Philip Day discusses Egon Müller Scharzhofberg Riesling, much admired by great wine connoisseurs.
Many of the great wine connoisseurs consider Riesling to be Germany’s finest contribution to the world of wine. In terms of importance, it is customarily listed in the top triumvirate of quality white wine varieties together with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Wines produced from Riesling grapes are fragrant, fruity, racy even and long-lived. Moreover, they have a unique quality of transparency, a clarity of flavour that in a similar quality Chardonnay is likely to be more diffuse by comparison.
Riesling is a variety whose character is very much influenced by the wine’s place of origin (terroir). It is especially aromatic, with an aroma so sharp and piercing, in combination with a naturally high acidity, that it can resemble wines made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Except that the aromas of Sauvignon Blanc are of nettles, gooseberries and limes, whereas Riesling’s are more likely to be floral, honeyed, mineral, nutty, with hints of stone and citrus fruits. The exact flavour depends exactly on where it is grown, the ripeness of the grapes and how long it has been allowed to age.
The most impressive aspect of the Riesling grape, in my opinion, is the range of wine styles that have their origins on the steep, slate sides of the Mosel Valley. The off-dry Kabinett, in which the light, refreshing character of Riesling is most emphasised; the medium dry Spätlese and Auslese; the sensational Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese that balance sweetness with the inherent acidity of the grapes and finally, Eiswein, made from frozen grapes.
Of all the great wine producers from Germany no one seems to be as revered as Weingut Egon Müller. Since 1797, the Müller family has produced wines that have earned the worldwide respect of winemakers and wine lovers alike. From their vineyards are produced some of the most astounding wines that become even more breathtaking with time. With such a reputation, the wines command a hefty price. Being surely some of the most age-able and profound wines you will ever encounter, they are so worth it, though!
The Egon Müller estate has been in the hands of the Müller family since 1797. Following the French Revolution and the subsequent occupation of the West Bank of the River Rhine by the revolutionary government, the current Egon Müller’s great great-grandfather Jean-Jacques Koch, acquired the Scharzhof estate from the ‘République Française’ and laid the foundations for the estate which exists in that format to this day.
Egon Müller IV
It is believed that the Scharzhofberg vineyard was probably planted by the Romans. Furthermore it is recorded that it came under the auspices of the ‘St Marien ad Martyres’ Monastery in Trier from its founding circa 700 AD and throughout the Middle Ages. This oversight of the vineyard lasted until the confiscation of all church properties within lands owned by the Duchy of Luxembourg, following the French Revolution.
On his death, Jean-Jacques’ legacy passed to his seven children. Felix Müller married one of his daughters, Elisabeth, who ran the business together. Subsequently, as a result of inheritances and additional purchases, the pair managed to double the size of the estate by the mid 1850s.
In 1887 Elisabeth and Felix’ second son, Egon Müller (these days referred to as Egon Müller I), married and his father-in-law acquired for the couple, the tranche of the estate held by Egon’s sister, Felicitas.
It was Egon Müller I who was instrumental in developing and building on the reputation that the Scharzhof estate holds to this day. It was thanks to his entrepreneurial skills, for example, promoting the wines the estate produced at the 1900 Exposition Universelle et Internationale in Paris, that helped create a reputation for quality products. Indeed, wines of the Scharzhof quickly gained an international reputation. They fetched the highest awards at world’s fairs in London (1862), Chicago (1893), Paris (1900), St. Louis (1904) and Brussels (1910).
In 1932, following his death, the business passed to his two sons, Egon (II) and Felix.
Egon Müller II unfortunately died in an accident in 1941, so it was left to his wife and children to run the vineyard during the war, when lack of equipment, labour and other supplies meant that the condition of the vines deteriorated during this time.
In 1945 Egon Müller III returned to the estate after being held as a prisoner of war in England. He set about harvesting the grapes but only succeeded in producing 1,200 litres of wine from 7.4 hectares of land.
In 1954 Müller purchased the Le Gallais estate winery, acquiring half of the 2.5 hectares of their vineyards (situated in the Wiltinger Kupp and Braune Kupp) and leasing the other half.
