“Welcome to Keller!” – those were the warming words pronounced by Klaus Keller on a cold September morning. It was the beginning of the 2016 harvest and my first day as an apprentice at this family owned winery, located in the lovely and hard to pronounce German town of Flörsheim-Dalsheim.
Johan Leonhard Keller, a Swiss immigrant who arrived to Germany in 1789, established Weingut Keller the same year. Over the years the Keller’s have bought 18 hectares of vineyards in some of the best sites of Rheinhessen, including Pettenthal and Hipping of the famed Roter Hang in Nierstein, the Kirchspiel, Abtserde and Morstein in Westhofen and the Bürgel and Frauenberg in their hometown. The famous Hubacker vineyard in Dalsheim belongs to the family since the foundation of the winery. Since 2006, Klaus-Peter Keller and his wife Julia run the winery, together with the help of their sons, Max and Felix, and his father, Klaus Keller.
That morning before my first day I could only think: “Today I start working for Weingut Keller! The best dry Riesling producer in the world!” but, more important to me at the time: “Oh no…I am going to freeze and I don’t understand anything!” When I arrived to the winery, the loud tractor noises and a mixture of German, Polish and Rumanian voices did not help to calm me down. When I found Klaus-Peter he was sitting on a tractor, happy with excitement and ready to start the harvest. “Hello! It is a great pleasure to meet you!” was my introduction to Klaus-Peter. With a big smile on his face he replied “Hi! Ready for harvest?” and his smile got even bigger. He really looked like a little kid on Christmas morning.
All the harvest is done by hand, with the most meticulous and careful selection to assure that only the best grapes reach the winery, where Klaus Keller would be with his refractometer waiting for their arrival. This is his 51st vintage and he still gets thrilled with the readings of great years, like 2016. In the meantime, Julia would be harvesting with the team while Klaus-Peter walked through his vineyards, filling small plastic bags with grape samples to constantly re-determine what to harvest next. Mother nature is the boss and he truly respects that.
On the second day of harvest muscle ache gained a completely new meaning and standing up from bed became a very funny challenge. That morning, while we were on our way to harvest the first Nierstein grapes, little did I know what the day had in store for me. The Roter Hang vineyards are a dream; the bright colored red slate soil, the early morning fog over the Rhine and the view of the stereotypical German town of Nierstein seemed like a postcard… but the 30 kilos of grapes in front of me, the 80% slopes and my fear of heights quickly pulled me back to reality. This day I learned that being a vintner is not an easy job and watching Julia and Klaus-Peter go up and down Hipping without fatigue made me realize that passion for wine truly flows in this family and this would become evident in every step of the winemaking process.
The secret of Keller wine isn’t just in the cellar. The thoughtful variety of soils and the understanding of their different personalities, the old vines, the amount of time invested in the vineyards controlling yields, foliage and ripeness and the careful selection of clusters are the real secrets. “To make the best you need to have the best ingredients: the best soils, the best grapes and the best cellar equipment”, Klaus-Peter said, while destemming the Grosses Gewächs (GG) Morstein Spätburgunder grapes from 80 year old vines by hand. Inside the cellar, Klaus-Peter translates the personality of his grapes and vineyards into liquid glory, by using the best quality second year Burgundy barrels for his Spätburgunder and stainless steel or old wooden casks for his white wines. Keller wines are a perfect balance of fruitiness and complexity, richness and freshness, which come from the grapes and caring winemaking techniques.
2016 was an awesome vintage, against all predictions. High amounts of rainfall during May and June were ideal for the development of mildew and flowering was highly affected. This difficult start was followed by sunny days and dry weather conditions that lasted until the end of harvest. A hot couple of weeks in September helped the grapes ripen. October was beautiful, no rain and blue skies, with an average of 8 ° C day temperatures and freezing nights that allowed the grapes to slowly reach the perfect balance of sugar and acidity, as well as to develop concentrated aromas. Freezing fingers were also common during October, especially in the early morning hours.
We finished harvesting the first week of November. Satisfaction was a common feeling among the team. Weather was good to us and we all knew that we worked for a great vintage. Some of the wines are starting to be bottled, although some still have a long way to go. This weekend, I will be trying the wines from this very special vintage. I can’t wait to taste the results!
Next week I will share with you the tasting notes of some of the wines as well as great dishes to pair with them.