Saturday, November 28, 2015
An Evening with the Richard Böcking Estate on the Mosel, Germany
By Carl Willner
(This is a guest posting by Carl Willner, President, German Wine Society, Washington D.C. Chapter)
On the evening of November 20, 2015, the Capital Chapter of the German Wine Society in Washington, D.C. had the pleasure of hosting representatives of Weingut Richard Böcking at Harbour Square, and tasting a broad selection of ten wines from their portfolio. Owner and Managing Partner W. Denman Zirkle, and his daughter Sigrid Zirkle Carroll, Director of North American Marketing, presented the wines, aided by Ann Sweeney Zirkle, Denman’s wife. This was a very enjoyable as well as educational event, and well attended with 46 members and guests. Mr. Zirkle commented afterward on how knowledgeable and interested the members of the German Wine Society were. I had met Mr. Zirkle and his wife at Christian Schiller’s Summer of Riesling event in August 2015 (see: Annual Riesling Party at the Schiller Residence in Washington DC, USA 2015), and as President of the Capital Chapter of the GWS, quickly invited them to organize a tasting event for our group. About half of the wines were obtained from distributors in the Northern Virginia/Washington D.C. area, while the rest were brought directly from the estate in Germany for the event.
The Richard Böcking estate, located in Traben-Trarbach along one of the great loops of the Mittelmosel, is one of the most ancient in the region, with a history dating back to 1623-24. It consists of five vineyards (einzellagen), the Burgberg, Schlossberg, Ungsberg, Hühnerberg, and Taubenhaus, the first four of which have traditionally been considered Grand Cru sites, with the steep slate slopes characteristic of the Mosel. Notably, the vineyards do not front directly on the Mosel, but are in two side valleys leading into the Mosel, the Schottbachtal and Kautenbachtal, on the Trarbach side of the river. These valleys, like the Mosel itself, provide the warm climate and south or east facing slopes needed for creation of fine Rieslings. Cultivation of grapes here dates back to Roman times, and the Böcking family was once one of the wealthiest in the Mosel, serving as regional treasurers for the Prince of Palatinate-Zweibrücken. Indeed, their estate even hosted the famed poet von Goethe in 1792. The seat of the winery today is the 14th century stone Rittersaal (Knights’ Hall), the largest secular building from the Middle Ages remaining in the Mosel, originally built as a wine cellar for Grevenburg Castle. Recorded cultivation at the Ungsberg, the oldest of the vineyards with extremely steep slopes of grey, blue and brown slate mixed with quartz, dates back 400 years, and these vineyards were planted with 50% or more Riesling grapes well before this became characteristic of the entire Mosel.
But at the beginning of the 20th century, after ten successful generations, the family began to decline, with the estate passing between various cousins, and some vineyards lost, though the family kept the Trarbach properties. In 2010 the Böcking family faced a decision whether to sell the remaining vineyards, or attempt to revive the estate. Fortunately, they chose the latter, and under the leadership of Mr. Zirkle, Baroness Leweke von Marschall and her cousin Sigrid Carroll, who are both descendants of the Böcking family, and winemaker Simon Trös, the estate has begun to recover. Learning the German wine culture and legal environment has posed a particular challenge for Mr. Zirkle, who is American, though connected to the Böcking family from his first marriage through his late wife Dagmar von Maltzahn. Ms. Carroll, born in Germany, was also raised and educated in the United States, though she worked in the family vineyards in Germany as a teenager, learning the winemaking business.
Since 2010, Weingut Richard Böcking has doubled its area under cultivation to 6 hectares (about 15 acres), and has plans to double this again. The estate produced its first new vintages in 2012, and at this event German Wine Society members and guests were able to sample wines from three different years. During the tasting, Denman Zirkle and Sigrid Carroll explained their estate’s philosophy of relying on ungrafted old vines (alte reben), over 40 years in age, in most of the vineyards. The Böcking properties are planted overwhelmingly with Riesling, though some have 10% Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir). Almost all the wines we had during the tasting were Rieslings, with one Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder).
For most of the wines the Böcking estate produces, the goal is expressed by a German term, “geschmacklich trocken”, referring to wines that are in the range of dry (trocken) to half-dry (halbtrocken or feinherb). This is very consistent with the current trends and tastes among German consumers today, and about 60% of the estate’s production is consumed in Germany, with 40% exported. U.S. distributors for these wines are found in the New York/New Jersey area, the Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C. area, and Montana, where Sigrid Carroll resides. The Böcking estate does, however, produce some wines that have more of the sweeter Riesling style and prädikat classifications, under their “M” label. We tried two of these during the tasting, a Kabinett and a Spätlese, and were interested to learn that the estate has now produced some Auslese as well and has been working on a Beerenauslese. Though we have diverse tastes in the German Wine Society, I had warned Mr Zirkle, as he noted during the tasting, that many of our members prefer the sweeter wines (which we think of as traditional now, though that is not necessarily true going further back in German wine history). But he, like the knight RichHeart that he uses as a symbol for some of his wines, bravely ventured into the lion’s den of sweet wine lovers, and was able to give us a very pleasant evening that nonetheless reflected the modern direction in German wines.
