Since taking over his family winery in 1984, Clemens Busch and his wife Rita have shaped it into one of the most iconoclastic estates in the Mosel. A firm believer that natural practices in the vines and cellar lead to to the ultimate expression of terroir, Clemens exemplifies the balance between tradition and forward thinking we so look forward to when seeking out new producers.
The majority of Clemens's production is grown on the extremely steep Pündericher Marienburg, a 25 hectare vineyard that spans and entire hillside facing the village of Pünderich. Exposed full South/Southwest and right on the edge of the river, it is widely considered amongst the very best sites in the Mosel. 16 of the Clemens' hectares are here, with only 2 hectares originally inherited from his father.
As more and more of his neighbors abandoned the great vineyards of the Marienburg throughout the 80's to plant Pinot Noir in the plains (which could be worked mechanically and was in much higher demand at the time), Clemens capitalized on their eagerness to sell at low prices. In due time, he managed to acquire monopoles of many of the Marienburg's different terroirs, sometimes going as far as buying neighboring parcels from 11 different owners!
The lieu-dit Marienburg was originally a much smaller, individual parcel that shared the hill with many other vineyards, all with their own names and attributes. In 1971, a law hoping to unify the identity of the area's varied terroirs declared that the entire hill be re-named Marienburg. This decision never sat well with Clemens; as the fifth generation working this land, he knew that these vineyards featured different soils compositions and micro-climactic variables influenced by fissures, vineyard walls, the inclination of slope and exposure. In such, Clemens vinifies and bottles his wines based on the original vineyard names.
The original Marienburg site faces South/South-West, is dominated by grey slate and produces vom grauen Schiefer (from grey slate) and vom roten Schiefer (from red slate).
Rothenpfad is all red slate, a true rarity in the Mosel. Prior to 2006, most of this hard to reach area was overgrown. A land consolidation permitted Clemens to replant and save some old vines. Today, about an hectare is grown.
Farhlay is the only part of the hill dominated by blue slate. The soil is particularly rocky, so the vines must dig deep to find their nutrition here, resulting in a mineral style.
Falkenlay is defined by grey slate, and located between Rothpfad and Farhlay. Considered by some to be the finest site on the Marienburg, it provides the best grapes for noble sweet wines. A special selection of the best grapes from the old vines of this vineyard are bottled under the name Raffes.
Finally, Felsterrasse is a tiny terraced parcel and Clemens' favorite. The soils are composed of thick gray slate, and are particularly hard to work.
80% of the wines are fermented and aged in very old 1000l barrels; the youngest are 48 years old, and many were built by Rita's father. Nothing is ever added to the wine, save a low dose of sulfur at bottling. The wines are never fined. For the sweet and noble sweet wines, Clemens prefers halting the fermentation with a deep freeze followed by a filtration, allowing him to drastically reduce sulfur, which again is only added at bottling.
Pay attention to the capsules on the different bottlings, as their color (red, grey, blue) indicate the soil type of each vineyard.
This interview with Clemens Busch took place in February, 2014 at L'Herbe Rouge.
Can you give us a global introduction of the estate?
We are located in the middle Mosel region of Germany. All our vines are planted on extremely steep terraces, most of them located on the Marienburg vineyard. It's a very special place, with three distinct soil types: red, grey and blue slate. We work predominantly with old vines; most are 40, 50 or older. Their roots go very deep into the mother rock, which is essential for expressing our terroirs.
Your family has a long tradition of winemaking in the village of Pünderich. Can you tell us about the Busch's history?
The Busch family has indeed been making wine in Pünderich for a very long time. In our area, there weren't really any other opportunities outside of agriculture. Most families made wine from the Marienburg, worked fields (potatoes and vegetables) and raised livestock and horses. It was a much more self-contained and self-sustained context than the world we live in today; since most families worked in polyculture, there was no real economic pressure since we could provide food for ourselves.
My grandfather was the first to focus exclusively on wine. He developed a good reputation and had a lot of customers all over Germany. This permitted him to expand by purchasing more vineyards from other growers, and he also had a side business buying and reselling VDP wine in auctions. He started in the early 1920's and became quite successful.
After the second World War, everything collapsed and he had to start from scratch. My father had gotten involved at this point, and the two re-focused solely on their own production.
How did you personally get involved?
I started in 1974, when I was 17 years old. At the time, it was normal to learn everything from father to son in the winery; going to school for viticulture and oenology was unheard of. The first vintage I helped produce was 1975, which was a great vintage, not only in quality but because it was a very easy year to work in the vineyards.
