The Swabian Edge - Many Stones But Little Bread

Holger Koch and son (photo by Sophie Barrett)

Holger Koch and son (photo by Sophie Barrett)

Article written for Chambers Street Wines, view it here

Swabia – the southwest corner of Germany – is the birthplace of Schiller and Hegel as well as inventors and industrialists like Gottlieb Daimler and Robert Bosch. There is an old phrase that reflects the somewhat grim natural conditions there: ‘Viel Steine gibts und wenig Brot’ (We have many stones and little bread). The struggle to overcome the region’s historically scarce resources have given Swabians a reputation for strict frugality, as well as creative problem solving and innovation. Of course, the proverbial abundance of stones is of great benefit to their wines, with the best Rieslings showing off a clean, chalky structure gained from the steep, limestone slopes. Here, in a warmer pocket not far from Alsace, there are colder winters but warmer summers than the rest of Germany. The wines almost always ferment dry of their own accord, and on the occasions where there is a bit of residual sugar, the acidity is still poised and racy, another great benefit of the limestone. Though despite having the potential for greatness, few Swabians have aimed terribly high until recently.

Andi Knauss, Jochen Beurer, and Holger Koch are the first in what we hope is a growing movement of ambitious Swabian winemakers. Independently of one another, they began working without the use of chemicals in the vineyards and using only native yeasts in the cellars, with almost no other additions save for small amounts of sulfites. Knauss has even begun working without sulfites for his Trollinger 'Without All.' Beurer is certified biodynamic by Demeter. Knauss and Koch practice organic viticulture.

Beurer’s Rieslings are shockingly pure and so easy to drink that they can be real eye-openers for people who are used to sweet Mosel Rieslings, and even for those who have been drinking dry German Rieslings for a while. The wines are complex and very structured, going through a long, reductive winemaking process on their lees in neutral barrels, and yet they are still graceful, not showing off power and force, instead being superbly versatile food wines.

On the border with France, just 30km from Colmar, Holger Koch specializes in Pinot Noir and Spätburgunder grown on limestone and volcanic soils. Though they are essentially the same grape, the vines he labels Pinot Noir are selection massale plantings from Alsace and Burgundy, while his Spätburgunder vines were those planted by his father 60-70 years ago. His reds are unlike most German red wines, and are free of heavy new oak influence that would sacrifice freshness and purity. It's common practice to chaptalize Swabian red wines (the addition of sugar to fermenting grapes, also permitted in Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne). Koch nevertheless has a remarkable ability to make lush but subtle wines without chaptalizing, and it requires no small amount of effort to pick and select with such scrutiny.

Andi Knauss similarly has a gift for triage and selection. His ‘Without All’ Trollinger is not chaptalized and is further made without fining, filtration, or the addition of sulfites. The first vintage of this bottling, the current release, is a very clean wine without the bottle variation or mousey quality a lot of wines made without sulfites can possess, especially for those just starting to make wines in this method. So Knauss’ first effort is quite extraordinary, and speaks to the intense work he did to use only the best, cleanest, most pristine grapes for this wine.

We are thrilled to have been slowly seduced by the wines of Swabia over the past year or so, as they are all immensely approachable and manage to easily translate the best qualities of their historically austere homeland. Thank goodness for all those stones. 

Beurer, Jochen 2013 Württemberg Riesling Trocken

For under $20, this wine has a lot going for it. Farmed biodynamically, it is clean, pure Riesling with poise, balance, and acidity from it's limestone origins that gives it a refreshing energy and brightness that feels downright healthy to drink. For a bone-dry Riesling it never crosses the line into shrill, enamel-peeling acidity or brooding displays of power. The fruit would appear to be of terrific quality and I've seen a wide-range of wine drinkers charmed by this wine's lithe, crisp, versatile elegance. 

Beurer, Jochen 2012 Württemberg Riesling Schilfsandstein

The Jurrasic limestone and sandstone of this prime, terraced Swabian parcel imbue this dry Riesling with dark nuance and detail, all the while retaining terrific acidity that provides backbone and lift. After going through a long elevage on its lees in neutral barrels, there is a little bit of reduction but it quickly goes away to reveal tangerine peel, lemon, apricot, chamomile, salt, and minerals. Almost built like a Muscadet, with the same subtle intensity, versatility and range. There is a coiled power in the guts of this wine that will soften over the years but it is nevertheless ready to drink now in all its delicious complexity. Its purity and transparency truly show the distinct influence of the Swabian terroir and Swabia's immense potential--at least when farmed with the care of someone like Jochen Beurer. Jonathan Kemp

Koch, Holger 2010 Baden Pinot Noir*

One-star is Holger's equivalent of Premier Cru, and these vines are from a massale-planted parcel of 10-15 year-old vines farmed without chemicals on a mix of volcanic and limestone soils. Fermented with partial stem-inclusion and raised in a mix of 2-3 year old Stockinger barriques, demi-muids, and fuders, the oak use is light-handed and integrated with the warm, lush fruit. Tart acid and detailed layers belie a serious nature to the wine despite it's ease and effortless grace. Though many red wines in Baden are chaptalized, Koch does not take advantage of this and instead works harder than his peers to achieve proper balance and ripeness through carefully selecting for the best grapes. He also manages to use a light touch in the cellar to keep this exceptional fruit in the foreground. The worst qualities of German red wines may be found among those that aspire to be Burgundy but only succeed in being torpid, over-oaked, and expensive. This, by contrast, is subtle, true to its origins and truly world-class. 

Knauss 2013 Württemberg Trollinger 1 Liter

Trollinger is known as Schiava or Vernaccia Rosso in Italy. The light, refreshing Swabian version done here by Andi Knauss is similarly not a tannic wine, but it has an irresistible verve and energy not unlike Poulsard that sets it apart from its Italian cousins. This vintage is the best we've tasted yet, with remarkable purity, pleasing, high-toned cherry fruit, and cleansing acidity. Thank goodness this is a 1-liter bottle. It always gets guzzled. 

Knauss 2013 Württemberg Trollinger Without All

From Andi Knauss' 3 favorite plots, 'Without All' is Trollinger that comes in at an ethereal, pure 10.6% abv. Fermented spontaneously with native yeasts and bottled with no fining, filtration, and zero added sulphur. To further emphasize the point, it is lacking even a front label on the bottle. The light, fresh style is accompanied by fruit with a darker, brambly raspberry and blackberry character and some pleasantly chewy, cleansing tannins. Despite the lack of sulfites, there have been no issues with bottle variation or mousiness, and since we received our first shipment in July, the wine has kept getting better every time we've opened a bottle. Pleasing and thoughtfully made natural wine that will absolutely change your mind about red wine from Germany.

Knauss 2012 Württemberg Riesling Sekt Zero

This dry, zero-dosage Sekt is sourced from twelve plots of Knauss' Riesling vines of 15-30 years-old grown on a thin, clay topsoil that barely covers the underlying limestone. And the limestone, of course, is what really comes through: like a 18-wheeler barreling down the highway, in fact. Delicious aromas of fresh apricots and nectarines, a zippy, limey, backbone, and an underlying body with chalky texture adds depth, length, and quite a bit of soul. Vibrant, refreshing, and wonderful.