Baden for Intermediates: In The Emperor’s Chair

In a recent post (Baden for Beginners), I puzzled over the fact that the wines of Baden in southwest Germany are so little known and so poorly understood, even by those of us living right next door, and promised some pointers on more fine wineries to visit. Now that I’ve whetted your (beginner’s) appetites, here are four further favourites. They’re some of the region’s best, all of them family-owned, and all located in the famous region of the Kaiserstuhl – aka the Emperor’s Chair – Baden’s prime winegrowing region which has more than its fair share of great estates. If you decide to visit, be sure to call ahead to make an appointment.

Fritz Keller, son of Franz, now heads the family empire which comprises three restaurants, a hotel and a winery, all of them in Vogtsburg-Oberbergen. The Kellers have long been famous for their estate wines as well as for their imports, principally from Bordeaux and Burgundy – they’re wine merchants as well as winegrowers. As with all the top Kaiserstuhl estates, they major on the Pinot family: Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc). They are members of Germany’s VDP, Verband deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, an elite group of some 200 quality-oriented German vintners who are committed to terroir-driven viticulture at the highest level.

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Picture from Franz Keller website of the newly built Kellerwirtschaft winery and restaurant

You can taste and buy wines any day (open Mon-Fri 9:00 – 18:00, Sat 10:00 – 18:00 and Sun 10:00 – 16:00). But here’s an even better plan: book a table at the Kellerwirtschaft, their gorgeous Napa-style restaurant perched on the roof of the spanking-new modern winery, which is cunningly slotted into the hillside amongst the vines (Wed-Fri 17:00 – 23:00, Sat + Sun 12:00 – 23:00 in summer) and sample a selection of Keller wines with Chef Sebastian Heil’s seasonal, Mediterranean-infused food. Go with a bunch of like-minded friends: that way you can choose several different wines (lots offered glasswise, hooray!) and then compare notes.

On a recent summer’s evening we opened with 3 different house Sekts (sparkling wine): a Chardonnay, a Riesling and a pink Pinot, each delightfully fine-bubbled and delish in its own way. With the starters (poached egg with shaved Parmesan, pea puree, pea shoots + crispy lardo; a salad of summer leaves with toasty goat’s cheese), we went with a Grau- (Oberbergener Bassgeige) and 2 Weissburgunders (Pulverbuck, grown within sight of the terrace, discreetly oaked; and Im Leh). Note that there are at least 20 Grau- and Weiss-burgunders on the list to choose from, plus a handful of Chardonnays – best let the lovely Katharina advise you on which she recommends with your food.

Spätburgunder is also huge chez Keller – there are about 25 different ones on the list, plus a fine selection from fellow Kaisertuhlers like Salwey, Heger, Bercher et al. We fell for the Jechtinger Enselberg, from one of Keller’s Erste Lagen or premier cru plots, lightly oaked, perfumed and perfectly scrumptious with both fish (seared salmon, pan-fried bream) and flesh (roast veal).

 

Just down the road at Weingut Johner in nearby Vogtsburg-Bischoffingen you can taste the fruits of the Johner family’s Baden and New Zealand vineyards – they farm in both hemispheres. Tastings, conducted by either (or both) Patrick Johner and his mother Irene (father Karl-Heinz is the winemaker in NZ, where he spends the best part of the year) are wonderfully instructive – Patrick is a natural communicator and a generous guide to the house wines, expanding happily on how the same grapes (Sauvignon Blanc, Spätburgunder/Pinot Noir) perform in different climates with quite different soils.

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Having made their name with Spätburgunder, the Johners have shifted gradually over to making more white, both varietals and blends – “they’re cheaper and easier to make,” admits Patrick with disarming honesty, meaning they can excel with their whites without the hassle and expense of the long, costly oak-ageing required for reds. Between their local Sauvignon Blanc (volcanic and sandy loam) and the Antipodean one (dry, flat riverbed soils) we all fell for the Baden version: discreet, crisply gooseberry-ish like the best Sancerre, not OTT/herbaceous as so many SavBlancs can be.

The Weissburgunder ‘SJ’ from 35 year-old vines is all the better for a bit of barrique – makes you wonder why more people (Alsace?) don’t oak their Pinot Blanc. Of their reds, I have a soft spot for the approachably-priced, eminently quaffable Blauer Spätburgunder (€18, vs. €100 for the stellar ‘SJ’ Blauer Spätburgunder). In case you’re wondering (as I did), the second bottle from the left is labelled Pinot Noir rather than Spätburgunder because the vines are Burgundy clones; the third is from NZ, thus Pinot Noir.

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As you pull into the Salwey courtyard in the centre of the small village of Oberrotweil, the likelihood is you’ll find one of the house labradors Adi or Pinot snoozing in the shade of the lime tree so take care when you park. This family winery (house motto: “Salwey [pronounced Sal-vy], always dry”) is, like Franz Keller and Bercher (below), a member of the elite VDP group of top German winegrowers.

“I’m not a wine maker, I let the wine do its own thing”, I recall Wolf Dietrich Salwey telling me on my first visit there. Before his untimely death in 2011, Spätburgunder was Wolf Dietrich’s special baby, while his son Konrad focused on Grau- and Weissburgunder. The non-interventionist philosophy still rules (wild yeasts, no fining or filtering), but today Konrad is chief oenologist and has the final word on all wines. Grauburgunder – the house flagship wine – remains his special favourite.

Wines fall into three categories: Gutsweine (entry-level, house wines, around the €10 mark); Ortsweine or Reserve Salwey from named sites and older vines (ca. €15); and Grosses Gewächs or GG wines (from €26 to €48), grown in their best vineyards, all hand-harvested, with the Spätburgunders aged in barriques made from local oak. The house wines are always worth a punt (I love the Käsleberg – Cheesy Hill – Spätburgunder); when I sell a few more articles I’m going back for some of those GG Spätburgunders – Eichberg, Henkenberg – both highly rated by Parker and Jancis Robinson.

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Weingut Bercher, Burckheim

The fourth of my Kaiserstuhl favourites, another leading family-owned domaine, is run by cousins Arne and Martin Bercher. The winery HQ where you can taste their wines is an elegant, shuttered, 18th-century house in the middle of the beautiful village of Burckheim.

 

Arne is an enthusiastic guide to their range, starting with bubbly (try the fine Pinot and Chardonnay-based Sekt), through to a whole host of flowery, full-bodied, fully dry whites (4 Weissburgunders, 5 Grauburgunders), sundry other specialities, and no fewer than 9 different Spätburgunders. These range from the quaffable, fruit-forward kinds (around €10) through to Grosses Gewächs, which are more serious/ageworthy, oak-aged and with prices (up to €40) to match. (For readers in the UK: The Wine Barn has an extensive selection of Bercher wines.)

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[There’s more on Baden (not just the Kaiserstuhl) in my 2012 piece in Decanter here.]

 

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