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  • October 23, 2014
  • Koehler-Ruprecht Leaves the VDP

  • by Lars Carlberg

saumagen_spaetlese_trocken_2009_whiteYesterday morning, a press release by Koehler-Ruprecht and Felix Eschenauer of Medienagenten announced that the estate is going to leave the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter), effective with the 2013 vintage. According to the press release, the chief "bone of contention" was the decision, back in 2012, "to classify all dry wines as quality wines [Qualitätsweine, formerly called QbA] only—a restriction that is diametrically opposed to the philosophy to produce Prädikat wines (high-quality wines with special attributes) espoused by the winery."

Koehler-Ruprecht first became members of the VDNV (Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer, or Association of Natural Wine Auctioneers)—the forerunner of today's VDP, also known as Prädikat Wine Estates—in 1926. At the end of this year, their longstanding membership will come to an end. Both Dominik Sona, the CEO of Koehler-Ruprecht, and the Sauvage family, owners of the estate, "regret to have to take this step."

As previously mentioned, the main issue is that all dry wines should be classified as Qualtiätswein—meaning that it is permissible to chaptalize them, including the high-end Grosse Gewächse (GG), which are usually packaged in an extra-tall, heavy bottle with an embossed "GG" or an Erste Lage symbol and, since 2012, also bear the initials “GG” on the labels or even an etching on the glass. Yet Koehler-Ruprecht prides itself on producing Prädikatsweine, non-chaptalized quality wines with an additional attribute (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese), which follows the tradition of the natural wine auctioneers.* (The term "natural" was disallowed with the passing of the 1971 German Wine Law.) "We believe that in order to produce authentic wines that reflect their vintage, we need to use unadulterated grape musts." The VDP, however, only wants to keep the Prädikats for sweet wines.

mini_stueck_saumagenThe other issue is the new VDP classification, which requires its members to only label one top dry Riesling wine from a VDP-classified Grosse Lage, or "great site." Koehler-Ruprecht's most important vineyard site is Kallstadter Saumagen from which it produces anywhere from three to six dry Rieslings with different Prädikats. Beginning with the 2012 vintage, the VDP classification was stipulated in the "Decree of Neustadt," which forced Koehler-Ruprecht to leave the VDP.

Koehler-Ruprecht wants to continue the tradition of producing different dry (trocken) Prädikat wines from Saumagen, including Kabinett trocken, Spätlese trocken, Auslese trocken, and the "R" and "RR" (the latter two are reserve bottlings of Spätlese and Auslese trocken that are only released later on). Most of the wines age in old oval wood casks of various sizes, including the standard 1,200-liter Stück and 2,400-liter Doppelstück.

Several years ago, a friend and I visited Koehler-Ruprecht in the Mittelhaardt. One of my favorite vintages is 2010. I especially like the 2010 Kallstadter Saumagen Riesling Spätlese trocken from this traditional producer. Dominik Sona took the reins of Koehler-Ruprecht four years ago, but the former owner and winemaker Bernd Philippi—in whose family the estate had been for three generationscontinued to consult following the sale of the estate. It is Philippi who in the course of three decades established the style, as well as the bottling and marketing practices that have come to be associated with Koehler-Ruprecht, and who brought its wines to renown. On our visit to Koehler-Ruprecht, Dominik had indicated his displeasure with the new VDP stipulations, so it's no surprise that he and the Sauvage family finally decided to leave. As a subscriber to my site, Dominik gave me his approval to publish this article. (Click here for the English version of the full press release.)

The respected wine critic David Schildknecht, who has a column for The World of Fine Wine, has this to say:

Certainly, I regret on the one hand that it had to come to a rupture between Germany’s foremost association devoted to a gospel of wine quality and one of its most prestigious members, whose wines I have held in highest esteem since I first knocked on the door of Weinstrasse 84 in 1984. On the other hand, I welcome this move by Koehler-Ruprecht as logically consistent, gutsy, entirely justified, and as elucidating three fundamentally misguided choices by the VDP that I have long criticized in considerable detail—and shall continue to criticize—in conversation and in print.

i.) To demand—in the name of Terroir no less—that mention of a wine’s place of origin (albeit, inconsistently, only insofar as that wine is legally trocken!) should be suppressed for the sake of the top position accorded to Grosse Gewächse. (Implication: “Terroir influence only begins at 20 euros and 12.5 percent alcohol.”)

ii.) To take the stylistic diversity that to a considerable extent constitutes precisely the potential charm and versatility—indeed, represents a unique talent—of German Riesling, and effectively reduce it to two categories: full-bodied and dry; low-alcohol and sweet.

iii.) To discard that special status traditionally accorded to unchaptalized German wines (and which, after all, is responsible for the very name of the association doing the discarding ;- ).

One can only hope that this decision by Koehler-Ruprecht will prove an occasion for further reflection on the part of the VDP, as well as by those growers who feel themselves constrained or hindered by VDP regulations in communicating style, terroir, and the strength of Riesling. As I attempt to emphasize over and over (if in vain), what is at issue here (and in many similar cases worldwide) is not how a consensus was reached—which may well have been democratically. The question, rather, is about what matters should be subject to the dictates of such consensus. The freedom of a wine grower to indicate his or her wine’s place of origin, and to determine its style within traditional, long-recognized and -appreciated parameters should never have been placed in question let alone preempted, and most certainly not for the sake of a mere marketing campaign.

On December 28, 2012, Schildknecht had replied to my two-part article titled "Unlocking the Kabinett" by clarifying the multiple dry Riesling bottlings from Koehler-Ruprecht.

