Weingut Willi Schaefer

It seems quite strange to be tasting these in the depths of winter, when I know them to have been shipped last June. The case took, let us say, a few unplanned detours before it reached me. At last, it has.

This is a beloved estate. That’s partly because the wines are so lovely – lucid, tasty, articulate, gracious and filigree – and partly because the Schaefers themselves are so sweet and kind. For many years the wines were hard to find in the American market, only because the estate is very small, and quantities can be scarce. Recently the reins have been loosened, but it’s not like a motherlode of wine has been unleashed.

I had a customer once who was with me tasting there, and asked if he could see the cellar, so we all went down to have a look. A moment later the customer rounded a corner asking “Where’s the rest of it?” 

“That’s it,” came Willi’s reply, as I stifled a smirk. “That’s all?” Yes, I mean, it’s barely ten acres of vineyards, and this is all the cellar we need.

There is nothing frustrating about a Schaefer wine, but if there were anything frustrating about them, it would be how long they take to acquire tertiary flavors. This is great if you love youthful wines, as these will gurgle away like giddy babies for most of a decade in the bottle (the wines not the babies), but if you prefer a more grown-up style of Mosel Riesling you’ll have to wait 15-20 years to find it. Once found, it is incomparable; the so-called “must-drink-young” vintage 2003 is in a phase of unfathomable beauty right now. 2002 is still a tic too young. 1997 is sublime.

Today it’s Andrea and Christoph Schaefer at the helm, with Willi and Esther enjoying a quasi-retirement  in a house on the hill overlooking the Mosel. The new generation has made very few changes, as few were needed. But one change they made is to produce at least a couple Trocken wines, with which I shall begin.

Dry wines were never the estate’s strong suit, and I am not unwary – but we’ll see.

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2020 Graacher Riesling Trocken

AP# 06 is in bold; not sure whether this is significant. It’s a village-wine in the new system. The wine itself is clean and crisp and straightforward, but it has two left feet. Perhaps it will flesh out over the days, but right now it cries out for more fruit and texture. 

Three days later, the aroma has come alive. It is all Himmelreich, and strikingly pure and apple-y. The palate has attained much of the fruit and texture it was missing freshly opened. Yet for me, it’s still not enough. For all I respect its good qualities – and anything that emerges from this cellar is hale and lucid, the wine is like a guy with his pants on backwards, unable to understand why they don’t fit.

Schaefer isn’t known for their dry wines, which are made when certain conditions are met. It’s a miniscule part of their production, which they don’t feel they “must” make but are glad to make “if we have the grapes for it.” Andrea Schaefer continues: “Our hearts are absolutely beating for the off-dry Prädikats. The lightness, transparency and ageing potential… It is just the most special [wine] we can produce in our region. So, if we have grapes, for perfect off-dry Kabinett, Spät- or Auslese, BA - Christoph will always be going for that.”

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2019 Himmelreich GL                                                                     ++

“VDP Grosse Lage” appears, almost illegibly, on the side of the front label, and “Graacher Himmelreich Riesling GL” appears on the back. Why not a GG? I suspect because the alcohol is “merely” 12%.

The wine smells cask-y and beeswaxy; I’ve had Boudignon Savennaires that smell similar. There’s also a hint of the mature notes of the aforementioned ‘03s, a chamomile fragrance. It smells nice, and most unusual for Schaefer. Semolina, tapioca, jasmine…is this Willi Schaefer??

I like the wine! But it is quite the departure. Only on the finish is there a discordant sharpness, which feels odd after the savory explosion that leads to it. It says both new-Fuder and malo in its rampant brown butter and Chinese 5-Spice.

But it is neither!  “ It was one Fuder and it was supposed to be 2019 Himmelreich Grosses Gewäch. But fermentation stuck at 12 g residual sugar and we have decided not to bottle it with the 19s in hope that fermentation will proceed a bit. So, it stayed in barrel for one year longer. No [malo], and the style was not on purpose. But we have liked the result, even when it is not Schaefer-like at all -  and, bottled it together with the 2020s.”

