Interview with Daniel Vollenweider of Weingut Vollenweider, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Mittelmosel

I spent a pleasant hour or so on the telephone with Daniel, a pleasant and thoughtful man, who happily answered all my questions.

Daniel is originally from the Swiss canton of Graubünden, the capital city of Chur. His father's business is making automated scales and weighing equipment. Daniel himself began training as a surveyor's apprentice, but soon found that this work, these days mainly in an office with a computer, was not to his taste. However, about this time he was able to taste his first great Riesling, courtesy of the well-known Swiss wine merchant Max Gerstl. The wine in question was a 1990 Scharzhofberger Auslese from Egon Mueller, tasted in 1992 in its baby-fat days. "I still have that empty bottle," Daniel says, with a little laugh. You can tell that the experience of tasting this wine was a life-changing one.

He began accompanying Herr Gerstl to the Mosel for tasting/purchasing trips, and soon was deep into that world, meeting most of the important owners and winemakers in Germany. Determining that he wanted to make wine for a living, he got a position with the Fromm estate and worked in Bündner-Herrschaft (the Graubünden cantonal appellation) making Pinot Noir. He also traveled to New Zealand and worked on their Marlborough property during the 1998 season, where he had a 4-acre plot of Riesling all to himself.

Next he had a most important experience: for over a year, he worked an apprenticeship with Ernst Loosen and the family at the Dr. Loosen estate in Wehlen. Daniel was one of the workers responsible for the very successful and even great 1999 harvest there. He also made two trips to America for Ernst and company, working on the Eroica project: one trip to study irrigation, of all things, and was the one to make the rare Trockenbeerenauslese-style Eroica of the first vintage, a wine that had plenty of critical acclaim.

Daniel began to look for his own estate. He wanted to find a great site and become identified with that site, but did not have the means to buy an estate with established fame, or even an unknown estate on a well-known site. He discovered the almost unknown Goldgrube site in Wolf after a process of elimination. He wanted a site that had been spared the bulldozer-powered vineyard rationalization scheme called by the Germans "Flurbereinigung" (incidentally, the Germans often use the same word for cleaning house and taking out the resultant rubbish!) This site was very divided - some 20 different growers (his listed acreage is just under four in the Weinguide Deutschland Gault Millau), and had to be purchased from each of them and put together very laboriously. He also found a large-enough cellar to make wine in Leiwen, I believe, and a house in Traben-Trarbach.

The products of the Goldgrube were almost completely sold off in bulk as regional Zeller Schwartze Katz Grosslage wine. The land is in a region of languishing steep vineyards that have either died, or are in grave danger of becoming extinct, with distinct possibilities of quality awaiting proper management and economic discipline.

Daniel's vines are all on their own rootstocks and from 30 to 80 years old. Out of this tiny crop he has found three parcels worth bottling on their own: the Portz, the Reiler, and the Padauer.

One might question the wisdom of such subdivision commercially, but Daniel is a man with a certain vision. He wants the vineyards to speak in his wines. He wants to get out of the way of this speaking himself, to become transparent to the vineyard. When you ask him what he looks for in his bottlings, he begins describing all the things he does not want his wines to have experienced. He wants them to be unmanipulated. However, and this is crucial, he thinks the best way to guarantee this is by insuring the most perfect quality and maturity of fruit from his vineyard! That way, he says, many cellar treatments are unnecessary, particularly acid structure manipulation. (He seems to be particularly abhorrent of acid manipulation!) Filtration and fining are almost always eschewed, except rarely for activated charcoal. He is very much in favor of whole-cluster, very gentle crushing, because it makes the wines more 'slender" in aspect and with a bit highter pH, showing the Mosel fruit more to advantage. (Certainly Mosel grapes have sufficient, or more than sufficient, acid for all practical purposes in any "normal"vintage!)

In other words, Daniel want to keep himself from coming between the wine and the drinker. He substitutes hard work for technology whenever possible. You can tell he admires the Ökovin (ecological practices) movement, but thinks he needs many more years in the vineyard to know his vines well enough to do an acceptable job with those techniques. He admires others who have similar philosophies: Clemens Busch of Pünderich, a neighbor in the Mittelmosel, and Helmut Doennhoff of the Nahe.

I asked him about these two makers, whose styles are at variance, even though their passion for quality is not. I asked him if his wines were like theirs in significant ways. Were Vollenweider wines big-shouldered, like the Busch wines, or the Loosen wines, for example? Or were they delicate and fine, but ageworthy, like the Doennhoff wines? I was suprised by his answer, after tasting his muscular 2001 Spätlese. His style is closer to Dönnhoff, at least in desire.

I almost hesitate to make this estate better known, because it is so tiny, and demand will inevitably drive up his prices. There may be a chance of a little vineyard land expansion, but I don't sense a lot of anxiety for that to happen very soon in Daniel. However, we shall see. Above all, there is a need for American lovers of German wine to become more acquainted with the wines themselves. They are quite difficult to find in the United States.

Daniel has been awarded two bunches in the Gault Millau, a fine place to start, meaning he is one of the finest in the region. He also was awarded the "Entdeckung des Jahres" (Discovery of the Year) citation by the G-M Weinguide Deutschland, a neat honor.

His first vintage, the 2000, was so tiny that the yields were under 18 hL/ha, smaller than many estates in Sauternes. However, this tiny output was universally acclaimed by critics. It had, according to them, pure and delightful fruit, with none of the low acid and high botrytis, with resinous notes, that mark almost all of even the best wines of that vintage. The 2001 vintage was up to a more reasonable and economic but still very restrained output (36 hL/ha), and has been well-received, especially by those who have had a chance to taste the Portz Spätlese and the Auslese, Goldkap Auslese, and Beerenauslese. There was so little botrytis (and Daniel insists on 100 percent botrytis for Auslesen and on up) that a total of only about 300 liters of these wines were made in all. There were a few that were put up in magnums, however. Six of the half-bottles of the Beerenauslese made it to the United States, of less than 50 bottles produced.

The 2002 wines were also difficult in the Edelsuß categories. There was too much rain during the ripening period for Botrytis to take even hold, and again only a few bunches and grapes could be selected. The amount made was even smaller than in 2001.

Here is a note on the 200l Wolfer Goldgrube Spätlese:

Vollenweider Wolfer Goldbrube Wgt. Daniel Vollenweider 2001 Wolfer Goldgrube Riesling Spätlese, AP 2 576 801 04 02, 8 pabv, $18/750 mL, Brentwood Wine Co., West Linn, OR; Ewald Moseler, Portland, OR, Importer.

Very fine quality cork.

Rich copper color.

Very lively nose with peach and pine and some fresh paper and vanilla scents, papaya, and evidence of natural yeast fermentation still evident. Chablis-like gunpowder flint terroir notes.

Auslese level extract and sweetness, with great precision and length.

Haven't had a chance to taste the Portz or the Auslese bottlings, but this is very promising. No one who reads here will be surprised at the success of the "crazy Swiss," Daniel Vollenweider. First importing into the USA.

© 2003 John H. Trombley, Jr.

July 11, 2003

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