When I first read the press release yesterday, I happened to be at Hofgut Falkenstein on the Saar, where I've worked the harvest for the Weber family over the last two weeks. The Webers are not members of the VDP, but, even as nonmembers, they choose not to follow the recent trend of omitting the Prädikat attributes for their dry and off-dry wines. Like Koehler-Ruprecht, Falkenstein is an unpretentious, old-school producer that wants to highlight the different styles of (unchaptalized) dry Riesling with the real vineyard name on the label. ♦

*See Kevin Goldberg's "First as Tragedy, then as Farce?: A Short Story about Natural Wine" for more details.

  • Thanks to Guy Brits-Gedopt, a subscriber to my site from Antwerp, for the corrections. (I initially wrote that the reserve wines were aged longer in cask.) The R and RR wines are bottled, he says, normally right before the next harvest and then kept in storage for several years. The Spätlese R and RR are normally released between 4 and 6 years later, and the Auslese R and RR after about 7 years. I forgot what Dominik had told me several years ago.

  • Marcin Jagodzinski says:

    We know that Qualitätswein allows chaptalization, but in practice, are GG wines chaptalized?

    • That’s a good question, Marcin. You would think that chaptalization isn’t necessary for GGs, especially in past vintages.

      • Marcin Jagodzinski says:

        If it’s not used, then VDP should make not chaptalizing a requirement for GG wines and the problem is in most part solved. I doubt that consumers look at label of (quite expensive) GG wine, see “Qualitätswein” and think “I’d buy it, but I’m worried it has been chaptalized”.

        • As I understand it, certain influential VDP members want to keep this option open, in case they need to chaptalize their GGs. (Some German winemakers feel that dry wines should be chaptalized in order reach a certain minimum alcohol level.) We shouldn’t forget that chaptalization is used in Burgundy and Bordeaux. Yet the VDP has “Prädikat” in its name, even if most consumers don’t take notice of this term or whether a GG is labeled a Qualitätswein (formerly called QbA).

    • Al Drinkle says:

      Marcin, the answer to your question is a definitive “yes.” Excuse me for not validating this claim but a gentlemanly agreement dictates that I not do so.

  • Guy Brits-Gedopt says:

    The VDP should change its name into VDGGW, Verband Deutscher Grösse Gewächs Weingüter.

    I am very curious if they would ever risk throwing the likes of Egon Müller or JJ Prüm out of the VDGGW.

    • Thanks for your comment, Guy. No disrespect to the VDP, but I like your new acronym.

      I don’t think the VDP has been very smart with its new and ever-changing set of rules (which restricts many of its members). (Some VDP members don’t even understand the rules.) In addition, the VDP classification pyramid actually downplays terroir in many instances, especially for light-bodied, dry-ish wines. Why must a Kabinett be between 18 and 65 grams of residual sugar? If tradition is the VDP’s argument, this Prädikat and style of wine has little to do with what made Mosel wine famous at the turn of the 20th century. Moreover, a Kabinett with 18 grams tastes much different from one with 65. That’s a large bandwidth for limiting the Prädikat to one style. And what about those unchaptalized single-vineyard wines that are light and have under 18 grams of sugar? How does a VDP member highlight that a dry-tasting wine is both light and unchaptalized? These are the traditional Mosel wines. In other words, the VDP is overlooking delicate, dry to off-dry wines—not low-alcohol, sweet ones.

      Why can’t a VDP member choose to bottle a top-rated single-vineyard wine as either Kabinett or even Spätlese trocken/feinherb? (The label designation “Spätlese” seems to have taken hold in the Mosel region after the First World War and in the ensuing decades became more associated with sweet wines from arrested fermentations.) I understand that the VDP wants to have a taste profile for each Prädikat and would prefer to leave these for residually sweet wines, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

      And then there are those Grosse Lage wines, such as Heymann-Löwenstein or Van Volxem, that are usually a little over 9 grams of sugar and thus not GG. Van Volxem didn’t even label its legally dry 2012 Grosse Lage wines as GGs.

      Egon Müller and J.J. Prüm are fine, even if neither follows the new set of rules with Grosse Lage and so on. They at least have the Prädikat designations for their fruity and nobly sweet wines.

  • Another old-style producer that sticks with Prädikat designations for its dry Rieslings is J.B. Becker. The only change has been the questionable move to glass closures for its long-lived Rheingau wines.

    On the Saar, Dr. Wagner is a traditional producer and a member of the VDP. But the Wagners have yet to make a GG and still prefer to label their dry Saar Rieslings with a Prädikat, despite pressure from the VDP to follow the new classification.

  • My thanks to David Schildknecht for his quote, plus the last-minute corrections and suggestions.

  • Claude Kolm says:

    I guess this is not surprising. He never participated in the GG program and was adamant about keeping Prädikats for his dry wines (and vineyard names on the Kabinett wines). He has a cult following, so this hurts the VDP; as for Koehler-Ruprecht, it’s one less expense (from which it wasn’t getting very much in return, as far as I can see).

    Of all the chapters, Pfalz, followed I suppose by Rheinhessen, has been most militant about the various changes. I and another journalist spent about 45 minutes with Herr Christmann (President of the VDP) a few years ago telling him why these changes didn’t make sense for consumers, but he would have none of it.

    It will be interesting to see if the Franken chapter starts to insist on some of these changes — I’ve had VDP producers down there tell me that they would be forced to leave the VDP if they could not have vineyard-designated Kabinett and Spätlese trocken wines.

    As for VDP technically allowing chaptalization for dry wines, several producers have indicated to me that they found the possibility troubling (and in conflict with the organization’s name — Prädikatsweingüter; however, I see that the name also includes Qualitätsweinguter. Is my memory faulty, or is Qualitätsweingüter a recent addition (to accommodate the QbA dry wines)?

    With respect to Heymann-Löwenstein and van Volxem’s wines not meeting the VDP GG requirements for dryness, they nevertheless are allowed to show their wines with other GGs (e.g., at the Wiesbaden GG preview).