 

One could fuss excessively about that clipped finish. It’s there, structurally, and I’m not sure it matters. A tertiary fruit and Turkish bazaar of spices lingers for minutes on end.The larger story here is that no one, would ever EVER taste this and guess it came from Willi Schaefer. I think that’s rather fun! And I’m not in the mood to let a little finishing sharpness spoil my fun. And if only I were still a merchant: I’d have lobbied hard to call this wine “Graacher Barrel.”

Six days after it was opened, we finished the bottle last night with dinner. Every trace of asperity on the finish had vanished. I must say, I found it addictive. 

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2020 Graacher Riesling feinherb

The alc is 11% versus 11.5 for the Trocken, so you may infer this isn’t very sweet. In some ways it’s the wine the Trocken wanted to be, though the best I can offer is it’s a step in the right direction. And someone should write a paper on the way fructose interacts with slate to emphasize its mineral details.

Last night we had a glass as an aperitif while diner was cooking, and it worked; lots of fruit, no jagged corners or bony joints. “Tasting” it again today I feel as I did before – it’s closer but not yet there. I don’t know the RS (I didn’t ask) but it is as dry as this kind of wine can bear to be – and for any reasonable palate, it is dry. It might have made an interesting candidate for the atavistic vinification style we often encounter in Loewen, Selbach and others; more lees, longer cask time.

 

But a stiff glass in a warm kitchen left little to be desired. The pittance of sweetness it does carry is indispensible to enhance the detail and suavity of the minerality.

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2020 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett                         +

A moonlit gauzy beauty, and the acme of delicacy.

I recall an instruction given to listeners of a John Taverner recording, that it should be played “at the threshold of audibility.” Here the flavors are enacted at a kind of brink, an inception of discernibility. And while they hover spectrally in the air, and you reach your palate through them as though they were immaterial glimmers of flavor, they live a vivid life, more so than (so) many wines with more overt attributes.

For one thing there is a whomp of slate, and a lot of vanilla bean (and associated nuances of jasmine and basmati), and a little conifer perfume and a decided expression of acidity for those who vibrate to such things. Lemon balm’s in there too, somewhere. These are usually Schaefer’s lightest wines, and this combines with the silvery gleam of 2020 to create a vaporous and loving ghost.

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2020 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett

A quick note on the site. The Himmelreich hill is unstable, sinking a few cm into the Mosel each year, and because of this it wasn’t possible to do Flurbereinigung, and because of that we still have an unruly hillside with zillions of teensy parcels. Nor is the site as uniformly steep as its neighbor Domprobst; it has almost flat sites at its bottom (with fine weathered soil from which elegant wines can come) and as a rule the Himmelreich undulates. And many of the wines have a more yielding texture.

This one doesn’t. It’s another acid-driven ’20, and balanced on the head of a pin. Indeed it’s balanced on a pretty stern pivot, and to me it’s a misfire. 

Or is it? If you taste it after the more overtly sweet Sonnenuhr, it seems a little stingy. I’ve sipped it a couple times and liked it, forgetting any “questions” I may have had.

There’s a cartoon of me as the guy who’s always kvetching about sweetness, but if RS is in play then we’d better consider how it’s interacting with the rest of the wine, and here it’s in a rather risky zone.. This is uncommon at Schaefer, but this was bottled early and may have been hard to judge when it had all its baby fat.

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2020 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Kabinett

There is more than one: this is AP# 03.

(Provisional note, as there is a subtle cork. It shows Domprobst’s exotic fruit and crunchy texture; it is thrillingly poised in sugar-acid balance and shows dramatic slate expression. A correct bottle would be in the one-plus range.)

