Entering Rheinhessen from elsewhere, it’s easy to become lost in the maze of similar-sounding towns. No less than eighteen of the 22 communities surrounding the old wine capital of Alzey end with the suffix “-heim.” Little wonder then that Weinheim fails to jump off the map.
Scratch the surface, however, and this district of Alzey provides a unique lens for understanding the evolution of viticulture in Rheinhessen: from hobby to full-time profession. From barrels to bottled wine. From a broad basket of more than 20 varieties cultivated a century or so ago by Georg Scheu to today’s much narrower focus, especially on Riesling. From Spätburgunder as a nondescript rosé and local agricultural product to a serious wine and export candidate, and from a wine like Blue Nun in the lowest price segment to a wine like G-max in the premium segment, it’s the story of Weinheim—and wider Rheinhessen—over the past two decades.
Running up that (Blutberg) Hill
References to Weinheim’s viticultural history date to the 8th century, with vines planted by Saint Boniface himself in the place where several centuries earlier the Huns had slaughtered Christians during Attila’s rampage across Europe. In a fine symbol of the enduring renaissance of Rheinhessen viticulture, the hillside was baptized with the name it still bears today: Heiliger Blutberg, or “Holy Blood Mountain.”
“In the centuries that followed, earthly revolutions destroyed the property of the Teutonic apostle; rain and cloudbursts carried the earth down to the floor of the valley, and for almost a millennium the hillside was nothing more than a chaotic mix of greenstone with iron ore, trap, gray and blue wacke with pebbly veins, large tiers of petrified sea clams, bones, and scrag.” These words come from the Archive of Teutonic Agriculture and Agricultural Technologies (1839). The book includes a description of how an Alzey magistrate named Emele acquired the hill in 1826, and despite all resistance and hostility, spent a good piece of his fortune establishing an estate and hillside cellar—including the creation of a new vineyard, the establishment of terraces, the carting in of topsoil, and the building of a stone wall that turned the Heiliger Blutberg into a three-hectare clos monopole. Yet he who laughs last, laughs best. Emele’s Traminer and Riesling quickly came to count among the finest in the country.
Over the course of the 20th century, however, the vineyard slipped into oblivion. Then, in 2018 brothers Christian and Martin Hannemann, heirs to the Heiligenblut wine estate their family had run for four generations, set out to restore the hill to its former glory.
Mixed Agriculture, Many Varieties
Yet “wine” was not always the priority that it is today in Weinheim. Go back more than 40 years and mixed farming was the economic mainstay, including for the oldest of the dozen Weinheim estates. As with many of the region’s wineries, the Gysler estate was for most of its history a farm whose field products and animal husbandry provided the main source of income. The farm buildings were built in 1790 from sandstone sourced from the estate’s own quarry in the Weinheimer Hölle, precisely the spot where the estate’s Grauburgunder vines grow today.
The Gyslers grasped relatively early what would take the rest of Weinheim, and by extension much of Rheinhessen, another decade to understand. Alexander’s father bottled his first wine in 1969, and by 1980, having found his private clientele over the course of a decade, he had abandoned mixed agriculture entirely. And the varieties he planted in his then 12 hectares of vineyards was a who’s who of Rheinhessen viticulture at the time: Huxelreben, Scheureben, Würzer, Regner, Bacchus, Ortega, Siegerrebe, and 13 others.
Forgotten Vineyards Revived
The persistence of and demand for the now-typical varieties of Rheinhessen (many in fact native sons) can be understood through the prism of the Hannemanns’ experience. While today Weingut Heiligenblut tends to focus on fewer varieties, the brothers also continue to produce wines from their parents’ estate. Like the Gyslers before them, the portfolio of primarily Riesling, Scheurebe, and Silvaner reflects Georg Scheu’s family of grape varieties. When great-grandfather Leonhard Hannemann took over the estate, he was one of the first in the region to introduce wire trellising to the estate’s then eight hectares of vineyards. Then came a caesura as the next generation was unable to maintain the reputation of the estate and its prized Heiliger Blutberg.
Such is the nature of monopole sites that without the proper talents to keep them thriving, reputations fade as quickly as they are made. A fate that unfortunately extended beyond the Blutberg to include the Binger Scharlachberg, the Siefersheimer Herrkretz, and the Appenheimer Hundertgulden. The restoration of these vineyards’ former glory would require a new generation of Hessian winegrowers. And so Message in a Bottle was born.
Rheinhessen’s Riesling Message
The year was 1999. Fresh out of Geisenheim, Alexander Gysler, together with his mother, found himself responsible for the survival of his family’s winery after his father’s untimely passing. It was precisely the right moment for something—someone—daring. In co-founding Message in a Bottle, he and a handful of Rheinhessen visionaries gave a name and a face to the spirit of new horizons that had begun to infuse the region. What might have begun as an excuse to organize parties, listen to music, dance and drink wine quickly evolved into an unprecedented, and now truly legendary, dialog of like-minded souls. Among the most important insights to emerge from the intense exchanges among the young vintners was this: a signature variety had to be established. And it could only be Riesling.
The variety that today stands for the success of Rheinhessen like no other, was at the time simply one of many. Silvaner was significantly more widely planted, and modern crossings were much more dominant. Before the turn of the millenium, Gysler’s holdings were less than 10% Riesling; today they make up half. Nevertheless, in his first year (1999) he still produced a stunning 50 different wines from the estate’s 20 grape varieties. Typically monovarietal, in dry, semi-sweet, and especially sweet styles.
With Message in a Bottle, a handful of visionaries finally gave a name and a face to the spirit of new horizons infusing Rheinhessen.
Message in a Bottle meant changes, and the region was finally ready for them. In addition to Gysler, Philipp Wittmann, Daniel Wagner of Wagner-Stempel, Hans Oliver Spanier and his future wife Carolin Gillot of Kühling-Gillot, and later Weingut Bäder, Thörle, Karl May, Winter, and Dreissigacker would all sign on. Twenty-eight estates became part of a game-changing movement.
From Conventional to Biodynamic
For Gysler, the exchange offered by Message in a Bottle was crucial in another way as well. The University of Geisenheim, whose teaching and research was and remains influential on viticulture worldwide, focused on conventional methods, including the full catalog of broad-scale herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, nitrogen-based fertilizers, cultivated yeasts, and other aids. When Gysler picked up the reins at the family estate, he lacked the confidence initially to pursue anything but conventional winegrowing. Yet his new contact with Philipp Wittmann, whose father was among the first Bioland farmers in Rheinhessen, and through him introductions into the writings of Nicolas Joly and Rudolf Steiner, guided Gysler to a path that brought him the satisfaction he’d never found with a conventional approach. In 2004 he began the process of organic certification. One short year later, he applied to become Demeter certified, placing him among the few dozen farming operations working organically in Rheinhessen at the time.
Behind his back, people called him a fool. Although biodynamic cultivation has long since moved from the exotic fringe to the heart of the process—at least when it comes to viticulture in the premium price segment—any Rheinhessen vintner hoping to pursue an “esoteric” path at the time needed a very thick skin.
The Fools’ Collective
Nowadays, more than one “fool” is proud to call Weinheim home. Christopher Barth is now the second biodynamic winemaker in the village. Although Barth comes from Weinheim, winemaking is anything but a family affair. He earned his money in IT. When his uncle, who owned vineyards in Weinheim and Alzey, got too sick to look after them, Barth found it a welcome excuse to get outside more often. Soon enough, what started as a distraction became a passion. And when his uncle passed away, he used a portion of those vineyards to found his own estate. He quickly realized that he wanted to work organically. That he would also take the next step and turn to biodynamics had less to do with the confrontation with its basis, antroposophy, than with the fact that the special energy of biodynamically produced wines resonated with him in ways other wines failed to do.
Barth belongs to Rheinhessen Generation 2.0. Even if Gysler had paved a clear natural path as early as 2013 by foregoing any use of additives and including long maceration times for his white grapes, Barth’s wines have always had a more avantgarde feel. Coming after Message in a Bottle, he is much more focused on his own unique style. Generation Landwein, so to speak. Fellow Rheinhessen vintners like Barth, Martin Otto Wörner (Mato Wines), Bianka and Daniel Schmitt, and Andi Mann accord little importance to the strictures of the wine laws and Prädikat system.
