Every month, ‘Whose Wine is it Anyway?’ profiles a German winemaker to give you a behind-the-vines look at the world of German wine. This month, we’re focusing on Ulrich Stein, a winemaker who harvests grapes on some of the steepest, lowest-yielding vineyards on earth in Germany’s Mosel region. With a winemaking philosophy that balances reverence for tradition and a rule-breaking spirit, Ulli makes traditional wines like Rieslings, as well as once-banned non-traditional varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Whose *Wine* is it Anyway? Meet Ulrich Stein
Meet Ulrich Stein
Estate: Weingut Stein
Focus: Riesling (80%), Spätburgunder (10%), Cabernet Sauvignon (4%), Elbling (3%), Pink Chardonnay (2%), Merlot (1%)
The Stein family began cultivating wine in the Mosel region of Germany in the 16th century, back when wine growers typically practiced their professions only part-time. Heinrich and Erna Stein were the first in the family to dedicate themselves to winegrowing as a full-time occupation. In 1948, they founded Weingut Stein, where Heinrich focused on producing high quality wines. His sons Ulrich and Peter took over the business in 1982, consistently refining their father’s experimental approach and pushing the boundaries of winemaking in the region.
Ulrich Stein, or “Ulli,” graduated with an oenology degree from the prestigious University of Geisenheim, completed his PhD studies in biology, and went on to dedicate his life to producing high-quality Mosel wines from ancient vines planted on laboriously steep slopes.
Ulli is a force to behold – he has been on an unwavering quest to preserve the traditional steep slate vineyards of the Mosel, while also safeguarding the region from the imminent effects of climate change. Noticing that many of the neighboring steep sites were being neglected or abandoned, he published a manifesto in 2010 calling for a concerted and widespread effort to save the remaining old vines – including measures like urging fellow winemakers to ask for higher prices for steep-slope wines and to pass that along in the form of a fairer wage for those who perform the labor, thereby incentivizing the next generation to stick around and farm these steep slopes.
I hope young people come back to the Mosel. I hope the Mosel will go on. I hope it for the next hundred years.
— Ulli Stein
Ulli saw tending and reviving old vines in the Mosel region as crucial to upholding the traditional viticultural practices of the region and necessary to preserving the region’s winemaking future. In his view, climate change and rising temperatures meant that white grapes along the riverbank and at the lower third of the region’s slopes ripen too fast, endangering classic wines that are dependent on cold weather like Eiswein and low-alcohol Feinherb and Kabinett bottlings. He found that the region’s old vines better adapted to the effects of climate change, as their deep root systems handled drought and heavy rainfall better and had fewer problems with botrytis. Hence Ulli’s advocacy efforts for the preservation of the vines on the iconic steep slopes.
Additionally, as rising temperatures make for an increasingly inhospitable environment, Ulli fought to gain permission to plant non-native red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the Mosel. Along with some other wineries, his persistent efforts to revive Spätburgunder and other red grapes led to the region’s repeal of the ban on red-wine production in 1986, which had been in effect since 1933! In this way, Ulli is both protecting the past and the future of the Mosel.
In the 19th century, 15% of the region was planted with red grape varieties. In the Middle Ages, over 50% of the grapes were red.
— Ulli Stein
Ulli farms about 6.5 hectares, almost all of which is difficult to work and requires manual tending and harvesting. Since the founding of Weingut Stein, vineyards have been farmed ecologically and sustainably with natural cover crop and no use of herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Due to Ulli’s belief in the importance of old vines, the family never grafted their Riesling vines to phylloxera-resistant rootstock. As a result, 80% of the winery’s Riesling vines are ungrafted. The other 20% were already grafted when the estate acquired the vineyards.
The average age for the estate’s Riesling vines is 60 years, but they reach 90+ years-old among the ungrafted vines in the terraced Palmberg site, as well as a collection of ungrafted vines planted in 1900 at Alfer Hölle – some of the oldest wine-producing vines in the Mosel.
Like the Mosel at-large, Stein’s Rieslings run the gamut from dry to off-dry to sweet. The elegant red wines are vinified dry, and the Sekt (sparkling wines) are produced according to the Traditional Method, though Stein also offers Riesling Secco and Rosé Secco made with the tank method. All wines start fermentation spontaneously, none of them are fined, and many see very little added sulfur. Stein is unconcerned with expressing his own “style” and seeks instead to allow the vineyards to express themselves through pure and transparent wines.
Interestingly, Weingut Stein also produces a form of Strohwein (“straw wine”), which was once a traditional practice in the Mosel until it was banned in 1971. Ulli spent eight years fighting this all the way to the EU, eventually succeeding by registering this under the brand name “Striehween”. In this winemaking method, grapes are laid out on straw mats in drafty rooms to dry, concentrating the sugar in the grapes – a method developed in the late Roman and early Middle Ages, commonly employed in France, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy.