Back In Review: Live-Stream Wine Tasting with Dr. Katharina Prüm, of Weingut Joh. Jos. Prüm

Published on 12 May, 2020

© 12 May 2020, Linden Wilkie

Midday in the Mosel, 6pm in Hong Kong as Alex and Florian joined from the shop and many of you joined from home with the wine packs we sent out, and me in New Zealand (lockdown) at 10pm. A very 2020 sort of wine tasting and chat. 

We covered a lot of ground in our 80 minute session, and while I initially started out simply typing up some notes for this review article, in the end a lot of what was discussed is semi-transcribed, not fully verbatim, but close enough I think (though of course I take ownership for any mistakes). 

TNT, confounded by the understandable limitations imposed by the Covid-19 epidemic delivered my set of the wines a couple of weeks late, so although I had tasted all of them before on different occasions, I didn’t have them in front of me during the session. But I made up for that a few days later, and I have written my tasting notes on these and included them here. 

It was great to chat with Dr. Katharina Prüm from the Middle Mosel’s finest – Weingut Joh. Jos. Prüm. This is an estate with a clear focus – one grape: Riesling, made in the classical fruity style. That means that the moment to stop fermentation is judged to perfectly balance fruit and aroma, with final alcohol, acidity and residual sugar. These are harmonious, expressive wines, with an extraordinary capacity to age gracefully in the cellar.

We discussed the region, the different terroirs, winemaking, her path to joining the estate, the prädikat system, the four wines on tasting, vintages, cellaring, yields, global warming, serving temperature, food matching, mangoes, vintages, clones, fruity and dry styles, other regions, tradition v innovation, lees ageing, other wine types…! Different types of discussion came up at different points during the session, so I have taken the liberty to re-order the sequence of topics and answers for better flow here in this event review.

I began by asking Katharina why the Mosel region succeeds with Riesling, being so far north.

[Katharina Prüm] We have very steep slopes with schist or slate soil, and there are south to southwest facing, so they capture as much sunshine as possible, which we need. The Mosel river itself brings warmth that we need especially during winter. It also helps with humidity. Additionally on the plateau above the slopes we have a very good water supply, so it is never too dry. This said, up until the 1980s a lot of vintages didn’t get enough ripeness. My father [Dr. Manfred Prüm] still says when we get enough ripeness “lucky us”. But today we don’t have the problem of getting enough ripeness, it’s more a case these days of what the vintage character will be. 

Katharina Prüm has a doctorate in law. Isn’t that an unusual path?

[KP] It’s the life I knew, so I wanted something else. I was the eldest of 3 daughters. I didn’t want to be put in the corner – going to Geisenheim. So, I did something completely different – I went to a university town in northern Germany, and I did law. And no one drank wine there – it was more beer and liquor. None of my friends there had anything to do with wine. So, it was a good experience for me. With the distance I could see the estate from the outside. I began travelling to export markets for my father who didn’t like to travel. But for me, at university, I wanted to discover the world, and I went out on the road for the estate. I learned a lot from that, and became more passionate about it, meeting so many people around the world passionate about it. When you are inside an estate you see only the estate – the 24 hour / 7 days world of stress, watching things and making sure they are going okay. But going out I met people who had been drinking the wines longer than I had been alive, and they tell you all the stories and beautiful experiences they’ve had. Seeing this in a more global context made me more enthusiastic, and it brought me finally back. 

On the subject of Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Graacher Himmelreich, the two vineyards for our tasting today.

[Linden Wilkie] Getting to grips with the label begins with something similar to what we find in Burgundy – classified vineyards that are divided up amongst multiple owners, and estate producers who make wines from (typically) more than one of these vineyards. This evening we focused on Prüm’s two most famous vineyards – Graacher Himmelreich and Wehlener Sonnenuhr. These two are contiguous neighbours along the same slope, so I asked Katharina - what is the difference between these two vineyards?

