"Expressiveness bordering on the super-natural." - Terry Theise
The view within the Haardter Burgergarten vineyard; the Muller-Catoir estate is visible in the distance,
to the left, with the bright yellow awnings.
The 2007 collection at Muller-Catoir serves as a compelling testament to the survival of a level of craftsmanship once widely assumed to have deteriorated. Time to check your assumptions, because these are wines of stunning clarity and uniqueness.
The elite BAs and TBAs especially, are just absolutely psychotic (in a good way). They have a guillotine-like cut, an apocalyptic fireworks of bright fruits, herbs and flowers and minerals that glow like the neon blazing across Times Square. Words just don't do the singular uniqueness, and extraordinary quality of these wines, justice. So try one.
When I left to join Terry Theise and the rest of the group in Germany, there were visits that I knew would be stellar and I was incredibly excited for. They were obvious: Donnhoff, Willi Schaefer, and AJ Adam. The visit to Muller-Catoir was one of the best, yet truthfully, it wasn't extremely anticipated. I had lost track of the estate after having heard rumors of decline.
The estate has suffered from the specter of former cellarmaster Hans-Gunther Schwarz since he retired in 2001. The new cellarmaster, Martin Franzen, certainly had big shoes to fill. However, the main difficulty was that Muller-Catoir became viewed as a place for Schwarz to exercise his viticultural wizardry, not as a winery of its own. Henrich Catoir may have been dedicated enough to provide the financial means, but the execution was all Schwarz. The story of how this came about is probably impossible to completely put one's finger on and I am still a bit sketchy regarding all the details, but, in laying out some of the finer points, one begins to get to the heart and soul of the estate with or without Schwarz.
At the core, of course, is the idea that the world's greatest wines can only be made from the best vineyard sites. When this golden rule is violated, the attention leaves the vineyard and focuses on the person in the cellar. The rise of Muller-Catoir in the 1970s disrupted this important idea. (One could make a similar comparison to the present-day ascendancy of Keller in the Rheinhessen? Top estate, ho-hum region - thus the celebrity of Klaus-Peter Keller?) When winemaking genius Hans-Gunther Schwarz took over the estate, with a scattering of vineyards most often referred to as "good, not great," he began to turn out wines that delivered amazingly precise forms married to wild, exotic notes with such purity, such racy acidity. Wine writers struggled (and likely, failed) to describe the singular wines they had in their glasses.
At the time, these wines seemed to have emerged from nowhere. The villages of Haardt and Mussbach had absolutely no renown for the quality of their vineyards. In The Wines of Germany, Stephen Brook mentions that Muller-Catoir's vineyards are on measly 30% slopes; the soils are a mish-mash of unremarkable deposits: loess, gravel and sand. Add insult to injury, because the grapes that Schwarz was painting with were not only the noble Riesling, but also lowlier varietals (crossings) like Scheurebe and Rieslaner.
Exactly how the wines produced here left almost all the others in the dust had everyone scratching their heads. Ultimately, credit was given to Schwarz's innovative vineyard and winemaking practices. Over the nearly forty years he spent as cellarmaster, Schwarz and Muller-Catoir became virtually synonymous.
The list of innovations that Schwarz implemented is too long to detail, but in the vineyard Schwarz's rigor is legendary: Strategic uses of green cover, extensive pruning to reduce yields and an avoidance of fertilizers. In the cellar Schwarz favored reductive winemaking (steel tanks and other methods that limit the amount of oxygen exposure) and spontaneous fermentation. Forty years later many of these techniques are still at the heart of winemaking discussions in Germany and abroad.
With this monumental reputation, obviously there were many young Pfalz winemakers who flocked to Schwarz, including Hansjorg Rebholz, Helmut Darting and Frank John. When Schwarz retired in 2001, it was as if Muller-Catoir itself had also given up the ghost. Many wine writers said that the estate had done a 180 and that quality had slipped. Almost overnight, the estate fell off the radar, both for the wine geeks who worshipped Schwarz and the collectors who sought out the bottlings of Muller-Catoir. Instead, attention turned to his disciples, especially Rebholz, who is now widely considered to be the greatest producer in the Pfalz.
As it turns out, much of this consumer neglect was unwarranted. Under Muller-Catoir's new cellarmaster, Martin Franzen, the commitment to quality has continued. Stylistically, the wines share more kinship with Schwarz than is generally acknowledged. It seems that only the insightful and well-traveled were tuned into this: Commenting on Muller-Catoir's 2004s, the ever-astute David Schildknecht writes, "I have been struck by a degree of qualitative continuity and stylistic affinity with the ancient regime that other commentators seem not to have noticed."
It is true that Franzen began using manufactured yeasts. However, the vineyard management remained extreme and steel tanks are still in use for aging the wines - though barrels have just begun to be used for Grauburgunder, Weissburgunder and a Spatburgunder (which will be released down the road.) The wines themselves have maintained the brilliance and expressiveness that was the signature of the Schwarz era.
Frazen's wines impress me as being slightly more exuberant in their youth than Schwarz's; many people have also mentioned that Frazen's wines are yeastier. Yes, they are different, however, if there was a vintage to release the estate from the specter of Hans-Gunther Schwarz, it should be 07. Among the highlights was their collection of sweet wines, of which they made an incredible six TBAs! (Many of them pictured, below.) Herr Franzen, too, is very pleased with the quality of the BAs and TBAs. He says that the botrytis in 2007 was so dry and so clean that it’s the type of thing a winemaker may only see once in a lifetime.
A formidable lineup of sweets - including four of the six TBAs! (Two were still fermenting at the time.)
Of the line-up of sweets, the Schlossel Rieslaner BA is incredibly long and bright with excellent freshness. It presents itself as the youngest of the bunch.
The Riesling Breumel in den Mauern TBA is absolutely electric, floral, and danced across the palate.
The Muskateller Haardter Burgergarten TBA is, I'm told, the first-ever Muskateller TBA; it is a mythical and gorgeous bottle of wine. The notes of purple flowers are absolutely iridescent. The wine brilliantly combines weightiness with litheness and a razor-like cut.
Moving away from the more rarefied realm, the Riesling Auslese Herzog is delicious insanity in a bottle - a beautiful and captivating form of madness. The grapes for this super-Auslese were shriveled, yet with no botrytis - this is the only way to explain the high Oechsle. It uses this richness to wonderful effect, remaining both pure and agile as it dances across the palate with exotic flourishes, lemon flowers and a pristinely clean soil element.
The Mandelring Scheurebe Spatlese is an excellent expression of the grape: great length and lift with a fascinating assortment of dark spices, grapefruit and lemon thyme.
One shouldn't forget the beautiful Muskateller Kabinett Trocken. The perfume, lemon, and pears notes are just too impressive too neglect.
The 2007 collection at Muller-Catoir clearly shows that what Hans-Gunther Schwarz helped to create, continues. Maybe it's slightly different, but it's not any less compelling. Personally, as a wine buyer, I couldn't be happier - to have wines of such stunning clarity from such a diverse cast of grapes is something to treasure.