Author's note: Sadly, Fristz Hasselbach died October 4, 2016
Fritz Hasselbach is an ambitious man who has over the last two decades has transformed the Gunderloch estate into what many consider to be the Rheinhessen’s best producer. In the last decade Gunderloch has made some of the most spectacular TBA in Germany from the famous steep, red slate slopes of his best vineyard, Nackenheim Rothenberg. German wine authority David Schildknecht considers Gunderloch one of the three or four most consistently high achievers in all of Germany over the past dozen years.
Fritz graduated from Geisenheim Wine School and was working as a farm advisor to winegrowers. He was catapulted into winemaking when his wife Agnes inherited the faltering Gunderloch Winery.
In the following interview, Fritz talks about the turn around in quality starting from his first vintage in 1979. He discusses the Rheinhessen’s red slate soils and the character they impart to the wine, his decision to lower yields, use of screw caps, his favorite wines to drink and his views on numerous other topics.
ROSS: How did you get into winemaking?
The love of wine, the love of the vineyard and even the love of my wife, Agnes. Her great, great Grandfather was Karl Gunderloch, who founded the wine estate in 1890. Agnes’ father wanted to sell the winery. I had studied winemaking at Geisenheim. After graduating, I was a winegrowing teacher and a farm adviser for the government, advising growers how to plant vineyards. Agnes, who worked as a high school teacher and I decided to retire from our jobs and go into the wine business. Our first vintage was 1979.
ROSS: Did the Estate have a tradition for fine wine when you took over?
Not really. My father-in-law managed the wine estate but he hadn’t learned about winemaking. So the wines were good, drinkable wines but not great wines.
ROSS: But you had good vineyards?
Yes, Agnes’ great, great grandfather, who was a banker, bought the very best vineyards in our region. Nachenheimer Rothenberg and Niersteiner Pettenthal. These vineyards were very expensive, even at that time.
ROSS: These vineyards are in an area of the Rheinhessen called the Roten Hang (red hills or cliffs). What is unique about this area?
The Rothenberg and Pettenthal vineyards are steep slopes and face the Rhine River. They have a special terroir, which is the red slate, very similar to the Mosel slate, which is gray or black. Under the slate, the soil is deep red in color.
ROSS: Why is the slate important?
Because of the dark color—red, gray or black—there is no reflection of the sun so the soil warms up faster in the morning. For example, if we have snow in January or February, it always melts earlier in the red soil than in the other parts of the vineyard or the region. What is also important is the soil retains the heat longer, which is why we have such a good microclimate.
ROSS: In a blind tasting, can you identify that red slate character?
Yes. Peachy, apricot aromas, exotic fruits on the Auslese wines, and always a long and minerally finish. A little bit of “slatiness” in the wines, that’s what I like, it reminds me a little bit of gasoline. A little bit of petrol character is nice, if it’s not too intense—this is due to the red slate.
ROSS: Apricot or peach is not from botrytis; it’s from the slate?
Yes, but just for the Riesling. Sylvaner doesn’t do well in the red slate; the wines become too earthy in that soil. This soil is just perfect for the Riesling.
ROSS: Is the red color from iron and iron is a mineral?
ROSS: When you talk about a wine tasting “minerally” is this a quality you detect with your nose or is it a feeling in the mouth?
It’s the texture of the wine or the complexity. You cannot smell it, just the apricot or the peach depending on the vintage, but the complexity you can get with the mouth.
ROSS: The character of the Saar is austere and high in acid, the Mosel wines are more generous and fruitier. What is the character of the Rheinhessen?
Our wines have more weight, are more complex and not as crisp in acid. Due to the soil we have a higher amount of tartaric acid. If the grapes are not so ripe, we have a higher amount of malic acid and due to the soil and microclimate our Rothenberg vineyard has 80% tartaric and 20% of malic, that’s why the wines are a little softer, more elegant and more balanced in the taste. They do have a high amount of acid but you cannot taste it because it is better balanced.
