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2004 Graacher Domprobst Riesling #10 Spätlese, Weingut Willi Schaefer
This small 4 hectare Mosel wine estate commands a well deserved reputation for producing consistently excellent, fine wines. The philosophy of Willi Schaefer and his son, Christoph, is simple – they aim to make their wines as gently as possible, treating the fruit, must and resultant wines with respect. As such, all their wines are treated in exactly the same way in the vineyard and the winery, from QbA to QmP.
In the vineyard there is a meticulous attention to detail and all practices are carried out by hand. The emphasis is placed on healthy, balanced vines producing healthy, balanced fruit. At harvest they aim to be flexible, assessing each plot individually, tasting the grapes regularly and picking them at the optimum time. They are incredibly selective, often passing through each parcel on numerous occasions during the 4-5 weeks of picking.
In the winery they work using gravity, an approach Christoph feels is important to retain the nuances of fruit and terroir character in the wines. Pressing is carried out in a pneumatic press that can be altered to take different size parcels. This allows each pressing to be gentle, slow and steady so the juice is not too phenolic or harsh. In addition, throughout the pressing they taste the must continually and stop as soon as they feel flavour or structure alter.
All the juice is settled naturally in tanks at the ambient temperature of the cellars. The clean must is then racked into large, old barrels for fermentation. During fermentation tasting, once again, plays a crucial role. They taste each barrel regularly to decide when it will be best to stop fermentation. The same applies during the élevage – if a wine needs more time to evolve it remains in barrel, but if it feels ready or it is a fruit dominated vintage, it may be racked to stainless steel tank a little earlier.
The Schaefer’s believe that fermenting in wood results in wines that are naturally more integrated in character. As such they maintain their barrels with typical care and attention. No chemicals are used during the cleaning process, just very hot water. Prior to harvest the barrels are filled with water for 2-3 days, they then taste the water and discard and barrels that have imparted any bad flavours.
The personality of the vineyards comes through the final wine with clarity and precision. In Himmelreich the fruit it to the forefront and the minerality is less overt, so the wines usually convey a sense of accessibility and immediate pleasure. That said they are no slouches when it comes to ageing capacity.
The Domprobst displays more overt slate notes, with earthy minerality dominating and a more obviously linear form that clearly needs time to show its full potential. These opposing vinous characters owe their personalities to the soils on which they are grown. The deep, grey-blue Devonian slate soil that they share embodies subtle differences at each site. In Himmelreich it is lighter in texture and structure, whereas in Domprobst there is more shale and stone.
Riesling's twin peaks are its intense perfume and its piercing crisp acidity which it manages to retain even at high ripeness levels.
In Germany, Riesling constitutes around 20% of total plantings, yet it is responsible for all its greatest wines. It is planted widely on well-drained, south-facing slate-rich slopes, with the greatest wines coming from the best slopes in the best villages. It produces delicate, racy, nervy and stylish wines that cover a wide spectrum of flavours from steely and bone dry with beautifully scented fruits of apples,apricots, and sometimes peaches, through to the exotically sweet flavours of the great sweet wines.
It is also an important variety in Alsace where it produces slightly earthier, weightier and fuller wines than in Germany. The dry Rieslings can be austere and steely with hints of honey while the Vendages Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles are some of the greatest sweet wines in the world.
It is thanks to the New World that Riesling is enjoying a marked renaissance. In Australia the grape has developed a formidable reputation, delivering lime-sherbet fireworks amid the continental climate of Clare Valley an hour's drive north of Adelaide, while Barossa's Eden Valley is cooler still, producing restrained stony lime examples from the elevated granitic landscape; Tasmania is fast becoming their third Riesling mine, combining cool temperatures with high UV levels to deliver stunning prototypes.
New Zealand shares a similar climate, with Riesling and Pinot Gris neck to neck in their bid to be the next big thing after Sauvignon Blanc; perfectly suited is the South Island's Central Otago, with its granitic soils and continental climate, and the pebbly Brightwater area near Nelson. While Australia's Rieslings tend to be full-bodied & dry, the Kiwis are more inclined to be lighter bodied, more ethereal and sometimes off-dry; Alsace plays Mosel if you like.
In a piece of rebranding, 1st August 2007 saw the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wine region officially renamed ‘Mosel’. Despite this earth-shattering change the wine region remains one of - if not the – finest terroirs for Riesling in the world. With more than 6,400 wine growers cultivating 88 million vines across 10,400 ha of vineyards, this is Germany’s third largest wine region in terms of production, but without doubt its most prestigious. Of the varieties grown here, 58% is Riesling, 18% is Müller-Thurgau, 8% the local Elbling and 7% Kerner. The rest is other German crossings.
With its steep, slate vineyards and tight hairpin bends, the Mosel River extends from the ancient Roman city of Trier to Koblenz where it joins the River Rhein. It meanders nearly 250 km to cover about half that distance as the crow flies. The river is split into three sections: the Upper, Middle and Lower Mosel. The Upper Mosel, which begins on the French and Luxembourg border, includes the River Saar and Ruwer tributaries and is centered around Trier. Here the wines are characterised by their intense fruitiness, high acidity and low alcohol content (6%-9%).
The Middle Mosel begins at the village of Zell and extends to just north of Schweich, passing the famous villages of Bernkastel and Piesport. Here more than anywhere else, the slate-based soils bestow the wines with a lovely minerality. The Middle Mosel produces the finest, most complete examples of Riesling; in some cases the wines from here can age for more than 50 years. The Lower Mosel covers the region south of Koblenz down to Alf, next to Zell.
To add to their charm, intense fruit flavours and minerality, Mosel Rieslings often have a slight hint of effervescence giving them extra vitality. Most Kabinetts are at their best when young but the late and selectively harvested styles from Spätlesen upwards definitely benefit from ageing. The Mosel is also well known for its exceptional sweet wine Eiswein with a wonderful acidity balancing the intensely concentrated sugars from the frozen grapes.
With some vines planted at an astounding 70 degree gradient, mechanical harvesting is clearly impractical here. Indeed nearly seven times more man-hours are needed in the Mosel over the course of a season than in flatter regions like the Médoc. Given such production costs, prices here remain surprisingly fair.