[KP] It is true that while these two vineyards, that are on one slope, cover some kilometers, there is a point where they are only one metre apart. But generally speaking Graacher Himmelreich turns slightly more west, and Wehlener Sonnenuhr turns slightly more south. The soil structure is a little bit different – Graacher Himmelreich is a little bit deeper in soil, but both vineyards have this greyish-blue very weather beaten Devonian slate. Graacher Himmelreich has a little bit more water supply, though Wehlener Sonnenuhr doesn’t lack it. But nonetheless these small differences make an enormous difference in the taste. Only Pinot Noir in Burgundy is like this. For us it is fascinating to see how they behave. 

The Prädikat System

[LW] We focus too much on technical analysis I think, on numbers and the rules when discussing the fruity style Rieslings of Germany. When we look at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers series do we wonder how many grams of yellow paint are on the canvas? Clearly a lot! But is the amount the point? What we want to experience is what we see and how it makes us feel. For example, I have described kabinett Riesling as: Breeze in your ears as you pull up your coat collar. The apple you picked, crunched, mingles its scent with the stone wall lifting spring rain to the sun as you walk.

[KP] Yes, and that’s the most beautiful description I’ve heard! The origins of the system are in the Naturwein movement – the idea that these are a superior class of wine made only from what nature gives, and without any need for support. For example, a prädikat wine may not be chaptalized. It’s a natural product of the vineyard.

Kabinett – is the first picked, just ripe grapes.
Spätlese – is late harvested, but this is nothing to do with dessert wine.
Auslese – is later picked and is a selection.
What we see here with these three is ripe, riper, riper still fruit. If you imagine the mangoes you get in Asia, these we cannot get in Germany. The ‘kabinett mango’ is ripe, but not as fully aromatic and evolved. Or it might be one good for salads, like you get in Thailand. A ‘spätlese mango’ gives more aroma, is more yellow, has a thicker colour. An ‘auslese mango’ is the top class that you could only get in Thailand or India, etc., that is really fully ripe, but would not travel. You have to eat it right away, and it is so aromatic and flavourful, but it is still not overly sweet. And all these work for different occasions. The prädikat system is like that. 

2018 Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett

[LW] I see kabinett as ‘lightness without weakness’. I think this wine in the Mosel is so particular to the region that if we had to give up all but one this is the one I would keep. (Katharina suggests this would be terrible!, and that she would probably disagree with me if this was the case and pick either spätlese or auslese)…

[KP] We work with only one grape varietal, so it is too hard to pick only one. We have four vineyards side by side that each year give us about 15 different wines, and I wouldn’t want to give up on any of them. Each is great for a different occasion, and to match different dishes.

[LW] For kabinett, I like it as an apéritif, and also as a pick-me-up at the end of the meal. You could begin with it and then finish the meal with it with a fresh white cheese for example.

[KP] An apéritif is definitely one recommendation. I like Champagne, but I also like kabinett as an alternative. This 2018 we are drinking is 9% alcohol, but some are only 8%, so it is lighter. The 2018 is also young and still a bit reductive, like some Champagne styles. It has that yeasty reductive smell. 

With food I like kabinett with salads, raw fish, ceviche, or gently-flavoured dishes generally. And if you don’t finish the whole bottle, and you move on to reds, or heavier wines, you can finish the rest of the bottle at the end.  The nice thing is that you perceive the wine in a different way in the end.

2018 Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett - My tasting note, 8th May 2020

Pale green straw, with just a little residual gas visible in the glass when first poured. Fresh and breezy on the nose, a bit reduced too, but there is no ‘ferment’ aroma. The aroma is fresh and bright, with a note of elderflower, which carries through to the palate. There is a slight tingle of residual gas that sharpens the minerality here. This is a fuller, rounder kabinett than in some cooler vintages. The ripeness is effortlessly ‘sunny’, yet there is nothing overripe here. 

20 minutes in the glass, more open and a bit warmer – very fresh still on the nose, and the reductive note has opened into something more bready-yeasty; this is in the lovely refreshing style, there is some softness from the mid-palate to near the finish, but on the finish there is now a snap of bittersweet citrus fruit, a mild sort of citrus taste like pomelo. The flavour carries through to a long refreshing finish. 

My family and I had drained the whole bottle before we could contemplate any food for it, meaning that it had done its job nicely!

