Just a wee bit of history before we begin, in order to establish context.
This all began when I started to represent an estate in Deidesheim called Dr. Deinhard. The connection was brokered by Johannes Selbach, but I’d known of the estate for decades, literally; I wrote about them in 1982 for a larger piece about the Deinhard operation. I got to meet the charming (and quintessential Pfälzer) Heinz Bauer, the cellarmaster, from whom my parting memory was seeing him on stilts in the estate courtyard, entertaining at a kid’s birthday party. When I met him (and the wines) again, they constituted a sort of rural aristocracy, forthright unpolished wines from outstanding terroirs. They were like a husband who needs his wife to tie his necktie for him, and who looks good, if a little bit strange afterwards.
I like the refined yet countrified touch those wines showed, I liked Mr. Bauer and I really liked that the estate didn’t fuss over the volume I sold. They enjoyed the relationship and they appreciated being represented. But then there was a change.
The estate was sold to a moneyed fellow from within the Pfalz, who was not merely an “investor” but also a great idealist, who already owned several of the big-boy estates in these environs. Far from merely a rich guy who liked wine and wanted a vanity project, it was rather the opposite: he was determined to provide whatever resuscitation might be needed to reclaim the exalted position his acquisitions once held. Everything he touched got better. And Dr. Deinhard was no exception.
The history of the morphing of Dr. Deinhard into Von Winning isn’t our topic here, and interested readers can obtain that information from any number of sources, including the winery’s own website. When I entered the fray it was as a skeptic with no small dismay; my connection to Dr. Deinhard wasn’t “significant” commercially, but it was sustainable and pleasant, and I was concerned the “new guy” would be ambitious in ways not necessarily congenial to me. Little did I know what would transpire.
A Mr. Stephan Attmann was hired to spearhead the project. Attmann was (and is) a wine freak getting to live his dream, to have virtual carte blanche to make great wines whatever the costs, and to catapult the estate’s reputation into the top rank. What followed was controversy.
Part of it was the suspicion-of-newcomers common in European village life. Part of it was normal human resistance to change. And part of it was a deep skepticism as regards what Attmann actually planned to do with the wines. Me, I liked the man right away; he’s the kind of wine nut you stay up much too late with (while drinking egregiously, if brilliantly) and we were off to the races. That said, I was mildly alarmed to hear him say that “While I love and respect the wines of Egon Müller and Helmut Dönnhoff, I don’t want to make Rieslings like those here in the Pfalz.” Fair enough; what kinds of wines did he want to make?
His paradigm was, it turned out, White Burgundy (Coche-Dury’s name was often cites as a lodestar) and his vision of Pfalz Riesling would enact the largeness of stature and the kingly bearing of these great dry whites. And in order to do so, they would involve….new oak.
As you probably know, the common truism is that Riesling and oak flavors are incompatible, and a corollary of that view is that Riesling is complete in itself and doesn’t need any seasonings. I myself hold a version of that view, though I had learned that a breath of cask (as opposed to a reek of barrique) was actually beneficial to some Rieslings, for which the aforementioned Mr. Dönnhoff offers perhaps the most compelling and delicious proof. Still, I was wary, because I am an unrepentant classicist. It turned out that my classicist taste was too narrowly defined.
In part the new casks were introduced as part of a process whereby old casks were retired. Many of them needed to be. But Attmann was determined to show that Pfalz Riesling could attain the inner power he loved within a syntax – or a dialect – found in Burgundy. He has made his case and then some, but at first the accord between grape and barrel was fitful. The great change – that moment when you can hear the idea realizing its aims – came with the 2012 vintage, since which time there has been no turning back. Indeed, rather the opposite; there has been a consistent and beautiful progress forward into ever-greater refinement and multi-dimensionality, and yet the idiom, the breath-of-cask has remained constant, though ever-more subtle.
The estate has no fewer than eight Grand Crus – or Grosse Gewächse – (or more mercifully, “GGs”) and several other sites of arguably “GG” stature declassified to Premier Cru, because as Andreas Hutwohl puts it, “How many GGs does one estate need?” Right! Eight would seem to suffice. (How many Burgundy estates can offer eight Grand Crus of a single color?)
