Sunday 1 June 2014

What’s Old is New Again – The Wines of Van Volxem

The most memorable moment of Roman Niewodniczanski’s talk came when he flashed a picture of a room of people at a wine auction in Germany. The photo was taken just before World War II and depicted a group of middle-aged Jewish men, a gathering of the movers and shakers in the wine trade. This was possibly the last photo of many of them, as a few months later the Nazis would roll in with their tanks.

What does this have to do with German wine? According to Roman, owner of the Van Volxem winery, the backbone of the German wine trade lay with the Jewish community. Their demise led to the decline of German wine, and in an effort to make their wines more appealing to the masses, producers started to increase the sugar content in their wines, which until then were bone dry. Although sweet German wines can be absolutely thrilling, there are far too many cheap, sugary examples that still flood the supermarkets.

Roman has a vast resource of historical material to draw upon. His father was Tomasz Niewodniczanski, a collector of rare maps and manuscripts. This archive would be invaluable when a young Roman decided to pursue the path of a winemaker. Poring through old viticultural maps, he discerned the top vineyards from pre-war days and made it his goal to obtain them. It helped that his family had considerable wealth – his family has a stake in the German brewery Bitburger, but Roman says that timing was also important. Over a decade ago when he bought the Van Volxem winery, land was still relatively affordable. A deal that would be impossible to replicate today.

Van Volxem is located in the Saar Valley, in the village of Wiltingen. The vineyards, bearing distinguished names such as Braunfels, Klosterberg and Scharzhofberger, are planted with Riesling and a tiny proportion of Pinot Blanc. On a previous visit to Germany, I marvelled at the steepness of the vineyards, which require great dexterity and footballer calves to navigate. Roman says that “when you climb the vineyards, you can eat a lot, drink a lot, and stay in good shape”. The average age of the vines is approximately 40-years old, with the top growth Wiltinger Gottesfuss possessing a rare cache of 130-year old ungrafted vines.

These are some stunning wines; much like the owner they are sharp, precise and energetic. In winemaking, it’s what you don’t do that takes hard work. No fining, filtration, or herbicides, using spontaneous fermentation instead of cultured yeast, lower yields, and hand harvesting instead of using machines. Wine critics have lavished praise on the wines, but Roman himself has doubts about the wine rating system, commenting that they simplify the wines too much and place undue pressure on the producer. His own articulation of how great Riesling should be takes cues from Burgundy (of which Roman is a great fan and collector), and the dry style of wines that existed in pre-war Germany. In trying to raise the reputation of Saar wines back to where they were a hundred years ago, it seems that history has found a champion.

Tasting notes:

Van Volxem Saar Riesling 2011 – Light and crystalline with riveting freshness and notes of white pepper, lime and rain-kissed leaves. A long finish – I was surprised to detect a hint of macadamia nut, perhaps due to lees contact?

Van Volxem Alte Reben Riesling 2012 – From old vines of 50 to 100 years age. Slight spritz. Smoke with pineapple, nectarine and white peach aromas. Lots of extract on the palate, marvellous complexity with each sip revealing new flavours.

Van Volxem Scharzhofberger Riesling 2009 – Lemon, honey and straw on the nose, almost like a great Burgundy before the Riesling character reasserts itself. Medium weight, a lot more texture than other Mosel Rieslings. Delicious nonetheless.

Wein & Vin is the Singapore distributor for Van Volxem. For a complete list of available Van Volxem wines and prices, email