The Lockdown Wine Project, Part I
Klein, aber Fein
There is a phrase in German: Klein, aber Fein. Translation is always challenging – especially when something rhymes – and this phrase offers more trouble than it’s worth, to be honest. “Small, but fine” is literal – but, in German, “fine” usually means something of very high quality or elegance. It used to do in English as well. There is nothing of the current, somewhat underwhelming nature of the word in English present in the German expression.
The German phrase is particularly apt in the case of Weinhaus Mößner (if the German spelling is throwing you off, the Anglicized word would be “Moessner”). Germany’s southwestern corner – Baden – is known for having many cooperatives, but there are also many fine, independent wine producers here – and Weinhaus Mößner is certainly one of the smallest ones, with just 2.5 hectares under vine. But they are doing big things with their small estate on the southern tip of that legendary extinct volcano known as the Kaiserstuhl.
I first met Stefanie and Manuel Mößner at a little local wine festival hosted in the yard of a winemaker in Ihringen, Germany. It was a cozy affair celebrating just the wines from the immediate area – the kind of thing that takes place in little wine towns all over Germany in spring and summer. It was my first time at this festival and, since this was Ihringen, I was optimistic about what I would find.
Ihringen, if you do not know, is one of Baden’s – and Germany’s – important winemaking communities. It is found on the southernmost tip of the Kaiserstuhl, which is an extinct volcano found just a few kilometres from the border with Alsace. Soils can be clay and they can be volcanic, but mostly they are loess, blown onto the slopes by the prevailing winds and capable of reaching depths of up to twenty meters on the eastern side. Several of Baden’s best names are found in Ihringen, and the small town, itself, has a history going back to the Celts. This part of Germany is the warmest, and the highest annual temperatures in Germany are found in Ihringen’s famed Winklerberg vineyard, which gets up to 40° Celsius most years. There are many important names from this part of Germany: Heger, Keller, Stigler and more.
Baden is full of wine festivals large and small. There are over a hundred of them annually, and they can be great places to make a discovery or two – especially as new, young winemakers seem to be emerging more and more in the state. This one was a typically cozy affair, with about 14 little tables from local winemakers set up. Small, sure, yet the big names were there rubbing elbows with the young “unknowns”. Unpretentious, convivial, fun, and relaxed. It’s the way these things usually are; there is a strong sense of camaraderie and community in the wine world, and Baden is no exception.
I strolled from table to table, glass in hand. There were plenty of wines to choose from, and many producers I was trying for the first time. Most were friendly and outgoing, young and eager, offering good wines with good fruit. But one young man’s wines really caught my attention because they were so clear on the palate, with such beautiful fruit and lovely freshness, even the Grauburgunder which, in Baden, can tend to be a bit heavy. Delightful and captivating, I wanted to know more about his wines.
Two weeks later, I was walking with Manuel through his vines.
A Walk in the Vines with Manuel
When visiting a wine producer, a tour of the cellar is nearly inevitable. A walk in the vines, however, is not – at least, not unless the vines are very close by the cellar and the weather is cooperative. Even more interestingly, producers often seem to think that visitors won’t be interested in the vines; that they would prefer to see the barrels and steel tanks.
Not me. And, honestly, not any other wine writer I can think of. We love seeing the vines, we want to hear about the land and get a feel for the vineyard – aspect, slope, planting, soil, climate, variety. That’s where the wine is really made, after all. Barrels are lovely, but once you’ve seen a few hundred of them…. well, you get the idea. And you only need to see a couple of steel tanks or bottling lines before that becomes passé as well.
Manuel intuited this without me having to say a word or feign interest. I parked the car, rang his bell and we went out immediately to some of his vines. I didn’t even cross his doorstep until after we had spent some time walking the volcanic slopes of the Kaiserstuhl. We talked about wine, vines, grapes, and life.
Manuel doesn’t only make wine for himself and his small family; he is also the cellarmaster at a large, important estate in the region. It is more than a suspicion of mine that he earns his living somewhere else; how much better, then, to hear what he really thinks about wines and vines in the midst of his own vines, where he could speak freely about what he really loves and what his opinions were? It was a fascinating few hours that morning.
One of the great things about talking with Manuel is how he exudes pragmaticism. Don’t get me wrong, he can and did philosophise about wine and wines, but there is a realistic approach that shines through all the hypotheticals that is immediately likeable to my Canadian heart.