    • Thanks for your comment, Claude! I believe “Qualitätsweingüter” is a recent addition to the VDP’s name. But they call themselves Prädikat Wine Estates in English.

      • Christian Jessen says:

        The orginal name was “Verband deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter” …. but was shortened not to long ago into “Verband deutscher Prädikatsweingüter” … The first Name “Verband deutscher Naturweinversteigerer” implies that the wines were not chaptalized …

        • Christian, I forgot that Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter came first, but now I remember this when I wrote my glossary entry for the term “VDP.” The association is now called Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (Prädikat Wine Estates).

          I think most of us know that Naturwein means unchaptalized.

          • The other day, I was on the VDP website, where I found again the passage that talks about the name. It’s listed under “Who we are” and the subheading “What’s in a name”:

            Verband Deutscher Qualitäts- und Prädikatsweingüter, mercifully abbreviated VDP, literally means: The Association of German Quality and Prädikat Wine Estates. And, what about “Prädikat”? A Prädikat is simply a special attribute. In this case, an umbrella term used to denote the highest category of quality wines produced in Germany. The name of the association reflects the quality-oriented philosophy practiced by its members.

            No less daunting in length was the association’s original name: Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer, i.e. estates that sold their “natural” (unchaptalized) wines at auction. For more than half a century, “natural wine” was synonymous with unadulterated wine of high quality. The concept was not embraced by everyone in the German wine industry. With the passage of the German wine law of 1969/1971, the term was prohibited, and the association was forced to adopt a new name. They simply replaced the designation “natural” with “Prädikat.”

            On their website, vdp.de., I’d also recommend readers to see Daniel Deckers’s “In the Sign of the Eagle” for more details on the history of the VDP.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks for the shrewd observations, Claude!

    I am also pretty sure that any significant further fall-out mid-term from the VDP’s determination to eliminate any exemptions from their labeling guidelines is likely to come from Franken. It’s not only that the dry wines which have long-dominated this region have also long been sold at different levels of alcoholic weight, ripeness of flavor, and price. It’s also that numerous prestigious growers have especially large holdings in prestigious Einzellagen. Würzburger Stein alone encompasses 71 hectares, much of which is divided among three enormous wineries, two of them VDP members. The Bürgerspital and Juliusspital currently bottle dry Stein Riesling and Silvaner both as “Erste Lage” (in lieu of Kabinett) and GG – though the Riesling GG from the Bürgerspital now takes an additional, more specific site-designation. Wirsching bottles their prestigious Riesling from the 47 hectare Julius-Echter-Berg as an “Erste Lage” and as a “Kabinett trocken.”

    Fate dealt wineries like these or Koehler-Rupprecht and many others what should be deemed a lucky hand in that they have such substantial holdings in a great site. So why should they be made to conform their labeling to a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter and in so doing actually end up disadvantaged by having to withhold from consumers the origins of many of their wines being in those great sites or else limit the stylistic range of wines on offer?

    • You bring up a great point, David. In Eitelsbach, Christoph Tyrell, the former owner of Karthäuserhof, is a perfect example of a VDP member who had his problems with the new VDP classification. Because Karthäuserhofberg is rated a Grosse Lage (formerly Erste Lage), he had to create a fantasy name (Schieferkristall) for his former Kabinett trocken and feinherb wines (which, by the way, are still listed on the price list with Prädikat). In addition, he renamed his Spätlese trocken to “Alte Reben trocken” (though this wine is also listed price list with Prädikat). Karthäuserhof only has the one large vineyard, which happens to be a great site. Yet Tyrell could no longer write the vineyard name and Prädikats for his various non-GG dry Rieslings, which make up the most important part of Karthäuserhof’s portfolio, especially for the German market.

      In Forst, Achim-Magin is a specialist for light, dry Riesling Kabinetts in some of the best sites of the Mittelhaardt (Pfalz). Despite VDP membership, they continued to label the wines “Kabinett trocken” from their top sites, but decided to rename one Spätlese trocken “Eruption,” as they couldn’t sell all their top-notch holdings in the best sites as GGs. Now, their unchaptalized dry (Kabinett) wines from Grosse Lagen (“great sites”) are sold under Ortsweine (village wines). Most VDP producers downgrade their former single-vineyard Kabinett trocken wines to Ortsweine, even if they come from an Erste or Grosse Lage. For many clients, especially in the German market, it’s important to know that the wine is unchaptalized and thus has a Prädikat (not just for sweet wines). And why should the producer not name the real vineyard name as well? I understand that the VDP wants to create taste profiles and reserve, for example, Kabinett for the so-called classic fruity-sweet style. But why can’t a VDP member who specializes in light, dry Rieslings designate the vineyard and Prädikat? As you pointed out, it’s either a fruity or nobly sweet Prädikatswein or a GG. The rest is not important.

  • Christian Jessen says:

