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Riesling Robert Weil



Kiedricher Gräfenberg site (front) and Kiedricher Turmberg (far left), southwest facing steep slopes with poor phyllite soils – foothills of the Taunus mountain range.





“Quality is a result of self-torment”


H i s t or y 

Kiedricher Auslese


A r c h i t e c t ure T h e E s t a t e – a n A r c h i t e c t u r a l E n s e m b l e with its own History 


I n t er v i e w w i lhel m w e i l W h a t m a k e s a g r e a t R i e s l i n g ? 


The w i n e e s t a t e a n d w ork i n t he v i n e y ar d 

Riesling has Style


Rock, Soil, the Rheingau and the Ecosystem


Fr u i t – M a t u r i t y 


Life with and without Oxygen


W i n e Ta s t i n g

Kiedricher Gräfenberg Riesling dry and noble sweet




Historical view of the Turmberg site (1911)

History Dr .  Da n i e l D e c k e r s

iedricher Auslese Th e R o b e r t w e i l w i n e e s t a t e a s s e e n i n t h e h i s t o r y o f g e r m a n a n d rh e i n gau W i n e s that of the Kiedrich winegrower Dr. Robert Weil. As the survivThe festive banquet held on the 12th of May 1918 to which Wiling menu shows, the only wine the two monarchs had with their helm II, King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany, invited the food was that from the cellars of Dr. Weil himself. The wine in then barely thirty year old Emperor Karl I Franz Joseph of Ausquestion was the “Kiedricher Auslese” of the1911 vintage. tria, was anything but a casual gentlemen’s evening. Almost four It would not have been necessary for Wilhelm to explain years had passed since the assassination of crown prince Franz-­ to his guest from Vienna that those times Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the outbreak of when German emperors would have Chamthe war, which to this day is referred to as the pagne for their breakfasts and luncheons “Grand Guerre” by the French. It was widely and fine Bordeaux as an accompaniment known amongst all warring parties that Karl with meat dishes were over. Perhaps a muwas experiencing doubts as to whether the tual agreement was also reached about the Central Powers would be able to claim vicwines of Dr. Weil, without the need for tory in the demoralizing war against the Enmuch discussion. Even more than German tente. Therefore, it was even more important pride in their wines from the Rhine region for the German emperor to swear the young and of the world-renowned reputation of Austrian to the mutual cause, especially ­after the “Crescenzen” produced solely from the separate peace with Russia and before Riesling grapes harvested on the banks of any potentially crucial battles on the western the “holy waters of the Rhine” the Auslese front. wine from Kiedrich symbolised the bond Sharing exquisite food, the two monbetween the two ­dynasties, which dated archs met for the last time in European hisback to bygone times of peace. tory for a Two-Emperor-summit in the glamSince Wilhelm II had tasted a Kiedorous Belgian spa town of Spa, which had richer Auslese from the vineyard of Dr. recently become the military headquarters for The wine drunk by the monarchs Robert Weil in 1900 on one of his regular the Central Powers. That evening’s menu has was from the Dr. Robert Weil wine visits to “his” town of Wiesbaden, imperial survived to this day. It has found its way to estate: a Kiedricher Auslese 1911. meals had become unthinkable without this the Rheingau region, or to be precise to the very wine. Moreover, many courts visited by vineyard in Kiedrich, (by which circuitous the German Emperor in subsequent years thought it their courtly path we don’t know) and for a very good reason. The name that duty to serve Wilhelm his favourite wine: initially this would surely would have been mentioned during the banquet itself was


In short: As can be ascertained through surviving menus and oral tradition referring to the destinations of the noble growths, the Auslesen from Kiedrich were thought of as the true icon of German wine culture and on a par with the best wines from the Bordeaux region, or the most famous champagnes of the neighbour in the west. In this respect it was like no other ­German wine of its time. But how did this come about? How could a wine from Kiedrich, of all places, and one from a non-aristocratic winery be destined to loosen the tongues of crowned heads and their guests, be it in February 1902 on board of SMY Hohenzollern in New York harbour, in the summer of 1907 at the Wilhelmshöhe palace in Kassel, or three years later in the East-Prussian town of Königsberg? What is the story behind the unusual rise of this estate, leading to its appearance on the imperial menu of August 1918, and its recognition as the leading German winery around the world a hundred years (and some setbacks) later? What led the “Gräfenberg” site to become an uncontested member of the canon of the world’s best sites predestined for Riesling wine?


