A German-Italian-Austrian winemaker in the Rheingau
Weingut Künstler is a family wine estate dating back to 1648. With roots in the Czech Republic and Hungary they are today located in Hochheim in Rheingau in Germany. Gunter Künstler was recently in Stockholm for a magnificent tasting and review of their wines. Ulf Bengtsson reports for BKWine.
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in a wine tasting in Stockholm led by Gunter Künstler, the owner/manager of Weingut Künstler. The tasting was arranged by their Swedish importer Nigab and took place in the old vaults of Grappe, one of the leading wine storage companies in Sweden.
The tasting was certainly overwhelming by all standards, and it sought to demonstrate how the different terroirs in Rheingau presented themselves in the wines. Although being one of the most eluding concepts in all the wine making business, terroir is always present. Taking with him the bulk of the whole array of his dry Rieslings from Rheingau, Gunter set out so pin-point the alternating faces of terroir with striking clarity.
In this article, I have focused on Gunter Künstler’s thoughts on wine and winemaking, and less on actual tasting notes. In general, the wines were very elegant.
“My job as a winemaker is not to press my style of winemaking into wines. My job is to convert nature into a glass.”
We begin out journey with a flight of four dry Rieslings from 2001, the first being the 2011 Hochheimer Herrenberg Riesling Trocken. The first question is whether the winemaker should enhance terroir or subdue it. Gunter shares his thoughts on this without hesitation:
“I’m not there. I feel, as a winemaker, my job is not to press my style of winemaking into wines. My job is to convert nature into a glass. Without any force, it should be expressed, each soil individually. This is my goal.”
“Hell and heaven does not fit well together.”
He continues arguing for that some of the wines, although both being Riesling from vineyards next to each other, they may still be unique in style making them rather un-blendable:
“Our vineyard sites are so different and sometimes it is really impossible to make a blend, in spite of the fact that both barrels are 100 percent Riesling. But they do not like each other. One vineyard has the name ‘Hölle’ which means hell, the other ‘Kirchenstück’, I think, a piece of land from the church, and I think you can imagine that the church and the hell does not fit together.”
Elegance, freshness, crispiness
In this first flight, apart from 2011 Hochheimer Herrenberg Riesling Trocken, we tasted 2011 Rüdesheimer Klosterlay Riesling Kabinett trocken, 2011 Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Kabinett trocken, and 2011 Hochheimer Stein Riesling trocken.
All these wines showed similarities in style, scent, and appearance. They were light in colour, no aromas of candy so often found in wines from the Nahe. Very fresh and very crisp. My mind wanders off to sauvignon blanc, there is the same freshness and crispiness.
The Rüdesheimer Klosterley vineyard consists of more porphyry and slate. I think it shows more delicacy. Gunter notes that “I’m thinking of elegance all the time, because body and richness we are getting anywhere.” The 2011 Hochheimer Stein is slightly different, a lot of sand is presumed to give a higher ripeness which gives lower acidity.
Alte reben, old vines without noble rot give density and elegance
In the next flight of wines we encounter 2011 Hochheimer Stielweg Riesling Alte Reben trocken, 2011 Rüdesheimer Bishofsberg Riesling Alte Reben trocken, and 2001 Hochheimer Domdechaney Riesling trocken.
The vines in Stielweg Alte Reben were bought 17 years ago, now being 60 year old vines. A lot of density and elegance. The vines in Bishofsberg, on the other hand, are 20 years younger.
Gunter notes that it is difficult to grow riesling in a humid climate, much since riesling has a thin skin which makes it easy for noble rot to get a foothold. The goal, as expressed by Gunter, is to avoid noble rot since you need undamaged berries to get a proper display of the terroir:
“Our goal from January until October is all the time to avoid noble rot, because we make 90% dry riesling. And to underline the character of a vineyard site… Therefore you have to have healthy berries. Because in the berry is located the aroma. And if a berry is destroyed, so the aroma gets more and more in the background and it is very difficult to point out the character of each vineyards. So we are trying to achieve healthy, healthy grapes.”
