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Keller rieslings: they’re in the world’s top tier for a reason

“If you want to produce fine wine, you have to know what fine wine is about. So the first thing you have to do is travel and drink the world’s finest wines; the second is to meticulously work on your vineyards.” 

Klaus-Peter Keller said that 10 years ago, when he was 31. Practising what he preaches, he has since taken the eponymous Keller winery (in the family since 1789) to the point where Keller and Wittmann are the two greatest producers of dry rieslings in Germany’s Rheinhessen, their rieslings in the world’s top tier.

In the vineyard, every shoot on the hand-pruned arched cane is trained vertically, separated from every other shoot. In June, Keller and six employees remove two leaves per shoot, removing weak shoots and double shoots altogether. Later, he cuts off the growing shoot tips and removes another two leaves. In July, the crop is thinned by leaving only one or two bunches per shoot. The leaf-stripping slows ripening, and although yields are far lower than normal for the region, Keller is one of the last to pick each year; strict bunch sorting reduces the yield further.

Some time ago, Jancis Robinson MW wrote: “If I had to choose one wine to show how great dry German rieslings can be, I would choose a Keller riesling. Those wines are the German Montrachets.” Similar praise has been heaped on Keller year after year by international experts.

Keller also makes sweet wines (up to trockenbeerenauslese) and acclaimed pinot noir. He worked at Domaines Hubert Lignier and Armand Rousseau, leading Burgundy estates, and is a regular visitor, now buying Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s barriques (after one use).

by James halliday

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History

One of Germany’s truly great estates. Since the late eighties, Klaus Keller has rapidly gained a very serious reputation for making top flight German Riesling in both dry, fruity and sweet styles. More recently, Klaus’s son Klaus-Peter has joined the team after completing his wine-making studies at Geisenheim and is helping to drive quality forward even further.

As with any top producer worth his salt, Keller believes good vineyard management is the key to success. Based in the Rhinehessen, where the wines have more generosity and richness than in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer or even Nahe, the Kellers are able to produce some of Germany’s most complete dry wines in addition to wonderful fruity and sweet late harvest styles

When Klaus-Peter and his wife Julia took over the day to day direction of Weingut Keller with the 2001 vintage, the estate was better known for its traditional off- dry wines than it was for its dry rieslings. In this area of the Rheinhessen, this meant wines made from grapes such as rieslaner, scheurebe and huxelrebe were often in as high demand as were the Keller rieslings. While Klaus-Peter certainly continues to make some lovely off-dry wines from riesling and a number of the other varieties still planted in the family’s sixteen hectares of vineyards (including a bit of fifty year-old rieslaner vines- more later on these), his focus was to be on the dry rieslings from his finest vineyard sites, and he hit the ground running in 2001.

Initially there was certainly some concern on the part of his father Klaus Keller, as the family had nicely built up a following for their more traditional bottlings over the last decade or two, which was no small feat in the rather backwater Hügelland. However, as the outstanding quality of Klaus-Peter’s dry rieslings from the family’s grand cru sites was immediately evident, resistance on the part of the older generation was very minimal and the new course for Weingut Keller was established. One cannot underestimate the importance of his father’s acquiescence to the stylistic change in direction for the estate, as Klaus-Peter’s father had been rolling up an impressive array of awards for the last several vintages of his tenure, including universal acclaim for the estate’s 1999s. 

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Vineyards

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). 

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Winemaking

The wines are made to be balanced, or, as Klaus Peter told us during a visit, “for me a perfect wine is when you can’t wait to open a second magnum”!  Work in the vineyard, choices about when to harvest, selection of oak for the red wines, and the accompaniment of the whites through fermentation is all done with an eye towards creating wines that are truly a pleasure to drink.  So how does he do it, technically? He’d prefer not to say.

 

It’s not that he won’t say anything, but when asked about the wines, he will steer the conversation to the vineyards, their history, his farming choices and say “the smells I smell when I walk through the vines are the same I smell in the wines”.   We were reminded of a visit to Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy where we were told “here there are no secrets, but there is much mystery”.  This answer will disapoint wine geeks and sommelier, but please remember that people from all over the world visit Keller and try to disect and understand the wines.  For him, the wines are from and of the vineyards.  What happens in the cellar is of course deeply considered and planned, but it’s not where the mystery lies.  Please dive into the wines and enjoy the pleasure the experience of drinking them provides without worrying about the temperature at which they fermented.

