Dr. Martin Tesch runs Weingut Tesch these days. It has been family-owned and run since 1723 and the estate is a member of the prestigious VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikats – und Qualitätsweingüter), a century-old association of some 200 German wineries dedicated to excellence.
In his mid-thirties, Tesch is a microbiologist by training but a winegrower by inclination. Since taking over the estate in 1996 he has presided over the most fundamental changes to the wines and vines since the Knights Templar first created these Nahe vineyards over 700 years ago. His story is one of a relentless pursuit of a singular vision. This is the story of Weingut Tesch – a triumph of terroir over adversity.
Tesch is based at Langenlonsheim, a small village in the Nahe region of Germany. The town is twinned with the English town of Potton in Bedfordshire. Curiously, Potton is where I spent my teens and while both towns are founded on agriculture I can discern no connection between Riesling, the world’s greatest white grape and Brussels sprouts, a much maligned vegetable. But I digress.
This area of the Nahe is hilly, described by Martin Tesch as a “mini-Rheingau”. The Tesch vines overlook a huge flat plain once occupied in prehistory by the mighty river Rhine. Now they face the winding river Nahe instead – a mere trickle in comparison. The valley is closed to the west, thereby offering protection from rain and wind and creating a microclimate of calmer and warmer conditions, especially at night.
Martin Tesch greeted us cordially on a sunny spring morning on the road bordering his vines. “Wineries are boring and they all look the same”, he said, “so out here in my vineyard is where you can experience all the real action”. We begin to climb – the slopes are deceptive, far steeper than they first appear. After a few hundred metres we reach a restored workman’s hut. In the middle of the vines, it has a commanding view over the valley below, with the villages of Langenlonsheim and Laubenheim in the distance. The room is set out with tables, benches and glasses. This is where we taste the wines and begin to understand the language of the land.
When Martin Tesch took over from his father Hartmut, there were 30 ha of vines. These produced the usual wide range of wines found in the Nahe, all made from a multitude of grape varieties. In addition to Riesling there was Muller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Rivaner, Scheurebe, Gewürztraminer, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir). The styles produced were equally complicated: QbA followed by the QmP’s (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and in some years Eiswein).
Those 30 hectares were producing over fifty different wines – complex to manage and increasingly uneconomic. While Tesch had loyal customers internationally, the reputation of German wine was ebbing away and the Rieslings were getting sweeter every year.
Tesch’s answer? “I created the Punk Rock winery”, he grinned. This required a complete change in winegrowing philosophy to improve quality and reverse errors made in the past. Firstly the north-facing vineyard slopes were abandoned as they naturally produced poorer grapes. These slopes have now reverted to nature and help create habitat and biodiversity. Tesch’s neighbours have seen the improvements this has brought about and some have now followed suit.
Next, all the grapes that didn’t sell were grubbed up. That meant the inferior grape varieties like Muller-Thurgau were early casualties. The Gewürztraminer soon joined it (“because I just don’t like it at all”, says Martin with a winning smile). Suddenly, all that was left was just 11 ha of Riesling, plus three more of the two Pinots.
Today the Riesling covers 17 out of the 20 ha and the vines have an average age approaching 35 years. Tesch doesn’t intend to replant any of it in his lifetime because ageing vines bring more complexity. The vineyards are divided into two principle soil types – one of volcanic origins, the other overlaying weathered sandstone. He has adopted organic methods, the vineyards showing a healthy crop of weeds and grass between the vine rows, with vertical pruning of double canes and a green summer harvest – the result is low yields. Between 20-30 hl/ha would be considered low anywhere, in Germany this is miniscule. With only four employees, tractors are used to reduce labour but there is little sign of soil compaction.
The harvest is manual and he picks the grapes at full ripeness (traditionalists would describe the Öechsle levels as Kabinett and Spätlese) but avoids botrytis. This is because in 2001 he made the biggest change of all – “Die zeit ist reif für trockenen Riesling”, Tesch exclaimed. In his excellent English he immediately translated, “the time was ripe for dry Riesling”.
Sweet wines from Tesch are now history (except, it seems, for the occasional Eiswein when conditions allow). “I also wanted to leave no winemaking imprint on the wines, to have the wines clearly express their origins, as they do in Burgundy”. So there’s no oak used in either fermentation or maturation that would blur the precision of these Rieslings. Small stainless steel barrels are used instead. Winemaking is natural and non-interventionist – there’s no chaptalisation and the fermentation stops when it stops; but usually the wines are fully dry. The secondary (Malolactic) fermentation may happen spontaneously but in ripe vintages like 2007 tart malic acid isn’t an issue. Regardless, Tesch’s knowledge of microbiology gives him total control in the winery.
But what of his change over to dry Riesling? As we shall see, this was a very rock ‘n’ roll revolution. And not plain sailing.
The first thing that happened was that Tesch lost 40% of his sales within the first six months! This was accompanied by vociferous criticism from existing customers and from German wine critics. He was accused of going against the grain of tradition, of destroying his heritage. Tesch ignored it and had the courage of his convictions while operating way outside any comfort zone. Tesch is adamant, “Riesling has a backbone; it is not supposed to be an easy drinking peachy, sweet wine.” Open-minded people tried the new dry Rieslings without prejudice and found them delicious.
