"We began with grandpa’s tractor. In the cellar, we had no pump—just buckets.”
When you think of great German wines, your mind is likely to drift to the Rieslings born from the steep terraces of the Mosel, or the iconic eisweins of the Nahe.
But there’s an underdog: the wines of the Württemberg. This is green Germany; rolling hills and agricultural machinery abundant, this has traditionally been a region of mixed agriculture. As such, vines were almost never the focus point of a farm, rather an extra element on the side.
This was the case for Hannes Hoffman’s grandparents. But when it came to Hannes’ generation, there was a renewed love for viticulture in the air, and this coincided with another love: meeting his Greek partner, Οlympia Samara.
Without winemaker parents, and from a region without preconceived notions of what a Württemberg wine should be, the creative minds of Hannes & Olympia were unleashed. Their cellar became an art studio for uncovering Württemberg’s potential.
Meet Hannes & Olympia
Olympia was born in Thessaloniki. She had no family connection to Germany, but decided to come here when she was 17 for school. Little did she know that she’d one day call Germany home for good. She says,
“My father works in wine business - in exports. That’s where the connection to wine comes from, but he never pushed it on me as a career. Nevertheless, one day I thought, why not? I found out that Geisenheim is a great place to study wine, so off I went. I must say though, it was a culture shock for the first few years.”
Meanwhile, Hannes is from a long line of farmers:
“I grew up in this farm-kid environment. My grandparents were cattle farmers with some vines; the fruit from which they sold to the local cooperative. That was how everybody lived back then.”
His father was a teacher, so when his grandparents retired, the vineyards were just a hobby. Hannes explains,
“Most of the people who have vineyards here look after them for fun. They have a small plot of around 0.5 hectares, and probably learnt how to look after the vines from their grandparents. Instead of going to bars on weekends, they retreat to their vines. It’s not something you do to earn money; usually there’s zero business interest.”
Hannes, however, had begun to contemplate making wine his career. While studying at Geisenheim, he met Olympia, and the two set off to travel and do winemaking internships in France, Italy and Austria, with natural winemakers such as Claus Preisinger and Dorli Muhr.
“We lived in Montpellier for a while and liked that a lot; we could have stayed. But we had nothing there; we’d have to buy every piece of stone, every piece of land, and it’s not like we’re millionaires. Back in Württemberg, we had a farm and a building, and we’re family people. So, we began to think—what’s the potential back there? What can we do?”
Their experience with Claus Preisinger also excited them at the prospect of returning home. Claus’ region of the Burgenland is famed for Blaufränkisch, and guess what? Lemberger—the local name for Blaufränkisch in the Württemberg—is the hero of this region, too, with a small-but-steadily-growing fan base.
“Nobody can really tell when Lemberger was first grown here, but it appears in writings from the 1500s. It was likely traded from the Austrian Hungarian empire. Now, other regions have started to realise its potential. If you travel to Pfalz you’ll find some there, but traditionally it was only found in this part of Germany.”
The flame had been lit. Hannes says,
“We came back fully motivated. Here, we have old vines of Lemberger, planted in terraced, south-facing vineyards. Everyone says their terroir is unique, but we have this blue limestone that’s shaped like slate. We actually discovered recently it's very similar to the limestone of Stéphane Tissot, in the Jura. It’s something I’ve never seen anywhere else for this variety. So we thought, surely the potential must be there?”
They returned home in 2014, and asked whether they could take over the half-hectare of vines to begin exploring what was possible. In addition to their Lemberger, they also have some Pinot Noir and Riesling. Olympia remembers,
“But really, we had no clue what the potential was. Nobody was working the way we wanted to, or making the kind of wines we like to drink. We had nothing to use as a comparison.”
“So, in 2014, we began with grandpa’s tractor. In the cellar, we had no pump—just buckets.”
Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on their side. 2014 was the year of the dreaded Suzuki fly; a pest that had come over from Asia. They lay eggs under the skins of the grapes, so by the time you’ve seen them, it’s already too late - the grapes have begun to rot. In turn, this gives the grapes (and the juice if you’re not extremely careful) a pungent vinegar smell.
“It was such a hard vintage. But we were motivated, and thankfully a bunch of friends came to help us out. Everyone had these tiny scissors to cut out the bad grapes. In the end, we still made some wine, and it was really nice, but wow it was tough.”
They both beam: despite the challenges, no regrets.
