A Winemaker in Two Worlds | Baden, Germany | Wairarapa, New Zealand / by Patrick Johner

Translated from the original "Winzer in Zwei Welten," by Patrick Johner, which was published in Wein Tourist Magazine, April Edition.  

Johner-Weingut Vineyards

Johner-Weingut Vineyards

Without question, German winegrowers are a very locally oriented group. Of course, inspiration is drawn from around the world, but the vineyards are typically not more than an hour away from the winery. Few would risk relying on vines from the distant reaches of their wine region and certainly not from across national borders. Unique among these winemakers is the Johner family from the tranquil village of Bischoffingen am Kaiserstuhl in Baden. The straight-line distance between their vineyards seems to pay homage to Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. The direct route between the distant landholdings is around 12,700 km (7900 miles), which is directly on the other side of the globe.


In addition to their winery in the Kaiserstuhl, the Johners operate a second winery in Wairarapa. For those of you unfamiliar with Wairarapa, we are talking about New Zealand at the southern tip of the North Island. Many wine lovers will know this as the Martinborough region. Patrick Johner, the junior partner of the two wineries “Karl H. Johner” in Bischoffingen and "Johner Estate" in Masterton, New Zealand, tells us how this all transpired. He also explains what it means to make wine in two worlds—the "old world" and the "new world."

Baden—The New Burgundy

The Kaiserstuhl, located in the wine region of Baden, is a small mountain range of volcanic origin. The area receives the most sun and has the warmest climate of any German wine region. Its perfect climatic conditions owe a great deal to the Kaiserstuhl and its location between the Vosges and the Rhine valley. The terrace steps climbing up to the former volcanic cone dominate the picturesque landscape.  It is on those terraces that you will find the wonderful, old vines growing in weathered volcanic soils. This is what gives the wines their strength and expression.

In the Kaiserstuhl, until about thirty years ago, you would find mainly sweet white and simple red table wines. Outside of Germany, the wines were insignificant and hardly known. Since the region lies roughly at the same latitude as Burgundy, the question arose, why is it not possible to produce wines according the Burgundian model. Karlheinz Johner began pondering this question in 1985, when he founded his small Kaiserstuhl vineyard in Bischoffingen. He began making his wines in what were considered, in those days, innovative ways. Reds were produced using mash fermentation and then aged in oak barrels.  White wines were also aged in barrels.  Unfortunately, because the current quality standards were not then in place, they could only be classified as German “table wines.”

These Burgundian wines “made in Germany,” however, increasingly drew the attention of sommeliers and wine merchants from all over the country. The prices for wines from Burgundy had risen so high that the new Pinot Noir from Germany was a welcome alternative. Meanwhile, other wineries began to employ the same production methods.

The Beautiful Vines in New Zealand

The Beautiful Vines in New Zealand

Baden and the Rest of the World

Along with the sommeliers and wine merchants came journalists and photographers. It was no longer just about the wines, but specifically Pinot Noir from the Kaiserstuhl. Pinot Noir is a grape variety that thrives particularly well in the cooler wine-growing zones. High temperatures in the fall can cook the fruit. There are few areas where this varietal is so elegantly expressed. Inquiries were made into other parts of the world that might provide similar conditions for these varietals. New World locations such as Oregon, Australia and New Zealand are included among the ideal geographic zones.

In 1998, inspired by descriptions of these other regions, the senior Johner and his son Patrick went on a world tour of Pinot Noir. They originally had the idea, together with a fellow student who accompanied them, to build a second winery in Oregon. After returning home they revised their plan, because Oregon land prices were prohibitively expensive. In addition, the Pacific Northwest, like Germany, included the risk of bad weather and Botrytis. A more important consideration was that crops would grow and ripen simultaneously in both regions, which would make the distant vineyards difficult to manage.

Located in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand’s growing season is exactly opposite that of the northern hemisphere. So harvest takes place in March and April. The decision was made to plant vines and produce wine in New Zealand. It took two tries. For a variety of reasons, the first attempt with a partner was unsuccessful. So in 2001 a second operation was established near a small town, where sheep and cattle grazed along the river.