2010 Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese

[LW] When I think of spätlese, I think of all the great Cantonese dishes we have in Hong Kong, and how flexibly this category pairs with them. This vintage – 2010 – is a little unusual though, isn’t it? I have always thought of it as a supercharged year, one with a direct line of electricity running through it, because while rich it has a special acidity.

[KP] 2010 was an unusual season. We had a quite cool period in June. Flowering is usually through in one to two weeks, but cool weather slowed the flowering, not just between vineyards, but something between vines and even clusters. This retardation extended for a long time, giving an uneven ripeness that continued to harvest. So, in the end you had both more ripeness but also less ripeness. The rest of the season was not so hot, so we finished with high concentration, high ripeness and high acidity. This is the key factor in the vintage. When you taste, you taste this high ripeness and high acidity, but it is a ripe acidity – it is not itchy in style. It is dominant, but it’s a nice acidity, it’s not green acidity. The acidity in 2010 here is a perfect balance to the fruit. It is richer than the kabinett, but the perception of the finish is almost dry. 

This would be one of my preferred picks at the moment to pair with food – it works well with foie gras. This wine cuts the richness, and so you enjoy both the dish and the wine more. Alternatively, a beautiful piece of fish. It can also take some spices, but not too many, because there is subtlety here – no strong Thai or Szechuan flavours for example. Beurre Blanc with fish, or with vegetable dishes. Also Cantonese dishes. They have this gentle saltiness to match the minerality, and a little bit of sweetness that matches also. I encourage you to try as many combinations as possible. It’s fun, and many dishes work. But avoid dishes with too much acidity, e.g. don’t try salads that have a lot of vinegar.

What is the ageing potential of this wine? It feels much younger than ten years old.

[KP] Yes, when we serve this blind you never feel the age. General characteristic of this wine is that it is good for ageing, and it is made for ageing. It easily keeps for 20, 30 years. They change. But when is best to drink them is subjective. e.g., the 2018 kabinett now is good as an apéritif, but for a dish wait a couple of years at least, for the primary fruit to disappear a bit, and for the minerality to increase. All fruity-style Rieslings taste drier the older they get. The higher the prädikat the older they age. It makes sense to be patient but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy the wines when they are young. 

2010 Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese - My tasting note, 8th May 2020

Full lemony gold; a wonderfully refreshing sort of nose when first poured, evolved, with lime peel, nettles, and a very verdant suggestion of summer forest walks. Very fresh but with a wild side. Really pronounced concentration on the palate, equally matched by the bright acidity which cuts a clean line through the wine. An almost auslese-level of creaminess picks up at the end, rounding it out. The balance here is impressive, in a vintage where spätlesen were not always as well balanced as auslesen, sometimes the acidity can play an upper hand, but that is not the case here. There is good complexity here, and despite youthful (and electrified) energy, I feel this is drinking well now already to be enjoyed. After another 30 minutes in the glass, the aromas became even more zesty, and lime-like. But it is lime-cream – there is richness to it. A really persistent flavour on the palate. 

The Auslese category(ies)

[LW] This is such a broad category that takes us from spätlese all the way to beerenauslese. In the old days estates could differentiate styles within the category with names like feine auslese, feinste auslese, hochfeine auslese. But in 1971, German law changed, to simplify this (amongst other things), and estates could then only use the word auslese. At your estate you differentiated by having a white capsule for regular auslese, and a gold capsule for a richer style. Can you explain how this works at your estate?

[KP] Yes, the capsules have no meaning defined by law, and it is important as you say to understand what each estate has done, because it varies. At Joh. Jos. Prüm the categories of kabinett, spätlese, and auslese are just increasing levels of ripeness for healthy golden berries. When we get to grapes affected by bortrytis, then these – at our estate – are for auslesen with gold capsules, or for beerenauslese. A goldcap auslese will typically have a certain amount of botrytis.

2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese

[KP] 2004 auslese is textbook auslese. If I could bring one example of what auslese means in the Mosel – this would be it – lightness, complexity, 7% alc. Lightness in a positive way, airiness. It still has the fruit, but now after 16 years it is not so dominant, and it is showing minerality now. It’s a good food partner with anything a little richer, including red meat – e.g. venison, slow cooked, or beef or veal. They work well with such a wine – it has intensity but is not too sweet. 2004 was a classic vintage, with beautiful acidity well-balanced with the fruit. 

