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Profile: Raimund Prüm

S.A. Prüm Owner/Winemaker
Mosel, Germany

The winemaker from the Mosel’s distinguished Prüm family is known as “Raimund the Red”.  As his flaming scarlet hair is a beckoning beacon of fine Riesling, friends affectionately nicknamed him “Der Specht” or “Il Pico” – the woodpecker!  Prüm has slowly grown his father’s 3k case winery to 45k, parcel by parcel, in Wehlen, Urzig and Graach, crafting luminous, concentrated wines year after year.  A frequent visitor, Prüm crowed over his expansive portfolio at Palm Bay’s Boston exposition.  This year, he celebrates his 4Oth anniversary as a winemaker and the 1OOth of both his winery and the prestige winemaker’s association, VDP.

As America’s most European city, Boston’s great to sell a lot of wine.  The East Coast is always the first stop for European culture and wine.  We have lots of wine dinners here, and it’s a treat to show Riesling working all the way through, even if it’s a stretch for many consumers.  That fruity but dry style works well with Asian influences, as we saw at Blue Ginger and P.F. Chang.  At Mistral, we were drinking only our Essence (entry-level).  With beef tartare and tuna tartare it was phenomenal.  On Nantucket, we tried it with sirloin strip – terrific!  Ruth’s Chris sells it by the glass: it’s fine with filet mignon.  I’d like to show a red wine throughout a dinner, but I don’t make any!  So what I do is show two Rieslings side by side – one of them constant throughout the meal, the other one changing.  It can be so different, so spectacular, so instructive.  Usually the constant Riesling is an older vintage from one of our best vineyards – petrolly, lightly fruity, perfectly balanced – and it almost always shows better than the younger, changing ones.
When you grow a grape, and grow it well, somebody will always think they can copy you, not always thinking to do it better.  And a bad copy is still a bad copy.  There are many Rieslings around.  The benchmarks of Old World Riesling are very different from New World Riesling.  Johannisburg Riesling has nothing to do with our Riesling.  Australian Riesling has none of the fragrance of ours.  Their vinifications are perfect, sometimes better than ours, but what’s missing is the terroir and the climate.
To understand Riesling is not easy.  And when you think you know everything about Riesling, you know nothing.  I’m learning something every day in my life about this crazy varietal.  Each year it’s different, documented by our various vintages.  I’m now in my fortieth vintage, and every one is unique.  Oh, eventually they may turn into something similar [’59 like ’76], but you draw on several inspirations as how to react to a new vintage.  Each is a challenge.  The ’O8 has a lot of minerality with rain and cool weather; it can never deliver like the ’O9, which will go down as one of the big vintages – like ’O1, but without the botrytis of ’O6.  In ’O9 we had a long, beautiful fall, perfect conditions; the grapes were ripe to overripe – without botrytis.  I never before had grapes tasting of orange or tangerine – unbelievable! Today they have amazing concentration, whether in a dry or sweet direction.

The Prüm dynasty, dating back to 1156, grew its reputation through the middle ages.  By 1911 the winery was big enough for my grandfather’s brothers and sisters to portion out their own shares and create independent wineries.  There were four Prüms plus intermarriages, but only my cousins’ J.J. Prüm and my S.A. Prüm export to the US; the others are tiny.

Our cousins at J.J. Prüm have old vineyards right next door, but they’ve built up their own philosophy over the last hundred years.  I’ve been going in my own direction since 197O; my wines open up a little bit earlier, show no sulphury notes, have a nice long cool fermentation on the lees, with no sign of spritziness.  My wines have more body, which is most appealing with foods.  When I started, nobody was taking note of food combinations, thinking about their wines with distinctive world cuisines.  In those days, nobody thought: “My Riesling to complement what?” Hamburger?  Sushi?  Impossible.
I did my harvest chores during school: picking, lugging, pressing, cleaning up.  I never thought to move into the wine business, but my father asked me to try it.  He put me into the learning section; I enrolled at the wine school at Bad Kreuznach, Nahe Valley.  I graduated in 1971 and immediately had to step into the winery because my father had a heart condition.  He died that fall at 48, and I, not even 21, had to take over.  We were making only 3OOO cases then.
My first wine was an Ice Wine, made on December 24, 197O.  What a challenge! Then I had to face that great vintage of 1971.  Really unbelievable.  It was such amazing weather that we were making Ausleses, BAs and TBAs.  It threw me right in [with some heavyweights].  I remember going to my father’s bedside and having him advise me to take no chances, to bring in the harvest on time.  I disagreed with him, and said that we had to take advantage of what we were given, to harvest selectively and slowly.  That turned out positively.
What do we do differently that our neighbors?  We start outside: in the vineyard, with extremely old, ungrafted root stock.  We pick late – only perfectly ripened grapes – starting when the others have finished.  We pray that the weather holds for us.  I knock on wood – being ‘the woodpecker!’ – that the weather has yet to fail us or trick us.  It’s like Harvard graduations – divine intervention?  You have to take the risk, but you have to be careful that you don’t over-reach.  Someday the rain must come, and if you wait too long, you lose everything.  Then, we come inside.  Long skin contact gives the color and changes the pH a bit.  We do natural yeast fermentation with most wines that have not contracted botrytis.  We leave the wine extremely long on the lees with fine yeast; that gives a lot of aroma to the wine, plus a bit of color.  Today we have climate-controlled cellar and all stainless steel vats, but we still age wines in 5O-year-old, 25O gallon oak casks we call Mosel füder.
We still keep our wines with low alcohol – 8, 8.5, 9% maximum.  But we’ve had a change in the style.  I don’t like that super-lean modern style; we have more texture, more weight – just to open up possibilities for food pairings.  What has changed most is our modern stomachs: we have ‘manager stomachs’ today, very sensitive.  If you drink overpowering Riesling with a lot of acidity, you may get heartburn.  With my wines, never.  They’re balanced, the CO2 comes from cool-fermentation but is nicely integrated.  The pH is 2.7 to 2.9; with several hours’ skin-contact it may rise to 3.O, not more.  The residual sugar in our dry wines is always below 1%.  The concentration and extract – they stay in barrel until April or May – may make them seem ‘sweet’.  Then we remove the heavy yeast, and leave the fine yeast in with the wine.

