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BY DAVID SCHILDKNECHT | MARCH 09, 2023
For nearly 20 years, Klaus Peter Keller has almost surely been Germany’s most written-about wine grower, both at home and abroad. This likely means – given the extent to which demand exceeds supply – most read about by people, including professed Riesling lovers, who have never tasted a Keller wine. Still, your chances of latching onto a bottle whose contents vividly reflect this Rheinhessen estate’s celebrated standards are a lot better than those of savoring wine from candidates for iconic status in other wine regions because that standard is met by even generic Keller estate bottlings that still sell even in export markets for $35-70. If reading my account of what makes these wines and their author tick prompts you to track down and taste one for the first time, I won’t wring my hands in guilt over having added fuel to the fire of demand. Even if you don’t make that attempt or don’t succeed, the Keller story can be mined for insights into growing, vinifying and marketing great Riesling (or Silvaner, or Pinot Noir), into the unique features of Rheinhessen and, more generally, of German Riesling. If, on the other hand, you are, like me, a geek and have direct experience with Keller wine, here’s hoping that, by informing your future encounters, this Vinous profile will enhance them.
Klaus Peter Keller and his wife Julia, aided by their children and Klaus Peter’s father, farm 60 acres (24 hectares) of vines, all but 11 owned outright (as opposed to leased), and all but one and three-quarters in Rheinhessen. That reflects an enlargement undertaken after it became clear in 2020 that elder son Felix would join full-time and develop a sparkling wine program. “I don’t want our estate to become any bigger,” insists Keller who wants to, as he puts it, “be standing in my vineyards daily,” personally working the vines and calling the shots based on direct evidence. (Though, as you’ll see, he has some extra eyeballs for those 1.75 acres on the Mosel.)
In 2021, the estate celebrated an auspicious anniversary: “A hundred years ago,” explains Keller, “my great-grandfather put the first Keller wines into bottle – because after the First World War, the casks of 100-180 liters were often damaged or stolen while being shipped by rail.” (The original label design would eventually be replicated for the family’s Grosse Gewächse.) From today’s perspective – Klaus Peter Keller having achieved what can only be called “superstar” status – it would be easy to overlook the shoulders on which he stands. But that is something which, as this reference to his great-grandfather – the fifth of ten generations at the estate – suggests, he isn’t about to let you forget. Among the pioneers in this family, Klaus Peter’s father Klaus, still very much active, stands out for accomplishments that can be best understood against a historical backdrop.
From “Second-Rate” to Serious Riesling
For two centuries, the rolling hills of Rheinhessen’s Wonnegau*, even if they lived up to their name as a “place of bliss,” counted as viticultural hinterlands. Their reputation, along with that of other sectors in Rheinhessen, had been eclipsed by the steep slopes overlooking the Rhine at Nackenheim and Nierstein, often referenced as Riesling’s next-best sites after those that begin some dozen miles downstream in the Rheingau. At its eastern edge, the Wonnegau almost touches the Rhine – but its vineyards, which begin further inland and look very different from those of the so-called Roter Hang (“Red Slope”) at Nackenheim and Nierstein. Most Wonnegau slopes are gentle or moderate (at least, by Riesling Germany’s standards), dominated by erosion of underlying limestone. They tend to face east or southeast and are often wind-exposed, factors conducive to grapes ripening less readily. From a 19th or early 20th century Rheingau or Nierstein perspective, they suggest inferior Riesling terroir.
During the “economic miracle” of Germany’s postwar recovery, the Wonnegau flourished by relying on and expanding acreage planted to garishly aromatic grape varieties and ones that readily accumulated sugar while rapidly shedding acidity. Post-war consumers craved sweetness, so wines were liberally – and quite legally – laced with par-fermented juice from a colorful array of those same grapes, nearly all of them crossings developed within German-speaking countries over the preceding eight decades. Germany’s infamous 1971 Wine Law, with its monomaniacal fixation on grape sugar and its “democratic”-populist deemphasizing of grape type, can be seen in part as an attempt to encourage the sort of viticulture and winemaking that had recently come to dominate “interior” Rheinhessen. To that extent, it backfired.
The 1980s brought a “dry wave,” as Germans who could afford estate-bottled instead of mass-produced wines gradually came to view “trocken” on their labels as a precondition for purchase. And the 1990s witnessed a return to respect for Riesling, which wasn’t considered a Wonnegau specialty, as Germany’s preeminent white grape. Some observers recognized pockets of Riesling excellence such as at Weinheim (with the Gysler family’s connection to a seminal clone) and at Westhofen (as demonstrated by Günter Wittmann) – both commercially represented in the US from the early 1990s by Terry Theise. But Klaus Keller was the person who did the most to prove to Germans that profound Riesling, dry and sweet, could be rendered from the Wonnegau. Keller senior indefatigably chipped away at critics’ and merchants’ prejudices. By the decade’s end, he was widely celebrated as Rheinhessen’s foremost winegrower, and the Wonnegau was touted as Germany’s “new” Riesling mecca. Nor should the role of Klaus Peter’s Mosel-born mother Hedwig – “Hedi” – be forgotten. She contributed irreplaceably to the hard work and charm required to achieve those results, before succumbing to cancer at a tragically young age.
Klaus Keller exhibited not only confidence that was rare among his fellow Wonnegau winegrowers, but also foresight – and not just by handing the reins to his son and daughter-in-law in a timely manner. When Keller senior acquired his estate’s sizeable, prime portion of the Brunnenhäuschen Einzellage (what’s nowadays known by its ancient name, “Abtserde”), there was a 10-year lease against it, so that only in 2006 could the first Keller vinification even take place. Foresight had its limits, though. Keller senior wasn’t too happy when, three years after the Abtserde purchase, his son insisted on acquiring a parcel in Kirchspiel. “Let’s just say,” reminisces the younger Keller, “that the 1999 was not a success. But I said: ‘just wait ‘til next year.’ Well, you know what happened in 2000: almost everything rotted. So, dad’s thinking: ‘Here he is, just out of Geisenheim, he insists on having Kirchspiel, and now we’ve had two failed vintages in a row.’ The 2001, finally, was terrific. But dad said: ‘We’re not going to put ‘Kirchspiel’ on the label because who knows what will happen next?’” Meantime, the estate’s Morstein arrived courtesy of Julia’s family, the Fauths, who are Westhofen natives.
Manicuring clusters – performed by Julia Keller in 2017 – is one of the critical, labor-intensive elements in the Keller quality regimen.
Fame and Good Fortune
Klaus Peter Keller’s reputation has reached a point where one is tempted to merely write: “The rest is history.” But that history is well-worth elaborating (and much of it will be further touched on in sections of this report where I delve into viticulture, winemaking, and style). Keller’s ability to collaborate with his father, Klaus, and his wife, Julia, who also earned a degree from Geisenheim, has been a significant factor in the 21st century history of this estate. The younger Keller’s affection for Pinot Noir was nurtured by internships in 1998-1999 with Hubert Lignier and Armand Rousseau, and the 21st century has seen the development of a Pinot Noir program second to none in Germany. With Riesling, Keller has taken to heart, but also to a new level of meticulousness and refinement, revered ex-Müller-Catoir cellarmaster Hans-Günter Schwarz’s motto of “activism in the vineyard, minimalism in the cellar.” It’s thanks to Schwarz, with whom Julia Fauth trained, that the Kellers have retained two crossings – Scheurebe and Rieslaner (the latter represented by perhaps the oldest vines of this variety anywhere outside of Franken) – and have lavished attention on them as well as on the traditional Gelber Muskateller, of which they recently acquired an additional parcel.
