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Making His Mark: Moritz Haidle and the New Generation of German Wine

Photo Credit: Andreas Durst

Württemberg tradition and terroir

Württemberg is a rural, hilly swath of southern Germany, carpeted with vineyards, fields, and forests. Stuttgart, the regional capital, and its glinting car manufactories, pierce an otherwise rather timeless green landscape. This is the tranquil setting for our story of a young winemaker who’s here to shake things up just a little.

This part of Germany has a deep winemaking tradition that dates to the Middle Ages, when vineyard land was roughly four times what it is today. Wine has always been integral to daily life here and local consumption has ensured a steady market. Württemberg (and adjoining Baden) has long boasted the highest per capita wine consumption in the country. In his classic 1956 guide, The Wines of Germany, Frank Schoonmaker noted that although Württemberg was one of the most productive growing regions in Germany, the local population “drinks all but a small trickle of the wines.” This still holds true — although these dynamics are shifting.

This situation likely explains why the wines of Württemberg have been slow to gain wider notice. Critic Stephan Reinhardt wrote last year that the wine regions around Stuttgart “don’t yet get the attention their producers actually deserve.” He points out that the continental climate and sandstone, shell limestone, and colored marl soils that characterize the region give “full bodied and structured dry wines… that are not as fruity, crystalline and finessed as Rhine Riesling, but are dense, complex, powerful and just as expressive.”

One of the most expressive places for this singular style is the Remstal, a gentle valley shaped by the Rems tributary as it flows from its source to connect with the larger Neckar. “With its higher altitudes, cooler microclimate, and long ripening periods, the Remstal is perhaps the finest region for Riesling… in Württemberg,” Reinhardt writes.

Yet this is decidedly red wine country. Light-bodied, mineral Trollinger may be the red U.S. drinkers associate with Württemberg, but the traditional versions of these wines were almost always simple and often sweet, meant for local, prolific consumption.

Quality-minded Württemberg producers are also exploring the potential of two other red varieties: a dark, spicy expression of Lemberger (a.k.a. Blaufränkisch) and a lithe, radiant take on Spätburgunder (a.k.a. Pinot Noir). Reinhardt writes that these wines “have become much fresher, purer, dryer, more complex and elegant than in former times” and gives full credit for this to the new generation of German winemakers.

Enter Moritz Haidle

There seem to be two types of people born into winemaking traditions: those who step right in and those who grow up wanting nothing to do with it. Moritz Haidle was the latter.

Weingut Karl Haidle is one of the oldest estates in the Remstal, founded in the village of Kernen-Stetten in 1949 by Karl Haidle, an Olympic-caliber gymnast and vintner. Moritz Haidle says his grandfather stood out, even then. With four out of five growers cultivating less than 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of vines even today, Württemberg wines have, by necessity, typically been cooperatively produced. But, “as far as we know, [Karl] was never a member of a cooperative. He bottled, but sometimes he also sold his wine as bulk or pumped it from a truck into barrels at restaurants” — a common practice in the region at the time. Karl died young, leaving his son Hans, then 23, to run the 1.4 hectare (3.7 acre) estate. “When my father took over the winery [in 1969], there were still only two or three wineries in the Rems Valley,” says Moritz, citing another reason the estate has long attracted attention. Despite his youth and inexperience, Hans was exceptionally focused on raising the quality of the estate’s wines, concentrating on dry versions, also rare at the time.

Hans had not studied winemaking, but logged practical experience in the cellar of a Stuttgart grocer and later took courses at the nearby Weinsberg oenology school while making the Haidle wines. Hans steadily expanded the family’s vineyard holdings to the present size of 25 hectares (61 acres) while elevating the quality and profile of the estate to such an extent that in 1995 Weingut Karl Haidle was invited to join the VDP, a prestigious association of terroir-driven German wine producers.

Moritz, born in 1987, is one of five children and the only son. He grew up loving drawing, painting, and hip-hop — not the family business: “In the beginning, I was never really interested. My father always forced me to help during the school holidays and I hated it. I wanted to become a transportation designer because of where we are, next to Stuttgart, with Porsche and Mercedes.” None of his sisters was interested either. “My father said I can do whatever I want. But, of course, there was the family tradition, so there was still some kind of pressure.”

In 2007, he decided to test things out with an internship. “I started at Rudolf Fürst, in Franconia, a top Spätburgunder producer. That is where I made the decision [to pursue winemaking]. In my region, people were really traditional … even the young people who did internships at our winery, I didn’t connect with because they only wanted to talk about tractors and stuff. The vineyard manager at Fürst was really into hip-hop. That was the first time I met someone in the wine industry who had other interests.” During that internship, Moritz remembers, “there was a special day when we made a trip to Baden, to Thomas Seeger, who was producing mainly Spätburgunder and also a lot of Lemberger. He is a custom bike builder by hobby and he had his old-timer Harleys just standing next to the wine barrels. I thought this guy would be pretty cool.”

With a fresh perspective, Moritz went off to intern at a small winery in Australia (in the process honing his English to near perfection), then returned home, where he “covered a lot of bases,” including interning at a wine lab and learning about wine marketing at Weinsberg. His father kept him on a straight track: “If one internship ended on Friday, he made sure the next one started Monday.”

