Johannes Leitz: Germany’s “Winemaker of the Year” (and quite literally the guy next door)

Weingut Josef Leitz in Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany

Germany’s 2011 Winzer des Jahres won’t be found working in a majestic castle, nor some quaint farmhouse nestled among rolling vineyards and winding country roads. Like most of the nation’s winemakers, he resides in a modest multi-story home within a residential neighborhood that’s all of a stone’s throw away from the local drugstore, several discount supermarkets and a grammar school. His name is Johannes Leitz and he hails from the winemaking village of Rüdesheim am Rhein (just a 50 minute drive west of Frankfurt, along the Rhine River).

On a side note: this is what I love about most German wineries—they are so unassuming (and so easy to get to). Though a car may be necessary to reach some of the country’s smallest villages, most feature a train station from which all you have to do is literally walk down the street and before long you’re bound to see a row of houses on which several have the words “Weingut XYZ” written promptly across the exterior wall.

Weingut Josef Leitz is no exception (though do expect to walk up a fairly steep hill if you choose to come by train and foot). The day I visited the winery was literally two days after it was publically announced that Gault Millau’s Weinguide Deutschland (Wine Guide of Germany) had awarded it with the title “Winemaker of the Year” for its 2011 edition.  After hearing the news, my friends and I were unsure if we’d even be able to stop by. However, after calling all of 20 minutes in advance to let them know we were coming, an impromptu visit proved to be no problem at all.  

Gault Millau

Gault Millau originated in 1965 as a French restaurant guide founded by the critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau. It has since expanded to cover restaurants in other European countries (namely Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Benelux region), as well as regional wines. In Germany, the Gault Millau Weinguide Deutschland will not list all of the country’s wineries—just what it deems to be the best wineries. The 2011 edition includes reviews from 938 wineries, of which the crème de la crème are further distinguished with one or more grape symbols (only a handful of wineries ever achieve the highest ranking of “five grapes”).

In addition to offering reviews and rankings, the Gault Millau also distinguishes producers by annually granting the following titles:

  • Winemaker of the Year
  • Newcomer of the Year
  • Collection of the Year
  • Discovery of the Year

The guide also awards producers making exceptional wines within individual categories, such as “best Kabinett”, “best Spätlese”, “best sparkling wine”, “best Pinot Noir”, etc.  

Visiting the Winery

Upon arriving I was expecting balloons, cameras, a circus-like atmosphere… but on the contrary, things were surprisingly calm. We parked across the street since it was trash day and didn’t want to get in the way of the garbage bins. We then walked up the driveway and were greeted by a very friendly employee who escorted us to the tasting room. She said the day before was a lot crazier, so our timing must have been perfect.

LEITZ's tasting room

Our guide seated us in a very modern tasting room with full-length windows overlooking the backyard. We were handed the 2010 price list featuring only Riesling wines with the exception of a Pinot Noir Rosé. The list itself was divided into the following categories: Weine aus Hanglagen (wines from sloping vineyards); Weine aus Steillagen (wines from steep vineyards); Edelsüße Raritäten (noble sweet rarities); and Sekt (sparkling wine). As you can imagine, LEITZ puts a lot of emphasis on its terrain, particularly its individual vineyard sites.

Most of the wines we tried were from the 2009 vintage, of which several were marked as having been ausgetrunken or “already consumed” (usually you read the wine’s been ausverkauft or “sold out”, but in the case of LEITZ, these wines were “drunk out”). We weren’t able to try the noble sweet wines, but that didn’t matter since LEITZ is best known for its dry Rieslings, anyways.

As would be expected, the wines were quite young, though I would consider the entry-level EINS-ZWEI-DRY (a dry, fruity Riesling packaged for the export market) to be in the “drink now” stage. Otherwise, the single vineyard Rieslings we tried could definitely benefit from some more aging. However, to give a very general, overall consensus on these wines, I would consider them to be fruity first (mandarin was the key flavor we picked up on) followed by the zesty minerality German Rieslings are known for. Though young, these wines were flavorful, well-balanced and often with a long, refreshing finish.

At the end of the tasting, we also had the good fortune of meeting Eva Fricke, LEITZ’s Cellarmaster and Operations Manager. Eva is originally from Bremen in Northern Germany (in other words, not from a wine background), but decided to study winemaking at Germany’s Geisenheim university after having interned on a vineyard in South Africa. In addition to working for LEITZ, she has also been producing her own wines since the 2006 vintage.

Weingut Josef Leitz

The property today is run by Johannes Leitz (age 46), who took over the family business in 1985 and grew it from 2.9 hectares to its present size of 40 hectares. The winery has been in the Leitz family since 1744, though it was completely destroyed during the Second World War and later rebuilt by Johannes’s grandfather, Josef. It was briefly operated by his father, Antonius, who died early when Johannes was just 14 months old. His mother had to rely on income from her flower business to keep the winery afloat until Johannes was old enough to take over at the age of 21.

Here are a few more tidbits:

  • 2011 Gault Millau Winzer des Jahres (Winemaker of the Year)
  • 39.8 hectares (98 acres) located in Germany’s Rheingau region
  • 100% Riesling (that Pinot Noir Rosé I mentioned is produced from purchased grapes)
  • Produces 400,000 bottles/year or 31,000 9L cases
  • 90% of all production is exported (largely to the U.S., followed by Scandinavia, the U.K. and a little to Asia)
  • Hilly vineyard sites: Magdalenenkreuz, Bischofberg, Kirchenpfad, Klosterlay, Drachenstein
  • Steep vineyard sites: Berg Schlossberg, Berg Rottland, Berg Roseneck, Berg Kaisersteinfels
  • Soils: ranging from red and grey slate, to quartzite, loam and clay
  • Well-known LEITZ fans include Woody Allen and the King of Norway
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