Even sensible people shy away from dentists. I have never quite understood this, after all the pain will only get worse if you don't go, but it is a fact of life I have learned to accept. So I am aware that my next sentence risks damaging the reputation of a respected German winemaker, but the truth has to come out: Georg Rumpf wanted nothing more than to become a dentist. I wasn't aware of this when I visited the Kruger-Rumpf winery last October, but it provided an important piece of the puzzle for understanding the role of family in winemaking as part of my investigation into death, dreams and destiny.
Luckily, neither death nor dentists will feature in the following story, but lots of good Riesling, great food and a little something on the philosophy of winemaking. It won't hurt a bit. Promise!
The Nahe river has a long history of winemaking. As usual, it was the Romans who are credited with starting it, and wine has been around ever since. It is still predominantly a white wine region, but red wine now makes up about a quarter of the production. Close to the north-eastern border of the land of Riesling, Müller-Thurgau and Pinot Blanc lies the village of Münster-Sarmsheim, home to the Kruger Rumpf winery. Its history goes back to the late 1700s, but in more recent history 1984 can be seen as the pivotal year - it was the year when Stefan Rumpf, following a period of studying winemaking in Germany and the USA, took over the estate.
Stefan decided to steer away from the established practice of selling wine in bulk to other wineries and instead to bottle and sell directly. Within just a few years he built up a good reputation and in 1992 was invited to join the prestigious winemakers association VDP. And now we come to the part with the dentist.
Since first getting interested in German wine I was impressed by how many estates have been in the same family for centuries. How must it feel being born into a family with the explicit or implicit expectation that you will continue the tradition of generations before you? Is it a privilege or a burden? I always suspected it may be a bit of both, and so whenever I meet families with a long winemaking tradition I ask the latest generation how they feel about it. During last year's trip to vineyards in and around Rheinhessen I learned how important a strong sense of family is in all of this and how that can push children away as well as make them want to come back and stay.
In the case of Georg, Stefan Rumpf's son, I did not even have to ask. Without being prompted he spoke quite a while on what family meant to him, the relationship with his father, the difficulties and benefits of running a family business and how he got into it. Georg's dream, as we have established, was to become a dentist. And it may even have come to that (though I have a suspicion the risk was never that great actually), had Stefan not had an accident. So his son stood in for him - and realised that making wine is what he actually wanted to do.
Together father and son now work about 20ha of vineyards: Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay (which Stefan pioneered in this part of the Nahe) and a range of other varieties including Dornfelder, Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer. The Kruger-Rumpfs also make sparkling wine. And as all of this goes down much better with some food they also have a restaurant, run by Cornelia Rumpf.
Listening to Georg it became pretty clear that he is very aware of how attitudes and practices change with each generation, even in the same family. His father, he told us, was educated according to a school of thought that emphasised precision, cleanliness and control in winemaking - following the modernist belief that there is a right way of making wine with exact technique. Georg implied that this way of thinking was a reaction to how previous generations had made wine - and that his generation is now doing something else again, to set them apart from their parents. Georg is looking to go back to a more traditional style that keeps precise methods but leaves more room for the wine to develop with each vintage. This involves using natural yeasts, not always relying on stainless steel and on letting fermentation run its course.
While this brought us to the inevitable topic of organic and biodynamic winemaking I stood there and smiled, thinking of Thomas S. Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions as not linear but brought along by a paradigm shift. One of my academic teachers liked to summarise this by saying that a new generation of researchers want to find their own place, challenge old assumptions, a struggle ensues and eventually they win when the old generation dies away. Until it happens all over again. What struck me about Georg's tale is how he emphasised cooperation. Yes, there are some arguments about how to proceed, but even more importantly he feels the Rumpfs have established a fruitful dialogue that includes some of the best of both worlds. For example, when he had to deal with the difficult vintage 2010 Georg was very happy to be able to rely on his father who had learned how to handle high acidity vintages - other winemakers had to bring in external consultants or use trial and error methods.
The belief that "sometimes the best way is in the middle" between two positions also came up when we discussed organic winemaking. Stefan and Georg Rumpf's methods are "close to organic winemaking", but they don't take this as a doctrine. The focus is on making good wine and for Georg that does not seem to come with absolutes: "Right now", he told us, "I don't know what *the* best way is."
After that introduction and a tour of the cellar we moved to the restaurant - a friendly, cosy place that has German "Gemütlichkeit" without trying to be too folksy. The same could be said for the food that uses local produce in traditional recipes that have enough refinement to be interesting but not so much to become posh. Think a level of quality above a good countryside pub but keeping true to the roots of the food, if that makes any sense.
After that much talk about food, philosophy, generations and family I will now probably disappoint you by not saying very much about the wine. The reason is simple: I can genuinely say I liked all the wines of the 2010 vintage that were put in front of us. Take for instance the Weißburgunder S, a round and fresh Pinot Blanc with melon, herb spiced mirabelle plum and nut aromas and flavours. Or the entry level "Schiefer" (slate) Riesling, a lovely light wine with pleasant upfront fruit.
Even more herb aromas and citrus and vegetable notes were in the Münster Riesling QbA, which helped to nicely progress us further along the lines of the more substantial dry wines from the Pittersberg vineyard - including a GG (Grand Cru) Riesling that at 12.5% ABV was not too heavy, in fact felt more on the leaner side but pleased me with chalky, earthy and yeasty aromas and delicious sage. Another Riesling from the Dautenpflänzer vineyard was already more open and easier to enjoy at the time, but did not quite promise the complexity of the Pittersberg wine. We did not try any aged sweet Riesling, but the 2010 Rheinberg Kabinett was a very quaffable example of off-dry Riesling - and at 45g sugar/litre a more rich example of the Kabinett style.
Fresh, herbs and citrus are three key words to describe the Kruger-Rumpf wines, and if you know my tastes you won't be surprised I like them; and I also feel the pricing is fair.
Whether Georg Rumpf would have made a good dentist I cannot say. What I can say though is that while I have no problem going to the dentist I much rather set out to treat my teeth with the delicious mix of acidity and sugar that Georg now offers. And if I keep consuming these wines I may even give my dentist some extra work. It won't hurt. Promise!