Herzog von Württemberg, Maulbronner Eilfingerberg, Riesling Kabinett trocken, 2011

Herzog von Württemberg, Maulbronner Eilfingerberg, Riesling Kabinett trocken, 2011

Our regular readers (is there any other kind?) know that we have a special fondness for wines that come with a bit of history. Today, I would like to take you with me, if you'll come, to the vineyards of the former Cistercian abbey of Maulbronn, some 50 kilometers north-east of Stuttgart. For their monasteries, the monks of the Cisterican order sought out places of utter solitude, far from any previous settlement. At least this was the theory since the 12th century. While that was mostly technically true, remote land doesn't mean bad land. In fact, the Cistercians were more like agricultural property developers, with an canny sense of where the most fertile new land could be found, and with an unrivalled grasp of the technology and organisation to remake it and reap its riches.

Around the courtyard of Maulbronn abbey
Around the courtyard of Maulbronn abbey

Among other clever things, they pioneered grape varieties and wine growing techniques exported out of Burgundy in much of the German-speaking lands.

But in 1537, just when the Maulbronn monastery and the surrounding farmland had been perfected into a kind of model plant, neatly laid out and humming (woods, fish ponds, orchards, farming, wine), the reformation put an end to such monkish affluence and sent the fathers packing.

Easter at Maulbronn abbey
Easter at Maulbronn abbey

The duke of Württemberg, new owner of the abbey courtesy of Martin Luther et al., was no puritan bigot or looting robber baron, however, but a shrewd administrator. Instead of pulling the monastery apart or selling it off, he and his successors kept intact its buildings and landholdings and - turned it to even more profitable use. And in a way, they still do: Through sea changes and revolutions, the house of Württemberg, former dukes, former kings, now - among other things - winery owners, have held on to some of their best vineyards in the region. And as every lover of German wine knows, there is nothing that says "German" like a nice princely coat of arms on a wine label. Case in point: The 2011 dry Riesling from Maulbronn's Eilfingerberg vineyard.

But, you'll be relieved to hear, neither all this history, nor the ringingly aristocratic name of its producer, can make the Wine Rambler like a wine that's not up to scratch:

And, I'm very sorry to report, there is much that's not to like: From the pale greenish straw colour, right on to the soapy, slightly sweaty artificial apple and yoghurt smell. This smell like nothing so much as an indifferently made Müller-Thurgau. I'm not even sure that it just smells like one, because there may be some of it in there legally - by law, only 85% of a bottle of German Riesling need to be Riesling. I'm just saying. There is precious little fruit on the palate, skins of apples and peaches, sawdust, all of it mushy and unclear. A somewhat harsh, watery and unlovely wine.

Former vineyard terraces near Maulbronn
Former vineyard terraces near Maulbronn

I have no reason to rubbish this wine, as I love the area, had bought it close to where it was made (this always endears a bottle to me) and had really looked forward to it. I'm sorry it sucked so badly. But if two wine-loving people simply cannot bring themselves to raise another glass to their lips and instead, after very brief discussion, decide to pour it down the sink, something is not right. If I may, your lordship: These vineyards look very nice, good exposition, well cared for. You have a good name and a pricing structure in place that seems to me to allow for investment into quality winemaking. What went wrong here? High yields may have been an issue: Riesling is routinely overcropped in Germany (a dirty secret, yes), because as a grape, it lets you get away with some of that without, mostly, a great loss of quality. The mushy fruit and the harshness suggest problems with ripeness and with lack of grape selection. But no matter: You've owned the place for 500 years now, get a grip and put it back on the German wine map, man.


Submitted by torsten Monday, 07/05/2012

Sorry to hear about that. With all the effort we put into finding good wines it is always a disappointment to find you have bought one that ends up going down the drain. As a child I cycled in the area, but I am fairly certain I have not crossed the Enz to head north to Maulbronn. Should I do so in the future I will have a word with his lordliness.

Submitted by Em Tuesday, 22/05/2012

This article made me smile despite the conclusion. I have so many fond memories of Maulbronn, a favourite S-bahn destination; schwäbische Maultaschen and Shakespeare in the courtyard.

Submitted by Alexander Tuesday, 04/12/2012

You will be aware that the House of Württemberg have changed their enologists every couple of years in recent times. Present new master of the caves is the young Moriz Just (fresh from Spain), who was preceded for four years by Chistian Lintz who has never stayed for long in any wine estate. While stabilitas loci is no more the motto among modern winemakers, a certain experience of estate, vines and soil should not be despised too quickly.

The Maulbronner Eilfingerberg vineyard still has supreme Riesling potential, I think. Planting a part of it with Pinot blanc may not have been exactly a wise decision; the one that I tasted last year was rough to rude, very green and without any finesse. A clumsy boor.