From the start, they’ve worked biodynamically:
“There was never any discussion; we both knew. We’d worked in large industrial wineries and in small biodynamic wineries. The latter was simply common sense for us, and now we’re seeing a small movement in the region.”
These days, they also consult for other winemakers who’d like to work with biodynamics, although that’s not always easy. Olympia notes, “you quickly realise who really wants to work that way, and who wants to do it for marketing.”
By hand, they spray sulphur and copper blended with teas every six to 10 days:
“By spraying small amounts frequently, it’s like refreshing your suncream. If it’s not there at all, it doesn’t work. Every week we make around 100 litres of tea, with plants according to the season - nettle, chamomile, yarrow and sometimes fennel. It also depends on what the garden gives us. And before harvest, it’s horsetail.”
It doesn’t stop at biodynamics. Their vineyard practices also fall into the realm of regenerative agriculture. They do not till or even open their soils. Every second row, a big mix of herbs and greens are sown every third year. They leave the grasses and flowers to grow late into the season, to ensure there’s as much biodiversity as possible. Then, after flowering, they mow the grasses on foot with an electric hand mower. This is as eco-friendly as wine gets.
“Maybe some people think it’s a bit too wild for a vineyard, but it’s great for insects. After the first time, we then only mow once again - right before harvest. Else people wouldn’t want to come!” Olympia laughs.
The tips of the vines (known as the apex) are never cut, instead rolled under the wire. They also don’t do green harvest (the process of cutting excess grapes off the vine). Olympia explains,
“The vine needs to receive the correct information, so that it can support and help itself. If you do green harvest, it gives false information to the vine.”
Their region has been hit hard by climate change. Hannes says,
“For Germany, Württemberg is warm, and on top of that, we have steep, south-facing vineyards. When we studied at Geisenheim, we must have drunk 1,000 litres of Riesling. But the Riesling that we know and love is changing. It’s a variety that’s not tolerant to drought and heat, so we need to think about how we can deal with that. It’s suffering the most.”
As such, the first priority for their winemaking is the date of picking. In order to make the fresh, crisp wines they love, they need to be on the right side of the acid/sugar balance.
“We harvest very early. As we don’t have huge yields, and as the weather is so warm, it’s easy to get ripeness. The most important thing for us is to keep acidity: we believe this gives us very lively wines, with good ageing potential and that important drinkability factor.”
In the cellar, it’s hands-off, feet-on.
“Our Riesling is stomped by foot, with whole bunches. We like feet in general at harvest, we use our feet a lot.”
The juice and the skins then macerate for a week in a cold container, before being pressed in a basket press.
By giving the Riesling some foot-stomping action, and by pressing slowly in a basket press, this ensures it gets saturated with oxygen. Although this seems counterintuitive when wanting to make a fresh wine, it actually works in their favour, as it prevents oxidation later down the line.
“We also prefer the aromas you get from the yeast and ageing. By introducing oxygen at an early stage, this gets rid of those very fruity “primary” aromas. That’s fine by us!”
It ages half in stainless steel, and half in barrels, although in the future, they’d like the white to go 100% into barrel (like the reds), as they prefer the barrel-aged style. Once there, it ages on the full lees and is untouched until bottling.
For the reds, the protocol is always the same. They decide on the spot which percentage of the bunches will remain whole, and how much will be destemmed (this depends on the vintage and the quality and taste of their fruit). Olympia explains,
“It’s quite simple, really. We don’t crush, don’t do pumpers or punchdowns, and we just use our hands to wet the surface [known as the cap], once a day. Three to four weeks later the wine goes into barrel. That’s it!”
They are fussy about their barrels: they must be older, and they must not impart heavy toasty or vanilla-like aromas.
“New oak would kill the kind of wine we want to make. When you use the right older barrels, the wine is just more lively. The variety also shows itself more clearly. Basically, it’s just a better wine. After a while, you get very picky and sensitive when it comes to barrels.”
While this is simple winemaking, it’s also precise. They’ll add the tiniest amount of sulphites to ensure their wines are stable. Hannes says,
“We don’t like faulty wine. It’s not that we’re looking for clean wine, but rather something linear and elegant.”
Olympia nods, saying,
“If a wine has mouse taint, then it has mouse taint. It’s the same with volatile acidity or any other fault. I don’t care if it’s a natural wine or not.”
Hannes and Olympia are nature lovers first and foremost, and the natural beauty of their vineyards can be found in their bottles. However, this does not happen as if by magic. Rather, it is carefully and meticulously translated—by hand.