Beginning in 1985, Egon Müller III effectively ran the estate alongside his son, Egon Müller IV until his death in 2001, although the latter officially became the manager of the estate in 1991.
Today, the estate owns 8.3 of the 28 hectares of the famous Scharzhofberg vineyard in Germany’s Mosel (formerly Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) region. The family exploits their single vineyard holding to the fullest, and as a consequence are ranked among the region’s top wine producers.
Egon Müller IV is the sole German member of the Primum Familiae Vini – a small group of elite family owned producers- whose other members include: Château Mouton Rothschild, Vega Sicilia, Torres, Pol Roger, Antinori and Hugel et Fils.
Egon Müller IV
Total: 8.3 hectares (20.5 acres).
Scharzhof , Scharzhofberger Kabinett, Scharzhofberger Spätlese, Scharzhofberger Auslese (& Goldkapsel), Scharzhofberger Beerenauslese, Scharzhofberger Trockenbeerenauslese, Scharzhofberger Eiswein
A mixture of grey and red slate, with a relatively high proportion of loess sediment.
Around 80,000 bottles annualy
Top Vintages Produced
1971, 1989, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011.
Mosel is one of 13 German wine regions or Weinbaugebiete producing quality wines (QbA and Prädikatswein), taking its name from the River Mosel. Prior to the 1st August 2007, the region was commonly referred to as ‘Mosel-Saar-Ruwer’, the change reflecting a need for a more consumer-friendly name.
The wine region is the leader in terms of international prestige but Germany’s third largest in terms of production. The region follows the valleys of the River Mosel and its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer as they meander downstream, from their sources in the Vosges mountains of France and Luxembourg near Saarburg and Trier, to its union with the Rhine at Koblenz in the federal state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate). The area is renowned for the steep slopes of the region’s vineyards overlooking the river.
The Mosel wine region has a northerly continental climate, marked by cool temperatures. The best producing vineyard sites are located where the heat from the sun can be reflected up the valley sides by the water from the river.
A benefit of the steep south & south west facing slopes of some of the Mosel vineyards is that their incline allows for more direct sunlight to have contact with the vines, aiding the grapes to ripen.
The soil of the area is predominately porous grey slate which provides ideal drainage for the heavy rainfall the region is prone to as well as its good heat retaining properties. The summer months are warm rather than hot with average temperatures of around 18°C (64 °F) in July.
The Riesling grape, widely considered the most prestigious and highest quality wine grape of the Mosel is grown on about 60% of the region’s cultivated vineyard surface. Factors such as altitude, aspect of the vineyard and amounts of exposure to sunlight can have a pronounced effect not only one the resulting quality of the wine but also as to whether or not the Riesling grape will even ripen at all, mean that it cannot be planted on every vineyard site.
A positive characteristic of the Riesling grape, however, is that despite less than perfect ripeness it can still be coaxed to create wines of finesse and elegance that most other grape varieties are incapable of imitating.
The Oechsle Scale
Widely used in the wine-making industries of Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg, the Oechsle Scale (named for Ferdinand Oechsle (1774-1852))is a hydrometer scale measuring the density of grape must indicating both the sugar content and an indication of grape ripeness.
On the Oechsle scale, one degree Oechsle (° Oe) corresponds to one gram of the difference between the mass of one litre of must at 20 °C and 1 kg (the mass of 1 litre of water) For example, must with a specific mass of 1054 grams per litre has 54° Oe.
The Oechsle scale forms the basis of most German wine classifications. In the highest quality category, Prädikatswein, the wine is assigned a Prädikat based on the Oechsle reading of the must. The regulations set out minimum Oechsle readings for each Prädikat, which depend on wine-growing regions and grape variety:
- Kabinett – 73-80 °Oe
- Spätlese – 81-87 °Oe
- Auslese – 88-109 °Oe
- Beerenauslese and Eiswein – 110-149° Oe
- Trockenbeerenauslese – 150+ °Oe
Weingut Egon Müller, (part of the Scharzhofberger vineyard) officially in the Mosel wine region, is actually located on a small tributary of the Saar between Wiltingen and Oberemmel, a few kilometres south of Trier. The wines originating from this vineyard are considered well refined and elegant, with fine-grained acidity and penetrating salty mineral tones. They possess potential for legendary ageing and even when very mature, retain a fruity depth.
