Müller-Thurgau: Then and Now

I would argue that the much-maligned cross of Riesling x Silvaner, better known as Müller-Thurgau, is a dual national. There’s no doubt the variety was born in Germany, but what’s not so well known is that it came of age in Switzerland. It was created by a Swiss scientist, Hermann Müller, at Geisenheim in the Rheingau, but it didn’t really get going in German vineyards until the 1950s. Indeed, the post-war German wine industry threw in its lot with Müller-Thurgau and suffered mightily for it.

I guess that makes it more German than Swiss.

The Good Doctor

Dr. Hermann Müller’s professional career began at age 26 when he was named head of the The Royal Prussian Institute of Horticulture and Viticulture at Geisenheim in 1876. While at Geisenheim he developed, among other things, the vinifera cross that bears his name and for which he is best known. In 1891 he returned to Switzerland to lead a new agricultural research institute — modeled after Geisenheim — at Wädenswil near Zürich. This last appointment was a long-awaited homecoming, of sorts, with much of his groundbreaking work still to be completed.

In addition to his work as a breeder, Müller was a pioneering researcher in the physiology and diseases of the vine. He was well-schooled in the science of alcoholic fermentation and had a special interest in the selection and improvement of wine yeasts. He was the first scientist to propose that a bacteria was responsible for the process of malolactic fermentation, or “deacidification” as Louis Pasteur incorrectly surmised. Perhaps most obscure is the process he devised for the production of low-and non-alcohol fruit wines for which he received a U.S. patent.

It was at Wädenswil where his team developed the most successful clone of Müller-Thurgau bred specifically for Swiss vineyards — Riesling x Silvaner 1. It was later commercialized in Switzerland and broadcast around the world, including New Zealand where it served as one of the origin grapes for its nascent wine industry.

In 1913 the same clone was sent to Geisenheim where it languished in several trials designed to adapt it to German vineyards. It was mostly forgotten over the course of two World Wars before making significant inroads in the 1950s. In 1970 it became Germany’s most planted variety and remained so until 1995 when it was surpassed by Riesling. Today, thanks to current fashion and climate change, it’s in a dead heat with Pinot Noir for second place.

Dr. Müller himself preferred to call his creation Riesling x Silvaner, but he suspected something during his sojourn in Switzerland that we accept as fact today: Silvaner has nothing to do with Müller-Thurgau.

While Riesling was known to be one of Müller-Thurgau’s parents, a succession of other varieties were incorrectly presumed to be the other parental half. Those included Silvaner, Chasselas Musqué, a self-cross of Riesling, Admirable de Courtiller, and finally, the real parent, Madeleine Royale. Despite this discovery the variety Müller-Thurgau is still known by the name Riesling x Silvaner in its other home of Switzerland.

Is this an example of Swiss loyalty or stubbornness?

The Inglorious Years

It’s well known that the scramble to plant Müller-Thurgau in Germany had catastrophic consequences for the industry. The variety was prone to overcropping and was exploited for this characteristic, which led, of course, to the production of insipid, lackluster wine. Its typically mild flavor and delicate sweetness made it the perfect commodity wine for export to thirsty and uncritical foreign markets. The popular, one-among-many brands, Blue Nun, arose from an amorphous category of wine known as Liebfraumilch which became a vehicle for varieties like Müller-Thurgau to gain a foothold.

The reputation of German wine as cheap and cheerful served the struggling German economy but it ravaged the credibility of its wine industry. Anne Krebiehl MW in her book The Wines of Germany suggests that the unintended consequences of the 1971 German Wine Law benefited lesser varieties like Müller-Thurgau and encouraged the short-sighted race to ripeness.

“The idea of quality was now linked to ripeness alone and measured in Oechsle. Prädikat wines, once the pinnacle of German wine culture, could now be made in a former potato field. That varieties like Müller-Thurgau or newer crossings could easily reach Prädikat levels in lesser sites was ignored (Page 13).”

