Wilhelm Haag of Weingut Fritz Haag in the Mosel, one of Germany’s most heralded Riesling producers and a figurehead in the region, passed away December 16, 2020 after a recurrence of cancer. He was 83 years old.
A statement issued by the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), the German association of quality winemakers, called him “one of the greatest winemaking personalities of the 20th century and the father of the renaissance of German wine.”
News of Haag’s passing trickled slowly through the international wine community. Haag died amidst Germany’s second nationwide shutdown for the novel coronavirus pandemic. According to his son, Oliver Haag, with funerals strictly restricted, the family decided against a death announcement to discourage gatherings.
Haag was born in 1937 to a family with a history of winemaking in the Mosel region dating to 1605. Located in the heart of the Middle Mosel, Weingut Fritz Haag is the flagship winery of Brauneberg, a village named after the majestic brown slope of iron-rich slate that rises over the Mosel River. Brauneberg’s two Grosses Gewächs, or grand cru vineyards, Juffer and Juffer Sonnenuhr, have historically produced many of Germany’s greatest Rieslings.
Haag took over Weingut Fritz Haag in 1957 at the age of 20 after his father fell ill. The winery was then a small but respected estate with a variety of agricultural pursuits in addition to grapes.
Haag came of age during a period marred by feverish industrialization and a shift towards high-volume, mechanized wine production in Germany. In the decades following World War II, labor-intensive winegrowing on the steep, slate-covered historic Mosel vineyards was increasingly abandoned in favor of higher-output, mechanized practices on newly established flatlands.
Acres of historic Riesling vines were uprooted in favor of new grape varieties bred to produce higher yields and consistent ripening.
In stark opposition, Haag “fought passionately for tradition and quality,” says Oliver. Haag dedicated the estate’s activities solely to winegrowing Riesling, the only grape he felt expressed the inimitable “finesse, elegance and mineral purity” of the Mosel, explains Oliver. “Piece by piece,” he expanded the estate’s holdings of ancient single-vineyard sites and focused his production on “small quantities of hand cultivated grapes and handmade wines of extreme quality,” says Oliver.
According to Kirk Wille, president of Loosen Bros., Fritz Haag’s U.S. importer, Haag’s characteristic “insistence on absolute and uncompromised quality” was a guiding force that catapulted the reputation of Mosel wines during Haag’s twenty-year tenure as the chairman of the Grosser Ring, the Mosel arm of the VDP, from 1984-2004.
Haag compelled the regional organization to enforce strict quality guidelines as conditions for membership to the VDP. His early commitment to preserve the provenance of ancient single-vineyard sites and traditional grape varieties echoes in the origin-based classification framework championed by the VDP throughout Germany today.
It was a huge challenge, says Wille, but one that Haag approached, not as a “general, dictating to his people, but as a collaborator.”
Central to Haag’s legacy is the winemaking acclaim his two sons and their families brought to the Mosel. Since 2005, Oliver and his wife Jessica have continued to expand upon the Weingut Fritz Haag’s renown with increased focus on dry-style wines. Wilhelm’s older son Thomas and daughter-in-law Ute are acclaimed for their dramatic transformation of Weingut Schloss Lieser, a historic winery in Lieser that suffered decades of decline. In recent years, Thomas’ children, Lara and Niklas, have also assumed roles there.
Wilhelm was well known for an exceptionally firm handshake, a “boisterous bear hug of a handshake that transmitted his intense love of life directly into your bones,” describes Wille. It was “an expression of friendship that was deeply personal,” says Oliver, so much that “being discouraged from shaking hands this past year due to the coronavirus was incredibly difficult for him.”
Wilhelm Haag’s survivors include Ilse, his wife of 55 years, their sons, daughters-in-law and five grandchildren.