Sensational Dry German Rieslings: Digressions And Reminiscences About The Colonel, Egon Müller, Vegemite In Hand Luggage, And Screwcap Vs. Cork
by Ken Gargett
A headline like that? Perhaps you were expecting our friends from Germany with a dry sense of humor. Or perhaps imagined that they had taken to “dry July?” Actually, today is a mix of digressions and reminiscences, if I may be permitted. I shall return to our dry German wines next time.
German Riesling is one of the gifts from the gods as far as I am concerned. Indeed, the great vineyards of Germany were where I had some of my first ever non-Australian winery visits. In an earlier life, I had finished studying at London University and was about to join a London law firm. Time for one quick trip to the continent.
An old girlfriend at the time was also studying at London Uni, doing a masters of war studies (yes, an American). This was back shortly before the Cold War finished and deprived us of all those wonderful spy stories.
She was very keen to visit East Berlin, and I wanted to see some vineyards. We split for two days in each. East Berlin was as miserable and otherworldly as you might have imagined, but going through Checkpoint Charlie was a thrill. All very John le Carré. My lasting memory is that the place was grey. Everything a drab grey.
The vineyards were much more welcoming, although bitterly cold. The highlight was a trip to Egon Müller in the Saar region, then West Germany, owners of the Scharzhofberg vineyard, one of the world’s most famous Riesling vineyards.
This was mid-December, freezing cold, and getting dark mid-afternoon – very weird for a person from more tropical climes. We arrived not long before dark, so what felt like not long after lunch.
There were two big old oak doors. I knocked. Eventually the door opened with the butler (I assume), who had to be 95, in full butler gear, holding back the two largest Dobermans you’ve ever seen looking like they were overdue their lunch.
I’ve never felt more like Brad and Janet in Rocky Horror Picture Show. If Frankenfurter had come singing down the stairs, it would have been no surprise.
Our butler friend, desperately hanging on to the Dobermans, announced that sadly Herr Müller the 65th would not be joining us as he was unwell, but Herr Müller the 66th would be taking his place. Okay, it was not quite that, but it seemed close.
As it turned out, we were incredibly fortunate. The winery had hosted the Masters of Wine on a visit that morning and had all the wines still opened and ready for us. They were showing the 1985 vintage, a fine one in the region. I was in heaven.
These were incredible wines. A number of these are wines I’ve never tasted since – if you wonder why, check the prices of wines like Egon Müller’s Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese. The cheapest price for a bottle of any vintage from anywhere in the world that I can find for the Trockenbeerenauslese is close to $15,000. For the bottle. Quantities are miniscule.
It remains one of the most extraordinary tastings I’ve ever enjoyed. Afterwards, Müller invited us back to the library for a drink. My friend got extremely excited as she discovered a first edition On War by Carl von Clausewitz in the shelves – apparently that is a huge deal for war studies students.
Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to sound intelligent and to think of a clever question. I managed, “So what is the best wine that you’ve ever made?” Yes, hardly in depth. Müller looked at me and without hesitation said, “That would be our Scharzhofberger Auslese from 1971,” a famous vintage. A bottle of that these days tops $7,000.
Whatever we had in our glass was a bit special, I thought, so my follow-up question was to ask what we were drinking. Müller looked aghast.
“We are drinking the Scharzhofberger Auslese from 1971,” suddenly realizing what a terrible error he had made opening a bottle of this nectar for such heathens.
It was time to go.
Sadly for the Müller clan, it was not the last time that a friend and I darkened their doorstep. Many years later, traveling with a good friend of mine, best known as the Colonel, we were visiting some wineries and restaurants in Champagne, Burgundy, and Germany. The Colonel’s wife is not keen on traveling so I get deputized, which is fine by me. Also, as he says, “She is not punctual, and you are.” (And yet he remains married?)
We caught up in Paris to head across to the Mosel. The Colonel would be doing the driving and navigating. After forgetting what side of the road he was supposed to be on about 18 times, and then overcorrecting about 18 times, we finally came to a large flowing body of water. “That would be the River Something,” he proudly announced. Marco Polo couldn’t have put it better.
We finally reached the winery of Egon Müller at the appointed time (or thereabouts). Müller – yes, the same Egon Müller who had hosted me so many years ago – had a group of 20-something sommeliers from all over Europe with him and they were about to climb one of the world’s steepest vineyards, Wiltinger, and drink some 20-year-old Auslese at the summit. Would we be interested?
“Absolutely,” declared the Colonel, adding that he’d show these young whippersnappers a thing or two (yes, he does talk like that). Off we set. What seemed a very long time later, we emerged from the vines at a ledge running along the top – so we thought. Sadly, this ledge was only about a quarter of the way up.
Sir Edmund – the Colonel – threw in the towel. All too much. “Don’t have anything to prove to these young whippersnappers,” most of whom were now little more than dots on distant slopes.
I told him I’d see him later. No, he demanded, you have to help me down. Some days just keep giving.
“But not here. Too steep.”
“We’ll find somewhere.”
So we set off down a slope that would have embarrassed a mountain goat. I kept envisioning newspaper reports declaring that one of Germany’s prized vineyards was today destroyed by two fat Aussies avalanching down it. Meanwhile, Müller had skipped back down the slopes to assist. We finally got back to earth.
