Maestro of Riesling
By W Peter Hoyne
In the early 1990’s, I was directed to taste through a number of German wines with a large gathering of wine enthusiasts. I was introduced to one winemaker who was very polite, yet serious and reserved. He reminded me of one of my college professors as he appeared to be an intellect, deep in thought and well-versed in his subject matter, which was crafting some of the most legendary wines in the Mosel Valley of Germany. Later I would learn that his father, grandfather, great grandfather, brother and wife all had their PhD which might account for his brilliant demeanor. His name was Ernst Loosen, pronounced (Loo-zen), of Dr. Loosen wines. Over the course of several hours we dialogued about all facets of German wines and their perception in the market. As it was early in my wine career, I learned a great deal during this short time together. For decades afterwards, I continued to avidly pursue each of Ernie Loosen’s six grand cru vineyards. These prized single-vineyard wines continue to be some of the most prolific wines anywhere in the world. They go beyond German tradition with an innovative flair bound together with graceful precision of fruit and an expressive personality.
Ernie Loosen has many generations of winemaking history in his family, dating back 200 years. Yet, Loosen’s early ambitions were directed toward the study of archeology. In 1988, fate summoned him to carry on the two-century family legacy of producing wine from the picturesque town of Bernkastel, in the Middle Mosel Valley of Germany. His brothers and sisters chose not to follow in the footsteps of their father, so Ernie accepted his predetermined destiny and studied enology. He inherited 100 year old ungrafted vines on original rootstocks that were never replaced. The end result was wines born of extraordinary complexity. These vineyards have been recognized among the 10 best in Germany. The vines are grown in the blue and red slate soils of the Mosel Valley and reveal a wealth of white and yellow stone fruit aromatics with an exotic personality. With a respect for tradition and a determination to preserve the heritage of these vineyards, Ernst became the voice of the Riesling Renaissance. He chose to decrease yield in the vineyards and farm organically without the use of chemical fertilizers.
According to Ernie, over a hundred years ago Riesling was one of the most expensive wines in the world, costing two to three times as much as first growth Bordeaux. Riesling is a noble varietal, just like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, yet it is misunderstood by consumers. “Once they taste it, it is so different than what they thought,” Ernie said. He acknowledges that Riesling’s greatest strength is its versatility and its ability to show the terroir where it is grown. Riesling can manifest itself in a range of styles ranging from refined dry wines to riper styles with depth and concentration. Ernie says to drink the wine and if you like it, it is right for you. Ernie also knows that Riesling is one of a few white grape varietals that has the ability to age seventy years and beyond.
Enamored with the landscape and cool climate of the Pacific Northwest, Ernie ventured into a partnership with Chateau Michelle in Washington State in 1999. This collaboration would combine talents to produce a high-end Riesling labeled Eroica.
In 2008 after Ernie tasted a 1947 dry Riesling made by his great grandfather, he decided to embark into a new category of dry German Rieslings designed as Grosses Gewächs or “Great Growths.” This style was similar to the Rieslings crafted over 100 years ago. The wines are fermented with native yeasts and then left in the barrel for a minimum of 12-36 months before bottling. Given their age ability and sophisticated nature, Ernie chose to duplicate this dry style of Riesling using grapes from his oldest vineyards.
Ernie Loosen has received numerous accolades through the years. He was recognized as German Winemaker of the Year by Gault-Millau in 2001, Decanter’s “Man of the Year” in 2005, Best German Producer of the past 25 years and named among the 50 Most Influential Winemakers. His wines are often rated the best buys and top selections in all categories. Is there much left in Ernie’s future, considering he has thoroughly mastered the Riesling grape from around the world? I am certain that given his intellect and talents, he already has a vision for the next several decades and beyond.