ROSS: Is it warmer in the Rheinhessen?
Yes, we are more south than the Saar and Mosel Valley and have higher temperatures in the summer. Our average temperature is 10 C compared to 9.5 C in the Saar.
ROSS: Do the wines undergo malolactic fermentation?
ROSS: Do you travel to different wine regions?
Yes. Bordeaux is one of my favorite regions. I collect Bordeaux. But the region where I learned most is Burgundy.
ROSS: What are your favorite Chateaux?
Pichon Lalande and La Mission Haut Brion. I like these wines and I know the people behind them and that helps to understand the wine better and to have more fun with the wine.
ROSS: Why did you learn more in Burgundy?
I have very good friends in Pommard, a grower called Domaine Vaudesoisey and they are great winemakers. When they visited us in Germany in 1979 they couldn’t understand the high yields in our vineyards, around 150 hl/hectare (10 tons/acre). They invited me to Burgundy and showed me how short they pruned the canes. They told me reducing the average yield is maybe the secret for great wine and that’s what I did in Germany. That was in 1979, I had been making good wines, drinkable wines but not great wines. The first great vintage we made was 1986.
ROSS: What did you cut back to?
A maximum of 60hl/hectare (4-5 tons/acre). I always aim to have less than 50hl/hectare (3.5tons/acre). To give you an idea, we make a first growth wine from the Nachenheimer Rothenberg vineyard and the average yield is no higher than 22hl/hec (1.5 tons/acre).
ROSS: What is the favorite wine you make?
I prefer the Rothenberg. It has a perfect microclimate for Riesling. This vineyard gives us such typical Riesling wines and you can easily recognize the terroir. The bouquet takes a little time to open but one year after bottling the wines are tremendous. The Pettenthal wines are always easy to drink and to understand early but they do not have the aging potential of the Rothenberg.
ROSS: What makes the microclimate superior in Rothenberg?
The proximity to the Rhine, the red soil and the steep slopes which all face the river and to the southeast. Great vineyards are always on the bank of the river. Because the river gives the vineyard a good microclimate. We produce our wines in a cool climate we are very north in Europe, so microclimate is very important. That is why you find Riesling so seldom in Germany because it needs good vineyards; it needs a long hang time, compared to Sylvaner or Muller Thurgau, which always ripen early. I would guess only 15-20% of the vineyards are good for Riesling. You cannot plant Riesling in a Muller Thurgau vineyard, for example. The problem with Riesling is that the acidity is high and a good microclimate balances the acidity.
ROSS: It seems to me that making Riesling is simple relative to other wines. You press the grapes, ferment, fine and filter. You don’t have to worry about color, malolactic fermentation or oak barrels. What is the biggest challenge in producing great Riesling?
First of all, the quality of a Riesling is due to the vineyard and to the vineyard management. What is also important is the selective harvest. During the harvest, to find the right grapes for Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese. This is all done in the vineyard. In winemaking, a gentle pressing is important, not too much pressure on the grapes. What is also important is that we crush the grapes and leave the juice on the skins for 12 hours. I think this is not typical for Riesling; just the very best producers will do it.
ROSS: What does skin contact do?
It takes more flavor out of the skins. You get another 10% of aroma due to the skin contact.
ROSS: Can’t you also get tannins from skins?
Yes, that is why I say only 12 hours of skin contact so I don’t get the tannin. On the other hand, I personally like a little bit of tannin in the Riesling.
ROSS: Does a little tannin suit your wine because your wines have so much stuffing to begin with? Is it analogous to the way oak compliments a big red wine?
Yes, and the skins give the wine a little more texture and longer aging potential.
ROSS: Who are the best producers in the Rheinhessen?
Heyl, St. Anthony’s, Schneider. Eugen Wehrheim and Seebrich make good wines, but I think they don’t transfer the terroir that much into the wine. My aim is always to understand the terroir and recognize what kind of soil is in the Riesling wine.
ROSS: How do you do that?
