WEINGUT CARL LOEWEN

Reflecting back on my merchant years it strikes me that you never really know why some things ignite and others don’t. Sure, the “right” reviews in the “right” places drive (“the wrong?”) attention to an estate, but when you look at the more organic elements of creating demand, I think you need a platoon of salespeople who’ve become, for whatever reason, jazzed.

When I first met Loewens they were a young couple on something of a quest to champion the excellence of several great sites upstream from the “known-great names.”  I would write that Leiwener Laurentiuslay and Thörnicher Ritsch deserved the same renown as Wehlener Sonnenuhr, and the reason they didn’t receive it was due to the lack of a “flagship” estate, a Prüm or an Egon Müller, a situation Loewens hoped to remedy.

Loewens enjoyed a certain renown among insiders, but only one of the standard guides elevated them to their true stature. Despite remarkably moderate prices, my colleagues remained “cool” to the estate, and so we schlumped along without gaining traction.

Loewen was and remains a lover of ambient-yeast fermentations – spontis in the parlance – and while I agreed with his view that “Behind an early shroud is a fragrance you cannot attain any other way,” the market has neither the luxury nor the patience to consider the fullness of time when they accept or decline a wine based on an admittedly unattractive sample.  Honestly,I wouldn’t either.

Yet the wines were beautiful and the vineyards remained undervalued.

Then two decisive things happened.

One, a legacy-estate in the village of Longuich had to sell, as  attempts to motivate the reluctant heir to take it over had failed. This estate – another one known to insiders – was Schmitt-Wagner, and the legacy was solidified by the presence of a remarkable number of very old ungrafted vines, planted between 1896 and the early 20th century. Loewen prevailed among a number of interested buyers, and the estate – and its magnificent vines – were enfolded into Weingut Carl Loewen.

It wasn’t only the ancient vines that mattered; it was also the presence of a third great site in the stable. It conferred a critical mass of Grand Cru land that was more difficult to overlook.

And then came Christopher Loewen, with all his energy and his talent and his youthful derring-do, not to mention he spoke excellent English and was easy on the eyes.  He took what to all appearances was a seamless place beside his parents in moving the winery along, and he took a perhaps more conspicuous place in our markets moving their sales along.

And now I pause, because you never actually know who or what is responsible for developments in a wine estate. Correlation doesn’t equal causality, etc., but I can confidently say that since Christopher arrived the dry wines have improved in leaps and bounds, and all the wines have obtained an expressive force that creates a WOW effect in tasters. And yet, the first innovation he spearheaded was conservative; he took a portion of the harvest from a site planted in 1896, and made a separate wine from that fruit as it would have been made in 1896.  Two things were born: A wine, and just as important, a Story.

The estate was no longer just one of my Strange Preoccupations; it was attracting buzz.

Now it is eight years later, and Loewen isn’t an insider-tip any more. The wines have to be allocated, the press are breathless….and then we come to the wines.

In general Loewen’s wines belong to the traditional, that is, sponti and Fuder (the 1,100-liter cask used along the Mosel) as opposed to cultured yeast and stainless steel. That sponti-Fuder language has several dialects. It can sometimes feel atavistic, not exactly “rustic” but certainly rural, and this is where the most stubborn young stinkers come from. I have a soft spot for this style, and the less approachable it is, the tenderer I feel. 

But many growers have learned to tame the sponti (none more virtuosically than Johannes Selbach, in my view), to encourage its more attractive features and suppress (or eliminate) its obnoxious ones. Loewen is moving into this group, though the nature of the 2020 wines encourages a fundamentally sleek sort of polish, and it’s dubious to generalize based on this highly particular vintage.

That said, you’ll see; I found these to be a heart-rending group of Rieslings. They are full of a delicate paradox, or more accurately, paradoxes; they are as clear as can be yet they’re also soft-lit; they have all the evocations of the sponti dialect at its best yet they seem like their flavors were arranged by tiny tweezers; they are para-sensual but too expressive to be mystic; they feel gentle but act forceful; they have everything we desire in Grand Cru Riesling yet they’re as lithe as gymnasts.