[LW] Auslese from clean healthy golden Riesling grapes, like the white capsule auslesen at your estate like this one, I think can work in the same way as red Burgundy for food. If you know a dish that works well with an aged red Burgundy, then this wine will work well also with an aged auslese like this one.

[KP] Yes, true, but it is important to understand how the producer interprets auslese. If there is botrytis in an estate’s auslese then you have something different and you need to wait longer, or choose a different dish, or move back down to their spätlese for this kind of match.

For this wine I like wild boar or venison slow-cooked in Riesling which is a classic match and some we cook in this region traditionally. Also a nice fish with a beurre blanc sauce.

[Alexandria Cubbage] Can duck work?

[KP] Beijing Duck is perfect. You have the meat with some sweetness and the plum sauce also, but then you also have the cucumber and spring onion salad-type elements that go with the flavour and minerality.

I also like this Cantonese pomelo skin dish with auslese. 

[LW] Cha Siu honey-roasted pork is another dish I love with auslese like this. 

How long would you age the auslese?

[KP] The 2004 is good now but in ten years even a little more interesting to taste – with age the acidity and minerality integrate even more, so it becomes more refined and more gentle. But it could keep 20 or 30 more years. For the 2003 auslese goldkapsel – decades easily. Out of all of the wines this is the one I’m most excited about waiting another ten years for. Still now it has a little bit of baby fat and when the minerality has a chance to come through, it will be even better. 

2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese - My tasting note, 8th May 2020

Bright gold. On initial opening and pouring the nose expresses very coolly, there are orchard fruits, but there are also cooler-still spectrum aromas, like fresh cut fennel. It’s less rich, less exuberant on the nose than the 2010 spätlese just tasted – a reminder that vintage is as important in the expression as the actual prädikat or vineyard. This is just soooo elegant on the palate, very clean, straight-as-a-die in expression and flow through the palate, and the buffer of auslese concentration comes through not so much as creaminess, but more as a kind of marble-smooth texture and gentle caress. This appeals for its cool-spectrum understatement and pristine expression. Pure, slow-ripened Mosel-style Riesling. 

Interestingly, after another 30 minutes in the glass and that more vegetal tone of the fresh cut fennel has slipped into the background now in the aromas. On the palate a little of the expected auslese creaminess comes through – herbs, summer fruits and cream. The balance and the elegance is exquisite.

The next day my mother-in-law cooked home-made fish and chips. The chips air-fried, the fish not deep-fried, but shallow-fried in a light batter. On the side, a fresh herb-laden salad, very lightly dressed. I had thought that the match for this was going to be the spätlese, but it turned out to be this auslese – and unanimously amongst the four adults at the table. 

2003 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese Goldkapsel

[KP] As most people know 2003 was a very hot year. 2018 was hot in a different way, but until then 2003 was a synonym for a hot year. It was a very difficult vintage in many regions. Here in the Mosel it was my first experience with my father. I learned a lot. We had a long heatwave in summer. In August I could already try grapes – normally something we do a month later than this. It was very hot and I was walking in a parcel and the slate was so hot I thought my shoes would be burning. It was more extreme than 2018. But still the grapes, because of the deep roots, survived this. Despite the heatwave they looked great and the leaves looked great. We had such a good water supply in our vineyards. Another lucky thing is that we had a cooler weather pattern from 20th September. Sugar levels went up and acidity levels down and a lot of younger producers got worried, but my father said “be patient, you need the flavour ripeness”. And then luckily it got cooler at night from late September, and we began harvest on 3rd October which is a bit earlier than normal, but still not too early. We had an extremely cool October, and indeed we had frost during harvest! The ripeness was there, the cool nights stabilized the acidity and we didn’t have to rush. It was a great advantage, and we consider this a great vintage even though it is a bit more exotic than most. 

We were talking about the sensitivity toward terroir with Riesling, but this, and the 2004, which is so different – and not just auslese versus auslese goldkap – it also shows that Riesling is sensitive to the weather. 2003 doesn’t have much botrytis because it was such a dry year, so when you compare 2003 and 2004 it is mostly the weather here, and it’s two different styles, and two different occasions. 

With this 2003 auslese goldkap I would accept beginning to discuss some dessert combinations, although still here you need to be very careful about sweetness in the dish. So, what we would pair with such a wine is an apricot tart or an apple tart. You could also do a foie gras dish, for example a foie gras with a chutney. It would make less of a contrast than the 2010 spätlese we discussed, but it would be a beautiful combination nonetheless. 

[LW] We need to make a distinction between say, the European taste for a fruit tart and a North American taste for a tart which can be sweeter.

[KP] Yes, and also Asia, which I find more like Europe than North American taste, fresh fruit at the end of the meal is a good choice. Also green tea ice-cream in Japan, which has only a gentle sweetness. In Thailand the sticky coconut rice with mango works well.

2003 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese Goldkap - My tasting note, 8th May 2020

Green gold. On initially pouring it was a little shy on the nose, with riper fruit notes more in the tropical fruit spectrum, though this is no blowsy sort of nose – it is still Middle Mosel, refined, low key and fresh. There is very little if any evidence of botrytis on the nose. A big step up in richness though on the palate compared to the 2004 WS Auslese, this has more thickness, and the acidity is noticeably lower, though sufficient, especially as there is admirable freshness. Definitely still a ‘true’ auslese as opposed to something beginning to look like a more dessert wine-styled beerenauslese. This is clearly sunny and generous in expression, however. With another 30 minutes in the glass, the aromas are beginning to grow – more clarity around the tropical fruits, especially mango and papaya.  But, there is also citrus and even a touch of herb. The palate is actually quite a thrill now – all that juice-dripping very ripe fruit leads the attack, and now, despite the fact that as this warms and opens in the glass the acidity seems even lower, there is now also a pithy bittersweetness evident that provides the refreshing counterpoint to the sweet fruit in the attack.  It plugs the gap left by the lower acidity. The texture is unctuous, but the finish is dealt with so nicely by this red grapefruit-like note at the end. Amazing. 

For 2003, did you have to do any acidification? 

[KP] Normally this is not allowed, but in this vintage it was allowed. We didn’t do it because we believe that nature presents the wine the way it is meant to be, so we take it as it is and let it develop, to be expressed in the bottle. My grandfather’s cellarmaster said that a Mosel wine never has too low acidity, it can only have too high acidity (true when he was around in the ‘40s, ‘50s, 60’s). Today it’s a different time, but we didn’t even discuss to add acidity in 2003. If you add it it becomes an outside thing, and it stays that way in the wine. When acidified wines are young, they can be okay, but with age it never really integrates. I think when you taste this 2003 you don’t miss any acidity – it’s a little bit lower than average, but it has a beautiful balance and everything is there. It’s like when you eat a mango – it’s not the highest acidity fruit – a pineapple or passionfruit is higher, but when you eat a mango you don’t miss the acidity. It’s like that.

What is the best serving temperature for your wines?

[KP] Linden says 4-7*C in the booklet. I agree, but partly because wines warm up in the glass, and we want the wines to open up and to show themselves much better. All are before their peak so this is important. But if you begin at too high a temperature then this can’t happen, or you have to drink the wine too fast and you miss an important part of the experience. So, for these reasons, cooler is better.

As a traditional estate how do you innovate or change your style?

[KP] Not at all. We don’t think we need to innovate our style. There is a saying - tradition is the successful innovation of yesterday. We have a unique style, and we think that is special, so we don’t want to change that. We like that if people tasted 50 wines they could identify ours, they could find ours. I think that’s beautiful to have – a known style. But we still always work on how to improve things. It’s a combination of many little steps that you try to do as well as possible. We always discuss what we can do better. Sometimes it’s little steps and sometimes it’s big steps – for example, we work with stainless steel in the cellar. My grandfather used wooden fuders – there was no alternative, but he experimented when stainless steel arrived, and we moved to that after trials. But usually it is little steps. And we have no interest in changing the style. 

Will you consider making red wine or sparkling wine?