The great Pfalz vineyards get less love than their siblings in other regions such as the Mosel (or Nahe, recently) but they are every bit as significant. Now that I’ve been tasting this family of GGs from Von Winning for 6-7 years now, I’ve been delighted how distinctive they are from one another. Andreas – whom I swear will be here any minute now! – has enjoyed some of my more lyrical/imagistic writings on the wines, and we began this conversation with a little exercise in fantasy.
TERRY: Andreas, let me begin by writing my image-tone for each of the GGs, and ask you to do the same. But it should be fast and spontaneous! Don’t think about it too hard.
So, mine go like this:
Kirchenstück. - priestly
Pechstein. - classical poet
Ungeheuer – food!
Jesuitengarten – meditating
Kalkofen - athletic
Langenmorgen – professorial
Grainhübel – musician
Kieselberg – needlepoint
ANDREAS: I like this!
Here are my word images:
Kirchenstück. - monumental
Pechstein. - razorblade
Ungeheuer – historic
Jesuitengarten – magical
Kalkofen - reposing
Langenmorgen – aristocratic
Grainhübel – southern beauty
Kieselberg – endurance athlete
FOR READERS LESS FAMILIAR WITH THESE CRUS, the first four belong to Forst and the latter four to Deidesheim. In general (and in a metaphor specific to me in all my peculiarity) I find Forst to be more Cajun and Deidesheim to show more rectitude. Kirchenstück is widely considered the Great One, the Clos-Ste.-Hûne of the Pfalz.
But Andreas awaits! Thanks for bearing with me.
TERRY: I don’t need a complete resumé, but I don’t recall what you were doing before Von Winning? (Maybe the last two jobs?) And how did you meet Stephan (Attmann)?
ANDREAS: I am a child of the „Ruhrgebiet“, a densely populated, beer drinking and industrial area between Duisburg and Dortmund, and grew up between the rivers Ruhr and Rhein. After two generations and a few professional detours, I made it back to the roots of my family: winemaking in the Rhine valley rift, Neustadt, Pfalz.
First I completed an apprenticeship (at Weegmüller – where I met Hans Günter (Schwarz) for the first time – and Bassermann-Jordan) and studied viticulture and Oenologie in Geisenheim and in Udine/ Friuli afterwards.
TERRY: I need to break in quickly and let y’all know (if you don’t already) that Hans Günter Schwarz is a profound and seminal figure in German wine. During his nearly 40 years at Müller-Catoir he made that estate into the very best in all of Germany. An entire generation of European cellarmasters stands atop his shoulders. There is now a family relationship between Andreas and Hans Günter, who is married to Andreas’ mother.)
ANDREAS: During this time I worked with August Kesseler in the Rheingau, Poggio al Sole in Chianti Classico, Feudi della Medusa in Sardegna, Mitchell Wines in Clare Valley and with Hans Günter at Villa Niederberger (TERRY: where he did an informal little project following his “official” retirement from Müller-Catoir.)
In 2009 Hans Günter took me to VON WINNING to meet Stephan. We talked, tasted the 2008 vintage from the barrels (Stephan’s fist vintage as you know) and one year later (August 2010 and exactly 10 years ago) I started working with Stephan.
TERRY: Am I correct that he basically created the job for you?
ANDREAS: He was not looking for help, correct; the position as his right hand was created. And in the beginning I was working in the cellar a lot and did tastings for customers both in Germany and outside. In 2011 Stephan and the late owner Achim Niederberger asked me to take care of the Export. The rest is history, I guess.
TERRY: It’s probably kismet that you and I met just as that ascension-vintage 2012 was ready to taste. But it strikes me that nearly all the wine we’ve had together are the estate’s, right? As it should be of course, but let me ask you a general question about your taste in wine apart from Von Winning or even the Pfalz in general. You have to taste your own wines all the time (and drink them for pleasure also) but name for me a few wines (or kinds of wines) you really drink only for fun.
