WEINGUT EUGEN MÜLLER
My gang and I would arrive at the winery, typically in early March, and the baby-wines would be lined up, and we’d taste as thoughtfully as circumstances allowed. Infant wines, another appointment afterwards – we did our best. Stephan Müller would often say that his wines needed at least a year to reveal themselves, and I tried taking that into account, but could I really make a decision based on how I thought (or hoped) a wine would taste in the future?
If I put myself in Stephan’s shoes I’d have been somewhat distressed, that my importer had to decide what to offer based on what was most flattering (or simply accessible) in a fleeting moment. I’d sometimes acknowledge as much to him, apologetically, and he was merciful.
Just before writing these words I tasted his Jesuitengarten Trocken five times, from three different glasses, inside and outside, at cellar temp and a few degrees warmer, and this on top of having done the same thing yesterday. By the time I write my final “notes” I’ll have tasted every wine 12-15 times. Obviously no importer can do this, and few writers have the wherewithal, but at risk of boring my patient readers with every wine’s “story” I’m grabbing the chance to do it right, finally.
Can I get tangled in all the little variations among how a wine “shows?” I can, or could, but I know when it’s starting to happen and then I look for (and find) the through-line that every wine contains. Most of all I am grateful to be able to encounter wine this way, and to tell you about it.
You could be thinking “Yes that’s all well and good but most of the time I open a bottle and drink it. I am, after all, hoping to relax…” and yes, you’re right. That’s also how I drink wine. My delineating the virtues of the multi-day study is less a service to you and more a service to the wine, because here I am in black and white with my notes, and I know how easy it is to be misled by a first impression. I want to be sure I am attentive and fair.
(2018) Spätburgunder Trocken, Alte Reben
The vintage is in parentheses because it only appears on the back label.
The wine hails from the Forster Musenhang (which is a Riesling “GG” for some estates), fermented in small lots after a 20day cold-soak, and aged on the fine lees in used barriques. The aromas are spicy and woodier than the vinification would indicate, and the palate is sweet and rugged. It’s actually more appealing than the fragrances led me to believe.
In fact I’m having an entirely bifurcated response to this wine. On one hand, it’s one of those wines with a Statement to make. It has affect, as sometimes happens when a 97% white-wine estate sets about making a “serious” red. Such wines can’t help being assertive, and so they seem uncomfortable in their own skins. We have some of that here, flavors feel forced (no pun intended) in a way that usually puts me off.
The problem is, I really like the wine.
Sure, one piece is overstated in a somewhat ungainly way, but there’s all that sweet fruit! Behind it is a little char and a little green-olive twang, yet the part that’s agreeable is really agreeable. And it’s a credible effort from someone who isn’t a red-wine specialist. If I were asked, I’d counsel to “trust the fruit and ease up on the wood,” but I’d happily drink the wine. Indeed I like the wine more than I like myselffor liking it.
Tasting it a second time two days later an interesting thing happens. You’d expect the fruit to fade and the oak to lunge to the center, but actually the opposite transpires. There’s a big whomp of earthy peppery fruit and the oak is crouching in the corner like a scolded dog. This is on the palate, mind you; the fragrance is rather unchanged.
2020 Riesling Forst Trocken glug-glug-glug
Shows the earthy side of Pfalz aromatics. There were two bottlings; this earlier one was (as usual) the pre-selection from the Grand Crus, and it’s delightfully mouthfilling and balanced. It knows the task and performs it generously and open-heartedly. It also improves over the days, and the glass I drank last night, from a bottle opened six days earlier, was the best showing.
It’s the most successful “basic” dry Riesling I’ve had in the last two weeks. In effect it encapsulates the virtues of this producer; it is hearty, giving, welcoming and kind and yet it shows polish, and yet its polish isn’t such as to draw us away from the simple joy of glugging it down.
Bready, crusts, spices, and a satisfying “chew” round out the picture. I hope Stephan Müller is proud of this wine – he should be.
2020 Jesuitengarten Riesling Trocken
Back label indicates “Jesuitengarten / Forst”
While this is certainly an elite “GG,” Müller’s holding is too small to permit the production of multiple wines from it, and so we have a “modest” sort of kid-brother “GG” with 12.5% alc. And a rampantly alluring fragrance.