Scharzhofberger is probably the most famous vineyard of the Saar and is unusual in being an Ortsteil, meaning it is referred to on wine labels by the vineyard name only, without the addition of the name of the village where it is located. Thus wines originating from this site are labelled simply Scharzhofberg, rather than Wiltingen, Scharzhofberg, in much the same way as Grand Cru Burgundy.
The vineyard covers some 28ha (70 acres), although its ownership is divided between several owners. It is south facing, sloping at a gradient of 35-60%, its soil is composed of a mixture of grey and red slate, with a relatively high proportion of loess (a sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown silt.)
In the wine making process, special handling is required during harvesting to avoid crushing or bruising the skin, given the delicate nature of the Riesling grape. Broken skins could leak tannin into the juice, resulting in a conspicuously coarse taste, upsetting the balance of Riesling’s range of flavours and aromas. At Egon Müller all grapes are picked by hand and transferred to the winery in small containers.
Immediately after picking, the grapes and juice are pressed. Then, after they have been gently processed through a bladder press, just before fermentation, the juice is lest to settle for ca. 24 hours and if necessary chilled.
The vinification techniques Egon Müller IV and his cellar-master, Stefan Fobian, employ to bring the glorious raw materials of the Scharzhofberg to fruition as wine, are very traditional. The wines are fermented and aged in thousand litre, old oak fuders (round wine casks), with the fermentation brought about with indigenous yeasts whenever possible.
Unlike Chardonnay, during fermentation Riesling does not undergo any malolactic fermentation, as the wine is kept cool at a temperature of between 10-18 °C (50-64°F). This helps preserve the tart, acidic characteristic of the wine that supplies Riesling with its superior ‘thirst-quenching’ qualities.
Riesling is often put through a cold stabilization process, where the wine is stored just above its freezing point and kept at this temperature until much of the tartaric acid has crystallized and precipitated out of the wine. After this, the wine is usually filtered to remove any remaining yeast or impurities. The goal at Weingut Egon Müller, as previously stated, is to produce the finest, most traditional wines as possible. The wines are nurtured in the deep, very cold and damp cellars that date back to the days of the monks, offering a perfect environment in which to gently create wines that are destined for the long haul.
Egon Müller IV is a stickler for family tradition, opting for minimal intervention in wine production, ardently adhering to the philosophy of producing natural wines, without the need for chaptalisation (the process of adding sugar to unfermented grape must in order to increase the alcohol content after fermentation.) The quality of their vineyard allows them to produce the best grapes and their resultant Riesling wines are clearly infused with the character and potential of the wine’s terroir.
There are two major wine growers’ associations in the Mosel region that arrange annual wine auctions of top wines. Firstly there’s the Bernkasteler Ring and more significantly the élite producers group, the Grosser Ring, which is a regional section of the VDP, (Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter e.V. or the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates.) Producers can submit their wines to the VDP for taste testing to qualify as reserve wines known as Erste Lage (comparable to Grand Crus in France).
In order to be a VDP member, a wine estate must adhere to certain standards which are slightly more stringent than those dictated by German wine law. VDP members usually include the VDP logotype, a stylized eagle with a cluster of grapes, on their wine bottles. Also, the members have access to the new VDP-specific classifications ‘Erste Lage’ and ‘Grosses Gewächs’ for top dry wines that fulfil the requirements. For example, VDP regulations state that harvesting must be by hand and yields must not exceed 220 cases per acre (50 hl/ha).
The GROSSER RING VDP Mosel-Saar-Ruwer comprises some 31 members. Despite its 100 years of its history, the names of the members have barely changed. Since 2008, its president has been Egon Müller IV.
Overview of Egon Műller’s Scharzhofberger Rieslings
Scharzhof is described as Müller’s entry level wine but it is anything but entry level. Introduced in 1973, it’s a QbA (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete, – a quality wine from a specific region.) Many wine critics and professional tasters consider it to be one of the finest Qualitätswein bottlings now to be encountered in Germany.
The grapes, used in its production come from the vineyards in Saarburg, Oberemmel, and Wawern, together with those from the Wiltinger sites of Kupp and Braunfels. Occasionally, grapes from the more prestigious vineyards may be added, depending on the quality of the harvests.
While it may be quaffed young it has a storage potential of up to eight years. Egon Müller’s Prädikatswein, range (renamed from Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) (superior quality wine) in August 2007):
Kabinett (cabinet) literally means a wine of reserve quality to be kept in the vintner’s cabinet .
The Egon Müller label guarantees an extremely cellar-worthy and intense expression of Kabinett. The dramatic impact of notes of stony slate of this great site, together with the lack of residual sweetness of its sugars, are allowed to fully define the wine and thanks to the low yields practised by the estate, the deep intensity of flavours is assured.
What characterises their Kabinett wines is that the grapes used are ripe enough to avoid any chaptalisation but haven’t been allowed to become over-ripe. Grapes produced in the Saar valley climate can be fully ripe while still retaining a low sugar content. This factor perhaps helps to explain the unique qualities of the wines they produce.
Scharzhofberger Spätlese (literally ‘late harvest’)
Next we have his equally stunning Spätlesen.
At the winery, the name Spätlese is used to describe wines made from very ripe or over-ripe grapes. The sugar content is higher than that of the Kabinetts, although great care is taken to ensure a balance of sweetness and acidity. While still young the wines can taste very sweet but over time the wines take on a complexity of flavours that are unrivalled.
Scharzhofberger Auslese (literally ‘select harvest’)
Müller’s Auslesen are made from noble not affected, hand selected bunches, typically semi-sweet or sweet, with some noble rot character, as the vineyard does not treat the vines against botrytis. This adds new dimensions of character to both the bouquet and taste of the wines.
When drunk young, the resultant taste is very seductive, however they have great storage potential and patience it certainly rewarded.
In years of excellent harvests Auslese Goldkapsel (gold topped bottles) are produced.
In recent times, the best Auslesen were produced in 2010, 2006, 2005, 1999, 1994, 1993, 1990 and 1989.
Scharzhofberger Beerenauslese (BA) (literally ‘select berry harvest’)
The Beerenauslesen are made from noble rot affected individually picked berries, makes for a rich sweet dessert wine with plenty of concentrated flavours.
Scharzhofberger Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) (literally ‘dry berry selection’)
‘Trocken’ in the name refers to the grapes being dried on the vine rather than the resulting wine being a dry style. This expression of Riesling is made from individually selected shrivelled grapes affected by noble rot resulting in an extremely rich sweet wine, with a syrupy consistency. In spite of the high levels of residual sugar, there is sufficient acidity to impart the wines with a long, elegant finish.
Both the Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen, go to prove that the glorious synthesis of the great natural acidity and minerality of the terroir provide the perfect framework on which to build great botrytized wines.
Scharzhofberger Eiswein (ice-wine)
The final expression of Riesling is made from grapes that have been naturally frozen on the vine, making a very concentrated wine. Under the new regulations the level of sugar content in the must has to reach at least the same as that as a Beerenauslese. The most classic Eiswein style is to use only grapes that are not affected by noble rot. Acidity remains dominant however, to lend the wine a unique complexity.
Address: Weingut Egon Müller Scharzhof D-54459 Wiltingen/Saar
T: +49 (6501) 17232
F: +49 (6501) 150263
- MacNeil, Karen (2001).The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing, USA.
- Johnson H & Robinson J (2013) The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London.
- Johnson H, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, 2013, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London.
About the author
Philip Day is an early-retired academic in linguistics who has published many articles.
A North-Midlander (The Potteries) by birth, he currently lives close to the Lancashire Pennines which he regularly explores with his Patterdale terrier, Max.
In particular he has a keen interest in European fine wines and good food and will be contributing further articles in the future for Escapement.uk.com.