Finally in this flight, we taste the Domedechaney. The vineyard is nothing but heavy clay. We get power, richness. The wine is 100 percent fermented and stored in large, used oak barrels. The other wines are steel tank fermented. Gunter explains that “because of that richness, it needs to have that oak. Not like a barrique, to point out oak character but to have opportunity to mature slowly, exchange with oxygen. A very special vineyard.”
One of the world’s most expensive wines. In 1896
We move on to the third flight and the first, and only wine in this flight, is the 2011 Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland. In 1896, this was one of the most valuable wines in the world. The evidence for this is a catalogue from Berry Bros. and Rudd, in which the Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland is as expensive as the prominent Bordeaux wines. Anyway, once again we have elegance and even more elegance. All fermented and aged in large, used oak barrels.
You cannot make great wines in the cellar.
Gunter begins by once more stressing his view of that the wine should express its terroir and that a wine is made in the vineyard, not in the cellar:
“The process of farming the gapes properly is really the most important step, because you cannot ferment anything out that is not in the grape. You cannot make great wines in the cellar. This is impossible. You must be busy like a bee in the vineyard. And you must smell what is going on, you must have a feeling in your feet what about the soil, this is necessary.”
“Then you get the inspiration of doing the right thing. But you must be like a bee. This is what our business is all about. “
To make great wines you must have imagination.
“To make great wines you must have imagination, you must have a strong head at the right moment and the very sensible hand also at the right moment. We are making European wines; we work as clearly as Germans do. We are giving a lot of emotions into our wines, like the Italians. We have a lot of charm, like the Austrians.”
In the concluding flight we compare 2011 Hochheimer Kirchenstück Riesling Erstes Gewächs trocken with 2011 Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Erstes Gewächs trocken.
This is a battle between the shy and the outgoing:
“Hochheimer Kirchenstück has something feminine to me, because it has a great elegance and finesse and certain respect, and it is not over-pronounced… it is like… you are at a reception: wonderful, sparkling, many people around, and somebody is there, s/he shows a very sovereign expression. But s/he’s shy, quiet, well-dressed, perfume is not too much, not too little, a very elegant person. And, you are trying to get a talk with her, or him. But after the reception s/he has disappeared and you are always thinking of him or her. It would have been good to had a little talk, just to see what was behind. This is Kirchenstück.”
“Hölle, the next one, is just the opposite. It a full-bodied, guy, who comes in the door, here I am. You have to adore me. This is Hölle.”
We then taste a few wines from 2007. The wines are developing nicely. Gunter jokes about that when he came into the wine making business conventional wisdom was that dry riesling could not be aged. Well, that has all been changed and this exercise of comparing clearly demonstrates this. The crispiness is reduced and the elegance is enhanced.
Reds from pinot noir
Then we move on to the pinot noirs. Contrary to common belief, the pinot noir is in fact older than riesling in Rheingau. The first evidence pinot noir in the Rheingau area was discovered 1107. The first evidence from riesling is in 1435, 328 years later. Monks from Burgundy, Bernard of Clairvaux in particular, established the Monastery of Eberbach.
Judging from wine making tales around the globe, pinot noir is not an easy wine to make. The grape is very thin-skinned and really need to be handled gently. The right conditions must apply. Gunter shares his experience with the pinot noir, starting with a journey to Hawaii and a talk to John Kongsgaard at Kongsgaard winery in Napa:
“Pinot noir, if you are going around the globe and if you are talking with winemakers, everybody is saying pinot noir is so tricky. Why do you do it? One example is when we were invited, ten years ago, to a special wine and food event. This was called ‘Cuisines of the Sun.’ It was on the island of Hawaii, and it was tricky to convince the authorities that this really was a business visit…”
‘What?! You’re doing pinot noir? Are you crazy?’
