Friday, October 5, 2007

Weingut Emrich Schönleber: Putting Monzingen on the Map

Weingut Emrich-Schönleber’s viticultural history is fairly recent. It’s under the aegis of the current patriarch, Werner Schönleber, who completed his viticultural studies in 1967, that the estate has slowly but surely risen over the last few decades to the top tier of Nahe wine estates. The early vinicultural history of the estate, however, goes back 250 years on Werner’s mother’s side – the Emrich side – of the family. At the time of my visit at the estate in February 2004, young Frank Schönleber, Werner’s son, was still enrolled in viticulture and oenology programs at the College of Geisenheim. “Junior” has since joined the estate’s farming and wine growing team in a full-fledged capacity, making Emrich-Schönleber a truly multi-generational, family winery.

Not familiar with the Nahe? Aside from the fame of the wines of Dönnhoff and, more recently, of Schönleber, that’s not too surprising. The Nahe is a small river relative to the majestic Rhein and lacks something in luster when compared to the storied history and famous estates of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer valleys. To oversimplify the path of the river, the Nahe flows “between” the Mosel and the Rhein. It finds its source in the highlands not far to the west-southwest of Monzingen and then follows a serpentine path eastward, turning to the north-northeast near Bad Kreuznach before eventually finding its confluence with the Rhein near the town of Bingen. This puts Monzingen, the home of the Emrich-Schönleber estate, squarely in the upper, outer reaches of the Nahe.

It was the first journey to the Nahe for all of the members of our trip so it was with a mild sense of adventure that we left our morning appointment with Weingut Keller in the Rheinhessen, found Monzingen on the map and pointed our trio of cars in the right direction. An hour or so later, we found ourselves circling the quiet, fairly modern, somewhat suburban looking village of Monzingen, conducting a ritual which would be repeated many times over the course of our trek: looking for the little brown sign which would point us down the correct street to the winery. Finally making our way into the winery’s courtyard, we were greeted by Werner, a tall, athletic and reserved yet friendly man, his silver wave of hair the only clue to his years. After introductions and basic amenities, he led us back to our cars and out to the family’s vineyards.

Vines in Frühlingsplätzchen

The Schönleber property comprises roughly 14 hectares (around 33 acres) of vines, all within the village boundaries of Monzingen. More than ten of those hectares – roughly 75% of the overall property – are planted on the steep slopes of the hillsides overlooking the Nahe. That 75% figure is mirrored by the ratio to which the fields are planted to Riesling. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and tiny amounts of Scheurebe and other vines are planted as well, primarily on the flatter ground or in the richer soil bases, as they are considered to give less clear expressions of terroir than Riesling and are therefore deemed less worthy of the best sites. The slopes of the Monzingen hillsides range from 20% to 60% grades. While not as foreboding at first glance as the precipice-like pitches we’d seen at Weingut Ratzenberger the prior day, we were clearly in an arena where only the hard farming, strong and committed wine grower would choose to stake a claim. In fact, my overall impression upon entering the vineyards was that they seemed an amalgam, in the best sense, between the stark, stony slopes of the Mittelrhein and the gentler, sunnier, more fertile hillocks we’d seen that morning in the Rheinhessen.

Prime plots of the Frühlingsplätzchen and Halenberg vineyards, both Großes Gewächs (grand cru) sites, comprise the heart of the Schönleber’s property. Given the quality and clarity we already knew Schönleber’s wines to possess, we were stunned to find fields lying fallow all around their own well maintained parcels. Werner explained that many people, having come into their property through inheritance, have a sentimental attachment to the land which holds them back from selling. Yet they are not willing to undertake the work necessary to form them, to farm them, into the quality vineyards they could be. Understandable I suppose, but a crying shame. To the good though, it has given Werner and his family the slow but sure opportunity to add to their property over the years as some of those sentimental hold-outs have chosen to capitalize on their deeds. Werner speaks of Riesling with deep respect. He calls it a “hunger artist.” And at each step, the estate has focused its growth toward the best overall capacity for expression of that artistry by focusing their growth only on the choicest sites and steepest slopes.

