Eva Frick’s eyes are the same shade as her electric turquoise tennis shoes. They are so arresting that it can be hard to concentrate on her soft-spoken and humble answers to my somewhat persistent questions about how a young lady like herself, who didn’t even like wine when she started her career is now making some of the most interesting wines in the Rheingau region of Germany.
“At first,” she says, “I just liked being outside. I liked the individual, creative part of the profession. You can see it as plain agriculture, if you like, but you can also see it as something you can play with, to find patterns and a certain style. After a time, I grew to really enjoy the ecological aspect of it as well. I love the idea of returning to a profession where you actually have to learn to work with nature, as opposed to pressing nature to to conform to your schedule.”
Farming steep, slate-covered hillsides on one of the northernmost bends of the Rhine river isn’t exactly what you’d expect someone with a high school diploma in business and economics to be attracted to. Yet after a trip to South Africa while a student there was a glimmer enough of interest for Fricke to make her next step after high school a stint at the viticulture school in Geisenheim. At the age of 19, she enrolled in one of the world’s most prestigious schools for enology, without really knowing what she was doing.
“When I was at school even I really thought this wasn’t my profession. But I had a chance to met a lot of people and do internships abroad and I think that through that I met people who showed me the creative side of winemaking and winegrowing. It can be spiritual work in a way. You can deal with the technical aspects and make big volume wines for a specific taste, or you can look into the small, micro world of things and see what is there and what you can make of it.”
“My love of wine grew slowly,” she continues. “People showed me wines that I liked. When I was working at Schloss Johannisberg, we would have these tastings and we were exposed to many great wines and many bullshitty wines. You could taste what was great and appreciate it without knowing much. Eventually I learned what I liked, and more importantly I learned how to work the way I liked. Little by little it grew to where I not only liked farming, the natural work, but also the product, and how it expresses what you can make of your vineyards.”
After graduating from Geisenheim, like many such graduates, Fricke took off around the world to work harvests abroad. She spent time in Spain and then Australia, but was forced to come back sooner than she would like because she couldn’t get a visa extension. She got a job working at Weingut Becker for a couple of years.
“That was where I first got the idea that I might like to work for myself, to have my own project,” she recalls. “I had this picture in my head about Riesling on slate, so someone introduced me to Johannes [Leitz] to buy grapes because he had a lot of Riesling on slate. He was growing at the time, expanding from 14 hectares, then to 18 and needed a vineyard manager. So instead of buying grapes from him, I started working for him. First in the vineyards, and then later in the cellar.”
But Leitz was expanding rapidly, and needed more than just cellar work. An enology student with a certificate in management and economics pretty much fit the bill.
“So I moved out of the cellar and did more with marketing, sales and admin, until I was basically the right hand of Johannes Leitz,” says Fricke.
Then in 2006, someone offered Fricke just a portion of an acre on steep hillside land and she jumped at the chance.
“I did it on weekends. It was a bit like a hobby. I had only 600 liters in 2006 and started with Zero. I literally had 2 glass balloons and a 300 liter tank. Little by little I found more land. Whenever I had more money I would buy a tank, or a hose, or some piece of equipment. Then eventually I could rent land. Finally in September of 2011 I left my full time job at Leitz and since then I’ve only been working on my own winery. Every year I finance the bigger vintage with the smaller one, growing a little each year. Now I have my own space. I rented an old winery that was empty.”
After seven years, Fricke now farms around 12 acres of land in the northern reaches of the Rheingau, including some of the coldest sites in the region, two of which are inside the UNESCO World Heritage Middle Rhein Nature and Bird Reserve. During the painstaking hand-harvest that must be done in these treacherously steep vineyards, a friend drives a Sprinter van twice a day between the vineyard sites and her little winery, ferrying grapes in small lots to her cobbled-together crushpad.
As soon as she first had vineyards of her own, Fricke focused on farming without pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, and has since adopted a fairly comprehensive organic regimen for all her vineyards, with products such as orange oil and algae phosphate used as fungicides.
She still doesn’t have everything she needs or wants to make wines the way she would like. Despite having taken out a bank loan, Fricke still can’t afford a wood fermentation tank, nor the few extra acres of vineyards that she would like to be able to farm.
Still, she has managed to cobble together a little patchwork of very high quality vineyard sites. Two of them, Krone and Schlossberg qualify for the erstes gewächs designation, the equivalent of grand cru for the Rheingau.
Despite their pedigree, Fricke refuses to put such designations on her labels.
“I’m a big fan of Burgundy and I believe in the Burgundian classification and I’m a bit sad that the Germans can’t get their classification set in a serious and understandable way with a sense of quality that is logical and true, and not political,” she says forcefully.
Fricke also balks at the use of the country-wide Pradikat system as the primary way of measuring the quality of her wines.
“I downgrade everything and want to focus purely on the site,” she explains. “I believe the Rheingau is one of the most special places for growing grapes, and I don’t want to have to every year meet some certain level of ‘quality.’ If it is a colder vintage then in order to make a wine at the same quality as last year, you have to work with botrytis. I really want to avoid that.”
Fricke does label her Schlossberg wine with the Spätlese designation, but only to indicate that among all her wines, it is the only one with some sweetness.
Fricke uses natural yeasts as much as possible, fermenting her wines in stainless and aging them in stainless tanks and in glass bottles.