    The Problem is of another nature !! The Problem is the Diversity in the Varietal …. If you asked a consumer to define Riesling you would receive a miriade of answers which all describe another type of wine …. With a bit of luck you will hear attributes such as sweetness, crispiness ( not in German however ) and acidity !!! This is a result of the character of this varietal, which to me is the best example of the term TERROIR ( in every understanding of the word ). Compare a Riesling produced on Porphyry to one on Slate to one on Chalk to one on Volcanic Soil, etc.,etc.,etc…. a never ending Story !! The problem of the VDP is that in some time in History they decided to try to abandon the German Wine Law of 1971 and produce wines according to the latin AO/AOP/DO/DOP systems …. This would however in the consequence lead to a narrowing of the range of products to be sold by each producer !! Hence, this System can be transposed to German Wines only with enormous difficulty !! And often proves inedequate for the wines produced under its own regulations ( … Just to mention the “Grand Crus” Clos de Vougeot Wines which do not deserve the name … and there is a number of them out there … ). So how to go about the task – for marketings sake – to simplify the enormous diversity of this varietal? The attempt via the Wine Law of 1971 has brought us new mishap in form of “Grosslagen” ( not to be confused with “Grosses Gewächs” ) … Next to this there are no MAXIMUM Requirements to the “Prädikate” … there are too many Kabinett wines out there with 13.5% alcohol …. So as consequence you could certainly say that the problem of the VDP is the Problem of the German Wine in generall …. In the end and as a result of this fact the consumer has to acquire knowledge and understanding of each producers philosophy !! With appr. 40.000 german wine producers – not an easy task !! And there are producers beyond the VDP, which make excellent wines !!! It is sad to say that although the Germans are perfectionists … when it comes to wine, they fail to be able to describe them in accurateness and Mr Broadbent´s quote in his Great Vintage Wine Book II of 1991 still hold true and probably allways will : “If Burgundy is a minefield, Germany is a labyrinth, but one worth exploring” !!! 😉

    • Thanks for your reply, Christian. David and I are well aware that Riesling is a grape variety, like Chenin Blanc, that is difficult to classify (ranging from light- to full-bodied and from bone dry to nobly sweet) and, as you say, it really reflects its sense of place. I agree that high-alcohol Kabinett wines are not the answer and that consumers have to know each producer’s philosophy to better know what’s in the bottle.

      The VDP should also have realized that the term “Grosse Lage” sounds similar to Grosslage and will only confuse matters more, especially for those who don’t know German.

  • Claude Kolm says:

    The attempt to adapt the Burgundian model takes an especially ridiculous turn with the insistence that like grand crus in Burgundy, German grand cru vineyards need be identified only by vineyard. Not only does this become absurd because there are, for example, Kirchenstück grand cru vineyards in several different regions, but there are two different grand cru Felseneck vineyards in the Nahe alone (Bockenau and Wallhausen). Alsace had to face this with two different Altenberg and two different Kirchberg grand cru vineyards, and at least they had the sense to allow the name of the village to be attached to the official name of the vineyard (e.g., Altenberg de Bergheim and Altenberg de Bergbieten), but the VDP has yet to wake up to the fact that this poses a problem. Maybe some day Tim Fröhlich will acquire some Felseneck in Wallhausen to go with the one he has in Bockenau and have raise the issue. Alsace still has to deal with Moenchberg and Muenchberg, though.

    Speaking of Felseneck in Wallhausen, Prinz Salm doesn’t do itself any favors by labelling some wines Felseneck Wallhausen and others Wallhausen Felseneck.

    In a word: Verrückt. Or to use a word developed by the US Army in World War II: fubar.

    • In my review of Wine Atlas of Germany by Braatz et al., I mention this issue in passing:

      One quibble: the atlas spells the vineyard names without the suffix “-er” on the village name. In other words, the authors follow the new VDP style of writing, for example, “Ockfen Bockstein” and not “Ockfener Bockstein.” Ideally, the VDP prefers “Bockstein,” without the village name, for its Grosse Lagen. In this instance, the spelling of Bockstein, without Ockfen, existed before. In the 19th century, both Bockstein and Scharzhoberg were considered two of the best sites on the Saar and had no village name attached. The VDP wants to be like Burgundy with its grand crus and list all its Grosse Lagen without village names. This will be a problem for different sites with the same name, like Herrenberg, Kupp, Schlossberg, and Sonnenuhr. But that’s for another discussion.

      Claude: I’m glad that you bring this point up with good examples.

  • Andrew Bair says:

    Thanks for the articles, Lars and David. I seem to remember Burklin-Wolf having some issues with the VDP some time ago over their internal classification system of GC and PC dry Rieslings, which actually foreshadowed the current Grosse Lage and Erste Lage notations.

    On a slight tangent, Kallstadter Saumagen itself has been a source of confusion for me. In 1971, Saumagen was actually a Grosslage(!), with a total area of 50 ha, according to Hallgarten. At some point, of course, the name was re-applied to the current Einzellage. This is the only such change that I am aware of since the 1971 law took effect, although I can’t vouch for there not being other such cases in Baden, Wurttemberg, etc. The new Wine Atlas that Lars referenced above states that the “pig’s stomach” currently comprises 40.2 ha – if both sources are accurate, the vineyard area was decreased from the Grosslage dimensions.

    I’d be interested if anyone (David?) has any information as to how Kallstadter Saumagen managed to get singled out for these changes.

    • You’re welcome, Andrew. I’m sure David knows more about Dr. Bürklin-Wolf and its GC and PC classification system.

      Did you read Bill Hooper’s comment on Kallstadter Saumagen under “Unlocking the Kabinett”?

      • Andrew Bair says:

        Lars: Thank you. I’m amazed – and slightly embarrassed – that I completely forgot Bill’s response and asked the same question twice. Obviously, I need to take note of the search box!

        With that said, you’re more than welcome to delete my previous comment since it doesn’t really add anything to the thread, and the same question was already answered.

  • Claude Kolm says:

    Thanks for the link to the Bill Hooper comment, Lars. So I guess Saumagen must have been one of those rare exceptions, like Bernkasteler Badstube and Ungsteiner Honigsäckel, that is relatively small and actually only made up of good vineyards. I’m just speculating here on my sketchy knowledge, so maybe someone like David will come in and correct me, but I would guess that maybe Saumagen was defined as a Grosslage to please a particular negociant, and once that negociant no longer had use for the Grosslage (e.g., no longer made wine from the vineyards involved) or ceased to exist, there would have been no resistance to reversion to an Einzellage.