Maybe Christopher is moving past expressiveness for its own sake and into greater concern for how the text is read, how the score is played. Maybe! One can only surmise, and when I blurt the question to a vintner they either don’t know what I’m talking about or they give the answer they think I’m looking for. Thus if I tell you that Christopher’s impact on his family’s wines is to seek greater and greater precision and polish, the most I can say is, it could well be true….

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2020 Maximin Klosterlay (full name Detzenheimer Maximin Klosterlay Riesling)                   +

I am inferring Trocken based on the 12.5% alc, but the Loewens do something so manifestly sensible I’m amazed that other growers don’t do it: They leave “Trocken” off the label to give themselves latitude and flexibility to leave a wine as-is, if it’s perfect, and if it’s “over the line” for Trocken (according to the EU functionaries who wrote the wine legislation) as this one is, I am told. If so, it isn’t by much.

er Cru right along the Mosel, on especially blue slate, tending to give precise minerally wines, wines of explication rather than hedonism. Works for me! And this 2020 smells perfectly wonderful. It’s loaded with the sponti soulfulness, the pliant texture clanging off the slatey chew, and the finish is like some ancient smoke rising out of the vents and fissures, as if there were a fire underground. 

From the Jancis glass it’s like a different recording of the same symphony. The aromas, for all their detail and clarity, are also euphoric, the wine is entirely pixilated on the palate, and the finish is quite pointed. It will be the best glass for an older version of this wine, in the 6-8 year range. For now I’d rather suppress a little explicitness in order to get a more genial mélange. 

In essence the wine is captivating, with all that key-lime and chocolate sponti juju, and with mineral you feel like you’re seeing under a microscope. Your palate feels arthroscopic. There are notes of peppercorns you think you might be dreaming. Everything is narrated so precisely, it’s as though the wine is an audiobook of itself. It’s so sinuously delicious from my little Spiegelau, I’m looking around to make sure I’m not breaking any laws, the way I feel about this little beast.

From this wine alone I believe it is reasonable to establish that Loewen belongs to a very small society of growers who can do a precise sponti, one that isn’t a big atavistic chocolatey slobber – which by the way I like – but which sets out from a place of elegance and discretion.

Tasting for the 3rd time now, and adding the MacNeil Crisp & Fresh to the mix, the wine is ludicrously expressive. I shrink from using “gorgeous” to describe a wine so filigree, a wine with such crystalline diction, but to me those can be gorgeous qualities, flavors so chiseled and hewn.

With a fourth and final taste, the wine has – counterintuitively – grown more brash and salty. No matter, it’s still excellent.

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2020 Maximin Herrenberg GG (full name Longuich Maximin Herrenberg Riesling Trocken)         +

 

Still only 12.5% alc – god I love the Mosel.

Following a remarkable and compelling fragrance, the first impression is racy and brisk. But very slowly, with fastidious deliberateness, a large mid palate emerges.

This will be studied over the days, but at first glance it has the spearmint typical for the site, along with a measure of the deep-shade green that characterizes the (upcoming) Ritsch GG. A measure, mind you. Because this wine is also a splendid shriek of whites and grays (or to be literal, white pepper and stones), ginger and pastis and juniper, but as that mid-palate emerges it’s a very spicy apple, a hint of blown-out candle, and fragrant ferns and cress.

And for all its thickness of extract it is also, and miraculously, weightless.

I spend almost no time considering what or how many plusses I’ll assign to a wine. The wine knows before I do. But here I find I am pausing, because this is clearly a “better” wine than the foregoing, but at this moment it isn’t a better showing wine, and I won’t have means to “judge” until I’ve tasted it at least 4-5 more times over a period of days.

Days later, the wine has barely moved. From the MacNeil it’s saltier but not really any more “revealed.” There’s a quivering sort of energy, incipient power, and the precision of a champion fencer. But right now it’s in a jittering white sleep.

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2020 Ritsch GG (Full name Thörnicher Ritsch Riesling Trocken) ++

And once again we rejoice in 12.5% alc. Maximum flavor with minimum alcohol is the recipe for the highest satisfaction.

Cards on the table: Apart from my professional appraisals and apart from my agreement with the consensus of the greatest Mosel vineyards, I have two great subjective favorites. Zeltinger Schlossberg (as rendered by Johannes Selbach) is one, and Thörnicher Ritsch is the other. So if I am ga-ga with bliss, well then that’s just how it has to be.

