6 Innovative Rheinhessen Winemakers to Watch
Rheinhessen, perhaps the biggest comeback kid in recent wine history, may not be familiar to most Americans.
As Germany’s largest wine region, Rheinhessen’s global identity, until recently, was based mostly on its tarnished past. The birthplace of Liebfraumilch—the cheap, simple sweet white wines that drove German exports throughout the 1980s—Rheinhessen’s reputation tanked as tastes shifted, dragging the nation’s wines down with it.
Yet today, the region is the buzzed-about home to some of Germany’s most dynamic winemakers.
The driving forces of this resurgence are the junge winzer—young, enterprising winemakers with well-stamped passports and a collaborative approach. The first generation to have trained abroad (from Burgundy to Piedmont, New Zealand and beyond) and returned to Rheinhessen, they’re making wines that truly celebrate their native terroir.
Favoring quality over quantity, these small, family-owned estate wineries have reclaimed ancient single-vineyard sites, embraced the region’s soil diversity and, increasingly, become stewards for sustainable, organic and even biodynamic vineyard practices.
Ironically, the epicenter of this dynamism isn’t the region’s famed Roter Hang, the prized red-soil slopes along the Rhine. Rather, it’s the previously undistinguished Hügelland, the lazy, rolling hills of southern Rheinhessen once infamous for a glut of mass-produced wines.
Unlike past generations, these winemakers work together, through homegrown associations like Message in a Bottle, exchanging information and mentoring new winemakers.
The best of Rheinhessen’s wines are still hard to find in the U.S. market, but these are the producers you need to know.
Wittmann, Klaus Peter Keller, Carolin Kühling-Gillot and Hans-Oliver Spanier were founding members of Message in a Bottle, an early catalyst for the region’s renaissance.
What began in 2002 as rowdy late-night gatherings of young winemakers who had taken over their family businesses has become an incubator for young talent.
Today, Wittmann is the chairman of the Rheinhessen section of the influential VDP (Association of German Quality Wine Estates). His wife, Eva Clüsserath-Wittmann, is the winemaker of her own family winery, Ansgar Clüsserath, in the Mosel.
With his family’s winemaking history dating back to 1663, Wittmann credits his parents, Günter and Elizabeth, for the winery’s rebirth. They focused the estate on quality wine production, reclaimed old vines and moved toward organic viticulture.
More than 20 years ago, the winery transitioned from conventional viticulture to what Wittmann calls “controlled ecological viticulture,” abstaining from the use of herbicides, chemical or synthetic fungicides and insecticides, and easily soluble mineral fertilizers.
By 2004, Wittmann had transitioned the estate into biodynamics, which he believes has brought even more balance into the vineyards.
The measures were revolutionary at the time, according to Wittmann, but were keys to developing soil and wines truly reflective of their regional terroir. While seemingly modern, his return to basic methods in the vineyard and cellar were reminiscent of his distant forefathers.
“At the end, our winemaking is still very traditional,” says Wittmann. “Natural fermentation in wooden casks, long lees contact and a very careful handling with the wine.”
The ninth-generation winemaker and his wife, Julia (who met Klaus Peter at Geisenheim and interned with Robert Weil in the Rheingau and Müller-Catoir in the Pfalz), make some of Germany’s most sought-after wines. They produce no more than 10,000 cases annually from less than 40 acres of vineyards, making their wines often difficult to track down.
In generations past, Weingut Keller made very good wines in an area not known for producing great ones. Klaus Peter’s parents, Klaus and Hedwig, researched their family vineyards, poring over medieval church documents to uncover what were once considered some of the finest vineyards in Germany.
Klaus Peter, who took over the winery in 2001, went even further. He dug more than 60,000 holes around the estate to analyze even the smallest parcels. He was, he says, resolved to “create a wine that ‘fits’ our soils.”
Like many of his contemporaries in Rheinhessen, Keller describes his generation as the first beneficiaries of “the newly connected world.” He credits internships in Burgundy with Armand Rousseau and Hubert Lignier as being profoundly important to his development as a winemaker.
Over the years, the Kellers have worked hard to stay small, believing that size is key to quality.
“We have no interest in getting any bigger,” says Keller. “At this size, my wife and I can be in the vineyards together and oversee every detail of the winemaking.”
Witnessing the region’s rapid development and the rise of a new generation of winemakers benefitting from the Kellers’ experiences, Klaus Peter sees boundless possibilities for Rheinhessen.
“It should be a great ride!”
The 2006 marriage of Carolin Kühling-Gillot and Hans-Oliver Spanier triggered a rebirth for two family wineries in Rheinhessen.
Battenfeld-Spanier, located in the less-celebrated south, had just begun to blossom under Hans-Oliver (known as H.O.).
Today, the two wineries are operated together—Carolin handles administration, sales and marketing; H.O. oversees viticulture and vinification. The couple has established a new quality threshold and expanded the Battenfeld-Spanier estate threefold.
The key to success was an exploration into early 1900s winemaking, focused simply on “transport[ing] the taste of the soil into the wine,” says Carolin.
While their parents’ generation had been eager to embrace technology, today, says Carolin, “we are working similarly to how our great-grandparents did—winemaking as it was done 100 years ago.”
The couple doesn’t add fertilizers, other than compost, to the vineyards. Their grapes are grown according to either organic or biodynamic principles. “We don’t add anything to the wines,” Carolin says, relying on long skin contact and spontaneous fermentation in old wooden casks.
“It’s a labor-intensive process,” Carolin says, but their measures have resulted in some of the most charismatic wines from Rheinhessen.
Looking at the success she and her contemporaries have found in the region, Carolin credits the many opportunities her generation had.
“We are a very well-educated generation of winemakers,” she says. “We had the chance to gain experiences all over the world, to study wine, and most importantly, we understood that by sharing our interests and working together, we could advance our wine region.”
- 1Philipp Wittmann
- 2Klaus Peter Keller and Julia Keller
- 3Carolin Spanier-Gillot and Hans-Oliver Spanier
- 4Stefan Winter