  • Bill Hooper says:

    I talked to Dom Sona a couple of years ago when the VDP was still in the discussion-stage about the Prädikats being reserved for sweet wines. Even then he had said that KR would leave the VDP before they changed their labelling. So I’m not surprised that they left and I don’t mind it at all. Simply out, the VDP system doesn’t jive with the system of Koehler-Ruprecht. There are several reasons why I think that Koehler-Ruprecht is going to be just fine -starting with the fact that the wines are fucking awesome. KR is famous enough that it doesn’t really need the VDP anyway. As the Saumagen is by far the largest vineyard holding for KR, adhering to the new rules would deprive them of the ability to sell dry Riesling for under 24 Euro or whatever the minimum for GG is these days (at least with the Saumagen vineyard designate, the vineyard which pretty much defines them). Denying them those price-points would be a marketing disaster and obviously not worth the price of VDP admission.

    The VDP doesn’t need, nor do they have, all of the greatest German Wine estates under their umbrella. There are plenty of independent producers that are as good as or better than many of their VDP counterparts. I would argue that membership doesn’t guarantee great, and also that a few VDP estates are merely good. All one needs to do is attend the regional VDP tastings and it becomes clear which estates really don’t stack up to the others. Let us not forget that the VDP is a marketing organization, not a ranking of German wineries. It provides an excellent opportunity for new members to get the word out and stand out from the average, but the VDP benefits more from having the Bürklins and Prüms in it than they probably get back.

    In any case, I actually like the VDP system and think that it works fine for the majority of the members. I also love Koehler-Ruprecht wines and wish them the best of luck.

    Cheers,
    Bill

    • As I mentioned in my article, I visited Koehler-Ruprecht a few years ago, and Dominik told me the same thing. I agree with your points on Koehler-Ruprecht. And, indeed, there are plenty of non-VDP estates that produce great wine. In the Mosel region, many of the top producers are not members. I also feel that a couple of Grosser Ring (VDP Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) estates are lagging behind in quality.

      Nevertheless, most VDP producers, as well as many non-members, are following the VDP classification model.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    I was challenged recently to back-up my claim that the VDP affectation for “Grand Cru”-looking labels that ‘don’t need no stinkin’ village names’ courted confusion. A quick perusal of the VDP website indicated that the following names for ‘Grosse Lagen’ are repeated more than three times, sometimes (as Claude noted) within the same region: Altenberg (4), Herrenberg (5), Rot[h]enberg (5), Schlossberg (8) and Sonnenberg (4). (I did not even attempt to compile a list of those names that are utilized for two or three different ‘Grosse Lagen.’)

    But while the fact that sites can’t be disambiguated without further geographical information that the VDP expressly wants withheld from labels for the sake of grand cru-similitude is in itself really just an annoyance and a rather silly and embarrassing expression of German growers’ entirely unjustified but deep-seated inferiority complex vis-à-vis France, it points to one of the larger issues I raised about wines’ origins (or, as the Germans say, Herkunft). Talk about Herkunft or Terroir remains all the rage including within the VDP. But the sharpening of their classificatory pyramid has as a corollary that among dry wines from Grosse Lagen, only those designated as Grosses Gewächs are deemed deserving to speak the name of their vineyard of origin. What’s more, many regional VDPs have over the years significantly narrowed the number of vineyards whose names are deemed worthy of mention on any label. (This explains some of the use one sees of capital letters in lieu of vineyard names that dare not be named.) Depriving site names of the accompanying village names further demonstrates that giving a wine lover some notion of where a wine originated is less important to the VDP than what is perceived within that organization (whether or not correctly) as marketing advantage. It is sufficient that the label of a Grosses Gewächs indicates its contents grew in a vineyard that the grower in question deems to be a ‘Grosse Lage.’ In short, it’s not about geographical specification, but about marketing a brand.

    One further footnote to this topic is supplied by the numerous misleading references (not just within VDP literature) to work of the Rheingau Charta Association as having represented an important forerunner of vineyard classification. It’s true that Charta wines could and can only originate in certain vineyards deemed by the members of that Association to be superior. But they are always labeled without any vineyard of origin. So it’s not really about Herkunft but about pedigree. The implication is, once again: “You don’t need to know anything about where this wine grew [geographically speaking]. You only need to know that we deem that place to be special.”

    + + +

    On the matter of Bürklin-Wolf’s use of “GC” and “PC” initials on their labels, I have often maintained that if the VDP wanted to let its members single-out certain of their sites as effectively grand crus and premier crus, all the while tipping its hat (or should I suggest a more supplicatory metaphor? ;- ) to the Côte d’Or, then that was an excellent means for so-doing.

    In an article in The World of Fine Wine (“The Eagle is Landing” WFW 30, pp. 90-99), Joel Payne maintained that “that solution is a one-off that works, if at all, only for this estate.” In the following issue of that journal (sorry but these texts aren’t available on-line) I replied to Payne:

    Measured by Bürklin-Wolf’s standards of dry Riesling quality; commercial success; and enhanced reputation over the past 12-15 years, I defy Payne to justify ‘if at all.’ And while he’s at it, I’d like to know why he thinks nobody else could or should emulate Bürklin’s success. Payne has elsewhere in his article noted the proliferation of winery internal conventions or codes and I share his concern that these can confuse consumers. But “PC” strikes me as in retrospect obvious as well as clever, and who are we, or the VDP – of which, after all, Bürklin-Wolf is a member, and who, after all, use ‘GC’ in precisely comparable fashion to ‘GG,’ for that which cannot explicitly be mentioned on labels – to so restrict growers’ latitude for marketing experiments? Bear in mind that the impetus for establishing many a VDP ‘grand cru’ is the appeal by an estate on behalf of one or more sites it farms (and very few grower-members showcasing legally dry wines want to be caught without a Grosses Gewächs to their name).