Our first flight of wines consisted of two young wines under the RichHeart label, the 2014 RichHeart Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) and 2014 RichHeart Riesling, both bottled in the spring of 2015. These have some of the most attractive labels I have seen in decades of enjoying German wines, with paintings of the Traben-Trarbach area on the Mosel. The RichHeart wines, Mr. Zirkle explained, are not produced using grapes from the estate’s own traditional steep slope vineyards, but use grapes from other producers in the Middle Mosel. This has allowed the estate to expand its production considerably, with 10,000 bottles being produced in 2014 under the RichHeart label, while a total of 14,000 were produced from the various vineyards of the estate, limited by weather conditions in the Mosel. These dry to off-dry wines are fresh and fruity, though uncomplicated, with apple and pear aromas in the Weissburgunder.
Next, we tried two wines the estate produces under the Devon name, a 2013 Devon Riesling and a 2014 Devon Riesling. The Devon name refers to the Devonian-era soil of the vineyards, and these wines are produced mostly from grapes cultivated in the estate’s Trarbacher Traubenhaus vineyards, though some of the grapes come from the estate’s Grand Cru vineyards. These are considered entry-level wines by the Böcking estate, with less complexity than the Grand Cru wines. The success of the first 2012 production of these wines, which was sold out by 2014, confirmed the estate’s decision to focus on light, drier Rieslings. There were noticeable differences between the 2013 and 2014 Devon wines in our tasting, though both could be paired well with holiday dinners. The 2013 Devon Riesling, bottled in May 2014, is described as having animating acidity, fine minerality and hints of green herbs, and has 10.5% residual alcohol, with 9 g/l of residual sugar. These wines are recommended to drink young.
Now we progressed to the various Alte Reben wines produced by the top Grand Cru vineyards of the Böcking estate. These next two flights were separated by year, with the first two wines 2012s, and the next two 2014s, giving us an opportunity to see how the wines mature, as well as to experience three different estate vineyards, the Ungsberg, the Burgberg, and the Schlossberg. The first Alte Reben flight included at 2012 Trarbacher Burgberg Alte Reben Riesling, and a 2012 Trarbacher Ungsberg Alte Reben Riesling. The second Alte Reben flight consisted of a 2014 Trarbacher Ungsberg Alte Reben Riesling, and a 2014 Trarbacher Schlossberg Alte Reben Riesling. The 2012 Ungsberg, a good representative of these wines selling at $35/bottle, has 12% alcohol and 10.8 g/l residual sugar, and was harvested in November 2012 after the first frost and bottled in July 2013. Those looking for these wines in the United States should note that the Alte Reben designation may not appear on the label here, as some local distributors prefer not to have it, though it is always found on these wines when sold in the E.U. All of these wines appear to have ageing potential.
The Ungsberg is perhaps the finest Grand Cru vineyard of the Böcking estate, with vines over 40 years old, producing Rieslings with a notable spiciness as well as minerality, yellow fruit aromas and delicate acidity from its mixed slate soil and very steep slopes in the Kautenbachtal. Notes of camomile and saffron can be detected. Indeed, the name of the vineyard, though of uncertain origin, harks back to the Roman-Celtic period and the healing and salve herbs growing on the slopes here. The Burgberg, lying directly below the medieval Grevenburg Castle in Trarbach, also is among the best vineyard sites in the estate, characterized by blue and gray slate as well as quartz, with ungrafted Riesling vines over 75 years old, allowing for very complex wines to be produced. Finally, the steep Schlossberg high above Trarbach, likewise characterized by blue and grey brittle slate and quartz, adjoins the Burgberg and has some of the most ancient vines in the estate, over 80 years old. An old Roman road, still intact, runs through this vineyard, attesting to the long importance this wine-growing area has had.
Finally we came to the estate’s prädikat wines, sampling a 2012 “M” Trarbacher Burgberg Kabinett Riesling, and a 2013 “M” Trarbacher Burgberg Spätlese Riesling. The “M” is a tribute to Baroness Leweke von Marschall, who has played a leading role in reawakening this slumbering estate. The “M” wines are notably sweeter than the others, fruity and late-harvested, the 2012 displaying tastes of citrus fruits such as oranges and mandarins. The Kabinett, bottled in July 2013, has only 9% alcohol, with 90 g/l of residual sugar, while the Spätlese, bottled in August 2014, has 11% alcohol and only 37 g/l of residual sugar. Both of these wines have extended ageing potential, and in discussing them with Mr. Zirkle, he acknowledged that the estate might do better to let them mature even further before serving at tastings like this to show their full potential, though I thought that the Kabinett at least was showing a good deal of its potential already. It is intense, with upfront fruit and notes of honey and citrus, and distinct minerality. Indeed, the Kabinett was my favorite wine of the evening (I confess to falling more in the sweet wines camp), as it was for a number of others at the event, and we were not the only ones who liked it. This wine was distinguished at the January 2015 SAKURA competition in Japan with the prized “Double Gold” award, the only German wine there to win the highest distinction, and yet is surprisingly reasonable in price at $25/bottle. Evidently, whatever the direction of wine tastes in Germany, there is still a welcome home for such well-produced sweeter Rieslings in the Far East and in America.
During the tasting, Mr. Zirkle was asked about the voluntary organization of top German wine growers, the VDP. He explained that membership in the VPD is by invitation. The Böcking estate, with only three years of production under its current management, has not yet been invited to join, though he hoped that it would be. Based on our wonderful evening with the wines of this estate, I thought that the estate’s prospects looked bright, and also hope that they will earn the invitation to VDP membership. The Böcking name is coming to be known again in the world of German wines!
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