Why this bottle is even bigger than it looks
On Thursday afternoon, I arrive in Osthofen on my way to Westhofen and am picked up from the train station by a vintner who is beaming up to both ears. Exactly this inviting beaming of joy is reflected in his wines and I was eager to get to know the person and his philosophy of life. The Bergkloster winery is run by the fifth generation of the Groebe family and the farm is located in the tranquil village of Westhofen. In the courtyard to the left and right of the driveway, venerable Huxel vines immediately welcome you and a steel tank almost as tall as a house gleams in the sun. The house and wine cellar extend over several floors, nestled into a hill, the grapes arrive on Ohligstraße and the finished bottles are delivered to the back, out two floors below, on Seegasse. Jason lives in the middle, with his parents on the left and directly adjacent to the winery on the right. As a guest, I was allowed to feel at home in the room with a large arched window overlooking the small garden, on the lower floor of his parents' house. Welcome to the Wonnegau, the land of a thousand hills!
After a warm welcome and a tour, we went to the vineyard, where the Marstein Riesling grows, which is actually called Morstein, a special site in the Wonnegau with its south-facing gently sloping limestone soils. It is obvious to Jason how much he appreciates this spot of earth that is in his care. He is rather relaxed about the fact that the VDP regulations deprive his interpretation of the Riesling of its name and that the Marstein Riesling is to be enjoyed as a country wine. We also look at the Riesling on the Aulerde and the Pinot Blanc on soils with a little more loess, standing with squinting eyes in the cool evening sun, and Jason gives an insight into the peculiarities and wine tradition of the region, where more and more young vintners are putting the word tradition to the test and steering it in forward-looking directions. A topic that we will discuss in more depth later over dinner and nicem Weiss.
Breaking out of prefabricated thought patterns and habits in order to return to a more sustainable and frugal way of doing business. Uncovering the core of tradition and reviving it with a view to the future. For the time being, the economic factor plays a subordinate role. Perhaps also because the previous generations have created a good basis and the material pressure is less present. The chance is given from this basis to take an observing view and to question methods that have gone astray. Especially in relation to nature and the quality of life that depends on it. Where is the border between creating for the sake of creating and creating for the sake of meaning? This question has accompanied me over the last few days and the various winemakers have each answered it in their own way.
On Friday evening, after a morning in the vineyard and an afternoon in the cellar to discover the new vintage, which is still slowly awakening from hibernation in the chunk and half chunk barrels, we drive to Andi Mann in Eckelsheim. Here exactly the same, the energy and the passion for what he is doing is so great that I completely forget to take photos or notes, I just let myself drift, from the countless small details and impressions of the over three hundred years in nesting grown winery, partly built of porphyry rock, the typical of this region barren volcanic rock and at each room, device and container, Andi explains the purpose and the circumstances with bright mischievous eyes, with much wit and expertise, while we forget the bone-chilling cold of the cellar swirling our glasses, Antoine, an itinerant winemaker from France, Jason and I, and between the gustative and technical information fall into a kind of whirlpool, discussing one barrel after the other. Andi is trying a lot of carbonic maceration on white grapes, which adds another dimension to Müller-Thurgau in particular. Antoine brought an idea from Alsace to work with a technique called trempette, and the first barrel of whole Riesling grapes fermented in directly pressed Pinot Gris is a complete success.
Unfortunately, a favourite of Andi's, the Rot, is not so well received by the general public. Why is that, we wonder? It is an unusual red wine, glou-glou, but in a German way, a little less fruit, more tart, earthy with an intriguing bitter note and gentle yet wild tannin. It's unfamiliar at first, the palate is initially dismayed, but as everything is a matter of habit, I can imagine this characteristic having the potential of a unique selling point for quaffable natural wines from Germany, and an enormously high fun factor, one lets oneself on it. Then there's an exuberant cheese platter in the cosy modern country kitchen and even more wine, to compare, swap and share joy.
The purity, precision and straightforwardness of the wild young wines I was privileged to taste in Rheinhessen is remarkable. This was confirmed once again by our visit to Max Dexheimer in Saulheim on Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, Max was in the process of changing shortened trees and hedges on the vineyard into mulch, which is spread in the vineyard to keep the soil moist. This winery also has a long tradition and is nested in main and outbuildings and various pathways leading to the stone cellar where several long rows of old and new barrique contain Max's love of Pinot Noir. Opposite are the half-barrels with the new vintage, from which we taste Silvaner, Weissburgunder, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling, Portugieser and of course the Probstey Pinot Noir.
Max level-headedly clarifies the contents of the barrels and shows a cross-section of his successful ambitions, the line of wines as close to nature as possible that he launched in 2018. All three wineries on this trip are in the process of gradually taking over the business from their parents and quietly redefining the future as confidently as they are willing to compromise. Low intervention and vine-oriented thinking as their guiding principles. For the most part, they receive trust and support from the older generation, who are appreciative of the results of the ideas, some of which come across as crazy.
