Keller, Silvaner "Feuervogel", 2009

Keller, Silvaner "Feuervogel", 2009

The Keller winery in Rheinhessen is among Germany's finest, no doubt. Keller regularly receive high praise from wine critics and their wines command impressive prices. Recently, a double magnum of what some consider the top wine in the Keller range, the Riesling G-Max, fetched €3,998.40 at an auction, making it Germany's most expensive young dry wine. Now, can you imagine that the German authorities would even consider not allowing winemaker Klaus-Peter Keller to release one of his wines to the market? And yet this is what happened to the Silvaner I am introducing today.

Feuervogel gold capsule
Feuervogel gold capsule

What could have happened, you may wonder? Was the wine contaminated, a health risk perhaps? No. The authorities objected to the 'Feuervogel' arguing the wine was not typical for the region - and hence not worthy of being approved for sale.

You will only be able to understand this by struggling with the concept of 'AP-Nummer'. The methodical Germans give each 'quality wine' a unique identification number, assigned by a regional inspection authority. 'Quality wine' ('Qualitätswein'), mind you, is by far not the highest quality level of German wine, it is just one above the basic country wine.
If you want to designate your wine as Qualitätswein or above, you have to send it to a regional authority - who have no problem allowing rubbish wine onto the market (providing the wine passes a basic sensory/taste test), but if you don't conform to what they consider to be typical for the region... This has led to a situation where some well respected German winemakers have given up on the system and label even their top range as basic wine.

The labelling for the 'Feuervogel' is a different animal altogether. Despite eventually been given the official seal of approval and an AP-Nummer (who did Kellers have to bribe, I wonder), the Keller wine neither prominently features vineyard nor quality designation, as would be usual for a German wine. instead it bears the name of a ballet by Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird.

not your typical German label
not your typical German label

Silvaner is one of the Wine Rambler's favourite grape varieties and we hope that it will one day internationally be seen as Germany's second signature white variety. A few particularly old Silvaner vines (about 70 years) live in Keller's vineyards, and grapes from those went into the Feuervogel, a wine matured in the traditional, large wooden barrels.

The bouquet of the Feuervogel is one of character and precision. It smells like a winter stream on a bed of flint stone with spicy herbs growing on its snowy banks would smell immediately after you have bitten into juicy fruit. You get citrus and lime, herbs, gooseberry and flowery notes, but most importantly loads of mineral (starting out flinty, then turning more smoky). Impressive.

On the tongue the Firebird starts with yeast, very fresh and young, almost like a beer with lots of small bubbles; the yeast does indeed at first give it a little beer taste. After a short while the Silvaner opens up to reveal a complex and multi-layered wine, a powerful, gripping mineral beast. There is mineral everywhere, almost giving you the feel you drink finely ground stones dissolved in juicy spring water. Striking a good balance between creamy and lively, the Silvaner never looses its elegance and ends in a very long finish that shows a great interplay between fruit and mineral.

The wine merchant who sold this to me compares it favourably to white Burgundy. I think this is a great wine in its own right. In a way it is quite fitting that it was not given its bureaucratic seal of conformity at first, because it does not conform. I would like to see more radical interpretations of Silvaner like this.


Submitted by Vimpressionniste Sunday, 16/01/2011

Interesting.. this often happens in France too, where the more "eccentric" producers are not given the AOC status because their wines are different from the accepted norm.

In the case of France however, the AOC is not a system which is meant to guarantee quality, but a certain style of wine. That's why I don't find it as shocking as when the German bureaucracy refuses to recognize Keller's Silvaner as a "quality wine".

In any case, Keller is already well-known and respected, so he probably doesn't rely on the AP number to sell his wine anyway (and at a high price I imagine).

Submitted by torsten Monday, 17/01/2011

In reply to by Vimpressionniste

Thank you for your comment, Didier. Even though it is bureaucratic, I quite like the AP-Nummer system in German, at least insofar as that it gives a unique identifier for each wine. With the variety of different vineyards and different wine styles some winemakers have (just think Markus Molitor) it can sometimes be very useful.

Theoretically, the wine bureaucracy is only meant to withhold an AP-Nummer if there is a fault in the wine. What a 'fault' is though, well there seem to be different opinions. Following my Tweet about this Ramble here, a helpful Twitter user passed on a link to an interesting article on a similar story. Salwey, one of the Wine Rambler favourites, still have not managed to receive an AP-Nummer for one of their Grand Cru Pinot Gris from the 2008 vintage. The wine was turned down twice as 'faulty' - because Salwey used cold maceration and basically vinifed the Pinot Gris as if it were a red wine. Apparently, he is now planning resubmit the wine again in a year or two... The article makes an interesting read, it is in German though. It also points out that in the 1980s barrique wines were often labelled as faulty, whereas the commissions in the 1990s took some time to come to term with spontaneous fermentation.

Either way, Keller got his AP-Nummer and I have tasted an unusual but most importantly great wine. You are certainly right that Keller is way beyond the need to have his wines approved by any commission. What happens in France when a producer turns out a good wine that does not fit into the AOC style? Or does that just not happen?

Submitted by Vimpressionniste Tuesday, 18/01/2011

In reply to by torsten

I'm quite curious about the usefulness of AP numbers to consumers. In what situations would one refer to this? Is there a public database available somewhere which catalogs the wines?

As for the French AOC, wines which fail the tasting approval are usually sold as Vin de Table, and until recently, they didn't even have the right to mention a vintage or grape variety on the label. A lot of the natural wine makers encounter this issue it seems.

And while it makes sense to say that an oaked wine does not fit the style of a region, I find it a bit unfair to call it a fault!

PS: I'm a big fan of skin maceration on whites (particularly Gravner's Friuli masterpieces) and Grauburgunder, and I've got to find a bottle of this Salwey!

Submitted by Dot Sunday, 16/01/2011

I don't know enough to know what "lots of minerals" tastes like in a wine, but this sounds lovely!

Submitted by torsten Monday, 17/01/2011

In reply to by Dot

...can be a little difficult to come to terms with. It comes in many forms, but is usually very delightful. Some wines almost have a salty component that enhances the flavour or acts as a balance to sweetness. There is salty minerality that reminds me of speck, sometimes you get bacon; or there is a more flint stone or dusty minerality. Recently I had a few sweeter wines that had strong mineral in the finish, which very nicely balanced the sweetness.

In the end though, you will have to experience it. When you next visit these parts of the world, I will make sure to have a mineral Riesling beast waiting for you.

Submitted by olaf Sunday, 08/09/2013

I recently bought a mixed case of German GG on an auction and two bottles of Sylvaner Keller 2010 came along so thanks for the article Torsten, now at least I know what I have..... and it looks promising.

Submitted by torsten Sunday, 08/09/2013

In reply to by olaf

Great to hear from you, Olaf! It sounds you have brought home some treasure - enjoy the GG and the Keller - I feel a little envy...

Submitted by Olaf Sunday, 08/09/2013

In reply to by torsten

You are always welcome for a glass (or bottle!) in Brussels.