Von Winning is unquestionably the rising star on the German wine scene. This is all the more surprising as the real “start” of the estate was only in 2008 when Stephan Attmann was appointed managing director. For the history of the vineyards we have to go back a bit further. The Von Winning we know today was actually part of a single estate until the middle of the nineteenth century, together with Reichsrat Von Buhl and Bassermann-Jordan. At the time the estate already had a stellar reputation, being one of the first to distinguish vintages, terroir and varietal characteristics. Following the death of its owner, the estate was split in three and the part that we will discuss today was renamed Dr. Deinhard. It wasn’t until Leopold Von Winning took over at the beginning of the twentieth century that the foundations for the estate’s philosophy were established. Recently passed away Achim Niederberger, an entrepreneur in the region had already acquired Reichsrat Von Buhl and Bassermann-Jordan for his estate portfolio and the addition of Von Winning would be one of his crowning achievements.
Stephan Attmann is a slightly controversial figure in Germany as he is a major advocate of a more Burgundian Riesling. It is rare that Riesling will be aged in oak barrels as it falls ill with the minerality and freshness that is so typical for the variety. The winemakers who do use oak have a preference for huge barrels, 500l+ in order to avoid an overly oaky sensation on the wine. At Eva Clusserath for example, the barrels are 50 to 60 years old so the direct effect of the oak on the wine is negligible and the point of the elevage here is a controlled interaction with oxygen to enhance the depth of a wine. At Von Winning they have radically opted for a completely new course, fermenting and aging wine in new oak. While the average size of a barrel is still larger than the ones used in Bordeaux for example, the wood will have a much larger effect on the structure and sensation of the wine.
Of course, if you are venturing into uncharted territory, you need to be absolutely convinced you can work with the best grapes possible. Luckily Von Winning is blessed with parcels in the best Lagen in the Pfalz as roughly 25% of their holdings are classified Grosses Gewächs. We will discuss several of their single vineyard wines further on, so for now let us look at the groundwork, i.e. what goes on in the vineyard? The entire estate is governed by a strict quality charter. You can check out the full list on the estate’s website but there are a couple of specific points that deserve highlighting.
High density of the vineyard plantings, up to 9500 per ha. This used to be pretty common in the past and it ensures that only the strongest vines will survive, as you create competition for the sparse amounts of water present in the soil. A vine will also produce fewer clusters, depending on the resources it can extract, leading to a more even ripening process.
A second point of interest is that the domain is already following biodynamic principles but that it is going the extra mile by banning the use of copper, something still widely accepted by natural or organic estates. The use of copper against mildew, a fungal disease, is controversial as it is a heavy metal with side effects for soil health and water supply. Careful pruning and a good aeration of the foliage are more suitable as natural preventative measures but these are so labour-intensive that you would need significant scale in order to make this workable. Even then, two weeks of rain will make it highly unlikely that you can stop a full-on mildew attack, so major respect to Von Winning for sticking with their ideals!
At a recent tasting organized by Vinikus en Lazarus, the Belgian importer of Von Winning, I had the chance to taste 15 wines of the estate, ranging from their entry wines to some of the best wines Germany has to offer. A discussion of all of them would take too long of course, so let’s focus on a couple of them that I feel are most representative for the style the winemaker is looking for.
The entry level cuvee Win Win 2012 is a blend of different vineyards including the lesser grapes of GG parcels like, Reiterpfad, Kalkofen and Kieselberg. This is by no means a small wine, open with sunny fruit accompanied by a slightly subdued minerality on the nose. The juiciness and intensity remains present in the mouth showing ample richness countered by citrusy hints in the finish that help to keep the wine fresh and lively. Other Pfalz wines around this pricepoint (12 euro) are often too overly fruity, showing a bit too much warmth, but here you are much more on the sunny side packed with summer fruit and freshness. I did get a hint of residual sugar giving the wine a rounder character but it is perfectly complementary with the acidity present.
Von Winning is a founding member of the VDP, the leading association of German winemakers and as such they follow their quality structure implemented and promoted over the past years. At the bottom of the pyramid you have Gutswein made from grapes sourced from all the holdings of an estate in a region (e.g. Win Win). Ortswein is a step up in a sense that you are already starting with a distinction based on terroir. In Burgundy terms, this would be Village wines. Erste Lage is the equivalent of Premier Cru in Burgundy, and here we come to sites that have distinguished themselves for some time already. Yields are restricted here, and only traditional varieties (riesling, weissburgunder, etc) can be used. At the very top we will find the Grosses Gewächs. These sites often have historic merit and are sparse and tiny on purpose in order to mark the difference with Erste Lage wines. Some readers may recall my profile of Am Stein were I mentioned that the Wurzburger Stein is in its entirety worthy of GG status, but was downgraded to Erste Lage in order to emphasize the almost elitist character of Grosses Gewächs.
