Hans-Joachim "Hanno" Zilliken stands in front of a portrait of his ancestor. His family has been making wine here since at least the mid-1700s. Today, Zilliken is still a family affair, and Hanno works together with his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Dorothy, to continue the tradition.
The winery is officially titled "Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken," and known commonly as "Zilliken." The word "Forstmeister" translates to "Forrest Master," and refers to Hanno's grandfather, who was the forester for the King of Prussia in the late 1800s/early 1900s era.
<-- Saarburger Rausch is the vineyard where the Zillikens work much of their magic. It lies right on the edge of town.
The winery is so interesting. It is a juxtaposition of the past and the present. On top of the ground, there is an ultra-modern tasting room with crisp, clean architecture. But if you descend below the house you come to several levels of wine cellar that are anything but "modern."
When descending to the cellar's first cavern, the first thing you notice is that the crisp, modern, white walls change to old brick that is populated with billowing, cotton-like mold. Sunlight is verboten here. Hanno flicks on a light switch. As you carefully make your way down the staircase the air thickens and dampness envelops you. The smell of moss and life dances around your nose. You must balance your footing on the slippery floor.
Hanno pushes on a huge door that has turned the colors of aging metal and reveals the barrels. In his own words, he makes "rieslings that float like butterflies." I feel that I am inside the nutrient-laden cocoon where his butterflies are hatched.
Hanno does everything in 1000L wood barrels. These barrels are bigger than the Burgundian-stle barriques, but they are still on the small side. He doesn't want to ferment in larger containers because "in too large of a container, it almost cooks when it ferments." He wants a long, cool fermentation to draw out aromas. In this cool cellar, it takes several months for a barrel to ferment. Wood has other charms as well:
"A special amount of oxygen helps the yeast ferment. And contact with the wood gets the acidity more round. The same wine in steel would taste more aggressive. Also, the wood doesn't get hot during a fermentation. So many other growers no longer use the casks-- it is more work, they are harder to clean, and it's more expensive. These are rieslings aged in oak but not oxidized."
<-- Here is an especially long stalactite clinging to the ceiling. When you touch these stalactites, some of them feel slightly gooey to the touch, like a hard gel. Others looked like liquid drops, but felt hard to the touch. I wonder how much of the hard-matter content in the stalactite is minerals extracted from the wall, and how much finds its way in on airborne dust.
<-- Within this incredible cellar there is a great library of riesling.
The bottles rest in the atmosphere and appear to "sweat" with a thin sheen of moisture.
And yes, the mold finds its way to the bottles as well, enshrouding them. It takes a certain trust-in-nature to allow your bottles to age this way.
And juxtaposed against a voracious microbiology that grows where it wants is a meticulous order; neatly filed bottles left to rest in this special environment.
This cellar reminds me of Nature herself: wildly unruly and yet ordered to an infinite degree.
Zilliken Saarburg "Alte Reben" Riesling Trocken 2012
There are 3 hectares of old vines in Rausch that are 60, 60, and 100 years of age. This "Alte Reben" is a selection of the 60 year old vines.
This is dense and dry with an aroma of grunstein (the rock in this part of the vineyard). If you smelled a piece of the wet grunstein and then the wine, you could really pick up elements of aroma. The texture had this elegant filigree aspect to it. Hanno describes this as "liquid minerals."
Zilliken Saarburg Rausch Riesling GG 2012
Dry rieslings like this weren't always in production in the Saar region. It's interesting to see how, over the last decade, the VDP has helped shape and encourage this new wave of incredible dry rieslings.
Slate & grunstein minerality, subtle intensity, very complex.
<-- This is a new capsule, regulated by the VDP's new vineyard ranking system. We will start to see many of these with the 2012 vintage. Notice the band around the bottom of the capsule that reads "Grosse Lage"-- this is the VDP's new term for the highest quality vineyards (similar in theory to a Grand Cru site).
Zilliken "Butterfly" Riesling 2012 (7.5g/L TA; 18g RS; 85-92 Oeschle)
light & elegant riesling that, in Hanno's words "floats like a butterfly."
