In the UK we are a bit careless about our German rivers. When it says, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer on the label we tend to think Mosel; or, less charitably, German complication for Mosel. But this underestimates the difference between the wide, warmer Mosel, the small stream of the Ruwer and the larger Saar tributary. What is more, the Saar runs north-south and so the vineyards tend not to sit along its banks as they would be east or west facing. It is cooler here anyway and so the style of Riesling is yet more restrained and tends to the extremes of stony, mineral complexity. It is the particular gift of the Riesling variety that it reflects its growing conditions very precisely.
In early April 2014 Janet and I visited two outstanding producers in the Saar, first Zilliken and then Peter Lauer. Zilliken or, to give it its full name, Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken, is worth a visit even if you don’t like wine. The underground cellar with its 100% humidity and rows of 1000 litre old barrels is a piece of history. It is great for corks and barrels as evaporation is almost non-existent; it’s no use at all to store labelled bottles which would get spoiled very quickly. And for the lover of cellar mould, this is as good as it gets! Here is a close up of the ceiling and of some bottles – don’t worry, it is all quite harmless!
The wines are remarkable too. The entry point, Riesling Trocken 2013 is pale and very mineral on the nose with an excellent intensity. It is from earlier harvested fruit but it still has lots of inner intensity. As the quality rises, through the Alte Reben 2011 (here 42 year old vines) to the grand cru, Rausch GG 2011 the dry wines get more intensely stony and smoky, with breadth and elegance. By contrast the sugar in the off-dry and sweet wines allows the quality of the fruit to shine through. Rausch Kabinett 2011 has 60g of residual sugar and has lovely honey and stony qualities, peach and melon fruit. The same vineyards Auslese 2012 is really brilliant: rich peach and mango fruit, honeyed already and this can only develop more, steely structure, exemplary cool Riesling expression.
A few kilometres away in the picturesque village of Ayl, Peter Lauer is a mecca for finely tuned Riesling variation in an extremely restrained style. The winery’s website perfectly sums up the philosophy: Riesling für Fortgeschrittene, Riesling for the advanced Riesling connoisseur, we might say in English. Although they have only 8.5 hectares of vines, they love small bottlings, distinguished by a cask number, Fass X. By contrast male names seem at a premium in this family: as fifth-generation Florian says, my father, grandfather and great grandfather are all Peters, two of his workers share the same name but his name is Florian. He and his wife have really broken the spell as their one-year old is called Killian!
The wines here are wonderfully extreme. I don’t have the words for the subtle changes of mineral tones that they show. We were treated to a tasting of estate wines (some bought in fruit), village level wines (including a 1989), some best parcel wines, some grand crus and some best parcels of grand crus, rounded off with a 1989 Spätlese and the extremely rare Trockenbeerenauslese 2011. This last wine will be sold exclusively by auction. There are only 90 half bottles and about a quarter of them will be consumed in the elaborate tastings that precede and accompany the auction! But the wine is extraordinary for its intense viscosity, intensity and sweetness. It takes a 130kg of individually picked botrytis-affected grapes to produce 10 litres of wine with 235º Oechsle … and it takes two and a half years for the ferment to achieve an alcohol level of 5.5%, a few bubbles rising per day. The hope is that the bottles will go for €250-€300 each – they need to in order to justify the work that went into them.
Of the recent wines, we particularly enjoyed the Unterstenbergsch Fass 12, 2012, 12% and 12g residual sugar. This is made with fruit from the foot of the famous Kupp vineyard, from 50 year old vines on fine weathered slate, facing south. Powerfully mineral but with underlying ripe fruit, great balance, and a long near-dry finish. The old wines are like chewing on slate (but in a good way!), with smoky, even liquorice accents. They don’t really develop petrol notes here. The Ayler Kupp Spätlese 1989, 9.5% alcohol and 40g residual (like a Kabinett of today) was a great blend of floral, peach, almond and nutmeg, with more than the hint of an autumnal bonfire. Remarkable.
If you love mineral Riesling, whether you have patience to cellar the wines or not, you will love the top wines of the Saar.