Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Meeting Valckenberg Owner Wilhelm Steifensand and Tasting his Wines

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller and Wilhelm Steifensand

I met Wilhelm Steifensand recently in Washington DC. He is the owner of Valckenberg International, one of the 3 big importers of fine German wine into the US, together with Rudi Wiest and Therry Theise. Therry Theise’s portfolio is more focused on young, innovative winemakers that Therry discovered for the US market, while both Rudi Wiest and P.J.Valckenberg focus on well established German wine estates with a big name and a long history, Rudi Wiest more on the West Coast and Valckenberg International more on the East Coast.

But the name Valckenberg stands for much more than for the importation of German wines into the US, as I learnt during the evening from Wilhelm Steifensand. In fact, he told me a fascinating story about Liebfrauenmilch and the rise of the P.J.Valckenberg Wine Merchant House in Germany.

P.J. Valckenberg is: an importer of German wines into the US, an importer of old and new world wines into Germany, a producer of sparkling and still wine in Germany, a distributer of imported and own wines in Germany, and an exporter of German wine to many countries.

Let me first go into what the name Valckenberg stands for. Then, find some tasting notes - I recently published some tasting notes on wines imported by P.J. Valckenberg into the US, which are reprinted thereafter.

Valckenberg Produces Wine in Germany

Weingut Liebfrauenstift, Madonna and Liebfraumilch

It all started in 1786, when the Dutch merchant Peter Joseph Valckenberg founded a wine trading company in Worms in neighboring Germany. About 2 decades later, in 1808, P. J. Valckenberg moved on to producing wine and established Weingut Liebfrauenstift, by buying the remaining part of the Capuchin Monastery Liebfrauenstift in Worms and most of the vineyards surrounding the Liebfrauenkirche in Worms, in the wake of secularization.

The Capuchin Monastery Liebfrauenstift and the gothic Liebfrauenkirche, which Capucin monks had build in the 1400s, had always been an important stopping point along the pilgrim route to Santiago di Compostela in north-west Spain. Pilgrims are said to have very much liked the wine produced by the monks and compared it to the “milk of Our Dear Lady” - thus Liebfraumilch was born!

Thanks to his excellent business connections, the House of Valckenberg was soon exporting its Liebfrauenmilch to all continents, including China - in those days part of the British Empire. In 1840, when Britain’s Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, they had Liebfrauenmilch for lunch. Other early customers included the Swedish royal family, the Duke of Norfolk and the writer Charles Dickens. By 1900, the British trading company Berry Brothers & Rudd sold Liebfrauenmilch in the same price range as Château Margaux and Château d'Yquem in Bordeaux.

But in the 1800s, there were no production regulations in Germany, so that production of wine under the name Liebfraumilch could spread along the Rhine, losing any link with the original vineyard in Worms. As a result, by the time of Germany’s wine law of 1908, Liebfraumilch was designated a regional wine, rather than a vineyard-specific wine, while the original Liebfrauenmilch vineyard in Worms was renamed Liebfrauenstift-Kirchenstück.

As a consequence, from 1908 onwards, Valckenberg sold the wines from the original Liebfraumilch site around the Liebfrauenkirche as single-vineyard wines Liebfrauenstift-Kirchenstueck and Liebfrauenmilch wines from vineyards in the vicinity of Worms (in Rheinhessen) with the byname Madonna - to distinguish them from other Liebfrauenmilch wines. Madonna is Germany’s oldest brand name for wine. In the 1920s, Valckenberg extend the Madonna brand to wines with higher sugar content at harvest, i.e. Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese.

The 1971 wine law made Liebfraumilch an even larger regional wine, able to be produced not only in Rheinhessen, but also in the Pfalz, Rheingau and the Nahe. At the same time, the 1971 wine law stipulated that a Liebfraumilch had to be a QbA wine.

Today, Liebfraumilch bears no relationship to the original vineyard in Worms and has become over the years a fruity-sweet style, uncomplicated and easy to drink, from Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Rheingau or Nahe, always at the QbA level. It is a wine that is mainly produced for export, with the UK and Russia being strong markets.

P.J. Valckenberg continues to produce and export their Madonna line, starting from Madonna Liebfraumilch QbA to Madonna Kabinett, Madonna Spätlese, Madonna Auslese up to Madonna Eiswein, with the grapes coming from Rheinhessen. The original vineyards around the Liebfrauenkirche in Worms are today shared by several winemakers: Gutzler, Schembs, Spohr and Valckenberg (Weingut Liebfrauenstift), but Valkenberg owns the majority of the historic vineyards.

Weingut Liebfrauenstift in Worms

The vineyards total some 15 hectares of vines which are planted mainly with Riesling and Pinot Blanc. Winemaker Tilman Queins took over the estate in 2001. He supports a nature-oriented, environmentally sound management of vineyards with low yields. In the wine cellar, gentle handling, slow fermentation of the must and a long maturity period are main guiding principles.

Picture: The Liebfrauenkirche in Worms with Valckenberg's Liebfrauenstift Kirchenstueck. I drove by the vinyard in 2010.

Like many other winemakers, the Weingut Liebfraustift has introduced its own wine classification, with different approaches for dry and sweet wines. It follows the new VDP system. Basically, all dry wines are labeled as QbA (Qualitaetswein besonderer Anbaugebiete) wines. The level of quality is then expressed by the terroir principle; the narrower the specification, the higher the quality of the wine is. There are 3 quality levels for dry wines: Lagenweine, Ortsweine - the quality level below Gutsweine, with the winemaker, village and the grape variety indicated on the label; there is no vineyard indicated and Gutsweine – the quality level below Ortsweine, with only the winemaker and the grape variety indicated on the label. For sweet-style wines, the traditional wine classification of Kabinet, Spaetlese and Auslese is followed, and of course, also for the noble sweet wines.

Other Estates and Brands

Sektkellerei am Turm, Speyer: The P.J. Valckenberg Group also comprises a the Sektkellerei am Turm in Speyer, which makes sparkling wine for other producers of Sekt as well as for P.J Valkenberg.

Weingut Carl Graff: The Graff estate was founded in 1860 and acquired by P. J. Valckenberg in 1969. Graff estate wines are made exclusively from 100% Riesling grapes grown in the steep vineyards of the middle Mosel, Saar and Ruwer valleys.

Valckenberg Varietals: Valckenberg bottles different typical varietals from Rheinhessen under the Valckenberg label. These wines are produced by a single producer and bottled as Valckenberg Varietals.

Undone: Undone is a new Valckenberg brand. It comes as dry Riesling and as dry Pinot Noir. Germany ranks third in production of Pinot Noir and it is currently the fastest growing Pinot area in the World.

Valckenberg Imports Wine into and Exports Wine from Germany

Initially, German wine was exported in casks rather than bottles. By the mid 1800s wine making techniques had improved to a point where it was possible to export the wine in bottles. And it was not until the early 1900s that the wine estates started to bottle the wines themselves. Thus in the early days of wine exports, Valckenberg initially exported the wine in bulk form, before buying the wine in bulk but bottling it at the Valckenberg premises and finally buying the bottled wine from the producer.

The wine export portfolio includes well established German wine estates with a big name and a long history, including some of the names you find below in the tasting notes. As for the wine import portfolio in Germany, the Valckenberg portfolio comprises about 50 wineries from the old world (Austria, France, Spain and Italy) and the new world (Argentina, Chile, South Africa). Interestingly, Valckenberg does not import US wines into Germany.

Valckenberg Distributes Wine in Germany

Valckenberg is a big player in the distribution chain in Germany, with its own wines, wines of other German Estates and the imported wines.

Valckenberg Imports German Wine into the US

This was started about 20 years ago by Wilhelm Steifensand. The focus of Valckenberg’s wine portfolio is on wine makers with a long tradition. It does not include any of the new generation of innovative, young winemakers, for example from Rheinhessen, but relies on well respected, top-level wine makers with a long tradition, sometimes going back several centuries. The US Administrative office is centrally located in Tulsa. Valckenberg maintains two US warehouse inventories, Groskopf in California and Western in New Jersey.

Valckenberg Wines I Recently Tasted and Wrote About

The editor of the i-winereview, Don Winkler, and I tasted in December 2009 a selection of German wines which are imported into the US by Valckenberg. Here are our tasting notes, which were initially issued here.

