This is the story of a man, a mountain, a river and a grape variety. Taken individually they may merit a passing glance but put them together and they make arguably the best wine in Germany.
The man is Egon Müller the Fourth, custodian of the most famous vineyard in Germany. (Egon Müller the Fifth is waiting in the wings but for the moment is happy working in the vineyards and looking after his bees.) The mountain is the Scharzberg, from the Latin ‘sarta’ meaning cleared woodland as the south-facing slopes were already growing grapes in Roman times; it is not very exciting to look at from the outside but dig a little deeper and beauty is to be found in the layers of ancient slate found buried there. The river is the Saar, a tributary of the mighty Mosel; it twists and turns through the steep slopes of the region, although if truth be told, it is probably better known for its coalfields and industry than for its vineyards. The grape is Riesling, often considered – certainly by me – the greatest white wine grape in the world, even though it is less well known and certainly less understood than the more famous Chardonnay grape.
Compared to the Rhine, the Rieslings of the Mosel and the Saar are light and fresh, with more austerity to them. The Saar is a much smaller area than the Mosel and the region is cooler because of the cold winds, making for “stricter” wines, with well-defined acidity. All of Egon Müller’s wines are produced using his own grapes. The family own vineyards scattered throughout the region but the two most celebrated plots are the two single vineyard sites of Scharzhofberg and Wiltinger Braune Kupp that I have just visited.
German wines are categorized by their level of sweetness, so going from dry to sweet you will find Trocken, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, with a slight oddity Eiswein (ice wine) slotted in between the two last sweet wines. At Egon Müller’s entry level, you find the Scharzhof Riesling, which is made from grapes grown in the region including the two Wiltinger sites of Braunfels and Kupp, with occasionally some Scharzhofberg grapes added as well. It balances sweetness with good minerality and a rather salty acidity for which the Saar region is known. This is a wine for immediate drinking at a democratic price. At the other end of the scale is Egon Müller’s Trockenbeerenauslese (or TBA for short), which is sold at the annual wine auction in Trier for stratospheric prices, making it one of the world’s most expensive wines.
In between these two extremes, there are wines that are harvested at the overripe stage, and the resultant wine could seem very sweet if it wasn’t for the impressive acidity that acts as a barrier to the sugar. I find these wines to be beautifully poised between sugar and minerals, or ripeness and acidity, to be more exact. Take the Spätlese, for example. The word means ‘late harvest’ and the grapes are gathered when they are very ripe, so can seem very sweet when young and can be an acquired taste. Something magical happens to these wines as they age, however, and they become drier, more mineral-soaked, complex, honeyed rather than sugary, floral rather than fruity. As Muller himself says: ‘With age you don’t categorize these wines as sweet or dry any more.’ He cites the fabulous vintages of the 1970s – 1971, 1975 and 1976 – certainly not known as great years for red wines but legendary for German Riesling and especially Scharzhofberg.
Müller expresses the difference between the noble rot affected wines (Auslese, Beerenauslese and TBA) and the naturally ripe wines (Kabinett and Spätlese) by describing the latter as ‘meditative’ wines. What I think he means is that the wine lover would notice the genius of the different soils in the drier wines, while the sweetness tends to obscure these details as it lays its mantel of luxuriant mellifluousness over the tongue.
Outside the window looms the Scharzberg hill, an undeniable part of the architecture of the estate. Certainly the 28-hectare site is imposing, seemingly standing on its own in a sea of vines, and it is a big surface area for a grand cru vineyard in Germany. The Egon Müller winery owns 8.5 hectares of the hillside and Müller remembers that when he studied wine at the oenology school in Geisenheim in the mid-1980s, he was the envy of his fellow students since theirs were mainly peasant landholdings in those days. Many of the vines date back to the beginning of the 20th century, planted with a one-metre by one-metre high density spacing, which means that all vineyard work needs to be done by hand. Only one or two per cent of these old vines have to be replanted each year. Surprisingly, it is the young vines that often need replanting because they have not settled into the soil well enough to develop a good root system and are therefore more susceptible to the extremes of climate.
Unusually for Europe, these are also ungrafted vines (planted before the phylloxera bugs ravaged the vineyards by eating the rootstocks) which is quite risky especially as phylloxera thrives in dry years. Müller admits that in the very hot 2003 vintage: ‘I thought that I would have to rip out and replant one parcel. But it is still there. We have very fertile soil with a high amount of organic matter and rainfall is well distributed throughout the year.’