ANDREAS: No name dropping here, but: I really love to drink Kabinetts from the Mosel (the diamond-like and pure ones) and Champagne (especially Blanc de Blancs). I used to have problems with heart burn and suffered from drinking sparkling wine. After I stopped drinking coffee 2 years ago now (not a single sip!) the problem was solved and I can drink as much Champagne as I want (and can afford).
When it comes to red wine, I love Bordeaux more and more. Chiantis remain my old love!
TERRY: What would you open to celebrate your wife’s birthday or your wedding anniversary?
ANDREAS: This would definitely be loads of Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett from Schloss Lieser, because it was the first wine, that she enjoyed after having our kids. For a long time, every wine tasted bitter to her and then 2015 Juffer came along. Makes it a special wine for us. Also Champagne and maybe a special bottle of Bordeaux would be opened.
TERRY: You are a “man of the Pfalz,” but if you HAD to work in another region, which one would seem like the most enjoyable or interesting? And now the same question again, but this time including places outside of Germany?
ANDREAS: I will answer the other way around, because my first choices are actually outside of Germany.
My first choice would be a region in France. I have been to Italy and Australia, but have missed out on France in the past. Burgundy would be my first choice in fact. Champagne would be amazing as well and the Kamptal in Austria is very interesting in terms of terroir.
In Germany it clearly is the Mosel. I have never worked there and would like to silence my friend Johannes Selbach, when he tells me, that I do not know real slopes. :-)
TERRY: Speaking of vineyards, In this year-of-Covid, when you’ll be working in the vineyards and cellar more than usual, do you find this satisfying, and does it feel like a return to the fundamentals? This prompts a second question: what part of your work is most deeply fulfilling to you? What do you wish you could do more of?
ANDREAS: I have learned the profession, before I studied viticulture and enology. I was drawn to the world of wine, because I enjoy working physically, wanted to be outside as much as possible and wanted to meet a lot of people and travel. It helped that I had family and roots in winemaking. When I started working at VON WINNING I was much more in the cellar, than I am now. Then I started to travel more and it became more and more important for me to be in the world, talking about our wines and showing them.
It is fantastic to spend time in the cellar and in the vineyard this year. I have missed vineyard work the most. Being outside and tending plants, being part of nature is very fulfilling to me.
Most deeply fulfilling in general is doing my best and knowing, when I have done a good job. After all these years, I think I am best when I can talk about our wines and can inspire people. When people are genuinely happy after having tasted with me, I am too! This is what fulfills me the most.
TERRY: It is established that Stephan’s “North Star” when he started at VW was not Egon Müller but rather Coche-Dury. As you know, I myself find the closest soul-and-style cousin to your wines to be Raveneau. Is your style adapting or altering in any way? And if so, is this something you designed or did it happen spontaneously? And if not, would you say you have done exactly what you set out to do?
ANDREAS: I would not say, that the style is altering in any way. It has always been the goal to express the unique and historic terroir, that we have here. Using oak barrels is very traditional to our region and 60 years ago, not a single wine was fermented in stainless steel. We have refined and developed the fermentation and aging of our Rieslings and other wines in oak over the years and we do have an always more profound collection of barrels of all sizes and ages. One gets better with experience, but I think that we are making the wines, we set out to make:Profound in aroma, dense, but elegant, full of weight, but with a racy light-footedness...and most of all expressions of the different unique vineyard sites.
TERRY: Each of the GG labels has its own color. Is this at all symbolic of the style of the wines?
ANDREAS: Nope, the colors are absolutely random, only the black in the labels of the sites from Forst stands for basalt (and even here is the yellow Jesuitengarten). Every vineyard site has a different color, which is great, because few people outside Germany can pronounce for example “Grainhübel”. Apart from that, the colors are Stephan’s thing and feeling. He is not a man of rigid systematics, but of emotion. You know him well! The colors come from feeling and emotion. It makes a lot of sense, that the emotion towards the wine is closely linked to the style of it. The style is not the driving force, though!
