The Insider’s Guide to Württemberg Riesling

Photo Credit Valerie Kathawala

What do you do when you have world-class Riesling terroirs — including some of Germany’s highest, coolest vineyards, extraordinary old vines and massale selections, and a growing cadre of hyper-talented producers who bring imagination and dedication to it all —  but the world still thinks of you as a place for, well, something else? 

This is the predicament of Württemberg’s growers. Over the past decade, they’ve made a strong argument that Riesling should be front and center when we consider the wines of this southwestern German region. Although not everyone believes a narrowed focus benefits Württemberg’s identity (the region’s top growers have also seriously upped the quality level of their Lemberger, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and hometown hero Trollinger), Riesling is now the most planted variety here — red or white. And the grape’s striking affinity for the region’s range of terroirs is, finally, sharply in focus. 

“Württemberg is up and coming,” says one of its brightest stars, Hessigheim grower Stefanie Lassak of Weingut Lassak. “But we are still quite under the radar. For export, it’s no problem. People see ‘Germany.’ Then it doesn’t matter if it’s Württemberg or the Mosel or something else. Within Germany, though, people still have problems with Württemberg, though that’s getting better.”

There’s a good reason for this morphing attitude. “Qualitatively, over the past five or even 10 years, so much has happened here,” says Andi Knauss of the young organic estate Weingut Knauss in Strümpfelbach in the Remstal, which has emerged as a Riesling hotspot. 

That qualitative shift touches every element of Riesling; growers, sites, climate, vine material, farming, cellar expertise, and stylistic diversity. “Württemberg’s wine reputation was as the stepchild of German wine,” says Knauss’ neighbor, Jochen Beurer of Weingut Beurer in Stetten. “We want to set the Remstal apart a bit. It’s clear that there’s real power here: lots of young growers, ecologically sensitive farming, openness and exchange.”

Maybe the prejudice comes from trying to slot Württemberg Riesling into a more familiar German framework? It may be more suitable, and tantalizing, to regard it as sui generis. Its paucity of historic, big name estates? That’s given rise to a scrappy individualism more mainstream regions can only envy. 

At any rate, no less an authority than Wines of Germany author Anne Krebiehl MW urges us to open ourselves to Württemberg’s “great, boundary-pushing winemakers” and their uncommon terroirs: “Riesling is a chameleon and Germany is its home turf. Why not look at the full picture?” Why not, indeed.

From Cultural Turnstile to Riesling Lab

Wine has been integral to Württemberg for more than a millennium. The region’s vineyard area reached its apogee in the 1500s, when it was four times its current size. But a century later, 30 years of war ravaged the already impoverished region of subsistence farmers. Strings of miserable harvests only made things worse. Moreover, Württemberg never had a tradition of famed estates. Wine was just another way to eke out survival.  As such, reliable yields, rather than remarkable quality, were essential. 

Through all this, “Württemberg was a cultural turnstile, quite open to influences from almost everywhere,” says wine historian Dr. Christine Krämer of the Gesellschaft für Geschichte des Weines in Stuttgart. Lemberger (from Austro-Hungary), Pinot Noir (from France), and above all Trollinger (from South Tyrol) played bigger roles than any native grapes.  The one thing it was not, says Krämer, was a traditional place for Riesling. 

The one thing Württemberg was not, says Krämer, was a traditional place for Riesling. 

But in the mid-1800s, Württemberg’s rulers turned their attention to the profitability of the wine being cultivated under their noses. Well-connected botanists were charged with sourcing quality vine material from throughout Europe. Krämer’s research shows this was how Riesling came to Württemberg — via Würzburg (Franken) and Rüdesheim (Rheingau). 

But Württemberg’s pious Protestantism raised another hurdle. Realteilung, the faith-based practice of equally dividing land inheritances, successively shrank vineyard holdings to extremes. “Some vintners had 20 or 30 pieces of land, each the size of a bath towel,” Krämer notes. This gave rise to a modern culture of hobby growers with a penchant for unfussy, crop-heavy varieties, Trollinger foremost among them. 

Where there are tiny parcels, part-time growers, and big yields, there are co-ops. One of Germany’s first was founded in Württemberg in 1855, near Heilbronn. Today, the region is home to 50 co-ops churning out 80% of Württemberg’s wines. While their robust presence has been a boon to the region’s many hobby growers, it has not been a win for wine quality: Württemberg’s long-suffering wine reputation within Germany can be pinned there.

