The last stop in the Rheingau was one of Germany’s Pinot Noir stars: Weingut August Kesseler in Assmannshausen. We had lunch at the historic restaurant Krone in Assmannshausen und walked from there just one block Weingut August Kesseler.
Winemaker Simon Batarseh led a highly interesting and informative tasting, followed by a visit of the impressive wine cellar of Weingut August Kesseler.
We did not meet August Kesseler, but I am quoting him extensively in the post, based on an earlier visit.
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.
Pinot Noir/ Spätburgunder 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 Spätburgunder’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.
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.
Picture: Christian Schiller with August Kesseler, Weingut Kesseler, in Assmannshausen, see: A Pinot Noir Star: Visiting August Kesseler and his Weingut August Kesseler in Assmannshausen, Germany
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 Spätburgunder from the Assmannshausen Höllenberg 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. Also very early, in 1986, we started to use barriques, unheard of before in Assmannshausen. And we revolutionized red wine making in Assmannshausen by allowing malolactic fermentation. We interpreted Assmannshausen's Spätburgunder tradition in an entirely new way.”
Picture: Christian Schiller with August Kesseler and his Wife in Berlin
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.
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.
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”. 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 Spätburgunders 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.”
At a previous visit, 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. 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.
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”.
In the Cellar
The maturing process of the Kesseler wines takes place in a double-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”.
After gentle destemming, the red wines are fermented on the must in open vessels of maximum 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.
What Simon Batarseh Poured
2014 Weingut August Kesseler Pinot Noir trocken Pinot “N” Pfalz
Heather Uncorked: Lightly oaked, this low acid Pinot Noir is mellow and easy-drinking.
2011 Weingut August Kesseler Pinot Noir trocken VDP.Gutswein
Heather Uncorked: This is the epitome of how an Assmannshausen Pinot Noir should taste. Less sour cherry, more berries and deep, mineral elegance. Aged significantly in oak barrels, stewed fruits dominate, adding a sweet quality to this dry wine.
2013 Weingut August Kesseler Cuvee Max Pinot Noir trocken VDP.Gutswein
Heather Uncorked: Confronting the taster with a wild, untamed nose, this heavy-weighted, pricey PInot Noir jumps around on the tongue. Dominant tannins and a dark smokiness play along side a subtler sour cherry and cassis light fruitiness. This Big Red aches to be tamed by the invitation of food.
2015 Weingut August Kesseler Saignee Pinot Noir Rose trocken VDP.Gutswein
Heather Uncorked: Saignée, French for “bleeding”, is a rosé made purely from red wine (no mixing). It is taken as mash directly following the red wine pressing, allowing the remaining red wine increased skin contact concentration during maceration, while the rosé wine is fermented separately. Ok, lesson over. This rosé punches full force with strawberry, raspberry and cassis aromas, and a refreshing hit of acidity. A paradox in a bottle – the dry and fruity characteristics of this wine makes it the perfect summer sipper, yet its juicy, full-flavored elegance and power calls for a brisk autumn evening meal accompaniment. A most versatile rosé to enjoy anytime.
2013 Weingut August Kesseler Junge Reben Riesling trocken VDP.Gutswein
2013 Weingut August Kesseler Lorch Riesling trocken VDP.Ortswein
Heather Uncorked: The Lorch terroir and extreme minerality exude from this dry Riesling, as notes of honey, white pear, peach, green apple and citric grapefruit unfold on the palette sip after sip.
2013 Weingut August Kesseler Rüdesheim Riesling trocken VDP.Ortswein
Heather Uncorked: Dim hints of stone fruits, cassis, prune and canned peach provoke the senses upon first meeting. A hit of anise and a floral character follow. Slate on the nose, acidity and soft minerality on the tongue, and a clean finish round out this atypical Riesling.
2012 Weingut August Kesseler Lorcher Schlossberg Riesling trocken VDP.Erste Lage
2014 Weingut August Kesseler Lorcher Seeligmacher Riesling trocken VDP.Grosse Lage
2006 Weingut August Kesseler Rüdesheimer Bischofsberg, Riesling Spätlese
Thank you very much Simon for a great tasting and cellar tour.
Postings: Germany-North Tour 2016 by ombiasy WineTours: Quintessential German Riesling and the Northernmost Pinot Noir (Posted and Forthcoming)
Germany-North Tour 2016 by ombiasy WineTours: Quintessential German Riesling and the Northernmost Pinot Noir
Tour and Tasting at Weingut von Oetinger, Rheingau, with Achim von Oetinger – Germany-North 2016 by ombiasy WineTours
Lunch and Tour: Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau – Germany-North Tour 2016 by ombiasy WineTours
Bourgogne in Riesling Land: Tasting at Chat Sauvage in Johannisberg, Rheingau, with Winemaker Michael Städter – Germany-North Tour 2016 by ombiasy WineTours
Cellar Tour, Tasting and Dinner at Wein- und Sektgut F.B. Schönleber in Östrich-Winkel, Rheingau, with Ralp and Bernd Schönleber - Germany-North Tour 2016 by ombiasy WineTours
Vineyard Tour, Cellar Tour and Tasting at Weingut Leitz in Rüdesheim, with Johannes Leitz – Germany-North Tour 2016 by ombiasy WineTours
Cellar Tour and Tasting at Weingut August Kesseler in Assmanshausen, with Winemaker Simon Batarseh
Cruise on the Rhine River from Lorch to Boppard
Tasting at Weingut Matthias Müller in Spay, Mittelrhein, with Matthias Müller and son Johannes Müller
Visit and Tasting at Winzergenossenschaft Mayschoss in Mayschoss, Ahr
Tasting Pinot Noir at Weingut Kreuzberg in Dernau, Ahr with Owners/ Winemakers Ludwig Kreuzberg and Frank Josten
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Wining in Bernkastel-Kues in the Mosel Valley: Wine Tavern “Spitzhaeuschen”, Germany
Tasting at Weingut Schloss Lieser in Lieser, Mosel, with Thomas Haag
Schiller’s Favorite Wine Taverns in Trier, Germany
Cellar Tour and Tasting at Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken in Saarburg, Saar with Hanno Zilliken
Lunch at Landgasthof Zur Traube in Meddersheim, Nahe: Remembering Klaus Peter Wodartz' Ente in Wiesbaden
Tasting at Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich in Bockenau, Nahe
Dinner with Wine Pairing at the new Wine Tavern of Weingut Kruger-Rumpf in Bingen, Rheinhessen, with Stefan Rumpf
Tasting at Weingut Tesch in Langenlonsheim, Nahe, with Martin Tesch
Cellar Tour and Wine Pairing Lunch at Weingut Hans Lang in Hattenheim, Rheingau, with Urban Kaufmann and Eva Raps