Why can't more wine producers be more like Klaus Peter and Julia Keller? They are seen here at a Buckingham Palace garden party after they had donated some of their Niersteiner Hipping Riesling 2012 for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations because the wine had been served at her coronation. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
In my experience, wine professionals are extremely generous. Wine is all about sharing. Drinking wine alone is a pretty miserable (or worrying) experience.
Asked to donate to a charity auction, for instance, wine producers and collectors tend to rally round. The owner of first growth Ch Haut-Brion in Bordeaux deserves a special commendation here. Prince Robert of Luxembourg has always been especially responsive to requests for help – but that may come to an end. He has just sold the bulk of his personal wine collection, 4,200 bottles of perfectly stored wine, to raise funds for a foundation he and his wife created for research into mitochondrial conditions, from one of which their son suffers. The sale, conducted by Sotheby’s in New York last month, raised $6.23 million (a total of $2.8 million was predicted).
Few wine producers have a wine collection worth millions, but there is one altruistic move, from German superstar wine producers Klaus Peter and Julia Keller, that I think could be widely copied at no cost to producers.
From a standing start in 2001 on the Keller family wine estate in the then-unfashionable south-west corner of Rheinhessen, the Kellers have gone on to make Germany’s most sought-after dry Riesling, G-Max, and the country’s most expensive Pinot Noir. Their sons Felix and Max are following in their brilliant footsteps and the family now oversees demanding vineyards in the Mosel and Norway too.
But they are particularly outward-looking, always visiting other producers (and not just in Germany) and posting news of especially promising younger producers on social media. Their homely winery in Flörsheim-Dalsheim has trained many of them.
In the spring of 2020, as the pandemic threatened the financial health of less-established wine producers, Keller’s US importer Stephen Bitterolf of vom Boden half-jokingly suggested that KP put together an offering of wine from some of these gifted young German vintners (involving, for once, an accurate use of the overworked word ‘curate’). Much to Bitterolf’s surprise, Keller immediately agreed.
Bitterolf explained on his retail website Source Material when he made the offer in October 2020:
‘We both talk about the profound renaissance going on right now in German viticulture. He has called this new generation of young growers "the golden generation". We quickly agreed on some basic guidelines for the selection. The growers had to be young. They had to be unknown (at least in the US). The idea was to literally shine the spotlight on the younger growers to support, especially in these trying times, the next generation.
‘Once all this was settled, KP texted me the exact bottlings, quickly choosing the estates, the bottlings and the vintages. It was as if he had been curating this six-pack in his head for a while.’
More recently, this year, Howard Ripley, a specialist importer of German wine in the UK, has followed suit and there are still six-packs containing one of each of the hand-crafted wines listed below available for the bargain price of £135. Fine German wines are still, in my opinion, underpriced compared with their French counterparts.
According to Sebastian Thomas of Howard Ripley, the Keller selection has already been one of their most successful single-case offers ever and it represents Thomas’s optimism about the future of German wine. ‘I feel we are on the edge of a breakthrough. I know people have been saying that since the 1990s, but thanks in part to climate change, the reliability and quality of German wines makes them much more accessible to consumers. There has been greatly increased interest in dry wines, especially reds, and we are taking on new growers every year.’
The red-wine revolution in Germany is real. Warmer summers and mastery of oak have transformed German reds from pale greyish pinks tasting of ash to serious rivals to red burgundy. Spätburgunder, the German name for Pinot Noir, was planted on 11.3% of German vineyard in 2020, the last year for which official statistics are available, whereas in 1995 it represented less than 7%. And Spätburgunder vines continue to go into the ground, including on sites that would have been unthinkably cool quite recently.
One of the young producers included in the American case is the talented Philipp Wöhrwag of Müller-Ruprecht in the Pfalz region, currently a hotbed of young German wine talent. I caught up with him recently at a London tasting organised by Keeling Andrew, the UK import company run by the team behind Noble Rot restaurants and magazine. His Saumagen N Riesling 2019 had been included in the Keller selection sold in the US but was excluded from the UK case because his wines are now being imported by Keeling Andrew. But he was unstinting in his praise for this initiative. ‘It’s so intelligent’, was his heartfelt comment.
Thomas agrees: ‘It is indeed a notable thing for a country’s leading winemaker to be so encouraging of the younger generation when he has no skin in the game. But Klaus Peter has done more in this century to draw focus on German wine than anyone, so it is no surprise that he is so generous with his time and advice.’
According to Bitterolf:
‘When you get someone who has no financial stake in any of this (and even, you could argue, would have a financial incentive not to focus on any estate other than their own) and they make the heartfelt appeal, it changes the ball game completely. And when it’s one of the most considered, talented and famous winemakers in the world, well…
‘One quickly gets the sense that KP feels a responsibility, a duty to help the growers around him – to try and take the white-hot spotlight that is on him, and redirect it to the larger culture of German wine around him.’
The Kellers’ knowledge of the young guns goes far beyond just tasting their produce. On hearing that Thomas was planning to add one of his young stars, Christine Huff of F E Huff in Nierstein, to the Howard Ripley portfolio permanently, KP advised him by email, ‘please ask for the meat of their sheep that were a wedding gift to Christine’s NZ husband so that he would not feel lonely in Germany’.
About Peter Leipold in Franken, his generous comment is that he ‘is on the way to becoming a young genius. He worked for two years here at our winery before leaving for Liger-Belair [in Burgundy]. He has a special feeling for wine, something you don’t learn at school. His Pinots are one of the best-kept German Pinot secrets.’
The initial impetus for this initiative, COVID-19, may have passed, but I’d love to see established wine producers all over the world follow in the Keller footsteps, especially since it is so difficult for the many new names to gain a foothold in the ultra-competitive wine market. The young guns and relevant importers would make a bit of money. All of us wine lovers would appreciate the expert opinions of those we already admire. And there would be a beneficial halo effect for the curators. What’s not to like?
Wines in the Keller/Howard Ripley golden generation case
Location of these rising stars in brackets. Six bottles of dry wine for £135 from Howard Ripley, including delivery in England or Wales.
Achenbach, Porphyr Riesling 2020 Rheinhessen (Wonsheim) 12.5%
F E Huff, Schwabsburger Riesling 2020 Rheinhessen (Nierstein) 12.5%
Seehof, Westhofener Vom Kalkstein Scheurebe 2020 Rheinhessen (Westhofen) 12.5%
Mertz, Steinalt Portugieser 2019 Franken (Eckelsheim) 13.5%
Giegerich, Pitztaler Berg Spätburgunder 2018 Franken (Grosswallstadt) 13%
Leipold, Obervolkacher Spätburgunder 2017 Franken (Volkach) 13%
Tasting notes in our tasting notes database. International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com. See also Julia's detailed account of a recent trip to the Kellers to taste their 2022 releases.