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The area under cultivation of Müller-Thurgau has been declining for years. Why this is a great pity despite the grape variety's bad reputation is shown by Franconian winemakers Stephan Krämer and Christian Stahl.
Stephan Krämer likes to experiment with Müller-Thurgau © Stephan Kraemer

Müller-Thurgau is a diva. In the vineyard, the variety is susceptible to downy mildew, during spontaneous fermentation it likes to bitch, and in addition, the time window for harvesting is very short. And then, in the end, the wines are mostly unspectacular and rarely cost more than a few euros.

No wonder that the area under Müller-Thurgau has been declining for years. The peak was reached in 1979 with more than 25,000 hectares. Since then it has been going downhill. In 2020, it slipped to third place among grape varieties in Germany, behind Riesling and Spätburgunder. Last year, it still stood at just over 11,000 hectares.

Stephan Krämer from the winery Ökologischer Weinbau Kraemer in Auernhofen, Franconia, also grows less Müller-Thurgau than he did a few years ago - the development has not left him unscathed either. Yet his wines from this variety are among the most exciting and most expensive in Germany. Ten years ago, they were already different from the others and clearly more complex. "We were still quite conservative, we filtered. But otherwise we did little in the way of vinification even back then," says Krämer. Otherwise, he would hardly have come to the attention of one of the most renowned wine merchants in the country, Martin Kössler from the Weinhalle in Nuremberg. Krämer has been working with him since 2012.

New nuances through experimentation

"In 2013, Martin Kössler asked me how the wines would taste from the wooden barrel," says Krämer. No sooner said than done - that was the first step in a new development. Two years later, the farmer and winemaker began to work intensively on natural wines. "I found that exciting. I really liked the freedom, the liveliness and the naturalness in the wines. And I slowly drank myself out of sulphur," he says. "You become totally sensitive to that over time."

So over the years, one thing led to another. Krämer experimented with mash fermentation and used that for a backcut. "At the beginning, the wines had a 15 per cent mash content, but now we're at 40 per cent," he says. This gives the wines a phenolic edge and protects them from oxidation. Krämer leaves out the sulphur, only giving his Müller-Thurgau a few milligrams before bottling.

The next experiment was the fermentation of whole grapes, and he also left the wines on the full lees for longer. "After a year, we then took them off and bottled them," he says. Krämer loves the different nuances that mash and whole-cluster fermentation give his wines and explains them this way: "Whole-cluster fermentation has something grapey, fresh and unadulterated, the aromas are brighter. Mash fermentation, on the other hand, gives dark, smoky notes".

He is sceptical about the future of Müller-Thurgau: "At the moment, there is everything from the litre bottle for just over five euros to the 50-euro wine from the South Tyrolean winery Tiefenbrunner . I wonder where this is going." Krämer fears that climate change is causing problems for the variety. Only 30 years ago, grapes in the Tauber Valley rarely ripened completely. If the autumns become wetter than in the past - as is to be feared - the susceptible grape variety will suffer.

Chefs love Müller-Thurgau

"This grape variety can do something," says Christian Stahl © Christian Stahl

Christian Stahl's winery, , is just across the road from Krämer's farm. Stahl, whose range now consists of many internationally oriented wines, first caused a stir in the wine world with his Müller-Thurgau "Hasennest". "That was our best vineyard in the Tauber Valley at the time," he says. "We had Müller-Thurgau and Bacchus, and I was completely uninformed about the wine market." He had learned how to make first-class wines from Ludwig Knoll of Weingut am Stein . So he approached his Müller-Thurgau in the same way. "And that's when I realised that the grape variety can do something if it's in the right place and you look after it properly," he says.

After some very praising wine reviews, Stahl's rapid ascent began. But the fact that he has kept Müller-Thurgau in his assortment is by no means due to sentimental reasons. After all, the winemaker is an excellent chef who has won several awards.

"Müller-Thurgau can accompany many dishes perfectly. If, for example, the Silvaner is too subtle and the Scheurebe too aromatic, its hour has come," he says. For Stahl, Müller-Thurgau is the link between these two types of grape. He currently has a dish on the menu in which black cod and Queller take centre stage, with mussels and citrus aromas added. "This combination of iodiney, salty and citrusy goes perfectly with the 'Hasennest'," says Stahl.

Perfect combination at Winzerhof Stahl: black cod, celery, mussels and a Müller-Thurgau © Philipp Reinhard

Unfortunately, Müller-Thurgau's reputation stands in its way. After all, it can produce enormous harvests; up to 200 hectolitres per hectare is no exception.

"It doesn't ripen properly, it doesn't taste good, but it gives alcohol," says Stahl. He sees the trigger for the bad image in the two hard frost years at the beginning of the 1980s. The winegrowers had suffered enormous losses and used Müller-Thurgau to fill up their cellars again. And although it is understandable, the lousy wines of that time are still hanging over the variety.

"It takes a lot of effort to rebuild such a battered image," says Stahl. Yet, in his eyes, wines like "Hasennest" have just the right mix of fluidity on the palate, saltiness and seriousness.

"Again and again I have to hear that you can't make great wines from Müller-Thurgau," says Stahl. "At the same time, however, the critics agree with me that it can be used in a menu as well as accompany an entire evening. So: what is it missing to be a great wine, please?"

Cover photo: © Kraemer Winery

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