Wine production is furthered by trial and error, curiosity and exploration. And defining a wine style takes time. In 2018, as part of Barth’s first and anything-but-simple vintage, he picked the grapes late—too late, he now believes in hindsight—to quite opulent results. 2019 was a good deal more slender. In 2020 he seemed to hit his stride with a truly remarkable and singular style. It’s more than just playing with long yeast contact and extended maceration. From his poor experiences in 2018, he had learned to harvest much earlier, closer to what many consider to be the fringes of reasonable. Without compromising ripeness, he produces a dry Silvaner with 10.5% a.b.v. It is daring to say the least, a shock to German palates, even as wine bars in Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm can’t get enough.
Style-Building on the Blutberg
The discovery phase isn’t finished for Christian and Martin Hannemann, either. The sites and the Prädikate at Heiligenblut enjoy a larger spotlight than they do at Gysler and Barth. The Hannemann brothers are, after all, working with a monopole site that deserves recognition, and beyond that Martin Hannemann had developed a real affinity for the Kabinett trocken style, especially from Roter Hang phenom Kai Schätzel. And the Hannemanns apply this style not just to Riesling, but to Scheurebe as well. Long on the prowl for a third signature variety, the pair initially experimented with varieties like Chardonnay—quite trendy in Germany right now, and one that had seen good results in Rheinhessen with their neighbor Barth. Ultimately, however, the Hannemans chose a variety that has long been a crucial pillar for Rheinhessen winemaking: Silvaner.
Winegrowers like Barth, Heiligenblut, Carsten Saalwächter, and last but most definitely not least Klaus-Peter Keller have created a small but important groundswell of success for the traditional variety. And when it comes to Silvaner, Heiligenblut could experiment to their heart’s content. Reduced sulfur and extended skin contact are just two of the levers that the brothers have at their disposal.
Varieties Less Traveled
The fourth of the Weinheim winemakers is Charlotte Meiser, who runs the winery (established 1696) together with her father—an old friend of the Gysler family—and now also her brother, Julius. While the estate itself isn’t actually located in Weinheim, some of its vineyards, as well as Meiser’s childhood home, are. Known as the Poppenschenke, the latter is one of three extant historical mills, and dates to 1890. It is a destination known for its cult atmosphere, with its own selection of wines accompanied by regional specialties such as Spundekäs’ mit Bretzelchen and Handkäs’ mit Musik.
Yet it is perhaps best known for its estate range of ham and sausage boards, leberwurst rolls and blood sausage, Eisbein and Bratwurst, all courtesy of the estate’s own pigs. The animals are raised on the farm and fed only home-grown feed. While the farm and winery aren’t certified organic, its 50 hectares of beets, potatoes, wheat, and barley, as well as 35 hectares of vineyards, have not been treated with herbicides for 20 years, and Meiser confirms that the transition of the operation to organic certification is only a matter of time.
Charlotte Meiser has always had a strong working relationship with her father, Frank Meiser. She began assuming responsibility in the cellar after her studies at Geisenheim and then working in the Pfalz, Bordeaux, Burgenland, and New Zealand. Her focus is on Riesling, Scheurebe, and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Bacchus and Huxelrebe. Yet her special focus is Chardonnay, Spätburgunder, and Frühburgunder. She raises the wines with long lees contact and has completely changed the use of oak. One could argue that the Meisers are just following the Rheinhessen trend. Yet the grapes behave quite differently here. It was her father and grandfather, who planted the varieties upwards of 30 years ago when few in Weinheim, or Rheinhessen for that matter, were doing so. Charlotte Meiser now benefits from those deeply rooted and mature vines.
Spätburgunder from Hell
Meiser’s single site Spätburgunder comes from Hell. As does Gysler’s Spätburgunder, which he has currently uses in his rosé and sparkling wine, and is contemplating using for a single site wine again in the future. Chris Barth also has some Spätburgunder vines in Hell. Really. Hölle literally translates as “Hell.” But Pinot Noir makes up only the smaller part of hell. The larger part is stocked with Silvaner and Riesling—Barth’s Fluhr and Gysler’s Klangwerk respectively.