When you started, what was your philosophy towards viticulture and winemaking?
After the WW2, the main focus for many of that generation was to make money. It was a very tough economic time. But over the years, I began to form my own ideas and work philosophy.
By 1976 I had already stopped using herbicides, and this was the first step towards organic production. It was a simple observation on my part: "Why can't we live with the herbs?" It just felt completely normal to respect this, and after 3 or 4 years, I started to notice more and more humus in the vineyards, which encouraged me to not use fertilizers.
In the early 80's, I met some local growers from the middle Mosel who were also interested in organic viticulture, and this is when my philosophy became more clearly defined. Once we started using plant based concoctions as fungicides, this pushed us in a new direction.
What about in the cellar?
We work with old oak. My father worked with spontaneous fermentations, so that was always totally normal to me. I've never had a problem with fermentations.
What about sulfur use?
I've been experimenting with sulfur since the 80's. Back then, I knew of only one producer who made sulfur free wine, but they weren't very good. The wine had no sulfur, but it was made with industrial techniques, and only ended up being commercialized for about 2 years.
Still, it served as a motivation for myself and a few other organic producers to experiment. I've been trying for 30 years, and I still haven't figured out a way to make a wine without sulfur that I am satisfied with. As you know, we recently bottled a small amount of sulfur free Riesling Trocken. Some people really like it, but for me it's more about the experiment, to further understand what it tastes like. And this is a strange wine: fermentation took 7 months, it spent two years on the lees and had a long maceration of 48 hours. But it still doesn't work, at least not for me.
I've tasted many sulfur free wines from Italy and France that work. In their cases though, I do feel that their situation is better suited for this choice than mine.
Why do you think that is?
I think it's the Riesling grape and our terroirs. But this will not stop me from continuing my experimentations! For now, I'm happy with promoting low sulfur Rieslings.
Can we talk about the Marienburg? It's quite a place.
The Marienburg is a wonderful vineyard. It's exposed full South, it's very steep and there are multiple terraces with totally different micro-climates and soil compositions. This makes for a very diverse experience both in the vines and with the wines. It's also right in front of our house! I open my kitchen window and there it is! It's very inspiring drinking a bottle of wine in the evening with the lay of the land right there in front of you. It's almost like we live directly in the vines.
It's also worth mentioning that 80% of it is planted in old vines.
As far as the vineyard's history, the multiple terraces within today's Marienburg all have historic names, and in fact Marienburg used to be the name of a specific part of the hill, not the entire thing.
It was decided in the early 70's that these multiple designations were too complicated for the international market, and that a larger, unified vineyard site would be simpler to remember. But for us, the different soils and microclimates of the Marienburg are what make this land so interesting in the first place. We therefore chose to bottle and name our wines based on the parcels' original names (Farhlay, Falkenlay, etc...)
This law also permitted wine from nearby plains to carry the Marienburg designation, correct?
The Marienburg designation covers 80 hectares of vines, and only 25 of those are on the hills. We own 16 of these 25 hectares, and as far as I am concerned, the vines directly across from my house are the only ones I would actually call Marienburg.
So you own over half of the Marienburg?
I started with 2 hectares on the Marienburg spread over 16 parcels! At the time, it was impossible to work organically, because each parcel was too small and isolated. The biggest was 725 meters wide and the smallest 123! So we started buying neighboring bits as opportunities arose, but everything really started changing in the 80's.
Many growers of my father's generation retired without an heir, as their sons were not interested in the hard work involved in maintaining the terraces. Those that did continue making wine began following the trend and high demand for German Pinots (blanc, gris, and mostly noir) and other red grapes, which are more suited to be grown on plains. And also much easier to work!
As the hill progressively got more abandoned, I saw this as an opportunity to get the best vineyards in the best sections. I wanted to focus on my region's traditional grape (Riesling represents 99% of our production), but also the luxury of having 1.5 hectares or more of vines in the same place is a great privilege in the Mosel.
When did you decide to have each bottling's foil be the color of the slate the grapes were grown on (red, grey, blue)?
We changed the labels in 2006, and we started using the color indicators at that time. It was a marketing friend of mine's idea, and it totally made sense to me. This makes it exceedingly easy for sommeliers and the consumer to easily identify the terroir.
What do you like to drink?
I'm a big fan of Burgundy. Another recent favorite is Muscadet. As long as it's interesting, I want to try it. The last ten years have have seen an explosion in the amount of estates working with philosophies I align myself with, and it's been very fun discovering all of these!
