Genuinely great wine inspires. Almost always, so do the people who craft them. The history of Weingut Künstler, now guided by the husband-and-wife team Gunter and Monika, began in 1648. This history did not, however, begin in Germany’s Rheingau. Rather, it began in the Czech Republic, where the Künstler family made wine for centuries…until the end of World War II.

Forced to leave his homeland, Gunter’s father, Franz, immigrated to Germany and settled in Hochheim am Main. There, Franz chose magnificent vineyards, setting the scene for the winery’s future successes. After all, as is often said, great wine is made in the vineyard. (I will add that great wine is also not screwed up in the winery.) Seventy-six percent of Künstler wines are classified as “Erstes Gewächs” today. Visiting and tasting at the winery today, the entire operation seems effortless. But, as we all know, looks can deceive. It’s hard to imagine such a recent, dramatic family history when contrasted to the positioning of the estate today.

Before I delve into my collection of notes from a private tasting with Günter at the estate on Saturday, September 22, 2012, here are some fascinating factoids:

  • Pinot Noir in the Rheingau came from monks who transplanted themselves there from Burgundy.
  • The monks arrived with their Pinot Noir around 1435. Riesling was planted in Rheingau 328 years later.
  • In the Middle Ages, temperatures were one degree Celsius higher than they are today. Wines were grown as far north as Berlin.
  • The climate turned less hospitable between 1650-1850. Viticulture declined. It was, effectively, an ice age for vines.

Taking the big leap now, one of my umbrella words for this tasting was the “luminosity” of the wines. I also found a clear sense of place and a precise, determined winemaking style.

2008-er Chardonnay Sekt Extra Brut
First fermentation in stainless steel. Chardonnay represents only 3.5% of Künstler’s plantings.
Impressively leesy. Fine bubbles. A serious sparkling wine whose flavors play heavily on autolysis. Demands food.

2010-er Hochheimer Reichestal Pinot Noir Erstes Gewächs
Reichestal means “rich valley”, referring not only to the fertile soil but also this micro-climate’s warmth. Reichestal is the winery’s second largest holding in a single vineyard site
The fragrant nose begins with wafts of underbrush and a combination of fresh red and black fruits. The high level of fruit ripeness melds seamlessly with the rounded tannins. Despite their smoothness, there is an interesting granularity to the tannins that show this is a European wine. The flavors are pleasing, even though the oak vanillin is quite clear on the palate. Unfortunately, the wine begins at “warm” and ends at “hot”. There is not enough stuffing to support the 14% alcohol. Medium finish. I would love to taste an unchaptalized version.

2009-er Hochheimer Reichestal Pinot Noir Erstes Gewächs
100% free-run juice.
The aromatics of the 2009 are more ethereal than the 2010.  There is a lovely, “woodsy”, Pinot-esque sensibility to this wine. However, the fruit is again rather marked by vanilla and cream notes from oak. There’s heat here, too, but not like in the 2010. On a positive note, one outcome of the elevated alcohol is its contribution of a lovely succulence. Like with the 2010, the fine, grainy tannins are buffered by a certain suaveness.

2011-er Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Kabinett Trocken
Hölle literally means “hell”, but this vineyard’s name actually comes from the middle German word for “steep hill”.
Pure in flavor and crystalline in acidity. Pear nectar, honey, wood-burning stove embers and significant spice. Lightly chalky in texture. 12.5% abv.

2011-er Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Kabinett Trocken
More ripeness than the Hochheimer Hölle Kabinett Trocken. Peach skin and cantaloupe. Lightly viscous. Again, fragrant spice. Lingering finish. Near perfection with regard to its balance of dryness and acidity.

2011-er Hochheimer Domdechaney Riesling Trocken
Domdechaney refers to the (former) higher-ups of the cathedral in Mainz. Künstler’s 0.3 hectares were planted in 1987.
Pristine. Chalky nose with oyster shell notes reminiscent of Chablis. This makes perfect sense, as the soils are calcareous clay marl. Still, there is a minerality that dominates the chalk notes in the end. The acidity screams while the flavors explode with peach skin, straw and puff pastry. There is a very faint viscosity, impeccable balance and a solid, medium finish.

2011-er Rüdesheimer Bischofsberg Riesling Trocken Alte Reben
Alte Reben means “old vines”. “Old” tends to be older in Europe than in the New World. Fifty-three percent of Künstler’s vines have weathered at least twenty years.
This fragrant nose offers both fresh and developed aromas – unusual for a one-year-old Riesling. The acidity sends a jolt through the palate, giving it a pleasant firmness. There is a definite spice component that crosses-over from the aromatic to the tactile. Long finish.

