Müller-Thurgau: A shoulder for Germany to cry on

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Müller-Thurgau: A shoulder for Germany to cry on

By Emily Campeau

“Nothing very good has ever been made of Müller-Thurgau,” said the German wine webinar moderator, armed with the same parade of stale clichés and tired narratives. Perhaps it was the irritating circumstances of quarantine coupled with my then standard cranky mood or maybe it was simply the ridiculousness of the statement. But that outright lie was one I could no longer let stand.

 

Would it fall to me to set the record straight?

 

I trust my own palate. It has notified me time and again that Müller-Thurgau can make exceptional wines. Like that bottle of Enderle & Moll “Muschelkalk” 2016, tasting of saffron and fire-roasted carrots. Or the one from Bianka & Daniel Schmitt, with its velvety texture and herbal nose, all crushable and full of energy. Or the soft-spoken, comforting taste of Philip Lardot’s “Kontakt,” still lingering in my mind from a bottle consumed a few days ago. Or Andi Weigand’s “MTH,” from old vines and an old basket press, whistle clean and surprisingly serious. Or Jan Matthias Klein’s “Sanderstruck,” with its edgy, subversive complexity.

Emily Campeau

Besides, as Germany’s most planted variety once upon a time and its second-most planted today, it is statistically improbable that all wines made of Müller-Thurgau are terrible. The variety’s ubiquity alone, then and now, speaks volumes.

 

When I went in search of answers to how Müller-Thurgau got where it is today, winemakers responded with a mixture of enthusiasm and pragmatism. A famous historian mansplained, even as he called my quest “quixotic.” (I’m lucky he was nice enough to salute my courage, I guess.) In contrast, Professor Joachim Schmid, head of the Grape Breeding Department at Geisenheim University — one of the world’s most famous wine schools and the birthplace of Müller-Thurgau — was of critical assistance in piecing together this puzzle.

 

The range of responses only multiplied the questions in my head: How had Müller-Thurgau become so successful and so reviled over the years? Could we ever forgive this humble grape for being a cash cow when Germany needed it most? Can we see past this today to recognize its true abilities?

Who was Hermann Müller? 

Hochschule Geisenheim

Müller-Thurgau is among the most successful grapes ever bred by the human hand. But Hermann Müller died before he could witness the impressive ascension of his darling crossing. He was born in 1850 in the Swiss canton of Thurgau and led a brilliant career from the start — a noted botanist, microbiologist, and doctor of natural sciences by age 23. After finishing his PhD at Würzburg (where, rumor has it, there was another plant geek with the same name in the same department; to simplify things, our Müller added Thurgau to his name), he assisted Julius von Sachs, a monumental figure in the world of botany. 

 

Müller went his determined way and in 1876 settled in as the manager of the newly founded Institute of Plant Physiology at the Königlich Preußischen Lehranstalt für Obst- und Weinbau —  Geisenheim’s forerunner. He worked there for 15 years, tackling research subjects from nutrient assimilation and vine diseases to wine faults, flowering, and malolactic transformation. 

 

Müller, his wife Berta Biegen, and their three children ultimately returned to Switzerland so that Müller could preside over the new School of Horticulture and Vine Growing in Wädenswil, where he remained until his death in 1927. In honor of his ground-breaking work, the building where he worked at Geisenheim is named the Müller-Thurgau Haus and the school hands out a Müller-Thurgau Prize every year for exceptional achievements and contributions to research and teaching on viticulture and horticulture.

 

A star is born: Riesling x Silvaner 1 

The story of Müller-Thurgau starts with a scientific relay race. Müller took the baton with his musings about combining the elegant aromatics of Riesling with the reliability of Silvaner. After seven years of testing his new vine at Geisenheim, Müller moved to Wädenswil, taking 150 cuttings with him for planting and monitoring. One, then known to researchers as “58,” was deemed particularly promising. Deciding numbers make unsexy names, they dubbed it Riesling x Silvaner 1. 

 

But the real breakthrough came when Riesling x Silvaner 1 went for a trip up north. Just before WWI erupted, August Dern, an official of the state of Bavaria, brought 100 Riesling x Silvaner 1 vines to Germany – unwittingly changing the course of German viticultural history in a single stroke. It was also Dern who renamed the variety in honor of its creator.

Müller-Thurgau was on its way.

