German wine A Vintage Performance

The wine-making region of Rhine-Hesse used to be mocked for its poor-quality booze. But a new generation of young entrepreneurs is now shifting the focus from quantity to quality.
Grapes of math: Tobias Knewitz brings in the harvest in Rhine-Hesse.

The slogan of the winemakers in Germany’s Rhine-Hesse region may be three decades old but today it is more valid than ever: “The New Wine and Vintner Generation.”

When the phrase was coined in the mid-1980s, a spirit of optimism was blowing through the vineyards of the country’s largest winemaking area, which was enjoying an upsurge in popularity. Yet wine experts still joked that the best thing about the state was the A61 freeway, through which one could quickly reach the renowned vineyards of the Palatinate.

Today, however, the region is transformed and more and more connoisseurs leave the autobahn to purchase Rieslings and Burgundies.

Klaus Keller, a vintner from Flörsheim-Dalsheim, is largely responsible for the turnaround. Thirty years ago, he turned his back on the sweetish, perfumed taste that characterized the region's wines and instead began offering something unheard of – thoroughly fermented Grauburgunders, or Pinot Grigios, and Silvaners.

His neighbors looked on in contempt and said the experiment wouldn't last two years. But then they had to watch enviously as customers arrived from far and wide to place large orders.

His neighbors looked on in contempt and said that the experiment wouldn't last two years.

Today, the 64-year-old takes things slowly. He prefers to be out in the vineyard, while his son, Klaus-Peter, takes care of business operations.

Klaus-Peter is regarded as a star throughout the wine world. Luckily, the fame hasn't gone to his head. He shows camaraderie toward young vintners who are working hard to produce their own quality wines and hopefully be discovered. He is co-founder of the group Message in a Bottle, an association of 28 young vintners.

The young vintners are making quite an impact. Continuing the tradition of DM magazine's annual list of the 100 best German vineyards, Handelsblatt last year decided to investigate the surging growth in young viticulturists and compile a list of the best up and coming winemakers.

The jury of five wine experts (full disclosure, I was one of them) spent three months putting the list together. The jury started with 102 proposals and eliminated those from vintners who didn’t run their own vineyard or fit the age limits. These 79 contenders were whittled down to 31 through a points system, and all of these entrants were asked to send in wines for tasting. In all, 66 winemakers were rated.

When the jurors presented their findings, they surprised themselves. Almost a third of the young viticulturists came from Rhine-Hesse, with the most promising vineyards located in the previously undesirable southern sub-region of Wonnegau.

Quelle: Handelsblatt
Four of the five jurors, (l-r) Sebastian Bordthäuser, Melanie Panitzke, Christina Fischer and Pit Falkenstein, hard at work tasting some of Germany's finest wines.
(Source: Handelsblatt)

 

Much progress has been made in the north of Rhine-Hesse, too. Five years ago, no one would have even imagined an an excellent Riesling coming from Ingelheim. But the young winemakers are demonstrating to their amazed elders that sites such as Hundertgulden or Scharlachberg are replete with the sandy, quartzite-containing lime on which exquisite wines can flourish.

Especially worthy of mention is Appenheim, a village with 1,500 inhabitants that has little to offer visitors except for a charming town hall and the stately St. Michael's Church. But these inconspicuous surroundings are deceptive. The buoyant mood in the region has tickled the fancy of more than a few young entrepreneurs.

The youngest of them is 23-year-old Tobias Knewitz, who is from Appenheim. He had solid training in viticulture, and produced his first independent vintage in 2008. With the full support of his father Gerold, he has since pushed through many changes in his grapes and cellars.

Mr. Knewitz always shows up when Rhine-Hesse presents itself to the public at marketing events. He charms the customers with his sunny disposition, and, of course, with the quality of his wines (which, by the way, are served in the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Berlin). And on the side, he attends college.

Vintners get less than one euro per kilogram for their grapes. At that price, hard work doesn't pay off.

But while the achievements of the young entrepreneurs are undoubtedly remarkable, the fact remains that only a quarter of the vineyards in the Rhine-Hesse region produce good-to-best bottled wines. The rest produce large quantities of low-quality wine.

Capitalism rules here, along with its pitfalls  of bankruptcies, takeovers and embittered price wars that hurt growers, bottlers and supermarkets. Consumers are all too pleased by low prices, but too often are presented with shoddy products.

The center of winemaking in Rhine-Hesse is Bingen, a town located on the River Rhine. Its Rheinberg winery, which belongs to the Edeka supermarket chain, is the second largest bottler in Germany, producing annual revenues of around €200 million, or $228 million.

Right beside it is the headquarters of Reh-Kendermann, one of Germany’s largest wineries. It sells Black Tower, a famous worldwide brand with sales of 15 million bottles a year, and also has significant international operations. Sales of wines from Rhine-Hesse make up only around €50 million.

Many small wineries have disappeared, mainly because of a lack of the effective cooperative societies that exist in other winemaking regions such as Baden or Franconia. A good half of the wine from Rhine-Hesse is bottled outside the region and marketed as a nameless mass commodity.

 

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Vintners get less than one euro per kilogram for their grapes. At that price, hard work doesn't pay off. This is especially the case at times like last year, when the crop is rotten and vinegary.

But even where quantity is more important than quality, much has improved in Rhine-Hesse. Since the turn of the millennium, Germany’s famous Riesling grape is taking over, with its share of total vineyard coverage more than doubling. In contrast, the rapidly produced bouquet varieties such as Huxel, Faber or Bacchus have declined by a third.

So what does the future hold for winemaking in Rhine-Hesse? There is little room left for the industry giants, but things are still on the up for the up-and-coming viticulturists. “Here in Appenheim, I see two, perhaps three new colleagues who are taking great pains to make things work,” says Mr. Knewitz. “So we are keeping the ball rolling.”

 

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The author is a Handelsblatt columnist and wine connoisseur. To contact the author: [email protected]