There are few more colourful, vivacious and spirited individuals than Ernst Loosen. Those who have spent any amount of time with him will know well the personality of which I speak. Since the 1980’s he has produced world-class Riesling from the Mosel to Washington State, experimented with Pinot Noir in Oregon and shared his knowledge as far afield as New Zealand. Ernie is an innovator, he pushes boundaries, but most of all he rejects defeatism. Despite a host of existential challenges, with an open mind and curious inquisition Ernst has continued to evolve. I spent an evening exploring this refreshing outlook …
Ever the entertainer, Ernst had titled his masterclass the Rocky Horror Riesling Show. His eccentric persona provded a worthy substitute for Frank-N-Furter. In in the mid-80’s, while studying archeology, Ernst faced a conundrum. Being the eldest sibling, the pressure was on him to assume responsibility of the estate. Whether as a result of necessity or spontaneous chance, he took to winemaking like a duck to water. He travelled to Austria, Burgundy, Alsace and California seeking out the best winemakers, attempting to identify some common denominator. Wherever the location and whoever the winemaker, he soon realised the most proficient amongst them were outward-facing, worldly individuals. It was those who rejected dogma and focused on producing intense wines which projected a sense of place whom succeeded most.
The Dr. Loosen estate had been held by the Loosen family for many years, this meant Ernst was working with pre–phylloxeric, ungrafted vines. Many of these vines were over 100 years old, planted in some of the Mosel’s best sites. This type of plant material was exactly what he needed in order to produce low-yielding, concentrated Riesling. Mosel resisted the onslaught of phylloxera, in part due to the louse not surviving well in it’s well-drained slate soils.
Ernst embodied a spirit of innovation from day one, he wanted to do things differently. Most of the staff had been with the estate for decades, those averse to change quickly upped and left. Not something Ernst saw as a problem, at least until harvest came that is …
Harvest is a daunting prospect when your vines spread across thousands of individual parcels amongst dozens of vineyards (186 parcel across 5ha in Wehlener Sonnenuhr alone). Even more so when those able to identify yours parcels have protested change and left. Ernst told of how during his first harvest in 1987, in order to identify his parcels his only option was to wait for the entirety of his fellow winemakers to pick their crop and assume that which remained must be his. Intuitive and entertaining, not sure it will take off though.
Now knowing the location of his fruit, Ernst set about changing how consumers understood his wines. Recognising that the current classification and bottling of German wines was complex, particularly for international markets, he sought to make a change. He made the decision to only list the name of the vineyard on Dr Loosen wines where the bottling was both a single vineyard and designated as Grosse Lage (as defined by the VDP classification). All other wines were to be labelled by their level of sweetness, as defined by the Pradikatswein classification. Finally, there would be a bottling under the grey, red or blue slate label, denoting the various colour slates of the Mosel.
When it came to winemaking, as with the estate’s viticulture, it had long gone unchanged. Ernst was aware of regional winemakers who had produced Rieslings with incredibly long, slow fermentations. These winemakers opted for extended time on the lees (sometimes as long as 30 years) without bâtonnage, yet were still able to retain characteristic freshness. Ernst was able to commandeer a barrel of similarly-styled Riesling and instantly fell in love. He shared his revalation with his then winemaker, declaring that the entire Dr. Loosen estate should adopt this method of extended time on lees with no racking for all wines going forward.
Hesistant to bare the brunt of this change were it to fail, his winemaker brought him a contract. He ensured that Ernst had agreed to relieve him of responsibility were this exploration to fail. During a masterclass at 67 Pall Mall a close friend of mine was fortunate enough to taste one of Ernie’s wines which had spent 27 years (I believe) on the lees. Her choice of descriptor was perhaps not suitable for this post, but told me all I needed to know about the experience.
As Ernst discussed his style of winemaking we tasted his 2012 Urziger Wurzgarten Reserve (from vines over 100 years old). Fermented with indigenous yeasts in traditional 1,000-liter Fuder casks and matured on the full lees for 24 months with no bâtonnage and a further year in bottle before release. Extensive lees ageing is usually associated with a reductive style; however, the use of large Fuder allows for micro-oxygenation. This balance of reduction and micro-oxygenation helps integrate the acidity and ‘melt’s’ together the components of the wine. Interestingly, Ernst tells of how many of his vines which are extremely old are susceptible to excessive millerandage. He selects these bunches during harvest and makes use in particular wines to achieve a sweeter, more intense style.
The complex topic of Mosel harvest logistics, discussed by Tomoko Kuriyama in episode 473 of I’ll Drink to That, was touched upon during the evening. It is not unheard of for a single vineyard in the Mosel to produce 8 different styles of wine. Ernst shared a range of harvest images which showed various segmented coloured buckets. Pickers are required to select as they go and segregate the grapes by which wine they will ultimately be intended for. Further sortation is then completed in the vineyard upon mobile sorting tables before the grapes are transported to the winery. All completed in some of the steepest vineyards in the world, I’m not in a rush to offer my services for this one.
The evening had reinforced what I had previously presumed. Ernie is an innovator, a driving force for creative thinking, a spearhead for Riesling and in general, great wine. I wanted to probe his thoughts on climate change, more specifically how it had affected the Mosel. I was interested to know whether he had learned anything in Washington or Oregon which was helping him and what his outlook was for the future. Not surprisingly his outlook was refreshing and optimistic, exactly what I had hoped for.
Despite recognising and respecting the challenges brought about by climate change, Ernie has grown tired. He told of how he is tired of hearing winemakers proclaim doom and gloom without having thoroughly explored and experimented the broad range of options available to them in negating the impact of climate change. There are many tools available negate the impact of climate change, Ernie wants to see them used. Every year means new decisions he tells us, new choices and no more ‘it has always been this way’ thinking.
In Washington State both average temperature and total sun days is higher than Mosel. High-quality Riesling is produced by shading the fruit zone, proper selection of site and increasing vigour. This style of viticulture also helps ensure adequate hang time, something Ernie believes could become problematic in much of Europe as producers turn immediately toward earlier picking in response to changing climate. Such a reaction could mean that physiological and sugar ripeness are not achieved in harmony. The trains may not come in to the station at the same time to reference Neal Martin.
Climate change presents a range of challenges in Mosel, namely increased pressure from pests and diseases and warming of particular GG sites. However, it also means more consistent ripening and a sharp deviation from the cold, uncertain growing seasons of previous decades. Whilst doing all we can to ensure momentum in the movement toward a more sustainable future we must also recognise that humans are ingenious and resilient, we have much to explore before we have to forget about wine.