The historical vineyard of Mullay Hofberg is without a doubt one of the most beautiful vineyards on the planet. It’s impossible to look at a photograph of it without being awestricken.
However, these vertiginous slopes also represent a mammoth task of perseverance; it is simply impossible for even the most modern or developed machinery tools to function here, so by nature this parcel of vines takes us back to how life was centuries ago. The only way to tackle the upkeep of such a beautiful piece of land is to do so on foot and by hand, and thus it requires the utmost dedication — a dedication that is possessed by the green-fingered and courageous Thorsten and Steffi Melsheimer.
We spoke to Thorsten for this piece.
“Even before I had finished school, I knew that when I came home to the winery, we would convert to organics immediately. It was just deep within me. I came home in 1994, and by 1995 I had begun working organically — but the choice had already been made in my mind much earlier. It was a political decision… I was born in 1967, and I grew up in the 80s. At the time, here in Germany we had the Green party coming into parliament, and there was a movement.”
He explains that there was a small but growing collective change in thinking:
“There were around 20 or 25 organic producers, very small wineries, all trying different things. We all met very often to discuss ideas. These days, we can do that online or via Whatsapp groups, but back then it was different — once a month, we’d meet, talk and drink together, and we always had such a nice time. I’ll always remember that.”
That said, within the boundaries of Thorsten’s town, he was the only one choosing to eschew chemicals, and so was still very isolated.
“In this town, we were considered the stupid people who wanted to destroy the vineyards. That was difficult. But inside the organic group, it was a wonderful time.”
The Mosel is a classic, famous region; one that is steeped in tradition; and change here is slow. We ask whether things have changed since those early days. Thorsten says,
“Many people still don’t understand. Maybe they do a little better now that the movement is in the mainstream news… perhaps people realise that they’ve made the wrong decisions over the past 20 or 30 years. I think farmers are realising that they need help, and that they’ve been asleep. They’re asking the government for money. I think they realise that society has changed, that people are buying organic produce, and that they’re on the wrong train… but yet they still they don’t really understand.”
Wherein lies the problem? A lot of it comes down to money:
“Often, colleagues [winemakers working in the same area] will say, oh it looks nice what you’re doing here… maybe I’d like to try to make wine out of your grapes and see how it tastes. But often, it comes down to the fact that they have earnt more money than I have over the past 25 years. For many, money is the most important thing, and it [organics] costs too much and involves too much work and energy to change their minds.”
Working with chemicals requires less manpower; by using herbicides growers can avoid manual work, and thus the costs involved are much lower. In addition, working with herbicides and/or artificial fertilisers usually equates to higher yields, hence the money spent farming per bottle of wine is substantially less, often resulting in higher earnings. Working in this way is, as Thorsten says, somewhat ‘easy money.’
For Thorsten, the transition to organics was less severe than it is for many others. His father didn’t use any pesticides or fertilizers, and in the first two years of converting, they had very dry summers, which meant lower disease pressure. The main difference was regarding their fungicide spray protocol; they returned to the traditional organic alternatives of sulphur and copper.
“Organic farming was easier than than it is now. The temperatures were a little cooler, so we had less disease pressure. So, I am proud of the fact that we use less copper today than we did back then.”
Copper is used to treat downy mildew and remains the only truly effective organic product on the market at the moment. Although copper is a natural metal, it is problematic in high quantities, as it can cause toxicity in the soils as well as in water systems through run-off (sprays leaking into rivers, which can affect fish and aquatic plant life). Thorsten explains that he has learnt to use much smaller doses, but to apply more frequently. When he first transitioned to organics, he didn’t believe these small doses could have an effect, but through practice, he has learnt that spraying little and more often is the most effective way. In doing so, he has reduced his copper use by a third, meaning he usually applies around 2kg per year, which is half of the maximum amount permitted (the legal maximum in the EU is 4kg/hectare, per year).
In 2008, he attended a seminar on biodynamics. He found it very interesting and decided to begin trials. When we ask him what the defining moment was in deciding to farm this way, he says,
“In 2014, I said to my wife, Steffie, when the sun does not come to us, we go to the sun. I sprayed 501 again [a biodynamic preparation of silica, which enhances the effect of sunlight], two weeks before harvest, and I saw that my grapes looked better than my neighbour’s (who was also working organically). It was a strange situation, and it did a lot for me.”
It cemented the effect of biodynamics in Thorsten’s mind, and 13 years later, he hasn’t looked back. He has a herd of goats, which act as natural lawn mowers, and he finds that biodynamics has enabled him to gain an enhanced trust in nature. He says,
“Now, I am doing less and less in my cellar. I trust more and more in nature, so that is maybe the biggest change — I really believe in what I am doing.”
All of Thorsten’s Rieslings are made in the same way; very simply, he presses the grapes directly, and then lets the wines ferment naturally in large old German oak foudres, where they also age.
His first foray into ‘natural wine’ was in 2011, but he doesn’t define his wines by that term per se. He explains,
“I still did something — I pressed the grapes. If you just put a bunch of grapes on a table, there won’t be wine at the end of it. But after 16 years of organic farming, I trusted natural proceedings more and more, so I decided to make a wine without any additions. I just pressed the grapes, the juice went into a cask and then it started fermenting. I still do this today. Then, I wait until fermentation is done. I don’t do bâttonage (stirring of the lees), and I don’t pump the wine. Of course, I also don’t filter.”
