The organic pioneers among Rheinhessen wine makers
The wine estate Brühler Hof, run by the Müller family, is a Rheinhessen wine institution. In 1989, when Hans-Peter Müller introduced organic production methods other wine makers didn’t even think about organic wine growing, not even in their wildest dreams. But not here. Organic growing is the family’s top priority. You can see this in the vineyard where no chemicals are used and everything is done by hand. Herbs are planted in the middle of the vines to deter insects, for the same purpose pheromones are used instead of chemical aids.
But also the production process is organized in accordance with ecological and sustainable standards. Solar power is used as the main energy generator and many other energy recycling measures are taken.
Big emphasis on working and learning from one another
The Brühler Hof also praises itself as the first „Mitmach-Weingut“ (Join-In-Wine Estate) Germany’s. Volunteers from around the world help out throughout the year and get an insight into wine growing and the running of the estate. So do two young people, who participate in the Voluntary Ecological Year programme. They live and work at the Brühler Hof and become invaluable assets to the business. The Müllers also have two apprentices whom they teach to become wine makers. Not to mention numerous school excursions visiting the Brühler Hof to learn about wine and nature. All in all, I must say that I am highly impressed with the family’s social and ecological commitment. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to learn about wine!
But enough of this. Let’s turn to the people who make Brühler Hof and its wines. I want to introduce Sebastian Müller to you. Sebastian is 29 and together with his father Hans-Peter runs the wine estate. It was a pleasure working with Sebastian in the vineyard and learning directly from him. While I wait for him in the backyard of the wine estate, the telephone is ringing and ringing and ringing. The wines of Brühler Hof are in great demand with orders and customers coming in regularly. And here comes Sebastian, let’s start being nosy!
Me: Thank you very much, Sebastian, for taking your time to answer my question. I appreciate it. So tell me straight away, how and why did you become a wine maker?
Sebastian: The wine estate has been in the family for decades. I am the third generation wine grower. But it wasn’t clear from the start that I would work as a wine maker. When I finished school at the age of fifteen, I thought something creative would be good for me, so I did an intern-ship with a photographer from our village. It turned out, it wasn’t for me. I missed being outside, I missed nature and being surrounded by my family. So I learned wine growing as an apprentice for three years and after that I worked at my family’s wine estate for another five years. These years taught me one main thing: wine making is a lot of hard work!
As a biological wine grower, one is always dependent on nature. As much as I love it, it also makes our work hard and unpredictable. Every year is different, therefore we have to make new decisions each year. I was a little afraid of these uncertainties and also my father and I did not always agree on what is best. But these years also taught me that I really want to be a wine maker. So I took a two years course to become a wine technician and in 2008 my father and I became partners of the estate. It was important for my father to give me as much responsibility as possible from the beginning.
Me: What do you love about your work?
Sebastian: It’s quite simple – wine tastes great and is a lot of fun. I love my work. I love being my own boss and thus be responsible for every single step in the wine making process. I love to be surrounded by nature but also do work in the office. It’s very versatile.
Me: What makes the Brühler Hof unique and what makes it different from other wine estates in the region?
Sebastian: Organic wine growing has been very important to us since the 1980s. We also abandoned all animal products, like gelatine and isinglass to clear the wine at the end of the 1990s. We bought barriques when hardly anyone had barriques in our region. Fermenting the wine in the barrique makes it cleaner and rounder and that way we don’t need the gelatine, for example. Our wine pressing is so gentle, even bugs like the lady beetle survive it!
We are proud of our workers and helpers. We call ourselves Germany’s first Join-In-Wine estate. We have helpers from WWOOF with us, pupils from local schools, apprentices and people doing their ecological year with us. That way, we are able to teach young people about nature but also get help so that we can harvest completely without the use of machines. It is a challenge to organize all the volunteers but also very rewarding. Harvesting by hand is very important for the quality of our wines. Right away, I can separate the ill from the healthy grapes.