Keller has played a leading role in reviving the reputation of Rheinhessen’s traditional workhorse grape, Silvaner (which he would prefer to see spelled with a “y”), including taking it to hitherto unimagined price levels. Although Keller's Morstein Pinot Noir is grafted onto Silvaner, this should not be misconstrued as a reflection of his views on the latter grape. Rather, it is indicative of the opportunity he saw for the former grape variety. “In fact,” he explains, “we like Silvaner so much that we keep adding tiny bits of it here and there, swapping parcels, as we recently did with a smidgeon of Weissburgunder that we still had.” And from 2021, there will be a highly notable new “bit” of Silvaner (which, alas, I have not tasted) from 60-some-year-old vines in Neu-Bamberg, in the “Rheinhessian Switzerland” familiar to wine lovers nowadays from the Wagner-Stempel estate. “You have a layered combination of chalk over porphyry there that may be the geological ideal for Silvaner,” enthuses Keller, “with really striking phenolics. One of our fellow workers brought this parcel to our attention. And because it’s Silvaner, it had been overlooked. But there will only be 400 bottles. How am I going to divide that up around the world?” He’s contemplating an internal auction to benefit a Ukrainian aid organization.
No account of Keller’s tenure thus far would be complete without mentioning three diverse “satellite” projects. In 2008, he helped former intern Anne Enggrav pick a site, clear land and plant the first Riesling vineyard in Norway (at 58 degrees latitude). “When we began this project,” he relates, “we joked that it was meant for our children. At the Geisenheim Institute, they told us that the first ripe Riesling grapes could probably be expected by 2050. But in our first harvest, 2018, the grapes already had Kabinett must weight in mid-October and tasted ripe. It both thrilled and frightened us."
Two projects closer to home have greater immediate import and bring a pair of Hedi Keller’s dreams to fruition. Each also represented a rare stroke of fortune. Keller perceived an unlikely but once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when Franz Karl Schmitt, then 71 years old, decided to sell his vineyards and dissolve his estate named for an eponymous ancestor. Despite the property's significance as Nierstein's Number One from the mid-19th to the late 20th century, Schmitt's children showed no interest in maintaining it. Adding vineyards a 35-minute drive from Keller’s home base would be a stretch. Still, in late 2010 Keller approached Schmitt about the fate of three choice parcels in Pettental and Hipping (for more about which, consult my vineyard profiles under “Location, Location, Location” below.) It turned out that Keller had put his finger on Schmitt’s sweet spots in more than one sense because the latter was especially loath to part company and lose touch with those plots.
On April 1, 2011, assuring me that this was no April Fool’s joke, Keller wrote that Schmitt, who harbored fond memories of Keller’s grandfather, had sold him the parcels in question – which did not go down well with Nierstein locals. Moreover, Schmitt was more than willing – indeed, anxious – to serve as a consultant, in effect as part of Keller’s team. Initially, it appeared that the possibility of carrying out Keller's proposed plans for a tasting of old F. K. Schmitt wines would not come to fruition when the rest of Schmitt's estate, including the Schmitt Schatzkammer (the family’s treasure trove of old bottles), looked likely to be sold to St. Antony winery. But things worked out in that regard as well. I got to experience firsthand what a generous trove of vineyard lore and wisdom the affable Franz Karl Schmitt was when, in 2012, I had the privilege of walking the vineyards in his and Keller’s company and tasting Franz Karl Schmitt Rieslings going back more than a century.
Having spent time on the Mosel with his mother’s family ever since he could remember, Keller came to share her dream of someday staking a claim in that region’s iconic slate slopes. After her death, Keller’s increasing infatuation with Kabinett enhanced his desire to gain a toehold on the Mosel. And many of his most revelatory experiences with Mosel Kabinett were shared with Julian Haart, a young chef whom Keller helped convince to return in 2010 to his hometown of Piesport and reconnect with a family winegrowing tradition that had, like many, skipped a generation. In December 2017, Keller and his young protégée announced that the parcel of ancient vines in Piesport’s Schubertslay, which Haart had leased for ten years but whose pathetically tiny yields had become a burden, would pass into Kellers’ control. I wrote about this development then and have reviewed some resulting wines in my reports from the Mosel. “It feels like coming home,” enthused Keller in 2017, and his has subsequently been an intense and passionate affair with the Schubertslay, on which, farming nearby parcels as he does, Haart helps keep an eye. But for the present profile, I’ll confine subsequent attention to Keller’s Rheinhessen home.
Those who follow Keller on social media can testify to his canny instinct for image-building over and beyond what critics accomplish for him with their adulation. But the image that Keller builds, which some may find incongruous, is that of a self-critical, even self-effacing winegrower focused on communicating daily with his vines, working their rows alongside Julia. And good luck trying to convince any who regularly taste and talk with him that this is not, in some deep sense, “the real” Klaus Peter Keller. “We’re craftsmen and farmers [Handwerker und Bauer],” he sought to reassure me – or was it, perhaps, also to reassure himself? – at a time (late in 2011) when he confessed that “much to-do about ‘super-star’ status is getting on my nerves.” Even when a project as deftly conceived as dedicating Kabinett bottlings to the newborn great-grandchildren of Queen Elizabeth the Second – which was rewarded with a luncheon invitation to Buckingham Palace – it can’t be said that Keller showed a determination to milk this for anything remotely like maximum public relations effect. (And the gesture itself was borne of reverence for a long-standing connection between wines from his Hipping vineyard and the British royal house.)
What few signs of luxury accrue to Kellers’ household – like an impeccably-restored, floor-standing, centenarian gramophone whose horn looms head-swallowingly as you traverse the foyer between their kitchen-cum-dining room and semi-public tasting bar – reflect a collector’s delight in aesthetically exquisite experiences, deep respect for history and a reverence for craftsmanship: the same ideals that motivate Klaus Peter Keller’s bond with vines and wine. To be sure, apropos Keller, underground, there are indications of affluence, notably a cellar stocked with great Burgundy and mature Rieslings. But this, Keller will remind you, matters beyond its source of pleasure. You need first-hand familiarity with what makes for vinous merit and how wine ages, he insists, if you want to achieve wine-growing excellence. Recent indulgences in the service of excellence include a mini-Champagne cellar for elder son Felix Keller’s Sekt project and a Schatzkammer. “We knew which of our family’s wines going back many years we had,” jokes Keller, “just not how to put our hands on any given one. So now, they’ll all be perfectly organized in their cellar. It was our ‘COVID-19 project’.”
Tasting Keller’s 2021s in December 2022. Only a small foyer separates this tasting room from the Kellers’ kitchen-dining room.
Hands-On in the Vineyard
“As a winegrower,” asserts Keller, “you can do a whole lot to ensure a good vintage: enriching your soil with compost” – enough but not too much, and of the right sort – “pruning gently, cultivating a cover crop to protect against evaporation and cool the soil, managing your canopy” – eschewing hedging and pulling leaves surgically to create a tunnel providing just enough shade for the clusters while ensuring adequate ventilation. “Smaller operations in which the boss himself is out in the vineyards,” he avers, “have an advantage in these matters because one sees just what’s going on, can react rapidly, and is free to make one’s own decisions” – all of which applies as well to harvest. Sometimes, it’s a case of being able to afford the time and hands needed to achieve an obviously most-favored outcome, such as in certain hailed-on vintages in which scarred berries are snipped or tweezered out individually.
