Weingut Robert Weil.
The rise, fall and and rebirth of german wine can be represented byh the fate of Weingut Robert Weil.
The prices paid for german wines a century ago were at the level of, or in many cases higher than the price of the best wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy.
An example is Robert Weil’s famous 1893 Gräfenberg Riesling of which the imperial austrian court ordered 800 bottles at a price of 16 gold-mark per bottle. This represents roughly a value of 800 Euro per bottle in todays terms.
1893 was the vintage that made Weil become one of the most searched for wines of Germany, only a few decades after the winery was established. The wines of Weingut Weil were soon drunk at the courts in Europe and celebrated by connaisseurs worldwide.
Its founder, Dr. Robert Weil, was a germanistic professor at the University of Sorbonne in Paris but as the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 was threatening he was forced to leave France. He took up a career as a journalist in Wiesbaden near the small village of Kiedrich, where his brother was working as a priest as well as leading their famous choir.
The wines of Rheingau fascinated Weil and he bought his first vineyards there in 1868 and in 1875 he moved to Kiedrich where he obtained the manor of the late Sir John Sutton, an english baronet who had settled in there in the 1850s.
Dr. Weil expanded the size of his vineyards by buying the best plots of vineyards as they came on the market. He was particularly impressed by the quality of the vineyard site „Gräfenberg“ just east of the village.
The „Lage“ or site „Gräfenberg“ was first mentioned as „mons rhingravii“ at the end of the 12th century and named as „Grevenberg“ in 1258. Its size is 10,8 ha and having a perfect south-western exposition. Ist slopes vary between gentle 10% to more dramatic 60% in parts. This site has a microclimate affected by optimal sun exposition to assure good ripeness of the grapes as well as good areation by cool winds from the Taunus mountain range. The deep and medium-deep soils contain layers of stony, fragmented phyllite mixed with loess and loam. This leads to roots being able to reach deep into the ground which is ideal for the mineral complexity of the wine as well as a reservoir of water in very dry vintages preventing stress of the vines. Because of this microclimate one is able to pick late in the season, something which is of extreme importance since the combination of warm temperatures during the day and cold nights lead to great extract of flavour and complexity of the wines.
Rheingau is closer to Burgundy than Bordeaux in its vineyard structure, having some of the most distinct terroir characteristics with great sites on steep terrases as well as more simple sites without great personality.
To make great wine you need a great „terroir“ – a vague expression meaning anything from its soil, sunshine hours to the influence of rivers, neighbouring mountains and forests. It was the great „Lagen“ that made the best wines from Germany famous and brought the corresponding prices.
In an attack of madness the german government decided in 1971 to erase these distinctions. Where centuries had shown the difference between great sites and very common sites through the distinct names, these were forbidden and names were given to „Grosslagen“ confusing these with the old respected names. This was equality in its very worst form and only popular with the large number of winegrowers not being willing or able to produce good quality. This led to a lake of indifferent watery wines pepped up with sugar using sweet concentrated grapejuice.
It has taken 30 years for dedicated winegrowers to painstakingly build up the reputation so dramatically wasted by bureaucrats and politicians. After decades of fighting with the bureaucratic machinery one was finally able to produce a classification of sorts, where „Gräfenberg“ was classified as Erstes Gewächs – corresponding to a Grand Cru in Burgundy.
The 1970s and 1980s were difficult times for quality-minded growers, partly due to difficult general financial conditions with the oilcrisis and massive inflations. But in a larger part due to the loss of quality and confusion regarding nomenclature. One great problem german wine still suffer under is that their wine labels are confusing regarding quality and style. It is difficult for others than well-informed collectors to know if the wine bought or ordered at a restaurant is dry, semi-sweet or sweet. This has led to wine drinkers taking the easy way out by ordering a Chablis or varietal Chardonnay rather than a Riesling.
Apart from great terroir you also need money to invest in the vineyards and wineries.
This was a problem for most quality minded producers during this time, Weil being no exception. The inheritance problem caused by the early death of Wilhelm Weil’s father led to the sale of the winery to the japanese Suntory corporation. The new owners provided needed capital for the necessary investments and made the brilliant decision of leaving the management in the hands of Robert Weil’s greatgrandson Wilhelm Weil. He was born in the difficult vintage 1963, grew up on the estate and went on to study oenology as well as marketing at the famous research facility of Geisenheim only a few kilometers from home.
With respect for the terroir and history of its wines he led the quest of restoring the Robert Weil winery to ist former glory.
Rheingau and Weil is synonymus with Riesling, this queen of all grape varieties. It is fortunately finally being back in fashion. Experienced wine lovers and wine authors have always preached the gospel of Riesling, but until recently it mostly fell on deaf ears. But an increasing worldwide tendency to production of heavily oaked wines with high alcohol levels, lacking personality and complexity have lead to a renewed interest and demand for „drinking“ rather than „tasting“ wines. The developement of these monster wines are partly due to the increase of wine critics that taste rather than drink. High alcohol and a massive dosis of toasted oak can too easily be confused with quality, especially when very young. Another cause may well be the effect of global warming. These higher temperatures have lead to riper grapes with lower acidity and more sugar, meaning higher potential alcohol.
Rheingau is certainly a region that has been profiting by warmer temperatures over the last years. Riesling can better cope with hotter climates due to its structure, clarity and refreshing acidity than eg. Chardonnay. It also means that the risk of poor vintages in Rheingau so common during the 1970s and 80s has become smaller.
It will however be interesting to see in as far as the style of wine from a specific wine site will change. I know of winegrowers that have bought vineyards in until now considered too cold sites as these may be the sites that in the future may produce the elegance and finesse associated with great Riesling.
Wilhelm Weil is a person always looking for perfection in all that has to do with his wines and walking the fine line between tradition and innovation and is certainly not resting on his laurels. He has won just about all awards he could possibly win but he is still chasing that dream of his. This is for his best wines to again reach the status of the Grand Crus of Burgundy and Premier Crus of Bordeaux.
I personally don’t see why a „Gräfenberg“ should cost less than a „Montrachet“ and am convinced that Wilhelm Weil will see this happen in the not too distant future.