German growers now had an early ripening, high-yielding variety that did not require the painstaking work in the vineyard that a variety like Riesling does.

Today, while damage to the German wine industry is largely repaired, the reputational damage to Müller-Thurgau lingers. Because of this, many are quick to label Müller-Thurgau as inferior, though there are a few high profile proponents with skin in the game who disagree.

One of them is Christof Tieffenbrunner of Castel Turmhof in South Tyrol. His Fennberg vineyard, at 1000 meters, is reputed to be the highest elevation Müller-Thurgau vines in the world. There is no doubting the quality, power and opulence of his Feldmarschall von Fenner but Christof insists it’s the elevation that makes his Müller-Thurgau what it is.

Tieffenbrunner’s is one of the best from the Müller-Thurgau hotbed of Northern Italy’s South Tyrol. Others include J. Hofstätter, Eisacktaler Kellerei, Girlan, Köfererhof, St. Michael-Eppan, Abbazia di Novacella and Garlider.

Another champion is Peter Crusius of the famed Weingut Dr. Crusius in Nahe. Even though Müller-Thurgau plays a small role in the house repertoire, he considers it a critical component in some blends:

“. . . especially as a blend partner to Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois . . . Müller-Thurgau is no competition for Riesling, certainly not. But under the conditions described, it is a supplement that we would not want to miss. So in 1998 we decided not to replace an outdated Müller-Thurgau vineyard with fashionable varieties, but instead relied on this variety again, because a modern cellar economy can produce exciting wines here!”

For Crusius, diligent work in the vineyard and cellar is key. That means low yields, conscientious canopy management to control vigor and encourage ventilation, precise harvests (not too ripe), gentle handling, and cool fermentation temperatures.

Müller-Thurgau in Switzerland

Switzerland has followed the German lead in deemphasizing Müller-Thurgau in its vineyards. Since 1995 the variety has fallen 37% — from 727 to 453 hectares — while in Germany it has fallen 50% — from 23,489 to 11,736 hectares. Despite this decline it is still found in every canton in Switzerland and remains the second most planted white grape next to Chasselas. Six cantons — Zürich, Schaffhausen, Aargau, Graubünden, Thurgau and St. Gallen — account for 86% of all Müller-Thurgau vines in Switzerland or 372 hectares.

In some ways it plays the same role in the north and east as Chasselas does in Suisse romande. Once cultural nostalgia is set aside, the opportunities gained from a warming climate will make the switch to higher-value varieties an economic necessity.

Don’t be discouraged, Müller-Thurgau can still be found on nearly every restaurant wine list and nearly every producer in Deutschschweiz still offers at least one cuvée, if not two. But it’s absolutely crucial to know the producer before purchase or you might end up with something innocuous, overly sweet, or both.

There are some producers who take the variety seriously and there are more than a few who are experimenting with untraditional (for Switzerland) methods: skin contact, amphorae, and both traditionnelle and ancestrale processes.

Early results are mixed but promising.

Tom Litwan, for instance, treats his like Chardonnay with a malolactic fermentation and extended lees contact. The primary aromas typical of the variety are replaced with slightly reductive, toasted aromas that promise more complexity.

Markus Ruch in neighboring Klettgau treats his to a fermentation in amphorae and he gains a textural component not often seen in the variety as a result.

Nadine Saxer near Winterthur produces beautifully pure Müller-Thurgau with all of its lovely aromatic character intact. Her two cuvées Sylvie and Nobler Weisser have a clear crystalline element to them that suggests low-yields and vital, healthy fruit.

Schlossgut Bachtobel near Weinfelden in Thurgau lets the acidity present in each vintage determine the level of sweetness in the wine. The higher the acidity the greater the sweetness. The one constant is a preference for a bit of CO2 at bottling. It makes for a very fresh, invigorating drink.

There are other stylists as well and Switzerland is full of young change-makers who will take a stab at the variety at some point. The only question is, will the grape survive long enough in its other home of Switzerland.

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