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2020 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Kabinett                              +++

AP# 01 was sent to the VDP auction, which I think is charming. A lot of big overt wines can be paraded around at such things, but leave it to Schaefers to send a “mere” Kabinett as a true emblem of the vintage. Indeed the Zeitgeist seems to be evolving, as more and more Kabinetts are being presented at auction, which I’m sure contributes to the recent buzz around the category.

This is from an old, old parcel in the cadaster Nikolauslay, ungrafted, traditional training. It was picked early.

The slate is pungent, which is no surprise, and the sponti is apparent, which is a surprise from this winery. The wine itself is masterly and profoundly frivolous, like The Magic Flute in your glass. It sends me back to another miraculous Kabinett, the 2008 Kanzemer Altenberg from Von Othegraven, that offered, as this does, every single thing that makes German Riesling great and incomparable, not in spite of its gossamer form – but because of it.

Sweetness? What sweetness??? It’s as good as invisible, but boy is it doing its unseeable job. It has all the nuttiness of your favorite Jura wine without the oxidation riding up top. It has a gorgeous stubborn length in its intricate finish. It’s as euphoric as a field of daisies. It’s a little butterfly who perches on your shoulder so lightly you cannot even feel her, yet she rides there with you for a thousand miles.

I find I am quite moved. I want to say thank you, wine. I’m thinking of Christoph and Andrea, tasting this infant and recognizing right away, this is the ur. 

Imagine a composer who has written great works. Imagine her at the twilight of her life, sitting with a friend who asks, what do you think was your greatest music? Roused by the wine she’s sharing with her friend – this wine – she replies, “You know, it was the music I made up on the spot, when the baby was awoken by a nightmare and needed to be soothed, and I’d improvise a lullabye and sing it until he was asleep again. I often wonder if there’s anything more we can ask music to do.”

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2020 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese

Dynamically angular after the seamlessness of that amazing Kabinett. Not a bad thing! It has the deep-woods balsam and oolong thing I see in Zeltinger Schlossberg, which could well have been a plausible blind guess.

I’m finding that all the words that spring to mind are things I’ve said hundreds of times before. What this is, is textbook Mosel Riesling, evidently “Spätlese” but acting like a dry-ish goes-down-easy wine rather than an object of worship. It’s apple, of course, but a spicy variety (such as the Empire). I wonder if this was 100% Fuder; it tastes like there’s some steel in the mix, which would account for its high-toned edges and angles. It’s more kinetic than the Kabinett, which had a numinous repose.

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2020 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese #10                   +

“#10,” which I thought was parcel-specific, is actually stylistically particular; you could call it the “rocky/mineral” one. In fact it’s often from certain parcels, but not invariably. I’ve often liked it best in fruit-forward vintages. It’s the wine with which to show the pistachio crunch of many Domprobsts.

This is quite the aromatic riot. Ginger, verbena, spearmint, leading to a forcefully spicy palate that recalls certain Nahe wines – as Domprobst often does. Slate is beautifully stark; the whole thing is urgently expressive and youthfully jittery. Acidity is important to the picture. Sweetness is barely discernible.

I’m hoping to publish a piece soon (in TRINK) about the near-demise of Spätlesen just like this one – not sweet, not gussied up with whatever manner of ingratiating juju encourages the “high score.” Rather, a flexible table wine with a certain depth and density. They used to be ubiquitous, and now they’re almost gone. Taste this and see why they should be cherished, and why we should guard against their extinction.

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2020 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese #5                          ++

This is the one with the noblest pure fruit. Two additional things distinguish it from #10, a longer cork and a more golden hue. Make that three things – we have botrytis now, in an especially fine expression. Unusually it doesn’t nap itself over the fruit with its malt and its spices; it’s entirely integrated in the picture, and it makes me wonder at how rare this is, and how today’s generation of Riesling drinkers almost never taste anything like it.

All you can do is chuckle in wonder and bliss. The wine is para-sensual; it has its flavors and then it has a kind of gleaming ether that seems to rise from it and pulls you along off the ground. I also had a flash of Dönnhoff’s Brücke, if that wine showed it fruit earlier. No, this wine is mystic but it isn’t inscrutable. Decades from now, maybe, but now it is clearly a masterpiece that rends the heart. The finish alone sprinkles your senses with miracles.