A slice of Frühlingsplätzchen

The westernmost of the two great Monzingen vineyards is Frühlingsplätzchen, which means “a nice little place in Spring,” thus coined by the Romans who first planted vines there when they found the snow to disappear from its spot on the hill earlier than in the surrounding area. The earth here is decidedly red, a hue emanating both from a streak of red slate and from a substantial quantity of red loam overlying an otherwise rocky, quartzite soil base. It produces wines of fairly full, rounded body, marked by intense citrus fruit hints and a suggestion of mineral spiciness.

To the east of town, the smaller Halenberg rests on steep, rounded hills of very gravelly, sandy soil with a prominent vein of blue Devonian slate and very low loam content. The earth drains quickly here and the sun shines brightly, especially on the upper slopes, resulting in dry growing conditions that produce small berried clusters of Riesling. The wines tend to be more intensely aromatic and steely than those from Frühlingsplätzchen, at once more delicate yet also more brooding.

As we walked through the vineyards with Werner that afternoon, we’d intermittently seen a young woman out for a walk with her Rottweiler. I couldn’t imagine many prettier, more pacific spots to take the pup out for some exercise. Much to everyone’s chagrin, as we headed back to the cars for our return to the winery I somehow managed to find a way to take a little of that dog back with me. It took a hose in the courtyard garden to get the last of the fuchsia colored Rottweiler poop off my shoe. What the heck do they feed dogs in the Nahe?

Halenberg and the Dog

Back at the winery, clean-up duties completed, Werner led us to his cellars for the start of what would be one of the most intense tasting sessions of the trip. Luckily, Riesling results in palate fatigue much less quickly than most other wines.

Situated underground, Schönleber’s winemaking caves are modern, clean, simple and totally no-nonsense. Just a couple of naturally cold, humid, stone-cut rooms with tanks and casks of varying sizes, in-floor drainage to allow for regular cleanings, some simple fining and filtration equipment and the basic paraphernalia required for the job; nothing more.

Tasting from vat and cask in the cellar:
  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling
    Produced from fruit grown on the lower slopes of the Halenberg vineyard, picked at Spätlese ripeness but will be finished and marketed as a Kabinett. Delicate palate, with steely minerality and tingly grapefruit accents. Acidity was about 1g lower than usual, a side effect of the warm year, but still seemed sufficient to give balance and typicity.

  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken
    Pulled from oak cask. Finished two days prior to our visit. This showed ripe fruit, very deep mineral tones and a creamy texture.

  • 2003 Monzinger Riesling QbA halbtrocken
    Grassy on the nose, fuller bodied than in more typical years, slightly tart acidity. Fermentation and aging in steel only. Werner felt that the grassy character was unique to this single cask, most likely a characteristic given by the native yeasts specific to this tank. About 60-70% of his fermentations are run with native yeasts only.

  • 2003 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken
    Vibrant and lively fruit on the palate, with good body, even a bit of muscle, accompanied by greater elegance than present in the QbA halbtrocken.

  • 2003 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Kabinett
    Already very integrated; due for bottling in March. At 11.5 – 12%, it is quite high in alcohol for a Kabinett yet the purity of its fruit, along with lower than typical but still sufficient acidity, kept it balanced.

  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Spätlese
    Werner combined separate samples from two vats, destined to be blended before finishing. In Werner’s own words, one was “too sweet,” the other half-dry. Peaches and cream from beginning to end, with a correspondingly creamy texture.

  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Auslese
    Atypically, this vat came from a parcel harvested on November 13 on the lower slopes of Halenberg; the estate’s Auslesen usually come from the mid and upper slopes. Most likely to be combined with a vat of greater richness from the upper slopes. Tasted of celery, sweet green grapes and grapefruit pith.

  • 2003 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Beerenauslese
    Eventually to be bottled as Auslese Goldkapsel. Ultra-ripe, no botrytis. Very elegant and creamy with pure, intensely concentrated fruit.