To be sure, the Kellers are aided in their hands-on execution of such labor-intensive tasks not just by a veteran team but, in recent years, also by interns whose high levels of energy, discipline and talent are hardy coincidental. The few spots available each year are in huge demand, not just to put Kellers’ address on one’s resume but also for the opportunity to profit from discussions that go beyond what needs doing or how to go about it and delve into why things are getting done that certain way. Then, of course, there are the opportunities to taste great wines – Keller’s own prominent among them – that very few people can experience: a privilege of internship that, like the discussions alluded to above, I have often witnessed first-hand. Indeed, if I could revisit my university years (having already met my wife by then, I can indulge this fantasy), I’d be vying for a Keller internship myself.
The evolution of viticulture chez Keller since Klaus Peter and Julia officially took over in 2007 exhibits some trends not unfamiliar from other estates, but ones he has played a role in setting. His approaches to soil enrichment, pruning, canopy management and leaf-pulling have all become more circumspect and restrained, partly in response to increasingly frequent drought and heat spells. Allowing for a taller, larger canopy and not hedging off the upper shoots has multiple advantages in counteracting the effects of hot, dry summers. First, there is increasing scientific evidence that, by discouraging lateral growth, this approach – which could be termed a “top-down strategy” – delays eventual sugar accumulation. (“Braiding” rather than trimming goes back at least a quarter-century to Lalou Bize-Leroy, whose notoriety has undoubtedly influenced the adoption of this technique.) And then, of course, there is the shading effect. The most obvious place where shade is critical is on the grape clusters themselves. The shade provided by a large upper canopy is more important for protecting and cooling the soil and cover crop, as it generally works in tandem with narrower vine rows and tighter spacing. “When the sun is bearing down between the rows,” observes Keller, “grasses soon only remain where there’s shade, and there you find flowers, butterflies etc. – a whole other biodiversity. And naturally, you can taste that in the wine.”
Individual vines’ crop loads have generally lightened, and, somewhat against today’s overall trend, Keller tries to, whenever possible, delay Riesling harvest. “Chilly nights,” he believes, “and morning dew on the grapes that the sun dries off: that gives the best Rieslings because they’re aromatically more complex and more multi-layered.” He is convinced of “the depth and complexity of grapes that have hung on the vine three weeks longer and had to struggle to slowly ripen.” He adds that “one must try, through viticultural means, to push back that point of ripeness, so as to, without any measure of over-ripeness, and with still palpable acidity, harvest in late October or early November.”
Yet, even with low yields and late picking, levels of finished alcohol in the dry wines – unlike at many celebrated German estates – have remained moderate over the past two decades and even registered a slight downward trend. Not all of this tendency, Keller readily admits, is traceable to soil and vine management. It’s also predicated on his high average age of vines. And, for new vineyards, vine selections are made to moderate sugar accumulation. Some vineyards are only “new” insofar as genetically superior and diverse material has been top-grafted onto old, deep-rooted stock.
At harvest, certainly Keller is scrupulous in removing any fruit he deems imperfect. However, he reacts against what he perceives as an ideology of homogeneity embedded in the curriculum of today’s viticultural schools. “In Geisenheim,” Keller opines, “you learn to harvest selectively and repeatedly for the tiniest and most beautiful clusters, preferably separating those on the sunny side from those on the shaded side. It’s well-meaning, but can easily lead to wines that are too overbearing, too powerful, too one-dimensional and no longer authentic: little monsters that, out of sheer strength, can no longer run. And do I really want to take the next sip? In the 1980s and 1990s” – when Klaus Peter Keller’s father was making his way – “it was important to impress people with our wines – because nobody knew us. So, they were dense and overtly concentrated, from grapes that were scrupulously thinned and selected. ... It was a necessary phase,” concludes Keller, but his efforts have been directed at achieving greater levity, animation, intrigue and what Germans call “Trinkfluss” – that keen desire to take the next sip.
In making the above comments, Keller had in mind especially dry Riesling. But he has similar things to say about selectivity and “nobly” sweet wine: “The farther I get from my student days,” he reports, “the more I diverge from the then-prevailing model of ‘perfect Auslese.’ You need to take some of everything: some green-gold berries, some overripe ones, some shriveled, and a bit of botrytis. It’s just like in music or sport: if you have only one sort of instrument being played the same way or a team whose players have identical characteristics, you won’t achieve excellence. Each sort of player has his or her role, and the same with grapes.”
Keller swears by the control
he can exercise and the clarity of must and wine he can achieve using a basket
press, of which he now has two.
In the Cellar
Aspiring to wines that, using Keller’s favorite descriptors, are “dance-like in their animation and levity and clear as spring water”, involves extremely scrupulous selection in the vineyards and restraint in the press house. A dozen years ago, Keller purchased an old basket press from the Mosel whose virtues he was soon enthusiastically touting. The very slow processing that is involved, he finds conducive to optimum control. For example, utilizing only the fraction of juice that runs in response to low pressure will enhance acidity and moderate sugar. Keller thinks the vertical press accentuates clarity both literally and metaphorically – in the eventual wine. He had already been moving toward less sedimentation of his musts, and with this press, that was virtually unnecessary.
Of course, even with a warming climate, there are years like 2021 or – even more dramatically – 2010, in which acid enhancement was the last thing desired, and most growers de-acidified their must or wine. But with the 2010 vintage, Keller discovered that his basket press could also be utilized to counteract high acidity by generating an enhanced level of buffering material in the resulting juice. This enabled him not just to avoid de-acidification but also to eliminate pre-fermentative skin contact in a vintage where grapes were already off-the-charts in dry extract and skin contact would have risked bitter, ponderous wines lacking in tension of interplay. A second basket press was acquired in 2015, and now, Keller’s site-specific bottlings are seldom rendered using a horizontal pneumatic press. His overall verdict: “I’ve found that nearly all who utilize a basket press, whether the old ones outfitted with wooden slats or the expensive new stainless-steel ones, have been able to achieve finer, more interesting wines.”
Vinification takes place in a mix of tank and various casks, with tank-fermented wines sometimes subsequently experiencing a spell in barrel. “One-quarter Moselaner” that he prides himself on being, Keller employs some old 1,000-liter Mosel Fuder not just for his wine from Schubertslay, but also for certain Rheinhessen wines, typically including his Abtserde Grosses Gewächs. Another trend familiar from other estates, but for which Keller has been a model, is permitting selected wines to remain in tank or barrel for more than 12 months before bottling and giving all of one's wines whatever time he thinks they need to be especially expressive before release. Keller’s Riesling Grosse Gewächse are now released in two tiers, Hubacker and Kirchspiel around a year after harvest, the others at around 18 months. With the Pinots, it’s two- and three-year intervals from harvest, and in the case of Felix Keller’s sparkling wine project, the first wine (from Champagne’s classic trio of cépages) will only be released in 2024, four years after harvest, and the first Riesling after ten years!
On the left: A portion of Keller’s Rieslings is raised in traditional, thousand-liter Mosel Fuder. On the right: Given cool, rainy weather in September 2021, Keller’s team laboriously cut away his vines’ dense canopies to let in sunlight and breezes. ‘The younger generation,’ he remarks, ‘has no memory of our doing this.’