2007, Pinot Noir, Baden, QbA, trocken, Bernhard Huber US$ 37 89 Points

Der Feinschmecker, the leading German food and wine journal, carries in the November 2009 issue an article about German red wine. Its message is that Germany has established itself as a serious red wine country during the past 30 years. Der Feinschmecker portraits 10 winemakers behind this wine revolution. One of them is Bernhard Huber in Baden in the South of Germany. It is not for no reason that he was Gault Millau’s wine producer of the year in 2007.

Baden is the most southerly and warmest German wine-growing area in Germany's southwestern corner, across river Rhine from Alsace. It is known for its pinot wines - both red and white. The Pinot Noir is the most widely grown grape variety in Baden. Pinot Noir is a late ripening grape variety; in Germany it is thus called Spaetburgunder (spaet = late)

An entry level dry red wine with a lot of finesse from one of the giants of German red wine. Light ruby red. Light aromas of cherry, smoke and wet earth. Good purity of raspberry and cherry fruit on a lean palate. Very well made wine with a persistent finish.

Alc. by Vol.: 13.5 %, residual sugar: 0.18 % (1.8 g/l), acidity: 0.53 % (5.3 g/l), 100 % Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir)

2008, Wuerttemberg Lemberger, QbA, trocken, Graf Neipperg US$23 88 Points

The counts of Neipperg have cultivated vines for over 700 years in the wine-growing region of Württemberg. Karl Eugen, hereditary count of Neipperg, has been responsible for the wine estate since 1984.

The main production area of Wuerttemberg is along the Neckar river between Stuttgart and Heilbronn. Until now, wines from Württemberg have been hard to find in the US. The two red grapes Lemberger and Trollinger dominate. The late-ripening Lemberger probably originated on the lower stretches of the Danube River. During the past decades there has been a steady increase in the vineyard area planted with Lemberger, which thrives in a warm climate and wind-protected sites, not least because bud-burst is early and it ripens late.

A charming entry-level dry red wine from a prominent German producer with a long tradition. Light ruby red. Bright red fruit aromas of cherry and blackberries. Light palate with good concentration of red berry fruit and harmoniously balanced tannins. Long, fruity finish. Good food wine.

Alc. by Vol.: 13.0 %, residual sugar: 0.3 % (3 g/l), acidity: 0.54 % (5.4 g/l), 100 % Lemberger

2008 Silvaner, QbA, trocken, Franken, Castell-Castell US$16 87 Points

The Castell-Castell Estate is situated in the Franken region. Located in the northern part of Bavaria, Franken is geographically situated at a higher elevation east of the more temperate Rheingau. Typically, Franken wine comes in the distinctive, dumpily-rounded Franken “Bocksbeutel” wine bottle. The bottle’s unusual shape dates back to at least the 16th century. The Bocksbeutel may only be used for Franken wines. This wine is not in a Bocksbeutel but in a regular bottle.

This is the only white wine that is not a Riesling in the tasting. Silvaner is a high-yielding white-wine grape, which is extensively cultivated in Rheinhessen, Pfalz and Franken. Silvaner tends to be low in acidity. Silvaner is a variety that has a long tradition at Castell-Castell. Indeed, in 1659 Castell planted the first Silvaner vines in Germany

A dry entry-level wine from a low acidity German grape variety made by a renowned Silvaner producer. Light straw color. Fairly ripe aromas of melon and peach note. Clean attack with slight effervescence and fresh, charming fruit on a simple palate. Harmonious finish with an exotic note.

Alc. by Vol.: 11.5 %, residual sugar: 0.7% (7.0 g/l), acidity: 0.57 % (5.7 g/l), 100 % Silvaner

2008 Undone Dry Riesling, QbA, Rheinhessen, US$ 15 85 Points

Rheinhessen is the largest viticultural region in Germany. Every fourth bottle of German wine comes from Rheinhessen, including many easy drinking wines. At the same time, Rheinhessen is among Germany’s most interesting wine regions. This is not because of the terroir, but because of the people. There is an increasing group of young, ambitious and dynamic winemakers who want to produce and indeed do produce outstanding wine and not wines in large quantities. One of the two German producers in the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2009 --- Wittmann --- comes from Rheinhessen.

