Winding your way along the German Moselstrasse, tucked in between the curves of the river that the highway mirrors, and the impossibly steep vineyards, the picturesque villages whose names adorn some of the world's greatest Rieslings give the impression of timelessness. When the stately homes whose family names also appear on these labels cozy up to 12th Century churches and cobbled courtyards, you can be forgiven for imagining unbroken lines of winemaking patriarchy stretching back for a millennium, as each father handed the cellar keys to his son through the ages.
Certainly, most of the region's famous estates easily fit this description, with names that fill the history books, and forbears whose names were often preceded by honorifics such as Baron and Count.
By comparison, the beginnings of the estate known as Dr. Loosen seems a bit more like a scene from Wayne's World, especially when you meet the bespectacled, long curly-haired and voluble Doctor himself.
Ernst Loosen was chosen by his father and grandfather to take over the family estate from among his siblings and other members of his generation more by process of elimination than by destiny. Coming back from college at word of his father's illness in 1988, he dragged his best friend Bernie Schug along to help him figure out what to do with his father's "little hobby" that grossed $250,000 a year and carried $500,000 worth of debt.
Loosen described the scene a few years later, after he and Schug had managed to figure out where the estate's 19 acres of vineyards were, and how to work all the ancient equipment in the cellar.
"My dad said, 'here's the winery, and here's my debt, too'" laughs Loosen. "I studied archeology. Bernie specialized in tropical pig disease. We were old hippies. We got this other guy from Tonga to come with us, and he was great at logistics. He was in college and said that his whole program was paid by the German state to help develop Tonga. He had a great relationship with the King of Tonga and used to organize booze for the king. We all lived together here in the house, and it was a great time. We continued college here. The door was always open. Sometimes I came home at 4 AM and tried to find a bed in this 18-room house without any luck. Friends told friends told friends. There was always a bed, always booze, always a party. Frankly I didn't know who these people were. It carried on that way until I met my wife in 1992. It became a little too much and my wife said 'OK you have four weeks to get everyone out.'"
"Then only Bernie was left," continues Loosen, "and my wife said 'What is up with this guy?' and I said 'He's the winemaker!' and she said 'OK, I don't care.' Bernie and me, we're the old donkeys here."
Loosen has not lost his reputation for partying, even after forty years. Indeed, several winemakers I know in the U.S. cheerfully warned me off going drinking with Loosen, which they said was a sketchy proposition at best.
But if Loosen has kept that reputation, it certainly has not been at the expense of what is now considered to be one of the best and most successful modern German wine estates, a reputation earned, as it were, with an equal amount of perseverance.
"In the beginning," remembers Loosen, "with me and Bernie, it was easy. We didn't have any money. We had an idea, but neither of us had been trained. My father was ill, and he was clueless anyway. He always had hired a winemaker."
"We developed it fast, we developed it enthusiastic. We were very passionate, very convinced. I wouldn't say we did everything right. In fact, it's better if you get the chance to do things wrong. You have to have your own experience. We learned more every year. I think 1993 was our first break-even year. And things have looked up ever since."
The day his father died, Loosen was handed the keys to not one, but two wine estates. One that had been run by his father and grandfather, dedicated to making primarily dry wines, the other that had been owned by his mother's family (who is descended from the famous Prüm family) and focused on sweeter, or as the Germans like to say, "fruity" wines.
Neither estate had been particularly well cared for, a fact that turned out to be distinctly to Loosen's advantage.
"I'm rather in the fortunate position that neither my father or grandfather ran the wineries as their primary business" says Loosen. "They were tightfisted and never spent a penny on the winery. As you know, the most expensive thing you can spend money on is planting new vineyards. My father and grandfather never planted, and my great-grandfather last planted in 1938. When I took over the winery in '88 the youngest vines were fifty years old."
The oldest vines at the time were headed towards 100 years old, and were growing on their original rootstocks, buried deep into the fractured slate that helps them all but defy gravity on the precipitous walls of the Mosel valley.
If the vines were two generations old, then so were most of the implements in the cellar, leaving Loosen and Schug to figure out how to make wine the same way they were growing it: the old fashioned way.
The pair approached winemaking with the same fervor they pursued the hedonistic lifestyle they had begun in college.
"Bernie and me, we'd come out of the bar at 3 AM and go right into the cellar to stop a fermentation," remembers Loosen fondly.
Loosen's nostalgia for his beginnings could easily mislead the casual listener into imagining two buddies bumbling their way through the cellar. While that might have characterized their very first harvest, Loosen got serious quite quickly. The student of Roman ruins found something to love in the slippery slate and his rows of vines and there was no turning back.
Loosen switched his studies to wine, in the classroom and out. He studied enology at Geisenheim University, and spent several years traveling all over the world tasting wine, and apprenticing with other winemakers in between his own harvests. In the course of that exploration, Loosen realized the treasure that fate had preserved for him in his family's old vines, and set out to build a winery that would showcase these gems to the fullest.