    + + +

    I have some answers – but almost more questions – about the status of ‘Saumagen’ as a site name over the years. I am chagrined that this is so difficult! As soon as I can clarify a few points – and/or until Dominik Sona or Bernd Philippi weigh-in – I’ll try to contribute something more helpful.

    So readers don’t have to link-back, here is what Bill Hooper wrote on this site in January of last year.

    The Saumagen was briefly the name of a 50 ha Großlage around Kallstadt. It covered the vineyards Horn, Nill, and Kirchenstück … .

    The name Saumagen was certainly used for who-knows-how-long before 1971 as a single vineyard, and the site has purportedly been used to grow vines since Roman times (when it was a quarry.) The current vineyard is 40,2 ha according to Weinatlas Deutschland, so not too much smaller than the Großlage. It seems that the Großlage use of Saumagen was discontinued sometime in the 1980s or 90s. I would imagine that K-R had a hand in making that happen. The Kallstadter Saumagen Einzellage is now part of the Kobnert Großlage … .

    And here is what Terry Theise, Koehler-Ruprecht’s long-time (though no longer) U.S. importer once offered by way of explanation:

    Used to be there were three small sites (Nill, Kirchenstück and Horn) which made up a GROSSLAGE called Saumagen. Now it’s the single-site name, encompassing a fair range of exposures and soils. Bernd [Philippi]’s parcel is probably the finest, southfacing terraces right in the heart of the bowl. Bernd has never failed to harvest Spätlese from this site, even in the wettest, most miserable years.

    I have not been able to find any reference to when the status of this site changed to that of an Einzellage.

    If one compares an official map from the early 1980s (I have at hand Mitchell-Beazley’s 1980 edition of the official German maps of the government’s Stabilisierungsfond) with Pigott & Johnson’s Atlas of 1995 or the Braatz, Sauter, Swoboda Weinatlas of 2007, the latter two suggest that the Einzellage Saumagen consists of two discreet surface areas, whereas the Großlage consisted of these plus a bridge between them immediately west of the center of the town, and which seems from the maps clearly to have formed part of the Kirchenstück (named for its being adjacent to the main church in town). Since data from the ‘70s and ‘80s shows that the three original Einzellagen comprising the Großlage Saumagen had the following surface areas: Horn (10ha); Kirchenstück (20ha); Nill* (20ha), one might conclude from the two more recent aforementioned maps that roughly half of the Kirchenstück must have reverted to Steinacker as part of the reorganization that transformed Saumagen into an official Einzellage. One could also conclude that this must have taken place sometime between 1980 and 1995. Curiously, though, the 1985 edition maps from Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine show “Saumagen” in the type-face employed for Einzellagen and as part of the Grosslage Kobnert, yet with a surface area that is contiguous and looks close if not identical to that of the former Großlage. What’s more, the official site map of Rheinland-Pfalz similarly shows a contiguous Einzellage larger than that indicated in the aforementioned 1995 and 2006. What, I now wonder, is the legal reality?

    As I mentioned above, I first visited Koehler-Ruprecht in 1984 and have visited annually since. While I’m dismayed to recognize my ignorance after so many years about the official status of the Saumagen, I suspect that if its change in status had happened after 1984 I would still at least recall its having been discussed. So my guess is that the change happened sometime between 1981 and 1984 (which, pace Bill, would mean it was a Großlage for more than just “briefly.”)

    Clarifying the change in status from Großlage to Einzellage and its current boundaries will not however resolve all of the mysteries that surround the Saumagen. I have seen several references to an “original” Saumagen having had only a tiny surface area, corresponding to the focal point of a radar-like concavity and the site of an ancient quarry. And that might well be. But if so, where was it located? I have not been able off-hand to find any references. (I’m having trouble getting the official Rheinland-Pfalz map to reveal local Gewannnamen – of which “Saumagen” may or may not be one – and have written Lars for help.) What’s more, even if the core site was tiny, was that site legally enlarged even before 1971? I have notes on Koehler-Ruprecht wines from the ‘60s labeled for Saumagen, but there were also wines from that winery and period labeled “Kirchenstück.” It is clear from the many references extending far back in the 20th century to Saumagen as ‘the famous wine of Kallstadt’ and from the use of that name outside of technical wine literature that it was long being traded-on as referring to much more than the amount of wine that would have come from one very small site. It can reasonably be speculated that the choice of “Saumagen” as a Großlage name was based on its notoriety. But why wasn’t it made an Einzellage originally?* Its having been rendered a Großlage meant that the Einzellagen of Kallstadt were in 1971 divided among three different Großlagen (Kobernert, Feuerberg and Saumagen). Other communes might have shared this peculiar fate, but I don’t know of any. And it’s not as though the total vineyard surface area of Kallstadt was significantly larger or more spread-out than that of other important Mittelhaardt communes such as Deidesheim, Forst or Neustadt (each of whose vineyard surface area was divided between two Großlagen).

    * The Weingut am Nil [sic.] in Kallstadt explains on their web site that the eponymous vineyard was amalgamated along with its two neighbors into Saumagen, but offers no clues as to the chronology or reasons for this change. If the family proprietors had anything to do with fact that Nil[l] was retained as a 1971-Einzellage, then it’s hard to imagine they would have turned around a dozen or so years later and concurred in its being annihilated . (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist that word choice ;- ) Incidentally, I’ve seen a couple of indications that the derivation of “Nil[l] is from an ancient word for “little head” and denotes a protruding hill. And “Horn” also (a name that appears more than once among Pfalz vineyards) similarly refers to a – typically craggy or pointy – hill. So we can speculate with at least some degree of reasonableness that the “Sow’s Belly” that was Ur-Saumagen and that represents a heat- and sun-trapping concavity long utilized as a quarry resides within Kirchenstück rather than having been part of Nill or Horn.