Yes, we feel it, too.  What that does is to integrate pronounced acidity into the wine –  that makes the wines richer.  I had the feeling that the grapes were over-sweet but lacked acidity, and thought we might need to acidify a little, as some other do.  But I went to the cellar and came up with bottles from other vintages that had much heat and richness but low acidity – ’59, ’69 – and all were perfectly balanced.  We then tasted others’ wines that had been acidified, and they were flat and lacked depth.  Too much acid ruins the balance, kills the harmonization.  In the early stages, some wines may seem too sweet, but as they age, the wine balances itself, the sweetness diminishes and the acidity asserts itself.  (I just tasted the ’O3 Graacher Domprobst: only now is the acidity lifting up, and the fruit backing off.)  I’ve changed my wine philosophy since the 2OO3 vintage, our hottest vintage in memory.  It was a relaunch of what we used to do.  Now I make only a single wine out of a single vineyard, like Wehlener Sonnenuhr or Urziger Wurzgarten.  I make only one, Essence, in the same style, out of various single (but unnamed) vineyards.
Grandfather was a founding member of the VDP.  Today we celebrate its centennial.  Our oldest wine in my library is the 1911 Wehlener Sonneuhr Auslese.  We need to not just talk about the ageability of our wines, but to show it.  If you ask the consumer, they think a Riesling can age only 2 or 3 years.  That’s a baby!  I can show you that they age 2O or 3O!  I’ve tasted Finger Lake Rieslings, and after 2 to 3 years they taste upside down.  They cannot age like ours.  They ask how we do it, and we can’t give any formula.
We’re not a museum, we have to turn our wines into money.  Our labor costs are horrendous, because everything we do is hand-picked, hand-selected.  A machine can never replace the human hand in the vineyard or cellar.  Even if I could fit a tractor in my vineyard, it would affect the grapes.  Machines remove some leaves but not all; and we don’t like leaf tannins in the wines.  Machines break branches, that adds another tannin; to fix these problems reduces quality.  The less we do to the grapes, the better: just go from vine to vat to barrel with the least intrusive contact.
What do they have?  Climate and soil.  As soon as you get the grapes from the vine into the cellar, you’re no longer ‘organic’.  We don’t add anything but sulfur.  Sulfur, I have to say, we do need, or the wine would soon be killed, oxidized.  The fining process, with eggs, is not needed if you’re careful; we don’t do it.  Our weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) is in a lone vineyard isolated from others by bushes.  We use no artificial fertilizer, and this is the only vineyard we can certify is truly organic.
Erste Lage means the same as Grosses Gewachts, both are grand crus, the first is noble sweet, the second is the dry version, but must reach Auslese level to qualify.  The first shows the Pradikat, the latter does not; it’s downgraded to QbA without chaptalization, but you taste the vineyard character.  We started with that in 2OO3.  My vineyards are all Grand Cru; we have to diversify the names to Erste Lage or Grosses Gewachts.  Better see the website! []
All our wine is in Stelvin, except the Grand Crus and the stickies.  Before we decided I did a lot of research.  We had a lot of damage with cork in ’O1 and ’O2.  Even some ’O3 corks did not do well; we had to extract them.  We [transitioned] slowly, with Essence, then Blue Slate, then the Kabinetts, Spatleses, Ausleses.  Now we are complete.
I can only read books when I’m on vacation, but I have had no vacation in three years!  I used to go for flyfishing and hunting – no more.  I work 16 hours a day, up at 6am on my emails.  In the evening I love to cook, even on my own.  [Recently] we started with foie gras from Auchamp in Luxembourg with an ’O3 Auslese.  Then I roasted duck breast with orange and red cabbage, for sweetness versus acidity.  Add a few currants, if you like.  And the same wine works well with that, too.  Always Riesling!