The Mosel River placidly winds its way from the heart of Germany to the northwest on its journey to join the Rhine. Its deeply carved and ancient course through blue Devonian slate long ago defined the hallowed hillsides that have grown the world's greatest Rieslings for centuries.
It takes a personal visit to the Mosel to fully appreciate the logic of the region's terroir. As it journeys sinuously from the village of Ruwer to the village of Alf, some 35 miles to the northwest, the river's course is dotted with town after tiny town. Each of these towns either sits at the base of, or just opposite a hillside filled with vines. The hillside, quite logically, takes its name from the nearby village, and then continues to be subdivided by individually named vineyards, which are, in turn, occasionally subdivided into individual plots.
Along the southerly bank of one particular broad sweep of the river from west to east lies the town of Brauneberg, which shares its name with the 2-kilometer-long, incredibly steep hillside across the river that has been carpeted in vines for longer than anyone can remember. In an odd twist of fate, the town was long known as Dusemond or "sweet hill" thanks to its proximity to the Brauneberg (literally "brown mountain" due to the high iron content which turns the slate a rust brown color). But thanks to the fame of the vineyard, whose wines were sought out and owned by, among others, Thomas Jefferson, the town adopted the same name in 1925.
Perched on a little rise in the lower reaches of the town of Brauneberg lies the unassuming family home and winery of Weingut Fritz Haag, whose elevated stone porch provides views across the few streets that separate the winery from the river and the 38 acres of Riesling that the family has farmed for generations.
The winery is currently run by the energetic and genial Oliver Haag, who has been slipping his way around the family's slate-covered vineyards since he could walk. The winery is named after his grandfather, who was the first to bottle wines under his own name, after generations of grape growing. Fritz Haag was succeeded by his son Wilhelm in 1957, who interrupted his studies to begin running the estate at the age of 20 when his farther fell ill unexpectedly.
Oliver Haag grew up knowing he was going to be a winemaker, and worked at many of the top names in the Mosel Valley even before heading off to the University of Geisenheim to get his degree in enology. After graduating, he spent time as a winemaker in South Africa and Germany's Rheingau region before returning to take over the family domaine in 2005.
Now, along with his wife Jessica and their six-year-old son, Haag produces a portfolio of exceptional wines from the Brauneberg, as well as a few acres of vineyards he has in the nearby town of Mülheim.
A significant amount of the family's acreage is in the heart of the Brauneberg's top vineyard known as Juffer. Pronounced "you-fer," this vineyard's name translates either as "virgin" or "spinster" depending on your interpretation of the 18th century Mosel-Franconian dialect. It's fairly certain, however, the locals had the latter interpretation in mind when they named the vineyard, thanks to three headstrong young daughters of the vineyard's owner who shrugged off tradition and chose to spend their lives as winemakers rather than as wives.
In the heart of the Juffer Vineyard sits a large outcropping of slate. A vertical wall of the stuff that lies decomposed and fractured everywhere else on the slopes above the Mosel river. And once upon a time, an enterprising villager put a sundial ("Sonnenuhr") on the face of this outcropping that could be conveniently read from across the river. In 1971, as a new set of wine laws codifying the quality of German vineyards were enacted, the vineyard surrounding the sundial was given the name Juffer Sonnenuhr, and elevated to the status of grosse lage, or the German equivalent of Grand Cru.
While it may be possible to stroll through vineyards in most other wine regions of the world, a stroll through many of the vineyards in the Mosel is all but impossible. The combination of a carpet of fractured slate -- which might as well be a layer of ball bearings for all the traction it provides -- and incredibly steep slopes makes for a horribly treacherous environment. Just how steep are these slopes? The steepest section of the Juffer Sonnenuhr dials in at about an 80% slope, or about 40 degrees. That's at least a black diamond ski run at most resorts in the world, and a double black diamond at some.
