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Dr. H.Thanisch: Refining Tradition in Mosel Riesling

No wine region outside of Burgundy is more defined by their terroir than the Mosel.
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Although we Americans have difficulty pronouncing the words on German wine labels; The Mosel wine growing region is considered by many to be the defining region for Riesling. I think if you ask other winemakers, the resulting wines are the reason others in the world are inspired to produce Riesling wines. No wine region outside of Burgundy is more defined by their terroir than the Mosel.

I had a recent opportunity to taste incredibly delicious wines with Barbara Rundquist-Muller, the owner, along with her husband Erik, of Dr. H Thanisch, Erben Muller-Burggraef estate, one of the most pristine and beautiful properties of the region. Their property is located in the Middle Mosel, in the charming town of Bernkastel-Kuen. They own 13 hectares (32 acres) of prime steep Riesling sites, with the most prestigious and famous being the Doctor vineyard. They also own property in the sites of Bernkastler Graben, Bernkastler Lay, Bernkastler Badstube, Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich and Wehlener Sonnenuhr.

The Mosel's Terroir

I asked Barbara what makes the Mosel region unique?

"Viticulture in the Mosel valley is dictated by the unique countryside. The character of the growing area is formed by the special geological, topographical, and micro-climatic configuration. Over a period of 15 million years, the Mosel dug into a slate filled mountain range full of minerals that developed 400 million years ago. The slate erodes easily and its components decay and enrich the soil, which are dissolved in the ground water and absorbed by the vines.

Due to the sheltered position of the Mosel valley, it is part of the warmest climactic zones in Germany. The capability of the Mosel River and the soil to store heat and reflect sunlight, minimizes photosynthesis, making winegrowing possible in this, otherwise very cool region."

The Mosel's prime vineyards usually have blue, grey, and sometimes reddish brown devon slate.

Barbara describes her own vineyards further:

" We grow on legendary sites. Many of our vineyards have a slope gradient of more than 60%. Handwork is necessary all year around from the cultivation of the wines until the harvest. The valuable combination of steep slopes, soil characteristic, and climate presents our vines with the best possible conditions for development. The natural and necessary interplay between terroir and vines creates continuously impressive and unique taste compositions of our wines.

When my husband Erik and I took over the estate(in 1986) we made a very careful assessment of where we were, and where we wanted to be. We had received the generous gift of a fabulous traditional estate with a great reputation. We both decided, this was a superb base, but we also felt that a bit of 'fresh wind' was necessary to further improve. ....We decided to go out and look for a true 'young lion', who would accompany us and the estate in the future. We found him in the person of Maximillian Ferger, a young graduate from Geisenheim, full of passion and enthusiasm. Together with him and our long-time winemaker Edgar Schneider, we set the way for the future."

Barbara states that the winery practices sustainable viticulture, and that means the practices both in the vineyard and in the cellar stay as close to nature as possible.

Sustainable farming- Doing the Right Thing in the Vineyard

"We use careful pruning of vines to restrict yields (Average yield is less than 5000 litres per hectare). We use no artificial fertilizers. We only bring back into the vineyard what has been taken out of the vineyard. We work the cuttings from prunings, skins after pressing, etc...back into the soil. No use of herbicides. No use of pesticides. No use of insecticides. We use pheromones instead. No irrigation. Careful canopy management. We pick by hand, selectively over several weeks with each vineyard harvested 3 to 4 times, to ensure the grapes will be harvested at optimum ripeness."

Doing the Right Thing in the Cellar

"We gently press destalked whole grapes at very low pressure. There is skin contact in the juice for many hours to extract as much vineyard character as possible. No use of enzymes. We cool and extract the clean juice. We clear the must only by sedimentation. We do a slow and cold fermentation with natural yeast; either in stainless steel or in traditional wooden barrels. The choice is a winemaker decision. Natural yeast helps focus the character of the terroir of the vineyards. After fermentation many of the wines are left to settle and mature for several months in traditional old wood barrels, which gives more complexity and structure to the wines."

The Berncastler Doctor Vineyard & The Estate

The Doctor vineyard, the prize vineyard of the estate, has vines that average over 100 years. The flavors from this small parcel of land are distinctive; that amazing interplay that great Mosel has that walks a tightrope between complexities of bright fruit, minerality, and racy acidity. The other wines, also great in using their terroir to its greatest strengths, show great nuances, and are extremely well crafted as well. Everything starts with great vineyards, and Barbara is very aware of this.

"My husband and I received a great gift (the estate) and our responsibility is to maintain and improve it, so that at some time in the future, we can hand it over to the next generation."

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