April 20, 2010
The New Normal
Harvest notes from Dr. Loosen
BERNKASTEL/MOSEL, GERMANY — The 2009 harvest showed us once again that “normal” can no longer be con- sidered typical when it comes to growing grapes here in the Mosel valley. In recent years, our winters have often been less severe than normal, spring has been getting warmer and wetter, bud break and flowering are coming earlier, and hang times are getting longer. We don’t know what these apparent climate changes portend for the future, and although we’re doing everything we can in our winery and vineyards to minimize our impact on the environment, we have to admit that this “new” normal has given us an unprecedented string of extraordinary vintages. In the past, we felt lucky if we got two or three fully ripe vintages in a decade. But Germany hasn’t had a disastrously cold, unripe harvest since 1987!
The 2009 growing season started out normal. Based on weather records for the past 50 years, March was right on target. But then in April the “new normal” started to take over, with warmer than average weather and lots of rain alternating with very sunny days. This pattern continued into May, which was two degrees warmer than the long-term average for the month and gave us more rain and sunshine than is usual. June and July brought us more of the same — sunny days oscillating with warm, wet thunderstorms. July was the warmest month of the year, and by the end of it, we were up to 30 percent more rain and 10 percent more sunshine than the historical average (since 1959).
All of this sun and rain was good for the vegetation, but it also created ideal conditions for weeds and molds in the vineyards. We can control the weeds by mulching them, but the only way to keep the vine molds at bay is through labor-intensive canopy management and a very vigilant anti-fungal spray program. Fortunately, drier, sunnier weather came in August and September, giving us growers a chance to catch our breath (and breathe a sigh of relief!). There was even talk of a “picture- book vintage,” and the numbers supported that thinking: by the end of September, we had already accumulated more sun- shine hours (1,648) than the annual average (1,637) for the region.
By staying on top of disease control with meticulous spraying and canopy management, we were able to keep the vines healthy right through harvest, resulting in beautiful fruit and excellent must weights. We started harvesting the Kabinetts on Oct. 1, about two weeks earlier than the “old” normal, and with a minimum of 105 days of hang time from the “new” normal flowering that began on May 10. Beautiful, dry weather through October meant that we could pick without interruption, which enabled us to complete the main harvest in four weeks (instead of the usual six to eight weeks).
Starting the harvest a bit early allowed us to produce true Kabinetts from the first days of picking. This is very important to me. I’m not interested in producing a Kabinett that’s really a big, fat declassified Auslese. If the bottle says “Kabinett” on it, then it should taste like a traditional Mosel Riesling Kabinett — light, racy and delicate. That’s why we’re going more and more to cooler, higher-elevation parcels outside our grand cru, single-vineyard sites. From these parcels we can pick true Kabinett fruit, with good ripeness and bright acidity, which we bottle as our Dr. Loosen Estate Kabinett, called simply “Blue Slate,” with no single-vineyard designation.
We also picked some early-arriving botrytis fruit, a practice that’s becoming more common for us. While we’re picking the “regular” healthy fruit (for Kabinett, Spätlese or Auslese), we select out the botrytis-affected fruit. Depending on the amount of botrytis, and the resulting must weight, these grapes can become Gold Capsule Auslese (about 50 percent botrytis-affected) or Beerenauslese (100 percent botrytis, partially shriveled). The wines from these early-picked botrytis grapes have very bright fruit and a brilliant acidity that keeps them nimble and delicate, despite their high must weights. We’ve come to really like this style and we enjoy the contrast it provides to the heavier, more honeyed botrytis wines that are picked later in the season.
The harvest continued through October with good amounts of Spätlese and Auslese, but an overall yield that was about 20 percent below average. We also selected a small amount of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (100 percent botrytis, fully shriveled) toward the end of the harvest. As is usual for us, we left out a few parcels for the possibility of Eiswein and were rewarded with two good days of freezing weather on December 17 (–10° Celsius) and 18 (–12° Celsius).
Overall, the quality of the vintage is superb. The physiological development of the grapes during the ripening period (late August through October) followed a curve that was very similar to the great 1989 vintage. Excellent hang time (up to 135 days) gave us good flavor development, density of fruit and a fine acid balance. As is often the case in the best vintages, there is a high proportion of “ripe” tartaric acidity in relation to the “green” malic acidity. The result is a range of luscious, flavorful wines — at all Prädikat levels — that very clearly express their individual terroirs. It’s going to be a very good vintage to taste the subtle differences in flavor and texture between the neighboring blue slate vineyards of Bernkastel, Graach and Wehlen, as well as the more obvious differences with the red slate of Erden and the red volcanic soil of Ürzig.
The unpredictable “new normal” weather of 2009 made it a very challenging harvest. Usually, it doesn’t matter so much what happens earlier in the growing season, as long as the weather is cooperative during the harvest. But this year you couldn’t sit back and ignore the warm, humid weather of spring and summer. You had to act decisively to protect your vines. And that made it a rather expensive harvest, too, because all of the work in these steep Mosel vineyards has to be done by hand. But the wines are turning out beautifully, so we’re quite happy that we put in the extra effort.
— Ernst Loosen