Wilhelm Weil, son of the founder Dr. Robert Weil

have been an Auslese of the 1983 vintage, produced from the best grapes of the “Gräfenberg” site and possibly “Turmberg”, and later its worthy successors from the 1904 and 1911 vintages. We have to thank chance for the survival of a photo from that time. Among fragments of our historical documents and alongside old menus chronicling the story of the winery Robert Weil there is a photo showing a small boy wearing a sailor’s outfit and sitting on a 600-litre barrel, a barrel known in the region as “Halbstück”. This barrel filled with the 1893 vintage Auslese was destined for the emperor’s court in Vienna. Wilhelm, the only son of Robert Weil and his wife Emilie, née Fastnagel and from Koblenz, could have sat and played on any of the barrels like the one in the picture and at the turn of the century many wine barrels left the house built in the English country house style. House and winery were in close proximity to the gothic St Valentinus Church, and from here wine was delivered to St Petersburg and to the entourage of the Italian King Vittorio Emmanuele III (1900–1946).

MONS R H IN G R A VII This meteoric ascent into the Olympus of the world of wine of the late 19th century was anything but predestined for the wine ­estate of Robert Weil – it wasn’t even in the destiny of wines from Kiedrich. It is true that in the early middle ages there had been wine growing in Kiedrich, and together with Rauenthal these were the two highest lying villages in the Rheingau region and thus furthest away from the river Rhine. At the end of the 12th century, as documented in the relevant chronicles, the slope facing south west and just above the village already carried the name which referred back to its owner and which is the precursor of its ­current name. It was Mons Rhingravii – the mountain of the Barons (Grafen) of the Rhine, the same aristocratic dynasty whose youngest line had died out by 1198. The name of the mountain (cleared for cultivation in 1109 according to ancient sources) appeared in its germanised form “grevenberg” for the first time in the ­middle of the 13th century. At that time parts of


the vineyard were ­received as a gift and thus fell to the ownership of the Cistercian monastery of Eberbach, situated nearby, and other parts to the barons of Nassau. However, everywhere from Hochheim to Wiesbaden and Rüdesheim, it was names of many and various wine villages and vineyards of the region which throughout the centuries helped make wines from the Rhine become a household name and their producers rich beyond compare. Taking a look at the holdings of Rheingau monasteries like Eberbach, of abbeys like Fulda, of dioceses like Mainz or of the old aristocratic families like the Lang­ wehrts, the Eltzs, or the Greiffenclauses is the tried and tested way of identifying the best winegrowing sites in the Rheingau region. Names like Domdechaney, Marcobrunn, Johannisberg, Rothenberg or Rüdesheimer Berg were always revered above others. Long before the Riesling vine began to establish a foothold in the 16th century, the best wines were distinguished by taking the names of individual districts and vineyards. From the early 18th century onwards, the Rheingau region was also known for the production of “Cabinet” wines – those most noble of noble growths, which, thanks to their special ­vinification, their separate storage and the fact that they were sometimes sold in bottles rather than just barrels, had become the epitome of rarity. It was also in the Rheingau region that the differentiation of wines not only according to their origin but also according to types of taste was first developed. In the course of the 19th century, the terms “Spätlesen” and “Auslesen” became ­synonymous with the very best quality wines produced on the northerly winegrowing border, including the “Gräfenberg”. After the confusions of secularization and the Napoleonic Wars, a small portion of the Kiedrich Gräfenberg vineyard, (which had been part of the vineyard holdings of the Cistercian monastery Eberbach), ended up as the property of the new ruler, the baron Duke of Nassau. However, the pleasure the ­Nassau family got from these wines from Steinberg, Hattenheim, ­Kiedrich and Rüdesheim was destined not to last. In 1866, Adolf von Nassau sided with Austria in the German-German war and lost, together with his territory, his rule of the biggest


Founder Dr. Robert Weil (1843–1923) with his wife Emilie (1855–1933)