The front label cleverly depicts a woman’s torso in an unlacing corset and the back label suggests that the wine is “unoaked, unadulterated, crisp, dry naked flavor” A wine that is looking to compete with other easy drinking wines like Dr. Ernst Loosen’s Dr.L which is the other of the two German wines in the Top 100 list of the Wine Spectator 2009.

This Dry Riesling is an uncomplicated, easy drinking summer-party wine. Pale straw in the glass. Light, clean fruit with good acidity on the palate. Charming, uncomplicated finish. This wine will pair well with seafood and shellfish, as well white meats.

Alcohol: 11.5% Residual Sugar: 0.8% (8 grams per liter) Acidity: 0.67%, 100% Riesling

2008 Riesling trocken, QbA, Pfalz, Bassermann-Jordan US$ 20 87 Points

The Jordan family started wine growing in the 18th century. Friedrich von Bassermann-Jordan was the author of the seminal work on The History of Wine growing. Today, it is Germany’s largest privately owned Wine Estate.

The vines for the Riesling trocken are planted on the slopes of the Rhine valley in the Pfalz region. The slopes are south-east facing and contain a lot of sandstone in the soil.

The label on the bottle is somewhat classic in style with a modern twist: An illustrated woman is nude beneath a transparent dress.

A young and fresh dry Riesling summer picnic wine of a famous German wine estate with a long tradition. Pale lemon straw in the glass. Lightly aromatic with mineral notes on the nose. Fresh, crisp attack on the palate with light effervescence and refreshing acidity. Lasting, pleasant finish

Alc. by Vol.: 12.0 %, residual sugar: 0.51% (5.1 g/l), acidity: 0.83 % (8.3 g/l), 100 % Riesling

2008, Charta Riesling, QbA, Rheingau, Weingut Johannishof US$ 22 91 Points

Weingut Johannishof is owned and operated by the Eser family, who can trace back wine growing to the year 1685. Weingut Johannishof was a Winery for Value by Wine Spectator in 2007.

The Rheingau runs from east to west parallel to the Rhine’s 20 mile deviation from it’s northern course, about half an hour away by car or train from Frankfurt am Main. The vineyards line the slopes between the protective Taunus hills and the heat-reflecting surface of the Rhine.

This is a Charta wine. The Charta Association was founded in 1983 by a group of leading producers in the Rheingau with the aim of promoting the dry style in German winemaking, in response to the sweet wave of the 1970s. The Charta Association has established strict regulations as to how these dry wines are to be made, including low yields, a minimum alcohol level of 12 percent and the use of 100 percent Riesling grapes. The grapes cannot have been affected by noble rot. These dry, high-quality Charta-approved wines are bottled in tall brown bottles embossed with a double Romanesque arch.

A dry high-quality Charta Riesling that would go well with slightly spicy Asian food. Medium Straw in the glass. Pleasant aroma of ripe yellow peach and summer melon. Very flavorful attack of summer fruit—apple with strawberry notes--with good balancing acidity. Nice long finish.

Alc. by Volume: 11.5 %, residual sugar: 1.15 % (11.5 g/l), acidity: 0.78 % (7.8 g/l), 100 % Riesling

2008, Two Princes Riesling, QbA, Nahe, Salm-Salm US$ 15 86 Points

Schloss Wallhausen is one of Germany's oldest wine estates. Prinz zu Salm, the estate owner and current president of the VdP (Association of Prädikat Wine Estates), can trace his family tree back to 932 and his vineyards to 1200. “Two Princes” P2 is the signature wine of Prince Michael and Prince Constantin zu Salm-Salm, members of the 31st and 32nd generation of winemakers at Schloss Wallhausen.

The Nahe vineyards are scattered among the fields and orchards of the Hunsrück hills and the Soonwald forest along the Nahe river, situated between the Rhine and Mosel valleys.

Affordable easy drinking wine from one of Germany’s oldest wine estates with a light sweetness. Light gold in the glass. Flavours of tropical fruit with a crisp finish.