Krämer estimates Riesling only made up 5% to 10% of the region’s total by the turn of the last century. And then came phylloxera, followed by a catastrophic world war. And another. 

When replanting was finally possible, Riesling was a grape of choice. In the 1990s, as a few bold growers stepped away from the co-ops and gained their own experiences vinifying the grape, the wines grew more expressive. Today, Riesling is Württemberg’s most planted variety (18.5% of the region’s total), having quietly edged out Trollinger (17.7%) a few years ago. Among Württemberg’s VDP producers, Riesling is one of five varieties from which Grosse Gewächse can be made. (Trollinger, despite its synonymity with Württemberg wine, is not.)

Lay of the Land

Württemberg centers around the genteelly industrial, wine-thirsty city of Stuttgart. To this day, it is ringed with vineyards. But Württemberg’s most important sites are just beyond, in the valleys of the Neckar River and its tributaries, among them the Rems, Enz, and Tauber. Notable Riesling villages include Stetten, Schnaitt, Strümpfelbach, Hessigheim, Roßwag, Neuffen, and Linsenhofen.

Across Württemberg’s more than 11,000 hectares, its layered geology of sandstones, sandstone marls (Keuper), and shell limestone (Muschelkalk) and wide range of elevations and exposures are key to the distinctive styles Riesling achieves here. 

Hidden here are some of the greatest terroirs for Riesling anywhere, still far too little known.

Even Stetten’s Pulvermächer — arguably Württemberg’s marquee Riesling site — flies under the radar. Growers such as Markus Heid, Jochen Beurer, and Moritz Haidle make wines of striking elegance and intensity here. But there is a trove of vineyards tucked into the hills and valleys worthy of discovery. Consider this guide your starting point for exploration. 

Riesling from Ancient Terraces

Photo credit Valerie Kathawala

Max Kusterer and his father Hans of Weingut Kusterer farm a small section of Esslingen’s monumental, millennium-old drywall terraces. It’s a staggeringly steep, south-facing slope etched into the Schenkenberg that plunges to the Neckar below. Esslingen was long a wine city. But what was once a thousand hectares of vines has shrunk to a mere 85. The Kusterers are custodians of six of these. “In the past, this part of the Schenkenberg was divided into tiny parcels, of which we now have more than 50,” explains the younger Kusterer. (Most of the rest are in the local co-op members’ hands.) 

Their seductive Riesling “Alte Reben” comes from vines planted by Kusterer’s grandfather on a dense network of sandstone terraces that can only be hand-worked. “It takes five times longer to work these sites than our other vineyards,” Kusterer notes. The terraces, built in a far colder era to collect maximum sunlight and warmth, now verge on being too hot and dry for Riesling. “Ours is fatter than what you get in the Remstal, since we have heavier soils and so much sun,” Kusterer admits. “The big plus is that we have very old Riesling vines there, which are more resilient in dry weather periods, as we have this year again. And even in cold years, you get ripe grapes. In comparison to normal vineyards, you have more mature aromas and perhaps a bit more complexity; you can really taste the origin of the wine.” 

Organic farming and cover cropping, both of which require heroic commitment in the terraces, contribute to the sense of balance in the wines. Gentle, extended whole-cluster pressing, long lees times, and patient handling in the Kusterer’s ingenious, four-story gravity-fed cellar — designed by Max’s mother, Monika — are critical factors. Together they yield a Riesling that is a concentrated beam of citrus and herbs, with an alluringly reductive nose and incredible salinity on a focused palate that draws to an echoing finish. 

Riesling in the Heights

Photo credit Valerie Kathawala

Forty years ago, Württemberg’s edges were unthinkable for Riesling. Among them were garagiste Helmut Dolde’s poetic parcels in Linsenhofen and Neuffen — the last relics of a once far more widespread wine-growing culture at the edge of the Swabian Alb. This almost forgotten corner of the wine world stands out for its rugged climate and spectacular biodiversity. Dolde cultivates Württemberg’s highest vineyards — up to 500 masl — just below the impressively sited Hohenneuffen fortress. The cool, tensile Rieslings that result are singular expressions of the grape in Germany. Longer growing seasons and dry autumns are now the norm here, and they are ideal for Riesling. “For our vineyards, what’s decisive are the special microclimates,” Dolde explains. “The biggest advantage is the diurnal swings. That tension increases with elevation. Biologically speaking, these swings signal to the grape that it has to ripen its seeds and stop its vegetative growth. Where we are, this means physiological ripening starts while the sugar content is still lower. So we can make lower alcohol wines with full aromas.”