Needless to say, these vineyards are worked painstakingly by hand all year long and during harvest. Shallower sections of vineyard can be trellised and worked by a special tractor, but the steepest sections are cared for as they have been for centuries. Sixteen to twenty pickers (of whom three are over seventy years old!) move carefully through the vineyards, with practiced steps and great effort. It is painstaking work no matter how you slice it, but especially when harvesting the last bits of fruit left long on the vine. When the winery has the opportunity to make TBA or Trockenbeerenauslese, a wine made from entirely botrytized grapes that are individually picked, an entire day's work can cover only a couple thousand square meters and yield only 2 buckets of dried berries, enough to make a minuscule 15 liters of wine.
The Haag family hasn't used a single petrochemical on their vineyards for the last thirty years, and farms the vineyards organically, with no pesticides. Organic fertilizers and an occasional organic fungicide are applied by helicopter.
Perhaps not surprisingly, winemaking at Fritz Haag is exceedingly simple. The grapes are brought across the river in small bins and crushed in the compact winery. The juice, after settling, goes into steel tank for fermentation with ambient yeasts, and most stays there to age, though a portion is also aged in old oak casks.
"I usually don't want the wine to go into malolactic [fermentation]," says Haag. "And I'm not a fan of pushing the wine or warming it up to finish fermentation. I'm happy to leave it by itself."
"We don't have huge facilities or a huge cellar," notes Haag. "I think I could probably handle fruit from perhaps one or two more hectares [2-4 acres] but I think my wife would tell me then that I am finished."
Total production at the estate hovers somewhere between 5000 and 6000 cases of wine each year, depending on the conditions of the harvest.
The 2012 vintage was as close to ideal as you could imagine in almost all of Germany, but especially in the Mosel. With a balance of sugar and acidity, the wines from 2012 are both elegant and powerful, with great potential for longevity.
2012 was also an incredibly clean vintage, with very little disease pressure on the whole. Unfortunately, especially for those who adore the sweetest of Mosel wines, this meant very little botrytis, but Haag clearly prefers too little than too much.
"We have a warming trend in the Mosel," Haag goes on to explain in order to provide context for the 2012 vintage. "Global warming seems to be good for the Mosel. It gives us more consistent vintages. I'm not exactly happy about it, but it is making our wines a bit better."
"My father started farming more than 50 years ago," he continues, "and he says we are very lucky now. Twenty or thirty years ago the vintages were harder. The change of climate is not a good thing, but for the Mosel, I think it is still OK."
"I'm now forty years old," says Haag, "and I've been working in the business for 25 years. Since I started we haven't had a really bad vintage. 2010 wasn't easy, and 2006 was interesting, but the last really very bad vintage was in the 1980s -- '81, '82, and '84."
While a section of the Mosel was badly damaged by hail this year, Haag seems to have largely escaped, losing only about 30% of one five-acre parcel, by his estimation.
When asked about the future, Haag expresses hope that one day his son may be interested in working in the winery, but at 40, he is clearly well settled into the prime of his winemaking years. And if the 2012 vintage is any measure of his abilities, Weingut Fritz Haag will be making excellent wines for the foreseeable future.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag Riesling Trocken, Mosel, Germany
Palest greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, lightly sweet flavors of green apple, pear, and wet chalkboard have a nice brightness to them. Light and balanced. A cuvee from different vineyards around the Braunenberg and near Mülheim. Dry. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9 . Cost: $20. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger" Riesling Trocken, Mosel, Germany
Light greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and white flowers. In the mouth, gorgeous white flowers and wet chalkboard flavors have a wonderful, filigreed acidity. Notes of honeysuckle linger in the finely detailed finish. Dry. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $33. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer" Riesling Trocken, Mosel, Germany
Light greenish-gold in the glass, this wine has a wonderful bright green apple and white flower aromas with underlying notes of wet stone. In the mouth, tart green apple and wet stone flavors have a bright, zingy acidity. The tart green apple skin and white flower notes linger in the finish. Tastes basically dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $33. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Grosses Gewachs" Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone and hints of honeysuckle and unripe apple. In the mouth, beautiful stony and tart green apple flavors have a deep minerality that is resonant and quite long through the finish. There's a light chalky, almost tannic grip on the edge of the palate that lingers along with the green apple skin tartness in the finish. Tastes slightly off-dry, but only barely. Very little hint of sweetness. From the Juffer Sonnenuhr vineyard on the Braunenberg. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle washed in a cool mountain stream. In the mouth, apple and wet stone flavors mix with bright honeysuckle and white flowers. Reads as almost dry, but a faint sweetness lingers through the finish. Somewhat simple. 11% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger" Riesling Feinherb, Mosel, Germany
