saar delights

The Call of the Wine

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A garden of earthly delights. Source: Weingut Van Volxem

A 30 mile stretch of land in Germany’s southwestern state of Rhineland Palatinate has become a popular spot for celebrities and other newcomers trying their hand at winemaking.

Over the last few years, new vineyards have cropped up along the Saar river, gaining a reputation as the “cool sister” of the nearby Mosel wine region.

Part of the area’s draw has to with its favorable climate — low temperatures delay the ripening process into fall — and steep slopes that require grapes to be picked by hand.

A growing list of names have decided to buy and renovate old farmhouses and wine-growing estates on the Saar, and then reopened or continued the tradition of the family that owned it before.

Georg Thoma, a corporate lawyer and former member of Deutsche Bank’s supervisory board, says it was his “love of architecture” that drove him to buy a former farmhouse of the Wadgassen monastery 10 years ago. He renovated the building with help from the Berlin architect Max Dudler. Now, the Baroque Cantzheim farmhouse, which was built in 1740, is the Saar’s newest star.

Mr. Thoma’s 41-year-old daughter, a trained oenologist, set up a vineyard on the estate. But its appeal goes beyond wine.

“The aesthetic impact of the house on the Saar against the steep slopes of the Altenberg in Kanzem has always fascinated me,” said Mr. Thoma, who was born in Trier, 15 kilometers away from the small town where Cantzheim is located.

Former Deutsche Bank board member Georg Thoma's bought the Cantzheim farmhouse to create a center for culture as well as wine. Source: Weingut Cantzheim

He knew from the start he wanted to use the house, annex and orangery as a guesthouse that would be a “cultural location for music, literature, architecture, pleasure and conviviality.”

Earlier this month, around 70 people gathered in Cantzheim’s orangery for a public discussion between television moderator Bettina Böttinger and writer Husch Josten.

There are a number of factors that have allowed the 2,000-year-old Saar winemaking tradition to flourish recently, including its geographical location and the fact neighbors have known each other for many years and work towards a common goal.

New arrivals to the Saar area mix with locals, discuss their experiences, and sometimes even swap vineyards. They attend village festivals, seek advice and give long-established local vintners tours of their wine cellars — and vice versa. They have become accepted and respected.

But the area benefits particularly from its prominent new winemakers.

What’s happening in the Saar wine scene is similar to how the north German island of Sylt was transformed. Entrepreneurial heir Gunter Sachs discovered Sylt at the end of the 1960s and converted it into a fashionable hotspot. In the Saar area too, newcomers are reawakening the entire region.

Cantzheim isn’t the only Saar vineyard drawing well-known personalities.

Other vintners have flocked to the area, including Roman Niewodniczanski, the great-great grandson of the founder of the large Bitburger brewery. Wealthy investors like television host Günther Jauch and Hans Maret, a former stakeholder in the Sal. -Oppenheim bank, have also taken an interest.

They’re part of the new wine generation in the Rhineland Palatinate, and they’re giving the area a new image. The motto is Saar instead of trendy Sylt, Riesling instead of Bordeaux.

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TV host Günther Jauch at his von Othegraven vineyard. Source: DPA

Mr. Jauch spends at least a few weeks per year at the von Othegraven vineyard, which he bought from a relative in 2010. When the estate was put up for sale, Mr. Jauch didn’t want it to leave the family’s possession. The von Othegraven family has a history of winemaking. They owned the estate since 1805 and have produced wines for Europe’s aristocracy.

Mr. Jauch hired experts to grow grapes and manage the business. He even pitches in himself when he has time.

Roman Niewodniczanski lives less than two kilometers from Cantzheim and Mr. Jauch’s estate. The Bitburger heir purchased a rundown estate in Wiltingen, not far from his native Eifel, in 2000. His goal was to turn van Volxem into one of Germany’s best areas for Riesling. At first, people didn’t believe the “rich heir” would be successful.

But Mr. Niewodniczanski’s efforts have paid off. The lifestyle magazine Falstaff named “Niewo,” as he is nicknamed on the Saar, the “vintner of 2012.” He doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels. Mr. Niewodniczanski’s new wine-production facility covers 6,800 square meters, or around 1.7 acres, and is scheduled to open in 2018.

Hans Maret, the former Sal. -Oppenheim stakeholder, bought property near Kanzem, close to Mr. Thoma’s Cantzheim estate. Like Mr. Thoma, Mr. Maret is 66 and originally from nearby Trier.

“I wanted to revive this winery that I’ve known since childhood,” says Mr. Maret, who purchased the Reverchon estate in 2007. Back then, the property was in ruins. Reviving the business and renovating the estate and vacation apartments cost a lot of money.

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Vineyards have populated the slopes of the Saar Valley for generations. Source: Weingut Van Volxem

But Mr. Maret, who is still in the management of the venture capital company Triton, wanted to create something that would last. Now, he brings guests through his garden at events to show them where they can hold parties and barbecue at the foot of the vineyard.

Mr. Maret has already come far. His champagne is served at the German president’s Bellevue Palace in Berlin.

Mr. Thoma’s daughter, the oenologist Anna Reimann who runs Cantzheim’s vineyard, says the Saar vintners are eager to help each other. Vintners and investors know they need each other to make the Saar and its wines a strong brand.

Ms. Reimann says she wants to present her competitors’ wines at events in her own vineyard. One local estate owner even sent his overnight guests to stay at neighboring estates when he planned a large wine-tasting.

Ms. Reimann and Mr. Niewodniczanski are trained vintners. Mr. Jauch and Mr. Maret are not — but they employ them. Selling wine isn’t their main profession, but they take it seriously and care about the products. Even though they don’t depend on wine to provide their livelihood, they do expect to make a profit at some point.

This quality ultimately unites the Saar vintners — they all want to succeed.

Another Saar vintner, Egon Müller, has repeatedly demonstrated how to make money with good wine. His estate is also located on the legendary Scharzhofberg in Wiltingen, which is worshiped by wine aficionados. The most expensive white wine in the world is cultivated there — a few years ago, a single bottle was auctioned off for €12,000, or around $14,000.

Diana Fröhlich writes for Handelsblatt’s Reports and Names section. To contact the author:

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