Quite spritzy for a Müller wine, it begins with the enveloping suavity of the Cru and quickly reverts to something sharply spicy. There’s also a phenolic element with which to contend. Actually, I wish there was somewhat more to this wine, something more culminated. Stephan often told me his Crus needed to get into their second year before really displaying themselves, and I’m willing to believe this wine’s behaving true to type.
But what’s the true herald, the lovely aroma, or the abrupt clipping of fruit into an austere finish? Let’s see if any clues appear in the next few days.
Day-2, not surprisingly, was better. This is often the case here, and is (yet) another argument against scores purporting to be precise. It’s fine to render judgments based on first impressions – if you come clean that’s what you did – but it’s appallingto assign absolute values based upon a superficial reading of a wine.
Today the narrative arc (if you will) of the wine is unchanged; an enticing aroma, and elegant first act before an abrupt shift in tone for a final act that felt, yesterday, like a slamming door, and today is more an assertion of solidity. You could say the structure is in two misaligned pieces, but today there’s evidence they will join soon. And the entire picture is kindlier. In effect it’s typical Jesuitengarten, from a vintage with a few sharp teeth.
2020 Ungeheuer Riesling Trocken +
Back label indicates “Ungeheuer / Forst”
Again, though we have a “GG” site here, this is a screw-capped wine of just 12% alc.
(Readers unfamiliar with my catalogues may wonder how on earth that site-name is pronounced. It’s easy: Oonga! Hoyer! Be the envy of your friends while watching them mangle “Echezeaux.”)
It’s large as GGs go, with some variability as to soils (as we’re about to see), but in general this is a kind of ur-Pfalz in aroma, at least here in the Vosne-Romanée of the region. Though this is lighter than the Jesuitengarten it is substantially more satisfying, as the ample fruit carries all the way through and provides a platform for all the Cru mojo to express itself.
It’s essentially a savor, it reminds me of Meunier in its breadiness, it tastes of mycelium and leaf-dust and caramel; it is almost always oblique to typical “white-wine” flavors – yet what could it be if not Riesling? Here we have the shimmer of the ’20 vintage along with the typical cordyceps sweetness along with an atypical wash of minerality, and while it firms up on the finish it does so delightfully, getting all salty and crunchy with all that sweet savoriness chiming away.
This masterly wine also proves a point we tend to ignore. All the Cru flavors are here, in a highly elegant and expressive framing that offers everything but power. I get that the GG buyer spends a bunch of money and wants high-chi and “important” flavors in return. But it is faithless to the basic idea of terroir to insist it must only express one single way. Where might delicacy fit into this rigid schemata?
Meanwhile, we benefit! Because this is to all intents and purposes an affordable entrée into the exaltation of the Crus, in the most drinkable conceivable way. Which leads us to….
2020 Pechstein Riesling Trocken
Back-label, again, shows “Pechstein / Forst.”
Another little guy with 12% alc. One time in Switzerland I found a bottle of 2008 Clos de Béze on a wine list at a price I could afford, and ordered it. The wine was completely beautiful because of the light vintage, which allowed the innate fruit to be seen without needing to crouch behind a structure of “intensity.”
This, though, is a very different animal from the Ungeheuer. Pechstein usually is, but the differences are starkly exaggerated in the ’20 vintage, and this Pechstein is quite the enactment of its essential stoniness. Look, I revere this vineyard, and had high hopes for this wine – but it needs more schmaltz.
It’s true to type, the aromas are pure Pechstein basalt and crags and mints but with barely a hint of the flowers that complete the dialogue, or the sweetness that would have harmonized the entire picture. Still, so-called “rockheads” will be indecently happy with this in their glass. In any case, something needs to emerge to bring this wine to flourish – so let’s see what the next days may offer.
Day-2 is very curious indeed. As far as I know, a wine cannot attain glycerol after it is made. An open bottle can certainly shed some bitter or tannic material that may have been blocking (what we call) juiciness. And let’s be careful to recognize the distinction between juiciness in the wine versus the salivation that follows a mouthful of high acidity. One is your own juiciness and the other is the wine’s.
Taking all that into account, fruit can emerge, and has emerged here. The wine is still taut and the flavors vibrate along that tautness, but there’s more fruit now, and the wine has much of what it seemed to lack yesterday. In the MacNeil fresh & crisp it is almost viscous, though I’m not sure I want all the corrugated edges smoothed out.
