Monday, September 19, 2011

A Pinot Noir Star: Visiting August Kesseler and his Weingut August Kesseler in Assmannshausen, Germany

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with August Kesseler in Assmannshausen

When I visited California Pinot Noir Pioneer Walter Schug in Sonoma, California last summer, we also talked about the wines of August Kesseler. Walter Schug, now in his late 70s, was borne and spent the first 20 years of his life in Assmannshausen, arguably Germany’s Red Wine Capital. Today, August Kesseler is the star of winemaking in Assmannshausen.

In San Francisco, we saw the complete cycle of Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung over 4 days. After the performances, we would go the Lounge of Jardiniere, one of San Francisco’s top restaurants and, given its location in the Civic Center area, a popular pre- and post-symphony and opera hangout. There were no German red wines on the list, except for one: the August Kesseler Pinot N. This German Pinot Noir was just the right wine after listening to Wagner’s dramatic music. We consumed, I believe, 6 bottles of Kesseler’s Pinot N over the course of The Ring. I wrote about August Kesseler’s Pinot Noir and Richard Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen here.

Then, in Germany, August Kesseler invited me to come over to Assmannshausen and have a chat with him, taste his wines and take a look at the winery. I gladly accepted the invitation.

The German Red Wine Revolution

There is a red wine revolution going on in Germany and August Kesseler is one of its fathers. Today, August is among the top producers of red wines, but he also makes white wines. Of course, given its location, the red wines of Germany tend to be not like the fruity red wines we know from warmer countries, but lean and more elegant, with a lot of finesse. 30 years ago, in the international scene, people would not talk about German red wine. But this has changed. Germany now produces red wines that can compete with the best of the world. The share of red wines in terms of production has increased from 10 percent in the 1980s to about 35 percent now in Germany.

Pictures: August Kesseler in his Office

Pinot Noir/Spaetburgunder in the World, in Germany and in the Rheingau

In Germany, the Pinot Noir is called Spätburgunder. It is to red wine what the Riesling is to white wine: the cream of the crop. In the US, Pinot Noir shows great promise in Oregon and California. The reputation that gets Pinot Noir so much attention, however, is owed to the wines of the Bourgogne in France, where it has probably been cultivated since at least the 4th century (first documented, however, in the 14th century). Regardless of where it’s grown, Pinot Noir is not typically a value wine. That is so because Pinot Noir is such a delicate grape that it is difficult and expensive to grow and make into the spectacular wine it can be. It is sensitive to climate and soil, Pinot Noir needs warmth (but not intense heat) to thrive and does well in chalky soils. As the German name implies, it ripens late (spät).

The Spaetburgunder’s success story in the Rheingau started with the Cistercians who created a net of monasteries across medieval Europe and with Eberbach Monastery founded their branch in the Rheingau. Present at all times: Spätburgunder, not only the economic basis for many monasteries but also symbol of the Christian mythology of the Last Supper with the blood of Christ. For a long time the Spätburgunder has appeared in many Rheingau vineyards from Hochheim to Lorchhausen but its traditional home in the Riesling country of the Rheingau is the steep slate walls behind the roofs of the small wine village of Assmannshausen. Set up by Eberbach Cistercians a hell of a good Spätburgunder grows in the world renowned Assmannshäuser Höllenberg. First mentioned more than 500 years ago the red Rheingau wines continue to be discussed until today. A large part of the hill is cultivated by the State Wineries of Hesse Domain Assmannshausen (“Hessische Staatsweingüter Domaine Assmannshausen”). However, it was August Kesseler who profoundly shaped the style of the Rheingau Spätburgunder in the last 20 years, with the help of harvest reductions, longer mash times and skilful wine processing in big wooden cask or in small barrique barrels and who pushed the Rheingau Spätburgunder into the ranking list of the best German red wines.

Weingut August Kesseler

Weingut August Kesseler is located in the town of Assmannshausen, at the eastern corner of the Rheingau. The vineyard area totals 20 hectares, with vineyard sites in Lorch (for Riesling and Silvaner wines), on the slopes of the hills around Rüdesheim and in the Assmanshäuser Höllenberg. The manor house and cellar are situated directly on the slate outcrops of the Assmanshäuser Höllenberg. About 50% of the area is planted with Pinot Noir, with some of the vines more than 70 years old (10,5 ha), other varieties are Riesling (8,4 ha) and Silvaner (2,1 ha). Bottle-fermented sparkling wines as well as grappa-style spirits are also produced. The estate is a member of the VDP.

Picture: Weingut August Kesseler

The foundation of the Weingut was laid by Josef Kesseler, who took over what was previously the Assmanshausen co-operative in 1924. Because of the early death of August’s parents, August (borne in 1958) had to take charge the Estate at the age of 19.