The German apprenticeship program is a serious two-year practical training designed to equip trainees with hard skills. “My father wanted me to do one white wine and one red wine apprenticeship,” remembers Moritz. “I did one year with Seeger in Heidelberg and then one with Künstler in Rheingau. After that I still was not 100% sure about making wine. I thought about quitting. When the weather is bad, winemaking still sucks.”

Nevertheless, he enrolled at Geisenheim University, the U.C. Davis of Germany. With his practical training behind him, the studies made more sense and things began to click in. He went on to do what’s known in Germany as a “practical semester” on California’s Sonoma coast. “That was a really good time, it was a really good winery. They were really taking care of the little things, trying to not use pumps, experimenting with biodynamics. At that time I was really interested in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so that was perfect for me.”

To complete his studies, he was required to conduct a research experiment. He chose to investigate malolactic fermentation. “Each week I took a sample and did the analysis and kept wondering why MLF didn’t happen. It turned out someone had oversulfited my wine, so it was screwed up. I had to do one extra semester to finish the research. This gave me time to do a second practical semester in Savigny-Lès-Beanue, at Domaine Doudet. So, again, I could work with Chard and Pinot.”

When he graduated from Geisenheim in 2014, Moritz recalls, “I went home and told the winemaker (not my father, but his right-hand man) that I wanted to make the wines myself.” But, Moritz, recalls, “He had been at the winery for seven years. My father and I had a really bad conscience because that was the first time in the whole history of our estate that we had to let someone go. We had trouble sleeping for two months before telling him. But it turned out he was ready to return to home at that point anyway and we still have a good relationship.”

It’s not hard to imagine Moritz being genuinely distressed by such a dilemma. He is one of the friendliest faces in the wine business: thoughtful and reflective, but also refreshingly open, easygoing, and candid. That candor extends to his thoughts on how to preserve the culture of a family winery in a place where locals have always been the main clientele, while making wines that will match his standards and fit a generation of wine drinkers that can grow old with him.

“Ten years ago, something like 70% of our customers were local. But that’s changing very fast. The older generation were really loyal and always drinking Trollinger and Lemberger. They were still drinking a bottle a day, every day. So we never had to export our wines, even to the rest of Germany,” Moritz explains. As in many parts of Germany, Weingut Karl Haidle counts on an annual harvest picking crew that is mostly local retirees, family, and friends —  “some even take holidays just to do this,” Moritz notes admiringly. He can’t alienate the faithful by retiring their favorite wines, even if these are not the wines for which he will win admirers in the broader market. But “this [new] generation, they never would drink those [traditional] wines,” says Moritz, “They are really into quality and handcrafted wines. They are not that concerned about drinking local. This is the main problem right now.”

Natalie Lumpp, who covers Württemberg wines for Gault & Millau, one of Europe’s most respected food and wine guides, believes Moritz embodies the solution to this problem: “To me, Moritz Haidle is by far one of the most innovative winemakers, yet he also understands the importance of preserving tradition.” She sees his particular strength as being able to win over connoisseurs with the “sensational qualities of his Rieslings and excellent red wines” while connecting with younger drinkers. “They can chill or party after work with his wines — everything goes.”

Moritz cultivates this connection naturally, through his loves of hip-hop, freestyle rap, and graffiti. “My hobbies are my hobbies, since I was 13. Painting and drawing are my bigger talents. I only graduated high school because I was really good in drawing.  With the wine thing, I got attention when I won a rap battle in Stuttgart. So it helped a lot to get more known, also for the winery. After a while, I realized if I want to be one of the high-quality wineries, this image doesn’t help that much. But I’m trying to keep that alive to help reach the younger generation. That is the moment in the wine market in Germany.”

So far, his sense of responsibility to both generations has led him to focus on organic practices in the vineyards and to trim his portfolio to concentrate on fewer, higher quality wines. “We already got rid of some wines like Kerner Spätlese, sweet reds without much volume behind them,” says Moritz, “If you have 20 different varieties, you really can’t talk about terroir, you just talk about the different varieties.”

In his four years as Haidle’s head winemaker, he’s learned “many, many lessons.” He says, “I thought that at some point I would know the perfect way to make wine. But I realize that every year you discover something you want to try out, something that would make it better. I visit a lot of winemakers, I taste a lot of wines, I try to think: ‘How did they make this?’ I am always asking the question to myself and to the winemakers when I visit them. I realize that this is a lesson that will never stop, you will always be excited and nervous when harvest comes. And you will never be entirely happy with the result.” But we wine lovers already have very good reason to be.

“Groundswell of talent rising in German winemaking”

At a tasting of Weingut Karl Haidle Rieslings and Lembergers in New York earlier this month, the wines stood out, even from a particularly strong lineup of some of Germany’s brightest young producers, including Matthias Knebel, Killian and Angelina Franzen, and Benedikt Baltes. The Haidle wines only became available in the U.S. in summer 2017, when importer Kevin Pike of Schatzi Wines added Moritz to his portfolio. Although Pike wasn’t necessarily looking for a Württemberg producer, he was drawn to “the quality of the wines and their sense of terroir … but equally important is the person. Here’s a guy … who finds artistic expression in hip-hop and graffiti, then decides to take over the family estate and channels his artistry and attention to detail into the vineyards and cellar.”

