Schloss Johannisberg and the story of Riesling

Three hundred years ago this year, a far-sighted noble decided to plant a vineyard with just one grape – Riesling. It was a decision that changed wine history. Ilka Lindemann has the story.

Stefan Doktor, Schloss Johannisberg/Andreas Durst
Stefan Doktor, Schloss Johannisberg/Andreas Durst

Many stories circulate about Schloss Johannisberg, the birthplace of Riesling, but none are more intriguing than the one about the Spätlese rider, whose statue stands in the courtyard. It’s one of the most photographed cultural objects in the Rheingau, the castle-studded region on the northern side of the Rhine. 

The Schloss once belonged to the Abbey of Fulda and the statue celebrates the messenger who took ripe grapes from the 1775 harvest to the abbot, to seek his permission to start the harvest. But he did not return for several weeks – a delay that changed wine history.

The day that Weinwelt visits is grey and the wind blows uncomfortably down the neck, but the well-kept grounds and deep yellow buildings are impressive. Schloss Johannisberg has retained its grandeur, and the Spätlese rider is just one of its many historic sites – all of which played an outsize role in German wine history. It’s no wonder that so many wine lovers come on pilgrimage here.

Riesling pilgrimage

“Normally about 150,000 visitors come to us every year,” said winery manager Stefan Doktor. The Rheingau Music Festival alone attracts visitors from all over the world to the inner courtyard every year. But in this anniversary year, of all years, Covid-19 is putting a spanner in the works. The 300th Riesling anniversary was to be celebrated with many events: exclusive tastings with wines from the treasury, concerts, live events, open-air cinema and much more were on the agenda. Luckily, some events had already taken place, such as a tasting of Rieslings from three centuries. 

But now, Doktor and the team of Schloss Johannisberg – like everyone else – are going about their business using online seminars, digital tastings, video streams and webinars. “Tonight we are doing the first international tasting in English,” said Doktor, who originally comes from Slovakia and is multilingual. Besides Slovakian, he speaks German, English, a little Russian and Italian – top qualifications for someone who represents an international company as Schloss Johannisberg is today. 

Honouring tradition is also one of his key tasks. He began in 2008 as an employee in the wine sales department, and then became more and more involved in the export business. Since 2016 he has been the winery manager, and the face of the company. He runs it together with Marcel Szopa, who is responsible for the production. Sales, marketing and winemaking are also part of their working lives. “When we started, we first of all put each individual section up for discussion, took it apart, questioned it, partly improved it and put it back together again,” said Doktor. 

A lot is also being invested in restoration: the building’s front façade has just been renovated and the lower half of the buildings painted, while there is also a new basement. There is a lot of history to preserve, as the first documented mention of Schloss Johannisberg dates back to 817, when Emperor Ludwig the Pious acquired vineyards from the Abbey of Fulda. In 1100 a Benedictine monastery was founded on the then Bischofsberg; the Bischofsberg was renamed Johannisberg in 1130 when the Romanesque monastery church was consecrated to St John the Baptist. 

The estate swapped hands many times because of economic and political tumult and finally became neglected. The turnaround came when Prince Abbot Constantine of Buttlar acquired the monastery ruins for the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda in June 1716 and decided to create a summer palace. He had the dilapidated buildings demolished and built a three-winged castle complex on their foundation walls. When, in 1720, the entire vineyard was planted with Riesling at his behest, he made history. At the time, vineyards were planted with mixed vines, often with Orleans and Muscat vines. Von Buttlar bought 38,5000 Riesling vines, as an original invoice shows, and planted about 81 acres (in today’s units). The end result is that Von Buttlar created the first ever contiguous Riesling vineyard. 

“This planting of Riesling vines on a large scale was the first step towards quality viticulture,” explained Doktor, adding that this break with tradition was “a viticultural experiment on a grand scale. His courage and determination continue to motivate all of us at Schloss Johannisberg to this day.” To this day, Schloss Johannisberg is synonymous with Riesling.

