Cellar Direct Winter Wines: Karthäuserhof Riesling

4 01 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Happy New Year!  I hope you all had a restful and joyous holiday season.  My post-Advent blog-free recovery time has been punctuated by catching the pernicious chest cold that my kids have had the entire month of December, which seems to be the natural consequence of getting out of fight-or-flight mode for any period of time.  Thankfully, I can still smell and taste just fine, and so even though this write-up had to be assisted by a spit cup (don’t get me started on how agonizing it is to taste and then have to spit amazing Riesling), the show must go on, especially for a bottle and a producer like this.

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If you know anything about me from a wine perspective, you likely know that Riesling is my first and most enduring vinous love, particularly the electric, agile, sweet-meets-sour ballet that is Riesling from Germany’s Mosel Valley.  My first “I didn’t know wine could taste like that” moment was born from a Kabinett-level (low to moderate sugar ripeness) sub-10% ABV single-vineyard Mosel Riesling that made time stop and effortlessly balanced my entire mind and heart on the head of a pin — so pure, so chiselled, yet so light and free.  The Mosel is most known for these low-alcohol, off-dry, dainty Rieslings at varying degrees of ripeness, from Kabinett to later-harvested Spätlese and Auslese to dessert-focused and often nobly rotten Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (better known as TBA, for obvious reasons).  This specialty in sweetness has in recent years been something of a detriment to the region, at least for PR purposes; while the energetic back-and-forth between acid and sugar is one of my favourite parts of the Riesling experience, many casual drinkers still reeling from a decade or two of flaccid Liebfraumilch continue to view the combination of German wine and residual sugar with disdain.  While other production areas of Germany have increasingly turned their attention to drier pursuits to counteract this lasting stereotype, the Mosel has remained steadfast.  Yet even here there are some quality producers that have always focused on the drier side of the country’s star grape.

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Weingut Karthäuserhof (pronounced “car-TOY-sir-hoff”, if you’re curious) is unique and unusual in a number of ways.  It is one of a very few Mosel wineries to focus the majority of its production on dry (trocken) wines, particularly with Riesling.  While most Mosel producers own or farm from small micro-plots of a number of different modest-sized einzellagen in their vicinity, recognized single vineyards whose names often grace the bottlings where they are featured, Karthäuserhof bases its entire production on one gigantic (by Mosel standards) 19-hectare wholly owned estate vineyard:  Karthäuserhofberg, a VDP Grosse Lage site of the highest esteem facing south-by-southwest close to the point where the Ruwer tributary meets up with the Mosel river.  The vineyard name does not show up on this particular bottle, but it does make an appearance on the cork, along with the name of its associated village, Eitelsbach.  Speaking of appearances, the Karthäuserhof wines may be best known as some of the only professionally made wines in the world to be released without any kind of main front label, relying exclusively on their thin neck label (or banderole) to communicate their identity.  They were minimalists pre-minimalism.

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These noted areas of difference and distinctiveness should not be taken to mean that Karthäuserhof is opting to zig when everyone else is zagging.  They are the 8th oldest wine-growing estate IN THE WORLD, with records of vineyards at the Karthäuserhofberg site dating back to 1223 and the formal winery founded in 1335; they are doing their own thing, as they have been since before everyone else came along.  The estate was originally a Carthusian monastery — “Karthäuserhof” means “farm of the Carthusians” — and remained so for around 500 years before being secularized and auctioned off to the highest bidder by the French government.  Since 1811 the winery has seen stable ownership under seven generations of the same family, who carry the estate’s legacy forward to this day.

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Cork Rating:  5/10 (Pretty straightforward, but the lone critical advisor of the wine’s full vineyard name.)

It has been just over a decade since the name of the “Mosel-Saar-Ruwer” wine appellation was formally reduced to simply the “Mosel”, a choice made to simplify life for consumers and to reduce the complexity of famously byzantine German wine labels, not to undercut the importance of the Saar and Ruwer growing areas.  Both the Saar and the Ruwer are connecting streams to the Mosel, located in the southwest of the region, each body of water turning south off the main river and playing host to a series of esteemed vineyards along its shores.  Karthäuserhof is one of the first wine estates located along the northern banks of the Ruwer after it turns off from the Mosel; it is just on the other side of the stream from Mosel legend Maximin Grunhaus and its three estate vineyards which look over towards its neighbour.  There are only 160 hectares of vines planted along the Ruwer (12% of which belong to Karthäuserhofberg vineyard itself), and yet it is home to two absolutely iconic centuries-old producers, proving the worth of its soils, whether set out on a label or not.

Mosel Saar Ruwer Map

Map from vosswinkels.com.  Eitelsbach in the Ruwer (green) is this bottle’s home.

2015 Karthäuserhof Riesling Spätlese Trocken ($45)

As noted above, you don’t come across many trocken wines from the Mosel Valley, let alone many Spätlese trocken wines, but this is what Karthäuserhof does, and it just happens to currently intersect with popular taste at the moment.  2015 was a legendary vintage in Germany, hailed as one of the best of the century, with perfect weather allowing for long hang times and ideal ripeness.  While not the top dry wine that the winery produces from its lone estate site (there is a Grosses Gewächs bottling from Karthäuserhofberg, which is possibly why they don’t put the vineyard name on the bottle here), this Riesling is crafted solely from grapes from Karthäuserhof’s esteemed vineyard, from old vines planted on their own rootstocks in extremely sloped (55% gradient) ferrous Devonian slate.  Despite the rugged and hilly conditions, the farming is all organic, with pheromones sprayed on the vines in lieu of pesticides.

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Devonian slate, courtesy of karthaeuserhof.com.

My inaugural Mosel Spätlese Trocken Riesling experience emerges from the bottle a notably deep gleaming golden colour, at first ringed with bubbles that cling to the edge of the glass.  The aromas are towering yet focused, accessible at great height, and immediately recognizable as Mosel Riesling, if not precisely the sweetly tropical olfactory rhythms of your standard off-dry Spätlese:  sharp limeade, cantaloupe peel and blackcurrant fruit are lifted by fennel and cardamom and then grounded in wet slate, rock salt, asphalt, petrichor (the smell of the first rain on the ground) and just a hint of petrol.  For half a heartbeat on the tongue it flashes the pineapple and floral treble notes and filigreed style of the Mosel Valley, then the weight and heft and depth of the trocken style (aided by 4-5% more alcohol than its off-dry contemporaries thanks to fermenting to near-dryness at 12% ABV) kicks in to chart a separate course, a variation on a classic theme.

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This drier profile is more haughty, and certainly more austere, the acid no less biting but no longer softened or hidden by any counterbalancing sweetness.  All of the flavours are lean and linear in spite of the more expansive mouthfeel and their own explosive intensity, lemon zest and daffodil and rock dust, frozen pear and orange blossom and rubber bands, beautiful and powerful and cold like a stone carving and yet propelled by some inner energy.  A rail of citrus and mineral surges into a finish that runs in a straight line across the top of the mouth for well over a minute after you swallow.  A clinical yet explosive display of the range and raw might of the world’s greatest white grape.

92 points


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