Today, Loosen and Schug have expanded the family's acreage from 19 acres to almost 100, making Dr. Loosen one of the largest producers in the Mosel. Loosen makes three blended wines in larger quantities, a non-estate Riesling called "Dr. L," and two estate Rieslings, one made from grapes grown entirely on blue slate, and another from vines in red slate.
But the core of the Loosen portfolio are the six old-vine sites from which Loosen makes both dry and sweet wines that are benchmark examples of the form. These sites represent some of the Mosel's most hallowed terroir: Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Ürziger Würzgarten, Erdener Prälat, Erdener Treppchen, Bernkasteler Lay, and Graacher Himmelreich all qualify as the German equivalent of Grand Cru vineyards, or Erste Lage.
With the exception of the Dr. L wine, all the wines are fermented with indigenous yeasts, and aged on their lees in massive old oak barrels for at least 9 months before being racked. The singe vineyard wines are aged in old oak for between 12 (for sweet) and up to 24 months (for dry) on the lees before filtration and bottling.
Loosen, who has no children, has been working on a succession plan for the estate.
"My oldest nephew Daniel FINALLY decided to come into the business," says Loosen. "In Germany, they like to stay in college until they're thirty. I don't blame him. I did the same thing. His first degree is Engineering and Business, but he's doing his masters now in Philosophy. He's going to finish next year, and he can talk, this guy. And drinks like a cow."
"He's a bright kid. Not a big spender or someone looking for prestige, and he loves wine. So that means the estate will be in good hands -- someone who honors it and gets it. Of course, he has to go through training. He has to start from the bottom, and work for maybe ten years. Two years at Dönnhof. A year in Oregon. Then he has to work with the distribution company for a year or two. Then two years in China, learning Chinese. Then he has to live there for two years and work the market. Then he has to come back here, work in the bookkeeping department and only then does he get to do winemaking."
Loosen grins, and pours another glass full of afternoon sunlight. It's clear he's got no plans to retire anytime soon.
"We're in sixty countries now," he muses. "Bernie likes to ask me 'where are we going next, sweetie?'"
2012 Dr. Loosen "Red Slate - Dry - Tank Sample" Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Light yellow gold in the glass, this tank sample smells of linalool and pears. In the mouth, the tank sample has a delicate acidity that enlivens flavors of pear and ripe golden apple. The acidity is slightly soft, and white flowers linger in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $15. click to buy.
2012 Dr. Loosen "Blue Slate - Dry" Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, unripe pear, and hints of citrus zest. In the mouth, bright, zingy acidity brings green apple and green plum flavors a bit of bounce on the palate. Nice sour-ish SweetTart flavor on the finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9 . Cost: $16. click to buy.
2011 Dr. Loosen "Wehlener Sonnenuher Grosses Gewächs Trocken" Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Pale yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of wonderful white flowers and hints of spicy pear. In the mouth gorgeous white flowers and crushed stones are riddled with gorgeous filigreed acidity, poised and delicate. Made from 80-year-old, ungrafted vines. 12.5% alcohol. 300 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $35. click to buy.
2011 Dr. Loosen "Ürziger Würtzgarten Trocken Alte Reben Grosses Gewächs" Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Palest yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of pears poached in cream with a deep wet chalkboard character. In the mouth pear and a hint of spice mix with exotic citrus and hints of exotic wood. Fantastically bright acidity makes the wine zingy and wonderfully long in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. 300 cases produced. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $27. click to buy.
2011 Dr. Loosen "Erdener Prälat Trocken Alte Reben Grosses Grewachs" Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of crushed stones and white flowers with a deep, deep stony nature. In the mouth the wine tastes of liquefied rock scented with pear, white flowers and rainwater. Gorgeous, delicate acidity, perfect balance. The finish is long and clean with a chalky note to it. Stunning. Made from 120-year-old ungrafted vines in red slate. Lightly sweet.12.5% alcohol. Tasted out of 375ml. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $34. click to buy.
2012 Dr. Loosen "Bernkasteler Lay" Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and a touch of honey and linalool. In the mouth, gorgeously bright mandarin and pear flavors burst on the palate and linger with a stony note in the finish. Lightly sweet. 8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $23. click to buy.
2012 Dr. Loosen "Erdener Treppchen" Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and ripe pears. In the mouth, beautiful pear and white floral flavors sit poised on the palate while mandarin acidity races electrically around the edges of the mouth, making the saliva glands go into overdrive across the long finish. Juicy, bright and delicious. Lightly sweet. 8.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $25. click to buy.
2012 Dr. Loosen "Wehlener Sonnenuher" Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of peaches, pears, and honeysuckle. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful weightlessness to it as flavors of honeysuckle, mandarin orange and exotic citrus zest pop and crackle with electric acidity. Poised, balanced and gorgeously long in the mouth. Stunning. Moderately sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.
