One has to go back to the Middle Ages to find the last time that the villages of Dalsheim, Flörsheim and Westhofen were in the vinous ascendancy. At that time the church hierarchy, then based in the nearby and important medieval city of Worms, were staunch enthusiasts of the wines from the best vineyards in these villages, including Morstein, Hubacker and Kirchspiel in which the Kellers now have parcels. There are several ancient documents that relate to the prelates in Worms insisting on wines from the top vineyards as the proper allocation for the church, and at this time their favorite vineyard in Westhofen (from which they took all of the production in each vintage) was the AbtsE (named for the monks who worked this vineyard).
In the twelfth century, the four hectare AbtsE vineyard, which is a subplot of the larger Westhofen vineyard of Brunnenhäuschen, produced the most highly prized wine in the region, and it was reserved for the private needs of the Bishop of Worms and his most fortunate associates. However as Europe tumbled into the Dark Ages, the vinous legacy of these fine vineyards was lost, and it is only being rediscovered today thanks to the meticulous vineyard management and winemaking skills on display at Weingut Keller (not to mention Klaus- Peter’s willingness to continue the necessary research which was started by his parents to discover where the great old plots lie).
To give some idea of just how recent this reawakening realization is of the inherent quality of the vineyards of these towns, the Kellers only purchased their parcels in the Westhofen grand cru vineyards of Kirchspiel in 1999 and their half hectare in Morstein in 2001. Klaus-Peter’s father had already purchased the 2.5 hectare section of the AbtsE vineyard that the family now owns back in 1996, despite the land still being under lease for another ten years, and the family has patiently waited for the 2006, which is the first Keller vintage to be made from this illustrious piece of terroir. Back in the fourteenth century, the AbtsE was owned by the Kloster Schönau monastery, and was considered the finest vineyard in the Hügelland. However, the neighboring Kirchspiel was also ranked as one of the very finest vineyard sites at this time, as the well-known Rheingau monastery of Kloster Lorch, renowned at this time for their stunning portfolio of vineyards which included the Dellchen and Hermannshöhle in the Nahe, the beautiful Scharlachberg vineyard that lies in the village of Bingen (just across the river from the well-known Rheingau town of Rüdesheim), and the Rothenberg, the finest vineyard in the village of Nackenheim that represents the northern starting point of the plum section of the finest Rheinhessen vineyards along the Rhine. The Morstein vineyard was a cooler site at this time and not as highly regarded as the Kirchspiel and the AbtsE, though Klaus-Peter notes that historians of the region observed that “great wines could be made from the Morstein if the grapes ripened sufficiently.” Klaus-Peter is quite reticent when it comes to discussing other promising terroirs in the area whose reputations have been lost in the sands of time, and his reticence must be considered confirmation that there are other great sites still out there to be discovered.
One of the great attributes of the Hügelland is its very close proximity to the Donnersberg Mountain that lies immediately to the west of the vineyards here and blocks most of the weather fronts that would come in from the west. Consequently, the average rainfall here is a very small percentage of what falls just a few kilometers to the west of the Donnersberg, as most clouds coming in that direction get pushed to a higher elevation by the mountain and drop their precipitation on the western flanks of the ridge. The Hügelland only receives about 500 millimeters of rainfall per year, and the average summer temperatures here these days routinely range between ninety and one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. When one walks in the Keller vineyards, one is immediately struck by the rows of their vines which are covered at their feet with a thick layer of bark mulch, which is not found in the vines of their immediate neighbors. As Klaus-Peter notes, “we are lucky that our rich soils hold moisture better here, but we also have learned, particularly since 2003, to take other measures to protect our vines.” Without this mulch, the hydric stress of these vineyards, particularly at the thin, chalky summits where the best terroirs lie, would prove to be too much for the Riesling to excel in this new era of global warming (though I should note that irrigation is allowed here, but Klaus-Peter will only concede to use it in an emergency for the vines).