    • I just looked at the cadastral map and found an official Gewannname, or place name, of Auf der Nill. This is a little to the northwest of Kallstadt. There is also an official place name of Saumagen, which is located more to the southwest of Kallstadt—i.e., south of Auf der Nill. In between these two place names is Hinter dem Kirchhof (“behind the church cemetary”). I also googled Kallstadter Saumagen and found the Kallstadt tourist office website, which has more details about the vineyard.

    • Andrew Bair says:

      Thank you for taking the time to write all of this, David. Very interesting!

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Auf der Nill doubtless corresponds to the Nil of the eponymous winery, the dimensions of which are indicated on a map on that winery’s web site. But you’ll notice that their map – which favors the “unified,” i.e. contiguous shape of Saumagen – indicates extensions for both that Einzellage and for Steinacker are very different in shape from those indicated in Braatz et. al.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Now that I can study the Gewannnamen on the rlp e-map, it seems when viewed in conjunction with the Stabilisierungsfond map from 1980, to indicate that at least part if not in fact all of the Ur-Saumagen must be what was called “Horn” in 1971. Where that latter name came from is a mystery. I don’t see any such Gewannname. (I can’t seem to get a superimposition of Einzellage over Gewannen with one of these rlp e-maps; and, as already noted, the outlines of the Einzellage Saumagen are in question. One also can’t as far as I can tell determine the precise boundaries of the official lieux-dits from the e-map, nor would I know how to convert them to total surface area, so I leave open my question as to how large was the original Saumagen.)

    One also sees how Ur-Saumagen touches the (Ur-)Kreidkeller at precisely the location of the chalk excavations themselves, explaining how some of the best Koehler-Ruprecht vines can benefit from that site’s concavity while being in the Einzellage Saumagen not Kreidkeller (though they also have holdings there).

    Incidentally, anyone disinclined to click on a link called “the Kallstadt tourist office website” should know that this has lots of juicy geological and topograpical details concerning the Saumagen (though not answers to the questions I have raised).

    • We also should question whether the Gewanname “Saumagen” is truly the ur-Saumagen. In most instances, I’m sure the mapmakers got it right. Yet, even if they did, the name of the Gewanne often extended beyond the original part. Sometimes a named site, like de Nysberg, which is an official place name within today’s Falkensteiner Hofberg, indicated a much larger vineyard area, too. The place name is just one part of this relatively flat and stony section of Hofberg, which belongs to Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium in Trier.

      On those governmental websites with the maps, I don’t know how one can see the official single vineyard (Einzellage) and the place name (Gewannname) at the same time. And the Gewanne have no borders on the cadastral maps. (See also “New Wine-Labeling Regulations in Rhineland-Palatinate” for more details.)

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Lars raised the possiblity in an e-mail to me that it might be “important to point out that the Gewannnamen, such as ‘Saumagen,’ might not designate the original [‘core’ vineyard] sites.”

    I had thought of that possibility, too. But I can’t decide whether it is important. Don’t you think that generally the Gewannnamen were established first and only then became associated as names of vineyards and wines, so that in the overwhelming majority of cases the core vineyard and registered lieu-dit would coincide? Put another way, isn’t it unlikely that the Gewanne boundaries were set with an eye toward wine promotion?

  • Al Drinkle says:

    Well aware that this issue has been thoroughly addressed here, I must say that it’s sad that the VDP’s most recent decisions have caused this rupture.

    I also find it worth stressing that what the VDP needs to do, and perhaps should have done some time ago, is nothing. At least for a few years. There’s been much discussion on this site as of late in regard to some of the VDP’s decisions being somewhat irrational, a point to which I generally concede, but even if we can all be neutral towards even the latest additional adjustments of regulations and preferred (ie. marketed) nomenclature, I must put forth the problem of how confusing all of this must be for EVERYBODY. The impact on the growers is a given, especially for members whose marketing of certain wines has become incongruous with the VDP’s stipulations (I’m enjoying a glass of 2012 Spreitzer Oestricher Doosberg Kabinett Trocken as I write this). But using the term “professional” extremely loosely, I am a wine professional who is obsessed with German wine and even though I spend a significant portion of my waking hours drinking it, selling and studying it as a discipline, I can barely keep on top of the “innovations” that the VDP has been making. Needless to say, it’s almost hopeless for even my most devoted customers of German wine to stay on top.

    So, the obtuse nature of the latest decisions is not my point here – what I beg of the VDP is to quit making changes at all! Just for a few years! Let us all catch up and digest what has been implemented already. If my immediate colleagues and customers can serve as any indication, the VDP’s greatest achievement of the last few years has been the reinforcing of the stereotype of German wine as a cryptic enterprise and the nurturing of apathetic feelings towards it. I think that some time of reflection instead of perpetual overcorrection could be beneficial to the key decision-makers within the VDP as well.

    • Al, I actually think the VDP Vorstand “waited” a few years before adding Grosse Lage at the top of its new classification pyramid (which, as you know, tries to emulate Burgundy), but they didn’t seem to have this plan from the beginning and they didn’t really think this through. As I mentioned in an earlier commment, some people won’t know the difference between Grosse Lage and Grosslage, or that the Mosel only has Grosse Lage but no Erste Lage now. Nevertheless, Erste Lage was the top-ranked vineyard designation for at least a couple of years. Now, all the marketing and packaging (including those embossed GG bottles) with the Erste Lage symbol has been replaced with Grosse Lage/GG. On top of all this, the new wine-labeling laws allow the use of Gewannnamen, or place names, which will confuse matters more, not that I’m against more site specificity.

