Katharina Prüm, joined for several minutes at the beginning by her three-year-old daughter, was our guest at this tasting event. The event and the wines were arranged by Kathleen Burk, Director of the Wine Guild, who also chaired the discussion. Katharina is the main winemaker at her family’s legendary estate, Joh.Jos.Prüm; centred in the village of Wehlen in the Mittelmosel, it also has parcels in vineyards in Graach, Zeltingen and Bernkastel.
Katharina began by giving a short history of the origins and development of the estate. Begun in 1911 by her great grandfather, it had already been making wine for the previous hundred years. She then gave a short history of wine-growing in the Mosel valley, a deep valley between two mountains which is formed like a snake with steep inner curves. They are in the Middle Mosel, around the 50th latitude, and their vineyards have a long vegetation period with a rather slow ripening of the grapes, resulting in wines with an interplay between fruity and floral aromas, focused acidity and a fine minerality.
All of their soil is greyish-blue slate; there is weather-beaten soil on top and slate rock with lots of crevasses below for the roots.
When they pick, there have two containers: one for green, healthy grapes and one for grapes which are botrytis-affected (noble rot). This is all done on steep slopes, and workers have to carry hods on their backs, with ropes to help pull them up. There is as little treatment in the cellar as possible. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel with wild yeasts. Katharina emphasized that there is no ‘time pressure’ in the cellar, with the custom being slow vinification on the yeast and late bottling. She pointed out that young J.J.Prüm wines often show some ‘wildness’, but that this ‘imperfection’ in their beginning ‘is accepted as a natural state of development and the starting point for the development of great wines with a special personality and remarkable ageability’.
She gave a quick explanation and description of one of their labels, followed by an explanation of the German ‘Prädikatsweine’, the highest quality category in German wine law. These are
- Kabinett: entry level, off-dry, rather light-bodied
- Spätlese (‘late harvest’): off-dry, more richness and body, more intense fruit
- Auslese (‘selection’): made of very ripe grapes, but not necessarily botrytised
- Beerenauslese (‘berry selection’): made from grapes affected by botrytis and consequently with very concentrated juice. Can be aged for several decades
- Trockenbeerenauslese (‘dry berry selection’): lusciously sweet dessert wines made from individually selected, extremely shriveled, grapes with the highest sugar levels, concentrated further by botrytis. They are relatively rare and certainly expensive and can last for decades.
- Eiswein: this can be made when the grapes have a sugar concentration of at least Beerenauslese level and can only be produced when the temperature drops to minus 7°C in the vineyard. This freezes the water in the grapes, and when pressed immediately, only a very small quantity of syrup-like juice comes out. It is also a very expensive wine.
She then explained the differences in the German quality/concentration levels. She explained that a ‘Goldkapsel’ wine is one which differentiates between different selections in the Auslese category. Bottles with a Goldkapsel and a white band at the bottom of the capsule combines partly the juice of the very finest ‘healthy’ grapes and partly the juice of more concentrated ones due to a certain amount of noble rot. Those with a long Goldkapsel with two white bands indicate an even higher concentration of the juice by noble rot, but not yet the typical Beerenauslese character caused by full botrytis. Wines which are labeled as Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) and Eiswein always ‘wear’ a long Goldkapsel.
Katharina showed a photograph showing the location of three of their four vineyards.
Remembering that the labels will show two names, the first the village ending in –er (meaning from), and the second the name of the vineyard, the four are Bernkasteler Badstube, Graacher Himmelreich, Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Zeltinger Sonnenuhr. The steepness of the slope, the aspect of the vineyard with the amount of sun, and the distance from the river all make a difference in the grapes – which are all Riesling – and a huge difference in the taste of the wines. The reason she gave was that Riesling, like Pinot Noir, has a great sensitivity to the terroir. She then showed individual pictures of the vineyards, beginning with the most famous, the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, with the sundial which gives it its name. The Graacher Himmelreich is the biggest vineyard on the slope, and, with Badstube, is a bit higher in acidity that the Wehlener Sonnenuhr. The final vineyard is the Zeltinger Sonnenuhr; we did not taste any wines from it. [Zeltingen is considered a top, but underrated, village and the Prüm wines from there are not so easily available as those from Wehlen and Graach.]
Katharina believes that Riesling is not only the white grape most sensitive to terroir, but is the most versatile grape for food pairing, matching well with many different cuisines. She regrets that most people are not aware of this, and their mission for the next years is to give people opportunities to experience this. She then showed a picture with nine different plates of food, beginning with venison with an Auslese; she chooses an Auslese because venison is quite rich and you need a wine that is quite rich. When a Russian visitor arrived with some caviar for them to try with their wines, they had a comparative tasting with a good champagne and an Auslese with some age, and they all, including the Russian visitor, thought the latter went better with the caviar.
Moving to fish, she noted that crustaceans go well with Mosel wines because they have a natural sweetness. They also experimented with oysters, pitting a Chablis against a Riesling. An aged Auslese worked better – not a young wine, because they are too fruity and rich, but an Auslese with ten or fifteen years or so. She argued that the saltiness of the oysters and the saltiness of the gray slate ‘had a nice conversation with each other’, whilst the slight sweetness of the wine ‘helped to build a bridge between the two’. She also pointed out that minerality and the saltiness in oysters can fight with each other.
She then moved to Asian cuisines – these can be a bit spicy and Riesling works very well, as well as with ceviche, showing the raw fish with avocado and some lime juice. She pointed out that food changes the wines, which can taste drier with food than on their own.
