Friday, November 19, 2010

Weingut Carl Schmitt-Wagner: Transported in Time

The 1937 Schmitt Wagner - Photo by John Osborne
In June of 2000 I spent an incredible week in Germany with importer, wine guru, and German wine evangelist Terry Theise. For those who don't know him, he is a legend in wine circles, having almost singlehandedly built a market in the US for high quality German wines, and then, as if that wasn't challenging enough, did it again for Austrian wines and grower Champagne. No small feats, he has earned the respect and admiration of many a fellow geek, this one included. Traveling with Terry is an exceptional experience. There is his deep knowledge of his growers and their wines, his wicked sense of humor,  one might say it's punishing, and his unfiltered opinions to keep you occupied while your gums recover from tasting the hundreds of high acid, youthful wines you taste on the trip. (Sensodine toothpaste is officially recommend as a salve and must have item for your travel kit.) And then there is the fact that the growers open their hearts, homes and cellars when Terry comes to call. Along with the new releases from the previous year, we tasted countless old vintages, many times blind, in an exercise that pretty much humbled us every day. We'd guess "old, perhaps 1985?" only to have the wine revealed and find we missed the mark by a mere 10 or 15 years. I was already drinking the Riesling Kool-aid, having started my career in wine with a trip to Germany in 1979, but it was this trip where the age worthiness of this oft unsung grape was made crystal clear in my mind.

But in a week of great wines, no moment was more special than the tasting we had at Schmitt-Wagner. Quietly and without fanfare after a tasting of multiple wines including 1983, 1979, and 1976, Bruno Schmitt brought out a bottle of 1937 Longuicher Maximiner Herrenberg Auslese - one of only a handful of bottles he had left. He was seven years old  that year, and he told us how he remembered picking the grapes with his grandmother because his father had been conscripted into the German Army, and how they hid the wine during the war so the soldiers wouldn't take it. My notes began with "deep caramel color, earthy and caramelized on the nose - still with hints of orange blossom and baked apple pie. On the palate, still very much alive, with sweetly concentrated baked apple, spice....."  and then just trailed off.  All of us tasting were left in a moment of silent, thoughtful,  almost reverential reflection, lost in the aromas and flavors of the wine and the haunting images of a dark time in Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War. What more could you say? This wine and the experience were beyond words. It was the sense of history, the passion of Herr Schmitt whose eyes had the tell-tale signs of deep emotion as he recounted the tale, and the ability of this miraculous beverage to capture a place in time and transport us back so many years ago. 

The Schmitt-Wagner winery has a long and storied history that makes the 1937 date seem like yesterday. The first mentions are in the 12th Centry as part of the Benedictine Abbey in Trier, with the actual property dating from 1714. Around 1804 when Napoleon secularized the vineyard holdings of the Church the Schmitt Wagner family bought some of the best vineyards that had been owned by the clergy at the Benedictine Convent of St. Maximin in Tier and began their Estate.

The vineyards are on two steep slopes on the Mosel River across from the village of Longuich. The Maximiner Herrenberg vineyard has a south-southwest exposure and is over 60 degrees steep. The terrain consists of a very deep weathered slate soil over Devonian slate. The Longuicher Herrenberg vineyard is above the Maximiner Herrenberg in the middle of the slope, with deep soils partially filled with Devonian slate, and it is slate that is the story here, imparting an unmistakable stony/mineral character to the wines that supports their lovey apple fruit tones and sweetness. Wine making is old school and traditional, fermentations are with all natural indigenous yeasts, and the philosophy is that the wine is made in the vineyard, not the cellar. The results are brilliant, understated, elegant wines that capture the essence of the Riesling grape and their particular terroirs. Lovely and fresh in their youth, they age in a way that belies their purity and elegance. To purchase Schmitt Wagner wines visit us at 56 Degree Wine.

For more information about Terry Theise click here (it's a great site, click on Terry's squawk box for some great reading). For a visit to the Schmitt Wagner website and more detail on this excellent producer click here. For more photos from the trip click here.  Watch the interview with Terry Theise below - video from Michael Skurnik Wines and Thames River Wine & Spirits in New London, CT !

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