Talking 120 Years of Wine with Dr. Ulrich Stein
Dr. Ulli Stein of the Mosel has yet to find a German wine law that he hasn’t been able to work around in some way shape or form, having even gone to the highest courts of Europe to do so. That’s not to say that his crusade is based on a desire to simply break the rules, but instead that his insights on winemaking, terroir, and the raw ingredients needed to make great wine go against almost one hundred years of misconceptions.
Although the wines of Ulli Stein still fall into the category of the esoteric here in the States, throughout Europe he is considered a visionary. Not only that, but a man who is willing to go to war over his beliefs, and in doing so, improve the entire region.
If I had to generalize about the wines of Ulli Stein, the first thing that would come to mind is the word “unexpected”, as they don’t follow the rules, much like the man who makes them, and they surprise you at every turn. As I put my nose to a glass of Red Light, Stein’s entry-level Pinot Noir (Spatburgunder in Germany), I was amazed by the purity of fruit and precision that was backed by layers of earth and floral tones. To think that it is a wine that would sell for $32-$35 amazed me, but that was before Ulli had explained his past with red varietals in the Mosel.
Bringing Red Wine Back To The Mosel
As he explained it, long before the current regime of German wine laws, it was decided in Nazi-controlled Germany that wine production would be focused exclusively on Riesling, simply because it was the variety that generated the most revenue. They went as far as forbidding the planting of red grapes, making it illegal to do so. These rules went unchanged for over 50 years. Fast forward to the 1980s, when a young Ulli Stein began to question the laws and inquire with authorities to seek permission to plant Pinot Noir. He was met with opposition and a warning that to do so would be illegal. Unwilling to settle for this answer, in the mid-eighties Ulli began to plant Pinot Noir within his holdings, making him one of the first producers and the owner of some of the oldest vines for red wine within the Mosel today. In the late nineties, the rules were changed to permit red varieties, and by that time Ulli had already established himself as a producer of Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Merlot. Today, many more winemakers are working with Pinot Noir in Germany, and the future for the variety looks very bright, especially to me, after tasting the 2015 Stein Spatburgunder Trocken Waechter, a wine made from Pinot Noir planted in blue slate soils as far back as 1987.
Making The Case for Own-Rooted Vines
However, as renowned as Ulli Stein is for his work with red wine (in a region known mostly for its Riesling), what first drew me to the producer is the work that he does with some of the oldest own-rooted vines in all of Germany. His Himmelreich (heaven) and Hölle (hell) vineyards are both planted to ungrafted vines that date back 65-70 years, and in one section, named Alfer Hölle, he is even able to source fruit from vines planted in 1900.
I was surprised to find out that there are between 50-60 hectares of ungrafted vines in all of Germany, about half of them planted between 1910 and 1935. From that total of own-rooted Riesling, Ulli tends four hectares, a significant percentage. Being well aware of the effects of the Phylloxera epidemic during the late 1800s, I was quite surprised by this. However, while most of the world was forced to quickly adapt to Phylloxera by replanting their vineyards on American rootstocks, in Germany it took significantly longer for the root louse to begin attacking their vines. Much of this was the result of their climate, but also the soils that consist mostly of slate. Even to this day, it’s only in areas where topsoil exists over these stoney soils that Phylloxera can attack German vines.
So what effect does an old, own-rooted vine have of its fruit and the resulting wine? According to Ulli, old vines produce less fruit (naturally lower yields) but also less sugar (resulting in lower alcohol) and more production of extracts and aromatic compounds. What this means is a wine that is naturally fruit-concentrated yet balanced and with the potential to have more depth both on the nose and the palate. Older vines are also more resistant to disease and fungus, due to their thicker-skinned grapes.
To this day, Ulli continues to plant ungrafted vines, even though it remains forbidden by German wine laws. For him, there’s no worry that these vines will continue to thrive, free of Phylloxera.
The High Courts of The EU
Then there is Strichween, or what, by tradition going back hundreds of years, one would call Straw Wine. Being a lover of both Italian and German wines, I was amazed when Ulli explained to me that the method of making Straw Wine was very much like the production of Amarone, as perfectly ripe grapes would be picked and placed on straw mats to dry and raisinate for a period of time, before being crushed and made into wine.
His interest in Straw Wine brought Ulli back to the authorities once again, only to find out that although the name and wine held a strong foundation in German tradition, no one was permitted to use the name or process in the production of wine for sale. This news sent Ulli to the courts in a battle that brought him all the way to the highest courts of the EU, after which he received permission to produce his wine. Yet even after the battle was won, he was not permitted to use the actual name “Straw Wine”, and so he made up his own from a local dialect, and Strichween was born.
So there we have it, as Ulli Stein continues to make some of the most highly sought-after, yet locally under-the-radar wine in Germany’s Mosel. He’s doing it from some of the steepest terraces you can imagine (one at a 70% incline), from forgotten vineyards that contain vines that were planted over a century ago. He’s a true believer in the quality of fruit over ripeness, and the work and creativity that goes into making wine being as important as the terroir itself. I doubt he’ll ever stop challenging the system, and I wouldn’t want him any other way, because the man, the wines, and the story paint a complete picture that is Stein.