When it comes to Erste Lage there are two cuvées that really stand out. The first one is Ölberg 2012 for which the grapes are sourced from the southernmost parcel of the estate, in Köningsbach, home to Steffen Christmann, the other leading winemaker in the Pfalz. Warmer in style with more voluptuous and ripe fruit that only just started showing itself. I got a slight sensation of the aging in wood with a specific spiciness on the nose. The mouth is much more elegant though and has a lovely nervousness that helps to accentuate the riper fruit.
Up next we move back home to the parcel closest to the estate, Grainhübel 2011. Whereas Ölberg is more characterized by red sandstone and marl, Grainhübel is practically on top of an ancient coral reef which immediately shows itself in the nose as a more flinty sensation. As with the Ölberg, the influence of the barrel is clear but supportive, this one was the first of the tasting that I would really label as Burgundian. The acidity in the mouth is more present here but you get the same nervousness that takes over towards the finish. Given time, I think that this one will be terrific.
If we skip on a bit further we end up at Kalkofen 2013, sourced from one of the best sites in the region granted GG status. We are on the same coral reef as the Grainhübel but a bit higher up. It is an ancient site, completely walled and traceable to the sixteenth century, so GG status isn’t awarded to just any parcel of land! This was my personal favourite of the tasting, incredibly mineral on the nose and delicate delicate fruit. It really opened up in the mouth, titillating acidity on the tongue really driving home the mineral character that overtook the fruit without destroying it. It is a different kind of liquid minerality than the one I described with PJ Kühn as this ones comes with more depth and an incredible length in the finish.
Forst is the heart and soul of Von Winning and home to their greatest wines. Their “entry level” GG is created here from the Ungeheuer parcel. We have now tipped over the coral reef were we found Grainhübel and Kalkofen moving on to a mix of fossils, loam and volcanic basalt. This type of soil often leads to wines that require a bit more time to open up as evidenced by Ungeheuer 2011. It starts of subtle and takes a bit of time. I found very little fruit at first, mostly minerality and a noticeable saltiness. It was only after a while that it started showing hints of tropical fruits but overall it stayed very subtle yet intense, sneaking up on you when you realize after a minute that you can still feel it. Ungeheuer 500 2011 is a special cuvée as it is a selection of the best 500l barrels, bottled after one year. As expected, the oak is more present but serves as an opener for the wine as you immediately get tropical fruit on the nose, more so than with the normal cuvée. It is a different kind of complex, a play on structure and presence instead of minerality and subtlety. I would give this at least 4 to 5 years, hoping that the oak settles and gets off the stage for a bit.
The three greatest GG vineyards, often referred to as the Puligny Montrachet of Germany, are Kirchenstück, Jesuitengarten and Pechstein. These wines are incredibly rare, only six bottles of Kirchenstück make it to Belgium each year for example and I have been buying a couple of bottles of Pechstein each year to tuck away, confident that it would be worth the money and patience. This was the first time I would taste it and of course I was a bit nervous, would it be as good as I had hyped it up to be or would it end up just another “what the hell was I thinking” wine? Only one way to find out with Pechstein 2010! At first, nothing. After a while hints of minerality, sensing something that is getting ready to show itself accompanied by tones of citrus and mandarins. Incredible depth in the mouth, minerality dominated by a unique acidity that feels like tiny daggers full of flavour tickling your tongue. Juicy, tangy mandarin that goes hand in hand with the ethereal lightness of true minerality, simply amazing. The finish is there but cut short, not going as deep as you would assume it could be based on the palate. I rarely make guesses on a wine’s future but the potential here is incredible, one of the finest Rieslings I have ever tasted!
Before the tasting I realized that I had always thought highly of the Von Winning wines but that the only one I actually owned was Pechstein, a wine I had never drunk. It became clear that it was too difficult to choose, that nearly all wines offered such a unique sensation and were so representative of their terroir that you would rather have them all. I could still go on for some time as the estate also produces sauvignon blanc and an amazing pinot noir, but seeing as this is already the longest article written up to this point, I limited myself to my personal picks, out with objectivity and in with blatantly favouring what I like and love!
Credits photography – Von Winning