German Oenologists and Cellar Masters are in Demand Worldwide – from Chile to Romania and from South Africa to Thailand
They have ventured out far into the world – to Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand, Romania, Hungary and Spain – to pursue their winemaking passion far from home. German oenologists, cellar masters, viticulteurs and vineyard owners enjoy an excellent reputation worldwide – partly due to the quality of training here in Germany but also due to these experts’ ambition and broad horizons. Some have only moved abroad recently and life is sure to hold further stages on their path round the globe. For others abroad has already become their second home.
"Ideal conditions for winemaking"
Born in Berlin in October 1939 Klaus Schröder, did not exactly grow up thinking he would become chief oenologist at the Chilean flagship wine estate San Pedro and Santa Rita, President of the Chilean Oenological Association and owner of Viña Alta Cima, a 66 hectare operation in Valle de Curicó in the centre of the 4,000 kilometre long country. Schröder’s family from Schleswig-Holstein had nothing to do with wine cultivation. Back in the 60s South America held a great attraction for the technician and engineer trained at the two renowned academies in Weinsberg and Geisenheim. “In Germany,” the pioneer now reminisces “it seemed to me much more difficult to found my own wine estate one day”. So at 26 he was hired at San Pedro – today the second largest wine producer in Chile after Concha y Toro. And there he stayed. Together with his wife Katharina Hanke, also of German origin, Schröder started developing from 1997 his own, state-of-the-art wine estate Alta Cima and now his son Klaus Sebastian is already the first of his four children to work in the company.
What is so special about Chile? Why was returning to Germany never on the cards for this Berliner? – “Chile has ideal conditions for wine cultivation, beautiful landscapes, people here are very generous towards foreigners and there is more happiness and optimism here than there is in Germany,” says the (considerably younger looking) 73 year old with a satisfied smile on his face – while gazing out over his vines and the snow-capped Andes in the background. “Alta Cima”, the high peak, gave his winery its name. It stands at an altitude of 6,000 metres.
A few kilometres south in Molina lives another key figure on the Chilean wine scene with German roots. Although he was born in Chile in 1941 Eugenio Eben’s father came from Reutlingen to this county at the end of the world. Consequently, after finishing school young Eugenio was first sent to the land of his forefathers for technical training in Weinsberg followed by agricultural studies in Hohenheim. “The first six months I hardly understood anything as everyone only spoke Swabian dialect,” Eben reminisces. After a detour via a sparkling wine factory in Stockholm his marriage to Begoña Aresti brought this German Chilean into a vineyard which counts 1,200 hectares – of which today 300 hectares are under vine. The company Viña Aresti exports about one million bottles per year to 50 different countries and in 2006 it successfully launched that brand “Espíritu de Chile” – a joint venture with Marcus Möller Racke – causing a real stir. Today “Espirítu” belongs to the Aresti family 100%. For the future they now plan to plant further vines and develop fruit plantations in the south of Chile. However, Eugenio Eben keeps in contact with his relations in Germany: “At least once a year I fly over there with my wife.”
Lucky struck in search of the Pinot Noir “Holy Grail”
A little bit further on from Chile, in New Zealand’s Martinborough, two oenologists hailing from Baden-Württemberg went in search of the Pinot Noir “Holy Grail” in 1998 and struck lucky. Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling, both Geisenheim graduates, have since then seen an unparalleled success story. Warm days, cold nights and generally a long, dry autumn along with ideal soil conditions and as little as possible intervention in the vinification process make for varieties like Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc as well as the all-important Pinot Noir – which now has its fans worldwide being exported to 35 countries. The export quota here stands at over 90%. Kai Schubert, who goes on promotional tours for several months of the year, describes his wines as “more traditionally European as New World style”. Top restaurants from New York and Singapore to Hong Kong now have “Marion’s Vineyard” or “Block B” Pinot on their menus and Schubert Wines regularly win prizes in international wine competitions. Ratings of over 90 points are the rule rather than the exception.
