Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Great Rieslings in the Rüwer

July 2005

A vast, dome-shaped vineyard looms like a small mountain over the 13th-century buildings of Weingut Karthäuserhof, one of the leading estates in Germany’s Rüwer wine region. The vines – mostly Riesling – cover 19 hectares, all in one block. All face southeast or due south. The warm exposure, in combination with the steepness of the slopes, gives the plants the crucial extra solar energy they need to obtain optimal ripeness.

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The estate is run by Christoph Tyrell, who was recently named Winemaker of the Year by the French Gault-Millau wine guide. Over the years I have seen him at countless tastings but have never had the chance to talk to him at any length. When in the Rüwer recently, therefore, I made a special detour to see him on home ground. As it turned out, there was little time for talk anyway, as serious tasting occupies the mind to the exclusion of all else; and there were so many wines to taste that we ran out of time before we could exchange views in any detail.

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Christoph Tyrell is a quiet, solidly-built man with a small spade-shaped beard and steady, reflective eyes. He radiates quiet integrity (he could easily be a humane professor); his rare smile is more warming than many a man’s outright laugh.

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Rüwer, together with the neighbouring Mosel and Saar regions, is Germany’s most northerly wine territory and most of the best wines are light in alcohol and sweet to a greater or lesser degree. But Christoph prefers dry wines and does his level best to bring off the finest possible examples in this mode. The dry and off-dry wines from Weingut Karthäuserhof have few if any rivals hereabouts. Nonetheless, the estate’s sweet wines are splendid too.

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The year 2003 was oven-hot here, as in the rest of Europe, giving grapes so rich in sugar (and potential alcohol) that producers could make solid, dry wines relatively easily. That a 2003 Karhäuserhof Spätlese Trocken (dry) was round and well-balanced was therefore no surprise. Clean-cut and very pure, it could easily replace a Pouilly-Fuissé, say, or a Sancerre, with fish.

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But the superb quality of the Auslese Trocken from the more classic (less Saharan) 2002 vintage was more convincing proof of this northerly estate’s capacity to make genuinely well-balanced dry white in a cool environment :

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2002 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF AUSLESE TROCKEN **(*)

Dosing 12° alcohol, this has a slightly richer colour than the ‘03 Spätlese (it looks just like a dry Alsace Riesling) and the nose, too, is more emphatic, with grapefruit, fig, and lychee to the fore. Rich and tangy on the palate, with a faint sweetness (dry here is not as dry as farther south), and ample honeyed Riesling fruit. There’s a touch of magnesium and bay leaf on the weighty, spicy aftertaste. At best around 2008-13.

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2003 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF AUSLESE TROCKEN ***

This has a greener, more intense colour, while the full and grapy aroma delivers a mingling of orange blossom, grapefruit peel, and honey. The rich and expansive flavour is partly botrytized, with apricot, barley-sugar, and melon notes. The long aftertaste has great Riesling rigour and precision, and there’s a sudden gush of melon and marron-glacé on the finish. Friable stone can also be noted. A fugitive – and telltale – suggestion of pineapple confirms the presence of noble rot. This will be a joy to drink around 2010-16.

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2003 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF FEINHERBST ** (made from Auslese-class grapes)

The colour is a subtle, nuanced green-gold and the rich, honeyed aroma suggests blackcurrant leaf, orange, and pineapple. White peach soon emerges, too, on the round and blossomy nose. White peach (with its stone) is also present on the palate, with a slight, agreeable, touch of grapefruit. The viscous aftertaste has a characteristic stoniness. A long and vibrant wine, to drink around 2009-16.

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2003 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF KABINETT FEINHERBST

Pale but glittery, this has vital, incisive nose of grapefruit, white peach, and fruit blossom. There’s a touch of parsnip too. The clean-cut, honeyed flavour is lushly fruity, with a sudden swell of succulent pineapple fruit. Marron glacé shows too. Fine, crisp, acidity gives rigour to the long, nuanced aftertaste. This elegant wine should show best around 2008-16.

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2004 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF KABINETT ***

This white-gold wine has a vital, classic Riesling nose of apple, wild flowers, pollen, and magnesium. Lots of fine minerality. The excellent flavour – a distillation of grapefruit and apple – has great precision, with crisp acidity giving lots of zing. The aftertaste is protracted, with hints of friable rock. A vital wine to relish around 2010-17.

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2003 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF KABINETT **

Equally pale but richer and fuller, this has a noble, grapy scent of grapefruit, dried orange peel, and magnesium. The rich, semi-sweet flavour – apricot and barley-sugar – finishes on a note of magnesium. Though low in acidity, it has quite a long finish and should show especially well around 2010-18.