The terroir of the Hölle delivers a fair representation of the special features of Weinheim, one well known to geologists around the world. Thirty million years ago this terrain was subtropical. And the petrified shells of oysters, cockles, mussels and snails, rays and even the ribs of a manatee have been found in the Weinheim bay…fossilized, of course. Yet it’s not necessarily the sand and chalk that matter most to the winemakers, but rather the melaphyr and Rotliegend—especially in combination. These volcanic and sandstone formations in combination with the special microclimate that surrounds the town are what make its wines so interesting. It is the cradle to wines known for their fineness and sustainability. They aren’t loud or flashy. They exude a subdued elegance, delicately spicy with sometimes ripe vegetal notes, and become highly complex with time.
The Weinheimer Hölle, Mandelberg, Kapellenberg, and even the Heiliger Blutberg are (still) far from the most famous vineyard sites in Rheinhessen. But as things continue to develop, I am more fascinated by wines from Weinheim than at any time in the past 15 years.
2020 Heiliger Blutberg Riesling Kabinett, Weingut Heiligenblut
Although some wrongly assume Kabinett only works on the Mosel, Rheinhessen celebrates a “Kabi” culture as well. The Heiliger Blutberg monopole contains a rare-for-the-region black volcanic stone called melaphyr. Wines from this soil are focused, slender and cool with aromas of white stone fruit, apple, and citrus. Yet what truly sets them apart is an unmistakable herbal note, reminiscent of verbena and mint, together with an electric minerality, fine acidity, and distinctive vitality. At 7.5 %, the Kabinett is balanced and airy, fine and elegant. Delicate sweetness and mouthwatering salinity ensure that this bottle will not stay full for long.
2019 Fluhr Silvaner, trocken, Weingut Christopher Barth
This Silvaner (1963) comes from Barth’s oldest vineyard within the Weinheimer Hölle. The soil is shaped by loam and sand, with veins of Rotliegend below. Barth’s coolest site, he harvested to achieve complete fermentation at only 10% a.b.v. Maceration was followed by fermentation in 500l wooden casks, then matured on the gross lees. No sulfur, no filtration, and no fining before bottling in August 2021. The golden wine bewitches, challenges and, from the first sip, never relinquishes its grip on the drinker. Aromas reminiscent of fresh and dried herbs, wet stone and citrus fruit, hops and apple, including the peel. On the palate, the acidity and tannins announce their initial presence, then settle in to express a silky, creaminess shaped by time on the gross lees. A salty finesse emerges on the finish, growing increasingly richer given time and air. A wine with the repeated refrains and quiet development of a Samuel Beckett monologue.
2019 Klangwerk Riesling GG Weinheimer Hölle, trocken, Weingut Gysler
Alexander Gysler’s wines belong to a quiet style of wine that grabs you only in the second moment. But still waters run deep, and so it is with Klangwerk as well. Because when the Riesling, sourced from vines on the Weinheimer Hölle originally planted in Rotliegend in 1982, does get up to speed, there’s no stopping it. Aromas of fresh herbs, apples and apple peel, floral nuances of iris, vanilla fudge, and black tea. Yet, it is the texture and structure that truly sets this wine apart from so many others. Juicy and silky with a round, crisp acidity interwoven with a saline kiss. A deeper minerality emerges given time in the glass, revealing concentration and spice with notes of grapefruit and orange zest. The fruitiness delivers an ideal dollop of charm, even as the salty side keeps one eager for more.
2020 Weinheimer Kirchenstück, Frühburgunder, Weingut Meiser
Early ripening Frühburgunder, known in France as Pinot Madeleine or Pinot Noir Précoce, is planted in the Meisers’ best site on the Weinheimer Kirchenstück. These old vines produce a small yield of lovely concentration. Charlotte Meiser prefers open maceration before putting the wines into used barrique for 18 months. Thereafter the wine is bottled unfiltered. The transparent, brick red, and aromatic Frühburgunder is equal parts intensity and elegance. Marked barrel notes help form the outline for a beautiful and rich picture colored in with dried cherries, damson plums, tobacco, torf, and forest floor. Despite its wooden footprint, power and substance, it reveals a captivating youthfulness on the palate, transparent silken texture and ideal concentration.
Translated from the German by weinstory.de