As far as I can tell, this is the scenario by which this wine is consumed. 1) Gather a friend, or friends. 2) Open and pour the wine. 3) Start drinking the wine. 4) Babble poetically. If that fourth part stymies you (“What if I’m not poetic enough?”) here, I’ll show you how it’s done.

Banish poesie! It will come back if it’s needed, but you must never force flowery language. That’s honestly just icky. What you must do, is just to release your mind to imagine, and that begins with feeling what you feel, and then making a little story about what you feel.

For me there are two veins within which this all might flow. One begins with astonishment. How-the-fuck can such a thing even be?  (Apropos of poesie!) That vein steers you to the ethereal, which isn’t for everyone. The other vein sends you an image, and sometimes this image is a cognate to the wine. 

Here’s an example. I had an image of a Christmas tree. We have balsam firs here in New England, and if you get a fresh one you can’t believe the fragrance. But this was a rare tree, even for a balsam fir. Following my narrative vein, it was the tree you bring home at the end of a year when your biopsy came back negative, and after five years they tell you you’re cancer-free. Your oldest child is engaged. Your team won the championship. You helped a protégé land a dream job. This is a year it was good to be you, and for some reason this is the sweetest Christmas tree you ever carried through the door.

That’s how this wine is for me. You get to make up your own story.

Regardless, Ritsch is green to a point of near-absurdity. It’s as though the world were napped with emeralds. Like everything was limes. Except for the couple things that were chocolate – there’s that sponti thing again. In this wine, slate is a strong inference but nothing more. What marks this wine is its immensely consoling mid palate “sweetness,” a kind of power to heal, to reassure. Some of that comes courtesy of a helpful breath of Fuder.

Day-2 it was a stiletto riot. So green it would clear your sinuses just to look at the glass. You really can’t figure out a world that could give such a wine.

I have to tell you this. We have a crabapple tree out back, and I’d just taken a glass of this wine onto the deck to taste in the fresh air. Sitting there, I noticed an unusual shape on one of the interior branches. It couldn’t be a bird because it wasn’t moving. Birds are always moving, at least a little.

Except it was a bird. It was a dove, and it was precisely the same color as the branches, and she (I’m letting myself believe she is a “she”) spent a good five minutes, barely moving. She is perched over a squirrel’s nest I assumed was abandoned. She is fixedly immovable, except to swivel her small head every few seconds. But now her head is tucked in, the way birds do when they’re sleeping. So I have a new neighbor, a little dove taking a mid-afternoon siesta overlooking a squirrel’s nest. And while I am with her, I am tasting this eerie lichen being of a wine.

Ritsch is feline, but it’s a cat that loves you like a dog does. It is spirit-kin, by the way, to Leo Alzinger’s Steinertal Rieslings. And the wine aced the most difficult test of all – I couldn’t help myself, and swallowed it.

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2020 1896  (Full name Longuich Maximin Herrenberg Riesling)   ++

In the years since this wine was first made, it has taken its place among the Mosel icon-wines. From part of a vineyard of 6,000 vines planted in 1896, ungrafted, the wine is made as it would have been made when planted. My catalogues will explain.

The production is tiny because it is incredibly labor intensive, and it’s becoming a unicorn-wine. This is sad but necessary; Loewens can’t make more if they want to manage logistically (and financially) and so what started as a little tribute has taken on a life of its own.

If you know Schloss Gobelsburg’s Tradition wines – at least as they were until this year – you’ll suss what’s going on here. The question is, as I approach the wine breathlessly, what have we got this time? 

This wine is usually a romantic slow-dance between “sweet” inferential and allusive tertiary notes and the mints and spices of the vineyard. Those tertiaries are partly from oxidation and partly from the palpable density of old-vines, and when the dancers are in a state of sublimity there is a kind of gliding, that place in love when our separate skins dissolve.

What seems to be the case in 2020 – and I have to affirm this in the coming days – is that the vintage has subdued those “sweet” tertiary notes, at least out of the gate. What is strikingly beautiful is the extra pittance of sweetness that teleports the wine into another context entirely. What’s incipient is what I’d (fancifully) call the breath of the ancients, and even if you’re dismayed by the phrase it’s a stunning quality that can bring you to your knees. There are teasing glimpses of it here, but I am also peering for it.