Me: For you, what makes a wine a good wine?
Sebastian: A wine is good if you like drinking it. It’s as simple as that. Of course, for me the organic aspect is very important and the overall good quality of the production process.
Me: Which of your wines is your favourite wine?
Sebastian: It’s hard to say, I really like all of our wines. But if I had to pick one, it would be the sweet Saphira late harvest wine. In this wine the Saphira grape shows that it is related to the Riesling. It is multi talented. It can can do simple dry wines, complex wines and sweet wines as well. It ripens a little later than most varieties but still has got enough acidity. For me, the Saphira exhibits a perfect harmony of sweetness and acidity.
Me: What makes Rheinhessen unique? And what makes Rheinhessen wine special?
Sebastian: I love it’s softly rolling hills. I feel at home among rolling wine hills. Rheinhessen is home to me. When it comes to the wines, Rheinhessen is known for its wine diversity. Even a small wine estate produces a substantial number of wines, let’s say ten, from different varieties. On the one hand this diversity might not be so good for establishing a brand, but on the other hand it’s nice to have such diversity and variety. If you’re a winegrower in the Rheingau region, you have mostly Riesling. Therefore, you have great Riesling Know-how and you can literally play with the Rieslings, you can make different styles out of one variety. In Rheinhessen, we have many different varieties. We don’t have to produce different styles of wine out of one grape. We can take a grape variety that is more suitable for a specific style. If for example I want to produce a wine with a full and broad body, I take the Chardonnay grape from the start since this grape is more inclined to show this characteristic.
When it comes to terroir, we aren’t terroir fetishists. We took part in a number of terroir projects over the years and I can say that sometimes the terroir influence was detectable, sometimes it wasn’t. However, the ground definitely influences the well-being of the wine – like water and nutrients supply. Our soils are rich soils, therefore we produce rich wines. When people speak about minerality in a wine it is rather the lack of minerals. Because the more minerals are in the soil the broader and heavier the wine is.
Me: Which wine place on the globe would you like to visit?
Sebastian: There is not one specific place I would like to visit. We had some volunteers working with us who now run wine estates themselves. One estate is in the Jura region of France and the other in Croatia. I would like to visit these friends one day and see how they are doing. In September, we will have a volunteer from Canada who studies oenology. This will be exciting as well. With all the volunteers from around the world, it feels like the world is coming to me.
Me: What is going to happen in the future at Brühler Hof? What are your plans?
Sebastian: It is difficult to establish something new in a business that is as established and successful as ours. In the last years, younger wine growers here in Rheinhessen took over their family’s wine businesses and started organic wine growing and sustainable and ecological production methods. In their cases, breaking off from their family’s tradition made sense. In my case, establishing something new doesn’t make much sense. My father has been forward thinking since the 1980s. He established organic wine growing back then, when hardly anyone in our region heard of the word. And since then we have been improving our methods and machines in accordance to ecological and organic standards.
My dream is to make an ice wine out of the Saphira grape. I tried last year but the weather conditions weren’t ideal. I might try again this year. I also want to reduce our involvement in wine festivities and increase our cooperation with wine dealers. Travelling around can be tiring and the outcome is too dependent on the weather. I want more events here in Volxheim, wine in combination with food, sensory experience for wine lovers and other wine events. But all in all, most things can stay as they are.
I thank Sebastian for the interview and think to myself that I have been very lucky to meet such a dedicated wine making family. I am particularly impressed with their engagement in the ECOVIN organisation. ECOVIN is a Dachverband for all organic wine growers in Germany. It’s aim is not only to network and give advice on organic wine growing but also lobbying. Sebastian calls ECOVIN the „voice of organic wine growers“ in Germany since it is also heard when it comes to new regulations. With the EU coming up with new policies an organization such as ECOVIN becomes more and more important.
Once again, thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me.
Interview: Agnes Honka