Dolde’s small-scale lutte raisonnée farming, microvinifications, and ever-more refined understanding of vineyard material and cellar chemistry translate into strikingly fresh, clarion wines of full phenolic ripeness.  The white marl (Weisser Jura) soils on which his Rieslings are planted are singular in Germany, making for some of the most interesting expressions of the grape. Riesling Weisser Jura is dry, crackling, herbaceous, and notably salty. A grand cru Chablis speaking in Swabian dialect.

Although Dolde’s specialty is Silvaner, which has a deep history at the edge of the Alb, his Rieslings point to a bright future for the grape here. It’s not hard to imagine a younger generation of growers discovering this mountain viticulture for themselves in the near future. For now, it’s just Dolde (and the co-ops) out here on the edge.

“We’re Always Looking for Places like This”

Photo credit Valerie Kathawala

Little can prepare you for the stunning vinescape that opens as you round a bend in the road to Hessigheim. Even knowing that this is the chosen terroir of two of Germany’s most acclaimed young growers doesn’t ready your brain for the spectacle. Here among the sweeping, vertiginous vineyard terraces of Hessigheim, husband and wife Stefanie and Fabian Lassak started their estate in 2016. From day one they’ve trained their focus on just three varieties: Lemberger, Spätburgunder, and Riesling — and that on just 4.5 hectares of meticulously selected, wind-swept, limestone-driven parcels above the Neckar. ⁣

The Lassaks combine rigorous attention to acquiring old-vine parcels and replanting exclusively to selection massale, with organic farming, basket pressing, open-topped native yeast fermentations, and long full-lees elevage only in wood. The results are superb: cool, chiseled, stony, saline Rieslings coiled with a watchmaker’s tension: precise and perpetual, with a correspondingly faceted complexity.⁣

“We’re always looking for places like this,” Stefanie Lassak explains, standing on what amounts to a shelf of limestone above the cascading terraces. “Here on the upper plateau, you have the original soil, no land consolidation, and limestone with 50-70 cm of soil on top. You get the wind, the sun, and this chalky Muschelkalk.  And we’re lucky to be exposed to the south, in the shadow of the west sun.”

All their new Riesling plantings are selection massale, from Alsatian vine material, planted at high density to force greater concentration in the berries and drive vine roots deeper for water and nutrients. 

The Lassaks’ commitment to organic farming extends to leaving newly acquired vine blocks to rest and reset for a few years under flowering carpets of phacelia and mustard. Handharvests are a must; single vineyard Riesling grapes are picked into small boxes and transported by monorackbahn, Mosel style. In their small, repurposed cellar, their Rieslings are, depending on the year, a mix of destemmed and whole cluster, given short maceration periods, and go through malolactic fermentation for stability — a firm trend among Württemberg’s Riesling producers.  Single-vineyard Rieslings are basket pressed. The results are wines of supreme balance, focus, complexity, and compellingly drinkability. Their “Hessigheim” bottling, from 55-year-old vines grown on shell-limestone,  exudes freshness and intensity, concentration and focus, with transfixing ginger and dried hay notes, and astonishing length.

Young Swabia Grows Up

Photo credit Valerie Kathawala

Jochen Beurer was an unabashed Riesling specialist long before it was cool. This is just one of many ways he’s been happy to do his own thing in the Remstal. He and his father left the local co-op when their vision for its future diverged from the mainstream. A year later they started Weingut Beurer and rewrote the narrative themselves. 

They were among the region’s earliest adopters of organics (2004) and biodynamics (Demeter certified since 2008), which Beurer now practices across their 13 hectares in and around Stetten. Eighty percent are white varieties, most Riesling. The focus is on old-vine parcels and clonal diversity. In 2004, Beurer started planting a custom mix of small-berried Riesling clones from Alsace, Geisenheim, Weinsberg, and Neustadt, “to capture the complexity of our sites,” he says. Now he only plants Riesling selection massale — “to create something that can’t be replicated.” 

