Klaus Peter Keller Interview

By Gavin Smith

Jun 30th, 2020

Klaus Peter Keller is one of the great viticultural success stories of the modern era of fine wine. Just 25 years ago he saw the potential to make world-class wine in a region more famous for making mass produced off dry Riesling. His range of Grand Cru Rieslings, including the cult cuvee “G-Max” are now some of the most expensive and sought out white wines in the world. His passion for Burgundy have also seen his talents in winemaking go beyond Riesling leading Germany’s renaissance in Pinot Noir production.

Speaking with Klaus Peter Keller you realise the energy and passion this man has not just for his wine but for wines in general. He freely admits wine is his hobby as well as his day job and is as fascinated as much with discovering and drinking wine and understanding the variations in styles from terroirs beyond his own, as he is with making it. He is an avid collector and has made many a pilgrimage over the last 30 years to other fine wine regions to learn more about his craft.

We discuss with him how his early internships in Burgundy spurred a passion from deep within and set him on a quest at mastering his technique ever since! Fine wine for Keller is about pushing the limits, exploring the boundaries, staying curious and questioning everything. Klaus Peter gives us a fascinating, humbling insight into his extraordinary rise to vigneron stardom, no doubt driven by his unbound curiosity, that sees him continue to experiment today.

Klaus Peter Keller and his wife Julia

“I like to be able find the personal signature of the winemaker in the wine. That is why I am particularly drawn to regions like Burgundy, Jura, Champagne, the Loire and Beaujolais.”

 Klaus Peter’s erudition makes him surprisingly candid over what he defines as fine wine. For Keller it is something beyond the soil, more like a union between the vigneron and their vines, a recognisable signature you can feel in the wines they produce, something he feels that can only come from a deep passion and understanding of their vines. A philosophy which runs deep in Keller’s own personal story.

“Fine wine comes from especially fine soil and should be produced from people who live their passion. I am a big fan of small, family run wineries – there are for sure exceptions – but normally I love to buy wine from smaller wineries because I love to know the people behind the wines very well. Quality isn’t just about famous sites and small yields – it has a lot to do with love in handling the vine in the vineyard and the juice and wine in the cellar. For me it is this relationship that always has to be felt in a wine. If an operation grows too quickly, there is a risk that the winemaker will be running the business and leaving the cellar and vineyard work to employees. Of course the wines can then still taste good – but it is just less interesting, because I like to be able find the personal signature of the winemaker in the wine. That is why I am particularly drawn to regions like Burgundy, Jura, Champagne, the Loire and Beaujolais.”

“At the time my love for great Burgundies infected me like a virus and never left me.”

The Pilgrimage to Burgundy

From an early age he was keen to learn about viticulture beyond the limits of his own wine region of Rheinhessen. His love and fascination with Burgundy saw him set off on his own pilgrimage, determined to understand what was so special about the region. “There was so much to learn and a lot has changed in the last 25 years. I stared at Domaine des Varoilles in Gevrey Chambertin, because it wasn’t easy getting an internship in Burgundy. I wrote over 50 applications, got three rejections (the rest didn’t even reply). No one was interested in Riesling. If I opened a bottle at lunchtime or in the evening, people only partook out of politeness! When I met Charles Rousseau after three months there, it was great. The way he spoke about wine, his respect for old vines and his firm belief in the quality of the soils were probably the most important things that I took away from my time in Burgundy. At the time my love for great Burgundies infected me like a virus and never left me. Romain Lignier from Domaine Hubert Lignier was another great vigneron who fascinated me. He had studied in Rheinhessen in Nierstein, so we had an immediate affinity and a shared interest. The purity of his wines totally fascinated me at the time, and his moderate use of oak was exactly what I would later take as an example for our Pinots.

"My wife Julia and I still travel to Burgundy at least twice a year (with the boot of the car now always full of Riesling), and we are so thrilled to see the next generation of great vignerons coming through. Pierre Duroche in Gevrey, Amelie Berthaut in Fixin, Charles Lachaux in Vosne Romanee, the renaissance of Aligote.... Lamy-Caillat in Puligny – it is just sensational what these young winemakers are producing. Of course the big names continue to be fantastic….I love mature Rousseau, Mugnier, Roumier….”

The “inner persistence” of fine wine

Klaus Peter often talks about the importance of an “inner intensity” and “inner persistence” in his wines. Where tension and nervosity comes from the grapes, how to control and embellish that he admits is difficult to explain. “Wine and vineyards are a complex topic. Aubert de Villaine once told me during a tasting, that as soon as his wine is bottled, he thinks about what could have been done better. This made a strong impression on me and formed my thinking around wine. The energy, the tension in a wine is for me a vital element – it is what entices my desire for the next glass. At the same time, the balance must be right – everything must be in harmonious relation to each other so that it tastes easy, relaxed. You can always taste when a winemaker loves his job. Then you not only ‘know’ what the vines need, but you can feel it too. The best limestone rock in the subsoil, old vines, a sustainable approach to agriculture, an enthusiastic and passionate team and the intention to preserve this in the cellar, are all important building blocks when it comes to expressing most fully the terroir in a wine."

