"With Riesling, you can have brilliant wines in all styles. It is successful in the way that the English football hero, Sir Stanley Matthews said, “never change a winning team.” I think he was a wise man."
We are “meeting” Rudolf Trossen via the telephone, due to Covid-19. Our dreams of standing on the steep slopes of the Mosel now seem like a distant dream. However, even though we’re at the kitchen table, not in the Mosel, his soft, poetic voice and lilting German accent comforts us. He almost makes us feel that we are right there with him when he says,
“I’m sitting here in my living room, looking down at the river, which looks onto the vineyards.”
We look out of our window and try to imagine that we can see what he sees.
“Millions of years ago, we had oceans here. Over time, the sediments of the ocean became slate. Some slate soils are more soft and blue, and some are more red, which has to do with iron. What difference this gives to the wine, well that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? We should study it, but the wines would need to be made naturally - without yeast and enzymes and all that stuff…”
He clears his throat and continues, “but there are so many things that can influence a wine, it’s hard to isolate just the stone. Every single vineyard is different - the sun exposure, the water, the different vine age, the elevation, many subtle factors that all contribute. It’s not only the soil type. ”
It's not just the slate that makes the Riesling.
Meet Rita & Rudolf
Rudolf and Rita Trossen’s estate is in Kinheim, on the ancient slopes of the Middle Mosel, in Germany. Having taken it over from his family, Rudolf very quickly turned to biodynamic farming. He muses,
“I have always felt related to the ideas of Anthroposophy, where biodynamics comes from. Even when I was very young, I felt a close sensitivity for nature, and for spiritual things. You could say I wasn’t normal… I had to find my own way. I’ve always felt that I had to help to save the planet."
“When I was fifteen - that age when you start to open up your eyes and look around - you start to see many things that you don’t like. I was spraying chemicals in the vineyards of my family’s estates, and after working I was wet - wet from the water and,” he almost spits out the word, “chemicals,”
“This made me angry from year to year, more and more, so I was looking for a way out of this mess. That is how I came to biodynamics - it helped me not to lose confidence in wine farming.”
His education didn't help him to understand why these chemicals had risen to prominence; rather the opposite. He remembers,
“When I went to the young wine farmers’ school back in the 70s, I felt like they weren’t telling us the truth. They teach you the material side - but, just like a coin has two sides, there’s a more spiritual side to wine. We work with living things - vines - but in school, they had no clue about life. They just talked to us about stones and about money,” he laughs. “Well, those are things that aren’t alive.”
Frustrated, he began looking for another way. Given that chemical agriculture was such a recent phenomenon, he was determined to figure out how people had done it before:
"I found the biodynamic way of farming, and I found another dimension in this literature. It felt as if I was coming home. It was a deep feeling, like I had an inner polar star, an inner instinct. All my colleagues had very different views. I’m lucky I found the right girl very early on - Rita - when I was sixteen. She has the same kind of instinct, that we should save the planet. That might sound drastic but you have to start somewhere. Don’t complain, just start. Do it in the place where you are - in your garden, in your vineyard, on your property. You can do a lot of things on a small scale. There are millions of people who think in a similar manner to you, and if they also do little things in their garden, on their property, then a little becomes a lot.”
The year was 1978; before the Green Party was founded, and before the organic movement had really taken root. Rather, it was simply a deep, innate feeling; a kind of mission for him. It was less about reflection and more about finding the right path, and taking a decision that came from the heart.
After he had converted to biodynamic farming, he was certain that he was on the right track. “Then, well it was just a question of Keep on Marching!” he remembers fondly.
It was a gradual process for his vineyards to become healthy again; he reminds us that after a vineyard has been under a chemical regime, it takes a long time for the soil to open up and to start to breathe again.
We ask him how he feels biodynamic viticulture has helped his vineyards:
“For the past ten years, climate change has also played a role in the Mosel - all grapes are getting ripe every year. However, that wasn’t the case in the 80s, and since the 80s we haven’t had a single year where the grapes haven’t been ripe. In addition to that, using the biodynamic method means our soils are always getting richer and there are more and more earthworms. That means we can finally really start to talk about terroir. You know… you can ruin a vineyard in just five years with poison, but it takes 20 years for it to recover, to build, to reinvigorate. 20 years is nothing in nature, but the biodynamic method is a big support.”
Some of the old vineyards that the Trossens tend have a secret tucked away; a secret that the bare eye cannot detect. They are own-rooted.
Whether or not, and if so - how - this might affect a wine is subject of great debate in the wine world. Knowing that it’s not exactly an easy question to answer, we ask Rudolf nonetheless, keen to hear what he might think.
“Ah, yes, the European roots...”
He says it slowly and pensively, and we get the impression that it is a question he frequently ponders on.
"The vines on their own roots — they have less power, the grapes are smaller, and in my experience, the wines are more modest, more sophisticated. The style of the wine is different. It’s somehow more gentle. It’s like a gentleman, he should behave! It is more elegant, more subtle… Perhaps they have one dimension more…”
The Trossens work with two hectares that are spread out amongst many different vineyard plots (sixteen in total!) All white wine is produced from Riesling, and the red and rose is produced from Pinot Noir and Dornfelder.
In 2010, their Danish importer, Krone Vin, visited with a group of sommeliers who had been doing a vineyard tour from Champagne, to Burgundy and to the Mosel. In the cellar, they asked him whether he had considered making a wine without sulphur.
Rudolf remembers fondly,
“I said… “why would I do that? Who would drink it?” They said, “We will!” I replied with, “Are you kidding?! But… let me think about it”
Next time Rudolf was in the cellar, he found a wine that he thought might be suitable to leave without sulphur. Next time the importer came, he served it to him blind. They were surprised and overwhelmed with emotion, and that was the beginning of the Purus line, which Rudolf vinifies entirely without sulphur. These wines are almost always bottled under crown cap, to ensure that “nothing goes out and nothing comes in.” Even if a wine has a tiny bit of residual sugar, it is susceptible to refermentation in the bottle, so Rudolf would rather be safe than sorry. By bottling under crown cap, it means that oxygen stays out, and the natural carbon dioxide stays in, keeping the wine as fresh as possible.
He says, “I had seen Jean-Pierre Frick, winemaker in Alsace, do this - I’ve known him for forty years - and I thought this is a good solution. We sell our wines internationally to 26 countries, some of which are in the southern hemisphere where it can be hot - so refermentation is more likely to happen. Sometimes we put them under cork, but only when we’re sure they are dry and there are no risks.”
Rudolf emphasises that the pleasure in making Riesling lies in its multifaceted talent as a grape variety.
“I won’t make all of the wines in the Purus way, though. People don’t want wine to be made in one single way. With Riesling, you can have brilliant wines in all styles, and with all the different levels of sweetness. We have acidity from nature in Riesling and we can play with this - we can make dry wines, really low-alcohol semi-dry or sweet wines, that are perfect for goats’ cheese or cake! We are successful in the way that the English football hero, Sir Stanley Matthews said, “never change a winning team.” I think he was a wise man, so we will continue doing what we do.”
We say our goodbyes and hang up the phone. We’re left pondering for a while, thinking that Rudolf is a pretty wise man, too.