Within two years, sales had recovered, new customers had been found and Tesch was receiving accolades rather than brickbats. Ultimately Weingut Tesch even became a business case-study taught by the London School of Economics. “They keep asking me about my strategy. I keep telling them – there wasn’t one”.
But of course there was. Any successful businessman knows that if you want to make changes successfully then you have to firstly be very clear about your objectives and then be able to engage new customers. Here again is the Tesch genius for innovation. The design and communication style at Tesch seems more rooted in the Bauhaus world of designer Walter Gropius than in winemaking.
Tesch Riesling comes in six versions and since 2002 each is distinctively labelled within an overall Tesch theme. A picture of Tesch’s great-grandfather appears on every label, as it has done for 150 years, in a nod towards the heritage of the estate. Everything else is ultra-modern, as far away from the traditional German label with its Gothic scripting as it is possible to get. There are no long words. Each Riesling has is colour coded (“the colours of the London Underground map”) and has individual artwork to distinguish it. In fact, Tesch won the prestigious Red Dot award for product design – and this is no mere wine award – we’re talking about competing toe-to-toe with Sony, Porsche and Apple designs.
Black flute bottles are used and since 2005 all bottling is under screw cap. Now Tesch uses the new Alcan STELVIN® Lux closure and is the first winegrower in Europe to do so. This is more resilient and because the closure has no externally visible screw-thread it looks very smart. It’s an excellent though expensive technical fitting, it helps establish a clear identity for the wines and the closure allows the wines to age in bottle.
Tasting the Tesch 2007 Rieslings
Riesling Unplugged®, 11.5% abv. AP number 77381660108
This is the entry level Riesling. Unashamedly rock ‘n’ roll, this is for drinking young (from release up to 5 years). Tesch describes it as “like the unplugged music sessions – without amplification”.
A black and white colour scheme. Bone dry – effectively Kabinett trocken, first made in 2001. Pale green, flecks of silver, very gentle aromatics and the lightest in the line-up. Big flinty minerality and very focused and ripe fruit. Just 2 g/l of residual sugar and 8 g/l of acidity – and a minimum of malic acid. Manual craftsmanship in an age of mass production. “It’s my party wine”, says Tesch. Some party.
The next five Rieslings are from named individual vineyard sites (Lagen-Riesling) in Langenlonsheim and Laubenheim. These are serious terroir-driven wines; each shows a very clear sense of place and ideally requires 5-10 years bottle age, although as 2007 was such a marvellous vintage all are delicious now.
All five wines are Spätlese trocken; 12% Alcohol with around 4 g/l of residual sugar and 7.8 g/l of acidity. Each wine is different rather than better with extract and concentration as important as acidity in this respect. All are full bodied and perfectly balanced.
Löhrer Berg (Empty Mountain)
Apfel - an apple green “mountain map” label. From Langenlonsheim. A golden colour but flecked lime-green. Wonderful full aromatics, sublime minerality and the merest hint of petrol. Richness and intensity, a sherbet nip on the tongue. Key Lime Pie fruit and huge length. Racy, focused and brilliant. Fertile and damp clay soils with stony river gravel and unstressed vines.
Sonne (sun) – a yellow “frog prince” label. From Laubenheim’s south-east facing slopes, mixed soils range from loess-limestone to weathered sandstone with a high quartz content. Very dry site with water-stressed vines. Pale silver, floral notes, like May blossom. Big pure mineral character and exotic pineapple flavours. Impression of power.
Königsschild (Kings Shield)
Muschel – ocean-blue label with horses. From south-east facing slopes at Langenlonsheim, shell fossils in chalk and loess soil. Pale colour, almost water-white. Smoky nose, rounder fruit and more austere chalky minerality with a savoury note. Impression of speed.
Sandstein – an ochre label, with Coronation scene. The vineyard belonged to the Carthusian monks at Laubenheim. South-east slopes and weathered sandstone soils. A pale gold. Fruit is all sherbet lemons and grapefruit. A more rounded palate; feels softer with a silkier texture yet still has that rigid steely backbone. Some spice on the finish. A very different expression.
Vulkan (volcanic) – orange label with a religious scene. From Laubenheim on volcanic soils. What a nose – very different! Big power, smoky pineapple and white blossom. The palate is in a much more powerful masculine style. Might be a touch more residual sugar in this wine – was it riper or did the fermentation stop sooner? No matter, this is still very dry with a very clean mineral-laden finish. Very long – the epitome of beauty.
For my personal taste the St. Remigiusberg edges it for me by the smallest of margins, but I’d buy them all just to explore the differences as they develop. If you want to encounter the full meaning and implications of the word terroir then I can think of no finer place to go than Tesch. With fabulously pure wines of tremendous clarity (and, by the way, tremendous value at around $30), there’s simply no better expression of dry Riesling.
Martin Tesch uses Riesling as a remarkable lens on the landscape. He’s found that essence rare. So now Martin, you must come over to England and let me show you our Brussels sprouts…
Herr Dr. Martin Tesch