The estate – an arch  ensemble with

A r c h i t e c t ur e D i e t e r Bar t e t z ko

 itectural its own history In 1978 a “villa rustica” was excavated in Boscoreale, a village in the neighbourhood of the antique Vesuvius town Pompeii. We would now call this mansion a wine estate, since it was situated in the midst of vineyards, which spread over the rolling foothills of Vesuvius Mountain. Furthermore, as was discovered, two-thirds of the buildings were used for pressing and storing of wine: an impressive wine press was excavated in one of the largest rooms; in the adjoining rooms hundreds of carefully stacked amphorae were found. Apart from these vessels, which were unmistakeably used for bottling various kinds of wine, several dozen barrel-shaped, clay containers, so-called Dolia were found, which were inserted into the ground of a wide-roofed courtyard. Archaeologists even discovered in these vessels pitch-like thickened remains of the former liquid – the young, freshly-pressed wine of the year 79 AD which no one would ever drink again, as a few weeks after the end of the harvest the volcano erupted and buried this wine estate together with Pompeii and Herculaneum under meter-high layers of ash and lava. But who knows? – maybe the owners of the wine estate emptied a goblet of what we call today “Federweisser” (new wine) during the last days of Pompeii. However, we do know that not only at the foothills of the Vesuvius, but everywhere in the wine-growing areas of the Roman Empire, the rich owners of wineries had luxurious homes built on their estates. There they enjoyed their properties in summer or during harvest time, where they supervised the harvest, invited guests and dined in the shade of the vines. And this is how we finally come to Kiedrich: Indeed, it is unknown to this day whether Romans grew wine there and set up “villae rusticae” as they did in large parts of the Rheingau. But it is possible that the location attracted Roman winegrowers, thanks

to its ideal position, long before its earliest reference in 937. So, instead of chance, it could be an indication of subconscious millennia-spanning continuity that there is a property in Kiedrich, the wine estate Robert Weil, in which the antique cooperation of luxurious villa and winegrower’s business has found a modern successor. In any case, one thing is certain: having stood once before the excavated entrance of the winery of the Pompeian family of Istacidii in Boscoreale, one cannot fail to recognize an uncanny resemblance standing in front of the main entrance of the Robert Weil wine estate in Kiedrich. In both places an imposing gate in an impressive wall and “higher powers“ guard the access – in Boscoreale two winged sphinxes made from tuff, in Kiedrich the copy of a Gothic Madonna made from red sandstone. The figures may have changed but the message remains the same: every cultural achievement except human competence needs providence “from above”. An artistic, cast iron gate at the far end of the wall, where one can enter the estate from the historic village centre, is proudly decorated by a brilliant red coat of arms of the Weil family. The first owner of the building on the site which is now the Weil estate, baronet The first owner had John Sutton, had something something else in mind else in mind than winegrowing when in 1869 he bought a than wine growing tiny, dilapidated winegrower’s cottage in Kiedrich and had it altered into a small country estate in the Tudor style. For him it was primarily about living within sight of the Gothic St Valentinus parish church and the marvellous Michael’s chapel whose restoration he financed as he did the choir school of the small town that soon became famous.




Southern aspect of the mansion, in the background, St Valentinus Church



Left page: the vinothek was built at the end of the 90ies. Right page: the treasure room with a view to the vaulted cellar







Th e w i n e e s t a t e a n d w o rk i n t h e v i n e y ar d Chr i st i a n G ö l d e n b o o g