Testing facilities were organized in all German wine regions. If you haven’t seen the results, announced at a viticultural conference in Alzey in 1938, check the year. Let’s just say the upshot was positive because Georg Scheu — himself a respected viticulturalist and father of Scheurebe and several other varieties — endorsed the grape. (Though it would take more than a century to discover, geneticists eventually determined that the recipe didn’t turn out the way it does in the book: Müller had mistakenly used the table grape Madeleine Royale, not Silvaner, as the father vine.)

 

No one at the conference could have known that within a decade, Germany, and with it German viticulture, would lie in ruins. Or that in the aftermath, Müller-Thurgau would be there when Germany needed it most.

 

The rise and fall of Müller-Thurgau

Grape varieties are wonderful translators of history. Müller-Thurgau helps tell the story of what happened in Germany following the instigation and spectacular loss of two world wars that left staggering casualties, an eviscerated workforce, ruined vineyards, a wine trade reliant on internationally esteemed wine merchants whose Jewish faith doomed them to exile or annihilation, and boycotts by all of Germany’s former trading partners.

 

In these bleakest postwar years, Müller-Thurgau offered advantages that proved essential: It’s an early ripener, tending to get to the finish line before the fall rains; it’s also a reliable yielder and does its best in a cool climate, which Germany most certainly had back then. It can also be planted and thrive on a (perhaps too) wide range of soils.

 

As a result, between the end of WWII and the mid-'70s, the grape was embraced like no other – a new friend to the humbled nation as it weathered a stiffly challenging time.

 

Why then is Müller-Thurgau most frequently chided for its shortcomings? It does have a tendency towards vigor, which growers have taken advantage of with overcropping. This, in turn, can give watery, forgettable wines, though that’s hardly specific to Müller-Thurgau.

 

A vicious cycle — planting Müller-Thurgau wantonly, cropping it at the highest possible yields, watching it fall short of acid and flavor, then flooding the domestic and export markets with it — dominated long enough to pull the tradition, quality and reputation of German wine to the ground.

 

What kicked off the cycle? As noted, after WWII, a levelled Germany was rebuilding everything, agricultural sectors included. One crucial element of this was Flurbereinigung, or land reorganization. In a desperate effort to feed and revitalize the nation, the German government reshaped and replanted a great number of Germany’s vineyards. The loss of original topography and ungrafted vines is incalculable. But the gains in access and workability were a boon to Germany’s labor-starved growers. As Anne Krebiehl MW notes, they were “only too aware of the horror of tiny yields or barely ripe grapes after a year of backbreaking work” and more willing than today, perhaps, to take advice from officials, who in this case were most definitely rooting for Team Müller-Thurgau.

 

The latent presence of phylloxera also played a role in spreading the variety. “During the wars and in between, the planting of grafted vines was allowed for academic purposes only,” explains Professor Schmid. “After 1945, nearly all grapevines in Germany were standing on their own roots. Phylloxera had not spread on a large scale, though it was starting to be a problem. Flurbereinigung promoted new plantings with grafted vines to provide for future phylloxera control.”

 

Finally, the rise of Müller-Thurgau coincided with the peak decades for chemical agriculture in Germany, allowing growers to take even more liberties with the steadfast vine.

 

Would Müller-Thurgau have had its breakout moment if these factors had not been so aligned? In other words, has Germany been mainly ungrateful all these years to a grape that served its comeback so very well? History uncomfortably leads us to think so.

"In other words, has Germany been mainly ungrateful all these years to a grape that served its comeback so very well? History uncomfortably leads us to think so."

We also can’t forget that the grape was implicated in a crime against German wine — one that left a deep, blue, slender bottle-shaped scar: Liebfraumilch. 

 

Thankfully, ever fewer people will know that their parents or grandparents were once consumers of a great deal of Müller-Thurgau, as passengers aboard the cheap German wine train that was toot-tooting around the world in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. But they bear the common trauma of hangovers for which Müller-Thurgau is, at least in part, responsible.

 

My own family was high on that stuff most of my childhood. Anything bearing the names Aufkellerein, Black Tower, or Blue Nun, whether in blue bottles or 5L bag-in-box, meant the party was on – future diabetes diagnoses be damned.

 

Liebfraumilch, “milk of Our Lady,” is both a wine of astonishing history and the deeply perverted name of a loveless brew, of which Müller-Thurgau was a key ingredient. It created a prejudice so ingrained that many people still shiver at the sight of any fluted bottle, fearing unbalanced sweetness. Just ask a sommelier or wine shop worker how much education he or she has to do when selling German wine to this day, even though the country’s production has been mostly dry for decades. 