Romancing Madame Pinot
Keller fell in love with Pinot well before his student days interning with Hubert Lignier and Armand Rousseau. Since then, a week’s intensive tasting in Burgundian cellars has been an annual routine. Keller last increased Pinot acreage when some old Silvaner vines in Morstein were grafted over to Burgundian selections, whose first crop came in 2012. Recently, a lot has happened to improve quality and advance Keller’s goal of achieving lift, delicacy and transparency to nuance while enhancing what he likes to call the wines’ “inner density.” Keller attributes that last trait directly to small, thick-skinned berries of the sort promoted by his preferred genetic material: massale selections from some celebrated (but, naturally, undisclosed) Burgundy estates. The latest selections were procured in 2018 to graft over half of the German clones planted in Bürgel (clones that, heaven knows, already made for lovely wine).
“You will have noticed,” Keller observed as I tasted his 2020s, “the increasing number of red Burgundies lately that harbor 14 or 14.5 percent alcohol. Ours have 12.5, 12.6, 12.7 – but not more.” And that with yields of only 25-30 hectoliters per hectare which, considering that Keller favors tight spacing, translates into very few, small clusters per vine. Predictably, Keller ascribes this moderation primarily to viticultural and microclimatic factors. In favoring massale selections from Burgundy, but also in his occasional choice of clones, restraint in sugar accumulation is among Keller’s considerations. The total mass of roots and their penetration that – citing some recent Geisenheim studies – he is confident result from tight spacing and light crop loads, lessen the sort of vine stress that can leave fruit susceptible to shriveling.
Similar principles to those applicable to Riesling are relevant when it comes to how Keller’s Pinot Noir vines are managed and clusters positioned: moderate temperature, eschew hedging, maximize ventilation while minimizing de-leafing and preserve partial shade. But there is also a wine-making factor involved in achieving Keller’s stylistic ideals. He is convinced that utilizing increased percentages of whole clusters has not only enhanced freshness and florality but also moderated the fermentative yield of alcohol. To avoid promoting too great a direct influence from vine wood, Keller and his team laboriously snip out the central stem of each cluster so that only the finer connecting stems remain attached to the uncrushed berries. (He’s even experimented with that technique on Riesling). He believes “this adds a measure of control over extraction and release of sugar when you’re doing pigeage.” And speaking of wood, a rather obvious shift in recent years has been entirely away from new oak.
In 2018, Keller reported that “especially with Spätburgunder, it made a big difference that Felix was with us” – younger son Max is still studying – “so that once the Spätburgunder had been brought in, he could devote himself to it intensively in the cellar, while Julia and I remained in the vineyards for the Riesling harvest. Previously, I could only give Spätburgunder full attention at the end of harvest or on rainy days when we didn’t pick [white grapes]. So, from now on, we can operate much more precisely regarding issues like degree of destemming or when and how to press.” In 2020, that team effort resulted in the finest Keller Pinot collection I have tasted.
A Ble$$ing and a Curse
Understandably, Keller is proud of his success, which is impossible not to measure in part by a spectacular rise in prices. But he insists this leaves him conflicted. He is at pains to manage supply and retain the loyalty of faithful private customers. In late May each year, three seven-hour days are devoted to letting established private customers taste through and purchase from among the most current offerings. And these are not small affairs: attendance is capped at 400 per day, with indoor and outdoor tasting stations. “If it rains, it can be a real problem,” quips Keller. It would be a logistical nightmare were the winery not a seven-minute walk from the Flörsheim-Dalsheim train station. “I still want to offer some wines you could afford even on a student’s budget,” insists Keller. “That’s one reason why we retain our leased vineyards,” he explains, because there, the plantings are amenable to significantly higher yields, “and we want to still offer dry Silvaner and Riesling for €10 [ex-cellar], “Limestone” Q.b.A. for €12 etc. We have long-standing customers who expect to get a whole lot of wine in their glass for the money.” (Until very recently, there was even a delicious liter bottling of dry Riesling, which I got to taste only by promising not to write about it!)
Keller staunchly believes
in the benefits of high-density planting – here in 2022 at a new location that
I promised not to identify.
Although Keller is not the only German Riesling grower to benefit from eye-watering, constantly record-setting auction bids in recent years, he has certainly benefited the most spectacularly. These bids have been a relatively unalloyed source of pride for him, particularly because they have been a successful part of Keller's efforts to promote Kabinett as a (residually sweet) category. From vintage 2021, 300 “Kabinettkisten” – wooden presentation boxes each containing three bottles of Hipping, one of Pettenthal and two from Schubertslay – were auctioned. Their deceptively modest starting price: €300. The eventual hammer price: €2,750. (I’ve seen no subsequent retail offerings under €4,000.) Individual bottles of Pettenthal went for €1,200. “It’s great,” enthuses Keller, “that the world’s wine lovers can perceive Grosses Gewächs and Kabinett as being on the same qualitative level. That really makes me happy. It’s taken a long time and will still take a while.”
When Julia Fauth and Klaus Peter Keller joined-in the inaugural Rieslingfeier, the attendant, afternoon-long “Riesling Retail Crawl” on February 18, 2013, included a stop at Keller’s chosen New York City merchant, where participants queued casually to purchase multiple bottles. As recently as mid-2017, one veteran German commentator quite rightly wrote that “until around two years ago, you could still buy Abtserde on eBay for €60 or €70. Today’s vintages of that wine,” he lamented, “will run you up to €180.” He added that Keller’s wines had achieved “, especially in the secondary market ... price increases that would turn even Burgundian vintners pale.” Anecdotes like these now read as though they were ancient history. Nowadays, one routinely sees “one bottle limit” offerings from reputable merchants – albeit not ones who purchase directly from the estate or one of its designated importers – in the €2,000 per bottle range. (Incidentally, that February day marked the last occasion I purchased more than one bottle of vineyard-designated Keller wine.)
Keller professes – with complete honesty, I’m confident – to find the secondary market situation not only awkward but distasteful. And unlike most winery proprietors who plead helplessness in its face, he has taken action. Already a decade ago, he was doing all he could to track down private customers who could not resist “flipping” rather than cellaring and eventually drinking their allocations, as well as merchants who were not selling their allocations directly to their most faithful and conscientious customers. He then purged guilty parties from his customer base. Today, his defense system has become more sophisticated, with bottle tracking and a carefully monitored list of customers who enter ID numbers on the estate’s website to find out about offerings. The Grosse Gewächse are sold almost exclusively as part of 6- or 12-bottle “Kellerkisten” containing one bottle per type.
Location, Location, Location
As recently as a dozen or so years ago, one could still hear it claimed (and I myself plead guilty!) that the exemplary Rieslings of Wittmann and Keller illustrated diligence and skill overcoming limitations of terroir. With hindsight (and given the delicious data points of other Wonnegau vintners like Dreissigacker, Fauth, Groebe, Spanier, Wechsler and Winter), it’s clear that this assessment was gravely in error. The quality and the distinctive characteristics of Keller’s wines are very much influenced by where they grow. So, here’s some background on the sites he farms and the bottlings they inform.
North of the village of Dalsheim, Hubacker features a bit more fine earth and less prominent limestone rock than Keller’s sites two miles further north in Westhofen, and its easterly tilt conduces to slow ripening. “A really fine premier cru,” is how Keller once assessed the site, though I’m sure he now wishes he’d said: “grand cru.” This is the Keller home vineyard, in the family since 1789, when Johann Leonhard Keller purchased it from the St. Andreas monastery in Worms (five years before Napoleon’s army occupied the area and 11 years before the monastery’s remaining holdings, now part of France, were forcibly secularized). In time for bottling his 2021 – and honoring the centenary of his great grandfather’s first bottling – Keller registered the cadastral site name “Oberer Hubacker” that had been eliminated 50 years before by the then-new Wine Law. The Oberer Hubacher vineyard is an estate monopole, with a substantial portion of vines over 60 years of age.
