Winter • Dittelsheim • Rheinhessen

In 2007, I pledged to try and find something in Germany to import. Even though German wines were (and are) my specialty, and I had had almost twenty years of experience, still, I was nervous, and not very confident. I had friends to help me in Austria, and besides, Austria is filled with dozens of lovely wineries not yet imported. I could go back now and find another twenty in less than two weeks. That’s slowly changing, but still. Germany is well-plowed country. I spoke with a German vintner who serves as an exporter too, and he was rather skeptical. Everything’s taken, he said, by some one. But it turned out not to be true. Young vintners are appearing out of thin air, it seems, and, in sometimes neglected properties, and appellations, are making splendid wine. They form groups to market their wine. They are young Turks. And if you are open to some of the seemingly radical things they are doing, they are very exciting. And, I had forgotten that I have many friends in Germany, and it seems as if they all know someone, a neighbor perhaps, whose wines are not exported. So, with this richness, I began.

I think that, in 2006, I commented on the fact that the Rheinhessen is the most happening place in Germany. Terry Theise has remarked on it, and brought in several new vintners. From a few tips, that’s exactly what I did as well. There is a group of young vintners who are out to prove the Rheinhessen is where it’s at. The group is called Message in a Bottle. And yes, it’s in English. I know seven wineries in the group quite well, and am familiar with a half a dozen more. These people are very exciting.

Dittelsheim is out in the hinterlands of the Rheinhessen. You’d hardly think this was vine country, except, when you look closely, you see vineyards on the south sides of hills, and little signs in the villages Wein Verkauf (wine for sale). It doesn’t look like much, and at times these villages reminded me of some of the villages in Greece where some guy would be selling his wine out of barrel into the plastic liter water bottles you brought with you. I’m overstating it of course (and, by the way, there are some pretty good Greek wines too) but still, it doesn’t look all that promising. The Rheinhessen is no Mosel. But look a little more carefully and you might find someone like Stefan Winter.

You get off the Autobahn and drive through rolling hills and scattered wind mills (wind energy is very big in Germany). The town is pretty grey, without much to distinguish it from countless other towns, all ending in heim (home). The Hof is where one meets with the family. The winery is about a kilometer away, on the side of a hill at the edge of town. It is modern and filled with gleaming stainless steel. Stefan’s family has been making wine here for many generations (Werner Winter planted the first Rieslings in 1600), but whose tradition goes back even further, to the 14th Century. The family originally came from Austria, which makes a nice little segue for me. Stefan is young (is he even thirty? I doubt it), and he and his brother manage the winery. Most of the vineyards are around 25 years old. Natural yeast is used for all the vineyard wines. He makes loads of different wines from almost 20 hectares, producing only about 7000 cases per year, thus the yields are quite low. He is known as an Aufsteiger, literally an up and comer, in Gault-Millau, and has built a loyal and excited clientele in Germany. It is easy to understand why, but here’s the rub.

For classic German wine lovers, these wines are very modern, untypical, and, gulp, dry. Now before you run away screaming, you should know that, until a couple of years ago, I would have been out in front, running with you as fast as I could. But I can’t deny the quality of these wines, nor their beauty. The Germans seem to be getting it finally, figuring out how to make a perfectly balanced wine that tastes utterly German, and unique, but which is dry. I suppose Global Warming may have something to do with it – the vintages have been awfully ripe every year, it seems, since maybe 2000, and before that, 1991. Or maybe my tastes have changed. Actually, I think it’s a combination of the three, but I want you to try these wines, especially those of you who prefer the old style, the normal Kabinetts and Spätlesen. I think you will fall in love with them just as I have. At any rate, Winter is a superb discovery. They will be great hits in restaurants as well. I predict this winery will become one of the hottest in Germany. And you will have your chance to be ahead of the curve.

There are three levels of wines here: an Estate (Guts) Riesling, very classy, and perfect for daily drinking, actually, it’s much better than your daily plonk, even if your daily plonk is better than most; this is superb wine. Then comes a Village Riesling, which he calls Kalkstein, denoting the soil, which is one of my favorite dry wines in Germany, and an individual vineyard wine, the Leckerberg, which suggests happily how tasty the wine is (lecker is what you say to the server at a restaurant when the meal was particularly good: Na Ja, das war Lecker!). In 2007 we brought in a tiny amount of wine, we had problems with label approval, and by the time that was all fixed, most of the wine was sold out. As I write this, we are waiting for a second shipment, from a lovely liter wine to a superb dry vineyard Riesling. There is also a dry Scheurebe that will thrill all lovers of this fascinating grape. I anticipate a long and lovely relationship with these people.