      • Al Drinkle says:

        Lars – thanks for this. Time goes by quickly so my suggestion of “a few years” could be taken as an underestimate. I appreciate your comments and I’m not sure if it was your intention but I feel that they support my point. Consumers have only had a short time to grasp the idea of Erste Lage as THE top site, now it’s been superceded by Grosse Lage which is one letter away from a designation that wholly lacks prestige… “Kabinett” will soon preclude not only minimum must weights but minimum RS, and light dry and dryish styles get extricated further and further away from what we are theoretically supposed to think of as Germany’s “best” wines and we’re expected to constantly refurbish our diction to stay in line with the VDP’s perpetually “evolving” campaign? Selling this mess can be tedious (but worth it – there are so many magnificent wines!) and I’m lucky that with my customers I often have the time to explain our selections either verbally or through written offers.

        At the possible expense of contradicting myself, I do feel that the allowance for increased site specificity is at least the right kind of confusion. This allows for the Riesling grape to shine as one of the world’s most articulate conduits of terroir instead of making strides to impede what should be a profoundly broad stylistic spectrum.

    • Andrew Bair says:

      Very well expressed, Al. I’ll add that with each region doing their own thing with regard to the Erste Lage designation, it seems like the VDP was way too premature in moving to a two-level vineyard classification.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    I am, unsurprisingly, entirely sympathetic with your views, Al, and I agree with Lars (who just mentioned this to me) that the VDP Vorstand ought to read your two paragraphs (regardless of whether they pay any heed to the tens of thousands of words I have by now written about their classificatory mania and marketing ;- ).

    But there are a few things that we wine professionals and German wine lovers the world over have to recognize (or perhaps, brace themselves for!):

    1) Much of what we have been discussing under the rubric of Koehler-Ruprecht’s departure, in terms of labeling and marketing changes at the grower level, simply represents the expiration of exemptions from or curtailment of delays in the enforcement of long agreed-too regulations. To that extent, significant changes are likely going to be taking place at many estates for at least another year, as they finally implement the regulations and determine how to apply them to their individual situations.

    2) The here much-discussed change in Rheinland-Pfalz that will permit the use of so-called Gewannnamen has huge implications all of which – even those of us who welcome them must admit – involve complication of German labeling. The implications for the VDP classification and for how the VDP’s current limitations on vineyard designations function in practice are also huge. Member-growers are already registering lieux-dîts in according with this new State legislation, so the VDP will be unable to avoid a prompt response that must necessarily take the form of new regulations.

    3) Those regions whose VDP growers have elected to establish a table of “Erste Lagen” – i.e. premiers crus – (and this includes all save Ahr, Mosel, Nahe, and Rheinhessen) will be working-through that process (some regions, notably the Pfalz, have already finalized their lists) and deciding how these vineyards will be promoted, which if the past is any guide will involve further restrictions on the use of vineyard names that do not have “Erste- (or Grosse) Lage” status.

    4) Those of us who would like to see a significant number of VDP member-growers stiffen their backs and object to some of the regulations that have been imposed on them (even if “democratically”) are not about to wish on them the further inconvenient imposition of a delay simply for the sake of minimizing potential change. And even if disappointingly few battles on behalf of greater grower liberty within the VDP are fought, much less won, there are a few contentious issues whose resolution remains clouded, such as how “Kabinett” will be employed in future in the Rheingau.

    5.) The VDP is almost certain to continue their lobbying for the abolition or at least reformulation of the concept of Grosslage. This is one manifestation of German Konsequentheit that I can only applaud. True, the utilization of Grosslage designations continues to be less and less important in practice. But as I argued in the aforementioned postings regarding the new Rheinland-Pfalz legislation, retention of this layer of wine classification now that there will be two others taking the same form {village+site name} will compound the consumer confusion already wrought by the employment of Grosslagen. Moreover, the VDP is in this instance acting as the good conscience of Germany’s growers and wine industry as a whole, reminding them that it can be considered nothing less than a colossal embarrassment to retain on the books legislation that was patently designed to mislead the wine consumer concerning pedigree and place of origin. So this is another cause on which I would really hesitate to wish a delay. But if that cause triumphs, certain labeling changes will impact even those who are focused on Riesling from the top growers. (The most obvious example is that most high-quality Riesling grown in Bernkastel will begin getting labeled for Einzellagen or Gewannnamen and no longer as “Badstube.”)

    6) I’m ashamed to say that being so focused on the VDP, I only realized after several hours had elapsed the need for this BELATEDLY ADDED ENTRY. A lot of change in labeling practice is bound to arise from the extent to which non-VDP members elect to align themselves with VDP practices, in particular the singling-out of a wine as Grosses Gewächs; the trimming of vineyard-designated wines in conformity to pyramid-headed thinking; and the elimination of Prädikat designations from dry wines. Especially among ambitious young non-VDP growers, a significant percentage have designs on becoming members and so will conform to the organization’s practices to enhance their case for membership. Many non-VDP growers will feel they need to follow the trend set by VDP marketing practices. And no doubt a significant number of non-VDP growers are simply share the VDP’s notions of what constitutes good marketing.

    The heterogeneous list above is offered simply to serve as a warning that the course to date of VDP regulation and the recent course of Rheinland-Pfalz regulation as well as ongoing VDP initiates collectively serve to guarantee that significant new developments in German wine labeling and marketing will take place over the next couple of years. A pause in “innovations,” then, such as you envision, Al – welcome though it would in many respects be – is in the near term even less likely than a reset.

    • Al Drinkle says:

      I believe that I can speak for more than just myself, David, in saying that I’m in awe of your sober and shrewd reflection on the convoluted situation. You’re right, of course, and simplicity cannot prevail. Let’s hope then for rational steps, big or small, swift or plodding, towards a future clarity. Thank you for the generous comment.

  • To highlight the exchange between Al Drinkle and David Schildknecht from the above post—in particular, Schildknecht’s analysis of what’s to come—I published an article titled “A Moratorium on New VDP Construction?

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