Bürgel, abutting the Keller family’s legacy village of Dalsheim, is represented at their estate by several small parcels and incorporates their original Pinot site. (It’s not unambiguously their “oldest” – as explained below under “Morstein”). It’s also where the old Silvaner vines that inform a “Feuervogel” (“Firebird”) bottling originates. While “Bürgel” is presumed to derive from “Berg,” there is no mountain or prominent hill, only a gentle and relatively wind-protected, mostly south-facing slope at the village's northern edge. The soil – a combination of Löss, marl and fossiliferous limestone – represents that ideal viticultural balance of moisture retention yet good drainage. In 2008, half the Pinot vines – all, at the time, German clones – were top-grafted to Burgundy selections, which gave their first crop in 2021.
Frauenberg – “the women’s hill” – earned its name in the Middle Ages thanks to having been cultivated by an order of nuns. Keller planted his vines here in 1999, inspired by the internships he had just completed in Burgundy. The site, in Nieder-Flörsheim, lies a mile south of Bürgel, on similar soil but with limestone mother rock closer to the surface and on a slope of up to 40 degrees. Southeastern exposure and pronounced ventilation do much to explain why this location fosters late ripening and also supports outstanding Riesling, as demonstrated by that of Weingut Battenfeld-Spanier.
Kirchspiel, as 14th-century deeds testify, wasn’t named for a church (Kirch) but is instead one of many German vineyards named for the proximity of cherry trees (Kirsch). A combination of considerable (30%) grade by local standards and bowl-like surface – with the center, and Keller’s holdings, facing east – makes for a combination of wind shelter yet late ripening. Marl is deep in some places, but as one goes uphill, limestone mother rock isn’t far beneath the surface. The Kirchspiel Grosses Gewächs issues exclusively from the oldest vines here, planted in 1964. An especially iron-rich, reddish-soiled section of Kirchspiel generally informs a “Riesling R.R.” that’s not quite legally dry. (I adore the exemplars of “R.R.” that I have tasted, though Keller doesn’t always show me that wine.) Kirchspiel nearly always contributes significantly to Keller’s Von der Fels bottling and recently to his Westhofener Riesling trocken (for more on both of which, see below).
Morstein is associated with a different abbey from the one that established Abtserde. Still, the relevant mid-12th century dates are almost identical, and its name (originally “Mar[k]stein”) likely refers to a stone marking the boundary between the two ecclesiastical holdings. While Abtserde is not mentioned frequently in historical records between the 14th and 20th centuries, Morstein is one of three Westhofen sites cited regularly during that period. Morstein is also one of the few sites anywhere in Rheinhessen identified by name on the detailed maps of Tranchot and Müffling, commissioned by Napoleon during the decade-plus period in which he had made much of the Rhineland part of France. The soil, from marl and limestone mother rock, is liberally strewn with pebbles and other scree. The return over the past quarter century of Morstein’s high reputation is not just due to Keller’s wines but also to those of Philipp Wittmann, whose still very active father, Günter, was a pioneer in showcasing Riesling from this site. (The first dry Morstein Riesling sold in the U.S. was Wittmann’s 1990 Spätlese trocken.)
On the left: Abtserde, early morning, mid-October 2015. Keller believes that hanging through a chill – here it was 31 F. – contributes greatly to aroma and vivacity, critical after warm summers like that in 2015. On the right: Keller puts great stock in the benefits of a diverse and thriving habitat under his vines.
The Kellers own a number of strip-like parcels, with one exception in the upper half of the Einzellage, all long enough to incorporate a range of both elevations and proximity to limestone mother rock. In 2008, Keller top-grafted a section of centrally located septuagenarian Silvaner vines to a combination of clones and massale Burgundian selections. (He feared that relying solely on the latter would have meant, in this site, tiny clusters and excessively low yields even for him, promoting excessive must weights.) The resulting Grosses Gewächs, which debuted in 2012, became an annual auction offering, thereby becoming Keller’s most expensive and coveted Pinot Noir. The parcels are under an acre; so only three to four barriques are produced.
Abtserde – of which Kellers now own the majority – features iron-rich limestone mother rock close to the surface, underground springs and a 30% share of “active lime” (calcium carbonate in the soil assimilable by the vine – or for that matter any plant). This last-named feature renders the vines susceptible to chlorosis (chlorophyll deficiency). However, as witnessed in many vineyards that produce exceptional wines, walking the knife edge may have benefits. Keller's vines were planted soon after the extensive vineyard face-lifting, known as Flurbereinigung, in 1971. That same year, thousands of vineyard names, including "Abtserde," were officially eliminated due to consolidation into new Einzellagen. “You can tell even from a [dry] wine like this,” noted Keller when we tasted his Abtserde 2016 Grosses Gewächs in 2018, “how Abtserde is a site that can support residual sweetness, unlike Morstein,” an assessment of this site’s versatility borne out by numerous Auslesen, and, in 2021, by a terrific, first-ever Abtserde Kabinett.
The name is first recorded (as “an Aptes Erde” meaning “on the abbot’s ground”) in a 1382 deed citing ownership by the Schönau Abbey. But this vineyard was almost certainly established shortly after the founding of that monastery in 1142 by Burchard the Second, Prince-Bishop of Worms because the Cistercian "mother house" of Schönau, which provided the initial cloistered workforce for the vineyard, was none other than Kloster Eberbach. (By then, that famous cloister had already set up two press houses and more than a half dozen harvest reception complexes in the Rheingau, including at its home vineyard, Steinberg.) Post-1971, Abtserde officially became part of the Einzellage Brunnenhäusen, whose name (designating a springhouse) postdates “Abtserde” by more than three centuries. After years of fruitless wrangling with the authorities over the use of “Abtserde” – for a time, Keller wrote “Abts E®.de.” on labels, then “Abts E®” – when the law was finally changed in 2014 to reauthorize the use of cadastral designations, Keller said, in effect: “Screw it! I’ll just stick with ‘Abts E®’ to memorialize my struggle with those ‘i’-dotting bureaucrats.” (I choose to utilize “Westhofener Brunnenhäuschen – Abtserde” which, while not entirely in agreement with Keller’s labels, is both maximally informative and reflects how the vineyard would be officially identified had Keller chosen to register “Abtserde.”)
For Keller’s most infamous bottling, G-Max, the vineyard source – or, conceivably, sources plural, if they vary from year to year – is intended ever to remain a mystery. It’s safe to assume, though, based on how this wine performs, let alone circumstantial evidence, that the source is old vines in an especially favored location conducive to long life in bottle, which tends to point toward somewhere in Abtserde or Morstein.
No Nierstein vineyard has ever surpassed the reputation of Hipping, which features more fine earth erosion of sandstone and a bit less precipitous slope than that of Pettenthal. The parcel that Keller acquired from Franz Karl Schmitt lies in the former Fläschenhahl, long famed for its nobly sweet Riesling, including the 1952 Auslese delivered for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. (For more about this fortuitous acquisition, see above under “Fame and Good Fortune.”) Keller’s inaugural bottling was a 2011 Grosses Gewächs. The following year, he revealed this site’s talent for Kabinett. Dry (Grosses Gewächs), nearly dry, or Auslese bottlings are rendered depending on the growing season.
