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The Daily Beast: Germany's Wine Revolution is Just Getting Started
Dr. Vino: Ulli Stein and His Forbidden Wine
Ulrich “Ulli” Stein is a formidable figure in European winemaking – he has fought the E.U. on numerous viticulture points (and won!). While Ulli’s wines are not widely known in the United States, he has nothing less than a fanatical following in Europe. He could likely sell every last bottle to his friends in Germany alone, yet there are places of some importance, like Noma in Copenhagen, that put in sizable orders for Stein wine.
Ulli Stein has an oenology degree from Geisenheim (the German oenological equivalent of Harvard) and a PhD in biology. However, Ulli is much more than a winemaker. He is a passionate advocate for the traditional steep slate vineyards of the Mosel. In 2010, Ulli published a manifesto warning of the threats to the region’s 2,000-year-old viticultural tradition. Dan Melia wrote a beautiful summary of Stein’s manifesto for Edward Behr’s The Art of Eating. It is reproduced here with kind permission from the author and publisher. Ulli’s primary interest is making wines that represent historical Mosel and doing all that he can to preserve the region’s old vines. His wines are a glance into the past. They offer a rare insight into the Riesling that dazzled those 19th-century connoisseurs. They are as pure in spirit as they are in their delicate taste.
Ulli farms about 13 acres that have three commonalities: they are not easy to work, they are commercially unknown and, most importantly, Ulli loves them. The vineyards are on steep, Mosel hillsides near Bullay, down the Mosel River from Bernkastel. Many of the sites are steeper than forty-five degrees and can be up to 68 degrees. When it comes to viticulture like this, there are no shortcuts; everything must be done by hand. Ulli’s parcels include low-yielding, ungrafted rootstock on blue slate. Organic viticulture is challenging, but is how he works, finding eco-alternatives in wet vintages.
In addition to Riesling, Ulli has red grape holdings. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon (native to western France), Sangiovese (native to Italy), and Pinot Noir (also called Spatburgunder), native to Burgundy. For years, growing red grapes in the Mosel was illegal. Ulli single-handedly overturned the ruling several years ago. While Riesling is still the region’s prominent grape variety—almost exclusively—Ulli wanted to prove a point. Spatburgunder is Germany’s most common red grape (and a logical choice, given that the Mosel’s cool climate is similar in ways to Burgundy), but planting Sangiovese and Cabernet is outrageous given the Mosel’s cool temperatures and the amount of heat and sunshine that the two latter grapes need to ripen. But when it comes to Ulli, it’s not surprising that he plants all three. When asked why he chose these grapes, Ulli exclaimed, “As a joke! There is so much that is serious in the world already. I wanted to prove a point.”
"Ulrich “Ulli” Stein – who cleared up some ambiguities a decade ago by legally re-registering his family’s holdings under the one-word estate name “Stein” – is among the most staunchly dedicated as well as most thoughtful and articulate defenders of a traditional Mosel wine growing culture based on Riesling from steep slopes and old vine selections trained to single posts, cropped at modest yields, and rendered in fuder with minimal additives into wines priced to sustain those slopes and that culture as a way of life. Heinrich Stein, his son’s inspiration and model who passed away at age 92 shortly after the 2014 harvest concluded, was a pioneer of vineyard reclamation from stone wall building to vine selection long before the term “mountain rescue” (Bergrettung) was first cleverly applied to that process by a circle of young Mosel idealists. Ulli Stein is also a tireless experimenter and researcher, determined, for instance, to demonstrate on his own property the advantages of massale selection and own-rooted vines or to explore means of halting the increasingly alarming toll being taken on vines all across Northern Europe by esca (a.k.a. "black measles"). His ideals and practices regularly put him at odds with German authorities, with whom he is well-equipped by intellect and influence to do battle, as he did to gain official EU recognition for vin de paille (in Mosel dialect Striehween), thus overriding a long-standing provision in German wine law that both outlawed and declared as non-wine the fermented juice of dried grapes. Stein’s vinous experiments encompass tireless determination to render serious Cabernet and Merlot from the Mosel; he has begun vinifying what he calls “Pinot Noir Kabinett” of only 10-11 percent alcohol; and recent exercises in extended-élevage and sulfur-free Riesling (about which I will report further when I review his 2015s) have garnered attention after being embraced by Copenhagen’s celebrated restaurant Noma."