Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Visiting Weingut Josef Leitz in Ruedesheim – Johannes Leitz is Germany’s Winemaker of the Year, Gault Millau WeinGuide 2011

Pictures: Johannes Leitz, Winemaker of the Year 2011, and Christian G.E.Schiller with his head Cellarmaster Eva Fricke

I was in Germany, when the 2011 Gault Millau WeinGuide Germany came out and when Johannes Leitz, owner of Weingut Josef Leitz in the Rheingau and export champion, was awarded the prestigious Winemaker of the Year Prize. Immediately, I called the winery, but was told that Joseph Leitz had just left for a trip to the US. However, his head winemaker, Eva Fricke was around and I went over there - to Ruedesheim - with two friends.

Ruedesheim in the Rheingau

It is remarkable: For its entire length of nearly 560 miles, the Rhine flows north with one exception – a 28-mile stretch where the river changes its course. Here, it flows to the west, thereby enabling both the river and the vineyards facing it to bask in the warmth of the sun all day long. This is the Rheingau, one of the medium-size German wine regions.

Ruedesheim lies at the western corner, when the Rhine turns to the north again. In fact, it sits at the beginning of the famous Rhine Gorge and is thereby part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Coming from Frankfurt (in the east), we had to pass through the whole Rheingau region, which, however, took us just half an hour.

Weingut Josef Leitz

Weingut Josef Leitz dates back to 1744 and - like so many wineries in Germany - has passed from one generation to the next for virtually 4 centuries. Johannes Leitz, the current owner and winemaker, took charge of the estate in 1985, when he was in his early 20s. At that time, Weingut Josef Leitz had 3 hectares of vines and was virtually unknown among German wine connoisseurs. When you visit his winery today, you can see where Johannes Leitz comes from. The winery looks more like a regular house than the winery of the Winemaker of the Year.

Picture: Weingut Joseph Leitz in Ruedesheim

Early on, Johannes Leitz connected with Washington DC based importer Therry Theise, with a view of expanding production by pushing exports. Today, Johannes Leitz has successfully grown to 40 hectares of vineyard area and 90% of the production is sold in the export markets, notably the US. You have probably seen a bottle of his famed 1-2-Dry or his well known Dragonstone. “It’s a fantasy name,” Eva Fricke says “Johannes is trying to make the wine user-friendly to the millennial generation who grew up on Harry Potter novels.”

In terms of winemaking philosophy, Eva Fricke explains that fermentation of the Rieslings takes place in traditional large oak barrels (Stueckfass) as well as in stainless steel tanks. Some of the winery practices also reflect those in Burgundy, such as prolonged contact with the lees. Weingut Josef Leitz is planted almost exclusively with Riesling.

The Weingut Josef Leitz vineyards include all famous Ruesdesheimer Berg (which means mountain) vineyards - Berg Schloßberg, Berg Roseneck and Berg Rotland. They are among the Riesling’s most remarkable homes in Germany, on an imposing mountainside above Ruedesheim facing the south. Also well known is the Drachenstein vineyard, reputedly named for the fossilized dinosaur prints found nearby, dominated by slate although there is quartzite in the Drachenstein. Other vineyards are Bischofsberg, the recently reclaimed Berg Kaisersteinfels, Kirchenpfad, Klosterlay and Magdalenenkreuz.

Picture: Ruedesheim and its Famous Vineyards

The vineyard slopes can be rather steep, up to almost 60 degrees, at Berg Roseneck and Berg Schlossberg. On its wine list, Weingut Josef Leitz distinguishes between wines from Hanglagen (Slopes) and Steillagen (Steep Slopes).

Johannes Leitz Winemaker of the Year

The Gault Millau Weinguide Germany 2011 has picked Johannes Leitz for Winemaker of the Year. In accepting the prize, Johannes Leitz pointed out that he would like to share the honor with his home town Rüdesheim as well as his close collaborators - Eva Fricke, Cellar Master and Director of Operations, whom I met, and his manager Toni Climenti. “In the beginning not even people in Ruedesheim knew him. Now, his Riesling wines are regarded as examples of outstanding Rheingau Rieslings not only in his home town, but also in London and New” says the editor of the 2011 WeinGuide Gault Millau Deutschland, the American-born Joel Payne.