2011-er Hochheimer Stielweg Riesling Trocken Alte Reben
Stielweg means “steep path”.
This old vine cuvée smells of yellow plums, lemon peel, lemon pith, hazelnut and straw. Nevertheless, it’s not effusive on the nose; in fact, it’s rather reserved. It is not more giving on the palate. It’s quite austere, entirely dry and lightly tugging on the gums. In some ways, it feels more like a red wine. There is a richness here that does not come from viscosity. Great concentration.

2003-er Hochheimer Stielweg Riesling Trocken Alte Reben
These are approximately sixty-year-old vines.
This wine begins with reticent aromas: wild mushroom, earth and hay. Its flavors open to a wider spectrum that includes youthful fruitiness: apricot skin, yellow plum and pluot. A honey note also pipes up. The concentration is genuine and the finish feigns to diminish.

Günter likes to decant the next five wines.

2009-er Kostheimer Weiß Erd Riesling Trocken Erstes Gewächs
Weiß Erd means “white earth”. This vineyard of white marl soil sits at the confluence of the Mainz and Rhein rivers. This bottling is usually sold to private clients directly from the estate.
This wine begins with a nose of earth that soon explodes into spice. Raw almond follows. The flavor spectrum is balanced by lemon pulp and a texture that resembles the effect of lemon pith. The palate offers smoothness, and this silkiness finds its roots neither in oiliness from lees aging nor in glycerine.

2011-er Kostheimer Weiß Erd Riesling Trocken Erstes Gewächs
This 7.4 hectare vineyard is 100% Erstes Gewächs.
After tasting the 2009, this vintage leaps to the other end of the spectrum. This wine is dramatically perfumed, loaded with chalk, white peach, celery root and oregano. It’s less creamy than the 2009, yet it presents a similar density on the mid-palate. The finish is medium-plus and every sip is loaded with minerals. 

2011-er Hochheimer Kirchenstück Trocken Erstes Gewächs
Double the size of Weiß Erd, this vineyard is also 100% Erstes Gewächs.
Exceedingly mineral, lemon pith and straw notes stand out on the nose. Spice then jumps in. There is a pleasant smoothness that incorporates some mid-palate density. Immense layers of complexity lead to a long finish. The entirety of this wine is firmly corseted by invigorating acidity.

2011-er Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Trocken Erstes Gewächs
What a fascinating contrast! This wine seems rather developed (all things relative in a wine range that is still very young) in contrast to the (three) other 2011s. Gun smoke and petrol elements make quite a splash. On the palate, floral elements explode! At first, the structure feels somewhat lenient, as the mid-palate is creamy, but then the acidity kicks in and offers tantalizing refreshment! The finish lingers long enough to seem downright stubborn.

2011-er Rüdesheimer Berg Rotland Trocken Erstes Gewächs
Massive minerality with distinct flintiness. The generous, rounded mouthfeel is corseted by chiseled acidity. The clean and lean frame is rounded out by sweet yellow plums, which plump up the palate. Quite promising in aroma and flavor yet leaving only a moderate minus finish.

2007-er Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Trocken Goldkapsel
Restrained nose with yellow plum preserves, whiffs of mushrooms and suspicions of hay. Fertile earth aromas plant themselves on the finish. Finessed with a spicy lift.

2005-er Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Trocken Goldkapsel
Light petrol notes on the nose are accompanied with cracked white pepper. An impressively viscous wine that feels quite dry. The finish is long and full of Chablis-like lactic notes. There are also fresh, wild mushroom notes throughout the aromatic spectrum.

1997-er Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Auslese Trocken
Lightly honeyed with flavors of peach fuzz and apricot jam, this wine dances a fine line between petrol and fumé. The finish is exceedingly long, and it’s lovely to feel yet another, somewhat older, Riesling taste, yet again, dry.

2010-er Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Beerenauslese
Faint cheese rind with green undertones – dill and cucumber seasoned with white pepper. Stunningly racy acidity illuminates the cuvée. Very long finish. Only 6.5% abv.

2011-er Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese
Very deep, copper color. The aromatics swarm: apricot jam, rugelach, golden raisin, and honey-drenched baklava. The significant volatile acidity is definitely distracting on the nose. This characteristic is mercifully less noticeable on the palate. Nonetheless, the sucrosity is over the top; maple syrup candy comes to mind.  The extreme level of concentration of this rare TBA, despite its evident quality, makes it hard to properly appreciate a glass, even with food. Nonetheless, it is spectacular to sip or to taste in a technical setting.