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Keller: the devil’s in the detail

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Klaus-Peter Keller is one of the great viticultural success stories of the modern era. Within just 25 years he has turned a little-known winery in Rheinhessen into one of the world’s most in-demand – producing some of the finest Riesling and Pinot Noir in Germany. We caught up with him to find out more about his extraordinary ascendancy

Klaus-Peter Keller loves wine. The energy and passion he has, not just for his own wine, but for wine in general, is a major reason for his success – taking over his family estate and transforming Keller, in just 25 years, into one of the world’s leading properties. The German winemaker has put the Rheinhessen and Germany Pinot Noir on the map, while also creating cult dry Rieslings that are some of the world’s most collectable. Yet he remains fascinated by discovering and exploring terroirs beyond his own, forever looking to learn more about his craft.

From an early age he was keen to learn about viticulture beyond the Rheinhessen. His love and fascination with Burgundy saw him make his own pilgrimage, determined to understand what was so special about the region. “I started at Domaine des Varoilles in Gevrey-Chambertin, because it wasn’t easy getting an internship in Burgundy,” says Keller. “I wrote over 50 applications, got three rejections, the rest didn’t even reply.” The fact that he comes from a long tradition of winemaking didn’t seem to matter. “No one was interested in Riesling,” he says. “If I opened a bottle at lunchtime or in the evening, people only partook out of politeness!” But, after three months, he met Charles Rousseau (Domaine Armand Rousseau), and things quickly improved. “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. My love for great Burgundies infected me like a virus and never left me.”

Romain Lignier from Domaine Hubert Lignier was another great Burgundian influence on Keller. He had studied in Rheinhessen in Nierstein, so there was an immediate affinity and shared interest between the two of them. “The purity of his wines totally fascinated me, and his moderate use of oak was exactly what I would later take as an example for our own Pinot Noirs,” says Keller. “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 Duroché in Gevrey-Chambertin, Amelie Berthaut in Fixin, Charles Lachaux in Vosne-Romanée, Lamy-Caillat in Puligny and the renaissance of Aligoté – it is just sensational what these young winemakers are producing. Of course, the big names continue to be fantastic… I love mature RousseauMugnier, and Roumier.”

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Klaus Peter Keller and his wife Julia

For Keller, fine wine is something beyond terroir, describing it more like a union between the vigneron and their vines. This union, Keller feels, manifests as a recognisable signature you can feel in the wines. It is something, he believes, that can only come from a deep passion and understanding of the vines a wine-grower works with. “Fine wine comes from especially fine soil,” says Keller, but this on its own is not enough. “It should be produced from people who live their passion. You can always taste when a winemaker loves his job,” he notes. “I am a big fan of small, family-run wineries – there are, for sure, exceptions, but normally I love to know the people behind the wines very well.”

It is this care, rather than just famous sites and low yields, that results in quality. “It has a lot to do with the 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,” he says. 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. “I like to be able to 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.”

Keller has done an awful lot of work examining his own vineyard sites over the years, identifying where and how he can get the best from these plots in the Rheinhessen. “We have indeed dug many holes and have discussed them at length with geologists,” says Keller. Armed with the results, Keller swapped and sold several parcels until he felt he had the best vineyards in the region for the style of wine he wanted to produce. “Viticulture is similar to horse racing,” he says, “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.” Today, Keller owns 10 Grosse Lage (Grand Cru) vineyards.

But it isn’t just passion and the right vineyards that has determined Keller’s success. “Fifty 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),” Keller says, “it was considered too cold to grow grapes successfully. In a way we are to Rheinhessen, what the Saar is to Mosel: a cool, windy, exposed spot, with perfect soils.”

Global warming, however, has changed that. Whereas in the 1970s and ’80s, the grapes only ripened fully perhaps once or twice a decade, they now have the perfect conditions practically every year. The soils’ rich clay content is another factor, retaining water and equipping the vines to withstand heatwaves and dry spells brought by the changing climate.

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In the mid-’90s when Keller returned from Burgundy, he planted Pinot Noir on the rocky soil of his Frauenberg vineyard. “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 it was this challenge that fascinated Keller. Even then, he was happy to push the limits and boundaries of what was possible.

“It is important to stay curious and questioning,” says Keller, “and not to see climate change as a threat but as an opportunity to gain a better understanding.” In 2008 he planted a vineyard of Riesling on granite rock in Norway – the University of Geisenheim predicted that the vines could start ripening there from 2050. To his amazement he was 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 Coronavirus."

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Keller didn’t pick until mid-November – both due to the coolness of his sites, but also his philosophy to prolong the vegetative cycle to encourage aromatic complexity. When he got married to his wife on 2nd October 1997, it was before the Pinot Noir harvest. “These days,” he jokes, “we regularly celebrate our wedding anniversary in the vineyards!”

Keller realised the harvests were not just getting earlier, but the window for picking was also getting narrower. “We used to be able to spread the harvest over eight weeks. Now it all has to be done in four to five weeks.” The risks have also increased, he notes. If there is rain combined with higher temperatures at the end of September or the beginning of October, then the chance of spoilage will be much higher than compared to picking in mid-November at 5-6˚C in November – when the vineyards are “like a virtual natural refrigerator”.

As climate change has transformed the growing season, Keller has had to adapt. He now leaves a bigger canopy to minimise the direct sun on the berries. He has adopted very gentle pruning methods to protect the vines from new diseases like Esca. His and Julia’s son Felix has introduced lots of organic and biodynamic ideas into their processes, to ensure their soils are sustainably farmed.

Climate change has also coincided with the Keller vines ageing, which has seen Keller move away from certain techniques he was initially well known for. While 20-30 years ago he pioneered green-harvesting or bunch-thinning, he no longer does either. “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.”

Rather than reducing the bunches, Keller has now started to experiment with bending the vines into small arches. This he says, “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.” 

Keller admits that the Rheinhessen, for now, has greatly benefitted from climate change. With a warmer climate there is more opportunity to experiment with the wide variety of soils found in the region. “We have volcanic soils in the west, quartz in the north, red clay in the east and wonderful limestone here where we are in the hills.”

Keller sees this variety of soils as a gift from nature and something more and more winemakers are taking advantage of. “I think Rheinhessen has one of the most dynamic young winemaker scenes in Germany,” he says proudly, “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 it was in Burgundy back in the day."

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Keller’s most famous cuvée is his G-Max Riesling. Made in minuscule quantities from his favourite vineyard and initially destined just for personal consumption, it is today one of the most sought-out and highly acclaimed Rieslings in the world. Keller explains that it was born from a wine originally called “G” for Georg, Keller’s great-grandfather, who built their house and made the family’s first estate wine in 1921.

When their son Max was born in 2000, they wanted to dedicate a wine to him too and had a particular parcel of ancient vines in mind. However, because they didn’t want to make any additional wine, they combined the G for Georg with the name 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,” says Keller. “But of course, we tasted it with a few friends, who were so taken with it 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 their surprise, the wine sold out. Their idea had pretty much backfired, and G-Max became an instant cult wine.

Decanter gave the wine its first 100-point score for a dry German Riesling. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate recently awarded the 2019 100 points. This was a great reward for years of hard work for Keller, but for him, the best reward is still when a friend or collector writes to them and tells them how moved they are by this wine, and how much joy drinking it has brought 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 us with such a tremendous gift."

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