Low yields, and to find the right ripening point for picking the grapes.
ROSS: Wehrheim for example sells his 2001 Kabinett for under $10. He makes tasty wines that are inexpensive. Is it possible he has higher yields?
Yes. 2001 was a very easy vintage. You didn’t need to make a selection of the grapes because we had uniformly healthy fruit, in comparison to 2000, which was almost a disaster. We did some tough work during the harvest. We did a tasting of the 2000 Gunderloch wines with some German wine writers. They were impressed with the quality.
ROSS: Give me an example of what you need to do in a difficult vintage?
The 2000 vintage is a good example. In the middle of September I was in New York City. Every other day my wife sent me photographs of what the grapes looked like and I could see that we had gotten very early botrytis. I cancelled all my appointments, flew home and immediately started to pick. For two weeks we picked just the botrytis-affected grapes. It wasn’t a clean botrytis, it was an awful looking and smelling botrytis. We destroyed the grapes far away from the vineyard and in two weeks we had healthy looking grapes. And all the others vineyards rotted, not noble rot, they smelled of vinegar.
ROSS: Is botrytis in September bad?
It depends. If the weather is fine, why not? But in September the grapes don’t yet have the sugar concentration. So the grapes are just good for an Auslese Gold capsule or a small BA.
ROSS: Can Qba’s age?
I don’t think so. Aging is only possible beginning with the Spatlese, Auslese or higher standard. It’s not only the higher must weight but the component of the wine are even better. I mean the combination of residual sugar and acidity gives for a good aging potential.
ROSS: You think Qba and Kabinetts are not meant for aging, only Spatlese, Auslese and up?
Kabinetts are light wines not that high in alcohol and we need a little more alcohol to have a good aging potential. But an Auslese or Spatlese also have 8.5% alcohol, but here we have another ripeness level. We pick grapes for Spatlese at 90 O so the grapes are riper than the grapes for the Kabinett and that helps for aging potential.
ROSS: When you say ripeness do you mean must weight? What is the relationship between must weight, ripeness and quality?
For Muller Thurgau, with a ripeness level that is not that high, you can make good wine. For Riesling ripeness levels are more important. In good vintages we get better wines in the Kabinett style. In 1993, 2001 we had Kabinetts with must weights of 85 O, very complex and minerally in the taste. In 1996 for example a year with a shorter hang time, they had a completely different taste with the same degrees of O. So the growing season, the hang time is very important.
ROSS: Is 2001 worth the hype?
It’s a very good vintage; we had a perfect growing season. We had rainfall at the right time and sunshine at the right time. But I personally think 2002 is even better. 2002 was also perfect during the growing season but the rain in September and October – during the harvest—hurt the quality a little and we were not able to pick the grapes. At Gunderloch, when there was rain during the day, we picked the grapes at night. Or we went through the vineyards during the rain and picked the botrytis grapes out to keep the remaining fruit healthy. We picked the high-end wines—Spatlese, Auslese, BA and TBA—at the end of November or beginning of December. Patience was very important in 2002.
ROSS: It must be hard to be patient when it’s raining.
Yes, but I have a very nice wife, she always calms me down.
ROSS: How many cases do you produce?
8,000 cases and we ship to 25 countries in the world. America and Canada are the very best markets at the moment.
ROSS: How do you feel about cork?
Cork is a big problem. In 1999 we had a damage of 20%. With natural cork the problem is not only the bad cork taste, which you can immediately recognize but sometimes the cork changes the taste of the wine in a bad way without the wine being obviously corked. You open two bottles from the same vintage, from the same wine estate and they taste different, that’s the cork, I know it. Most customers cannot recognize that this is due to the cork.
ROSS: Are you using screw caps?
We are switching over to screw caps for all of our wines. Screw cap is very good, the wines age better and they stay fresh longer. Bernard Brauer and I are the only ones I know who are using screw caps more and more.
ROSS: What else do you do that is different?