“9 out of 10 bottles of my production are exported”, said Johannes Leitz, when he received the award and “the market is really booming, despite the financial crisis.” He sells his Riesling wines mainly in the U.S., but increasingly also to Scandinavia and Great Britain. Far East is now also a market for his winery, he said. In Germany, Weingut Leitz is very strong in the Berlin market, as Berlin officials like to serve a German wine from somebody, who is well known around the world. Johannes Leitz spends many months of the year traveling the world. Among his customers are reportedly also very prominent Americans, such as Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and actor Kevin Costner.

When I visited his winery, he was on the road, but I had the pleasure to talk with head winemaker Eva Fricke. Eva, by the way, started her own winery on the side a couple of years ago and has 0.8 hectares of land, all in Lorch. At the same time as Johannis was awarded the Winemaker of the Year prize, Eva won her first grape in the 2011 Weinguide Gault Millau Deutschland.

The Leitz Wine Portfolio

At Weingut Josef Leitz in Ruedesheim, the wine portfolio was presented to us in 4 groups.

First, the entry-level wines from Hanglagen (Slopes). These are all in the Euro 10 range and include the 2009 1-2-Dry, a wine that is hugely popular in the US. It was introduced by Johannis Leitz in 2007, when he purchased vineyards in neighboring Geisenheim. In order not to confuse consumers, he did not want to introduce a Geisenheim wine and instead had the idea of selling the wine under the catchy 1-2-Dry label. At the tasting with Eva Fricke, she poured a number of other wines in the Euro 9 to 12 ex-winery price range.

But the Dragonstone, also well known, was not on her list. The international brand Dragonstone was introduced by Johannes Leitz in 2002 and has become hugely popular since then. Dragonstone is the translation of Drachenstein, the name of the vineyard in Rüdesheim from where the grapes for this astounding QbA Riesling come from. The Dragonstone tends to be a wine with a medium length, a low level of alcohol and a spicy finish. Eva Fricke said: “For a large-production wine this receives the same care in the vineyards and cellar that every Leitz wine receives”.

Second, the famous terroir wines from Steillagen (Steep Slopes). These are exclusively wines from the Ruesdesheimer Berg vineyards, either fermented fully in dry style or with a slight fruity residual sweetness. They are all in the Euro 20 plus price category ex-winery, with the fully fermented, dry wines a bit more expensive than the Spaetlese wines with some fruity residual sweetness. It is because of these wines that Johannes Leitz earned the prize Best Winemaker of the Year. Both the dry and slightly sweet wines are among the top wines in Germany.

Third, the wine portfolio also includes 3 noble-sweet wines, 1 Auslese and 2 Eisweine. Finally, as many winemakers in Germany do, Johannes Leitz also offers a Winzersekt, a Rose Sparkler Brut, at a reasonable price.

Weingut Josef Leitz Website

Weingut Josef Leitz has a nice web site, with lots of information on it. I in particular like the panorama picture of the Ruedesheimer Berg (see above) and the degree of steepness of the various Leitz vineyards. However, the website is in German only. But Terry Theise has 4 great pages on Johannes Leitz and his wines in his German wine catalog.

Schiller Wine - Related Postings

1.International Riesling Symposium

Impressions from the Riesling & Co World Tour 2010 in New York

When Americans Drink German Wine - What They Choose

German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine

Wine Caravan from Germany Visiting the East Coast, US: Dr. Fischer, Fitz Ritter, Bolling-Lehnert, Schneider, Dr. Thanisch

Terry Theise's Top German Wines of the 2009 Vintage

The 100 Best German Winemakers 2010 – Handelsblatt online and Vinum

Germany's Top 16 Winemakers - Feinschmecker WeinGuide 2011

Aging Potential of Riesling – A Wine Tasting at the 1st International Riesling Symposium in Germany Led by Jancis Robinson

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