Concretely, we have more “yellow” flavors now; pears and white peaches and Cox’s Orange Pippins and even sweet white corn. Yet in fact there is little new to say. Schaefer’s track record with this wine is steady and profound. I don’t recall if it has ever failed me.

Sweetness, now, is an inference, but by no means intrusive. Thank you family Schaefer – you did it again.

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2020 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese #13                +++

This is the auction wine. One sees why. In contrast to the early picked Kabinett, this was the last parcel to be harvested (from cadasters Gertzgrub and again Nikolauslay).

It is very different than #5; it rather repeats the virtues of the auction Kabinett in an even richer form. It’s a kind of consommé of slate and of the pith of the apple. It has an older soul. In a certain way it’s about what you sense rather than what you “taste.” It feels drier than its siblings. It has a density both palpable and weightless. It’s like a demi-glace of itself; it has vast interiority yet it’s easy to grok. It’s a kind of genial pulsing of the mountain.

Domprobst is decidedly one of the Mosel’s “mountains,” as can be seen from most anywhere in Graach, where its imposing steep walls can seem to crowd down upon you. Whatever melodies live in the depths of the mountainside rarely reach the surface untrammeled, either by fruit or by explicit slate. Compared to what we see here, those are relatively superficial things. Lots of wines have lovely fruit, and classical slatey wines taste of slate. Something else is happening here, something brought to consciousness that doesn’t have a language.

Many years from now this wine will go even further than its brother Kabinett, but at this moment its very richness obscures the articulation that made the Kabinett so astounding. But they are a pair of richly quiet wines, of a silence that’s like an unseen love…she kicked the covers off for some reason, and you get up into the cold bedroom and rearrange them in the dark so that she doesn’t have to wake up to do it herself. You cover her shoulders as softly as you possibly can. She will never know you did it, and you yourself may forget in the morning. It’s an elemental love; it won’t fit on a Valentine. It lives in the core of things. As does this remarkable wine.

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2018 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese #10                  ++

I wondered why they sent this! Maybe to fill the case? Because I know this wine, tasted it in March 2019, the last time I was there. And loved it. Maybe they still have some? Or maybe the importer still does. Turns out it was all of the above; the final tranche is about to be shipped.

Hello again; I still love you! What an absurdly perfect wine. It has the lilac-y flower and the gingery spice and the quince-y fruit of the best ’18 Mosels, and it’s quite winsome and chipper after the ‘20s. If you have some, be glad you do! No hurry to drink it, but if you can’t wait you’ll fine a delightful young Riesling with surprising length, a sleek wine that’s not without flesh.

Most of you know my wife’s a chef, and every now and again Ms. (Karen) Odessa Piper is, as she puts it, “long on veggies.” This is because we both tend to buy – not to put too fine a point on it – too much damn food. So last night she made a curry, with which the miasma of vegetables could be used up, as it were. The ingredient list looks like this:

Winter orange squash

Coconut cream

Rose 

Wild crabapples (sweet sour pickled)

Brussels Sprouts

Quince

Romanesco

Home Made poultry stock

Curry spices 

Basmati rice

(cooking wine)

 

Well, we drank this very wine with that very curry, and the gorgeous slop not only met its match in the wine, they fell in love instantly and retreated to a dark corner of the kitchen to canoodle and giggle. Seriously, it was as seamless a “pairing” as one could ask for, and most important, it wasn’t contrived. It wasn’t the chef tasting the wine and thinking, “Ah, I’ll add some more quince…”  What it was, was; a flexible wine showing up eager to be of use. USE!

 

So we’re here to tell you – well, she’s here to tell you, as I’m in a curry stupor – that if you cook with a disciplined abandon, even if your dish is all over the place it is this exact kind of wine that will be fabulous with it.