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.
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.
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.