It won’t ever be charming. It’s a wine for drinkers who cherish a certain zing. But yesterday it was austere and today it isn’t.
TWO WINES IN STUPID HEAVY BOTTLES. (Sorry Stephan, but these bottles are hateful and you do not need to use them.)
2019 Ungeheuer Riesling / Ziegler “GL”
Because Müller isn’t VDP, his back label can say “Riesling Spätlese Trocken, while his front label says “GL” (Grosse Lage) as opposed to “GG” with its particular market meaning.
Ziegler – once labeled “Im Ziegler” – is a cadaster within the Ungeheuer with particular properties. And this wine is a big, flourishing powerhouse.
You can’t help admiring its resplendent, regal command, and you will know why the site was named “monster,” as this wine is monstrously spicy and strong. Possibly to a degree that makes me question the received wisdom about 2019, a vintage I begin to think may have been excessively lauded. Still, this is a fiendishly concentrated salty beast, and when I taste it tomorrow I’ll pour some into the MacNeil creamy & silky and see what happens. I’d like the wine to calm down and find its inner logic. (It seems to be starting that process even in the 15 minutes I’ve been tasting it.)
Day-2, and it still walks with a heavy tread. It is Ungeheuer, after all, and it ought to huff and seethe, and part of me admires its mule-ishness. It seems to want sweetness, or failing that it wants the leesy woodsy elements the folks at Von Winning do so adroitly. I can imagine its college roommate was a Pinot Gris from the Kaiserstuhl and the Ungeheuer picked up a few habits.
If you enjoy a corpulent powerhouse with a sort of gargantuan grace, you’ll cozy up to this.
2019 Kirchenstück Riesling “GL” ++
Again, back-label says “Kirchenstück / Forst” Riesling Spätlese Trocken.
The Great One.
What I wish is, I wish I had a bottle of Jean Boxler’s Sommerberg “D” to taste alongside this. They really do feel like fraternal twins, though I think Kirchenstück is a smidge more complex than even the great Alsacien.
The fragrance is gorgeous and “important.” The palate is seethingly intense, to a point where it’s almost fiery on the finish. Actually it’s kind of thrilling the way this wine flirts with exaggeration and falls just short. In the Jancis glass it’s like a Mahler symphony.
I’ve spent a lot of images on Kirchenstück. It’s that kind of wine. Clearly great, vividly complex, fiendishly inscrutable, it will yield to associative language (black cherry, tomato leaf, currant, ylang ylang, morels, goose fat…the list goes on and on) but it has other more arcane business at hand.
I once wrote of its “medieval scholar face,” which isn’t bad, yet there’s also something almost forbiddingly Jesuitical in play, a wine with a craggy jawline, thin lips and piercing eyes. The question is, is there love in those piercing eyes….and the amazing and beautiful answer is: Yes.
Because the wine seems to give you everything. It tumbles down on you like a landslide of scree and dried blossoms. Rampant rocks and potpourri, engulfing you almost scarily. Kirchenstück isn’t tender or sentimental. It’s beauty at its most strangely violent. It’s also minerality at its least explicable, like what fucking planet does this salt come from???
Perhaps I should withdraw my hesitancy about 2019? Because this is the best dry Riesling Stephan Müller has ever made. It is a black raven in a bare tree in the snow outside your window, holding a glowing little trinket it has found for you.
SEKT Riesling Extra Trocken 2019
Made for him by a company in Speyer, and of course “Extra Trocken” in this case is sweeter than Brut.
It smells pleasant, has character, isn’t too sweet, and I’m glad he sent it but I wonder why. He made a Sekt from 2013 Pechstein I thought was wonderful. In any case this is perfectly nice, not coarse and not rustic.
(2020) Riesling & Gewürztraminer
No clues from the back label except for “11.5% alc” suggesting the presence of RS.
Müller’s old Gewürz from the Reiterpfad (a “GG” site in Ruppertsberg) was a kindly beast of litchi which he had to label fancifully, as the site was only authorized for Riesling, if you wanted to identify it. “This was always a dream of mine,” Stephan says. “In fact my grandfather made a gemischter Satz in just this way.” (It was typical in that era to blend Riesling with a low-acid variety, especially for drier wines.)
