühle, Martin Müllen, Max Ferd. Richter, Später-Veit and Hofgut Falkenstein, The Webers employ Prädikat designations over their entire range; the four other estates each with several routine exceptions. Helmut Plunien comes close with his VOLS wines, provided one factors-in Prädikat being set in very small print on the labels of certain wines, and then not treated as part of how Plunien identifies those in consumer or trade communications.

    • Håvard Flatland says:

      Thanks for the thorough reply! My question; why bother to make four different dry wines from the same vineyard, was partly meant rhetorically. I wasn´t expecting someone to pick it apart. But now that we have got the ball running, I can add some things that I might should have included in the article in the first place. Apart from asking a question that can cause some interest and maybe divide the crowd, it also contains an admiration and amazement regarding the diversity of wine that possibly can be derived from fermented grape juice coming from a small piece of land. It is also a wish to Molitor to rather explore the green cap/feinherb kind of wines more.

      Your insights to the different parcels within Zeltinger Sonnenuhr and the information regarding malolactic transformation, also brings more pieces to the unendlich puzzle of why wines taste as they do.

      I am aware of the fact that a lot of Einzellagen are an amalgamation of old times smaller vineyard units, but I have not been able to find detailed information or maps where the “old” borders within Zeltinger Sonnenuhr is drawn.

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