Since moving to Germany, I’ve been struck by a characteristic that I’ve come to think of as quintessentially German: the Fach – which is like a pigeonhole. Whatever it is that you have studied, that’s what you are going to do. Whatever you are, you are for life. Germans are so wrapped up in the idea of people following a certain path that has been chosen by them or for them at a very, VERY early age, that they even have a word for people that start a new path partway through life: Quereinsteiger. Literally: a lateral entrant; someone who comes in in the middle from somewhere else, like a car coming onto the road from the middle of that wheat field you happen to be driving past. It’s clumsy in English because it is also something we don’t normally need a word for.
Manuel is no Quereinsteiger, but he embodies a trait that I have come to associate with North America rather than Europe: he knows what he is good at right now, and he is limited only by his imagination. He told me that he feels he can make great wines in the lower and middle price segments, but that he has immense respect for the “great” producers particularly around the Kaiserstuhl, and for the “great” wines they make, such as Grosses Gewächs (which are like a German Grand Cru),and how they are made. Why? Because he doesn’t understand them all, he says. My correction: he doesn’t understand them all yet. Given the opportunity and the right grapes…well, we’ll see.
What can Manuel Do?
Manuel knows good fruit, and he knows how to treat it well. In fact, he even makes a strawberry wine that is beautifully light, sweet without being sweet, and of the most delicate colour. Strawberry wine requires immense quantities of great fruit, and keeping strawberries from getting bruised (which affects both the taste and the colour of the wine) requires an extremely fine touch. Manuel honed his craft while working in Switzerland, and it has paid off.
Manuel understands great value, and he puts it in the bottle. He doesn’t want to say that he is good at “great” wines (my words, not his). But he does say that he makes wines that are great for their price – and his wines, by the way, are solidly in the low to mid-price segment, starting at about €7.00. In my opinion, it is only a matter of time and opportunity before we will see what he can do with great vines. Give him a few more years, and we will certainly see what can be coaxed out of his vineyards. Does he have great vines and a great terroir? Time will tell.
Manuel makes wines for enjoyment. He makes dry wines with clear fruit. Not overripe, not jammy. Wines with enough freshness to keep them from getting heavy. Wines that can be drunk over the course of a meal until you go to bed. Until recently, he had a single line of wines that were all around the same price, with, essentially, one bottling per grape variety planted. Now, there are a couple of wines that are in a new line with a black label: the Selection series. At about €15.00, these wines cost a fair bit more than his standard bottlings. And they are the first foray into a higher price segment – though they are still inexpensive, compared to more well-known producers filling similar quality. Chief among them, in my opinion? The sparkling wine, or Sekt, made from 100% Pinot Meunier.
Stefanie and Manuel Mößner both come from grape-growing families, and some of their vines are, in fact, from family holdings going back a long way, with the rest of the vineyards either leased or bought. It’s a slow process that requires a great deal of patience.
Manuel is the winemaker and, quite literally, the brawn of the operation – with his broad shoulders and powerful frame, roaming the vineyards and slinging barrels in the cellar. Stefanie is, to follow the analogy and in keeping with the stereotype, responsible for the finer nuances of the estate, including the business side. Together, they have developed a direction for the estate, and a house style for their wines that offers exactly what I want: elegance and fruit, with clarity, cleanness and tremendous value for money.
Despite the long grape-related histories of their families, however, their winemaking project is relatively new. Weinhaus Mößner only started filling their own wines in May of 2016 with the 2015 vintage. If you need reminding, 2015 was one of the biggest and best-quality vintages in Germany – and nearly all of Europe – to have happened in many a long year. Now they have added some Chardonnay and some other varieties, but they started with what they had in their vineyards: The Holy Trinity of the Kaiserstuhl: Spätburgunder, Weissburgunder, and that Baden stalwart, Grauburgunder.
But also Scheurebe.
Scheurebe, or Sämling 88, is one of the few “new” crosses that I can really appreciate. It was developed in Germany in 1916, which, if you have forgotten your history, just happens to have been in the middle of the First World War. Georg Scheu was crossing Riesling with a variety called Bukettraube, itself a crossing, and managed to come up with this delightful grape on his 88th try.
Scheurebe is an aromatic grape that is often compared to Sauvignon Blanc. Indeed, it has quite a bit of the racy acidity and aromatic character of Sauvignon Blanc, but I find that it has a depth of fruit that is even better. It is no wonder that this grape is so successful as a sweet or sweetish wine.
Success as a sweet wine, however, may also be part of its downfall. Hectares of Scheurebe are declining in favour of other varieties – more famous varieties, Sauvignon Blanc included. And I find that an immense pity, since Scheurebe has so much to offer, and is successful on different, somewhat heavier soils than would be suitable for Sauvignon Blanc.