Pike notes, “The Riesling [in this part of Württemberg] is unlike anything else in Germany, or for that matter, anywhere. It’s more compact, with a spicier edge and tropical fruit. In Stetten they seem to have a unique structure with a slightly higher pH than what you’d find in the Mosel, for example.”  Part of the challenge in marketing the wines to U.S. consumers, Pike says, “is to introduce [them] to Riesling that is different than what they think they know. The second challenge is Lemberger. The grape isn’t as well known here, yet consumer recognition for Blaufränkisch is more accepted. The opportunities lie in introducing new wines and new wine styles to a market that is largely unaware of them. Newness can be fashionable, which can open doors for us, but quality is what can grow the category.  Moritz’s wines possess both attributes.”

“There is a groundswell of talent rising in German winemaking …  that may be unprecedented,” believes Pike. “In the past five to ten years, the new generation of winemakers who are taking over family estates—or creating their own wineries—is changing the face of German wine for the better.”

While acknowledging the place of the great estates in established areas of Germany, Pike points out “what is happening in the less well-known areas, like the Mosel Terraces, parts of Rheinhessen, many areas of the Pfalz, Baden, and Württemberg, is ample reason for people to look at German wine culture with fresh eyes. Moritz is part of this new generation.”

You can’t really talk about Moritz’s wines without at least a little understanding of his unique vineyard holdings. And for that, we need to talk about the F word: Flurbereinigung. It can be translated, somewhat euphemistically, as “vineyard reorganization.” In the wake of World War II, Germany, its population and infrastructure decimated, was desperate to feed itself. In response, the German government initiated a massive effort to streamline food production. The aim was higher yields through mechanizable agriculture on aggregated parcels. The cost, in wine terms, was the loss of countless individual vineyards over decades, including many that had been painstakingly terraced and cultivated over centuries.

In the Remstal, one such vineyard, the Pulvermächer (pull-VER-mek-ker), has been renowned for the quality of its Rieslings for at least a century. It is a steep south/southwest-facing slope, some 320 meters (1,000 feet) above sea level. It, too, was “reorganized” — all but one parcel of it. That parcel belongs t0 Moritz and his family. “A hundred years ago, there was almost only Riesling growing in Stetten, in a side valley of Rems, because it’s cold there. Pulvermächer and Brotwasser [to this day a monopole of the Duke of Württemberg] were always famous for Riesling. They are actual grand crus, named as far back as the 1600s,” Haidle says, “Our portion and the Brotwasser … are the last two terraced vineyards in the Rems Valley. Maybe there were other vineyards that were quite flat that were untouched, but aside from those.” Moritz believes the historical import of his parcel and its position directly below the ruins of a castle saved it from uprooting and destruction.

The stone terraces of Haidle’s parcel retain heat particularly well and enable the kind of long, slow ripening that is ideal for Riesling. His 50-year-old vines have had time to dig deep into the pebbly sandstone, forcing out an intensity that translates into the concentrated qualities of his flagship Rieslings.

In the cellar, Moritz allows most of his wines to ferment spontaneously, uses gravity rather than pumps to move the wines, and raises them in his grandfather’s old Halbstückfaß (600L) and Stückfaß (1200L) oak barrels. Moritz doesn’t think the barrel age affects the quality, “but it’s a lot of fun to work with them; it feels really nostalgic and traditional.”

The results? From the cool, classic 2016 vintage, the Haidle “Pfeffer” Kabinett, which comes from the Pulvermächer and Häder vineyards, was compact and superbly balanced, with a touch of residual sugar complimenting the mineral intensity. The epic Pulvermächer “GG,” grown on the pebbly sandstone of Haidle’s terraced parcel, spends nine months in Stückfaß to bring out the rich, full-bodied concentration. “My idea is to make Riesling from Pulvermächer that would, in theory, last forever, at least for the GG and Erste Lage,” Haidle notes.

The Lembergers are a stable of darkly handsome wines. The 2016 Lemberger Bunter Mergel, named for the colored marl soils of the vineyard from which it comes, was lively, spicey and somehow both structured and bright. Six months of neutral oak elevage fully integrated the dark fruit and spice.

The 2015 Stettener Häder Lemberger Erste Lage had a gorgeous sour cherry nose and the brighter acidity you’d expect from a cooler vineyard site. The 2015 Berge Lemberger GG, from a steep slope vineyard, was a powerhouse of pungent spice and dark fruit. Two years of elevage in neutral and new barrique contribute to its alluring intensity.

Wines like these make clear that this is Moritz Haidle’s moment to make his mark, on his vineyards, in the cellar, and on the very face of German wine.

 

Links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iK0nOME_xdw

YouTube: “Rapping Vintner” (German)

http://weingut-karl-haidle.de/en/

Weingut Karl Haidle (German and English)