And their latest coup: Germany’s Sunday newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung am Sonntag” recently voted Marion’s Vineyard 2009 “Red Wine of the Year”. For the future Marion Deimling and Kai Schubert – still almost a garage winery with their 14 hectares and annual 50,000 – 60,000 bottles – do not intend making quantative but rather qualitative growth: We want to hone in on the Premier and Grand Crus at our wine estate – and for that we need a few more vintages!”
"I always need a new challenge."
When it comes to exoticism Kathrin Puff, Geisenheim graduate, just like her two colleagues in New Zealand, can really ‘cock a snook’. Who would have thought wine was produced in Thailand …? For five years now this Krefeld-born oenologist has been running the Siam Winery, after working in the Kupferberg sparkling wine cellars, Villa Gutenberg, Borgo del Tiglio, Azienda Pighin, Dievole in Tuscany and two wine estates in New Zealand. She found cultivating wine under tropical conditions even more exciting than in the land of the kiwis: “I always need a new challenge.” 300,000 bottles are produced per year – for instance Shiraz, Colombard and Chenin Blanc and she now also plans to build a winery near Hua Hin in 2015. The top products of the Siam Winery include a hand degorged Sparkling Blanc de Blancs and Rosé as well as one white and one red “Cuvee de Siam” matured in oak barrels.
The climatic conditions in Thailand are already challenging enough for ambitious winemakers but to this you have to add the entirely different local mentality. Five years in Thailand taught Kathrin Puff to be “a lot more patient” and to not always have to iron out problems right from the first attempt – and instead of raising an accusing finger raising a little smile. The 34 year old sees it an important part of her work to awaken an understanding and appreciation for the wine amongst her staff. Until now beer and whisky have been more in demand here. Nevertheless: one third of production at the Siam Winery is drunk on the domestic market while the remaining share goes to Thai restaurants around the world. Germany ranks fourth here. Twice a year Kathrin Puff returns to her homeland – and since her husband is from Italy they usually make a short trip there, too.
"Instead of the Black Forest here, we have the ocean on the doorstep"
When it comes to different cultures and mentalities Rolf Zeitvogel (winemaker and Managing Director at the traditional Blaauwklippen Agricultural Estates in Stellenbosch, South Africa for the last eleven years) is certainly qualified to have his say. And he often comes up with a wild mix of Xosa, Zulu, Afrikaans and English. “Sometimes” grins the Baden-born viticulteur from Bühl, “winemaking is a lovely hobby – a great deal of time is spent teaching, guiding and involving our staff in more demanding tasks. 60% of the farm workers at Blaauwklippen have no school leaving certificate. After working at several Baden wine cooperatives and the sparkling wine company Bernhard Massard in Luxembourg the now 44 year old cooper and cellar master trained in Weinsberg was drawn to South Africa. For a number of years he toed and froed between the southern and northern hemisphere but since 2002 this father of two now lives full time at the Cape of Good Hope. At Blaauwklippen there are 100 hectares under vine in German hands with an annual production of 450,000 bottles. Since 2005 all red wines are spontaneously fermented. Rolf Zeitvogel has so far not regretted the move to South Africa: “Instead of the Black Forest here we have the ocean on the doorstep.” And for him the work at Blaauwklippen is “the nicest work I have ever done in my working life.”
A few thousand kilometres closer to home, Romania’s Dragasani has been home to Swabian Oliver Bauer since 2004. Right from the start he began helping rebuild the Prince Stirbey wine estate once expropriated by the Communists – and he is now married to a Romanian. Originally, he only planned temporary missions in “flying winemaker” style but when the owners Baroness Ileana and Jakob Kripp asked the trained cellar master and Veitshöchheim viticulteur to move to Romania permanently Oliver Bauer said yes. Where else would you get the chance to build up a wine estate from scratch in a foreign country with a fascinating landscape and a wide range of autochthonous grape varieties with names like Cramposie Selectionate or Tamaioasa Romaneasca and bring this estate back to its former glory? Bauer has now already gone a long way to achieve this goal. The quality wines from Dragasani are exported to customers throughout the world and have already been served in the first class cabin on Lufthansa.