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2002 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF SPÄTLESE **(*)

Gently spicy, this has a fine composite scent of tangerine, asparagus, honey, and grapefruit and a rich, luscious flavour of great intensity. Delicious orangey acidity etches fascinating sub-flavours into the long, viscous aftertaste. (This wine is so succulent it makes me think of a Bernkastel from the Middle Mosel). Best around 2009-18.

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2003 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF SPÄTLESE ***

Hot years give fat wines and this very green wine has a white rim – a bulge of viscosity. The full, grapy scent suggests white peach in syrup, apricot, parsnip, and honey. The succulent flavour coats the palate with white peach and pineapple fruit and the aftertaste is very pure and strikingly long. This will be wonderful to drink around 2010-20.

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2004 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF AUSLESE ***(*) (7.75° alc.)

Pale but luminous, this smells enticingly of grapefruit, lime peel, artichoke heart, and honey. The crisp acidity gives a crackling vitality to the delectable flavour of grapefruit and pear. The fatness on the palate gives a fine mouth-feel – but only because of the wine’s exceptional freshness (clearly a key trait of ’04 wines). Very long, this superb wine should be locked away for 4 years then indulged in over the dozen or so that follow.

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1999 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF AUSLESE SPECIAL NO. 22 ****

A gleaming white gold, this has a rich intense, scent of apple blossom, pear, elderflower, and acacia honey – an arresting smell of great complexity. This is a big Auslese. The regal flavour of candied grapefruit and russet apple, lush and honeyed, is given freshness and precision by explosive Riesling acidity. A great Auslese, exceptionally long, still an infant at nearly 6 years. It needs holding back until around 2010 and should then drink beautifully for another 15 or so more.

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2003 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF AUSLESE NO. 18 **(*)

The opulent, rich dynamic aroma of greengage, lime, dried apricot, and parsnip is blossomy and shows signs of noble rot. Magnesium too (Christoph Tyrell confirms that his soil contains this element). The flavour is thrustful and intense, conjuring up orange, dried apricot, and barley-sugar. The aftertaste shows some persistence if not maximum length. The wine is undeniably low in acidity, especially for a classic Riesling, but its sheer weight and concentration ought to guarantee at least a dozen years’ improvement.

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(In spite of everything, white wines can live long even when short of acidity – white Hermitage shows that – provided that they have plenty of concentration and all other elements are in harmony; as Herr Tyrell says: “1959 was low in acidity, too, but the wines have aged beautifully”).

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Producer and taster stand together in Karthäuserhof’s Delft-tiled tasting room. A glass charged with an ’04 Auslese is raised in salute to producer, vineyard, and wine. (Photo : Mike Mansell).

This great wine has a lustrous white gold colour, with a green tinge, and an intensely mineral scent of greengage, gooseberry, and honey. It leaps out of the glass. On the palate it expands to include apple and pineapple (the latter indicating some noble rot). The flavour is beautifully balanced, with copybook Riesling character, and extremely long. You’ll need to be patient as well as wise to give this the 8 years it needs to reach maturity. It should then evolve smoothly for another 15 or more.

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2004 EITELSBACHER KARTHÄUSERHOF AUSLESE NO. 52 GOLDKAPSUL ****

This has the greenest, most lustrous colour of all – almost the appearance of a Beerenauslese. The nose, too, has an extra dimension of richness and complexity. Full and blossomy, very expressive, it fills the nostrils with the mingled scents of apple, honey, rhubarb, lime juice, and magnesium.

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The flavour is all of a piece, luscious, and very focused (you sense that a questing, perfectionist mind has been at work). Greengage, kiwi fruit, and lime vie for dominance but are effortlessly fused together by the sheer harmony and force of the wine’s structure. The aftertaste is long and complex and – as with all great Rieslings – seems to be the only appropriate thing for the mouth to contain at this moment! A very mineral wine whose development will be fascinating to follow in the decades to come.

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At the end of the tasting I was very vocal in my appreciation of the whole range, but with a special word for the remarkable 2004s. Christoph Rydell nodded with emphasis. “Yes, indeed. Please tell your readers how great they are.”

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I do so now without any hesitation. Those produced at this estate are truly splendid: intensely coloured, with that special chlorophyll-green tinge that often heralds greatness, they have great vitality, a spring-water freshness, complexity on nose and palate, and phenomenal length. They will burn with a hard, gem-like flame for decades to come.

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© Frank Ward 2005

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