TERRY: This is a serious idea, and one we don’t see talked about enough. The simplest way to say it is, before the wine there is the idea of the wine. And the idea can and does entail the way the vintner feels about it. To put it perhaps crudely, if you love Grainhübel you are subconsciously steering it toward being a “loving” wine, whereas if you’re in awe of, say, Kirchenstück, you’d seek to make a wine that embodies awe in some way.
I’m also not sure we talk enough about wine in terms of how it is actually used and not only evaluated. So let me ask, what Von Winning wines would you reach for, for these different occasions:
A walk in the woods, alone.
ANDREAS: Kirchenstück, because the “silence“ and serenity it can create when you drink it matches the serenity of the woods. We had this moment of meditation together once, do you remember?
TERRY: Very well; I think it was the beginning of our friendship. What about a walk in the woods with a friend?
ANDREAS: Sauvignon Blanc I. It is joyful, but has a lot of serenity and weight!
TERRY: Watching football on TV.
ANDREAS: Impossible to pick a single wine here. I am watching so much Fußball , that one wine could never fit the circumstances of every game. They vary from easy (Sauvignon Blanc II) to dramatic (Pechstein GG) like the wines, so everything is possible.
TERRY: To take to the bedside of a sick friend.
ANDREAS This has to count, so it is my favorite Riesling vineyard: Pechstein. The wine is racy like a razorblade and should at least lift spirits!
TERRY: To celebrate that friend’s recovery.
ANDREAS: Pechstein again. Maybe she or he did not really taste everything, when she or he was sick!
TERRY: To sip quietly in the audience at a recital of 19th century piano music.
ANDREAS: Reiterpfad Erste Lage. It has the exact right amount of complexity, without being too demanding. It does not draw all of the attention away from the music.
TERRY: To drink with me when we can finally see each other again!
ANDREAS: Whatever Terry wishes to drink! This is clearly your choice. :-)
TERRY: To show an inexperienced but interested drinker their first-ever Riesling.
ANDREAS: Paradiesgarten Erste Lage. The wine is elegant and feminine but has loads of structure and salinity at the same time. There you go, new Riesling-friend!
TERRY: Apart from your own wines, when you are “evaluating” wine in general, what are the things you look for? How, if at all, do you think your palate is different from those of your colleagues or other tasters in general?
ANDREAS: First of all I check all the technical boxes, regarding color, smell and taste to look for weaknesses or faults. This is more or less the same for every professional taster, I guess.
TERRY: I think it depends on which part of the profession one occupies. I mean, I am not a cellarmaster, so I’m not probing a wine to make sure it’s free from errors, I’m just receiving it and if there are flaws I’ll notice them. But it’s not my first order of business. But let’s suppose the wine is fault-free: what then?
ANDREAS: If all is good, it is a question of how good the wine is.
All things related to structure and texture are very important to me. I do look for juicy wines, with aromatic weight and density, and with great structure and length, but that are fine and elegant at the same time. I go crazy for wines that are full of umami and (because of that) literally mouthwatering in combination with succulent fruit.
The key is balance and the analytics are not important, if the balance is there.Acidity and tension are always important to me. If the wine is full of tension, the residual sugar can be (analytically) as high as it wants.
Apart from the ability of detecting the technical values of a wine, I think it is impossible to compare ones taste with the taste of other people. When I taste with colleagues, we agree 99,9% of the time, even though the way to the result is surely fundamentally different with every taster.
TERRY: Changing the subject a bit, let’s talk Sauvignon Blanc. As your Sauvignon Blanc is a cause celebré in the States, tell me, did you inherit these vines or did you plant them deliberately? And if so, what was your vision for the wines? (My own sense is it was with a look toward the best of Südsteiermark and white Bordeaux – is this accurate?)
ANDREAS: We inherited one Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, but planted many more, starting with the high density plantings in the Paradiesgarten. The late owner Achim Niederberger liked the variety very much and it was his wish to get more of it from us.
TERRY: Isn’t it funny how often that happens? You ask your question looking for some grand philosophical answer, and it turns out to be “Nah, I just happen to crave it and I wanted to get it in-house.” Were the team convinced also, or were you either skeptical or just willing to give el jefe what he wanted?