“This is a real Eldorado for inquisitive winemakers willing to experiment”
The fact that in 2004 the Kripps gave this young man from Flein (incidentally the son of winemaking pioneer Robert Bauer) basically a blank piece of paper to make a new start is something that still pleases him to this day. The autochthonous grape varieties, in particular, constitute for Oliver Bauer “a fascinating voyage of discovery” along with the significantly more extreme weather conditions compared to Central Europe with up to 45 °C in summer and -26°c in winter. For the 38 year old Romania has long since become a matter of the heart. “Here you stumble daily upon plants and animals that are strictly protected elsewhere or that only exist in books.” And while people are still squabbling about a few hectares in Germany in Romania hundreds of thousands of hectares of best quality wine-growing land lays fallow: “This is a real Eldorado for inquisitive winemakers willing to experiment.” No wonder Oliver and Raluca Bauer this year decided to open their own operation alongside their work for Prince Stirbey. The operation will go by the name of “Crama Bauer”.
"Become a vintner incidentally"
Just like at Stirbey the motto “noblesse oblige” also holds true among the Degenfeld family in Tokaj in Hungary. The wine estate of the pioneer Count Imre Degenfeld, a founder member of the Tokaj-Hegyalja Winegrowing Association in 1857, was also expropriated by the Communists at the end of the Second World War. In 1994 Countess Marie Degenfeld and her husband Dr. Thomas Lindner bought back part of the former estate at auction. Although the Degenfeld family had long since built up an existence for themselves in Germany – their emotional ties to Hungary remained intact. The Gróf Degenfeld wine estate today boasts 100 hectares with top Tokaj crus as well as a comfortable hotel. And even if Countess Marie Degenfeld prefers to leave winegrowing to her Hungarian cellar master she is still the best ambassador of the fine wines from her family from Tokaj, whether at home or abroad. She has been a familiar regular at ProWein for many years now.
Incidentally, that people can become vintners sometimes quite without intending to was something discovered by 44 year old Markus Schieber in the red wine mecca Szekszárd, also in Hungary. Graduating from the Hohenheim University of Agriculture, in 1997 he moved to the Danube plain south of Budapest where he today cultivates more than 4,000 hectares of land. Three years ago Markus Schieber and his Hungarian wife Anita, a trained lawyer, purchased a 30-hectare wine estate in Szekszárd that they have been restructuring since then with great enthusiasm.
Jürgen Wagner, a qualified oenologist with a degree from Geisenheim, also allowed himself to embark on an adventure in 1999 – only that his began in the Catalonian town of Priorato. The cooperative Celler de Capçanes with its 200 hectares of ground on stony, hard-to-access, mountainous terrain near Tarragona, has just recently caused a stir worldwide with its first kosher “Flor de Primavera”. And since then the Heidelberg-born winemaker has been writing part of a success story that has made it as far as the Wall Street Journal. In Capçanes, part of the Montsant area of cultivation, wines are made here from 100 year old Garnacha vines that feature on the menus of top star restaurants from Bensberg, Paris and New York to San Francisco, Montreal, Tokyo, Shanghai and Bangkok. The range of grape varieties at Capçanes also includes Cariñena and Samsó, as well as some Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Tempranillo. “Capçanes is my baby,” says the proud 42 year old. To ensure the company continues to grow strongly and prosper Wagner spends over three months of the year on worldwide promotion tours during which time his colleague Angel Teixido takes care of the wines in the cellar. The fixtures in Jürgen Wagner calendar do admittedly include one every year at the end of March in Düsseldorf: ProWein – which has now become the most important wine trade fair worldwide.