Markus Molitor Interview

By Gavin Smith

Jul 9th, 2020

Since 1984 Markus Molitor has been managing his estate in Wehlener at the heart of the the Middle Mosel. Over the last 35 years he has been buying up some of the finest Grand Cru sites in the region. Markus provides a fascinating insight into these widely differing vineyards and how these steep, slate slopes have such a profound effect on the wines produced.

Bernkastel Vineyards (Middle Mosel) Photo courtesy of Christopher Arnoldi

Markus Molitor has been working in the vineyards since he was ten years old, literally becoming his father’s right hand man after his father Werner lost his arm in an accident, “He needed support and help in the vineyard and cellar – so I became his right hand. He taught me all about viticulture and vinification and I spent every free minute with him in cellar or vineyard. I did not only learn every single step of winegrowing and winemaking, but I also took over his passion and enthusiasm. One day we stood on the foot of Zeltinger Sonnenuhr vineyard site and looked up. My father told me about the glorious times of Mosel Riesling at the beginning of 20th century. I understood that the vines in these parcels, which were approx. 100 years old, were still the same. So I asked myself: What has happened? Why do the wines not have the same reputation when all the preconditions have not changed at all? And that was the moment of inspiration for me. Since then my ambition has been very clear: I want to try to help restore the wines of our Mosel valley to their former glory by producing unmistakable Riesling wines true to their individual vineyard identity.”

Markus took over control of the estate in 1984, which at that time amounted to just 1.5 hectares of the vineyard site Wehlener Klosterberg. Since then he has enlarged the holdings to 120 hectares comprising of many of the top Grand Cru sites on the steep slopes of the Middle Mosel and further south in Saar region. Markus Molitor is now among the largest privately owned estates in Mosel.

The Urziger vineyard (Middle Mosel)

90% of the 120 hectares are planted with Riesling and various Pinot varieties. The goal has always been to produce very distinct expressions of each of the vineyard sites dotted throughout the Mosel  - “We try to express each individual character of vineyard in combination with each quality level, style and vintage. Therefore we harvest all of the vineyards by hand only to have the possibility of selecting each single berry in its own category. This work and time intense process leads to approx. 80 to 90 different wines per vintage, but each one absolutely unique in its composition and taste.”

The whole team of workers in cellar, vineyards, office, warehouse and sales consists of approx. 80 people.  But this increases close to 120 people during the work intense period during the early summer months.

The vineyards around the village of Graach (Middle Mosel). Photo courtesy of Chris Marmann

Mapping the Vineyards

"Nobody wanted to work the steep vineyards anymore. So for the first time in history, people offered it for sale or rent."

1980-1990s

To fulfil Markus’ ambition to reinvigorate the reputation of the great vineyards of Mosel he first began to focus purchasing the Grand Cru Sites of the Middle Mosel area beginning in the 1980s gradually buying more and more selected sites right through the 1990s. “One needs to imagine that until that time, it had been nearly impossible to obtain any plots in these famous steep slopes. Families passed these on from one generation to another. But in the 1980s the Mosel wine industry was completely devastated due to the glycol crisis and the overriding reputation of the mass produced off dry wines (highlighted in my “History of Mosel” article).  Nobody wanted to work the steep vineyards anymore. So for the first time in history, people offered it for sale or rent. I took the chance given and enlarged the vineyard surface to approximately 20 hectares in these vineyard sites.“

Asked what is so special about the steeper slopes of Mosel and the effects this has on the final wines Markus explains – “There are several advantages of steep slopes in comparison to flat vineyards. First of all the sun exposure: if the steep slope is south-facing, the sun moves around each single vine from morning to evening. Secondly, the aeration is better because the winds blow down the slopes – the risk of frost is minimised, the heat as well as the humidity are carried away. During the Indian summer prior to harvest, the temperatures may be quite warm during the day. The valley is narrow, so the heat is trapped in the valley. During the nights, the cold winds from the Eifel and Hunsrueck hills above fall down the steep slopes. These changes of warm and cool air contribute a lot to the formation of the unique Mosel-aromas in the Rieslings. Depending on the steepness and therefore the angle of incidence, the sunlight is reflected by the river in the vineyard and afterwards stored by the slate soil. It is the combination of all these points that leads to the unique effects of the steep slopes in our valley along with the interaction of the slate soils with the old vines."

Incredibly steep vineyards found in Middle Mosel

On purchasing Domaine Serrig in 2016: "25 hectares of vineyards in one go, a unique possibility that I could not resist."

2000 - 2020

From 2000 onwards Markus started to purchase vineyards further south in the Saar Ruwer district. “I rented the first parcels in the vineyard site Niedermenniger Herrenberg in the Saar river valley. This region really has its own character. The Saar and the Ruwer represent special variations of the Mosel Riesling. The side valleys are located at a slightly higher altitude and they are not as narrow. The average temperature is therefore a bit lower than in the Mosel region. Due to these facts the vegetation period takes a bit longer (approx. 7-10 days). All of these components lead to Riesling wines with higher acidity, a bit more intensity, and a sharp and clean mineral expression and lighter fruit flavours than in the Middle Mosel region." In 2012 Markus was able to also secure  some parcels in the famous steep slopes of Saarburger Rausch and Ockfener Bockstein in the Saar-Ruwer part of Mosel. In 2016 Markus got the chance to buy the former Staatsdomaine of Serrig which was built in 1903 by the Prussians, one of their government-led quality driven wineries. Markus explains "it was 25 hectares of vineyards in one go, a unique possibility that I could not resist."

