Rethinking Karthäuserhof

A bird's eye view of the Karthäuserhof in the Ruwer
Karthäuserhof from above; photo credit Weingut Karthäuserhof

Arriving at the Karthäuserhof, a visitor is met with silence. 

Here on the outskirts of the city of Trier, houses thin, forests thicken, elevation climbs. A long driveway ends at stone gates whose finials have been lost to time. A clutch of handsome buildings, painted pale buttercream and wearing an air of genteel disrepair, stand in a clearing. A blocky, ancient-looking structure crowned by a clock tower appears to be held upright by a massive scaffold grid. Heavy machinery clutters the stately grounds.

Still, the loudest sound is the rush of a rivulet — the Eitelsbach. 

The Eitelsbach feeds the Ruwer (more trout stream than river, as one observer put it). The Ruwer, in turn, flows to the Mosel, which has swallowed the identity of the tributary like a hungry fish. If not for the industry of medieval monks, this small district might still be all woods. For centuries, the Ruwer was a busy workplace of Benedictine winegrowers on the left bank, Carthusians, or Karthäuser, on the right.

Napoleon swept into the Ruwer in 1794. Within a few years, the monks were pushed from their productive hermitages. When army generals and prosperous families got a crack at these prime estates, they snapped them up. Generation upon generation, they overlaid austerity with wealth, but kept the wine flowing.

A time worn gate opens onto an ancient monastic building at Karthäuserhof.
On arrival at Karthäuserhof, photo credit Valerie Kathawala

Charmed Oblivion

The Karthäuserhof, established in 1335, is the eighth-oldest winery in the world. It was one of many medieval winegrowing outposts set up by the elixir-producing, solitude-seeking Grand Order of Chartreuse from its distant base in the French Alpine foothills. The order had a monastery in Trier. An elect group of monks and lay brothers grew vines at the Hof on the Eitelsbach.

Even today, the object of the Carthusians’ attention is clear: the Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg. It is a long, skyward-reaching embankment of vines, a monopole of devotion, now not to God, but to Riesling. 

Wines from this site were long admired for their delicacy, balance, and graceful aging potential. A happy confluence of high slopes, coolly forested surroundings, and dark slate soils met the rise of Riesling in 19th-century Germany. Jewel-like wines became its signature.

History can be a tremendous asset. But it can also weigh on an estate. Tradition can slip into complacency. Somewhere along the line, Karthäuserhof seemed to lose its soul — the wines themselves. A change of ownership within the family, a succession of winemakers and managers, by-the-numbers farming, perhaps an underestimation of all that is required to coax greatness from a great site took their toll. 

But hope has returned. Someone is rethinking the Karthäuserhof’s purpose and possibilities — from the ground up. 

Awakening to a Dream

It is easy to see how an estate could slip into charmed oblivion in the Ruwer. But, perhaps reanimating an ancient cycle, it is again a Frenchman who has come to course correct. Mathieu Kauffmann is a native Alsatian who earned his reputation as chef de cave at Bollinger, a grand marque in Champagne. In 2013, he made headlines when he left France — for Germany. At Reichsrat von Buhl in the Pfalz, he applied his expertise to the estate’s storied cellar and raised its sparkling reputation. 

His tenure there ended in an unexpected shakeup in 2019. The following year, he traded one job for three: head of production at the Sekt venture Christmann & Kauffmann, consultant to an Alsatian winery — and technical director at Karthäuserhof. “It’s a lot of kilometers and quite different activities in a week,” Kauffmann notes with soft-spoken understatement.  

“For me, Karthäuserhof is like a dream,” Kauffmann says. “It was sleeping a little bit in the last years. It was a little difficult to restart the engine. To help [estate owner] Albert Behler do this is, for me, something difficult. I love when something is complicated and difficult. I can show what I can do.”

Mathieu Kauffmann looks at the camera, his back to the steep sloping Karthäuserhofberg vineyard in the Ruwer
Mathieu Kaufmann in the Karthäuserhofberg, photo credit Weingut Karthäuserhof

Cooling the Climate 

Before Kauffmann arrived at Karthäuserhof, farming at the estate was conventional, right down to use of the herbicide glyphosate. He and his small team, including vineyard manager Dominic Völk, who came on board with him, immediately initiated the conversion to organics and biodynamics. “You can destroy the life in the earth very quickly, or you can stimulate it very slowly,” Kauffmann notes. “My leitmotif is to give life to the earth again.” 

This focus has two objectives: to improve the vibrance and energy of the wines and to counter climate change. “How can I cool down the climate through wine?,” is the question Kauffmann has put at the core of his work. Fittingly, he finds his answers in the past: “It’s important that we go back to old vines, to old crops, and to produce less, but better.” 

He believes a key element of this is to rebalance vines and trees. Noting the natural habitat of wild vines in forests, Kauffmann is convinced cultivated varieties still need trees, especially for all the life they bring. “We have to go back to this natural way to grow wines. It is a dream at Karthäuserhof because we already have forests on both sides.”

This makes a special kind of sense in the wooded Ruwer. Wines grown here are defined by the sylvan character of their surroundings. The Eitelsbach is its own little lateral side valley. The estate once supported a mix of farming, hunting, and forestry. Trees are everywhere here: Oaks, pines, cypresses, even a grand old walnut tree that bears the designation of a natural monument. 