ANDREAS: We were convinced from the beginning, that we had fantastic conditions for SB, but we didn’t expect the wines to become that good so fast. The conditions on the slopes of the Haardt mountains, with warm days, but cool afternoons (the sun sets behind the mountains and we have shadow on the top sites in the afternoon) and thermal cooling at night are ideal for the variety. The grapes are aromatically ripe (they get really exotic, like passion fruit) at just the point where the acidity is still racy and the sugar is still moderate.
If you would like to compare it with any region, I agree, that the wines come close to white Bordeaux stylistically (especially the barrel fermented ones SB I and SB 500).Those wines are often exotic and juicy, with great salinity and structure. Our wines have more acidity, yet offer aromas of passion fruit or grilled pineapple.
In cool years, the aroma is a bit more citrus like and sometimes leans towards Riesling.
TERRY: Just as I find that Riesling from Paradiesgarten leans toward Sauvignon, so interesting that both varieties are planted there. But in any case, I find the runaway-train success of your Sauvignons makes me feel a little sad that the Rieslings maybe don’t get enough love. As is typical for Riesling, alas.
ANDREAS: I am preaching to the choir, when I tell you, that Riesling is a niche, when you are outside of Germany. Sauvignon Blanc is important for us, because wine lovers all over the world know the variety and can evaluate the wines. At the same time, many have little experience with great dry Rieslings. Tasting our SBs has opened the door to our Rieslings for many!
TERRY: That’s a nice way to look at it, or at least much nicer than my own jaundiced view. But let me return to the Pfalz in general and to Von Winning especially. It is sometimes said that Pfalz wines are relatively robust or burly, especially compared with Mosel or Nahe wines. Often Pfalz wine is depicted with typically “masculine” images and descritpors. Would you describe (or accept someone’s description) of any of VW’s wines as “feminine?” A related question: I myself would say that among the GGs, all of them talk in speech, in words, except Grainhübel, which talks in melodies. Comments?
ANDREAS: I would absolutely describe some of our wines as feminine. The Paradiesgarten is so elegant and fine (but yet well structured and full of tension), that it can only be described as feminine. The Langenmorgen GG is the fillet mignon of the Erste Lage Paradiesgarten and the wine is a more intense and complex version of the Paradiesgarten. The Langenmorgen is like an aristocratic lady in my opinion.
Wines like the Reiterpfad of Rupperstberg or the Ungeheuer GG of Forst are much louder and muscular and hence more masculine in comparison.
I like your analogy of the GGs talking in words or melody very much. I see, why Grainhübel speaks differently too, because it is more lush, voluptous and almost exotic (being southward exposed). For me they all speak in words, only different languages though. Grainhübel speaks Italian (a very melodic language) and the other sites of Deidesheim speak French (each with a different dialect). Ungeheuer speaks a bit harder and louder, so it is Spanish. Pechstein speaks very sophisticated Oxford English, is very passionate though. Jesuitengarten speaks Portuguese: melodic, mysterious and dramatic. Kirchenstück speaks the language of philosophers: Ancient Greek. All of them have a German accent of course! ;-)
TERRY: An interjection here. I really like Andreas’ images of different languages being spoken by the respective Crus, and it’s partly why I feel so strongly that the only way to understand any of them is to know all of them. We perform such delicious examinations with great delight in Burgundy or Piedmont, so why not with German Riesling?
TERRY: What do you want people to say about your wines, that is, what remark would make you feel “This person really gets it, this is exactly the impression we most desire to create.”
ANDREAS: That we’re making dry, salty and complex terroir wines, which are fine and elegant, age very well, but are a lot of fun to drink even when they are young. Tasting the expression of the many different historic vineyard sites is a great experience.
TERRY: When you started out at the winery, or really when both you and Steffan did, can you recall an unexpected discovery that ended up having an impact on quality?
ANDREAS: In the beginning, the part of the cellar where our barrel room is today was not really used. Before Stephan came along, it was more or less junk storage. There was a small vault attached to it, that I didn’t even know myself for a time, because it was hard to reach and completely full of old and unused tanks.