The imposing Weingut Serrig built in 1903 - Molitor purchased in 2016

As you go further east along the Mosel river and enter what is called Middle Mosel (identified into two separate regions named after the main towns of Piesport and Bernkastel and it is here the wine character changes slightly. Markus explains “The wines coming from Middle Mosel area are “warmer“ in taste: the fruitiness which often reminds me of exotic tropical fruits is more in the foreground, the wines are lush and rich in body. They are a bit smoother in acidity and pretty round in taste. However it is worth noting that the differences between the areas have gotten much smaller over the last two decades due to the climatic change we are all faced by.“

In 2013 Markus expanded his vineyards east and took over parcels in the Kinheim district, namely in Kinheimer Rosenberg and Kinheimer Hubertuslay. “For me these vineyards were completely underrated and underestimated, therefore I wanted to (and I still want to) show their quality and make them famous all around the world.”

During the last five years Markus took the chances to piece together what he describes as his “personal jigsaw” of Grand Crus sites in the Middle Mosel area including the legendary Bernkasteler Doctor, Brauneberger Juffer (and Juffer-Sonnenuhr) as well as Erdener Prälat.

The town of Bernkastel. Photo courtesy of Chris Marmann

After 35 years of buying up single plots all over the region I ask what vineyards have become his favourites, he states, “It is like asking a father: which one of your children do you favour? It is hard to say which are more special than others due to the uniqueness of every single site, microclimate, steepness, slate soil composition, sun exposure, vines etc. All I can say is I believe all of them are justified to belong to the best vineyards of Mosel, of Germany, some even of the world and everyone of them has its own character.

"There are many more aspects influencing the taste and structure of a wine. The particular type of slate is responsible for the mineral and aromatics, as well as the acidity-structure of the wine."

Single Vineyard Characteristics and what defines them

Identifying what is specific about the different vineyards along the Mosel is not simply geographical. Whilst Saar Ruwer is quite geographically and climatically different to Middle Mosel, each of the villages dotted along the Middle Mosel don’t simply represent different styles of Riesling, the type of slate is perhaps a stronger factor. Markus goes on to explain – “The character of a wine does not only depend on the village or better the vineyard site where it comes from. There are many more aspects influencing the taste and structure of a wine. The particular type of slate is responsible for the mineral and aromatics, as well as the acidity-structure of the wine. It is distinguished by very specific local mineral compositions (mainly blue, grey and red slates, but there are many forms in between). In addition to that it depends a lot on the microclimate of the single parcel, on the slope and the sun exposure of the site, and those effects on the slate soil composition. There is also the age of the vines as well as their clones – and last but not least, it all depends on the philosophy of the winemaker. In general, we manage all our vineyards the same way. The work in the vineyard is of central importance, because here the foundations are laid for physiologically ripe grapes full of extract to express their specificity of location.”

Slate soils on show in the Brauneberger Juffer vineyard of Middle Mosel. Photo courtesy of Christopher Arnoldi

Slate Soils 

The Mosel wine region is defined by its slate soils. All of Molitor’s vineyard soils are composed of slate – in nearly infinite variations. The main difference is the colour: grey, blue and red. But there are huge variations from vineyard to vineyard. Markus goes on “slate is a very smooth stone that means that it can be very weathered. The stones may be splintered by hand. The vines´ roots are able to grow through the stony soil down to ten to twelve metres deep. They can collect many minerals through the different layers and transport it into the grapes (and therefore in a second step into the wines). It is distinguished by very specific local composition. The slate reflects the sun and stores the heat so that the day and night temperature difference, especially during harvest, is not as high as in vineyards with other soils and therefore grapes do not only have light and warmth from above, but also from down below. In combination with the microclimate in the single vineyard site, the vines and the winegrowing philosophy, the wines vary from plot to plot: you may always recognise them as Mosel Riesling, but there are infinite possibilities from light to heavy, from expressive in mineral to spicy fruitiness, from cool to warm characters.” 

Markus Molitor behind the bedrock of slate soils

"In our vineyards we only plant selection massalle, old genetics, because not only the age of vine, but the combination of both is crucial."

Ungrafted Vines

"The character of a Riesling does not only depend on the age of vines, but also on the genetics grown in the vineyard. There can be young vines producing wines as full of character as from old vines, but these are really rare. In our vineyards we only plant selection massalle, old genetics, because not only the age of vine, but the combination of both is crucial."

"The ungrafted old vines in Mosel are getting more rare every year due to land consolidations. The winemakers are not allowed to plant ungrafted vines any longer because of the risk of phylloxera. But one is allowed to keep the old stocks in old plots. The root system of old vines is unique, it cannot be imitated. Roots grow down to twelve metres deep in the mineral soil. They may take a lot of minerals into the grapes. The proportion of wood in comparison to the leaves and fruits is very high. Therefore the yield of old vines is extremely low – but the concentration of extracts and minerals in the juice of every single berry is extremely high. All these points lead to an incomparable structure and great texture in the wine. The balance of all components, mineral, acidity, fruitiness and sweetness is always given and inimitable."

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