Today, the Karthäuserhof encompasses about 90 hectares, still in a balance of one-third forest, one-third meadow, one-third vines (of which roughly 20 hectares are in production and 10 hectares are planned). 

At the estate’s heart is the Karthäuserhofberg. It’s that rare thing in Germany: an almost 18-hectare contiguous monopole. The core is a south-facing slope of weathered Schiefer, or slate, layered with iron-rich topsoil. Cool air flows down from the Hunsrück mountains, imparting a telling Ruwer freshness —  more diaphanous than the mid-Mosel, less cutting than in the Saar — to the Riesling planted here. 

Historically, the vineyard was divided into parcels bearing names like Sang, Burg, or Kronenberg, which can still be found on old bottles. For now, only the Kronenberg, where the estate’s oldest Riesling grows, is singled out. In most vintages, it is the source of Karthäuserhof’s sole Grosses Gewächs

Traditional wooden Fuder casks in the Karthäuserhof cellar
Fuder play an important role in the reanimation, photo credit Valerie Kathawala

Tuning into New Vibrations

Kauffmann is convinced that these sites can only be conveyed through wine when their soils are fully alive. “I saw it at Bühl, I see it at Christmann: you get different wines, they are living, they are longer, the final taste of the wine is amazing. I always recognize organic and biodynamic wines because they have a vibration.” 

To achieve this, he has stopped all chemical interventions and introduced compost and two biodynamic preparations: one of cow manure and the other of finely ground silica, both aged in buried cow horns and thought to stimulate optimal plant growth. He is also testing an assortment of plant teas to see which will allow him to reduce the amount of applied copper sulfate, another soil-life disruptor. Cover crops help to cool the soils, which in turn conserves moisture. 

“To put it simply, the vine nourishes the bacteria and fungi in the soil,” Kauffmann notes. “They in turn feed the plant. This is feeding the earth — making the humus. When this is rich, the wine will be better, with more saltiness, more acidity, more freshness.”

Kauffmann holds that it takes two or three years for this to become palpable, while the full effect can take a decade to materialize in the wines.

In the cellar, Kauffmann is turning back the clock, too. He has implemented long, whole-cluster pressing to reduce phenolics and heighten finesse. He’s against maceration, favoring freshness. 

He’s lowered SO2 additions, even for the sweet wines. “Sulfites kill the wines,” he says flatly. “When you lower them, you get more vibration.” He also notes that while sulfites preserve Riesling’s primary characteristics, he’s after the stability and layered complexity of secondary flavors and aromas. 

To that end, he ages the top wines in traditional Mosel Fuder cask. He works with a mix of stainless steel tank and wood for the rest of the line while waiting for a planned cellar expansion to give him room to introduce more casks. 

Most significantly — and no surprise for a winemaker steeped in the méthode traditionnelle — he leans into long lees contact. “The yeast is the mother of the wine,” Kauffmann holds. “The lees protect the wine, the baby. Everything the baby needs it gets from the mother. If you have the lees, you don’t need sulfites.” 

Patience is the final virtue. Kauffmann asks that we give the wines time.

What Is the Taste of Change?

Karthäuserhof’s flutes are among Germany’s most recognizable bottles: For more than a century, they have worn nothing but a neck label. Reportedly, one early estate owner liked to chill his wines in the Eitelsbach. To his annoyance, the front labels would soak off. He dispensed with them. 

Are the wines themselves as insouciant and unmistakable?

The estate produces 80,000 to 100,000 bottles each vintage. There’s a small amount of Weissburgunder, but the overwhelming focus is Riesling. The portfolio currently ranges from Bruno, an entry-level second label, to the dry estate wine Schieferkristall, along with a dry village-level Alte Reben bottling and a GG, capped off by a Kabinett and Spätlese

An array of Karthäuserhof bottles stand on a table along with a vase of white flowers.
Karthäuserhof wines wearing their distinctive neck labels, photo credit Valerie Kathawala

The Kauffmann-era Rieslings already impress with their mountain-stream clarity, pinpoint minerality, complexity, and suggestions of herbs and flowers more than fruit. The cool, wet 2021 vintage is a stand out for its cool, savory brilliance.

Schieferkristall, from estate holdings along the Ruwer, is raised in Fuder and stainless steel. The ‘20 was bright and snappy, the ‘21 was salty-citric and herbaceous with notable verve, the ‘22, rippling and animated. The Alte Reben trocken ‘21, from 40- to 50-year old vines, is marked by concentration and reverberant length. 

The Kabinetts, raised in tank, sing of pure Ruwer freshness and pleasure: The 2021’s zest and animation were memorable. The Karthäuserhofberg GG ‘20, mainly sourced from the Kronenberg parcel, with vines up to 70 years old (now replanted only to massal selections), was gorgeously piquant, resinous, salty, and aimed straight at agability.

“It’s difficult to know what is coming from what,” Kauffmann answers modestly when asked which of the farming or cellar practices he introduced might already be perceptible in the wines. He sees “huge potential” for dry wines in the future. But he’s intent on quiet rethinking, not revolutionizing. “The Karthäuserhof was here for 700 years before me, and will perhaps be here for 700 years after. I don’t want to change things. I just want to follow a continuous path, to help to go further, to progress.” 

The first vibrations are already palpable. Yet a certain stillness will prevail at least one vintage longer. In late April, a biting frost obliterated early buds on vines across the Karthäuserhofberg. It is a painful loss, paradoxically born of the same cold that in other years marks Ruwer Rieslings for long life.

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