We don’t use any chemical fertilizers in the vineyard. If we need fertilizer we add natural humus. Reduction of the average yield, vineyard management during the growing season is very important. For me, the quality is due to the vineyard and to the vineyard management.
ROSS: What about sulfides? Some German producers I have spoken to- St. Urbans-Hof, for example—like the smell of sulfides or reduction in their wine. Do you?
Like eggs, hydrogen sulfide? I like this taste of sulfides; a little bit of this smell is very nice. Like J.J. Prüm, I like these wines very much. We are coming out with a 1997 Riesling Auslese that is in a similar style to J.J. Prum.
ROSS: How do you get it in the wine?
I cannot influence it. Some wines have it and some don’t. It depends maybe on the barrel or the tank. You cannot say, ‘I want to have this smell in my wine.’ It can happen by accident or you can influence it a little bit if you have a long contact with the yeast.
ROSS: Do you keep your wines on the yeast for a long time?
Yes. We ferment in temperature-controlled stainless steel. After the fermentation, we rack the wine into neutral [old] German oak barrels. On average we have about 80 days of yeast contact, until end of February, early March.
ROSS: Is that typical?
No, 10-12 days is typical
ROSS: Egon Muller believes that J.J. Prüm harvests very late and his cellar is very cool. Under these conditions, the yeast struggle, ferment very slowly and produce some sulfides.
Same with us. We don’t have a cool cellar that’s why we chill the tanks down during fermentation.
ROSS: Do you ferment with native yeasts or do you inoculate?
We add a small amount of yeast to start the fermentation, sometime it starts immediately and sometimes it takes three or four days depending on the vintage. And then we chill the wine to 2 C using a cooling system that is inside the tank.
ROSS: Don’t these almost freezing temperatures stop the fermentation?
No, but it takes very long, 80 days. I think Strub does it and some other growers.
ROSS: There is some confusion about the use of sulfites. Some people think that because German Rieslings have residual sugar, you have to add more sulfites than you would to a dry wine.
That’s not true. Sulfur has nothing to do with a dry or sweet wine. We do need a little more sulfites with a BA or TBA in comparison to a dry wine. Wine made from botrytis-affected grapes need more sulfites than from healthy fruit to prevent oxidation.
ROSS: You have a great reputation for TBA. Do you make it because you love it or because your vineyards are better suited to it?
It’s a combination of several things. First of all it’s the vineyard. The red slate in my eyes is perfect for making BA’s and TBA’s, it determines their taste—grapefruit, exotic aromas and a little bit of peachiness is typical. And then it’s the winemaker. We make careful selections, using only very healthy botrytis-affected grapes, very clean with no fungus on the skins—they look like raisins.
ROSS: Ettore Falvo from Avignonesi told me a few years ago that me he makes Vin Santo for love, not for the money. Is that true for TBA?
I agree, the production is very difficult, the quantity is small; it’s better for the reputation.
ROSS: What are your preferred food and wine matches?
A perfect match for me is a Riesling Spatlese with spicy food. A lot of heat—chili pepper or other Thai spices—or a blue cheese, such as Stilton. I don’t eat that much Foie Gras but a BA or Auslese goes wonderfully. Kabinett with salad, chicken, Qba is perfect with seafood.
ROSS: Does the press understand Riesling like they understand Bordeaux or Burgundy, for example?
They are starting to. Bruce Sanderson from the Wine Spectator for example, is not only interested in German Riesling but the Rieslings from Austria. And he understands them; he has a very good experience with these wines. He always asks questions which are very intelligent; that’s a sign for me that he tries to learn more about Riesling.
ROSS: During your frequent visits to New York, do you see Riesling a heightened interest in German Riesling?
Yes, there is such a big demand at the moment for our Riesling wines for 2001 and also for 2002. Our US importer would buy the whole 8,000 cases if they could.
ROSS: The quality seems so consistently high.
This may be one of the keys of success. The price and taste values are very good. We produce great wines at a lower price than the Bordeaux or the Burgundy’s, for example.