The Early Years in Assmannshausen (1977 to 1991)

When August became responsible for the winery of his parents in 1977, he quickly decided to go for the highest echelon and produce premium and ultra-premium wines. He studied at the Geisenheim College, did internships around the world and pushed ahead with Weingut August Kesseler in Assmannshausen. As part of his expansionary drive, in 1984, he bought another wine estate (Weingut Valentin Schlotter ) with vineyards in Assmannshausen.

August Kesseler profoundly changed the style of Spaetburgunder from the Assmannshausen Hoellenberg vineyard. “We very early – in 1983 – started to ferment our red wines in a dry style. In these days, everything was fermented in a sweet style, Kabinett on average with 30 grams remaining sugar and Spaetlese with 60 grams.” said August. “Also very early, in 1986, we started to use barriques, unheard of before in Assmannshausen. And we revolutionarized red wine making in Assmannshausen by allowing malolactic fermentation. We interpreted Assmannshausen's Spaetburgunder tradition in an entirely new way.”

Managing Director of Schloss Rheinhartshausen (1992 to 2001)

In 1992, his professional life took a major turn, when August was offered to become Managing Director of the famous Schloss Reinhartshausen in Hattenheim. For many centuries, Schloss Reinhartshausen belonged to the knight of Allendorf. In 1957, ownership passed to Prince Friedrich von Preussen, son of the last German crown prince. Willi Leibrand, founder and owner of the large REWE supermarket chain, bought the run-down Schloss Rheinhartshausen with the vision to bring it back to previous hights. Schloss Rheinhartshausen also comprises a Winery with 100 hectares. August Kesseler – with Chef Joachim Wissler – was hired to implement his vision.

Picture: Schloss Reinhartshausen

Under August’s leadership, Schloss Reinhartshausen was transformed into an enchanting 5-star-hotel. But August’s success story came to an abrupt halt, when Willi Leibrand died and the ownership of Schloss Rheinhartshausen changed.

In parallel to his career at Schloss Reinhartshausen, August Kesseler pushed his own winery to new highs. So, it did not come as a surprise that he was Germany’s winemaker of the year in the same year he lost his job at Schloss Rheinhartshausen.

In America (2002 to 2008)

What followed were 6 years in the US building up a distribution network for his August Kesseler wines. “From 2002 to 2008, you can say, I lived in the U.S. I spent perhaps 9 month each year in the US and very successfully built a market there, in 23 States with my own company in Chicago.” Since 2009, Vineyard Brands, has taken over the distribution of the August Kesseler wines in the US. Naturally, a large share of the August Kesseler wines was sold in the US during these years.

Pictures: Christian and Annette Schiller having dinner in Gold Beach, Oregon, at Anna's by the Sea, with an August Kesseler Riesling. The Chef and Owner, Peter Dower, used to work with August Kesseler in Scottsdale, Arizona

Back in Assmannshausen and Relaunch in Germany (2009 - today)

“Now I am back in Assmannshausen and I am relaunching my wines in the domestic market” said August. “I have not visited the US for the past 2 years.” All these years, he needed of course a strong team at the winery in Assmannshausen and he does have a strong team there. “I am a team player.”

Weingut August Kesseler Today

Tasting Kesseler's Spatburgunders it is not hard to see why he is considered by many to be one of the very top Pinot Noir producers in Germany - low yields, labor-intensive manual cultivation, malolactic fermentation and small barrel aging. August Kesseler succeeded in creating a market for his extraordinary Pinot Noirs. His ultra-premium red wines sell for 100 Euro plus ex-winery. “And they sell out fast.” August said.

August Kesseler showed me (an empty) 2002 Pinot Noir. “This was the international breakthrough for German red wines. The wine got 94 points by Robert Parker.” In Germany, August Kesseler was named Winegrower of the Year by Der Feinschmecker and Wein Gourmet for his 2001 vintage. In its December 2000 issue, Alles Über Wein praised: “August Kesseler’s 1999 and 2000 collection surpasses even his expectations and is surely the crowning achievement of his 15 years as wine maker.”

Though when people talk about August Kesseler, they talk about his outstanding red wines, one should not forget that Weingut Kesseler is also a very strong white wine producer, with Riesling and Sylvaner accounting for about half of the winery’s production.


“The quality of a wine has its origins in the vineyard.” said August. “The crucial factor here is the rigidly controlled quality-oriented running of the vineyards.” The Assmanshäuser Höllenberg is built up of heat-storing slate-phyllite. Its micro¬climate and the porosity of the soil make an ideal site for the Spätburgunder wines, which enjoy a long tradition in this vineyard site. From the central vineyard site of the Höllenberg, Kesseler obtains the grapes for the classic Spätburgunder wine with a high level of extract and concentrated fruit aromas.