Müller suggested that perhaps we’d like to drive up (seriously? We could have done that in the first place?!?!?). So we headed around and up the back roads.
By the time we got there, the sommeliers were all guzzling Auslese. Inevitably, we copped merry hell from them (deservedly so). Australia’s good name took a fearful beating that afternoon.
While I was running around trying to convince them all that the Colonel was actually a Kiwi and nothing to do with us (he is not, he is 100 percent Aussie), he took a turn for the worse and slumped against a vineyard wall. Everyone rushed over to assist (some people will do anything to be the center of attention).
He had, in truth, gone whiter than a proverbial ghost and really did not look good. He couldn’t speak (silver lining?). We carried him across to the car and laid him down. Everyone was trying to work out if we could get an ambulance up to the summit or where the nearest hospital was – well, perhaps not everyone. I was wondering if his wife knew he’d brought a suitcase of ’99 Burgundies with him and if she’d notice if they went missing.
We managed to drive him back down, along the narrowest sliver of dirt track you have ever seen and via a traffic pileup as the road back to the winery is one lane and apparently some Germans had not been told how important the Colonel was and that we therefore had an automatic right of way.
We got back to the winery, gave him a reviving drink, and within minutes he was arguing, complaining, directing everyone around, abusing the GPS machine because places were not where he believed they should be, and generally giving a critique of the shortcomings of everyone else on the road – in other words, back to his old self.
In his defense, it was extremely steep and he is old, fat, and unfit.
The Madrid incident
We put down his unexpected grumpiness to the fact that he forgot his Vegemite, and as anyone who may have witnessed the co-called Madrid incident knew, the Colonel and that black slime are not easily parted. There seems to be some sentiment that not to love Vegemite is truly un-Australian. I assure you that such a sentiment is only held by those who do love the stuff. Those of us with taste buds find it utterly appalling. Unfortunately, the Colonel will not leave home without it.
For those not in the northern hemisphere that fateful day of the incident, our hero arrived at the Madrid airport for a domestic flight dressed in his prize blue pork pie hat (who travels with a different hat for each day of the week?). In his hand luggage he had with him a tube of Vegemite. The unsuspecting woman at Spanish customs advised him that she was confiscating it (under the “no paste” rule – or possibly the “good taste” rule). She was advised, in return, that she was not. Chaos followed and within minutes a crowd of, without exaggeration, 400 bemused onlookers had gathered to witness the battle.
Our hero first regaled the poor woman with tales of the glories of the slime and hence why he should be allowed to take it with him. She had absolutely no idea what it was or what it could be used for, but she was not buying this myth that anyone would be so insane as to actually try eating it.
When that didn’t work, the Colonel tried identifying the shortcomings of Spanish customs. That worked about as well as you’d expect. He then moved on to his personal thoughts on Spain itself. As far as I could work out, Spain’s greatest crime was . . . not being France.
By now, the crowd was getting restless and offering opinions – I have no idea if they were for or against our intrepid hero but I could take a wild guess. I was calling for a strip search, but no one was listening to me.
Eventually, telling them that this wasn’t over, the Colonel abandoned his slime (to be honest, it pretty much was all over by then). For the next hour, I watched little children duck behind the legs of adults to hide when they saw him coming and I am convinced that Spanish parents now put the fear of god into their kids if they don’t behave by telling them tales of how the black slime man in the weird hat will come for them in the night.
On a more serious note, back in the Mosel, Müller wanted to do a comparison of one of his wines – the 2011 Schartzhofberger Spätlese – under screwcap and cork. No prizes for guessing which tasted absolutely scintillating and which tasted very reserved and a touch dull.
One or two of the sommeliers took their heads out of their bottoms long enough to declare that this meant the wine under cork was much more profound. Which was absolute tosh.
This is a real bugbear for me. It was discussed at some length. It was absolutely clear to me, and a few others, that some of the sommeliers had decided that cork would be their preference no matter what the result in the glass.
If I ran a restaurant and a sommelier did that, I couldn’t get them out of there quick enough. If they genuinely believed that the cork provided the better seal then I would be 100 percent behind that, even if I disagreed. But to make the decision simply on what they think should be the case, or because of some silly preconceived notion that corks are always superior, makes no sense.
What really got right up my nose was one of the sommeliers insisting that it was not his job to give his customers options in respect of closures. That was for them to decide. I asked if he thought it was his job to suggest new regions, exciting producers, and emerging stars to his customers to ensure that they had the best experience possible. Of course, was the response.
Why on earth is it not his job to at least offer options to his customers if the seal might improve their experience?
Leave aside the argument about whether wines age better under cork or screwcap (the trials and comparisons I have seen of aged wines under both have left me in no doubt that I would purchase wines under screwcap for aging given the choice), if Müller’s wine was to be served that evening there was no question that the customer would have had a much more enjoyable experience with the wine under screwcap.
Yet our friend believed it was not his job to give that experience to his customers. What am I missing?
But the highlight of the day came when in mid-tasting (we were outdoors), Müller fired up a big cigar. Imagine what the need-a-cause, rent-a-mouth crowd would say about anyone doing that back home.
We had a few more wineries to visit in the Mosel but fortunately the Colonel assured me he had given up alpine ascents.