This visit with Clemens Busch took place in February, 2013.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Jake Halper and Jules Dressner.
The Busch family's house is right on the edge of the Mosel, in the village of Pünderich. As we pulled up to their house, a bunch of swans were gathering.
Apparently, this happens all the time.
The famed Marienburg vineyard is directly across the river from Clemens and Rita's house.
11 of the Busch's 14 hectares are here, and before setting out to the vines, Clemens proposed we take advantage of the view for him to explain why he vinifies wines according to the many specific sites on the hill.
Prior to new laws in the 1970s, this area was comprised of many small individual vineyard sites, including one originally called Marienburg. Hoping to capitalize on this particular site's reputation, it was decided that the entire 17 h on the hill be renamed Marienburg, as well as an expansion of north facing plains across the river. Clemens owns 11 of the 17 hectares that form the hillside, and as the 5th generation to work this land, was well aware that the individual sites produced very different wines. In such, he vinifies them separately. The wines are labelled as Marienburg, and the cuvée names are that of the old sites: Fahrlay, Falkenlay, Rothenpfad and Felsterrasse.
Normally, one would take an extremely short ferry ride over to the vines. But since the Mosel was so high that day, we instead had to take a 6km detour to get to the top of the hill.
Just 40 years ago, Marienburg was full of vineyards, but today a lot of it is abandoned. Clemens is planning to purchase this parcel on red slate to replant.
To do this, he would need to use a machine similar to a Catepillar.
After getting the bird's eye view, we drove down to the bottom of the hill, where we got our feet wet in the Mosel's high tide.
We started by visiting Farhlay.
This site represents 1.4 hectares total. Clemens has a monopole on it, which he acquired by buying bits and pieces from 11 different owners! The vines are 75 years old and exposed full South. The soil doesn't need to be worked too hard here, because the summers are very hot and burn a lot of the herbs. Clemens has always worked organically, but got his certification in 1986. In the winter, 5 people work the vines, mostly family. In Spring and summer, it gets to 10 at its biggest.
Either by the force of nature or a previous passerby, I noticed a perfect example of the Marienburg's red, grey and blue slate right in front of my eyes!
One Slate, Two Slate, Red Slate, Blue slate!
Clemens hadn't pruned yet, but for the neighbors who did, it was looking like a pre-Valentine's day celebration.
We then saw Falkenlay.
When asked about the expansion of Marienburg into the plains, Clemens had this to say:
"People started making wine here 2000 years ago. Vines have only been in the plains for 50 years. We need to respect tradition and continue this good work. "
Case in point: Clemens owns 11 of the 17 h that compose Marienburg, uncontestedly one of the best sites in the entire Mosel. He was able to acquire most of this in the 80's, because many growers started abandoning the terraces to cultivate red vines in the plains. There was a higher demand for Pinot at the time, and it was a lot easier to work mechanically.
"Now the same people are coming back and willing to pay a lot to reacquire some of these sites."
The last site we visited was Clemens' favorite, Felsterrasse.
Felterrasse is what you see above the first rows of vines. It is notoriously tough to access, and the very hard grey slate is very challenging to work. A single bottling is produced from this parcel.
Look, I found a picture Josefa took of a lizard last summer!
They do live in the vineyards!
After visiting the vines, it was cellar time. There are two cellars (one of which is very small) as well as a separate space for bottling/labeling.
80% of the wines are produced in very old, 1000l barrels.
The youngest are 48 years old, and were produced by Rita's father. We tasted some 2012's, but they were so far from completion that it was hard to tell how the wines will end up. I'm guessing delicious.
After visiting the cellar, Rita joined us and an epic, 5 hour tasting ensued. Thankfully, there was a dinner break in the middle. I learned so much, including what the ever recurring "GG" on many of the bottles meant.
GG is a designation reserved only for members of the VDP, a private group of 200 German winemakers. It stands for Großes Gewächs (Great Growth, which is nice since it also works in English!), and the wine must be dry. A panel of vignerons come to inspect the the site and approve the grapes. Then another panel with different members tastes the wines and deems it worthy. That's a serious process.
One of the major highlights was tasting an 05 Farhlay Auslese that took 30 months to ferment.
"He bottled 07 at the same time!"
Another was the 07 trockenbeerenauslese, which was the first time Clemens was tasting it since bottling. He seemed to like it. At 5,5% alcohol, it was barely wine.