  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Beerenauslese
    Pulled from vat, still on the yeast. More muscular than the Frühlingsplätzchen BA. Raisin, honey and super ripe grapefruit tones, accompanied by a delicate trace of botrytis. Brooding. Very closed.

Back upstairs, we settled in for another tasting session in the winery’s visitor room and learned just a bit more about the current practices at the property. For those that still insist most German wine is sweet, think again. 50-55% of the estate’s production is of trocken wine; 15-20% halbtrocken; with only 25-35% in any given year being finished in “fruity” or nobly sweet styles spanning the entire range from Kabinett through TBA and Eiswein.

Tasting from bottle:
  • 2002 Monzinger Riesling QbA halbtrocken
    Showing drier than when last tasted, with well integrated fruit and forward minerality. A trace of spritziness shows on the palate. Werner explained that this sometimes occurs naturally as a product of a very slow, cool fermentation, particularly given that he used only one pumping to remove the wine from its natural yeasts. Some carbon dioxide remains in the wine, whereas it would all have dissipated as gas in a warmer cellar.

  • 2002 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken
    Fermentation and aging in old wooden casks, the notes of which show only in the wine’s youth. Broadly textured and intensely persistent. Werner recommends holding for 3-5 years and then drinking over the course of the next two to three decades.

  • 2002 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Spätlese
    Vibrant acidity, lively, pure yellow grapefruit scents. Excellent food wine.

  • 2002 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Spätlese
    From a plot of light, slatey soil. Very high-toned aromatics. Raisined fruit and a very clean hint of botrytis. Some of the fruit was harvested at Auslese ripeness levels.

  • 2002 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Spätlese “Rutsch”
    Rutsch is a family name for the steepest parcel of the Frühlingsplätzchen vineyard; the slope’s motto is, “Three steps up, two steps back.” Very high acidity, wonderful structure. The finish lingered for minutes.

    After pouring the above three Auslesen, Werner informed us that they’d been opened the previous Saturday, six days prior to our tasting. They were still singing, showing no signs of oxidation or open bottle fatigue.

  • 2002 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Auslese
    Late harvest qualities showing through with a little hint of botrytis. Mango, exotic fruit and loads of peach and very ripe grapefruit. Decadent.

  • 1992 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Auslese
    Deep golden yet simultaneously bright in the glass. Petrol character emerging on the nose. Produced from what, at the time, were only four year old vines, bringing a lightness of body to the wine. At 11% alcohol, this was produced in a style that Werner called “classic,” a style which he preferred at the time though he’s since moved to a 9-10% range for most of the estate’s Auslesen. The truly “new style,” he stated, is for wines at an even lower 7-8% range.

  • 2000 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel
    Menthol, lavender, quince and wildflowers on the nose. Evidence of good but, in Werner’s words, “not perfectly fine” botrytis. At once rich, delicate and finessed. Proof of great work in the vineyards and the cellar in a rainy, difficult vintage. Only 300 liters produced. From my own notes, “Awesome,” not a word I use with any frequency. One of the most memorable wines of the entire trip.

  • 1998 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Eiswein
    Harvested from the lower slopes of Halenberg, the coldest spot of the slope due to diminished sun exposure. Intensely confectionery, rich fruit, confit, preserves. No botrytis. Grapey and cleansing acidity (15g). Like liquid candy. Decadent.

  • 2002 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Eiswein
    50% raisined fruit, pegged at BA ripeness levels one day before harvest, followed by a frost which concentrated both the acidity and richness of the wine. Much more unctuous in texture than the ’98, with a musky, floral nose and scintillating acidity.

It was only as we moved through his wines in the tasting room that I sensed that Werner fully began to relax and let down his guard as he saw our expressions unfold after each subsequent pour. Seemingly at peace with the accolades he has received – Gault Millau called his 2004 wines the collection of the year and awarded Werner their Vintner of the Year award in 2006 – Werner is also clearly resolved not to rest on his laurels. He considers wine growing to be an ongoing education and is clearly happy to now have Frank joining him in the work to come. I look very much forward to their continuing success.

Werner and Frank Schönleber

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