The steep Pettenthal vineyard epitomizes Nierstein’s famed “Red Slope” [Roter Hang] of Permian sandstone adjacent to the River Rhein. Even Rheinhessen winegrowers like Keller often refer to “slate” – and the underlying rock here is rather plate-like. But “slate” is misleading since the age and makeup of bedrock are utterly different from what goes under that name in Mosel, Mittelrhein and Nahe. In Pettenthal, it’s especially high in iron and low in active calcium carbonate even by Nierstein standards, which may or may not engender the especially prominent citricity associated with its Rieslings. Pettenthal segues into the similarly steep sandstone strip that is Nackenheim’s great Rothenberg – and both share the feature that their names often appear on labels without the “h.” (I follow whichever usage is that of the estate under consideration.)
The red Permian sandstone of Nierstein’s ‘Red Slope’ – exhibited here by Felix Keller – is often misleadingly referred to by winegrowers as ‘slate’.
Keller acquired his small parcel from Franz Karl Schmitt (see details above under “Fame and Good Fortune”) in time for the 2011 vintage. The following year, he explored the location’s talent for Kabinett and has not looked back. For some vintages, he has elected not to bottle a Grosses Gewächs, but each vintage, save for 2020, there has been a Kabinett. Until 2016, it was labeled “P,” as Keller had to lobby hard for the Rheinhessen VDP to annul a flagrantly prejudicial and foolish regulation forbidding “mere” Kabinett to be bottled under the name of a “great” – or, for that matter, any – vineyard. Keller’s is now sold exclusively at auction, where its 2021 instantiation went for a “mere” €1,200 per bottle. (More above and below under “$$” and “Kabi.”)
In 2019, Keller initiated a Westhofener Riesling trocken bottling. This happened just when the VDP was urging an emphasis on village-designated bottlings. But Keller’s concern at the time was to take the quality of his Morstein Grosses Gewächs to an even higher level by limiting its source to that site’s oldest vines. And in that case, fruit from other Morstein parcels could be directed to the village-designated bottling. In 2020, though, this bottling was sourced not from Morstein but from a portion of the Kirchspiel with the charming nickname Liebesnest. With no 2021 successor, it remains to be seen (also by Keller himself!) whether or how often this bottling will appear.
With a bottle production measurable in the tens of thousands, Von der Fels typically represents the estate’s highest volume offering and is a widely traveled ambassador for Keller, who repeatedly emphasizes how important it is to him to offer oenophiles good value and not just be known for wines that have achieved cult status and stratospheric prices. Since determining in 2019 to utilize only fruit from the very old Morstein vines for his eponymous Grosses Gewächs, Keller has been directing significant Morstein into Von der Fels. In 2021, the cuvée drew heavily on any less-than-ancient vines in Hubacker. But Kirchspiel generally makes up half or more of the cuvée.
In recent years, Keller’s “Gutsriesling” – i.e., the estate’s 750ml bottling labeled “Riesling trocken” – has benefited from the inclusion of young vines in a high-elevation spot in Dalsheim that had formerly been devoted to the black grape Frühburgunder. (Little material for this bottling comes from outside Dalsheim, a bit from Westhofen and relatively cool Mölsheim.) “In 2015 – 2015! –” noted Keller proudly when introducing that vintage’s Gutsriesling, “we picked these grapes near the end of October with only 84 Oechsle.” Indeed, late harvest, yet alcohol hovering below 12%, has become the norm for this bottling, epitomizing Keller’s stylistic ideal – Riesling of levity and animation–as well as his desire to offer wines that most wine lovers can afford. (Alas, whether they can get their hands on bottles may be another matter.)
There is also a Limestone Riesling Q.b.A. (i.e., not the off-dry Kabinett “Limestone”) – sourced almost entirely from Westhofen – that can be most conspicuously distinguished from the intro-level Gutsriesling (as merchants, I’ve noticed, often do not) by its different label design featuring a prominent script “K.” (Recent vintages are also explicitly labeled “Limestone.”) The wine is legally halbtrocken.
Wines with Styles
Already by early 2007, surveying how the results of his first five vintages in charge were faring in bottle, Keller came to a counterintuitive conclusion: his assessments were practically the mirror image of each year’s reputation, or at least, of the adulation that each had received early on in the press. The more moderate alcohol, prominent acidity and positive tension of cooler 2002 and 2004 appealed to him most. So, to the extent that he could “bend” a given growing season to his will, he wanted to relieve vine stress and cool the environment in which his clusters ripen, an approach which, as things transpired, increasingly met climatic challenges.
But nudges or gentle coaxing aside, opines Keller, one must still be willing to follow where a given vintage leads. And here, stylistic flexibility comes into play, including a tolerance for residual sugar that until very recently was seldom in evidence at prestigious Rheinhessen estates. “The nice thing,” he explains, “is that we don’t need to de-acidify anything – which I never wanted to do anyway, not even in that extreme vintage, 2010 – but instead, if we have grapes suited to a halbtrocken or residually sweet style, we vinify them that way. Honestly, it shouldn’t be a matter of dry or not dry, but rather of [choosing] a wine style that best represents the site in a particular vintage.” Naturally, if you’re determined to bottle Grosses Gewächs – as are, let’s face it, most of Germany’s elite growers for reasons of profit and predictability, if not also personal taste preference – then “bending” is sometimes going to “have to” be done in the cellar.
In Keller’s case, Grosses Gewächs is sometimes “sacrificed” for the sake of Kabinett (in 2019, both Hipping and Pettenthal Grosse Gewächse “went missing”), which nowadays is unthinkable for most growers. “As you know, I love the Kabinett category,” says Keller, “and Riesling has that rare talent for levity. That doesn’t mean that you should automatically make Kabinett. Don’t be dogmatic! But if you have the perfect material for Kabinett, then make Kabinett! Why wait for GG? This is what I find myself asking so many growers on the Mosel in particular. Why? Well, because they think they can get €15 more for the wine. But I say: ‘Taste and decide how you can make the best possible wine from your grapes.’ If you have to de-acidify grapes with high acid to have something dry later, that’s sad.” Beyond that, Keller thinks that a grower should pose the question with each batch of grapes: “What can I do with these that other people won’t be able to do as well, or even that can’t be copied.” If only Germany’s Riesling growing establishment had taken that advice to heart decades ago!
“One should be open to halbtrocken as well as residually sweet,” insists Keller, which to me – but, clearly, not to 90% of Germany’s elite Riesling growers – seems obvious, not only because refusing to explore anywhere between ten grams of residual sugar (the maximum limit for trocken) and 30 or 40 seems blinkered, or because a German Riesling with the requisite acidity and 10-15 grams of residual sugar can quite reasonably be described as “dry-tasting,” but also because of Riesling’s proclivity, if left to ferment spontaneously, to “stop itself” in just that range. That proclivity – once deemed a virtue – is notorious, just nowadays hushed-up, because what grower wants to brag about how they added cultured yeasts as an ameliorative, or warmed their “grand cru” to bring it into line, or blended it with a bit of radically dry wine merely so the results would be under ten grams? Riesling from one portion of Keller’s Kirchspiel tends to routinely exhibit the aforementioned proclivity, hence his halbtrocken “R.R.” bottling. “This year’s Pettenthal knew exactly when it should stop fermenting,” quipped Keller back when we tasted his 2015s – which was with a dozen grams of residual sugar, thus disqualifying it for Grosses Gewächs status. In the following vintage, Hipping followed suit, while Pettenthal “chose” to ferment to legal dryness.
