Falkenstein: The Tangy Soul Of The Saar

Article written for Chambers Street Wines, view it here

Erich and Johannes Weber, the father and son team behind Falkenstein (photo by Lars Carlberg)

‘Make wines low in alcohol with lovely aromas.’ A tenet of the legendary Jules Chauvet of Beaujolais, rarely is this phrase associated with German winemaking. Yet the wines of Hofgut Falkenstein in the Saar valley fulfill this as well as any producer in Germany, let alone France. This is an anachronistic estate. Though the history of Falkenstein wine only goes back to 1985, when Erich Weber moved his family to the Falkensteiner Hof, then a run-down manor house in Niedermennig that he spent years restoring, in many ways their dry, tangy tonics are a throwback to the 19th century, with all the work being done by hand and almost no intervention in the cellar. A surprisingly small amount of sulfur is used. Their nearly ancient fuder are treated with sulfur a few days before the new, gently-pressed wine is racked into them via gravity and a touch more is used before bottling the whites. Overall, we’re talking about 20-30 mg/l of total sulfur, low by even strict standards (the Association of Vins Naturels qualifies natural white wines as below 40 mg/l and Demeter’s upper limit is 70 mg/l), and certainly not the norm in the Mosel. The reds often don’t receive any additional sulfur.

In addition to the old-school approach, they aim to make affordable wines that ‘go down easy,’ in the words of Johannes Weber, the energetic 27 year-old who is steadily taking over the winemaking duties from his father.  Indeed, the wines do go down easy but that belies their complexity and delicate construction, not to mention the way they very clearly express the nuance of their respective terroirs. In the valley of the Saar there is less protection from brisk, western winds, giving the wines grown in the vineyards around this Mosel tributary a characteristic core of cool acidity, which the Falkenstein lineup demonstrates with aplomb.  They are a pure jolt of Saar zip, from the cooler, later-ripening Sonnenberg site in Niedermennig to the warmer south-facing Euchariusberg plots near Krettnach where they produce ethereal Auslesen that still has the charming, cool backbone of acidity that is their trademark.

Of course, they also go down easy because they are low in alcohol and the tangy spritz is a terrific digestive aid with food. Combined with the aforementioned lack of winemaking additives, they feel downright healthy to drink. According to Lars Carlberg, doctors in the 19th century used to prescribe light, dry Mosel wines for ‘a variety of ailments.’ Given that the Webers make wines in large part the same way they would have been made 125 years ago, it may be worth filling those latter-day physicians’ prescriptions with some Falkenstein Riesling to see if their advice holds true. I know drinking a bottle always makes me feel pretty great. Jonathan Kemp

Falkenstein, Hofgut 2013 Saar Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Riesling Spätlese Trocken

  • This is the more approachable of the dry Rieslings from Falkenstein. There is more structure and extract, with aromas of apricot, seagrass, and fresh flowers. Mouth-watering, mineral, brisk, and tangy, with a little texture on the finish, this is wonderfully pure, drinkable, refreshment.

Falkenstein, Hofgut 2013 Saar Krettnacher Altenberg Riesling Spätlese Trocken

  • This vineyard is typically a week behind the Niedermenning Sonnenberg vineyard in terms of ripeness, and produces a supremely mineral wine. If you were to picture an electric current running through gray slate it might give you an image of what this wine expresses. This is dry, salty, stony Saar Riesling with enough acidity to snap you out of a deep slumber. That it still comes off as rejuvenating instead of a show of power or unpleasant force is a testament to the work done at Falkenstein and the finesse that their wines possess. This is a wine of undeniable terroir but also with the digestive properties that call to mind 19th Century doctors' prescription of light, dry Mosel wines for a range of conditions. It'll cure what ails you! 

Falkenstein, Hofgut 2013 Saar Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spätlese Feinherb

  • Always the best-selling wine in the Falkenstein lineup, and the one with the widest appeal. This comes from the deep-rooted Herrenberg vineyard, mostly gray slate with a few patches of red and blue slate. The wine has just barely enough sugar to take the edge off the tangy structure, but enough to add quite a bit of charm. Still lean, precise, clean, and mineral, but with a gorgeous finesse and energy that is undeniable. A true star of the Saar.

Falkenstein, Hofgut 2013 Saar Krettnacher Euchariusberg Riesling Auslese

  • Up in the clouds, hidden from the western winds, steep, and perfectly south-facing, the Euchariusberg vineyard produces higher sugar levels but the grapes always retain their acidity. The Auslesen from here are very old-school, with an ethereal drinkable quality and little of the thick, dense, sweeter qualities many associate with the term Auslese. Instead it has a leaner profile but remarkable overall balance and poise that speaks with a clear, gentle voice that is soft and massaging on the palate. Aromas of herbs and forest floor add complexity. The selection and sorting must be excellent to produce this level of purity, where the sugars are perceptible but the layers of acid and minerals stay even through the finish, with little evidence of botrytis to be found. To say this is a fantastic value is a severe understatement, but this is Auslese one could easily drink on a daily basis, so take advantage of the price and drink up. 

Falkenstein, Hofgut 2011 Saar Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Spätburgunder Spätlese Trocken

  • There is just no comparison that we've found for the Spätburgunders of Falkenstein within Germany. The partial whole cluster pressing and partial carbonic maceration, combined with the fact that their cellar is too cold for malolactic fermentation to take place, makes these more like Loire Valley Pinot Noirs than anything else. This Spätburgunder, from the gray slate of their Sonnenberg vineyard shows more of the herbaceous character of the stem inclusion, but is still lithe, with dark fruit that reflects the warmer vintage with balanced acidity, focus, and a touch of spice to balance out the darker, savory elements. A nice contrast to the brighter, leaner 2012 Spätburgunder from the Herrenberg vineyard. As with all their reds, the only sulfites added are to the empty barrels before the wine is racked.

Falkenstein, Hofgut 2012 Saar Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spätburgunder Spätlese Trocken

  • The last vintage of this wine was an unexpected sensation, and the 2012 is every bit as thrilling. Pinot Noir from the anachronistic Weber family of Falkenstein in the Saar, this is unlike any other German Spätburgunder, since it does not go through malolactic fermentation and retains its fresh, energetic cut. The wine is pressed whole cluster and ends up going through partial carbonic maceration and is only raised in the Weber's large, old fuders, with zero sulfur added at bottling. This wine from the grey, blue, and red slate of Herrenberg is astoundingly silky and more transparent, with perfect balance of bright cherry fruit, subtle earth, and unmistakable Saar vibrancy. This will shock people who have preconceived notions of what German reds can be, as this is more akin to wines from Jura and Beaujolais than anything else. A must-try!