One Saturday in early may, the regular 08.50 to Ochsenbach left Sachsenheim Station after having waited for the regional train from Stuttgart. The contents of that bus as it wound its way through what in a larger town one would call the outskirts, on to Hohenhaslach, past Spielberg and through increasingly picturesque beech forests, half-timbered villages and sun-streaked fields of flowers: 17 chatty, hiking-gear-attired senior citizens off to a walking tour, one insufferably precocious 13 year old boy giving a lecture on the importance of sunscreen to nobody in particular, and one Wine Rambler from Munich.
I had begun the ride somewhat under the weather due to an impossibly early start, but as we got under way, a feeling of deep provincial calm was beginning to settle over me. I was going for a strolling visit of a recultivated historical vineyard all by myself, and then the tasting room of the winery that made this happen. Shuffling into a more comfortable position in my Swabian-made bus seat, I was loving this already. Little did I expect to also learn the lesson that not all in wine making is sunlight and prosperity.
I was heading for Ochsenbach, a village in the hilly Stromberg region north of Stuttgart, home to Anja and Georg Merkle. Besides founding their own winery in 1988, at the tender age of 20 and 22 respectively, and pushing hard for a whole new kind of quality winemaking in the region ever since, the Merkles have also been the driving force between the reconstruction and replanting of the historical Geigersberg vineyard, which was about to be abandoned in the early nineties. It was there I briskly directed my steps after first making sure that the squad of senior citizens had taken a different direction. Leaving the village below me, I climbed up the hill, over dry stone walls and patches of wild flowers, reading the lovingly detailed display boards on winemaking history and geography along the way.
I was the only person on the hillside - of course I was. Can't be seen shooting the breeze and not doing your proper sidewalk-sweeping on a Saturday morning in Ochsenbach. Honestly. So even with the morning sun in my face, and butterflies fluttering around me, I could hear the faint clang of machinery and people going about their respectable business in the village below. In the bus earlier, I had overheard a man point out des ghört alles 'em Fürscht (this is all the prince's), referring to the extensive vineyard holdings of the former royal dynasty of Württemberg that we had passed by on our way. But kings and dukes had nothing on me right now. In fact, I felt like a prince myself up there. It was blissful.
So blissful, in fact, that I had to tear myself away a bit to trot back into the village. Street-sweeping finished, the locals were now assembling the stands and tents of this evening's Weinfeschtle (wine festival). Passing this inviting scene by, I made straight for the Merkle's tasting room, because it was high time to do what I had come to do: taste, and review a whole winery portfolio for the Wine Rambler for the first time. I was greeted warmly enough by Anja and Georg, whose Saturday-morning-tasting hours are also a kind of open house for friends and neighbours to look in. But something was wrong, as witnessed by the concern and distraction on their faces, and it didn't take a whole lot of investigative wine journalism to find out what it was:
The night before yesterday (we're talking the beginning of may, remember?), frost had severely damaged the vineyards of the region - completely unexpected, and the greatest such disaster for at least ten years. I was taken aback - how could that be, the day being summery warm, and me still feeling the sweat of that morning's steep walk on my back? But freak frosts can be treacherous and merciless, and that night, they had hit all over Württemberg and other parts of wine-growing Germany. And then I remembered the brown, limp shoots and leaves that had struck me in the vineyard, but that I had cluelessly put down to some scattered illness.
The Merkles had been relatively lucky due to the higher altitudes of some of their plots - in some neighbouring villages, the loss had been total -, but it was a catastrophe by any standard. This year's vintage would be a 50% loss for sure, Georg Merkle told me, and where the frostbite was most extreme, the damage might be such that they could not even count on next year's, as there might not be enough growth for them to train the growing vines properly for the spring after that. This setback meant that all financial planning for the next few years was on hold and had to be reconsidered, but - to his great credit - Georg Merkle looked far beyond his own narrower interests when he analysed the situation for me:
This is a watershed moment for german wine, whose momentum had been driven by a string of excellent vintages and a seemingly boundless growth in home demand. Wineries all over the country have invested heavily and banked on solid growth in the years to come. But that could turn out to be much more fragile than it seemed. Once a whole vintage all but disappears from the shelves, consumers who have been won over by steadily rising quality year for year could easily turn back to imported wines for good. Wine growing is agriculture, and that still is a matter of weather conditions and, ultimately, pure luck. We've had a winning streak for some years now, and maybe something of this kind was bound to happen sooner or later.