A vertical tasting of elder vintages would be a very interesting and rewarding endeavour, I am sure - I still remember fondly the 1983 and 1985 vintages that I tasted in Tübingen (where I studied history - among other subjects). It was one of my favourite old professors who had introduced me to the estate... R.I.P.

Submitted by Julian Thursday, 06/12/2012

In reply to by Alexander

Many thanks for your knowledgeable comment, Alexander. It has turned out that by far the best thing about this wine is the wealth of reminiscence and insight that it is drawing out of people who know and love the area. I will certainly be back myself to see if we have between us managed to shame the Württembergs into putting more effort into it. Cheers from Julian.

Submitted by Alexander Thursday, 06/12/2012

In reply to by Julian

And you have enticed me to check out that *other* vineyard in Maulbronn, the venerable but very little known "Maulbronner Closterweinberg". This old dry-walled sandstone structure of impressive architectural dimensions, long-neglected and barren, has been rediscovered and re-planted only recently.

One of the vintners (Johannes Häge) has even written a historical article (also available as short brochure) about its history that you'll find in any better OPAC:

Der Enzkreis - 10. 2003. - S. 143 - 155
BLB Karlsruhe: ZA 8515
WLB Stuttgart: Z 16302

Submitted by Julian Sunday, 09/12/2012

In reply to by Alexander

... for a guest ramble! Now you've done it. Seriously, Alexander, I think we should have one from you. Could you get in touch using the "contact"-link on our "about"-page? That would be wonderful. We get rubbish offers of "original" guest content from salespeople almost every day, but are starving for the real thing, and wine lovers who can bring it: Knowlege, sense of place and a personal story.

Submitted by Alexander Tuesday, 11/12/2012

In reply to by Julian

I have answered in a mail, with a befitting pretence of shyness.

To add on what I did not expound there, my lieu de séjour also boasts one of the few German vineyards privileged to dispense with the community name (like Schloß Johannisberger, Steinberger... in my vcase, it's Hochburger). The wines do not always quite live up to their potential these days, but the beautiful ruin (destroyed in the late 17th century, as one could guess in the German-Austrian Southwest) makes up for that.

Submitted by Alexander Sunday, 16/12/2012

I had received a test bottle on Thursday (upon being informed of the fracas, Moriz Just, the new enologist or master of the caves, had sent me one, free of charge) and we tested it with four people on Saturday (two US tasters, two Germans).
This came out much better than the two ramblers' distressing experience would suggest, so it might have been a bottle problem at that time, or - much more likely - a better second filling now. The present AP number of my bottle is 233 31 12.

The wine's nose is downright remarkable, indicating and promising a quality (and some typical characteristics of this specific, legendary vineyard) that the body and especially the finish would not quite be able to uphold later - alas.
One might suspect me of positive "label bias" (I know how the Maulbronner Eilfingerberg Rieslinge are supposed to taste, so of course interpretative projection is always a danger, and hence the importance of blind tastings). My co-tasters, not overly familiar with German Rieslinge, suspected an unoaked Chardonnay (their Riesling experience or exposition had limited primarily to sweet specimina) at first. However, it is a fairly typical dry Riesling to me already in its bouquet.
I noted an agrumic complex (mostly red orange), but neither citrus nor passion fruit nor elderblossom (FAR off track!) nor green apple (likely an understandable misperception of the slightly estered agrumic notes), as the accompanying wine expertise on the estate website would suggest to us.

The body remains extremely slim, and neither aeration nor time would allow it to unfold; because it cannot present more than it had to begin with. The structure displays the typical vertebral column that the good Eilfingerberge have (acid and strength, yet supple like a tempered blade - "lâme d'épée"). The estate's description tried to characterize the acidity as "vivacious", but unruly would be the better word. However, it is contained enough not to be perceived as boisterous. Not much development through its course, and a certain lack of differentiation. The wine could accompany a fat fish with a strong own taste (also a baked or roasted fish) and pheasant or smoked goose, and of course ostrich. It would be unkind with any more tenderly flavoured, elegant fish (such as pikeperch), and unsuitable for most red meats and most vegetarian dishes. However, Grünkohl (Germany) and sukuma wiki (Kenya) could match it VERY well.

Finish and aftertaste: nothing at all (!) except for a long acidic echo. The mention of a long echo ("langer Nachhall") in the estate expertise is thus not really wrong, but rather misleading. This wine breaks off abruptly after about 2/3 of its way, like as if it had been chopped off with a hatchet. The drinker thus is unpleasantly bereft of any development, finish, exposition; not just the tail is missing, but even the hind legs and the buttocks. This is the main disappointment that I had with this initially promising wine.

