From a phoenix vineyard flows a drop to Loosen your tongue
THE Dr Loosen wine estate in the heart of the Mosel, Germany, has been in family ownership for 200 years, not especially long by German standards but there has never been a more charismatic leader than Ernst Loosen, who took the helm in 1986.
He has rewritten the book in countless ways. First and foremost, he has a great sense of humour. His father (a lawyer) commanded him to study at Geisenheim, Germany’s leading wine faculty; the young Loosen spent four happy years between 1977 and 1981 with a group of friends who never rose before midday and spent the afternoon planning their evening’s entertainment.
He then studied archeology at Mainz University from 1981 to 1986 before the sudden illness of his father forced a choice between selling the estate or abandoning his degree.
He chose the estate, which had 12ha of vineyards spread across towns on the Mosel River. They had an average age of 60 years, with some up to 120 years old, due to the benign neglect of what had previously been a sideline for the Loosen family.
Loosen immediately showed the drive that would steer the wines on to the world stage. With cellar manager Bernhard Schug, he made sweeping changes in vineyard and winery, causing the employees to walk out in protest. The pair kept their nerve, rehabilitating the vineyards and winery practices with a new team, and haven’t looked back since.
The vineyards are situated on a U-bend of the Mosel River: Bernkasteler Lay in the south, then Graacher Himmelreich, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Urziger Wurzgarten, Erdener Pralat and Erdener Treppchen. The slopes are dauntingly steep, each vine on a single stake, all the work done by hand, one vine, one step after another.
Twenty years on, every conceivable honour has been bestowed on Loosen (known as Ernie in the 43 countries to which he exports his wines). Magazines from the US ( WineSpectator , Wine&Spirit , Wine Enthusiast ) to Britain ( Decanter ) and Europe ( Gault Millau ) have variously awarded him winemaker of the year, best white winemaker and best German winemaker, among other tributes.
The highest accolade Loosen, 51, was awarded was the 2005 Decanter man of the year, the first German to receive the award, which since its inception in 1994 has recognised the greatest figures in wine. (Max Schubert and Len Evans the two Australian recipients.) The tributes rolled in and the entire German riesling market was energised.
The Dr Loosen label stands alongside the other greatest names of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region: JJ Prum, Egon Muller, Richter, Fritz Haag, Kesselstatt and Maximin Grunhauser.
All the Loosen wines share a magical synthesis of delicacy and intensity, of sweetness and acidity, of mouth-watering freshness. The wines range from kabinett (off-dry) through spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese and eiswein, becoming increasingly sweet and luscious, though the alcohol remains constant at about 7.5 per cent. But the price increases exponentially, from $28-$33 (kabinett) to $500 for a 375ml bottle (trockenbeerenauslese).
There is another set of variables, here moulded by the terroir. Bernkasteler shares the slate of the other vineyards but is heavier and deeper (with some conventional soil) and the slope is less precipitous. The wine is richly textured and more assertive in the mouth.
Wehlener Sonnenuhr (the sundial) is precipitously steep, with pure blue slate and no soil whatsoever. It produces wines of extreme delicacy and finesse and has always been my favourite. Urziger Wurzgarten has blazing red slate in a natural amphitheatre created by the bend in the Mosel River and produces wines with a heady cocktail of exotic spices and tropical nuances.
Erdener Treppchen’s vineyards are so steep, century’s-old stone steps were built to allow vineyard workers access to the vines. The iron-infused, red slate soil gives wines with great precision that are Ernst Loosen’s favourite, always repaying bottle maturation.
Erdener Pralat is such a warm site that it only produces wines of auslese or above richness, which are the most scarce in the Loosen portfolio. There are compelling examples of the impact of terroir in Burgundy, but none more so than these glorious sites along the Mosel River.