Then we delved into the wines with some higher RS levels. Since the VDP regulates that its top quality wines must be dry, this has bifurcated production among producers. VDP member will make a dry wine from their top sites (this may be picked at Kabinett/Spatlese/Auslese levels, but the sugars must be fermented through to dry) and label these wines as "Grosse Lage" or "Erste Lage" (for many producers they once called these GGs, or Grosses Gewachs, before the new system came into play; many have kept the letters "GG" on the label). Some producers are happy with this and focus on dry wine production. Others have traditions and preferences for making wines according to the Pradikat system, and make a second group of wines that can be labeled "Kabinett," "Spatlese," or "Auslese," but these wines eschew the prestigious Grosse Lage or Erste Lage classification. For bottles from 2012 onward: if the wine says "Grosse Lage" on the capsule, you can assume that it will be dry. If the wine says Kabinett/Spatlese/Auslese and the producer is a member of the VDP, you can assume that it will have some noticeable RS. For non-VDP members, you still don't know because there are no national rules that govern RS (just must weight).
Hanno poured us a neat comparison: the Rausch Diabas and the Rausch Kabinett. Both are from the same site, but the Diabas is a special selection from vines that are planted on the veins of diabase rock (hard, black, iron-rich stone that formed when lava cooled extremely fast eons ago). The Diabas ended up with too much RS to be labeled as a Grosse Lage (which is regulated to be dry), but Hanno could label it based on soil type (which seems to be a growing trend in Germany). He notes that "There are 18 grams of residual sugar but the diabase absorbs all of the sweetness." His comment is an interesting observation of flavor perception: sometimes, sugar can be balanced by acidity, other times, it can be balanced by the perceived minerality in a wine.
We tried a few of his 2012 Kabinette:
Zilliken, Saarburger Riesling Kabinett 2012 (8.6g/l TA; 56g RS)
rich & balanced, flower petals, white peaches
Zilliken, Bockstein Kabinett 2012 (8.7g/L TA; 61g RS)
pretty & floral, with an interesting minerality
Zilliken, Rausch Kabinett 2012 (9.1g/L TA; 69g RS)
This was like biting into one of those fresh, sun-warmed peaches at a road side farmer's market in North Carolina. It was so juicy with such lovely fruit; and the minerality that backed it all up drew out the finish for such a long time. What a great wine.
Zilliken, "Saarbug Rausch" 2012 Riesling Spatlese
This Spatlese was picked with about 20% botrytis.
This had an incredible clean aroma, like fresh coconut meant, mangoes, and peaches.
Zilliken, "Saarbug Rausch" 2012 Riesling Spatlese - Auction (9.9g/L TA; 100g RS; 102 Oeschle)
This was a special Spatlese produced for auction only.
Similar fruit aromas as the non-auction Spatlese, but with dried qualities: dried coconut meat, dried mangoes, dried peaches, dried pineapple. An intense mouthfeel; thick and rich. About the ageability, Hanno notes "It's made for other decades."
Zilliken, "Saarbug Rausch" 2012 Riesling Auslese
He also poured some 2012 Rausch Auslese- a truly humbling wine. This was picked at 106 oeschle (that's really ripe!) and had about 40% botrytis. Many of the grapes were frozen when it was picked.
(12.7 g/L TA; 150g RS; 7.5 abv)
This was a real treat-- a taste of the GK Auslese. This is such a powerful wine. Rudi sips it and says "This wine will outlive all of us!" The acidity is so high, I can't even begin to imagine the agability.
Evan Springarn and Rudi Wiest contemplate the Auslese that mystifies us all.
"You see the range of possibilities," Hanno notes. "It's up and down; we are working with nature..."
Hanno poured the wine pictured to the left from a label-less bottle. We smelled. This was a different animal. It was old; it smelled herbaceous like asparagus, roasted mushrooms, and bacon fat. It was smokey, and really dry-tasting despite the 50g of residual sugar. It had a round creaminess at the end. I was mystified. I knew it was special, but I couldn't even begin to guess what it was.
What a surprise: it was a 1980 Kabinett Icewine-- doubly special because they no longer make Eiswein Kabinette anymore, and also because this was my birth year! 1980 was a rough year in most wine-growing regions around the planet, so finding a lovely wine from my birth year is a very unique treat! 1980 wasn't easy at Zilliken though. Hanno notes, "Here is an example of a tough vintage with green, herbal notes."
I thought, "I'm not sure this family could get any sweeter or more hospitable" as they waved goodbye to us when we drove away...