US perception: Ashy finish (one taster was reminded of charcoal). Both US tasters strongly insisted on oak, although that can hardly be (the Hofkammerkellerei uses steel tanks and large oaken vats with neutral taste). Mildly earthy.

One day later, we had occasion to compare this Riesling mentally to one Mosel (lightly and barely off-dry) by Markus Molitor that we had as dinner companion in Freiburg's presently best restaurant, the Kreuzblume. http://www.hotel-kreuzblume.de/en/
Menu list here: http://www.hotel-kreuzblume.de/en/menu-en
Molitor, the darling of wine scribes and guide publishers, who has also been variously mentioned in this blog, won the comparison hands-down with a much more mature and perfectly composed Riesling wine. While the Eilfingerberg has definitely more potential, Molitor's wine used its inherent qualities to the fullest, and this one did not.

So, to refocus on the original question, what went wrong here? The tasters can at best speculate, since neither of us was in the vineyard or in the cellars. Very likely, there was no vinification error whatsoever involved, at least not with this one second bottle, respectively this second wine filling.
Too high overall yield, as the ramblers wondered, *might* be a potential culprit. It could very well explain the slightly disappointing discrepancy between nose and the abruptly curtailed body. Another possibility is grape pre-selection. The estate of the ducal House of Württemberg does, like most VdP members, produce its yearly share of GGs (Große Gewächse). I have always been very wary of this money-making ploy because it too easily tends to downgrade and declassify the other wines of such a producer not just subjectively in public perception but also objectively in the GLASS itself. Where an estate pre-selects certain batches (meaning territionally advantaged sub-divisions within one vineyard, micro-parcels or "Gewanne" in German) for special care and fostering, this often tends to push down the rest of the wines. Also, grapes pre-destined for a later GG often undergo yield reduction in various ways, while the other grape batches are less rigorously treated. On the whole, this seems to be the most likely explanation to me, if I were to speculate. To be a bit more assured, a comparison to a contemporary 2011 Großes Gewächs from the same vineyard would be necessary.
On the whole, it simply breaks down to an economic assessment of short-time monetary gain balanced against the reputation of an estate and even a whole House (as here, since the winery has always occupied a place of special pride in the large and rather diversifed economic undertakings of the Württemberg family). I would rather be willing to pay two and a half Euros more per bottle of a really good and satisfying Kabinett (meaning 11 € for this one), or let's say 15 € for the occasional Spätlese, than an over-priced 24 Euros for the rather few produced bottles of a Großes Gewächs in a fancy-pancy bottle (such as the 2011 Stettener Brotwasser - the 2010 Maulbronner Eilfingerberg GG is at 17,50 €).

Submitted by Alexander Friday, 21/12/2012

In reply to by Alexander

Claudia Krügele from the estate was friendly enough to answer my question on the phone:
The 2011 vintage of the Maulbronner Eilfingerberg Großes Gewächs has meanwhile replaced the 2010 (not yet reflected ion the website), and is now fit to be compared to its small Kabinett cousin.

Submitted by Julian Friday, 21/12/2012

In reply to by Alexander

Great to have your expertise on this, Alexander, and I'm glad that you have given this wine the benefit of the doubt and even found some things to like. Incidentally, the Wein-Plus guide, which I find very dependable, leans more towards your cautious critique than my more damning judgement when it awards 81 points:

"Zart floraler Duft nach Zitrusfrüchten und Kernobst mit getrocknet-pflanzlichen und erdigen Tönen. Im Mund recht schlanke, trockene Frucht, pflanzliche, florale und erdige Noten, relativ präsente Säure, gewisse Mineralik am Gaumen, nur nicht allzuviel Substanz, ordentlicher Abgang".

Submitted by Alexander Friday, 21/12/2012

In reply to by Julian

Damning can frequently be better and fairer than cautious. I do counter-tasting regularly, and almost invariably find myself very VERY relieved to reaffirm my first impression (and subsequently feel peeved to have wasted some money on a second bottle, just for foolishly doubting my own expurtaise... :-P).

On very rare occasions (every odd planet conjunction) I modify an assessment, like with the Hahnmühle Silvaner "Gäseritsch". A wine that tries so very very hard. You want to pat it on the shoulder and tell it: "relax, chill a bit, the bodybuilding contest just got a break!"

I do wonder however and why in the case of the Maulbronner Eilfingerberg, two different fillings out of a steel tank within a span of 3/4 or 2/3 of a year could or would be so different. I hope nobody will try to tell me about "Jugendböckser" (juvenile flatulence), "Füllkrankheit" (filling sickness) and the like. Such convenient catch-all terms would not match this specific wine, the clear heavy structural flaws hat both ramblers noted, and the wine's production history, in my feeling.