Presently, I find myself recalling the adventure I was about to embark on last fall, as I look down the barrel of another adventure this September. I blame the weather for this particular nostalgia, the kind of hot, sticky weather in the thick of which you can’t remember not sweating, the kind of heat and humidity that cradles a thunderstorm in the making, and you beg for that thunderstorm to break up the oppressive monotony of sun on pavement. For me, this weather always feels pregnant with storms and possibility, a sense of change on the horizon.
I remember my last shift at Chambers Street, almost exactly a year ago, followed by a few days of freedom before the flight to Paris, the journey to Jura. My memory passes by the disaster of failing to get off the train at Lyon and having to hustle across the platform in Valence to go north again, and then east, east, east to Mouchard on the dinky local train with all the Jurassic teenagers gaping at me and my massive red suitcase. The crown jewel of that jet-lagged first evening in Arbois was the moment I stepped into the gîtes that would be my month-long home, whispering to myself “Holy shit. I’m going to love it here … ” The night air was cool and fresh, the sky starry, and my skylight looked out on the church steeple. I passed many blissful evenings in the garden below, overlooking the river, sipping glasses of Tissot’s single vineyard Chardonnays, or Crémant rosé from Domaine des Bodines, eating too much comté because I could buy an arm size tranche at the Fruitière for about seven euros, reading Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Taking that sabbatical, going to Arbois for harvest was one of the finest things I’ve ever done, and I still think it’s bizarre that the sound of my alarm carries me back to mornings that began at 5:45 am with a quick, foul-tasting coffee, and an ascent up the hill to Montigny-lès-Arsures.
But what I started out to write about is something that happened later, in October of last year, three days that have been much on my mind over the past few weeks since a bottle of Immich-Batterieberg at Trestle on Tenth reminded me of how truly glorious these wines can be. What impressed me most about the bottle Ralf brought to our table was the wine’s ability to pair with everything, with the sweaty evening, with the salad of white asparagus and egg, with sweet breads, with Ralf’s pork belly cured in the basement. The wine did wonders for every dish we ate, and its pronounced minerality coated our palates and then washed them clean like a baptism, making us want to eat and drink more.
I should insert a quick note here about how I came to know these Germans. I met Clemens Busch early in my New York career, when I was buying at Astor, and he is the winemaker who changed my mind about German wine, who made me realize Riesling didn’t have to be either sweet or forcedly dry. At that time, his wines were imported by a tiny, inspiring portfolio called Mosel Wine Merchant. Working with this portfolio was a treat in myriad ways: regular visits from Dan Melia, Clemens in tow if he was in town, the chance to employ the word “sponty” often and with gusto. Astonishingly, it’s not difficult even after almost seven years to describe exactly what snared me at my first tasting with Clemens: the wines felt natural (not in the sense of Natural Wine), but in the sense of Riesling to which very little had been added; there was an ease, and a lack of pretension about these wines that I loved. They were earthier and drier than I was used to; they didn’t have the succulent, flamboyant aromas I was used to from bottles of Dönnhoff, or that particular mouth-watering balance of sugar and acid that typifies classic German Riesling whether it’s Kabinett or Auslese. In some ways they were quieter wines, less showy and more subtle, and they weren’t always delicious! Sometimes Clemens’ wines were hot, sometimes they had awkward hints of botrytis; they were slaves to vintage and laissez-faire winemaking, but they left a profound impression on me, and in that era I drank as much from the Mosel Wine Merchant book as I could.
Then, Mosel Wine Merchant disbanded, the growers flung to other portfolios. Luckily for me, Clemens, along with Gernot Kollman of Immich-Batterieberg, and Matthias Knebel, washed up in the Dressner portfolio. And so I got to know Gernot while traveling in France. Each winter, bracketed by various tastings in the Loire, LDM stages a unique and wonderful event called Valaire, attended by the majority of their winemakers, and a select group of customers. The second time I went to Valaire, I felt more of a connection with LDM’s German growers than with their French or Italian ones. In my role at Chambers, it didn’t do me much good, but damn I loved those dry, and very lightly sweet, slate-y German Rieslings fermented with native yeast, and often aged in old, neutral barrel. I returned to them over and over, and found myself often at the table next to Gernot, Matthias, or Clemens, learning from them.
