Lots of sun, plenty of limestone in the soil – these are the ideal conditions for Andreas Grimm and Stephan Schwedhelm as they strive for perfect wines. One is a winner of the competition "Die junge Südpfalz" (The Young Southern Palatinate), the other a prodigious talent at the VdP (Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates) and a "real find" in the words of Gault & Millau. They are representative of the younger generation of winemakers along the German Wine Route who are producing wine with an open mind, a sense of adventure and high quality standards.
It's as though these two have marked both ends of the Wine Route with their respective wineries: since 2009, Andreas Grimm has been managing the Weingut Grimm winery in Schweigen, just next to the French border, whilst Stephan Schwedhelm is based almost 90 kilometres to the north in Zellertal, from where you can already wave to the state of Hesse on the other side of the Rhine. In both locations, there is heavy, limy soil, and in both cases also young winemakers who took over the family winery just a few short years ago; both also share the ambition to get the very best from their soil and cellar and to produce superb wines.
Winemaker Stephan Schwedhelm sits with his brother Georg on the newly constructed terrace in the cloistered courtyard in Zellertal: its structure features symbolic strata of the pale limestone from their own vineyards. Things looked very different here up until a few days ago, as a new wine shop is springing up next door as well. "Our parents' old tasting room just wasn't really suitable for us or our wines any more," Georg Schwedhelm explains. "The new glass building is supposed to symbolise our open-mindedness." The two brothers are a team: Georg studied Economics before working in Marketing at Audi, then as a sales representative for Hilti and eventually returning home to market his brother's wines. After his apprenticeship and studies in Geisenheim in 2006, Stephan took over the winery. Little by little, he has since invested in modern equipment and realised new ideas.
It was a similar story in Schweigen, where father Bruno Grimm gave his son Andreas responsibility for the cellar straight after he completed his technical training in 2002 – then the entire winery a few years later. He himself had switched the family's mixed agricultural operations over to winemaking and bottling in the Seventies, setting stringent quality standards from the very outset. Here, too, a modern concrete and glass extension heralds a new era. A tasting room that epitomises the new style of the establishment has sprung up in the narrow courtyard of the surprisingly small winery in the heart of Schweigen: "Bright, open and fresh – after all, the wine and the presentation have to go together," Andreas Grimm asserts.
Although a large portion of production continues to comprise classic white wines, the heart of the young manager belongs to red wine. This year, his 2012 vintage Pinot Noir occupied both first places in the competition "Die junge Südpfalz – da wächst was nach!" (The Young Southern Palatinate – Ripe Young Talent!), and at the same time winning the overall ranking for all grape varieties. The quality competition – unique among all German wine-growing regions – highlights the young talents that have succeeded the older generation along the Southern Wine Route since 2011. It draws further attention to what is already being felt across the Palatinate: that the baton has been passed to a new generation of outstanding young winemakers with high quality standards and a clear vision. They are courageous, set new benchmarks for operations in the vineyard and cellar and get the utmost clarity, freshness and terroir from their wines. In the process, they benefit from their worldly curiosity and readiness to compare notes.
"Our style has become lighter, clear and very straightforward," Andreas Grimm notes. "We achieve this through tastings and discussions among colleagues – and are increasingly aligning ourselves with international tastes." The oldest Pinot Noir vines in the Grimms' vineyards on the slopes of the Sonnenberg have been growing there for 42 years: very old vines that deliver first-class quality. "We now harvest these slightly earlier in order to preserve the fruitiness and acidity. After all, Pinot Noir needs coolness and bite in its aftertaste," says Grimm. Work in the vineyard is extremely important to the winemaker in general: "You can only produce good wines if you have the best materials to work with. We observe a great deal, make sure that the grapes get a lot of sun and also reduce the yield. Fully ripe, healthy harvests are the absolute be all and end all for good wine." That's why Grimm can always be found in the vineyard checking the soil, the growth and the ripeness.
The vines planted in the 70s and 80s have a very high yield: he cuts the lower part of every bunch off from these while they are still ripening. This time-consuming work done by hand is worth it because it ensures that the remaining grapes get more sun, helping them in turn to mature more healthily and develop a certain dryness. "Our work in the cellar is very minimalistic and careful so as to preserve a pure aroma typical of each variety." The nine hectares of vineyard cultivated by Grimm are divided into 58 individual plots. Alongside Riesling and Pinot Noir varieties, they also grow Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Scheurebe, Silvaner, Portugieser and Dornfelder grapes. After all, the Palatinate is known as a wine-growing region with small plots and great variety.
It's exactly the same for Stephan Schwedhelm. His father handed him 18 varieties spread over 17 hectares in the vineyards of the Klosterhof winery. Even if he wants to reduce this variety when he plants new vines, it has still led him to some interesting discoveries. One of those was his 2012 vintage dry Scheurebe, the first of its kind, which led everyone to question his sanity – including his own father. But then this wine earned Schwedhelm first prize in a tasting by "Weinwelt" and it became a big hit. Schwedhelm's classic whites are really his bread and butter: the elegant, slender Pinot Blanc and the robust Riesling with deep mineral notes from the steep slopes of the "Schwarzer Herrgott". Yet Schwedhelm also enjoys experimenting and will emerge from the cellar after a few days with a new cuvée. He pays meticulous attention to his individual varieties and tries to age them in small barrels and tanks wherever possible: "This is fascinating," he explains. "We have an old vineyard with perfect harvests. It's very restrained for a whole year and only then does it start to really develop. If I didn't make observations like this over the course of several years, I would be oblivious and give away my best Riesling." Schwedhelm is fascinated by how differently his vines can develop in two similar locations – even when they're the same age and are selected and defoliated in the same way. He wants to extract these differences and subtleties – which are particular to each individual vineyard – and make them detectable to the palate while still allowing the winemaker to leave his mark. Schwedhelm constantly strives to make the perfect wine. And running the family operation together with his brother is also important: "We make everything ourselves and therefore have full control over production and quality."For three years now, production has taken place according to organic principles. This promotes quality and is considered by the brothers to be the right sustainable approach to life and business. They don't want to market their wines under the "organic" label, however, but rather impress customers with the "Schwedhelm" brand.
Andreas Grimm, who also does his own marketing, is another winemaker who swears by individuality: "You have to find your own style and push on with what you want to do. I would like to bring out the character of each location, such as the limestone we have. Then there has to be a reproducible consistency for customers; a common strain that runs through everything. For me, this goes hand in hand with the concept of terroir."That's why Grimm finds it important to take a look around the wine scene, try renowned wines and engage in discussions with his colleagues. He is certain that the dialogue, the open exchange of ideas and the network that has emerged from the "Young Southern Palatinate" competition is beneficial for the entire region. Georg Schwedhelm in Zellertal is convinced that wine drinkers are also changing: "The public is open-minded and curious when it comes to approaching young winemakers and brands.
These are often young people, but the thinking of many older people has changed too." Stephen Schwedhelm adds to this: "It's a good time for German viniculture. There's a lot happening and it's fun to be part of." From 2015, the new wine shop should help to drive the entire region forward: it's even going to play host to events related to art and cooking. "What we're already doing here is pioneering, but Zellertal has great potential and we'll show what we're made of: this is Schwedhelm – and this is Zellertal."
And 90 kilometres away, where the Wine Gate marks the start of the German Wine Route, Andreas Grimm has similarly grand designs for his chalky, sun-soaked soil: creating first-class wines for the Grimm family winery and winning the next round of prizes.