Confoundingly, not a few German Riesling growers bottle an ostensibly “entry-level” wine – which in German is known, literally, as a “steeping into” (Einstiegs-) wine – that’s halbtrocken. But then, the only place you can step up or down to after that is either legally trocken or sweet to the tune of 40 or more grams of residual sugar. The condescending operating principle – and you will hear this explicitly from many growers – is that beginners, or less sophisticated wine drinkers, will be more satisfied by a bottling that is not quite legally dry. At Keller, matters are very different. There’s the relatively inexpensive “Limestone” Qualitätswein that’s halbtrocken, but also not-quite-legally-dry wines from the estate’s “grand cru” sites.
“Go Kabi, Go!”
Having grown up with an affection for the Mosel, Keller naturally enough had an affinity for wines of delicacy, levity, nervosity and discreet sweetness such as epitomized by the Kabinett category. By the time Keller officially took control of the estate, his affection for Mosel Kabinett and Kabinett in general, had only grown. In 2006, he launched a Kabinett “Limestone.” A note he wrote me about an experience in 2013 is typical of his increased enthusiasm: “In September, we enjoyed a wonderful vertical tasting at Maximin Grünhaus of Kabinetts 1963-2012. The 1986 had only 22 grams of residual sugar and was a brilliantly fresh, incredibly mineral, dry-tasting wine. It pained me to think that today only a few growers dare to produce such wines simply because it’s no longer ‘in’. It’s not that German Riesling growers should make only light wines, but that they should also make them.” He organized some multi-estate tastings to promote what friends of the genre call “Kabis.” As their motto, Keller adopted the title of a hit 1991 German road movie featuring East Germany’s diminutive Trabant automobile, aptly known, whether in affection or derision, by its grammatical diminutive: “Trabi.”
Keller’s reference to “22 grams of residual sugar” is telling. Despite a trend that had already set-in on the Mosel by 2013 and would come to define much of Riesling production in Germany, Keller (like me) believes that delicacy, levity, clarity and animation are not improved - and are often hindered - by residual sugar levels above 40 grams or grapes harvested above mid-80s Oechsle. To be sure, many wonderful Rieslings labeled “Kabinett” demonstrate vividly the astonishing extent to which wines from this grape grown on German soil can hide the effects of high residual sugar. Some also demonstrate that even grapes with 90 degrees Oechsle can result in wines of levity and animation. But such demonstrations should not become the point of Kabinett.
Acquisition of Pettental and Hipping offered an opportunity to take Kabinett to the next quality level. Keller began dedicatating one portion of each site to render Grosses Gewächs and another Kabinetts. He often refers to the latter as “the jungle” because he lets the canopy grow unchecked, flopping this way and that, enhancing shade and discouraging lateral growth that would promote sugar accumulation. However, the decisions in 2019 to render Hipping and Pettenthal entirely (and, in 2021, mostly) as Kabinett were made based on the constituents and taste of the grapes. “When you have 82, 83 Oechsle in Nierstein with 11 grams of acidity, and they taste like these did,” enthused Keller about 2019, “what could be better? Why wait for GG?” Clearly, then, in those instances, some fruit on vines initially intended for Grosses Gewächs was redirected. Moreover, added Keller, “that decision had to be made in a hurry just like more and more of those we have to make in the face of climate change.”
Keller jokingly calls it ‘the jungle’ when he maximizes shade-giving canopy – here, in September 2016 – to achieve Kabinett.
Given the clout which would no doubt accrue to him were he to weigh-in publicly, some of us might regret Keller’s generally remaining aloof from wine politics, in particular politics within the V.D.P. But he not only hates to take time from his work in the vineyards and cellar, or time that could be spent explaining and promoting his wines; he is also loathe to be seen diverting his energies. Understandably, Keller finds much of wine politics fatuous, frustrating and distasteful. But there has been one major exception. In 2016, Keller and newly elected V.D.P. member from Nierstein Kai Schätzel successfully lobbied their colleagues to reverse a decision that had ruled Kabinett a category unworthy of site-specific “Grosse Lage” status and had compelled the two Kabinett enthusiasts to label with capital letters instead of vineyard names.
On May 4, 2016, Keller wrote me the following triumphant e-mail: “Dear David, Single vineyard Kabinett from Rheinhessen is here! It was decided last night. And nearly unanimously. What a transformation has taken place in certain people’s heads.;- ) At the same time, the following recommendations were expressed: harvest at maximum 85°, under 10% alcohol – from the best portions of a given vineyard.” A follow-up affirmed those parameters: “Kabinett as Kabinett should taste: racy, elegant, with scarcely perceivable-able sweetness.” That a broad revival of Kabinett among Rheinhessen and Pfalz V.D.P. vintners was just a few years away, wasn’t in anyone’s mind in 2016. Prominent growers in those regions were still trying to “explain” to me why Kabinett was suited to the Mosel and Nahe but not to Pfalz or Rheinhessen terroir. Their V.D.P.-Rheinhessen colleagues were likely less acknowledging the force of Keller’s and Schätzel’s arguments than simply accommodating their wishes. But the pair’s subsequent successes at auction, gradual recognition that many young German wine drinkers were gravitating toward Mosel Kabinett, and perhaps even the pleas of certain journalists, have helped turn residually sweet Riesling Kabinett into the latest fashion. What a transformation, indeed!
“Trying to develop a feel for the vintage is critically important if you’re going to bring out its individual strengths,” insists Keller. “I begin with a clear idea of the sort of wine I want to achieve in each individual parcel. But one has to be careful not to allow one’s preferences to take precedence over the naturally given potential of a given year because at the end of the day, the unique character of each vintage brings us great joy. I want to be able to trace the course of the growing season in my wines, and that’s also what a certain clientele expects and values.”
To be sure, Keller is constantly fine-tuning his approaches in vineyard and cellar to both vintage conditions and long-term goals; but what some observers might deem suspiciously undiminished praise for each new Keller collection also owes much to the same weather gods that reign over every winegrower. And lately, they seem to be smiling a lot. As Keller wrote in his harvest letter for 2019: “We can hardly be calling every year ‘vintage of the century’; and yet, if we were to take years like 1921, 1934, 1959 or 1971 as our reference points, we would have to conclude that, today, no longer four vintages in a century but more like four each decade fall into that category.” Climate change, he added, certainly brings many challenges. Still, the worst among those – enhanced risk of spring frost turning destructive, hail, erosive downpours and drought – seldom directly threaten fruit quality (though often its volume).
Here’s a look at the vintages whose wines are covered in detail by my accompanying tasting notes: 2021, 2020 and 2019, with additional notes on some 2018 Pinots.
In 2021, as at most of Germany’s Riesling-growing estates, the Keller vines didn’t flower until three weeks later than in 2020, by which time an extended period of rain had set in, covering well over half the days in June. That was a barely mixed blessing, though, by Keller’s reckoning, given how desperately the water table and soil moisture needed restoring after repeated drought years. That flowering disruption would eventually translate into a naturally small crop with flavor-enhancing millerandage. The downside was that, as temperatures had finally begun to warm, quickly and dramatically, mildew and fungal infections became a threat and there weren’t enough clear days on which to respond.