ing has style A wine, according to winegrower Wilhelm Weil, must be subject to a concentrated focus. It starts with the grape variety, the work in the vineyard and then goes further into the yields and right up to vinfication. A well-known, important principle of terroir is the right choice of the grape variety suited to the type of soil. “The genius of the wine is in the grape variety“, the French farmer Olivier de Serres wrote perfectly correctly. His ‚Le théatre d‘agriculture et mesnage des champs‘ published in 1600 is considered as the first systematic treatise on agronomic subjects. And the genius of the Rheingau, as one of the northernmost cultivation areas in Europe, lays in the Riesling and –at some places, in the Spätburgunder, which is fairly similar to this white grape variety. As early as 1994, when Wilhelm Weil had only a few years previously taken on the winery, the winegrower explained concisely the three notions that are decisive for him: the region and location, the grape variety, the wine estate. This is the conceptual unity which determines his practice. And then he added: “any more would overcrowd the label.“ Thus, the focus on the Riesling! Indeed, it is barely comprehensible, why there should be another white grape variety grown in such a small cultivation area like the Rheingau with hardly more than 3,000 hectares under the vine. Surely, growing Grüner Veltliner and Sauvignon Blanc might get you into the papers, but it doesn’t serve the idea of a clear objective. Isn’t one of the great strengths of the French notion of appellation the clear focus on the suitable grape variety? Is it not considered as bad taste in Burgundy or in the Champagne to overcrowd the label with the name of the grape variety – as Weil puts it so graphically? Simply because it is clear that a Montrachet or Blanc de Blancs is produced from Chardonnay? And is the Riesling not indeed the legacy par excellence of the Rheingau forefathers, the monks, the first wine-

growers? It is a century-old experience, passed on culturally from generation to generation, and there can be no argument about that. Wilhelm Weil states on this invaluable historical wisdom: “What would really happen if I had to experiment with grape varieties for all my life? Perhaps it would have taken me until I was eighty before I realized that it has to be the Riesling here? No, we ought to respect what we naturally take from our forefathers because we have known it so well from early on. Rheingau is Riesling and Riesling is Rheingau.” Wilhelm Weil’s strategic management is held in the highest regard because of is his concentration on the essential. When he took on the winery, as a first step he abolished the naming of the sites on the label, with the exception of the Gräfenberg of course. Even today, after the true potential of the Turmberg and the Kosterberg sites have successfully been realised, the Gräfenberg stands out uniquely as the as “Grand Cru of German soil” in the VDP Grosse Lage classification. “This simply has to do with our clearly defined objectives: the Gräfenberg is and remains the quest for very best. Klosterberg and Turmberg are in the VDP ­Erste Lage classification, corresponding to Premier Cru, and will, in contrast, not be pushed towards that expression of outright power. Why should we go that way, since it shines with mineral delicacy?“ This is a noteworthy thought. Focussing on the essential is in the philosophy of the winegrower better than varied monotony. Weil explains his concept: “It is like a pyramid.” “At the top is the Gräfenberg, the ‘Grosse Lage’; and since a pyramid is characterised by three sides, the Turmberg and the Klosterberg follow as ‘Erste Lage’. And then there is still the village wine and the estate wine which account for volume.” The beauty of the pyramid of wines is such that it also leaves room for wines which are sapid and can be consumed early. Also the Kiedricher, the village wine,



Rock, soil, the and the

Th e w i n e e s t a t e a n d w o rk i n t h e v i n e y ar d Chr i st i a n G ö l d e n b o o g

Rheingau ecosystem Wine is far more dependent than any other crop on the condition of the soil. Who was it who said this? Certainly no one involved in the drawing up of the German wine law in 1971. But even those winegrowers who dismissed the concept of ­terroir as a French marketing device only 20 years ago now talk wholeheartedly about it. Today every wine guide is full of specialist geological terms such as blue Devon slate, weathering, porphyry, tertiary marl, and meanwhile even the wine labels whimsically delve into the history of the earth. Nowadays we drink red sandstone, crystal slate or quartzite. And by the way, quartzite sounds really better than a wine named “wood barrel” or Hemlock fir. Fortunately, there is no wine yet called phyllite. Phyllite, from the ancient Greek word phýllon, meaning sheet, is the rock that largely characterises the vineyards of Dr. Robert Weil’s estate. But what actually is phyllite and how was it formed?