Fortunately, a new generation of winemakers are, increasingly, taking up the banner of this neglected variety and making fantastic dry wines with it, as well as ones with some residual sugar. Manuel is a strong proponent of it, and has even convinced his employer to make it – and it is now one of their best sellers.
The grape has plenty of acidity, with aromas of cassis, peach, citrus and some green herbs. And it can age phenomenally well. High time for a revival!
I’ve tasted the wines from Weinhaus Mößner a few times, now, but let’s focus on the wines that I picked up a few weeks ago:
Pinot Meunier Brut Nature – 12.5% abv
How often to do you see a sparkling wine made from 100% Pinot Meunier (now referred to solely as “Meunier” in Champagne, as it has little to do with the Pinot family) anywhere in the world? The question is rhetorical; you almost never see one.
In Germany, this grape variety is known as Schwarzriesling. But the grape has even less to do with Riesling than it does with Pinots. Manuel and Stefanie decided to use the French name for the grape because it carries a bit more weight and fame than it does in Germany, where the wines are often very simple. I really can’t blame them for their decision.
This Sekt is a Brut Nature, so there was no dosage. The residual sugar is around 2.3 g/L. And it has a delightful, creamy mousse and a fantastic autolytic character. Ripe melon and candied lemon peel, dripping with brioche and toast and with a salty, dried flower finish. Delightful balance, full of pleasure and a bit soft – which is to say, not overly acidic. Personally, I would love just a touch more acidity for a wine of this caliber, but it drinks so easily on its own – gulpable, even – and is easy to appreciate. Everything is in balance, and the wine is, in fact, a vintage wine from 2014 – a dire vintage all over Europe. I love it when good wines are made in bad vintages, and this is an excellent wine.
Scheurebe Tradition Trocken 2019 – 13% abv
I don’t have to say anything else about the grape variety here. This wine has a hint of residual sugar but remains solidly dry. For aromatic grapes, making a dry wine that still carries the fruit character is no easy task – but you would never know it, after having tasted this wine.
Some grass and elderberry (hello Sauvignon Blanc), but also star fruit and peach, with a lemon background. The wine is youthful, balanced and delicious, with a bit of salt in the finish to give it just a bit more lift. There is a lovely texture that comes, partly, from the three days of skin contact, and the wine has plenty of acidity, though it is a bit softer than Scheurebe can be. I could drink this every day.
Spätburgunder Rosé Tradition Trocken 2019 – 12% abv
The world loves rosé and Germany is responding with style and panache.
So much is going right with this wine I hardly know where to begin. The wine is fun, fruity and fresh, without being sweet, alcoholic or boring. No pressed must was used and there was 48 hours of skin contact. 100% Spätburgunder, and 25% of it was fermented – spontaneously – in (very) used barriques.
Raspberry and strawberry, of course, but also a hint of Provençal chamomile. Salinity, cranberry, and rhubarb finish things off. What a pleasure to drink on a summer’s day! Or, as in my case, on a very warm day in early spring. And the colour is exactly where it should be for most rosé drinkers.
Let’s Not Forget
Spätburgunder Tradition Trocken 2017 – 13.5% abv
Spätburgunder is often a tough sell for me, especially from Baden. But if more people were making it like Manuel, my life would be simpler. He doesn’t allow the fruit to overripen in the search for depth and power, and he doesn’t use too much wood, allowing the fruit to shine through. Well done.
Raspberry and cherry with some mint, a hint of savoury and clove. Soft, fine tannins and just a touch of smokiness going out the back. Still very youthful and full of energy.
Weissburgunder Tradition Trocken 2019 – 13.5% abv
Only Germanic regions (including Alsace and Northeastern Italy, but also Switzerland and Austria) really understand how great Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) can be. In the Kaiserstuhl, nearly everybody has it alongside their Grauburgunder and Spätburgunder, three of the most important varieties in Baden.
Manuel gives his 48 hours of skin contact before allowing half of it to ferment in very used barriques, while the other half is in steel. This wine has plenty of density and ripe pear and peach fruit, with some beeswax. Firm and fleshy, it still has good freshness and is a great companion at table.
The Last Word
Isn’t it wonderful when great people make great wine? Weinhaus Mößner is a young producer making delightful wines that offer excellent value, and from grapes that are traditional to the region. Seek them out!
You can contact the estate directly by visiting their website here.
The Lockdown Wine Project
Like many industries, the wine industry going through a crisis due to SARS-CoV-2. Since most of us are in varying degrees of a lockdown, I’m finally writing up some of the great, small wine producers that are near to where I live in Freiburg, Germany. Stay tuned for the next producers!