 

At some point, Liebfraumilch accounted for more than 60% of German wine exports. The wines were required to contain a minimum of 70% Kerner, Riesling, or Müller-Thurgau and have between 18g and 40g of residual sugar. Chaptalization was authorized.

 

Although Müller-Thurgau reached its peak as Germany’s most planted grape between 1975 and 1995, by 2019, total hectarage had fallen to just under 12,000 in 2019, accounting for 12% of the country’s total vineyard area.

 

Whose fault is it? 

Changing any conversation starts with challenging those who seem to have control over it. It feels wrong to me that the responsibility of the wine professional is hardly ever questioned when discussing Müller-Thurgau’s bad rap. 

 

I have enormous respect for Jancis Robinson’s website, a wonderful platform for wine education. So I was pretty startled to read the following on its pages: “Müller-Thurgau, waning white grape variety which could fairly be said to have been the bane of German wine production.” The judgement grows more severe: “The variety is all too short on Riesling characteristics, typically smelling vaguely peachy with a fat, flaccid mid-palate, too often with a slight suspicion of rot, to which its rather large, thin-skinned berries are prone.” The description, which countless would-be wine experts will turn to, concludes with a dismal summation: “extremely dull, flabby wine.”

 

Here, we may need to examine Müller-Thurgau’s inherent inferiority complex. Riesling, Müller-Thurgau’s stunning diva of a mother, has always gloried in the German spotlight. But Riesling has also always enjoyed the viticultural equivalent of round-the-clock spa treatments on a private island. Centuries of history on the very best sites with the optimal expositions, showered with utmost care. Müller-Thurgau? Dumped in old potato and beet fields and pretty much left to fend for itself.

 

Let’s say we lived in a parallel dimension where Germany’s Riesling and Müller-Thurgau vines were switched. What would be the result of carefully farmed, old-vine Müller-Thurgau on, say, the Scharzhofberg?

Let’s say we lived in a parallel dimension where Germany’s Riesling and Müller-Thurgau vines were switched. What would be the result of carefully farmed, old-vine Müller-Thurgau on, say, the Scharzhofberg?

Which leads me to the “bad grapes” theory. There are no bad grapes – only uncaring growers and deficient winemaking. Stephen Bitterolf, U.S. importer of some of Germany’s most coveted wines, argues: “I have confidence that most vines/grapes, planted in the right places and thoughtfully cared for, have something to offer.”
 

Keep it natural

I think it’s no coincidence that most of the celebrated interpretations of Müller-Thurgau come from growers observing organic and/or biodynamics principles. Given this variety’s tendency to overdo it, careful farming is key to success.

 

Merely by respecting Müller-Thurgau, these low-interventionists have given it heart and voice.

 

“We only have two vineyards, around 30 years old, planted to Müller-Thurgau,” explains grower Stefan Vetter of Gambach in Franken, “they are no longer as vigorous and are now in balance, with good foliage work and careful pruning to control yields.” Bianka Schmitt of Flörsheim-Dalsheim in Rheinhessen notes: “The more you appreciate the grape varieties you work with, the more grateful they will be to you later.”

 

In the minimalist cellar, Müller-Thurgau can chameleon its way into a number of alluring guises. Fermenting with native yeast is a wonderful way to let it speak for itself. Short macerations or full-on skin fermentations as well as extended lees contact work really well for the variety. Bitterolf appreciates that these approaches “do seem to gather something inexplicable, a bit haunting, floral, and mysterious,” with more depth and complexity. “When this is combined with earlier picking, where the phenolic ripeness is there but the acids higher, well, the wines can be magical.”

Valerie Kathawala

Philip Lardot of Sankt Aldegund in the Mosel started working with Müller-Thurgau to be able to offer an affordable, everyday wine: “I think MT is an amazing and underrated grape for producing table wines, in the truest sense of the word. Honest and humble wines to go with your meal, perhaps a random Tuesday lunch, perhaps just a tuna sandwich in the vineyard. Honestly, how many of us have elaborate four course lunches every day with verticals of grand cru wines?”

 

It’s a strong argument. We all need certain wines we can afford a few cases of each year, wines that always fill us with joy when we go to uncork them. Lardot’s “Kontakt” could be this wine for me. Vetter’s interpretation of the grape is also right up that alley: inexpensive, delicious, a bottle you can always say yes to.
 

Müller Time?

So, has the moment come to say thank you to Professor Müller? Look for the names noted here as a starting point for exploration and decide for yourself. Ask your go-to wine shops for their own favorites. And if anyone dares tell you “Nothing very good has ever been made of Müller-Thurgau,” tell them to call me.