[KP] Of course it is always interesting to think about these things, but we love to concentrate on Riesling because it gives us so many opportunities. Never say never, but we have no plans, and there are no plantings of red grape varieties at our estate. And the same for sparkling. There are really beautiful sparkling wines in our region, but so far we haven’t worked on that. 

Have you considered making a dry Riesling?

[KP] My father made some in the 1980s, because the market wanted them. But it wasn’t our focus, we have a unique style, a balance between fruit, minerality, acidity, and we like the low alcohol. These fruity-style Rieslings are so versatile for food pairing – even better than dry wines, because for example the little bit of sweetness is a bridge for more spicy dishes. These are not ‘sweet’ wines, they are fruity. The wines work so well with European dishes, but also Asian dishes and we have seen in events we have done in Asia, they work so well.

What do you think of the state of off-dry or sweet wines,
and how do we get people over this?

[KP] Our perception is that there are now more people not afraid of sweetness as there were in the past. We are still trying to explain this concept, but there are more people understanding it, and not asking about residual sugar and pre-judging this. It’s one reason we don’t like to discuss technical data, because it is misleading for how the wine tastes. The key, though, is to get people to enjoy the wine with a dish that works. When you have a meal well paired to fruity-style Riesling, then people understand. 

Has your yield improved since 2000, and if so,
would that be due to global warming?

[KP] The yields are changing remarkably from year to year – with ups and down. We don’t have such low yields as we see in Burgundy with the frosts and hail losses that they have. But, the difference can vary as much as half/double, and this is a product of weather, not so much global warming. 

Is global warming making it harder to make kabinett?

[KP] Yes, it’s more rare I would say. Until 20 years ago the majority of our prädikat wines were kabinett, and spätlese was already great to make. In years like 1981, and 1987 the greatest we could reach was a spätlese. Today, higher prädikat wines are easier to reach. It’s also, though, a question of when you harvest, where parcels are based and what decisions you make. But in general I could say yes. 

[LW] The prädikat system allows you to go with the vintage. In 2013 at Prüm you had only higher prädikat wines, and in 2014 it was a little bit the other way around I think I recall. So, I always think it is good to buy wines from the estate in the ‘flow’ of the vintage, and in the end your cellar will be balanced. But these different prädikat levels, this also gives you some flexibility not to have to pick for categories, right?

[KP] Yes. There’s also no rule about when we pick – it’s not one after the other necessarily. It depends on where in the slope, or how much wind and so on, you could pick different prädikats on the same day. Harvest can take 3 weeks, 6 weeks, it depends on the year. But with a single grape variety we can play with that. Every year is a new clear slate. ;-)

It’s a new experience for us, and we hope it’s a new experience for all you too, if you compare different vintages, different prädikats, different ages of wine, it makes for a very colourful picture which you can only discover if you are open to trying different things. 

Which other German producers or regions do you like other than your own?

[KP] That’s a tricky question! A lot! One of the things that’s interesting about Germany is that we have this grape varietal, Riesling, and it is grown in so many different regions of Germany and it shows different faces. In the Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Franconia, you have this one grape varietal that is so important to each region, and I can’t think of another wine country where this is the case. And this grape shows so many different faces depending on where you go. And then within each region you have the different interpretations – you go a few villages away or even to your neighbour and they are interpreting it in a different way. But I think if I mention one name now I will be unhappy for the rest of the day that I didn’t mention twenty, thirty, forty others. :) 

What is the clone for the vines?

[KP] We don’t have records because more than 90% of our vines are very old – over a century old, and ungrafted. We also observe our own vines to find the best and propagate from this. Also a nursery that is propagating from old vineyards in the Mosel Saar Ruwer, but I could not name these for you. 

Are you doing malolactic fermentation?

[KP] No. We do wild yeast fermentation, but PH mostly prevents malolactic fermentation from happening, and we have no interest in it happening anyway.

Do you do lees ageing?

[KP] Yes, though it depends on how you define that. What we do is we ferment all the wines on their own wild yeasts. The fermentation can be longer or shorter, it can be a week, but it can be weeks, months or even years for the very high prädikats. Then we let the yeast sediment. Depending on the year we rack then in March, April or May depending on the year, and then we bottle them the summer after harvest, so there is still a certain fine lees contact until we bottle them.