“After we read the official extended forecasts for our area heading into July – for ‘extreme storms’ and ‘persistent rain’ – we started to get seriously concerned,” relates Keller. And that turned out to be justified. On a single day, July 14, Westhofen received 4.25 inches (108 millimeters) of rain, adding soil erosion to the list of concerns. Given the fungal pressure, Keller was just as happy that August turned out cool. Granted, Keller’s brief on chilly temperatures relates especially to autumnal dips into the 30s or 40s. Still, it seems that in the case of 2021, his welcoming a cool August represents a deviant interpretation of that time-honored adage: août fait la moût. September brought sunshine, and by the middle of that month – notwithstanding the three weeks later flowering time, wet mid-summer and cool August – harvest commence a mere two weeks later than it had in 2020, namely with picking for grapes ideally suited to Felix Keller’s ongoing méthode champenois project.
After devoting the rest of September to Burgundian varieties, a sunny October saw the leisurely arrival of Silvaner and then Riesling in Keller’s press house. “Two thousand Twenty-one is a vintage with low yields and the concentration and ripeness for terrific dry wines, but all things considered, it’s a vintage for Kabinett, and we’ve never made so much Kabinett” he enthused already in mid-November of that year – a week after harvest had concluded. Keller predicted, with a twinkle in his eye, what shock critics and customers would experience confronting an eventual wine list that not only bypassed Grosses Gewächs from Pettenthal – that had happened before – but would also feature the first Kirchspiel Kabinett since 2008 and the first-ever Abtserde Kabinett. Correspondingly – but also in keeping with overall yields – the aggregate volume of Grosses Gewächs is Keller’s smallest in many years.
Apropos shock and humor, Keller grinned when he told me while tasting this 2021s: “The younger generation had never had to contend with a vintage where vines and growers had to struggle to achieve ripeness. We fielded a lot of phone calls from nervous young colleagues.” Acidity was, in aggregate, the highest since 1996, he reports – higher even than in 2010, and that was another vintage that sent shock waves through growers, as few were versant in the art of de-acidification. (Keller’s advice to anyone wondering how best to do it: “Don’t!”) But in 2021 – for Keller, at least – the acidity was largely tartaric rather than malic. “It’s a gift nowadays,” he insists, “to experience a vintage in which the vines” – and, one might add: ‘their growers’ – “have to struggle to achieve ripeness.” That’s a verdict with which few who experience the remarkable combination of intensity with energy and buoyancy projected by Keller’s 2021s will disagree. “As far as I’m concerned,” he adds with a grin, “every vintage could be like 2021!”
The 2020 growing season commenced with a rainy stretch advantageous for the future harvest, but hopes that this would spell long-term relief from the effects of extended drought went unfulfilled. (That had to wait until 2021.) In what reads as though an LP needle were stuck, spring brought summer-like temperatures, flowering was among the earliest on record – interspersed with light showers that eventually served for advantageously loose clusters and millerandage – while mid-summer ended up hot and dry. Keller’s canopy and groundcover regimens helped protect his vines from drought stress and the infant clusters from sunburn – factors that loomed large for many growers. Late summer brought just enough precipitation to help fruit ripening but not to cause trouble, and already by the end of September, Keller was ready to begin picking Riesling. That said, conditions in October were ideal for stretching out the harvest. For Grosses Gewächs, Hubacker was privileged thanks not just to its ancient vines’ deep roots but also to localized August rain that bypassed Westhofen, while Morstein and Abtserde benefited as usual from underground sources of water. (Not by chance is the Abtserde Einzellage Brunnenhäuschen: “springhouse.”)
In 2019, flowering was later than the decade’s average. Still, soon after, it warmed with a vengeance, July bringing temperatures as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 Celsius), accompanied by sunburn that cut through the gaps in foliage and cut yields from Keller’s vines by up to 20%. Rain from late August on was not, he insists, a serious problem, but rather came in the nick of time to still do parched vines some good. That, of course, depends on how one has all along managed one’s vines and soil, and on how late a harvest date one targets. “We were, honestly, just enormously relieved when it came pouring down,” he relates, “and even more so that it ushered in cool temperatures.” The berries – which, in apparent response to the drought stress of 2018, were small – managed to withstand water pressure and resist splitting, likely, says Keller, on account of thick skins having been fostered by summer’s drought and fierce sunshine. It’s harder to explain the high acidity experienced in 2019, though Keller thinks that, too, bears a direct relationship to the small size and thickness of those berries. It is unsurprising that this acidity consisted almost entirely of desirably efficacious tartaric acid, malic having been almost literally baked out. And this circumstance certainly favored Keller’s beloved category Kabinett, which in his cellar, unlike those of many Kabinett-loving colleagues, was far from a vintage rarity. Indeed, all of Pettenthal and Hipping were directed to that genre (for more about which, see under “Kabi” above).
“Yes,” notes Keller, “it was a hot summer with sunburn, but hours of sunshine from July through October were down by 100 from 2018.” And Keller’s 2018s certainly don’t taste as though extreme exposure handicapped them. Whether more a measure of how rapidly his grapes obtained optimal ripeness or of how critical it was to avoid any rot or burst berries –more likely, both – Keller’s team finished harvesting for this vintage’s Grosse Gewächse on October 15, unusually soon by estate standards. A few days before, switching to English, he had written me that, this year, "the early bird catches the worm."
Notes on My Notes...
The linked tasting notes covering Keller wines of vintages 2021, 2020, 2019 (plus a few 2018 Pinots) reflect tastings carried out between November, 2021 and December, 2022, with some wines being revisited during that period. All were tasted as finished bottlings at the estate. Bottles were opened from a few minutes to several hours ahead of time, according to what Keller deemed best for a given vintage and category of wine, but all were opened expressly for my tasting.
Apropos points, with Keller wines nowadays so routinely being awarded “ratings” of 98-100 points, it might be useful to clarify my own assessments, which in numerical terms (though, I suppose, also if measured in terms of breathless praise) must seem conservative, some might even say “stingy” by comparison. The first and fundamental point to be made about points is that they can only serve as a useful shorthand for a critic’s overall assessment or ranking of quality – or even for registering the extent of their enthusiasm and pleasure – provided one bears in mind that each critic is bound to utilize a numerical scale in whatever manner they find most helpful, which will therefore differ from one critic to another. My own attempts to keep scoring consistent with my intuitions render 98- or 99-point assessments extremely rare. Nor would I award a “perfect” score if I thought the wine was going to improve with time in bottle (which, I have great confidence, applies to most of Keller’s), otherwise how would I rate it if lucky enough to encounter it again “down the road”? If “100” has any intuitive meaning, then surely it’s: “I can’t imagine wine getting any finer than this?” So how could that be reconciled with “I expect this wine to be even finer with bottle age?”
I’m also often asked – especially about wines like Keller’s – why I seldom specify a “drinking window” that begins only some years later. I don’t think you should feel under some moral obligation to calculate maximum pleasure or wait for some distant date – either of which efforts must remain speculative. (Some of us will die in the meantime!) Circumstances extrinsic to the wine itself – like the effort you will have made (or the near impossibility of) securing even a single bottle – will likely stay your hand on the corkscrew. But otherwise, why should you feel any compunction pulling the cork if the experience would be enormously gratifying and exciting? I only incorporate a wait into my quantified “drinking window” if the young wine exhibits a toughness, severity, astringency, acidity, fermentative aura or reticence that I suspect would leave you disappointed or deceptively underwhelmed. That is seldom the case with today’s Rieslings – or even some of Keller’s youthfully irresistible Pinot Noirs – and even when it is, not usually for long.
*If you google “Wonnegau,” what will be outlined on the map reflects an association of municipalities sharing that name; but the eponymous official wine region – which also reflects colloquial usage – is considerably larger. It encompasses all of the Rheinhessen vineyards farmed by Keller, with the exception of those in Nierstein.
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