And then in 1775 came another ground-breaking event. Every year, a Johannisberg courier had to get the permission of the Prince Abbots of Fulda to start the harvest. In 1775, the courier was late in returning (one legend has it that the Prince-Bishop had been held up by highwaymen, and so wasn’t available to sign the cellar papers). The grapes on the vine grew ripe and then began to shrivel. The cellar master finally gave the order to harvest the grapes – and the first late harvest Riesling was born, along with new insights into the ripening possibilities of Riesling.

Dramatic history

Over the centuries, Schloss Johannisberg passed through many hands. For example, when Napoleon was lord of the region, he gave Johannisberg to his Marshal Kellermann. It was placed under the central administration of Prussia, Russia and Austria, which in turn gave it to Franz I of Austria at the Congress of Vienna. In 1816 it was placed in the custody of the Austrian Emperor’s Chancellor of State, Prince Clemens von Metternich, as a reward for his services.

During World War II, unfortunately, more than 300 bombs fell on and around Schloss Johannisberg. Princess Tatiana von Metternich and her husband Prince Paul Alfons von Metternich-Winneburg fled to the castle ahead of the Russian invasion, travelling in a farm cart, only to find that Schloss Johannisberg was a shell. After the war, she rebuilt the greater part of the castle. Although she lived there until her death in 2006, Schloss Johannisberg was sold to the Oetker Group in 1974. Today, it is a part of Henkell Freixenet, the wine and spirits arm of the Group.

The wines today

The highlight of any visit to Schloss Johannisberg is definitely a tour of the cellar. With every step through the underground abbey cellar, which is over 900 years old, visitors get a taste of wine history. The wood for the wine barrels comes from the castle’s own forests, and in the Bibliotheca Subterranea – the treasure trove of the winery – there are not only about 25,000 bottles of Riesling, but also a treasure trove of knowledge from hundreds of years of winemaking; the oldest Riesling dates back to 1748.
In the middle of the wine archive stands something new, still waiting for its moment to emerge. This is where the future Riesling Goldlack, to be launched this year, matures. As a reserve wine it rounds off the dry trio of Bronzelack and Silberlack. “The noble sweetness is our reputation,” explains Mr Doktor, “but the wines are hardly ever drunk. That’s why we focus more on the dry wines.” Declared as a VDP.Großes Gewächs, the Silberlack was produced for the first time in 2005. In 2016, the Bronzelack followed, the little brother so to speak, and now – in the anniversary year – the Goldlack. Stefan Doktor wants this wine to set a new standard for dry wine.  “There are collectors and there are connoisseurs,” he says. “One should make wines for both, but for connoisseurs we need wines that can be drunk immediately.”

Until the introduction of the dry ensemble, the two residual sweet Rieslings Rotlack and Grünlack (Kabinett and Spätlese) were regarded as figureheads of the winery, in addition to the noble sweet specialities. The fact that the wines of Schloss Johannisberg are to be found on the world’s most important wine lists is also thanks to Gerd Ritter, who has been responsible for wine production for over 20 years. His realm is the cellar and he is happy that it has recently been expanded, with new state-of-the-art technology for grape processing added. The new cellar building was put into operation in time for the 2018 harvest. For many years, wood and stainless steel have been used in the winemaking process; for example, 80 percent of the Gelblack is matured in stainless steel. 

That the wines produced here are treasures can be shown by the recent result at the prestigious annual wine auction in Eberbach Monastery – a 100-year-old wines from Schloss Johannisberg sold for the record price of €18,000.

It’s an outcome that the Spätlese rider could not have imagined. But it’s a testament to the vision of Von Buttlar, who planted his Riesling vineyard three hundred years ago this year.

Ilka Lindemann

A version of this article first appeared in Weinwelt, Issue 5, 2020. Ilka Lindemann is Weinwelt’s editor-in-chief, and the magazine is published by Meininger Verlag

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