"You can always taste when a winemaker loves his job."

Klaus Peter has done an awful lot of work exploring his vineyard sites over the years, identifying where and how he can get the best from these Rheinhessen sites that were initially often neglected, under-appreciated to some of the most desirable plots of viticulture anywhere in the world – “we have indeed dug many holes and have discussed them at length with geologists. And after that we swapped and sold several parcels. Viticulture is similar to horse racing in that horses and riders have to be perfectly suited to each other and in tune with each other, and that is what Julia and I have been trying to do for the last 15 years. To date, we have 10 Grand Cru sites – a fantastic foundation for being able to harvest the very best grapes. The quality of the ground is the deciding factor for outstanding quality. Then there is the question of climate change. 50 years ago, the only famous vineyards in Rheinhessen were those situated right on the river Rhine. Where we are in the ‘Rheinhessisches Hügelland” (the hill country of Rheinhessen) was considered too cold to grow grapes successfully. In a way we are therefore to Rheinhessen, what the Saar is to Mosel: a cool, wind exposed spot, with perfect soils. Whereas in the 70s and 80s, the grapes only ripened fully perhaps once or twice a decade, we now have the perfect conditions for our grapes to ripen perfectly. The good clay content in the soils is another factor, that means that water is well retained so that the vines are well-equipped to withstand heatwaves and dry spells brought by the changing climate.”

"Viticulture is similar to horse racing in that horses and riders have to be perfectly suited to each other and in tune with each"

The location of Weingut Keller and the vineyards of Florsheim Dalsheim

Harnessing Climate Change and Adapting Viticulture

A key element to Klaus Peter’s viticulture is to encourage a longer ripening period and picking later than is typical.– “it’s about unlocking the more delicate and manifold aromas and ingredients by trying to prolong the vegetative cycle somewhat.  For example in the mid 90s when I came back from Burgundy I planted Pinot on the rocky soil of the Frauenberg. My grandfather was trying to talk me out of it right up until the day before I finally did it. “It will never ripen” he said, because the site was too exposed to the wind and too late ripening. But that is exactly what fascinated me about viticulture – even then – was the feeling of pushing the limits, exploring the boundaries. It is important to stay curious and questioning, and not to see climate change as a threat but as an opportunity to gain a better understanding. In 2008 we planted a vineyard of Riesling on a granite rock in Norway – the University of Geisenheim predicted that vines could start ripening there from 2050. When we found that we were able to pick the first ripe grapes in 2018 we were happy and shocked in equal measure! Climate change will continue to be a far bigger challenge than the Corona Virus outbreak."

Initially Keller wasn't picking his grapes until mid November due to the coolness of his sites as well as his philosophy to prolong the vegetative cycle to encourage aromatic complexity. “Mid November was a typical picking date for us in the late 90s/early 2000s. Julia and I got married on 2 October 1997. Back then this was before the pinot harvest! We’re noticing the same development in Burgundy. In the 90s it was not unusual to only start picking in the 3rd week of September. These days some Burgundian producers are starting to pick as early as the end of August, which is a big problem – and not just because August in France is the sacred holiday month! These days we generally pick in higher temperatures than we did twenty years ago and we regularly celebrate our wedding anniversary in the vineyards! So the harvest isn’t just getting earlier, the window for picking is getting narrower. We used to be able to spread it over eight weeks. Now it all has to be done in four to five weeks. The risk at harvest has also increased. If there is rain combined with higher temperatures at the end of September or the beginning of October, then the risk of spoilage is much higher than if we are picking at 5-6 degrees Celsius in November – when the vineyards are like a virtual natural refrigerator.”

 

As climate change has transformed the growing season Klaus has had to adapt. “We leave more shading to minimise the direct sun radiation on the berries, which ensures freshness and crunch. We are adopting very gentle pruning methods to protect our vines from new diseases like Esca and our son Felix is introducing lots of organic and biodynamic ideas into our processes, to ensure that our soils are really sustainably farmed." Adapting to climate change has also coincided with his own vines becoming older which has seen Klaus adapt away from techniques in the vineyard that he was initially well known for. He no longer carries out a green harvest or bunch thinning that he pioneered in his vines 20 -30 years ago when his vines were younger and the the climate colder. “These days we have some of the oldest vines in these sites, so yields are naturally low anyway. Nowadays our goal is to keep the vines in the perfect balance so that green harvests are no longer necessary, often we don’t even cut anymore, but bend the vines in small arches, which relaxes the vine and means the fruit can fully ripen without having to make any cuts. I really like this method and we will start introducing it to more of our vineyards in the future.”