Yet, to assume it isn’t there or it’s just my romantic yearning, I’d have to accept that the explicitness and precision of 2020 distorted this wine in a basic way. I’m not willing. Over a few days’ tasting I found the wine stirring drowsily, bringing forth the old-vines “sweetness” but also an innate reserve, a quiet deacon.

Meanwhile, my little dove has stirred and is starting to groom herself and preen. I looked at her as I sipped this wine. It isn’t often that a bird sits in a single place for so long. When I came back inside my laptop had put itself to sleep. I sat there outside with bird, with nest bird finds interesting, with tree that holds bird, with breeze that flutters through tree, with sweet late summer smells carried by breeze, with glass with wine and with sky and parading clouds and with a music that wasn’t there except in my mind, and the wine absorbed all of it and all of it absorbed the wine, the wine belonged to the world, as I also tried to do. This pensive and dutiful bird; she has a life! My god…a life.  All this aching divinity, and only us to name it.

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2020 Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett (full name Longuicher Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett)                 +

A steady citizen of my cellar thanks to its perfect zippy balance and its ridiculous substance. The “Herrenberg” vineyard is just upslope from the Maximiner Herrenberg, the vines are also ungrafted, and over 100 years old. And the wine is “just” a Kabinett with 9.5% alc, and priced…I think it’s fair to say…perhaps too attractively?

It’s a microburst of flavors rushing brightly through the air like streamers and sparkler-light; you imagine if you held your ear to the glass you could hear it buzz and sizzle. It’s a dead-serious Nobility-Of-Terroir tickled into a fit of giggles. It is serious, serious fun!

And even in contrast to the flight of dry wines that preceded it, the wine is not markedly sweet. (That’s old vines at work…) The candy-cane outer skin melts away immediately and reveals a salty, spicy core, something like a grappa of Riesling yet lighter than air. Take a swallow and you’d think you’d have the helium voice. The ’20 vintage exaggerates these qualities, perhaps, yet regardless of where this wine stands in one’s sober-evaluations-of quality, I can tell you this: It has more uses than all the wines that preceded it.

It should be clear by now how much I love the great dry German Rieslings, and that I acknowledge the huge strides they have taken in the last 12-15 years – and in some cases, a lot longer. They join a marvelous community of dry Rieslings; indeed they are often nobility in this kingdom. But this needs to be said, and said and said, that a wine like this one STANDS ALONE IN THE WORLD, no one else can make anything like it, and it is both galvanically beautiful and amazingly useful. Not long ago this entire genre of wine was imperiled, but recently its virtues seem to have been rediscovered by a lot of trend-setting estates. Climate warming has made it harder to produce these little snips of gossamer, but people are trying.

Now admittedly, not every Kabinett can be made from 100+ year-old vines in a Grand Cru. And yet Loewen’s choice to continue producing this wine, when a “GG” they could make from the same fruit would fetch three to four times the price, is a testament to a singular gift of Riesling, and anyone who does it should receive a shiny red wagon or a box of chocolates.

 

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2020 Ritsch Riesling Auslese (full name Thörnicher Ritsch Riesling Auslese)   ++

If you’re a Loewen follower you’ll have noticed the Laurentiuslay Spätlese is absent. They didn’t send it. Possibly it wasn’t ready, possibly I asked them to focus more on the dry wines, and the case-of-6 was full. Whatever the reason, I miss it, and I want you to know it was always an important Mosel Spätlese for me, year in and year out for at least two decades.

Superficially the aroma here is perturbed by SO2 and botrytis, but when a minute has passed we’re left with something astonishingly refined and yummy. And curiously not very sweet, despite a good amount of residual sugar – I really don’t like revealing the number because then that’s the only thing you’ll taste. Suffice to say that most modern Spätlesen from the Rhine and Nahe are sweeter than this, and when I was starting to say this was “near-perfect Auslese” I had to pause, because this, simply, is near-perfect Riesling.

I think it’s botrytis that swallows its sweetness, and only really exceptional botrytis has that capability. The result is a delicate and buoyant Auslese, a parfait of green, every green flavor spun into lace, entering your palate as though it were shot through a syringe of leaves. I mean, seriously, if someone could make a floss that tasted like this I’d floss my damn teeth twelve times a day.