Alc. by Vol.: 11.0 %, residual sugar: 2.81 %(28.1 g/l), acidity: 0.76 % (7.6 g/l), 100 % Riesling

2008 Baron K’, Riesling Kabinett, Rheingau, Baron Knypenhausen, Eltville US$ 17 89 Points

The Knyphausens have been wine growers since 1818. Their estate in Eberbach, however, dates from 1141, when it was founded by Cistercian monks from Eberbach monastery. Today the estate is managed by its present owner, Gerko Baron zu Knyphausen supported by his five sons. This is another wine from the Rheingau region.

An off-dry attractive party wine showing very good concentration of fruit with a spicy finish. Medium yellow Straw in the glass. Light ripe apple and pear aromas. Excellent balance with brisk acidity and concentrated, fresh apples. Crisp finish.

Alc. by Vol.: 9.5 %, residual sugar: 2.65 % (26.5 g/l), acidity: 0.72 % (7.2 g/l), 100 % Riesling

2008 Maximin Gruenhaeuser Herrenberg, Kabinett, Mosel, C. von Schubert’sche Schlosskellerei US$29 89 Points

The estate was first documented in 966. The Schubert family purchased it in 1882. Since 1982, Dr. Carl von Schubert has managed the estate's vineyards. The Schlosskellerei von Schubert estate is more commonly referred to as Maximin Grünhaus. The wines of Maximin Grünhaus are reputedly some of the greatest of all Germany, and certainly dominate the Ruwer along with those from the Kartaeuserhof estate.

A sweeter style low-alcohol Kabinett wine from a a renowned German wine maker with a good mix of sweet fruit and brisk acidity. Medium Straw in the glass. Lots of floral and mineral notes on the palate, coupled with green apple and melón. Finishes clean with light fruit notes.

Alc. by Volume: 8.5 %, residual sugar: 4.13 % (41.3 g/l), acidity: 0.84 % (8.4 g/l ), 100 % Riesling

2008 Piesporter Goldtroepfchen, Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt US$28 89 Points

In 1999, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt celebrated its 650th anniversary. In 2007 it was a Winery for Value by the Wine Spectator.

In the Mosel area, vines are planted on the magnificent slate slopes lining the valleys of the rivers Mosel, Saar and Ruwer. The steep rocky vineyard of Goldtröpfchen above the town of Piesport is one of the most famous vineyards on the Mosel.

A sweeter style low-alcohol Kabinett wine from one of the most famous vineyards on the Mosel. Medium straw in the glass. Floral aromas of morning jasmine. Full-flavored attack of lush pear and apple fruit with good acidity and an amazingly long finish.

Alc. by Vol. 8.0 %, residual sugar: 4.9 % (49 g/l), acidity: 0.79 (7.9 g/l), 100 % Riesling

2008 Serrig Schloss Saarstein, Riesling, Kabinett, Mosel, Schloss Saarstein US$ 16 89 Points

The Saarstein estate is a prestigious monopole site on the Saar river, a tributary of the Mosel. The vineyards are steep and located directly along the river, allowing for morning fog to cool the grapes and allow for slow, healthy maturation. The grapes for this Kabinett wine grew in the heart of the steep Saarstein monopole site.

A deliciously refreshing sweeter style low-alcohol Riesling Kabinett wine. Medium straw in the glass. Aromas of white flowers, minerals, ripe pear, and a note of lime zest. Very flavorful attack of beautifully balanced fruit and acidity. Finishes long with sweet apple notes.

Alc. by Vol.: 7.5 %, residual sugar: 5.13% (51.3 g/l), acidity: 0.94 % (9.4 g/l), 100 % Riesling

2008 Graacher Himmelreich, Spaetlese, Riesling, Mosel, Carl Graff Collection US$ 17 89 Points

The Carl Graff Estate was founded in 1860 and acquired by P.J. Valckenberg in 1969. The wine is from a single vineyard site, Himmelreich situated around the village of Graach ---very steep slopes with southwest exposure; elevation 110 - 260 m; soil of pure slate.

A lovely classic low-alcohol sweet style Spaetlese from the Mosel. Light in color. Still bubbling a bit in the glass. Spice and flowers on the nose. Petillant attack of stone fruit with very good acidity and good depth of fruit on the palate. Pleasing and crisp finish with noticeable sweetness.

Alc. by Vol.: 7.5 %, residual sugar: 6.3 % (63 g/l), acidity: 0.83 % (8.3 g/l), 100 %

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