February 2004. Day two of a group trek through a corner of Germany and a crescent of France. Our first of two appointments of the day was with one of the brightest new stars of German winemaking circles, Klaus Peter Keller. Accolades have come aplenty to Weingut Keller over the last several years, perhaps topped by the bestowal of the VinItaly International Award in 2002. Or perhaps they would favor father Klaus being named Best Winemaker of the Year in the 2000 edition of Gault-Millau’s Weinguide Deutschland. No matter. Suffice it to say that the Keller’s have made a big name for their estate in an area of the Rheinhessen known more for mass production and mediocrity than for top quality, small grower wines.
Klaus Peter had anticipated our arrival, hanging out an American flag at the winery’s main entrance and greeting us shortly after we passed through the gates. Weingut Keller’s property consisted at that time of 12.5 hectares, spread through the villages of Dalsheim and Florsheim. As none of their better quality sites are proximal to the winery, it was right back into our vehicles for a tour through the local byways, destination vineyards. As we pulled off the main village roads onto the dirt paths that bisect the area’s fields, I was struck by the extreme contrast to the vineyards we’d clawed our way through a day earlier in the Mittelrhein. Here, steep, rocky slopes were replaced by gently undulating, topsoil laden, sun soaked hillocks. The scenery reminded me very much of the trench warfare landscapes from any number of WWI or WWII war films, just healed and grown over with rows of vines.
And those vines. Keller’s at least. I’ve never seen such precisely, uniformly pruned and trained vines. The photos I have don’t do them justice. They really did look like specimen plants, each trained low to the ground to capture the maximum of reflected sunlight and heat from the earth below. Klaus Peter feels this approach gives his wines both concentration and elegance. The terrain at the estate is dominated by rocky, limestone rich subsoil with lightly colored, slightly loamy topsoil. The limestone begins only ½ meter below the topsoil, making hard work for young vines as they try to develop their root systems. Keller helps along new plantings by providing light irrigation, a practice which is ceased across the board as soon as the vines are established and producing fruit.
All of the labor in the vineyards is managed by the Keller family and three apprentices. Their farming methods are as natural as the climate allows. No fertilizers are used. Vegetation is encouraged between every other row of vines to promote nitrogenation of the soil. Copper and sulfur are sprayed to prevent downy mildew. And pheromone capsules, hung strategically throughout the fields, are the only form of pest control.
The Keller’s count four Großes Gewächs sites amongst their property: Dalsheimer Hubacker, Dalsheimer Bürgel, Westhofener Kirchspiel and Westhofener Morstein. In an area best known for the mass production of forgettable Liebfrauenmilch, this surprising density of Grand Cru ratings bestowed upon his property by the VdP is something of which Klaus Peter is keenly aware – and proud. He makes sure to capitalize upon the new vision of his terroir by maximizing his efforts in the vineyards, pruning and farming meticulously to coax the greatest potential from the fruit of his vines. And in the cellar, he polishes the wines like fine gems. Oddly though, we saw neither hide nor hair of the cellars and wine making facilities during our visit. After spending most of our time in the field, we finished with a quick whirl through the tasting room:
2003 Riesling QbA trocken
The first of the 2003 Rieslings to be finished, this was due to be bottled a week after our visit. This sample was tasted from a bottle pulled from vat earlier in the day. Very soft mouthfeel and extremely yeasty, showing simple tropical fruit on the palate. The QbA wines are produced with a combination of fruit from non-cru vineyard sites and of declassified fruit from the crus. No chaptalization was used.
2002 Riesling “Von der Fels”
Fruit from 15-30 year-old vines in several of Keller’s crus – still too young for the Großes Gewächs bottlings – has gone into “Von der Fels” since its first release in 2000. Though labeled simply as a QbA, this is essentially a non-vineyard designated Spätlese trocken, meant to be representative of the estate’s limestone rich terroir as expressed in a dry style. Lean aromatics gave way to concentrated limestone minerality with a fuller, firmer mouthfeel than in the basic QbA wines.
2002 Hubacker Riesling Großes Gewächs
The rather gothic looking rust orange labels of Keller’s grand cru bottlings are facsimiles of the old family labels which were used up to 1953. The ’02 Hubacker was muscular, spicy, and even a bit earthy, with tremendous mineral extract. Very closed at time of tasting, with loads of acidity keeping the 13% alcohol in check.
2000 Hubacker Riesling “G-Max” Großes Gewächs
Named to commemorate the birth of Klaus-Peter’s son, the 2000 was more aromatically forthcoming. Though still tasting very young, its mouthfeel had begun to round, showing orange oil and spicy earth on the palate. A very difficult vintage, with rain at harvest time. Keller explained that the purely spontaneous fermentation methods used for his Großes Gewächs can lead to extremely long fermentation times – think in terms of years – and can leave primary yeast characteristics in the flavor profile of the wines for their first 3-5 years in bottle.
2002 Dalsheimer Hubacker Riesling Spätlese
Rich fruit, candied citrus peels. Extremely well balanced. Short notes….
2003 Dalsheimer Hubacker Riesling Spätlese
Tasted from a sample bottle pulled from vat. K-P found 2003 a perfect vintage for the production of Spätlese. Big time tropical fruit, very exotic and, not surprisingly, very yeasty. Far richer and rounder than the ’02, but nonetheless showing good acid (6.5g) for a hot vintage. Elegant.
1997 Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Auslese
This is a bit of a rarity in the Keller portfolio as it comes from a vineyard site in the Rheingau that was leased by the Keller’s only from 1996-1998, while Klaus-Peter was still in oenology school. The wine was sold only at auction. Beautiful, golden color. A nose loaded with scents of botrytis. Honeyed on the front palate with lovely minerality on the mid-palate. Flavors of fruitcake, along with some petrol hints, typical to the more slate and quartzite soils of the Rheingau.
1997 Dalsheimer Hubacker Riesling Spätlese
Very young in appearance and taste, with lively fruit accented by a hint of botrytis character (about 10% botrytis affected fruit). Minerally but not at all petrol in character, with very fine peach and lemon peel tones.
2003 Grüner Silvaner QbA trocken
Something forward and refreshing to finish the tasting. Silvaner is apparently quite the thing among German consumers. All of Keller’s Silvaner vines are at least 25 years old; they even produce a varietal Silvaner from 45 year-old grand cru vines. The 2003 showed a typically herbal nose but with riper fruit on the palate than in the previous few years. The grassiness was even more prevalent on the palate. Very fresh. Clocking in at 12.5%, higher in alcohol than the norm but still considered low for the vintage.
Klaus-Peter Keller stands at the forefront of today’s new generation of German winemakers. Though all three of the producer’s we visited during our short prelude in Germany are members of the Verband Deutscher Prädikats (VDP), Keller was by far the most forthcoming and enthusiastic in speaking of the qualifications for membership and the qualities of his estate’s Großes Gewächs wines. His mission is clearly to express vineyard sites and an overall sense of terroir in favor of the hierarchical ripeness-based system established by the 1971 German wine laws. Concurrently, one gets the sense, both through the fruit-forward nature of the wines and the presentation of the estate, that Keller keeps just as keen an eye on the development and positioning of the winery’s global brand as a new standard for the Rheinhessen.