It coincided with wine lovers and wine professionals all around the world looking for low intervention styles; wines that were more transparent of their place, with less human intervention in the flavour profile:
“I was very lucky that at the same time, people were asking for wines like these. I was one of the first [in the Mosel] who did this, and it was very funny when I met other winemakers and we spoke about natural wine — to discover that others were doing the same thing at the same time.”
In recent years, he has become particularly celebrated for his sparkling wines. His cuvée ‘Rurale’ — a pét-nat — was born from experimentation. He says,
“There was no plan to make pét-nat… I make all of my wines without using [lab-cultured] yeasts, instead letting them ferment naturally. Whereas for sparking wine, traditionally you add yeast and sugar. My idea was to get rid of this… As a producer, I wanted to be able to stand here and be able to say, the only thing I use in my cellar are grapes, and that is all.”
So, he experimented with this idea in mind, simply using his intuition. By botting his wines while they were still slowly fermenting, they continued their fermentation in bottle, hence producing a sparkling wine.
He discovered that this was in fact the style called pét-nat when his Danish importer came to visit. They asked him if he’d consider producing some, but Thorsten hadn’t heard the term before. When they explained what it was, he realised he already had it — his bottles were experimentally ageing in his cellar. He returned with a sample, and just a few days later, a pallet of pét-nat was on its way to Copenhagen. The Rurale cuvée has since become one of Thorsten’s best-sellers.
His cellar is very cool, resulting in very slow fermentations. He says,
“I am happy that my cellar is the way it is. I don’t manage anything. For a lot of my colleagues, [winemaker friends], it’s the other way round — they must bottle their pét-nats in November, whereas when I start checking my barrels to decide which ones be good choices for pét-nat, it’s much later — usually April.”
He’s never been afraid of these slow fermentations, rather the opposite; he sees them as a positive thing, as they provide him with a natural form of filtration:
“There reaches a point when the wines are no longer cloudy. I don’t do any kind of filtration; I just leave the yeasts in the bottom of the cask and bottle the clear part.”
When it comes to sparkling wine, this also explains why Thorsten can leave his cuvées as “true” pét-nats, meaning he doesn’t need to disgorge at a later stage to remove excess yeast. Most pét-nat producers must do disgorge, as if they don’t, they run the risk of more fermentation occurring, and hence the bottles exploding with wine when the crown cap is removed. This can both be dangerous, and also results in a big loss of wine.
However, many people have also asked him whether this slow fermentation process worries him — if the wines ferment slowly in cask, does it mean they’ll also ferment slowly in bottle? He says,
“At the beginning, I was very unsure as to whether this would work every year. Sometimes it didn’t, but it worked 10 out of 11 times... I think the reason it works well is because I move the wine from one cask into a big stainless steel tank together with wine from another cask. This leaves the old lees behind, and it refreshes the surviving yeasts.”
It makes sense — after all, this is what many winemakers practice when it comes to handling barrels that initially are stubborn to ferment.
On the other hand, however, the slow fermentation process that Thorsten is experiencing is becoming problematic given our current climate change issues. With hotter, riper vintages comes more sugar, which means fermentation is taking even longer. He says,
“At the moment, I am a little bit nervous. One and a half years after picking grapes, casks are still fermenting. The 2018 vintage, for example, was so warm and dry, so we had more sugar and alcohol. Plus, because it was so dry, there also wasn’t enough food produced for the yeasts. I haven’t checked or analysed, but that must be why. I remember how the vines looked — they were really crying for water. Other winemakers then add food for the yeasts, but I don’t do that.”
“The wine tastes great, but the problem is that nobody wants to buy sweet wines — the world is looking for dry wine, so we have to wait. I have a wine called Lento which I’ve made a few times. For this cuvée, I have a rule that it must ferment for more than 2.5 years, else it isn’t slow enough for the name Lento. But in a few months, everything in my cellar will be Lento! It’s a very successful wine, so why not make more?”
He laughs. We admire his light-heartedness despite his current and potential future struggles. It exemplifies Thorsten’s positive thinking, and when we taste the wines, we truly feel this lightness in the bottle, too. When we ask him about Riesling — the raison d’être of Mosel growers — he smiles.
“I love Riesling. I love sweet Riesling, I love Riesling with botrytis, I love Eiswein when it’s possible to make it. I make 25 different Rieslings! Last year, I bottled eight different sweet wines. They represent less than 10% of our whole production, but I just wanted to take some different selections and play. I like to play with Riesling. When you live in a town with less than 900 inhabitants, with no theatre or cinema, you must have fun with your job. Else life is very boring here!”
He chuckles. As we put down the phone, we can’t help but think we’re a little bit happy about the fact his town doesn’t have a cinema. Thanks to Thorsten’s experiments and lifelong dedication, we can experience little slivers of this beautiful part of the world in the bottle. And isn’t the very notion of being transported to another place the essence of fine wine?