“I’m not dogmatic about natural yeasts,” she says. “I use them if I can with a healthy year and good fruit, but if I’m not sure about the microflora of a grape, then I’m not going to suffer through a lot of trials. I have limited quantities of fruit and I don’t want anything to go wrong. But in a great year, a clean year like 2012, we could do a lot with native yeasts.”
Fricke’s wines have a nervous intensity that borders on austerity in some cases, even in a vintage that was as balanced and generous as 2012, thanks in part to the coldness of her sites. But it is clear that Fricke is also aiming for the core of minerality that the greatest Rieslings possess.
“I look for saltiness,” she says, explaining her obsession with the geology of her sites. “The most important thing for saltiness is quartzite, but only when combined with slate. You get it when you have just this pure rock soil, rather than loam.”
Fricke is quick to point out the rough edges in some of her wines, in particular the Krone vineyard, which has an alcoholic sharpness to it in 2012 that is somewhat jarring. She speaks of the vineyard like it is one of her temperamental children, and wishes she had the money to hold it for a year or two before release.
“But,” she says, “I’m young and I need the money.”
At 36 years old, with seven vintages of her own label under her belt and an annual production of about 2000 cases, Fricke is making extraordinary wines, but probably not yet fully expressing the extent of her talent, nor the quality of her sites to the fullest. Certainly an evening spent with her gives the impression of a young lady with incredibly high standards for herself, and the passion to carry her towards meeting them someday. Maybe.
In the meantime, the rest of us can simply drink, and watch.
2012 Eva Fricke Rheingau Trocken Riesling, Rheingau, Germany
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of crushed stones and white flowers. In the mouth the wine offers an delicate expression of the aromas that began this affair, wet marble and white flowers. Beautifully balanced acidity helps this wine be an almost pure expression of stone but the wine stops just short of being austere, however. A blend of vineyard sites, some with loess, some with loam, and some with slate and quartzite. 30% of the fruit for this wine is purchased. Completely dry. 12% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2012 Eva Fricke “Kiedrich” Trocken Riesling, Rheingau, Germany
Palest gold, nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of golden apples, wet stones, and green apples. In the mouth, beautiful green apple flavors mix with deep cistern-like wet stones even as notes of kumquat zest and mixed citrus zest emerge in the finish. Bright juicy and lean. Completely dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $24.
2012 Eva Fricke “Lorch” Trocken Riesling, Rheingau, Germany
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, white flowers and a hint of green apple. In the mouth, gorgeous wet stone character conveys flavors of white flowers, green apples, green plum, and hints of exotic citrus zest. Gorgeously mineral thanks in part to fabulous acidity, this is a lean, racy wine with very elegant features. Completely dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $24.
2012 Eva Fricke “Lorchhäuser Seligmacher” Riesling, Rheingau, Germany
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of green plum, white flowers, and green apple sketched across wet chalkboard. In the mouth, gorgeously bright green apple flavors have a wonderful saline stony quality that accompanies notes of white flowers. Grown in the last vineyard site before the Rheingau wine region ends. Wonderfully balanced and utterly mouthwatering. The wine has 12 grams of residual sugar but tastes dry. Seligmacher means “heaven maker.” 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $33. click to buy.
2012 Eva Fricke “Lorcher Krone” Riesling, Rheingau, Germany
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of crushed stones and white flowers. In the mouth, green apple and white flowers have a slightly alcoholic edge to them that is somewhat harsh. This wine is at a very strange point in its early evolution. Deep minerality. Nice acidity, but somehow imbalanced at this point. 60 year old vines. This is the lowest acid of Fricke’s wines. Completely dry. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $45.
2012 Eva Fricke “Lorcher Schlossberg” Riesling, Rheingau, Germany
Palest gold in the glass, nearly colorless, this wine smells of fresh ripe Fuji apples. In the mouth bright apple and wet stone flavors mix with bright floral notes amidst juicy, even zingy acidity. Faintly sweet, this wine reads as classically off-dry, and lingers for a long time in the finish with notes of exotic citrus and green apple skin. Balanced and lovely with a gorgeous texture. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $55. click to buy.
2012 Eva Fricke “Lorcher Schlossberg” Spätlese Riesling, Rheingau, Germany
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of bright candied green apples and white flowers with a deep rainwater stoniness. In the mouth flavors of bright green apple mix with white flowers and hints of lime. Saline notes mix with the sweetness in the finish. Lightly sweet. Good balance, but doesn’t quite have the depth and complexity of Fricke’s other Schlossberg (and indeed, this is actually a different parcel in the vineyard). 10% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40.
2009 Eva Fricke “Lorchhäuser Seligmacher” Riesling, Rheingau, Germany
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of paraffin, wet stones and burnt citrus peel. In the mouth, juicy dried citrus peel and lemon oil, hints of petrol, and zingy, stony minerality all swirl with beautiful bright complexity. Gorgeously balanced and still very young, this wine sports a beautiful saline finish that promises great things over the next 20 years. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $??
2009 Eva Fricke “Lorcher Krone” Riesling, Rheingau, Germany
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, tart green apple skin, and crabapples. In the mouth the wine is quite austere, with crabapple, green apple, and very tart kumquat zest that linger for a very long time in the finish.13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??