Based on the label the wine is majority Riesling, and it doesn’t really smell like either variety. It’s a nice-tasting wine, in the Feinherb idiom; let’s call it pleasantly incidental.
2020 “Vom Basalt” Riesling Kabinett
Historically this hails from the Pechstein.
Some reduction at first. It clings for a few minutes and I have to taste “through” it. It’s less “sulfury” than sopacious. When it dissipated – first in the wider-bowled Jancis glass – it became the wine I know well, this barely-sweet Kabinett that shows all the florality and melon of Pechstein with the supporting minerality as a lovely backdrop.
I think this is often a small masterpiece. I’ve thought so for many years, as Stephan’s wines attained greater polish and sheen. It’s a “serious” terroir at its most winsome, yet there’s a sobriety behind its deliciousness, and a seamless balance. And with all of that said – I need to keep an eye on that reduction, which threatens to get in the way. To be continued….
It is present, though more fleeting the next day. Its hard to speculate how long it might persist in the bottle – 1-2 years maybe? That’s an educated guess, but still a guess. Decanting might help, but that’s more trouble than you should have to go to.
Fresh air helps. When I take it outside (where it’s about 45º with a dry breeze from the NW) it’s all the wine I remember. I set a timer, and it was gone in eight and a half minutes without agitating the glass. None of this would matter except for how lovelythe wine is when it’s in form.
(2020) Freundstück Riesling “GL” ++
Full name “Freundstück / Forst Riesling Spätlese appears only on the back label, so if you only see the front you have no idea what you’re getting.
It’s going to be a Müller Spät, none too sweet with 10.5% alc. The vineyard selection is new for Stephan; the Spät used to come from Ungeheuer, but this in a way is better. The site is tiny, and stands as the southernmost in the row of great Crus flush up against the village – Kirchenstück, Jesuitengarten, Freundstück – and it has often seemed to me to have the elegance of “Jesu” with the delicacy of certain Deidesheimers.
And oh, is this wine good! It’s a paragon of Pfalz Riesling with (balanced!) RS and a paradigm for what Spätlese should be, and too seldom is. It is also a wine where the cask regime in this cellar is most decisive, because it is already sighing into its tertiaries but without a scintilla of decadence. It smells like the finest sea-salt caramels you ever sniffed, and like pears sautéed in brown-butter sprinkled with 5-spice and browned until caramelized. But mostly it is a dream of elegance and loving kindness. It doesn’t ask to be worshipped and it’s serenely indifferent to how many “points” someone might give it. It’s just a reminder of symmetry and seamlessness and affection and accommodation.
It wants to fit itself in to your life, helpfully; it wants to ease your way. It does notrequire you to step away from your life to pay it the homage it surely deserves. I like that kind of wine also, of course; we all do. But I am melted by this modest being, singing to itself with perfect pitch.
2019 Kirchenstück Riesling Auslese “GL” ++
This is one of the very few wines I offered in every vintage it was made – and it was made in nearly every vintage. Ask me “What was the greatest wine you could offer constantly?” and you’ll expect me to answer Dönnhoff Hermannshöhle Spätlese, as well I might. But if I did, I’d insist there were two – and this was the other.
This is one of the “golden” ones. I love these for their crowd-pleasing generosity. Indeed this is a kind of acme of “sweet” Riesling that remains earthy and not remotely “sugary.” I myself prefer the “silvery” vintages, but that’s just me. I respond to their intricacy and shimmer, but when a wine smiles like this one does – smile back!
Imagine walking into the kitchen and there are bowls and bowls of ingredients and dish after dish of spices and four skillets going at once and the result is going to be both insanely delicious and also absurdly complex. Now think of all that distilled into a glass of wine.
At various times in various catalogues I’ve tried to list the dozens of associations one might glean from fragrance and flavor here. There are more than you can shake a stick at, believe me. But there’s an even greater value at work, because from this winery we get to taste Kirchenstück – the Great One – in its alpha and omega, a great dry wine and a great sweet one – or sweet-ish one, as this is a savor-driven Auslese – and we can understand the vineyard in a different and deeper way. There is a complexity here that the dry wine can never attain. There is a dark solemn dignity in the dry wine that this one can never attain.
And then there is me, glad to experience both.