2012 Dr. Loosen "Ürziger Würtzgarten" Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone and rainwater mixed with white flowers and citrus. In the mouth bright and juicy acidity makes flavors of mandarin orange, white flowers and hints of ripe apples dance beautifully on the palate. Gorgeous, balanced, and racy, with a very long finish. Moderately sweet. 8.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $27. click to buy.
2012 Dr. Loosen "Erdener Treppchen - Tank Sample" Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this tank sample smells of honeysuckle and fresh rainwater. In the mouth gorgeous honey and candied pink grapefruit flavors have fantastic brightness thanks to brilliant acidity. The finish sails on for minutes leaving a pastry cream and white flower essence in the mouth. Stunning. Moderately sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2012 Dr. Loosen "Ürziger Würtzgarten - Tank Sample" Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of bright mandarin oranges and there is a hint of peachiness to the wine as with the Spätlese. Gorgeously balanced and light on its feet this wine is all but effortless to drink, sliding across the palate on a golden beam of white flowers and honeyed goodness with a zingy citrus kick that lasts through a long finish. Stunning. Moderately sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2012 Dr. Loosen "Erdener Prälat Goldkapsel - Tank Sample" Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricots, pink grapefruit and honey. In the mouth gorgeous grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors dance on the palate. Peaches, pineapple, and papaya linger in the finish over stony minerality. Effortless and utterly drinkable. Moderately sweet. 100 cases made. The goldkapsel designation refers to a wine made entirely of botrytized fruit. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.
* * *
The wines above would have been an extraordinary tasting on their own, but the good Doctor had one more trick up his sleeve. Someone, it seems, had expressed an interest in Trockenbeerenauslese wines, those made solely from the shriveled raisins left by grapes that have been completely consumed by botrytis. In fact, a fellow journalist traveling with me was busy writing a story on TBAs, and when our hosts, Wines of Germany, made the appointment, they mentioned this fact to Loosen.
"So one of you is writing about TBAs, yes?" said Loosen. When my colleague nodded, Loosen stood up and said "Hold on a moment."
He returned holding five small bottles.
"We make a TBA from the Erdener Prälat vineyard but we've never sold it," he said, gently placing the five bottles on the table. "In fact, we've never opened a bottle," he laughed.
"I had this billionaire who wanted to buy some, and I told him he'd have to wait ten years. Then when ten years was up, he came back to me and I said, 'I changed my mind, it's twenty years now'" chortled Loosen as he pulled the cork. "Last year he asked again, and I told him thirty years!"
"The wines have never even been labeled, you see," said Loosen, pointing out the smudged laser-printed labels on the bottles. "We make about 100 bottles of TBA from Prälat each year," said Loosen, "one third in full bottles, two thirds in half bottles."
The few other TBA wines that Loosen produces are usually sold through special distribution arrangements or auctions, and are snapped up by collectors the moment they hit the market, even at their usual astronomical prices.
Without further ado, here are the world's first tasting notes on the Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat Trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings:
2003 Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat TBA Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Light amber in the glass, this wine smells of smoky honey, apricots, and candied orange peel. In the mouth the wine is voluminous and silky on the tongue. Incredible apricot, peach pie, dried mango, and candied orange peel flavors swirl for minutes on the palate, brightened by intense acidity. Stunning. Very sweet. 5.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2005 Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat TBA Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Light orangey-amber in color, this wine smells of dried orange peel and a hint of sawdust from exotic woods. In the mouth this wine is extraordinary. Perfectly balanced between sweetness and acidity. Gorgeous dried mango, candied orange peel, honey, and exotic floral tones soar through a minutes-long finish. Very sweet. 5.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2006 Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat TBA Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of dried orange peel, dried mango, and apricots. In the mouth the wine is exceedingly silky and thick in the mouth. Like liquid sunshine, the wine lingers on the palate with stunning flavors of candied orange peel, dried apricot, dried pineapple, honey and a hint of nasturtium. Phenomenal balance, incredible acidity, utterly delicious. Very sweet. 6% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2009 Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat TBA Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Medium to dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of bright fresh apricots and honey, with dried apricots and candied orange peel backing them up. In the mouth the wine is heavy and thick with candied papaya, candied mango, and candied orange peel all swirling in a bright storm of juicy acidity. A stunning minerality still manages to rumble beneath the technicolor fruit. Phenomenal. Very sweet. 6% alcohol. Score: Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2011 Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat TBA - Cask Sample Riesling, Mosel, Germany
A cloudy orange-amber in the glass, this wine smells of candied orange peel, dried mango, and fresh apricots drizzled in honey. In the mouth the wine is exceedingly thick and viscous, with flavors of honey and exotic woods mixed with dried mango and candied orange peel. The finish has a baked apple quality to it with burnt orange peel taking over where the stone fruit leaves off. Excellent acidity, and a faint powdery texture thanks to not having been filtered yet. Fermented for almost 2 years before finishing at about 6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
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