Sat 1 Aug 2009
The advocates of biodynamic methods of agriculture range from the mildly committed, who employ bio-dy techniques selectively and ignore the mumbo-jumbo aspects, to disciples for whom the words of Rudolf Steiner and Nicolas Joly are gospel.
The last part of that sentence, or something similar, was much on my mind late in the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8, as the group I was with paid a visit to Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn, one of the most highly regarded estates in Germany’s Rheingau region. The winery, situated at the outskirts of the incredibly charming village of Oestrich, offers nothing fancy and neither do the unpretentious Peter Jakob Kühn and his wife Angela, who are friendly and down-to-earth, though she is more forthcoming than he, who is the shyer of the couple. (She is a former German Wine Queen.) Both, however, are passionate about their 18-hectare estate (a bit less than 47 acres) and the wines they produce.
PJK has been certified organic since 2004 and this year became a member of Demeter, the organization that certifies biodynamic estates. Much of what Peter Jakob Kühn does in the vineyard, along with being scrupulously meticulous, seems like common sense. Compost the vineyards with estate-produced materials in the Spring. Plant crop cover between vine rows in the Summer and in the Spring plow it under. Avoid chemical nutrients. Apply minimal pressure in the winery; stainless steel and large barrels for riesling, with a light filtration. Anyone could do that.
Peter Jakob, also, however, follows many of the stipulations of biodynamic agriculture as laid down by Rudolph Steiner in his famous lectures of 1924: horn compounds of manure and silica; teas of horsetail, stinging nettle and chamomile to spray on the vines; careful consideration of the phases of the moon to supplement the “movement” of the wine, including during bottling.
We stood with Angela Kühn by a vineyard that sweeps up to one side of the winery, accompanied by the winery’s 13-year-old Labrador, Acino. Here’s where things got a little sticky. One of the group mentioned that the rows did not have great shoots springing from the tops of the vines; were they cut back?
“No,” said Angela, “in the best parcels, we don’t cut the tops of the stems to give a message to the vines that no one wants to damage them and cut off their lives. If you cut the stems, it creates a sense of urgency and power because their lives are in danger, and they want to regenerate the next generation. This pushes the sugar level up. By not cutting the stems, by reducing the stress and gently tying the stems back” — the stems are wreathed along the top of the row and tied with soft but durable material — “we create a more balanced wine. Vineyards that get not only care and concern but love, we feel the vines will profit from it.”
This is the point where I throw my notebook and pen into the air and say, “Oh, please!” Not really, because my mother taught me better, but come on, the vines think their lives are in danger if you cut the stems? You have to love the vines, not just take care of them? Does the same principle apply to tomato plants and rutabagas? Amber waves of grain? Corn as high as an elephant’s eye?
But these are sweet and gentle people, and their attempts to live and work in harmony with nature are touching, and the wines they produce, which is really the issue here, well, the wines are pretty damned wonderful. (And all the wines are closed with screw-caps.)
Take, for example, PJK’s basic wine, the Jacobus Riesling trocken 2008, made in stainless steel. My notes: “Big, ripe, fleshy; yellow plums, camellia, honeysuckle; intense, concentrated, seductive; full, lively, dynamic; v. spicy; crushed stones, pulverized slate and gravel; really great.” The price in Germany is 8.60 euros, or about $12.50. An amazing wine for the price. Jacobus is named for the founder of the estate, Jacobus Kühn, who started making wine here in 1786.
The next level is the stainless steel Quarzit Riesling trocken 2008, and the name tells it all. My notes: “V. stony, v. pure and intense, v. spicy; yellow flowers, yellow fruit, stone fruit; huge hit of minerals, slate and limestone; v. dry, crisp, vibrant, austere.” This is, one admits, a little demanding; it needs a year or two. 13.90 euro, about $19.50 to $20.
We tried two of PJK’s top rieslings. The Oestrich Doosberg 2007, aged in 2,400-liter barrels, is a brilliant medium gold color; the wine is intense and concentrated, coiled like a steel spring, offering incredible energy and nerve and verve; it’s very ripe, very spicy, sleek and lithe and racy, and could stand to mature for two or three years before being opened, or you could wait until 2015 to ’17 and see how it develops. Extraordinary. Not surprisingly, the price goes up at this point, 26.60 euros, about $37.50. The Mittelheim St. Nikolaus Riesling 2005 — current release is ’07 — is powerful and earthy and exotic, an eloquent expression of pure minerality with hints of petrol, jasmine, crystallized ginger and a touch of banana, all leading to a finish that’s almost brutal with granite and limestone. This too needs a few years, say 2011 or ’12 through 2016 or ’17. 24.60 euros, about $34.75.
Finally, there was the Oestrich Lenchen Riesling Spätlese 2008, a pale gold-colored wine of piercing minerality that offered subtle touches of lemon, lemon curd and peach, a wine delicately sweet, winsomely floral and sustained by such a surge of acidic nervosity that the glass feels electrified in your hand, and then from mid-palate back the whole package turns startlingly dry and austere. A lovely and slightly challenging riesling that needs a year or two in the bottle. 18.30 euros, about $26.
So, at this point, Readers, you’re saying, perhaps rather smugly, damn your eyes, “Ah ha, F.K., now you have to revise your negative opinion of biodynamism and admit that it works!” Well, what I will say is that Peter Jakob Kühn is a brilliant winemaker and that he certainly makes brilliant wines, making that judgment on a brief exposure. If biodynamic methods in the vineyard contribute to this brilliance, then I will say that, yes, the principles work here. I wonder though: If Peter Jakob Kühn did not bottle his wines “in a diminishing phase of the moon,” would they be any less brilliant? If he did not spray with, say, the horsetail compound, would the wines be less compelling? Would Peter Jakob Kühn — meticulous, thoughtful, hard-working and attentive — not make brilliant wines under any circumstances?
The wines (or some of them) of Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn are imported to the U.S. by Domaine Select Wine Estates.
Images of the winery and Angela Kühn & Acino are by Ernst Büscher; image of Peter Jakob Kühn is by Tim Wegner.