Gunter continues, “I got to talk to Kongsgaard and I told him that we were doing riesling but also pinot noir. He said ‘What?! You’re doing pinot noir? Are you crazy? Let me tell you about pinot noir. I have been doing pinot noir for twenty years and each year I was really not pleased. My wife was worried about my pinot noir. In the year twenty-one I advised my kids to make the pinot noir with my recipe. And my wife and I had been sitting at the corner of the vineyard watching the kids do the pinot noir and we shared a bottle of Champagne. And what was the result? In the year twenty-one, the pinot poir was really good.’”
In the end, John Kongsgaard got so fed up with the pinot noir that he uprooted everything and planted cabernet sauvignon instead. The story tells that you need to be really sensitive about pinot noir.
Künstler’s pinot noirs are all 100 percent top fruit, 100 percent best barrels. The 2009 Tradition is fermented and aged in used oak. They use mostly German pinot noir clones, although some Burgundy clones are also used. The 2009 Hochheimer Stein grows on sandy soil, with chalk beneath. These vines are a Burgundy clone, number 37, I think. Smoother and sweeter fruit.
2009 was a great pinot vintage. We continue with three vintages of Hochheimer Reichestal, “the rich valley”, 2009, 2010, and 2011. Hochheimer Reichestal gets a lot of sun reflection and the rieslings from Reichestal are often too ripe. And what about the oak? Hochheimer Stein is aged in 30% new oak and Hochheimer Reichestal is aged in 90% new oak.
And now for something completely different!
With this we have arrived at the concluding part of the whole tasting, joyfully named “and now for something completely different!” by the organizers. I cannot but agree: one sauvignon blanc and two chardonnays form Rheingau. That is not your everyday find in this area! Gunter starts with the background, saying that his and his family’s extensive travels to the Austrian state of Styria gave him the inspiration to plant sauvignon blanc. Not without protest though: “my wife complained heavily, ‘are you crazy to plant Sauvignon Blanc?’”
But he says, “I thought, let’s try it!” Gunter Künstler is, just like the late Didier Dagueneau in Sancerre, a member of the French organization L’Union des Gens de Metier.
Künstler has one customer for all his sauvignon blanc, a restaurant on the island Cyprus called Zanzibar.
The wine is fermented in stainless steels of course. It is an interesting wine, not over-powered with exotic fruit and pineapple like some New Zealand sauvies. Instead thet are more elegant, like the South African or Californian counterparts. But it is, with Gunter’s own words, “just a toy.” My advice to him is to make more of this!
The two chardonnays from Herrenberg are interesting and well-made. First we taste the one with less oak. The inspiration here is from Chablis. Gunter notes that “I personally like a really good Chablis.” The soil in Herrenberg is rather chalky. The first wine is fermented in stainless steels and aged in old barriques. The second chardonnay is exposed to more oak and that shows.
Gunter tells the story of the 2008 vintage, which had been attacked by some noble rot. Moreover, the must weight was over 120 degrees. He wanted to throw it away, but his father said that that was a sin. “Ok, for you I will do my best,” replied Gunter. Well! “We did bottle fermentation, malolactic fermentation… we did the bâtonnage… we did everything they do in Burgundy and in the end, the wine was not so bad!”
What about the zin?
A final question from the audience sums it all up:
“So you will soon do zinfandel?”
“Zinfandel, very interesting!” says Gunter Künstler…
So look out for any Rheingau zinfandels in the future. Money is on that they will be Künstler’s.
Many thanks to Gunter Künstler and Nigab for this very interesting tasting and especially to Gunter for sharing his thoughts on wine with us. Take care!
More on Weingut Kunstler.
More on the importer, Nigab.
Ulf Bengtsson writes about wine under the pseudonym Red Scream on his blog Red Scream and Riesling, on wine, food, photography and other things that are important in life. Like detective novels, taking long walks in Stockholm and the occasional burst of exercise. He is on twitter as @Red_scream and on Facebook.