Tales of an afternoon spent tasting glorious Riesling in the Mosel. Joh. Jos. Prüm is a true legend – simply one of the best white wine producers on earth.
Article by Lukas Rutti, student of the UNISG Master in Wine Culture and Communication.
I was looking forward to this day for two months. On this beautiful Tuesday afternoon we were being received at Joh. Jos. Prüm in Bernkastel-Kues for a tasting. Excitement! Our vacation in the Moselle Valley, in western Germany, right at the border to Luxembourg was off to a good start. Good weather, good food (not so surprisingly as you may think, give them some credit) and why we were here, good wine.
The Moselle is the fine wine region of Germany and we are in its capital — Bernkastel-Kues. Two thousand years ago, the Romans started to grow vines here and people never stopped. After lunch, we went on our short walk along the Moselle River. We were lucky, there was still shade on this side of the Moselle and we had the best view on the best vineyards of the region — Bernkasteler Doctor, Graacher Himmelreich and Wehlener Sonnenuhr. I have rarely seen such steep vineyards in my life — heroic viticulture indeed — everything has to be done by hand. Joh. Jos. Prüm is a very important and known producer in the Moselle Valley and they only produce wines with residual sugar. They never produced a dry Riesling — you see, tradition is important in this house. In the Moselle Valley, the climate did not allow to consistently produce ripe grapes until very recently, about 30 years ago. To counterbalance the high acidity of the unripe grapes, the wines were left with some residual sugar. The Germans, being very clever, introduced a quality scheme on the sugar levels of the grapes. This means, the more sugar the grapes have, the better the quality. So the famous “Prädikate” were born. In ascending sugar levels, they are called: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese. The last three being sweet wines. If a vintage produced grapes with high sugars, it was deemed to be a good vintage and one or more Prädikate would be produced — a rare thing in the past. After a half an hour walk, we arrive at the destination.
The winery is at the border of the Moselle and a beautiful piece of architecture. It was built, using the typical Moselle slate, like a lot of buildings around here. Mischa, the export manager, is welcoming us and shows us to the tasting room — generous with a big table covered with a white tablecloth, very classic. The view is also spectacular, we look directly at the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, where Joh. Jos. Prüm has a big parcel and it is considered as one of the best vineyards. The room instills a certain atmosphere of respect — also because the old Prüm’s (they are over 80 years-old) are still living in the mansion. We are lucky to be welcomed during these strange times — Covid has also hit this region and therefore everybody is being careful. We are not meeting the family but Mischa, the export manager. We begin with two Kabinetts, the least sweet wines, a perfect food pairing, especially spicy Asian food — a 2018 Graacher Himmelreich and a 2018 Wehlener Sonnenuhr. The Wehlener Sonnenuhr seems already more elegant and refined. When I asked Mischa, how they ferment the wines, either with a pied de cuve or selected yeasts, he told me that they only do spontaneous fermentation. Their cellar is very old and has more than enough yeasts in the environment to successfully do a spontaneous fermentation. Actually, most winegrowers in this region use spontaneous fermentation. Also, most of the wineries here are family owned businesses and only have a couple of hectares to cultivate. Of course, you have also big family winegrowers with more than 60 hectares, but this is a rarity. The Prüm’s have a bit over 20 hectares to their name in prime locations, like the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Zeltinger Sonnenuhr and the Graacher Himmelreich.
Then we went on to taste the assortment of the Spätlesen — 2016 Graacher Himmelreich, Zeltinger Sonnenuhr and Wehlener Sonnenuhr. These were clearly sweeter than the Kabinetts and they need more time in the bottle to express themselves. The Spätlesen were still very young and can be stored for decades — they only get better. On a side note: When old Prüm still lead the tastings, the bottle had to be drunk before the next one was opened. Fortunately, we were allowed to taste the wines without being forced to finish them. We did it after tasting, though. One should not leave bottles of this caliber unfinished. Then came the Auslesen — what Joh. Jos. Prüm is famous for. The Auslese is nearly a sweet wine. They are very refined in taste and need decades to reach their potential. They can easily age for 30 years or even the double to reach their peak. Unfortunately, oftentimes they are drunk well before, because they are already so delicious, when young — you cannot even be mad.
We started the Auslesen-journey with a 2010 Graacher Himmelreich, went on to a 2007 Wehlener Sonnenuhr and finished with a 2003 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese gold capsule. The gold capsule indicates that the berries are of higher quality — meaning more selection and more sugar. We were lucky enough to taste this 2003, a riper vintage. When Mischa pours the wine you already see this deep golden colour. Then, when you take a first sniff a panoply of scents blows you away. Such a finesse and elegance is unrivalled. The petrol character is not very pronounced, which I like, but the fruit is exotic, apricot and honey — sweetness on the nose and a whiff of saffron. In the mouth the sugar feels sweet, it is well integrated and the acidity still bracing. The typical Moselle minerality — saltiness — is felt in the aftertaste. This balances the wine and it is just utterly drinkable. Imagine it with aged Appenzeller, Stilton and Roquefort and fresh baked bread. It is heaven on earth. It runs over your tongue like silk, viscous and sweet, the mouthfeel is amazing, you don’t even want to swallow it — you savour the moment, until you reward yourself with the long finish.
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