There were still some challenges to overcome. The property needed a partial redesign and an irrigation system was installed to help mitigate periods of drought. Other issues include the extremely ravenous birds, so netting of the grapes was required. Extreme winds demanded stronger pilings to stabilize the vineyard rows. Finally, wind machines were purchased as protection against late frosts. In the end, construction of the vineyard cost at least twice as much as a similar planting in Germany.

The original plan was also to rely unconditionally on organic viticulture. The climate in New Zealand seemed ideal. Unfortunately, heavy rain in 2005 brought the plan to an abrupt halt. By harvest time the ripe, perfectly thinned Pinot Noir grapes were covered with Botrytis and completely ruined. To avoid this financial risk, it is necessary to employ a fungicide in critically damp years. Otherwise, the most ecologically sound methods are adhered to and spraying of the vines is strictly limited.

Johner Family

Johner Family

The Wines—The Same Signature in Different Settings

In addition to the Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc is a signature New Zealand varietal. The vines benefit from the cool nights of the ripening period. This delays maturation and helps emphasize the flavor characteristics of the grapes. The Wairarapa region is slightly warmer than right across the bay in the Marlborough region of the South Island. The Sauvignon Blanc from Johner is therefore characterized by more mature flavors that in some years enhance the tropical fruit aromas. In New Zealand it is also possible to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which will fully ripen almost every year. Back in Germany on the Kaiserstuhl, autumn weather is typically too unstable for these varietals. Rain and fog can frequently prevent the necessary maturation.

Aside from the climate, the wines are of course strongly influenced by the soil. On the Kaiserstuhl it is possible to achieve wonderful flavor profiles. In particular, when comparing the wines from loam soils with those from the volcanic embossed areas. The vines in loam soils have a better water supply and suffer less stress. The resulting wines are fruitier and have a more straightforward taste. Wines from weathered volcanic soils, are more likely to have more subtle fruit notes, with more complexity and spice on the palate.

In Wairarapa the soil is comprised of the remnants of ancient riverbeds that is made up of large pebbles. There is a high iron content that characterizes the wines with a very distinct spiciness. Together with vineyard manager Raphael Burki, a second vineyard was planted in the nearby mountains in calcareous soil. This offers a second flavor profile that opens additional winemaking possibilities for the Johner family.

Despite major challenges the two wineries offer great opportunities to gain experience and implement quality improvements more quickly. New innovations include an optical sorting machine for the Kaiserstühler operation, which will increase the yield of perfect and mature individual berries. This will have important consequences on wine quality. To date, the New Zealand holding has reached 20 hectares under vine and Bischoffingen am Kaiserstuhl has another 17 hectares. A visit to Bischoffingen offers a unique opportunity to taste and compare the wines of two worlds. The wines each bear the same signature, but highlight the differences in terroir. The Johner’s operation is one step ahead in many respects. Despite the fact that a vintage is being harvested during autumn in Germany, Johner wines of the same vintage are already available in the tasting room. Those wines, however, are from the other side of the world.

www.johner.de / www.johner-estate.com

Background on Kaiserstuhl

“The Kaiserstuhl is the most famous area in the wine region of Baden. The small volcanic mountain rises above the Black Forest on the Upper Rhine Plain and has the warmest climate in Germany. About one quarter of all Baden wines are grown here in 4163 hectares of vineyard. Pinots, in particular, find ideal conditions in this subregion.” (Badischer Weinbauverband e.V.)

Background on Wairarapa

“The North Island’s most exciting area for Pinot Noir, and the first in New Zealand to establish a reputation for it, is Wairarapa. Martinsborough’s autumns are the North Island’s most reliably dry, giving Wairarapa’s 60-plus wineries the chance to make some of the most vivid and Burgundian Pinot Noir, the region’s dominant vine.” (H. Johnson, J. Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine)