Back-Vintage Egon Muller Special!

Posted by CrushWine

Egon Muller is the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti of Germany as John Gilman suggests in his great article on the estate (reproduced in full below). These wines are extremely difficult to find and we are offering a limited selection at the lowest prices in the nation! The Scharzhofberg vineyard, recognized since 1000AD as a superior site for growing grapes, produces wines of incredible concentration and intensity with a structure built for aging.

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A quick thanks to John for allowing us to reproduce his great article on this great estate. A View from the Cellar is one of the best written, most scholarly sources of information on the top wine estates of the world and we really can't recommend it enough. What can we say - we have a subscription at the store! Click here to visit John's site and learn more.

Weingut Egon Muller- Germany's Domaine de la Romanee-Conti
By John Gilman

Weingut Egon Muller in Wiltingen is one of the very greatest estates in all of Germany. For many lovers of German wine, there is simply no other producer that reaches the same exalted peaks, and for them the wines of Egon Muller occupy a rarefied strata at the very pinnacle of their genre. In much the same way as Domaine de la Romanee-Conti occupies both a contemporary and historical point of reference in its region, Weingut Egon Muller and its extensive holdings in the famed Scharzhofberg vineyard are both a beacon of modern, uncompromising quality and a cornerstone of tradition that reaches back a millennium and more. The estate is planted to more than ninety-five percent riesling, with a very impressive lineup of very old vines that produce low yields and wines of haunting beauty. The heart and soul of the estate is the more than eight hectares of riesling vines that the family owns in the Scharzhofberg vineyard, located in the Saar valley, which towers over the small town of Wiltingen. The entire hill of vines that is the Scharzhofberg now comprises some twenty-eight hectares, with its perfect south-facing exposition rising from an elevation of 190 meters above sea level to 310 meters at its peak. It is a relatively cool and windswept vineyard that allows for brilliantly even and graceful ripening of the riesling grape. The vines of the Egon Muller estate lie right in the heart of this great vineyard, and produce some of the longest-lived and most ethereal examples of riesling to be found anywhere.

The Muller family can trace their ownership of the Scharzhof estate and the majority of their holdings in the vineyard of Scharzhofberg back to 1797, when Napoleon's administration, hard on the heels of his armies, seized and auctioned off the property of the church in the regions that they now controlled. This was in a similar manner as that of the Maximin Grunhauser estate, which also moved from ecclesiastical ownership to private hands during Napoleon's occupation of the region. Prior to the Napoleonic administration of the Saar, the estate had been the property of the Saint Marien ad Martyres Monastery in Trier, which had first received vineyards in the region as far back as the sixth century. The monks built the cellars that are still used today by the Mullers, and over which their lovely house, the Scharzhof, was built several centuries later. Vineyards had been planted in the Saar region as far back as Roman times, when the neighboring city of Trier had been one of the most important commercial centers in the northern section of the empire. The first known citations that mention the Scharzhofberg vineyard by name dates back to 1037, and the vineyard was already well known for the superlative quality of the wines produced from its soil in the 1300s.

The original purchaser when the property was auctioned off as a "Bien Nacionale" by Napoleon's staff in 1797 was one Johan-Jakob Koch, who had been a brother at the Saint Marien ad Martyres Monastery in Trier. Being the youngest member of the order, he had been thoughtfully left behind by his fleeing senior brothers to negotiate a purchase of the Scharzhof estate with Napoleon's administrators, and bought the property and the entire vineyard with five percent down. At that time the Scharzhofberg vineyard was comprised of some eighteen hectares. No doubt the higher ups at the monastery felt that Napoleon's tenure would be short-lived and that they would eventually have the estate returned to them once the old order was restored, but this never came to pass. Herr Koch, who was expediently known at this time as Jean-Jacques Koch (rather than Johan-Jakob) settled down to a very happy life outside of the monastery, eventually marrying and having seven children. He was to run the property intact for the next forty years. He had two sons and five daughters, and one of his daughters eventually married Felix Muller in 1837, bringing with her one-seventh of the estate. This was the antecedent of Weingut Egon Muller.

Eventually the Muller family gained more shares of the original Scharzhof estate, as another sister's share of one-seventh was purchased not long after 1837 and another seventh was inherited once another sister had passed away some years later. Ironically, a fourth sister donated her one-seventh part share of the original estate back to the church in assistance for beginning another monastery in Trier, which today is known as the Bishop of Trier. That monastery continues to make wine to this day and has other fine vineyard holdings in addition to its significant piece of the Scharzhofberg. Much of the remainder of the original estate of Johan-Jakob Koch continued on as its own domaine called Apollinar Josef Koch, which was also based in Wiltingen. Eventually this estate's holdings in the Scharzhofberg vineyard were acquired by the well-known von Kesselstatt estate in Trier, and today, these three wineries are by far the largest and most important owners of vines in this great vineyard. Felix Muller's son, Egon Muller took over running the family estate in 1880 at the age of twenty-seven, and from that day on each successive generation of the family who has run the property has been named Egon. He in turn handed over the reigns of the family winery to his son, Egon II after the first world war, and his son, Egon III took over for his father in 1945.

Egon Muller III returned from the war to a rather battered and bruised Scharzhofberg, as an American fighter plane had crashed on the steep hillside during the fighting, and like so many of the great vineyards of Europe during the war, the upkeep of the vines had been simply impossible when so many other aspects of life were at stake. Egon III returned in time for the 1945 harvest, which only produced a total of 800 liters of wine, to give some idea how badly damaged the Scharzhofberg was at this time. However, fortunately a goodly section of old vines had survived, as the vineyard was more neglected than devastated during the fighting. Some of these old vines continue in production to this day, and the Muller family continues to exploit just under a hectare section of riesling vines in the Scharzhofberg that date back to 1880 and 1890 and are planted on ungrafted rootstocks. Of their 8.3 hectares of vineyards in the Scharzhofberg, fully three hectares remain on ungrafted rootstock. The estate also still has just under a hectare of ungrafted old vines in the vineyards of Wiltinger Kupp and Wiltinger Braune Kupp as well. In many vintages it is these venerable old vines that produce the finest wines to be released by the estate in any given year.

Egon Muller III did much to increase the international fame of the estate during his tenure, making wines that were prized throughout the wine-drinking world for their elegance, intensity and potential for longevity. In fact, Weingut Egon Muller has long been known for the extraordinary capacity of their wines to age, and the family still has a number of bottles in their personal cellars that date back to the early 1800s. Egon Muller III's first vintage was the aforementioned 1945, and he continued to make brilliant wines at the estate up until his final vintage, which was the 1990. He worked ceaselessly in the early years of his management of the property to return the Scharzhofberg to top condition after the neglect of the war years. In 1954, Herr Muller entered into an agreement with a Wiltingen neighbor, the Le Gallais family, to manage their property and make and market the wines from their vineyards. Today the Le Gallais estate is effectively a second Domaine Egon Muller, but the name has been maintained out of deference to the remaining members of the Le Gallais family. The primary vineyard holding of the Le Gallais estate is the beautiful Wiltinger Braune Kupp, which makes for an interesting contrast with the Scharzhofberg, as its more iron-rich soils produce a distinctively different expression of riesling. In 1954 the Le Gallais estate included 2.5 hectares of vines in Wiltinger Braune Kupp; in 1992 Egon Muller IV purchased an additional two hectares in the Braune Kupp, but has maintained these parcels for the Le Gallais label.

Egon Muller III also established a trend that has become a bit of a tradition for the family, as he remained a bachelor for many years and married and had children a bit later in his life than many of his generation. His oldest son, Egon Muller IV, who was born in 1959, followed in his father's footsteps and also maintained his bachelorhood until a bit later in his life, before marrying his lovely wife Valeska, and having children. As Egon Muller IV has noted, the spread of years between himself and his father provided a strong relationship that allowed them to work side by side for many years running the estate together, and is a pattern that he hopes repeats with his son, Egon V, when he is come into manhood and prepares to take the reigns of the family property. Egon IV began to work alongside his father in 1985, and made his first vintage on his own in 1991, though he is quick to point out that his father was still with him and certainly was active in consulting during this time as well. Egon Muller III passed away in 2001 at the ripe old age of eighty-two, and left behind a legacy of brilliant wines over his more than fifty-five vintages and an estate that remains at the top of its game in the gifted hands of his son, Egon IV.

Today Egon Muller IV is one of the most respected and recognized personalities in the world of German wine. He is a tireless ambassador for German wines in general and his estate's wines in particular, and as often as not is just back from Singapore or Tokyo or New York or some other long promotional trip when one stops by at the estate to taste. In addition to running the two crown jewel Wiltingen estates of Weingut Egon Muller and Le Gallais, he is also currently active in a number of other projects. These include a joint venture in Australia making riesling, where Herr Muller was away last March when I visited to taste the supernal 2005s from the domaine, and a very exciting new project in Slovakia that is called Chateau Bela. Chateau Bela is an old wine-producing estate at the extreme southern border of Slovakia, located on the banks of the Danube and looking across the river at Hungary. The region prior to the formation of Czechoslovakia after World War I was part of Hungary. The former owner the estate of Chateau Bela was Baron Ullman, who left in 1945, with the property consequently falling into disrepair. His descendents have recently repurchased Chateau Bela and have begun a renovation of the property (starting with the wine cellars) and have entered into a partnership with Egon Muller to make a drier-styled riesling that will echo the styles of the best Wachau or Alsace rieslings. The first vintage produced of Chateau Bela was 2001, and through the first few vintages the results look positively exciting.

Throughout his tenure, Egon Muller IV has been passionate about the importance of limiting yields in the vineyards in order to make great wine. In this respect, he is at odds with many of the very best-known and most respected winemakers in Germany, as it is commonly held that it is perfectly possible to make exceptional wines from riesling at relatively high yields, often in the range of seventy to eighty hectoliters or more per hectare. But Herr Muller is adamant that limiting yields is one of the most important fundamentals in the creation of great riesling, and the estate has always practiced keeping yields below sixty hectoliters per hectare. According to Herr Muller, the last four vintages prior to 2006 were in the thirty hectoliters per hectare range. The resulting wines from yields significantly lower than many of their neighbors have often endowed Egon Muller wines with a concentration and intensity that is appreciably greater than is the norm with many of the very best producers in Germany, and also a structural framework that produces wines that are built very much for the very long haul and are almost hermetically sealed when young. In fact, the wines of Egon Muller are perhaps the very slowest to unfold in all of German, and they demand patience from the wine lovers that cellar these beautiful wines. As the notes below will attest, within the fullness of time they blossom into sublime bottles, but I can think of no other producers’ wines (with the possible exception of those of Weingut J. J. Prum) that take so long to come around.

Of course some of the longevity for which the wines of Egon Muller are so prized hails not from the low yields, but also from the great soil of the Scharzhofberg. This twenty-eight hectare slope of slate and quartz rises to nearly a thousand feet above sea level in elevation as it towers above the domaine’s buildings and the Scharzhof (the Muller family home), with its steep slopes and perfect exposition. As mentioned at the outset, the Scharzhofberg was comprised of only eighteen hectares of vineyard land when Johan-Jakob Koch purchased the entire vineyard in 1797. This was officially the case up until the final adaptation of the German wine laws in 1971, but at that time an additional ten hectares of vines were incorporated into the official delimitation of the Scharzhofberg vineyard. These ten hectares of vines had been previously known as the Scharzberg, and lie at the top of the mountain. They had always been planted with grapes as well, and not surprisingly, the underlying soil is virtually identical to that of the original Scharzhofberg parcels, which lie on the slope. As Egon Muller observes, there is a bit more quartz in the vineyards at the top of the hill, but the major difference between the two sections is that of exposition and the relative coolness of the vineyards at the top of the hill, which are not sheltered from the prevailing winds. The former Scharzberg portion orientates slightly towards the east, rather than the due south exposition of the older section of the Scharzhofberg. His estate's 8.3 hectares of vines are all situated in the old section of the Scharzhofberg, on the slopes.

The Scharzhofberg vineyard has been greatly renowned for centuries as one of the greatest vineyards in all of Germany. According to Egon Muller, the monks' vineyard was first cited in existing records that date back as far as 1340, and one of the most interesting historical aspects of the estate is that it has always been recognized for its vineyard land. Many of the other large historical estates in the region would have been built on a mixed agricultural base, as winemaking for centuries in Germany was not a full-time occupation that paid the bills. Naturally the ecclesiastical origins of the estate would have factored in heavily to no other agricultural production being undertaken at the property (the bills being taken care of in a number of other ways), but it also seems quite clear that when a hill such as the Scharzhofberg produces such outstanding grapes, it would have been historical folly to pursue other crops on the property. As Herr Muller so aptly phrases the proposition in his understated and gentlemanly style, the fact that "the estate never had any property of consequence apart from the vineyards leads us to believe that the vineyards were considered valuable at this time. More than likely, the recognition of the Scharzhofberg's value, like that of the great Abtsberg-Herrenberg slope of Maximin Grunhauser, dates all the way back to the Romans.

The vinification techniques employed by Egon Muller and his cellarmaster, Stefan Fobian, utilize to bring the glorious raw materials of the Scharzhofberg to fruition as wine, are very traditional. The wines are fermented and aged in thousand liter, old oak fuders, with the fermentations done with indigenous yeasts whenever possible. As discussed previously in the articles on Maximin Grunhauser and Helmut Donnhoff, there are times when it is simply impossible to not use a commercial yeast during the fermentation process (particularly with late-harvest or extremely botrytized wines which simply will not begin to percolate without a bit of inoculation), but the goal at Weingut Egon Muller and at the Le Gallais estate is to produce the finest, most traditional wines as possible. The wines are raised in the deep, very cold and damp cellars that date back to the days of the monks, and offer a perfect environment in which to gently bring up wines built for the long haul. There are no exact dates for the creation of these old cellars, but they certainly predate the Scharzhof itself (the earliest buildings here date back to the early eighteenth century, and have added to by each subsequent generation of the Muller family) by several hundred years. Set in the shadow of the Scharzhofberg, it is one of the most magical wine-producing sites to be found anywhere in the world.

The domaine of Egon Muller has long been known for their very long-lived wines, and this is true up and down the quality hierarchy of their different Pradikat bottlings. For many years this hierarchy began at the Kabinett level, but in 1973 the estate introduced a QbA bottling which they call Scharzhof, which is one of the finest Qualitatswein bottlings now to be found in Germany. The selection that is made for the Scharzhof QbA is typically from the vineyards that Weingut Egon Muller owns outside of the Scharzhofberg vineyard, including their parcels in the villages of Kanzem, Wawern, Saarburg and Oberemmel, and at times may also include some parcels in the Scharzhofberg itself. Prior to 1973 the estate typically sold off the production from these villages in bulk, so as to concentrate on the Scharzhofberg bottlings. At the Kabinett level, again, an Egon Muller label is normally a guarantee of an extremely cellar-worthy and profound expression of Kabinett. With this bottling, the low yields practiced by the estate really seem to make the most dramatic impact, as a typical Muller Kabinett is often a very broad-shouldered, deep, intense and almost powerful example of its Pradikat. Here the classic snap and raciness of Saar riesling is anchored to a very deep and often profound expression of Kabinett, as the lack of buffering residual sugar that is found at higher Pradikat levels allows for all of the stony slate of this great site to fully define the wine. To my palate, a great example of Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Kabinett takes this Pradikat level to heights that are never surpassed, and rarely matched by other domaines.

At the level of Spatlese, I have not had the pleasure to taste quite as many examples as I have of some of the other Pradikat levels of wines from Egon Muller. The ones that I have tasted have always been excellent, but for some reason they do not quite excite my palate as much as the otherworldly examples of Kabinett that I have had from the domaine. Please understand that this is a function of the simply extraordinary quality of Kabinett made by Herr Muller, rather than any shortcoming with his equally stunning Spatlesen. I have never had the temerity to mention my impressions with Egon Muller directly, but my gut instinct is that this is not a Pradikat level that has traditionally engaged the imagination of Herr Muller quite as much as Kabinett or the higher level wines. Intuitively, I would suggest that prior to the advent of global warming (which most winemakers in the Saar and Ruwer will pinpoint to the 1988 vintage as the first of a string of much warmer vintages that have come to characterize climate change), the specialization at the Kabinett level was a function of necessity in the Saar, where ripe vintages used to come along only two or three times a decade. Certainly Spatlesen here can be brilliant, but unless I am utterly mistaken, Herr Muller does not share the same passion for this Pradikat level as, for example, Helmut Donnhoff.

Weingut Egon Muller and the Le Gallais estate certainly do not slip as one moves up the hierarchy of Pradikat to the level of Auslesen and Goldkapsels, as this is another real sweet spot for the two domaines. In my experience the slightly more gentle soil signature of the Wiltinger Braune Kupp from which the Le Gallais wines are made really takes to the interplay of a touch of residual sugar that is found at the level of Auslesen and above, and with bottle age these can be absolutely extraordinary and almost exotic examples. They can often start out life a bit laid back and understated, but with bottle age they blossom brilliantly, with notes of mint leaf, cress, peach and yellow plum adding to a rather exotic expression of riesling which often bears a bit of a resemblance to the Herrenberg bottlings from Maximin Grunhauser. Much like the Herrenberg, I find the excellent Le Gallais bottlings of Auslesen that I have tasted to be a bit underrated, and they can offer outstanding value in the market.

The Scharzhofberger bottlings of Auslesen and Goldkapsels from Egon Muller are reference point and very, very often are simply monumental examples of German riesling. Herr Muller has often been quoted of talking how his parents would serve Kabinett and Spatlese level wines at important wine dinners at their home, and after dinner was concluded, retire from the table to begin the serious tasting with the higher Pradikat level wines. Clearly, (as great as the Kabinett is here) it is at these upper reaches that the greatest peaks of Weingut Egon Muller are to be found, and I would be very surprised if a passion for brilliance at the Auslese level and above is not a trait that Egon IV has inherited from his father and previous generations of Herr Mullers who have run the family estate before him. For there is unquestionably a brilliance to these wines from the estate that makes each and every one that I have had the pleasure to taste a seminal moment in my riesling education. Part of the magic of these wines certainly originates in the brilliant terroir of the Scharzhofberg, where the bath of mineral and slate seems capable of devouring virtually any level of residual sugar and botrytis that is thrown at it, and still keeping these exotic beauties racy and firmly based in their soil. But there also seems to be an affinity for these upper Pradikat wines that both Egon Muller IV possesses, (and which his father before him also possessed), that demonstrates that when man, grape and vineyard are suitably matched, the results can be humbling.

And of course there are the dessert wines here. There is really not much that can be said about them, except that the harmonic convergence of Muller artistic aptitude and profound terroir that is found at the Auslesen level is perhaps even surpassed at the level of Eiswein, BA and TBA. Ironically, the estate's very first vintage in the Scharzhofberg that ever produced wines at the level of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese was 1959, which happily also coincided with the birth year of Egon IV. No doubt the penchant for lower yields in the Scharzhofberg of the estate assists in the grapes utilized for Eiswein always having sufficiently ripe acids, making for extremely long-lived and profound examples of their genre. At the BA and TBA level, it is clear that the glorious synthesis of the Saar's great natural acidity and bottomless minerality provide the perfect framework on which to build great botrytized wines. The other great Saar dessert wine artist, Hanno Zilliken, shares a similar ability with Egon Muller to produce dizzyingly saturated botrytis wines that remain soil-driven and utterly racy and light on their feet. To my palate these are simply the greatest dessert wines made in the world, and as great as a handful of other producers' dessert wines may be, they are always playing for second place after the magical BA and TBA bottlings from these two Saar superstars. One will note that I do not pick one Saar star over the other, as I have never had the pleasure to taste examples of Geltz-Zilliken and Egon Muller dessert wines head to head and make a comparison, but that would certainly be a tasting that I would be jump at the chance to attend!