On to the Tasting Notes
Stein Rose 2017 – The nose was wonderfully fresh, showing strawberry with sweet florals, dusty minerality and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, I found a soft and juicy expression with zesty acidity adding depth to its red fruit and sweet mineral tones. It finished just as it started, wonderfully fresh and full of lively red fruits. (89 points)
Stein Pinot Noir Red Light 2016 – Here I found an incredible fresh and zesty expression of Pinot fruit with ripe strawberry giving way to sweet spices, herbs and a hint of white pepper. On the palate, I found soft yet energetic textures with bright cherry fruit, inner florals and lively acidity. The finish was medium-long and very pretty, displaying hints of fresh red fruits, minerals and inner floral tones. Frankly, this glass was hard to put down, and I can imagine enjoying it slightly chilled through the warm days ahead. (90 points)
Stein Pinot Noir Trocken Waechter 2015 – The 2015 Spatburgunder was intense with dark peppery red fruits, hints of animal musk and spicy florals on the nose. Soft and incredibly rich textures were balanced by brisk acids and ushered in flavors of ripe cherry, plum and inner florals that reminded me of the color purple. It was spunky and energetic, giving way to a long and zesty finish that lingered on savory herbal tones. Talk about making the case for Pinot Noir in Germany. (92 points)
Stein Cabernet Merlot Trocken 2015 – The Stein Cabernet shows its cool-climate origins in the best possible way, opening with a display of exotic spice, white pepper, chalk dust and savory mountain herbs. On the palate, soft textures were offset by zesty red and blackberry fruit and saturating minerality on a wiry and tense frame. The finish was long and grippy with crushed wild berries and youthful tannin tugging at the senses. (90 points)
Stein St. Aldegunder Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett Trocken 2016 – The nose was lively and seductive with ripe grapefruit up front backed by crushed stone minerality and a zest of lime. On the palate, I found soft textures with zesty acidity, as notes of green apple, young mango, sweet minerals and wet stone washed across the senses. The finish was medium-long and precise, making the mouth water while resonating on mineral-infused citrus tones. (92 points)
Stein Riesling Blauschiefer Trocken 2016 – The nose was intense with ripe peach, mango and apple, as notes of honeysuckle and dusty minerals added depth. On the palate, soft, almost oily textures were grounded by saturating mineral and spice, as notes of green apple combined with zesty acidity to create a truly energetic experience. It finished long and satisfying, as green apple combined with zesty minerals offset by lingering brisk acidity. (93 points) Fruit coming mostly from Himmelreich at an average 65 year-old vines.
Stein St. Aldegunder Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett Feinherb 2016 – The Himmelreich Feinherb opened with a layered bouquet, showing young peach and hints of green melon, followed by wild herbs and savory minerality. On the palate, I found a soft, savory expression with a mix of green apple, crushed stone and lime-infused herbal tones. The finish was medium-long with a twang of salty minerals and hints of spice. (92 points) From 75-80 year-old ungrafted vines.
Stein St. Aldegunder Palmberg-Terrassen Riesling Extreme Trocken 2014 – The nose showed fresh apple with hints of undergrowth, crushed stone and floral tones, as the wine seemed to gain richness and berth the longer it sat in the glass. It was incredibly soft on the palate, with notes of ripe apple, pear and hints of lime. Notes of zesty pineapple and citrus-tinged minerals defined the long and penetrating finish. It’s an incredibly tense wine at this time and aching for time in the cellar, yet packed with potential. (92 points) From 90-100 year-old ungrafted vines planted in blue and grey slate soils within a walled vineyard at a 70% incline.
Stein Riesling “Ohne” 2014 – The nose was a mix of dried florals, peach and apricot with masses of minerality and hints of smoke. On the palate, it was weighty and textural yet also perfectly balanced, as notes of dried apricot and citrus rind seemed to coat all of the senses, only to be washed clean by zesty acids and minerals. The finish was remarkably long, showing fresh sliced yellow apple, minerals and crushed white flowers. The Ohne is a very unique wine, allowed to undergo multiple fermentations and not treated with any sulfur. (90 points)
Stein Riesling Striehween 2011 – The Stein Striehween was a first for me, as I’m sure it is for many, as it’s a category that belongs to Stein. It’s produced much like an Amarone, through painstaking processes. Here I found a striking and layered display of dried peaches, apricot, sweet melon, honeysuckle and stone dust. On the palate, silky, full-bodied textures washed across the senses, lifted by balanced acidity, with notes of ripe peach, apple and honeydew offset by a zing of orange zest. The finish seemed to go on and on, yet it was uplifting and fresher than you would imagine, showing sweet florals and hints of kiwi. (93 points)