Pictures: August Kesseler's Vineyards in Assmannshausen and Ruedesheim

The vineyards for August Kesseler’s white wines are Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg, Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck, Rüdesheimer Bischofsberg and Lorcher Schlossberg. The weathered slate of the Rüdesheim hills, due to their extremely steep nature and the associated high temperatures in the vineyards between the rows, as well as the porosity of the soils produce Riesling wines with a concentrated fruit rich in nuances which contains a spirited yet stable acidity.

All work in August Kesseler’s vineyards is manual work. “Considerable attention is paid to keeping the yields low, with first pruning after flowering, a green harvest, as well as selective hand-picking of only ripe, healthy grapes” said August.

In the Cellar

The maturing process of the Kesseler wines takes place in a dou¬ble-storied wine cellar, which was carved out of the slate of the Assmanshäuser Höllenberg in 1793. After being gently pressed, the white wines (Riesling and Silvaner) are fermented and vinified in temperature-controlled stainless steel vessels of various sizes. “During this process it is most important for us to preserve the terroir until bottling or assemblage, by strictly keeping the different lots separate” said August.

Picture: Entrance of the Cellar

After gentle destemming, the red wines are fermented on the must in open vessels of maxi¬mum 1000 liter capacity. The must skin is carefully pushed down by hand. Depending on quality and vintage, the wines remain on the must for up to 14 days. After that, the red wines are put into barriques, and remain there for 12 – 14 months.

Pinot N

“The Pinot N, Christian, you had in San Francisco is becoming a very successful wine. The wine sells for less than $20. Anything above $20 is at the moment too expensive for the American market. Therefore we created this Pinot N. I buy also grapes from two other winemakers in Assmannshausen for this wine” said August.

Picture Pinot N at Jardiniere in San Francisco: August Kesseler’s Pinot Noir and Richard Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen in San Francisco, USA

Production is currently at 30.000 bottles. David Schildknecht just gave it 90 points and Wine&Spirits even 93 points.

What August Poured

2008 August Kesseler Blanc de Noirs Spaetburgunder Weissherbst Sekt extra brut Euro 24,90

2008 August Kesseler Pinot Noir Euro 23
2009 August Kesseler Pinot Noir Euro 40
2009 August Kesseler Cuvee Max Euro 60
2009 Assmannshaeuser Hoellenberg Euro 100

2010 Lorcher Kapellenberg Riesling Kabinett trocken Euro 14.90
2010 Lorcher Schlossberg Alte Reben Riesling Spaetlese Euro 27,50
2010 Ruedesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel Euro 24.90

The August Kesseler Wine Portfolio 2011

August gave me a very nice broschure “August Kesseler – 2011, Weinangebot & Preise”, which presents Weingut August Kesseler’s current wine portfolio on 16 pages:

Pinot N: 2010 August Kesseler Pinot N Euro 14
Pinot Noir: 2008 August Kesseler Pinot Noir Euro 23
Pinot Noir: Four ultra-premium Pinot Noir wines from the 2009 vintage, ranging from Euro 40 to Euro 120 for the 2009 Ruedesheimer Berg Schlossberg
Pinot Noir Rose Saignee: A Pinot Noir Rose for Euro 12,90
Silvaner & Riesling: An entry-level cuvee - 2010 August Kesseler Silvaner & Riesling Euro 9
Riesling: Six 2010 Riesling wines ranging from a Kabinett trocken for Euro 12,90 to a 2010 Ruedesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel for Euro 24,90 and a 2010 Ruedesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Erstes Gewaechs for Euro 32,50
Riesling: Two 2009 Riesling wines including a 2009 Lorcher Schlossberg Alte Rebe Riesling Spaetlese for Euro 27,50
Fruchtige Rieslinge: Two 2005 sweet-style Riesling wines for Euro 12 and 14
Blanc de Noirs: A vintage sparkler (2008) for Euro 24,90 or 55 in the Magnum bottle
Edelsuesse Rieslinge: Three 2006 noble-sweet Rieslings, all from the Ruedesheimer Berg, including a Beerenauslese for Euro 60
Edelsuesse Rieslinge: Three 2006 noble-sweet Rieslings, all from the Ruedesheimer Berg, including a Beerenauslese for Euro 60
Edelsuesse Rieslinge: Seven 2007 noble-sweet Rieslings, from Ruedesheim and Lorch, up to a Ruedesheimer Berg Schlossberg Trockenbeerenauslese Goldkapsel for Euro 425

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California Pinot Noir Pioneer Walter Schug: From the Rheingau in Germany to Carneros in California

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1 comment:

  1. wondering if august is related to me... my grandmother is elisabeth kesseler married to egon henry kesseler from bochom germany. she moved to chicago.