Beurer favors later harvests, even for his (almost entirely) dry Rieslings. “I’m not a fan of the idea ‘my wine needs to have low alcohol and lots of acidity so I’m just going to harvest early.’ When some of our neighbors are wrapping up their Riesling harvests, we’re just getting started.” This channels a singular juiciness, power, and crunch, but never a fatness, to his Rieslings. 

He’s careful to bring that vitality to his full range of Rieslings. But most vintages, “Junges Schwaben” captures it best. The name means “young Swabia,” a nod to a pioneering collaboration he and four other Württemberg growers launched 20 years ago to bring attention to their then avant-garde work. It’s also the name Beurer has given to a tiny (0.25 hectares), tousled parcel of 60-year-old Riesling vines, nestled in a high, cool, forest corner. The tight vine rows and steep grade obviate machinery. Soils are a sandy, crumbly Stubensandstein, which accentuates Riesling’s aromatics. The wine delivers a super alluring, wildly herbaceous nose and a tight kumquat kick on the palate. It somehow manages to be compact and densely woven, sleek and long,  yet fresh, snappy, and totally alive.

Almighty Pülvermacher

Photo credit Valerie Kathawala

Winemaker Moritz Haidle’s family used to make six different Rieslings from Stetten’s signature Riesling vineyard. “If the wine said Pulvermächer, it would sell by itself,” he explains. That’s because Pulvermächer is arguably Württemberg’s most recognized Riesling site, first mentioned in documents from 1450. Haidle’s parcel includes narrow rows of 50-year-old vines that climb steeply to 360 masl on pebbly sandstone (Kieselsandstein). These are some of the last terraced vine rows in Stetten. It’s a prized heirloom from the days when his grandfather broke ranks by starting his own estate just behind the family house. “Even though there are a lot of missing vines and the rows are too tight for the regular tractor, I’ll never rip them out,” Haidle says.

But he’s pulled back from multiple Pulvermächer bottlings, realizing the practice was diluting the site’s identity. Instead, he now makes a single, monumental Grosses Gewächs. The “Pulvermächer Riesling GG” is a powder keg of a wine. It explodes with profoundly concentrated flavors of lime zest, wild fennel, dried hay, and apricot kernel, underscored by an intensely stony salinity and ripe, rippling acidity. The wine is taut and muscular — but sculpted, not brawny. It is richly textural, with an almost severe elegance, and mesmerizing depth and length. 

In the eight years since Haidle took charge of the estate, change has been the name of his game. He converted the 23-hectare estate, with holdings in both Stetten and neighboring Schnait, first to organics, then to biodynamics (Demeter certified since 2020). He’s invented fresh purposes for traditional varieties that his family has always been known for. Most significantly, he’s relentlessly pursuing perfection for his flagship varieties: Lemberger and Riesling. A true terroirist and self-proclaimed local patriot, he’s convinced that sharpening Württemberg’s wine profile is key to its future success. 

“I want to be known for Riesling, so I thought of acting more like a Riesling winery,” he says. This means making seven Rieslings that channel all of his kaleidoscopic sites and ideas straight to the glass. His cellar approach is always evolving. From precise timing of malolactic fermentation to ever more specific micro-vinifications through which he drills deeper into the character of old vines, soil types, and microclimates, no detail of process escapes his attention or reimagination. Single-vineyard Rieslings are now whole-cluster direct pressed and raised in designated oak casks from the 1950s and ‘70s.  Across his range, the wines are wonderfully vibrant, unified by an irresistibly lip-smacking savor and salinity. 

Riesling of the Future

It has taken a long time for the region’s growers to be taken seriously. But in a way, Württemberg’s relative international anonymity and built-in customer base has been a useful cloak under which to work, quietly but purposefully. Now these growers are ready for the global spotlight. Still they have a nose-to-the-grindstone humility about them that speaks of their roots.

The Lassak’s Rieslings are among those being snapped up by connoisseurs from Berlin to Tokyo to San Francisco. They are the darling of German critics and of their peers. Iconic Riesling producer Klaus-Peter Keller recently hand-picked the Lassak’s wines for a collection of Rieslings from young growers he has dubbed Germany’s “golden generation.” 

But true to Württemberg form, this couple hasn’t let any of it go their heads. They still support their small family with part-time jobs.

For now. 

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