Klaus admits that Rheinhessen has been a”great beneficiary of climate change, as is for example the Saar. We have volcanic soils in the west, quarz in the north, red clay in the east and wonderful limestone here where we are in the hills. This variety of soils is a gift from nature, that more and more winemakers are taking advantage of. I think that Rheinhessen has one of the most dynamic young winemaker scenes in Germany and it is an important mission for us to infect as many young winemakers as possible with the virus of old vines and high quality – just like I was in Burgundy back in the day."

The German Pinot Noir Renaissance

The reputation of top Pinot Noir being produced in Germany is growing thanks to the likes of Keller in Rheinhessen, Molitor in Mosel and Stodden in Ahr. Due to Keller’s internments in Burgundy his wines have obviously at least initially been influenced by the region but with time he has come to identify what is specific to his vineyards and how they need to be treated differently. “We have found our own way, and learned that with our soils and our climate it doesn’t make sense to copy another region. And that’s a good thing. If 20-25 years ago it was just too cold to produce great red wines, that has changed completely in the last 10 years. Our Morstein Pinot is made from over 70 year-old vines, which yield perhaps 10-15 hl/ha from very small berries. But they are wonderfully precise, with such great intensity, yet at the same time light as a feather – if we are staying with Burgundy as an example – I would possibly compare it to a Musigny. We wouldn’t have thought this possible 20-25 years ago and we are of course thrilled. It is exciting to compare the different Pinot regions in the world. It will always be Pinot – a subtle wine with a delicate structure and wonderfully elegant expressions, sometimes more concentrated, sometimes lighter depending if it’s from Oregon, Burgundy or Germany – but it always shares a common soul."

The rise of the G-Max Riesling

Keller’s most famous cuvee his G-Max Riesling, made in minuscule quantities from his favoured plots and initially destined just for personal consumption is today one of the most sought out and highly acclaimed Rieslings in the world. Klaus explains how the cuvee came about. “Until the late 90s we had a wine called ‚G‘ for Georg – our great grandfather, who built our house and in 1921 made our first estate wine. When our son Max was born in 2000, we of course wanted to dedicate a wine to him and we had a particular parcel of ancient vines in mind for this – but because we didn’t want to make any additional wine, we combined the G for Georg with the M  for Max and G-Max was born. We loved the taste of the first vintage – 2001 – so much that we didn’t want to sell the wine and were going to keep it within the family’s treasure trove. But of course we tasted it with a few friends, who were so taken that they wanted to buy some. We thought long and hard about what to do, and in the end decided to name such a high price that no one would want to buy it. To our immense surprise, the wine sold out. Our idea pretty much backfired and basically G-Max became an instant cult wine and its reputation kept growing in foreign markets. When Decanter gave its first 100 points for a dry German Riesling (Abtserde and Morstein both got 99 points) and a year later Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave 100 points for the 2004 and 2015 vintages, this was of course a great reward for years of hard work. But the best reward for us as winemakers is still when private wine friends or collectors write to us, and tell us how moved they are by this wine, and how much joy drinking it has brought to them. This is the image we keep in mind when we are working this old plot and are just so pleased that nature would bestow such a tremendous gift."

"To understand the potential of fine wine production in the region, these winemakers have to know what fine wine wine taste like." 

Klaus’ passion for wine has stretched beyond his own obsessions and has played an instrumental role in fostering young talent in the region. To understand the potential of fine wine production in the region, these winemakers have to know what fine wine tastes like. Klaus regularly sets up tastings for his interns with fine wines from around the world. For Klaus this has been important because “young winemakers will very soon be formative to the image of the region. It is therefore important to us that they understand this responsibility and start as early as possible to drink the best wines in the world, so that they can form their own views on which direction they want to develop their own style into. Developing confidence in their own palate and intuition for wine early on is hugely important. Going back to Burgundy, if you look at Chambolle for example, you’ll find de Vogue, Roumier, Mugnier – three great domaines practically next door to each other and some even sharing the same vineyards – yet if you drink each of their Musigny or Amoureuses – you will get the completely individual signature of each of these great vignerons. These stylistic differences are what excite me – and that is why we often sit for hours in the evening in our kitchen or the garden, drinking great wine with our interns from the region and from around the world, so that they can get sensitised to these nuances as early as possible. And of course it’s not entirely altruistic – we aren’t just winemakers by trade; this job is my hobby and we live it in our free time as well. The more young people learn about the great wines of the world whilst they are with us – the more good wine we will have coming out of our region! And as we in Rheinhessen also love good dining (not only are there ever more good winemakers, but also more and more talented young chefs!) and I am always the first to order the wines of these young winemakers in restaurants – and the better the wine, the happier we are!

The Grand Cru sites of Weingut Keller

  • Frauenberg (Riesling and Pinot)

  • Bürgel

  • Hubacker

  • Kirchspiel

  • Abtserde

  • Morstein

  • Aulerde

  • Pettenthal

  • Hipping

  • Schubertslay

For availability on wines from Weingut Keller - click here. Thanks to Katie Reading for aiding with translation.

FINE+RARE 2019 Quintessential Bordeaux Collection Case

BY FINE+RARE,

Jul 1st, 2020

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