Rock It is common knowledge that the theory of plate tectonics best describes the continental movements of the earth’s crust. This crust is formed from a multitude of different types of rock, whose constituents are minerals. It is often said that rocks document the earth’s history. They tell a detailed story about the origin of our continents as well as the world we live in today. They tell us about the extinction of dinosaurs as much as about the emergence of mammals and other animals and plants which have been extinct for a long time; the earth tells its story through fossils, the remains or visible signs of former life buried in rocks. The history of the rocks gives us an account

of sudden earthquakes and floods, of a gradual and slow, but steady, rising and sinking of whole landscapes. It also tells us that this folding is a permanent process. This is about time intervals, which are inconceivably long for man and which run across millennia. Again and again the vast masses of water that are the oceans stretch out and pull back again, meanwhile the earth’s crust is collapsing, renewing and erupting. Over and over again newly-formed strata are forced together, gripped, folded and partially or entirely covered by other strata. Mostly abrupt movements occur at faults, i.e. surfaces where shattered rocks have pushed against each other. At these places rocks sometimes move suddenly for several meters after decades of inactivity. The earth is always in motion. Surprisingly the ­Himalayas are younger than the Alps which were themselves finally formed at least 30 million years ago. Today one can find seabed calcium formations up on the Zugspitze and even up on the Matterhorn there are ophiolites, remains from another seabed. Above all the earth’s history is a wondrously seething one: when molten rock, erupts from the depths of the earth solidifies, it is called igneous rock. These rocks make up 90 % of the crust of the earth which can be 50 km thick. Weathering and erosion are part of the forces that shape the earth, but the majority of rock is formed from sediments, when, for instance, physical forces such as wind, water or ice deposit particles which solidify with time. Good examples are limestone and loess, two soil types much favoured for wine-growing. Loess latter is formed when wind, laden with dust reduces its velocity, causing suspended particles to sink to the ground. Sedimentation can also be a result of biological processes: calcareous al-



Th e w i n e e s t a t e a n d w o rk i n t h e v i n e y ar d Chr i st i a n G ö l d e n b o o g

Fruit – Maturity Due to the climate, vines and therefore the wines from the northern wine-growing regions display a remarkable, fundamentally-different character compared to those of more southerly zones – but only where the winegrowers understand their craft. Because of lower temperatures, smaller berries and a longer vegetation period the wines have a more pronounced acidity. This is the only thing that matters for lovers of cool and fresh, of stimulating elegance in a wine. After all, it is true that northern Riesling just as Champagne represent a vanishingly small proportion of the world’s wine, albeit all the more sig­ nificant – since it is all about speciality and quality. It is well known that the unfolding of the leafs, the flowering, the discolouration of the grape, called véraison, the softening of the berries and the fruit maturity as well as autumn leaf ’s loss of its green colour are the most important stages in the life of the vine. During flowering a beguiling delicate scent of honey wafts through the vineyards of Kiedrich, a lush dark green spreads everywhere in summer. Both please the senses of the viewer who allows his gaze to wander from the new terrace of the wine estate. The time between flowering and the beginning of the harvest is the determining indicator for the inner structure of a wine. For the estate Riesling (Gutsriesling) this amounts to a minimum of 110 days – for the Spätlese up to 140 days. “In our vineyards“, says Wilhelm Weil, “ flowering begins on an average around 10 June will be finished – on a long term average – by mid June. We usually begin with the harvest of the grapes for Gutsriesling between 5 and 10 October “. By comparison: in southern growing regions the time span is often no more than 80 days, in the more northerly region of Champagne 93 and in Burgundy over 100 days. Indeed, of all the grape varieties in northern growing regions Riesling

is the last to enter its ripening phase. This is also the reason for its much differentiated fruit aroma, which together with a fine acidity creates a very special mineral structure. This specific feature and significant difference in the ripening period is readily explained by the example of an apple: If this apple grows in southern climes, possibly the heel of Italy, it will most of the time not only look splendid but also smell and taste of ripe apple. The same variety grown in the Rheingau will certainly not look similar, but smell all the more intensely and surprise with its really refreshing, sharp and in general fruity taste full of nuances. Nowadays a Rheingau the winegrower will wish for warm nights in May, so that the vines start to flower in the first half of June; in the 1970s and -80s the flowering often only began at the beginning of July which meant that the total hours of sunshine was not sufficient to let the grapes ripen to full maAfter the flowering turity. After the flowering the grape begins to grow, due to The grape reaches its cell division and cell enlargefull size only by the ment, reaching its full size only by the middle of ­August. Then middle of august the Riesling grape is firm, has the highest level of acidity and absolutely no sweetness. These growth processes have not been fully researched yet; however, it is commonly known that plants such as vines adapt constantly to their environment in terms of shape and physiology and react to stimulation from their surroundings, in particular to internal signals. Hormones, from the Greek “hormone”, meaning “moving”, are a crucial factor. These chemical messengers form in a part of the plant and are then transported to