This succint analysis speaks not only to a certain stoicism that the Merkles are able to muster in the face of such odds, but also to the wider horizon that they see for themselves and their wines. That being said, they clearly have deep roots in their home village. Georg actually sidelines as a kind of community paramedic, which I learned when a man came into the tasting room to ask for help, I'm not making this up, with a fly that had flown straight into his ear and was now buzzing around inside maddeningly, but too deeply to be pulled out. Must be an uncomfortable feeling, and indeed he didn't look too happy at all. But where was I? Ah yes, the Merkles seem to be rooted where they have grown up, but at the same time, you sense a burning ambition to rise above the circumstances they have inherited. They see their work as reaching for models and goals beyond the provincialism of the complacent and lazy winemaking that has too long dominated the region, and despite being polite enough towards their colleagues, Anja especially could not quite keep an edge of condescension out of her voice when she talked about the light, pale and boring reds made by the "traditional" method of heating the mashed grapes to extract aroma and colour the quick way, and then ferment the juice without any skin contact, or the disregard for the potential of white wine still prevalent in Württemberg. Regionality and ambition are, I would say, what you can taste in the Merkles's wine portfolio as well.
And it is a hugely varied portfolio, that is the first thing that struck me, before I even took the first whiff or sip. "Our neighbours think we're insane", Anja Merkle told me, with more than a bit of pride, "to work older vines with low yields, or to manage micro-plots and mature their grapes separately". The second thing worth pointing out is the great care that the Merkles take not just with their premium range, where you would expect them to, but also with those lower-price offerings that they produce as a concession to their most regular customers, including reds and rosés with a little residual sugar, the kind that many Württemberger still like. I was impressed by the quality I tasted in that segment as well, but I will nonetheless confine myself to the selection I bought to re-taste in the mercilessly objective conditions of Wine Rambler Munich HQ.
The 2009 Müller-Thurgau "Hochebene" is as strong a beginning as can be imagined: Seductive smell of lychee, mango, peach and nutmeg, and a dry herbal fire that burns on the palate, reminiscent of a good Grüner Veltliner. A wine with personality, and one of the more interesting Müller-Thurgaus I have got to taste (great). The dry Riesling "Steillage" from the same vintage shares some of these characteristics, with peaches, pineapple and flowers in the ripely fruity smell. Powerful, if a little closed palate, ripe, mild acidity, and that herbal fire again. Great for fans of Riesling who are wary of too much acidity, even if the warmly alcoholic notes bothered me a tiny bit (enjoyable). The 2009 Ochsenbacher Liebenberg Cuvée of Gewürztraminer and Riesling is something of a signature wine for the Merkles, and quite the showstopper: Sweet grapefruit, rose petals and turkish delight, and just a hint of washing powder in the smell, confidently sweet on the palate, that herbal thing again, and slightly oily. Highly original, this is the wine to have with classic german cake, and will turn any lazy Sunday afternoon into a bacchanal (a deeper well). In 2010, the Merkles weren't convinced that the Pinot Noir grapes they harvested would make a red that met their standard, so they turned all of them, even those from the very best plots, into a single rosé: The darkly copper-coloured 2010 "Rosé vom Spätburgunder" is a supremely refreshing wine that smells of raspberries and lingonberries. On the palate, its red currant aromatics and razorblade acidity are reminiscent of a good Schilcher from the Steiermark, if you've ever had this type of wine. Something different and, again, with a lot of character (enjoyable).
While the whites are powerful, confident and distinctive wines with surprising concentration and recurring signature notes of dried herbs and camomile flowers, I found the reds to be a more mixed bunch, powerful as well, but also overextracted and overambitious at times, on the way to some destination that they hadn't yet reached. Case in point: The 2008 Trollinger "Steillage". Every Württemberg winery needs to offer a Trollinger, but Merkle wouldn't be Merkle if they didn't manage to put more concentration into a bottle of Trollinger than probably anyone else. Woodland strawberries, violets and hot asphalt in the nose, while the taste of violets, spice, and a little tar on the palate is almost a bit too much. But certainly unusual (decent). Württemberg's other red signature grape, Lemberger, is on offer here as well, and in many different styles: I liked the herbs and juniper-berry kind of purity in the 2008 dry Spätlese "Löwenportal" (enjoyable), while the barrel-matured version was a little smoother, with a lick of new oak, and not as interesting for my taste (decent). Finally, a dry Pinot Noir Spätlese, the 2008 "Tonsteinmergel": Very ripe red fruit in the nose, blueberry and blackberry jam, very concentrated. On the palate, a young wine dominated by young, hyper-concentrated fruit, chocolaty notes of oak, and noticeable acidity. It does seem a little awkward, if powerful, at this stage, but I won't rule out that it can turn into a very serious Pinot with some bottle age (enjoyable).
That's my investigative reporting done, I thought to myself as I barely made the bus back to Sachsenheim station in a state of mild inebriation. I promised myself to be back some other time, if only to report on what happened to the 2011 vintage in the Stromberg - after the frost.