Although I tend to be generally sceptical of winemakers’ claims to terroir (the unique soil and microclimatic factors that form the specific character of a wine) as being expedient marketing hype, some wines are so clearly the product of their environment that the term truly comes alive.
The wines of Dr Loosen, made around the town of Bernkastel in Germany’s Mosel valley are a case in point. In many respects, these wines are extreme. Planted on vertiginous slopes that pickers have to traverse carrying 50kg baskets, many of his vines are over 100 years old. The marginal topsoil lies over a rocky slate substrate, and every year the challenge is to accumulate enough heat to ripen the grapes. These vines typically have “hang-times” (the time the bunch stays on the vine before harvest) of 170 days – compared to our average of 110 days.
The Rieslings produced in these conditions are remarkable. From the non-estate “Dr L Riesling” made from grapes sourced from around the area in general to the single vineyard wines, they all share delicacy matched to complexity, and an incredible freshness that comes from what Loosen calls the “mineral-driven acidity”.
This natural acidity is a marvel. It’s lively, and while it is intense, it is never harsh. For Loosen, this natural acidity is the core of the wine, along with their low alcohols – his are all around 8 percent. While this means that there is also a moderate level of residual sugar, the wines are bright and never cloying as a result of to these appley acids.
While the Mosel climate with its gentle summer heat plays a part in achieving this acidity, the chief reason is the slate soil with its high potassium content. Put this together with centenarian vines, and you have a unique set of influences that can be described as terroir without striking a false note.
Can South Africa make Riesling like this? Simply put, no. We do not have these conditions or these vines. We do make a few adequate Rieslings, but the difference lies in that acid line and the alcohol levels. Our acidities tend to be hard and sharp, and not supple and refreshing; and our lowest alcohols sit at 11 percent, which would be super ripe for the Mosel. And we’re nowhere close on the hang-time calendar, which is where the grape develops flavour and complexity.
But, like any grape, Riesling is adaptable. Riesling is also good at retaining a sense of self, of varietal typicity, no matter where grown, so our local examples are a very welcome antidote to yet another Sauvignon Blanc.
Loosen visited as part of a series of tastings organised by Jörg Pfützner. For more information on the wines: [email protected]