I’d been chatting with Gernot the whole time I was in Arbois and, truth be told, I was trying to get out of working while in Germany, but each time I tried to side step the work, I’d receive a note saying “you’ll be here just in time for harvest! I’ll find things for you to do!” There was no escaping it …
So I went to Enkirch, to Immich-Batterieberg, a mansion and cellar with a rich history dating back many centuries. The first night, Gernot and I ate perfectly cooked fish, and fresh spaetzle in garlic butter; we drank filigreed 2013 Riesling from the Zeppwingert vineyard, followed by Gernot’s electric 2010 Spätburgunder, a unicorn if there ever was one, and I slept the sleep of angels. The next morning, there was fog everywhere, and before I met Gernot in the cellar to begin helping him out, I took a short stroll through the town, past the Steffensberg vineyard, breathing the chilly morning air, the mist enveloping me.
Gernot was tearing his hair out when I arrived at the winery. Why? The 2014 harvest was a rough time in the Mosel. What was promising to be a beautiful, dry fall, with lots of sun, had devolved into a dank, warm, rainy mess. Grape clusters had been attacked by the vinegar fly, and were turning up rotten, even after copious sorting in the vines. I watched while the harvesters dumped grapes into what looked like a grinder perched on top of the press to be lightly ground before descending into the bowels of the press, and then, by gravity, into the waiting tanks underground. Gernot explained that the grinder extracted more phenolics from the bunches, and seemed surprised that we hadn’t used one chez Tissot.
The cave at Immich-Batterieberg is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. It’s pristine, lined on one side with stainless steel tanks, and on the other with rows of barriques, and some large, old foudres. In the bung holes of the barrels are glass u-shaped tubes partially filled with water. When the water starts burbling, the yeast is active, and fermentation is happening. Cool and quiet but for the burble of fermentation, I very much enjoyed being down there, spraying the insides of the stainless steel tanks with a pressure hose, and steaming hot water. I quickly realized that Gernot did, in fact, need help. He’s a one man show, this guy, and having a side kick to clean a barrel, hold a hose, or flip the switch on a pump goes a long way when you’re doing everything yourself.
I received an assignment that rivaled scrubbing tartrates from the insides of barrels at Tissot’s: cleaning the filtration machine. Now, I don’t fully understand the technology of filtration, and the machines come in a range of styles, but I’m going to take a crack at explanation of this process. At Tissot’s we sent the “bourb,” which is essentially the very ass end of a tank of juice, murky and leesy, offsite to be filtered. Gernot has his own machine to do this. It’s a giant open bowl into which you rack this very lees-y juice. You then dump in part of a bag of clay, and drop a very large wand down into the mix to make a slurry of clay and juice. As this muddy, gray juice runs through the machine itself, which is a domino-like row of square plaques with tightly woven mesh in between, the lees and and clay adhere to one another and get stuck in mesh, while the juice emerges on the other side, clean and translucent. But after each use, it has to be rid of the cakes and slurry of sticky juice, lees, and clay that build up between the plaques. This is a great job for the stagiaire!
In the midst of my second cleaning of the filtration machine, Gernot approached me to propose a silver lining, namely that afternoon I could borrow one of his bikes and ride the 9 kilometers down the road to Pundereich to see Clemens and Rita Busch, who were, of course, also harvesting. I was thrilled! A change of pants later, I grabbed Gernot’s bike and in vain tried to adjust the seat to fit my lanky frame. Then I hopped on and started pedaling along the Mosel to Pundereich. Gernot had told me exactly how to find Clemens and Rita’s winery, but his directions had gone completely out of my head, and I just assumed I’d find it. I did, but not before I’d taken the tour of Pundereich at least three times.
Rita and Clemens were in the vines when I arrived, and their tasting room assistant who bears a French name beginning with “A”, took me over to see them on a barge that crosses the Mosel. They greeted me warmly, Clemens looking as always like a hero from the Arthurian legends, Rita with a kerchief around her head, secateurs and a bucket in her hand. Then their faces fell once more as they began to explain what a tough go of things they were having in 2014. The Busch’s 16 hectare estate has been farmed biodynamically for some time now, and I could conjecture that their choice to eschew chemicals in the vines made things harder in 2014, but truth be told I don’t think it mattered too much whether you were conventional or organic. The weather was so bad, so opposite of what it should have been that chemical treatments or not, Mosel growers would lose a large percentage of their crop in 2014 to rot, mildew, and Drosophilia Suzuki. Looking at the vines with both Gernot and Clemens, I had the same sinking, powerless, sad feeling of something really shitty happening to winemakers of whom I’m so fond, who strive to make great wine, who do not deserve to loose over half their crop to the capriciousness of weather in the era of climate change.
We returned to the tasting room for the 2013s, and left Clemens and Rita in the vines with their harvesters. I learned pretty quickly that 2013 had also been no easy vintage. There was lots of rot, lots of bad botrytis, and while the Busch’s terraced sites produced good grapes, the Marienburg, one of their signature parcels, did not. They sorted a lot, and they lost a lot. But incredibly, in spite of these adverse conditions, Clemens and Rita made some of the most beautiful wines I’ve ever tasted from this domaine. I was blown away by the over all quality of the 2013 wines, to the extent that I’ve been asking for them in New York for probably six months (now they’re here).
This is a photo of three of the Busch’s top wines, from 75-80 year old, ungrafted vines, grown on red slate (Marienburg Rothenpfad), blue slate (Fahrlay Terrassen), and gray slate (Marienburg Falkenlay). The wines are capsuled with red, blue, and gray foil, to let you know which terroir you’re experiencing. Clever. As a primarily French wine person (at least to date), I am skeptical of my own abilities to contextualize these wines, but I’ll give it a go. To my palate, the most “classic” wines from Busch are the blue slate wines. Fahrlay Terrassen has the most sugar of the lot (15 grams), and is exuberant and pretty aromatically, with a bit of petrol, and mouth-watering balance. The gray slate wines are surprising. Falkenlay, with it’s 9.2 grams of sugar and 13% alcohol, is an earthy, bass-y wine, round and creamy, fresh and high acid, but without the intense, steely cut of Fahrlay. As yet my favorite is the red slate collection. Rothenpfad is the lowest in sugar at 8.7 grams, with sour cherry and cranberry notes. And honestly, one of my favorite wines from this estate, hands down, is the basic Vom Roten Scheifer with its aromatic raspberry and flower petal nose and bracing, mouth-coating finish. This wine is a tour de force in 2013, and as yet the only one I’ve drunk state side.
Clemens and Rita made many more wonderful wines in 2013. They triumphed in a tough year, and it gave me hope that they’ll triumph again in 2014. At a certain point during our tasting, I stopped spitting because the wines were so good, which is highly unusual for me. Their Kabinetts and Spätlesen were nectary and sexy, and not normally my preferred style, but for just a sip they were perfect. Clemens and Rita came back from the vines, and we chatted some more, those crushed, baleful looks never long leaving their faces. It started to get dark and they offered to drive me back to Gernot’s, but I insisted on riding, and enjoyed an exciting, tipsy ride along the now dark path by the Mosel. There were no signs for Enkirch; I hopped off after what felt like about 9 kilometers, and asked an elderly gent if I was in the right place. I was just one turn from Gernot’s door, where he was patiently waiting to take me to dinner.
The next morning, I had the chance to render a favor. There were twelve British tourists coming to taste. Gernot had scheduled them months previously, not knowing where he’d be with the harvest, namely right in the middle of it. He asked me if I’d mind talking them through the wines while he continued to work in the winery and cellar. After 15 minutes of intense prep, Gernot lectured while packing a pallet for local delivery, I was ready. I learned many new things about Immich-Batterieberg. Since 2009 Gernot has not used a single gram of selected yeast, nor enzymes, etc. I learned that the Steffensberg vineyard is red slate soil, which perhaps explains why I’ve always been drawn to it. (Apparently I like red slate.) I learned about the history of the estate, which dates back to 911. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the dukes of Escheburg acquired it, and in the 14th century the Immich family settled in. They stayed until 1989. Gernot took over in 2007, and has been steadily building a reputation for himself, and for the estate.
I’m not sure why these three days in the Mosel some eleven months ago have come back to me now. I truly think the weather has something to do with it … Nothing quite pierces through the heat and humidity like a cool glass of Riesling …