This beautiful part of the cellar was sleeping and dreaming of better times to come. We know now that it’s the best part of the cellar, and today the heart of our best wines, ferment and age there! The lesson learned from it is, that one has to understand the potential of the conditions one has to work with, and strive to make the best out of them. This applies to every aspect of life of course!
TERRY: Answer this hypothetical question please: A restaurateur tells you “I am going to feature Von Winning wines on my list and by the glass. I’d like to adapt our menu for them, so can you make a few suggestions? What should I be serving, to showcase your wines?”
ANDREAS: That is a very tough one, Terry. Our wines are versatile and work well with many different kinds of cuisine. This goes for the Rieslings, but we also have Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc), which is the ultimate all-rounder, when it comes to food pairing.
People often think about Asian food and Sushi, when it comes to Riesling, but the Pfalz is a region of Bratwurst, liver dumplings, Saumagen and Sauerkraut. All of that works perfectly with our wines. As we have many different wines, I would advise the restaurateur to focus on some specific wine pairings:
- Oyster Bar - Sauvignon Blanc (especially the „II“) and Estate Riesling
- Sushi - SB, Riesling and Pinot Noir (amazing with Toro!!)
- Steak House - Barrel fermented whites (Riesling Erste Lage and GGs, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, SB) and Pinot Noir
- Vietnamese (I love it) - Rieslings and SB
TERRY: (interjects) While I agree with Andreas here, we do have to be mindful that dry wines in general have their struggles with foods that are sweeter than they are. Overall I would use the Rieslings as I would the Chablis of Raveneau, essentially dry wines “mineral” driven yet with a yielding quality from that surmise of woodsiness. We drink Von Winning all the time at home and find them flexible when the proper cares are taken. Indeed they’re above all graceful wines, always limber and lucid, happy friends of the table. And if residual sugar is asked for, there’s always my bespoke wine “WINNINGS” which indicates the estate also has a fine touch in the feinherb idiom.
TERRY: What are your favorite things to do, that have nothing to do with wine or food or flavor?
ANDREAS: Number one is gardening. This is a hobby, which my wife and I have in common and we have a lot of vegetables and fruits in the garden. Even a task like pulling weeds on a summer evening is a wonderful and meditative thing to do.
Number two is watching soccer and reading news about all things related to it. I would call myself a soccer-nerd.
Number three is physical activity, like going to the gym and riding my bike through the vineyards from Bad Dürkheim to Deidesheim every day.
TERRY: As the climate warms, what can you do in the vineyards to continue to be able to harvest ripe grapes without having 120º Oechsle? ;-)
ANDREAS: We have just bottled the 2019 Paradiesgarten Riesling Erste Lage with 11,5% by vol. of alcohol. 2019 was a very warm year and this is perfect proof, that the region is still a world class Riesling region. Of course the conditions become better for other varieties as well (and the Pfalz always was a home to different grapes, even though it is the world‘s largest Riesling region), but Riesling remains number one.
To harvest ripe, but not overly ripe grapes, we work with a not so high but intact canopy and give the grapes shadow, rather than exposing them. For 12 years we have not used fertilizers to push the vines, but instead work with cover crops in between the rows. They bind nutrients, bring oxygen into the soil and boost microorganisms and are in competition with the vines.
Our vineyard manager Joachim Jaillet is a genius and the grapes he brings home are wonderful. We are always able to adapt and there is no recipe.
Thanks Andreas! And if I may, a few parting words: Notwithstanding the early controversies over the estate’s tolerance of discernibly woody elements in its Rieslings, I think at this point any controversy ought to have dissolved into an absorbed fascination with the particular dialect these wines speak. They remain, if not unique then still quite unusual in the Pfalz as a whole. If someone (possibly resembling, um, me…) was tempted to infer that “woody” wines would suffer the corollary issues of clumsiness and overripeness, Von Winning’s Rieslings are resplendent and dramatic proof to the contrary. With very few exceptions, the breath of a cask cellar works to their benefit, especially in the context of a collection of wines so deft, articulate and poised.