Pale yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and wet stones. In the mouth, flavors of wet stone and white flowers have a wonderful crystalline minerality that recalls sucking on a quartz crystal. Wonderful pink grapefruit notes linger in the finish along with the stony quality. Lovely. Very faintly sweet. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $19. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer" Riesling Feinherb, Mosel, Germany
Light yellow-gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of white flowers and wet stones with hints of pear skin. In the mouth, bright grapefruit citrus brightness mix with wet chalkboard and hints of pear. Citrus pith lingers through the long finish. Off-dry. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger" Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and honeysuckle with a deep wet chalkboard quality behind. In the mouth, light to moderately sweet flavors of green apple, lime juice, and honeysuckle are layered over a beautiful stony minerality. Crisp and bright with zingy acidity, this is a mouthwatering glass of wine. 8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer" Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple skin and lemon zest. In the mouth flavors of green apple, mandarin zest and mandarin juice mix with deep stony notes and hints of white flowers. Beautiful, lacy acidity mixes with that deep stony note, and leaves a lightly chalky taste in the finish. Moderately sweet. 8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $38. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr" Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells of green apple and tinned mandarins. In the mouth beautifully bright mandarin orange and pink grapefruit flavors burst on the palate with excellent acidity. Gorgeously silky texture makes the wine quite effortless to drink, and the finish lasts for a very long time. Stunning. Moderately sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $38. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr" Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and clover honey. In the mouth the wine has softer acidity with bright flavors of mandarin orange and clover honey. More lush and round than the 2012 and 2010. Comes off as creamy, with a little apricot note. Moderately sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $42. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer" Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied mandarin and pink grapefruit. In the mouth, brightly sweet flavors of pink grapefruit and mandarin orange mix with zingy wet stone flavors. Gorgeously bright, with very little weight in the mouth, this is a very light-on-its-feet auslese that tastes only moderately sweet. Delicious. 7.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr" Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and honeysuckle. In the mouth, the wine has a bright crystalline quality with brilliantly pure mandarin and deep mineral notes. Mandarin zest lingers through the finish. Gorgeously, finely veined acidity makes the wine quite bright. Long finish. Harvested 1 week later than the straight Juffer Auslese, and more profound for it. Moderately sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Goldkapsel" Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of mandarin zest and honey. In the mouth, the wine offers a silky texture and flavors of mandarin fruit and honey with a deep crystalline minerality underneath. Excellent acidity keeps the wine bright and effortless on the palate. Moderately sweet, with very little flavor of botrytis, of which there was some in this wine. 7.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45 per 375ml. click to buy.
2012 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Goldkapsel" Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
Light gold in color, this wine smells of mandarin and grapefruit drizzled in honey. In the mouth, silky textured flavors of mandarin and honey mix with a bright stony underbelly. Notes of clover honey linger in the finish along with the minerality and the brightness of mandarin zest. Moderately to very sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45 per 375ml. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr" Riesling TBA, Mosel, Germany
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of gorgeous honeyed scent mixed with apricots. In the mouth, fantastically bright apricot and peach pie flavors have a bright acidity that keeps them from being cloying. Juicy dried apricot flavors linger in a long finish. Very sweet. 6% alcohol. 200 half-bottles made. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1985 Weingut Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Spätlese" Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Light to medium yellow in the glass, this wine has a hint of diesel in the midst of its very honeyed aromas. In the mouth a hint of paraffin mixes with apricot, mandarin orange and wet stones. Phenomenal acidity lingers through a relatively dry finish, even though the wine starts sweet at the front of the mouth. Wonderful pithy notes in the finish. Lightly sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
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