Interview with Egon Müller

By Jordan P. Ross

The Müller Family has owned and produced wine at the Scharzhof Estate since 1797. Two centuries later, fourth generation winemaker Egon Müller carries on the family tradition. He is in his early 40’s, with already a young Egon. The famous Scharzhofberg vineyard is in the Saar in the town of Wiltingen. Ten miles away in Kanzem, Egon Müller owns a second estate, Weingut Le Gallais, where he produces Wiltinger Braune Kupp.

Egon Müller belongs to Primum Familiae Vini, a small group of elite family owned producers, which includes Mouton Rothschild, Joseph Drouhin, Jaboulet, Pol Roger, Symington, Vega Sicilia, Hugel, Miguel Torres, Antinori and Robert Mondavi. He is the only German member.

The Estate has produced wine on an international scale for the entire last century. While other famous estates existed a century ago, some have slipped in stature. Claus Kespelher is a German wine exporter and industry insider for the last 30 years. Asked where Egon Müller stands in the hierarchy of Germany’s best producers, he states, “I would consider Egon Müller, without any doubt, Germany’s number one producer. I don’t know of anyone who would dispute that.”

The competition between the top producers starts with the Auslese wines. And the greatness of Scharzhofberg is at its peak in a Long Gold Capsule Auslese and going up to the BA, TBA and icewine. These wines are in such short supply that you cannot buy them except at auction, where you will pay up to a thousand dollars per bottle.

But scarcity is only part of the reason these wine are among the world’s most expensive. The longevity of Egon Müller’s wines is astounding. Kespelher comments, “His wines keep like no others I know of. To judge and appreciate his wines, you have to somehow make your way to the top levels of a top vintage. If ever you’ve had a ’71 or ’59 Auslese on the spot, you would talk about it for your whole life, you would say this is the most sensational experience I’ve ever had.”

In the following interview, Egon Müller discusses his vineyards, winemaking, corks, sulfides, food and wine pairings and his favorite wines to drink.

ROSS: Do you own all of the Scharzhofberg Vineyard?

No, all together it is about 28 hectares. We own 8.3 hectares and are also the biggest owners. The rest is owned by Kesselstatt, Bishop of Trier, von Hovel, van Volxem, and two very small growers, Peters and Reisch.

ROSS: Do you have the best sites?

The best parts were more or less split evenly between Kesselstat, Bishop of Trier and ourselves.

ROSS: How often are you able to buy a piece of Scharzhofberg?

For a long time it was not possible to get more because everybody was holding onto every little piece of Scharzhofberg that he had. My father, who had been making wine since 1945, was able to buy in his whole career 0.2 hectares in 1985, just under 1 hectare in 1997 and I was able to buy a small plot of 1,000 square meters in 2000 and a larger one from Kesselstat last year.

ROSS: What are your criteria for purchasing new vineyards?

If it’s Scharzhofberg, there are no criteria. I’d buy anything, as long as I could afford it. For other vineyards, it has to be slate soil, that’s the single most important factor and then it should be steep and as south facing as possible.

ROSS: Why does Scharzhofberg make such good wine?

Slate soils, long, slow ripening are the biggest points.

ROSS: Why do you need slate in the vineyards?

Because that’s all we have. Typically, it’s a very well drained soil, which is necessary because we have a good deal of rain. It’s also a soil that warms up very quickly that is necessary because it’s cool here. In the 70’s my father bought a piece of land in the southern half of the village of Wilting, maybe not as desirable as the best vineyards, on a loam soil and we tried to make wine there, but it never worked. The soil is too cold, it doesn’t warm up fast enough, it retains too much water; you simply never get ripe grapes

ROSS: How would you compare the wines from Scharzhofberg with the well-known Ockfener Bockstein?

The wines are fairly similar. Both vineyards are not directly on the river, they’re on side valleys. Both are slate soils but the composition is slightly different. People like von Hovel, Zilliken or Wagner all have wines of a similar style and character. The differences are very subtle, you’d have to taste them to explain. These vineyards are not famous because they give you the highest must weights every year, but because they make very elegant wines.

ROSS: So quality is not only must weight?

No. Must weight is nothing but a way to measure the sugar content in the grapes. I can say that if I had riper grapes and less ripe grapes from Scharzhofberg from the same vintage, the riper grapes would almost certainly make the better wine. But if I take Wiltinger Brauneberg Scharzhofberg and have riper grapes from Wiltinger Braune Kupp, they don’t necessarily make the better wine. And the ripeness is not always directly correlated to the sugar content. Our problem in the past has been to have enough sugar. That’s why we have to so closely watch the Oeschle levels. It seems with global warming we are having fewer problems getting sufficient sugar levels and so we now can consider the quality of our grapes not looking at the sugar levels but at ripeness of flavors.

ROSS: You said both Scharzhofberg and Ockfener Bockstein are not near the river. Aren’t the best vineyards were close to the river?

It is interesting, my other vineyard, Wiltinger Braune Kupp [Le Gallais], is directly on the Saar, in a quite sheltered bend in the river, between Kanzem, Eltenberg and Wiltinger Herder and Gottesfus, probably one the best microclimates on the Saar. I’d say on average we get higher must weights from that vineyard but nevertheless the wines from Scharzhofberg, if the grapes are ripe, make superior wines, maybe not as powerful but more elegance, finesse and delicacy.

ROSS: California growers worry about sugars getting too high before flavors develop. You seem to get maximum flavor at low must weights. Is Riesling unique in that you get this incredible varietal character at what would be considered unripe levels in California?

We are the completely opposite extreme to California. We get good flavors even without sugar. We have ripe grapes at 16 brix, which is not the case in any other part of the world. If you harvest California grapes at this level, you harvest, green, unripe grapes. If we look at years like 1987, the last bad year we had, we had grapes that were harvested at potential alcohol of 9% and were still very flavorful wines.

ROSS: I’ve always wondered why the drier wines such as Trockens lack the intense, typical aromatics that you find in the Qba’s, Kabinetts and Spatlesen?

The answer is very easy. Take a Kabinett with 8% alcohol and 2% of non-fermented residual sugar. The sugar helps to transport the aromas. If you don’t have the sugar, you have to rely completely on the alcohol to do that. The sugar provides not only the sensation of sweetness but also the capacity to make the aromas more noticeable, more so than if the wine was dry.

ROSS: The presence of residual sugar affects the volatility of the aroma molecules?

I don’t know how it works, whether it is a chemistry problem or a biological one. If the sugar helps us to appreciate the flavors more or if the sugar chemically brings the flavors across better. But it is clear that if you put a little residual sugar into a wine you will get more flavor out of it.

ROSS: You use wooden casks and other top producers ferment and age in stainless steel tanks. What is better and why?

More and more I come to the conclusion that it does not really matter. For our wines, which have fairly high acidity, it does help in that it makes the young wines more harmonious. The acidity doesn’t stick out as much as it does when the wine is made in stainless steel. But that is something I’m not really sure makes a lot of difference. We think that there is some contact with air, which we like to believe justifies our still making the wine in casks.

ROSS: Do you talk a lot about vine age in Germany?

Yes we do and in Scharzhofberg we have more than 3 hectares of un-grafted vines planted between 1890 and 1900. It’s difficult to tell if the vines are that old, but the average age is of course quite old. It’s a very light, stony soil, not a very good environment for phylloxera; it’s a risk nevertheless.

ROSS: Do the un-grafted vines make better wine than your adjacent parcels?

Yes. It may be because we want to find it, but I don’t think so. It would be a very costly self-deception. You always have to think of the possibility, because I think in wine growing, there are very few facts that you can rely on. There are so many things that interact so that you never really know what you’re talking about.

ROSS: What yields do you get?

We had 37hl/hectare (2.5 tons/acre) in 2002, 29 hl/hectare (2 tons/acre) in 2001, 30hl/hectare (2.1 tons/acre) in 2000. I’d like to have 50hl (3.5 tons/acre). At 50hl/hectare we are OK and there is no problem with overcropping. The last three years have been on the low side, which is a pity because I would like to have made a little more wine.

ROSS: Do you green harvest?

No. Others do it but here on the Saar. But our estate has a very high average vine age, not only because of the un-grafted vines but also because of our plantation policy over the last 30-40 years.

ROSS: The high average age of your vineyards means they don’t tend to overproduce?

I’ve been looking after our vineyards since 1985 and I can’t say that I’ve ever had a harvest where I was convinced that had we had less we would have made better wines.

ROSS: Do you practice any different techniques than other producers in the Saar?

Much of what we do is affected by the fact of the age of our vineyards. I think we are known for less spraying than others, but again it is something that I would like to think gives me advantages but I don’t really know that it does. We have a more conservative vineyard management than most others because we don’t have modern vineyards. Nowadays, if we replant it’s more or less the same as everybody else, about 1.8m-2m x 1m, which gives you 5000-6000 vines/hectare. In the old vineyards we have 1m x 1m which is 10,000 vines/hectare. What has been planted in the 1950’s to 1960’s was 1.2m x 1.2m or 1.3m which is 7,500 to 8,000 vines/hectare. In the 1980’s what was planted was 1.6m x 1.3m, which is about 6,000 vines/hectare.

ROSS: What is the consequence of the less dense spacing?

The newer plantings are less dense and as a consequence we had to use rootstocks with more vigor, which makes for more vigorous growth of the vine and these vineyards are not as hardy as the vines that grow very slowly so you have to spray more, they can have higher yields and everything that is associated with vigorous growth.

ROSS: It seems the majority of German winemakers avoid botrytis in their Kabinett and Spatlese, as if it is a danger.

I don’t see it as a danger, I see it as something that can give to the wine more complex flavors and aromas than a wine without botrytis. 1997 was maybe a once in a lifetime vintage with very little or no botrytis and extremely ripe grapes and wines that have been flavorful and nice to drink from the start. If I look at other vintages with little botrytis like 2001, 1996, or 1990, then you have wines that are very hard and very difficult to assess when young. The 1990’s are really only just starting to open now and I think if there was a little more botrytis in 1990 the wines would have developed much more favorably - they would not necessarily have turned into greater wines. They were drinking well for one year after bottling and then they shut down completely and took ten years to come back again. With a little bit of botrytis there would have been a softer transition.

ROSS: Where is the 2001 going?

I’m expecting 2001 to go into the same direction. When they are in the dumb phase, they are sweet and sour. The sweetness is very difficult to find because the acidity is so high. If the wine had been affected by botrytis, the dumb phase would never be so difficult on the wines.

ROSS: Does the press understand Riesling?

I know the ratings from the Wine spectator and from Parker and they are both OK. Here in Germany there are many more people who rate wine, some of whom think they know everything. They are very opinionated, when you read what they write, they have it completely different from everybody else. There is a problem in Germany when it comes to evaluating young wines because everybody tries to be faster than everybody else and my feeling is that people taste a wine for the primary aroma and they write it up for potential. If you look at tasting notes, it is very clear that these people have only tasted the wine for the freshness and fruit and if you look at the comments you think they have tasted the potential of the wine as it will be in 10 years. It’s a very common thing, it’s very much a German phenomenon. These wines that would be rated very highly in Germany would raise eyebrows in other countries.

ROSS: Should they be rated for their immediate appeal or aging potential?

Both. One has to be consistent. You cannot say this wine tastes very nicely of primary aromas and rate it for aging potential. Or you cannot say this wine will taste great in ten years and mark it down for sulfides.

ROSS: Most people think sulfides come from sulfur added to the wine or sprayed in the vineyard. Where do sulfides [match stick, rubber, rotten egg] come from?

Those people ferment at much lower temperatures than we do. We have grapes coming in, depending on the vintage, between 10-15 C (50-59 F). Seldom below 10 C because the cellar temperature at that time would be around 10 C. So we get fermentation at 10 C or so. I think in order to get this sulfide character, you need to cool down to 5 C (41 F) or sometimes even lower and keep the fermentation going for a long time and then you’ll get this flavor.

ROSS: At these low temperatures, the yeast struggle and produce different by-products, these sulfide aromas?

They ferment very slowly often fermentations go until January. It’s a much more reductive environment that allows the sulfides to build. Sulfides are very much associated with reductive environments.

ROSS: I often find sulfides in the wines of J.J. Prum. Do they come from making wine in a reductive process?

I’m making educated guesses, that is something you have to discuss with him. But yes, if you will, Prum is a very traditional style. He harvests very late. Normally, he starts when everybody else finishes. He gets the grapes in very cold and his cellar will be cold so he doesn’t have to work to get this character, for him it’s natural. Most others who support this character now are trying to imitate him. I don’t say it’s bad what they do, it just makes me smile a little bit how they try to imitate JJ Prum.

ROSS: When a lot of Americans smell sulfide in a German Riesling, I don’t think they like it, I think they prefer Riesling’s fresh fruit aromas.

The first time that my father took me to the pre-tastings for the auction in 1982, Prum’s wines were always criticized for that. But it’s very clear that after 10 years, they are fresher and more vibrant and lovelier than anybody else’s. If he goes to a wine show, where everybody else shows his new vintage, he will bring his last or even before his last vintage; and he always has a ten year-old wine with him. In a way he is much better about it than anybody else because we all say that our wines have to be aged but he’s the one that does it.

ROSS: Would you ever use synthetic corks?

No. As long as my clients insist on corks, I will use corks. When I get the feeling that corks are no longer necessary, I will use screw caps. Synthetic corks are not an option for me.

ROSS: Have you tasted any exciting Rieslings from other countries recently?

One thing that is really exciting for me is Slovakian Riesling. You may know we are involved in a little joint venture in Slovakia. I went there for the first time in my life after our 2000 harvest. It was a complete surprise to me, now we are making wines there. It is called Chateau Bella. The first vintage is already being sold in America. We wanted to make a dry, fairly big, Alsatian-inspired Riesling, and the first year, 2001, was so different that we ended up making Auslese-style wine.

ROSS: Does serving off-dry Riesling go against the convention of serving dry wines with food?

If you think about it from a theoretical point of view, because German Rieslings have residual sugar, they won't go too well with food. But if you think how these wines taste, they are perfect matches for almost everything. When my parents used to throw dinner parties or they had their friends or other vineyard owners here for dinner, they served their own wines throughout the meal. Kabinett is very easy, you can serve it with all kinds of food. I'm convinced that there is no better wine with all kinds of Asian cuisine than Kabinett. But Auslese is much more difficult. You really need to mature it to make it go well with food. But if you came for dinner here and I wanted to serve you one of our wines with a steak or roast beef, I'd give you '59 or '64 Auslese and that would go perfectly.

ROSS: I would like that. Why?

The reason for my choice is that they are mature wines and mature Riesling has a certain bitterness which probably comes from oxidation and these two vintages are relatively low in acidity so what you have in total is the residual sugar doesn’t stand out a lot anymore because and you have a certain bitterness which works a little bit like the tannin in red wine and you have something that goes really well with steak or roast beef. If not with foie gras or cheese, I’d say generally Auslese is quite difficult.

ROSS: What are your favorite wines to drink, beside your own?

My dream wines are red Burgundy, something that I could walk very long distances for.

ROSS: What are your favorite red Burgundy’s?

I certainly don’t like them all. It probably comes down to who made it. Probably my favorite wine over the last couple of years must have been ’62 La Tache. It’s not from my cellar. An uncle of mine had bought great quantities of ’62 because his oldest son was born in that year. When a bottle is popped open, you have to count yourself lucky to be there.

ROSS: Let’s compare German Riesling from good producers to Burgundy. It seems to me that the quality is more consistent, even in an average vintage like 2000 than it is in Burgundy. Do you agree?

I’d say if you look at what is on the American market you have a point. But if you look at what is produced, it’s completely different. Because, to be very honest, German wines are not really fashionable, so in America what you will find are the very best wines. With Burgundy, everything that has a famous name gets exported to the four corners of the world. So the variety is of course much bigger. If you go to Burgundy now and taste the 2001 at the producer and select one village and try to taste all the producers at once, you’ll probably get the same thing as you get in Germany, from the very bad to the sublime. And if you do that in Germany here in the cellars of the producers, you can get wines that nobody will ever buy. These guys are sitting on barrels of old wines and don’t know how to sell them. Whereas in Burgundy, if the name of the vineyard is good, the wine can be pretty bad quality and still sell for good money.