Previously we made a tour in the vineyard, first along the 5 hectares of different grape varieties in the Probstey, the heavy soils you can feel under your feet, in some places with patches of loess sand and huge rabbit holes that enjoy the fine opportunity to build in them. That there was once the sea here is shown by the scattered shells lying around in the vineyard. As with all winegrowers, climate change is an issue that forces a different approach to working with the soil. The possibilities of greening, winter greening, perpetual greening, mulching of the soil are discussed with regard to the effects and experiences and possible problems, each work step can again bring new problems that have to be weighed up beforehand. Irrigation is to be excluded with regard to the resistance of the vine, the roots and erosion problems. In general, the winegrowers always think long ahead, in cycles of the plant, with new plantings on a goal in the next ten years, if hail, rabbits, frost and other circumstances do not kill the plans halfway. This is a testament to stamina and composure, calmness and trust in oneself and nature. An absolutely ingenious concept that could also be exemplary for living situations in the city.
We continue in the old Bulli over the bumpy dirt roads to the Bechtheimer Heiligkreuz or Pilgerfahrt, to the Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc on loess soils, on the way there we meet Philipp Freytag working in his vineyard. In addition to his 4 hectares, he also works in his parents' funeral home, not an easy job, his stories suggest. Max opens a bottle of 2018 Riesling, riesling-typical fruit with decent pull from the acidity and cheerful structure. Goes brilliantly with the moment in the blissful February sun and icy wind on the cheeks. The three winemakers exchange stories and reminisce about the festivities in the vineyard, not far away, at the water tower. That's where we go, after emptying a bottle, and Max tells us how his grandfather, in addition to a few parcels of land, also traded the water tower, at that time a scandal for the discord between Ober- and Nieder-Saulheim. Today, the village can tell about the convivial get-together, almost 1000 people came to the Saulheim wine festival, which Max organizes with vintner friends. In the lee of the tower, Max tells of an event that reveals his approach to winemaking. "We're out canoeing and I get into the current and want to steer against it to stay the course. Then the oldest one explains to me, 'Max, lighten up, what are you fighting for?' Look where the current is taking you, it might turn you once or twice and then you'll be on your way. There's no point in putting your energy against the current. And so it is with the vine and nature."
As we tasted Jason's wines yesterday, a young team from Oldenburg was also there, about to open a shop with wine and sourdough bread, Jason shows the same composure. He does not see himself as a winemaker per se, he accompanies his wines and his ideas about a desired outcome of his work arises from the work itself and the growing understanding about it. All the wines have an inherent mineral elegance, since with each vintage Jason wants to get closer to the soil, away from the fruit and the way there is already well traced. The balance is present, the wines are fine and lively, fresh and direct. Fermentation on the skins plays an ever smaller role, direct pressing reflects the terroir better. It is exciting to taste the individual components of the white and red cuvees and Jason has not yet decided when what will be bottled together, everything is still developing. The Pinot Gris for the fabulous Superlit, however, suits the skin contact really well, the name is program.
The best part to finish, it was especially the hours in the vineyard that left the biggest impression.
When Jason more or less successfully explained the bending of the vines to me and I was allowed to make my first acquaintance with the Beli binder, who was able to convince me of the principle of patience in just a short time. Each vine has its own growth, strength or weakness in different ways and bending the arch requires full attention so as not to damage the tender shoots in one move or break the strong arm, leaving the vine grape-less. Jason bends in a flat arch to ensure a loose canopy of foliage and thus less risk from fungus with good aeration. If an arm does break, it's not a catastrophe, says the winemaker, but you suddenly feel yourself crushed because you build up a relationship with the vine as soon as you start to lay hands on it and it gradually dawns on you what a universe of possibilities is just opening up here, with this direct connection between you and nature. This has incredible potential for learning and understanding. And when you get closer to nature, you get closer to yourself. That must be the explanation for the deep contentment that emanates from Jason and which he carries not only through his wines, but also personally into the world and shares generously.
Before the drive back, Jason thrusts the large bottle of Marstein Riesling into my hand, and I shed a tear of joy, for the gesture and the quasi-living object sum up well the experience of the last few days. The simple openness, the learning from and with each other and the desire to pass on what has been achieved. Away from profiling, profit and power, those idiosyncrasies that develop from a lack of appreciation and recognition complexes, it is easier to get closer to something essential. Competing with what others are doing seems to be a relic of the past here. Doing one's own thing, in communal exchange with like-minded people, sounds like an idea fit for the future, not only for a wine region where exponential growth still dominates.
Thank you family Groebe, for the relaxed and special days with you.