When serving Prüm wines, she believes that a temperature of 8-9º C is ideal. She recommends an initial chilling to around 6º C, since they warm up so quickly once poured. This is regrettable, because it can preclude a valuable breathing of the wined before enjoying it. She added that decanting ‘is always a good advice’. [KB: I regret not asking whether she would recommend decanting it and then putting the decanter in the fridge to bring the temperature down.] Their young wines are attractive in their ‘juvenile wildness’, but they gain finesse and complexity with age, and also become drier. The higher the Prädikat, the longer the life expectancy.
Tasting the wines:
Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 2018
Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2018
Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese 2018
2018 was a hot year. Indeed, in comparison to 2009, there was a long duration of the hot period; therefore, they knew that the wines would be ripe and she was interested to see how they would turn out. This was not a problem that her father had had, because until the 1980s the area was such a cooler climate and ripeness was a huge concern. For her, Mosel doesn’t stand for ripeness or power, but for elegance and lightness, and they were happy that the wines turned out characteristic of the Mosel. The Kabinetts may be slightly richer than some other years, but still a classic Kabinett, elegant and off-dry. The difference between Kabinett and Spätlese is that Kabinett is more delicate and Spätlese is on the fruitier side.
Differences between Graach and Wehlen: the wines from Graacher Himmelreich are slightly racier and slightly more acidic, whilst those from Wehlener Sonnenuhr are even more complex and dense and deep, but slightly less accessible at such an early stage.
One taster was drinking the 2012 Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett 2012, which he found quite rich, and he wanted Katharina to compare it with the 2018. She replied that 2012 was much cooler than 2018, but had a warm few days around the 20th of October, and after that they started the harvest; the wine benefitted from the late heat. The 2018, being so young, is much fruitier; his 2012 benefits from six years’ bottle age, and thus is rounder with more minerality. Another taster joined the screen and recommended drinking it with chicken liver parfait.
KB had both the Graacher and the Wehlener wines in front of her, and, whilst very aware of the differences arising the different terroirs of the two vineyards, asked Katharina whether she had understood her correctly when she seemed to imply that the Wehlener wines were of a higher quality than the Graacher ones. She replied that she sometimes tends towards the Graacher wines because of their raciness and freshness, which she prefers in the first ten to fifteen years. Then she turns to the Wehlener wines, which she likened to a marathon runner: they begin slowly, and then show greatness. They are different in character but not different in quality.
She then compared the 2016 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese with the 2018: you can see not only the difference in the vintages but the differences with two more years’ bottle age. 2016 was not as hot as 2018. From the beginning the 2018 was ‘charming and mouth-watering’, whilst 2016 was completely closed in its youth. It only began to open up in later summer 2017, and her most intense memory was of a saltiness that dominated the fruit. Now it is more integrated, although it is still young.
One taster thought that the Wehlener Kabinett 2018 was surprisingly forward for this wine, more open than her wines normally are. She agreed, that it is more open and developed than in most years, and strong enough to be paired with appetisers. The 2018 Spätlese, as is usual, is more backward: the higher the concentration, the longer a wine needs in order to integrate.
She strongly recommended the use of a Coravin in order to pour wine without having to pull out the cork, saying that they use it a lot.
She then moved to the 2012 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese. 2012 was a much cooler year: harvest began on the 20th of September in 2018, whilst in 2012 it began on the 22nd of October, more typical of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s. The 2012 is drier and more on the mineral side than the 2016 and particularly than the 2018. It still has the fruit, but it is now even more food-friendly and versatile.
A local taster said that his German friends do not realize that they have a top-fifty wine on their doorstep. Katharina agreed, saying that almost all of their wines are exported, although the domestic consumption of their wines is beginning to rise. Andrew stated that they produced the most affordable top-fifty wine in the world. He then asked, given that the Graacher and the Wehlener wines are so very different, how can it be explained – e.g., how far apart are the two vineyards? She replied that they are immediate neighbours, and they themselves find it fascinating that even in a hot year when the fruit ought to dominate, the vineyard characteristics are still there. They try to explain it by the different aspects – the Graacher Himmelreich aspect is slightly more to the west, which can give it a half-hour or an hour more sunlight depending on the parcel, and there is a difference between morning sun and evening sun. The water supply is slightly higher in the Graacher Himmelreich, but there is no lack in the Wehlener Sonnenuhr. The soil in the Himmelreich has slightly more topsoil over the grey slate, which means that the roots hit the rock a little later; in the Sonnenuhr they hit the rock earlier. These components help to explain the differences between the two vineyards.
Returning to the wines, she now talked about the two Auslese wines. She considered first the 2017 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese. 2017 was also a rather cool year, and it is so young, it is pretty closed – indeed, she said that it should be the most closed of all the wines we were tasting. Compared to, e.g., the 2012 Spätlese, it has a little bit more concentration and complexity, but a little bit less accessibility.
Finally, there was the Bernkastler Badstube Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel 2010. 2010 was a very interesting vintage because it was rather cool, and a characteristic was that the flowering period came in a very cool period, which extended the flowering. This caused a very uneven ripening of the grape clusters, with ripe grapes alongside some more acidic grapes. 2010 is a very good vintage for those who love acidity, because it is combined with great concentration and high ripeness – it is, she said, quite unique in this combination. This wine is a jump up: it has some botrytis and good concentration, but also freshness. For her, it is a textbook Goldkapsel.
Katharina closed by speaking about the prospects for the 2019 vintage. She said that it had some warm days, but it was not as warm as 2018. Thus it has some of the warm aspects of 2018 but it also has high acidity levels and a different character. It has a ‘good mix’ of the entire quality range, and it is a vintage to look forward to.
Director, Wine Guild of the UK