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Inside information

As about sixty percent of the Kellers’ vineyards are planted to riesling, there is a pretty strong possibility of wine lovers laying hold of some bottles of the two regular riesling cuvées. However, as the estate’s fame has swiftly grown amongst German wine lovers both inside and outside of the country, it is becoming more of a challenge to find bottles of the Keller Grosses Gewächs bottlings, of which there are currently four different ones for riesling (and one for pinot noir as well- more on that later). In the village of Westhofen there are three: Kirchspiel, Morstein and AbtsE, and from Dalsheim there is only the one grand cru riesling vineyard, the Hubacker. Kirchspiel is one of the two largest holdings of the Kellers, as the estate has three and a half hectares of vines in this beautifully situated vineyard. As mentioned above, Klaus Keller purchased this parcel in 1999. The soils here are very deep and comprised of hard, limestone which runs fully fifty meters down below the surface. Klaus-Peter’s parents, Klaus and Hedi Keller had begun extensive research of their vineyards prior to Klaus- Peter and Julia taking over the direction of the domaine in 2001, and as part of their quest to more fully understand the terroirs with which they worked, they drilled more than sixty thousand holes in their vineyards to plot the composition of their soils and subsoils. Consequently the family really knows their vineyards’ soil compositions, which has allowed Klaus-Peter to fine tune his approach in the last several years.

 

The Kirchspiel is a brilliant terroir, which routinely produces one of the tightest young wines in the cellar and which Klaus-Peter describes as “always a wine of pure finesse and dancing minerality.” The vines at the top of the slope that find their way into the Grosses Gewächs bottling of Kirchspiel were planted in 1964, on the hard limestone section of the vineyard, laced with quartz veins. The result is a wine that delivers lovely, “cool fruit” tones (despite the Hügelland’s high average temperatures and Klaus-Peter’s penchant for harvesting late), brilliant precision, and a base of kaleidoscopic minerality that is almost crystalline in nature. Stylistically, the Keller Kirchspiel reminds me quite strongly of Maison Trimbach’s great Riesling grand cru, the Cuvée Frédéric Émile bottling (particularly on the nose), with perhaps just a touch more German delicacy about it on the palate. The Kirchspiel routinely weighs in around thirteen percent alcohol, and yet is a wine of refined restraint and tremendous felicity to its underlying minerality.

 

The other relatively large vineyard holding from which a Grosses Gewächs bottling from Weingut Keller is made is from the town of Dalsheim, and this is the Hubacker vineyard. This was the first vineyard that the Kellers owned, and it has been in the family since the estate was started in 1789. The Hubacker is also a limestone-based terroir, but in this case it is a yellow-veined limestone (as is also found in the Burgundy vineyard of Beaune “Sur le Grèves”, which is quickly becoming famous for its brilliant affinity for white wines), and which has a more southeasterly-facing exposure than the Kirchspiel. Consequently the Hubacker is the slowest ripening vineyards in the Kellers’ portfolio. Klaus-Peter reports that it is not infrequent that the Hubacker is harvested two to three weeks after the Grosses Gewächs vineyards in Westhofen. The Kellers’ parcel in Hubacker was planted in 1974. Like the Kirchspiel, the Hubacker is another great, structured and hauntingly balanced dry Riesling that again recalls Trimbach’s Cuvée Frédéric Émile, though in this case it finds most of its similarities with that great Alsace riesling in its structural elements and its never ending persistence on the finish. It is unequivocally a great wine, which Klaus-Peter describes “as often having the most exotic flavors (of the four grand crus) with a deep mineral core.” 

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6 different wines with 36 vintages

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  • Klaus-Peter Keller

    “If you want to produce fine wine, you have to know what fine wine is about. So the first thing you have to do is travel and drink the world’s finest wines; the second is to meticulously work on your vineyards.”

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