As we walk through the vineyard on a late winter’s morning, I kneel down on the hard ground to inspect an old vine. They are beautiful objects, trained on a single pole just as the Romans grew them, wizened and writhing sculptures with gnarly, tactile barks that invite you to touch them to feel their hardened trunks. Müller smiles as if he knows all too well the reverence that an old vine can inspire in a wine lover. “Since our vines are on their own rootstocks rather than big American ones, our vines look rather tall and skinny,” he says. Spring arrives late here, and early in the morning, before the sun has risen above the hills, the Scharzhofberg is mottled in different shades of grey. Apart from the obvious age of the vines, it is the squeezed-up planting that seems unusual. You might think that this would encourage higher yields per hectare; on the contrary, with closer spacing, the vines have to compete with each other for nutrients and therefore produce fewer grapes. The slate soils play such a magical role: they are rich in minerals but poor in other nutrients, so the grapes ripen very slowly but develop extraordinary intensity.
Last year, the yields per hectare from this site were a paltry 19 hectolitres per hectare. It is the steepness of the slope rather than its height that is also striking. The bottom of the hill lies at 200 metres, the top at 311 metres, crowned with a dark tuft of trees like a teenager’s quiff. The only time that tractors are used in the vineyard is to winch down the ploughs among the rows. Thanks to the permeability of the slate, the vine roots can dig down deep to anchor themselves, something that I find hard to do myself as I trudge up through these vineyard rows. Between huffs and puffs, I ask Müller whether he is farming organically. He looks at me quizzically. “What do you call organic? We only use straw in the vineyards. When it decomposes it binds nitrogen into the soil and helps the soil create organic matter.” None of the marketing speaks about ‘bio’ wines for Müller; he is one of those unassuming winemakers who seems incredibly humble, as if he can hardly believe his luck in inheriting such a fabulous site.
Born in 1959, Müller grew up in the Scharzhof, went to school locally, studied oenology and joined the winery. Luckily, since his father was in good health, he could leave the vineyard to travel to Japan and Australia, to Bordeaux where he worked at Château Pichon-Lalande, and to visit importers throughout the world. He hasn’t changed much since I met him about 20 years ago, almost bald with an egg-shaped head, thick tortoiseshell glasses, a rather bulbous nose and a smile that makes his whole face crease up. There is a sphinx-like character about him: he often smiles as if amused by his own thoughts but dares not share them. Müller is one of those self-effacing people that you could probably mistake for a maths teacher. He has an air of contentment about him that is very appealing – his wife, Valeska, is a decade or so younger than him and he has two teenage children, Egon, aged 18, and Isabelle, aged 15. Even the dog is called Egon, so, as Müller tells it, “When someone shouts Egon in this house, no one reacts.”
He is planning to hand over the estate to Egon Jr as soon as possible because, in his view, “there is no doubt that he is a good farmer”. His first goal is to make sure that the estate is passed on intact and undivided to the next generation. I ask about his daughter, Isabelle, and he replies: “If you start thinking about how you treat one child over another, it can get really difficult.” His comment surprises me; I find it a bit heartless but he is not going to discuss this point further and maybe since Isabelle is only 15, there will be a role for her in the future.
It was with the 2005 vintage that Egon realised he had made it, that for the first time he was making good money from his wines. “I use small vintages to recalibrate the price of my wines. For example, in 2001, which was a great year but with tiny volumes, I increased my prices by 25 per cent. I have done this three times.” There are always groans from the older, traditional markets that remember when Scharzhofberg wines were affordable but Müller says that he is happy to have new markets that will bear the price increases.
“If you want to develop successfully, you have to do it by raising your prices,” he explains quite pragmatically, repeating a belief held by many of the wine growers profiled in this book. With more expensive wines come different clients. “I have changed my customer base twice from private customers to restaurants and now back to private customers.” Russian oligarchs and hip young Chinese entrepreneurs who are building state of the art wine cellars to house their collections especially prize his wines. “My wines are bound to be expensive; the world is getting richer and there is more cash available. People aspire to a Western lifestyle, and with the tremendous culinary creativity, there are some great unexpected food and wine matches.
“When I started working at the estate in 1985, everything was at rock bottom,” Müller remembers. “I have never regretted something I didn’t have; we have never had a flashy lifestyle. Yet I am more afraid now than I was in the beginning since our reputation is so high that we need to protect it at all costs.”
I love the resolutely old-fashioned aspect of the house at Scharzhof; its tiled kitchen, its large dark salons hung with portraits and scattered with photos, statues, mementos and curios and faded rugs, its darkened corridors with their creaky floorboards. It reminds me of many houses I know back home. There have been cursory nods to modern comfort – new furnishings, better lighting – but the smells of generations of the family, the dust that settles on the books in the library and the equestrian paintings that adorn many of the walls, the wax used to polish the oak floors, the gustative memory of shared meals, take one back through the generations. “Have you had your portrait painted yet?” I ask Müller, looking at the family pictures which hang in the different salons. “Not yet,” he replies. “But I will have to. When Egon inherits, he will need a picture of his father here.”
This is an excerpt from the chapter on the Muller family from the book 10 Great Wine Families, by Fiona Morrison MW, which goes inside 10 renowned family wineries, from Gaja to Frescobaldi, to observe their inner workings. To order the book with a £5 discount, visit academieduvinlibrary.com and quote the code CLUB21 on checkout