Th e w i n e e s t a t e a n d w o rk i n t h e v i n e y ar d Chr i st i a n G ö l d e n b o o g

e with and without oxygen Th e h i s t o r y o f a l c o h o l i c f e r m e n t a t i o n a n d s p o n ta n e o u s f e r m e n tat i o n Cells or organisms need energy from external sources in order to survive. Plants like vines use the energy of sunlight; many animals get the necessary energy by feeding on plants. Other animals live on herbivores. The life of fungi and animals, and naturally also the life of man is dependent on oxygen. More precisely: complex metabolic processes release energy only when oxygen is involved by breaking down complex molecules into simpler combinations. The so-called cell respiration or internal respiration is the most important and also most efficient metabolic process, which produces energy: in this process glucose as well as other organic matter from food is broken down in such way that the stored energy is made available by the resulting molecules for the work of the cells. A further result of all these processes, which are precisely co-ordinated and can be compared to a miniature factory regarding their sequences, is carbondioxide and water. In addition, energy goes only in part towards the cellular processes the rest is lost as heat energy. However, surprisingly there are organisms which can live without cell respiration. Yeasts are among them. They, remarkably, process sugar molecules without the involvement of oxygen when converting energy. And it is precisely this that is understood as fermentation in modern biology and biochemistry. First to recognise this was the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur. There are many kinds of fermentation and they all produce different results (differing by their specific end products): ethanol, thus ethyl alcohol, as well as carbon dioxide, are a by-product of alcoholic fermentation. Lactic acid fermenta-

tion produces lactates. This type of fermentation, triggered by certain bacteria or fungi, is also used by man to produce food, such as cheese or yoghurt. Even man himself can act as a fermentation vessel – in certain situations! If we compete in a half marathon the morning after a night of heavy drinking, the muscle cells switch over to lactic acid fermentation as soon as the oxygen supply to our muscles from our blood can’t keep surprisingly there up with the energy demand. They then get their energy are organisms which with­out oxygen supply while can live without cell lactates build up in the muscle. In 1904 the chemist Franz respiration Lafar wrote his “Handbuch der technischen Mykologie” (Manu­al of technical mycology) on “gären” (­fermenting) – this fine ­German word – in it he states that “gären” derives from the Middle High German “gern” (with pleasure), and this in turn from the Old High German “Jerian”. However, the origins of this word are to be found in the Sanskrit expression “Yastas”, which in turn bears a striking resemblance to the English word “yeast”, i.e. German “Hefe”. Lafar goes on to explain that the term “Gärung” is based on the expression “gar ab”, meaning an unfinished product that requires further processing before being ready for consumption. Pressed juices from fruit sometimes begin to ferment spontaneously if not drunk imme­diately. The same happens to watered down honey;






Riesling – a grape variety with many virtues

Riesling is the most exciting, most amply multi-faceted grape variety in the world. Its wines can be appreciated as anything, from dry to off-dry right up to noble sweet and can be enjoyed young as well as aged. This book covers the complex topic of Riesling through the fine example of the top German wine estate Robert Weil. For the last twenty years no other German wine estate so strongly rooted in tradition has established such a superb success story. Wilhelm Weil represents the fourth generation of the family running the ­estate; he has restored the winery to its rightful place among the international elite of wine producers. The book describes both the exciting history of the wine estate as part of the ­German and Rheingau wine tradition, as well as the extraordinary architecture of the ensemble: mansion, park and wine cellars. Detailed questions on topics such as terroir and ecosystem, ageing and fermentation and style are discussed in detail. The many different tasks of a wine estate through the course of a year – right from pruning to harvest – are illustrated in sumptuous photography.

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Riesling - Robert Weil  

This book covers the complex topic of Riesling through the fine example of the top German wine estate Robert Weil. For the last twenty years...

Riesling - Robert Weil  

This book covers the complex topic of Riesling through the fine example of the top German wine estate Robert Weil. For the last twenty years...

Profile for tretorri