Weingut Roterfaden: A Bright Red Line Through Württemberg's Wine

Württemberg, prolific and historic wine region though it may be, is still almost unknown outside of Germany. It has always been defined by a culture of local production and consumption. Wines made there sell well there, giving little incentive to improve quality. To this day, 85% of the region's wines are made in coops and the thin, sweetish red wines they tend to churn out have a rather diluted reputation. Winemaker Olympia Samara sums it up: “In this region, it's all about working and producing, not about having big dreams.” 

Five years ago, Samara, 29, and her husband, Johannes "Hannes" Hoffmann, 35, ignored all this and staked their big dream on a half hectare of forgotten vineyards planted by Hoffmann’s grandfather in a hidden corner of this little known region. They called Weingut Roterfaden, their tiny two-person winery, into life just outside the village of Rosswag, a secluded area of forests and hills, cut by a broad curve in the Enz river. Years of study and training enabled Samara and Hoffmann to see in this spot what others could not. A small amount of Riesling — and, more crucially, Lemberger — planted in the 1960s on a sweeping amphitheater of terraced banks, where slopes of shell limestone are steep, sundrenched, airy, open, and ideally suited to these varieties. 

Although Roterfaden’s vineyards are only 20 miles northwest of the major motor city of Stuttgart, they feel “literally in the middle of nowhere,” says Samara. Obscurity, you might say, is the area’s most notable feature and, for Samara and Hoffmann, its greatest attraction. There are no established traditions to chafe against, no one to look over their shoulders and tell them "how," no local market expecting this but getting that. As partners in wine and in life, Samara and Hoffmann were always clear about their priorities. In Rosswag, the can realize them: “We have the luxury,” Hoffmann says, “to do what we want, just exactly the way.” For them, this has meant full biodynamic farming from day one, nothing but handwork in the vines, dramatically reduced yields, abundant cover crops, innovative pruning methods, no green harvests. The same discipline in the cellar. A high quality destemmer is their only significant concession to modernity. Otherwise, they rely on native yeasts, ambient-temperature ferments, old wood casks, zero adjustments, no filtering, a thoughtfully minimalist dosing of SO2 at bottling. They have no tasting room and no shop; they waste no effort convincing skeptics they should like the wines. And sure enough, what comes of this are bottles of insistent beauty, vitality, clarity, energy, and frankness.

It’s remarkable how unified Samara and Hoffmann are in their thinking, considering Samara is Greek and grew up in the bustling city of Thessaloniki while Hannes was born and raised in Rosswag. Roterfaden means red thread, and refers to the through line of commonalities between them. Though wine is in both of their backgrounds, neither had any intention of working in the field. They met when, by chance, they landed at the same renowned German wine school, Geisenheim. As partners, early on, they resolved a strategy to keep an open mind and train widely, always in the same place but never at the same winery  "that way we always take double the experience,” explains Samara. Training and study from Mallorca to Montpellier, from big commercial estates in Napa and Sonoma to (practically) next door at indie biodynamic producer Jochen Beurer  everything informed the winery that “we were already starting to build in our minds,” notes Samara.  

But it was the work they did in Austria in 2013 — at Claus Preisinger in Burgenland for Samara and Muhr-van der Niepoort in Carnuntum for Hoffmann — that proved pivotal, opening their eyes to the possibilities right under their feet, in Hoffmann’s grandfather’s vineyards. Blaufränkisch, known as Lemberger in Germany, is widely planted around Rosswag and grows exceptionally well on the limestone terraces and in heat of this terroir. The variety is not new to the region — “my grandmother, who is almost 90, can’t remember a time when it wasn’t planted here,” notes Hoffman. 

In 2014, the couple founded Weingut Roterfaden as a workshop for all their experience and ideals. They've raised eyebrows, some admiring, some disapproving. Their vineyards were never kept in the trim “golf course” style of their neighbors. Their application of biodynamic teas and sprays was seen locally as an oddity. Their refusal to offer tastings struck some as arrogance. But they’ve set a principled example that has, if nothing else, at least piqued the neighbors’ curiosity and encouraged some to think harder about what good farming means. They’ve also proven that industriousness — a trait Württembergers famously admire — makes quality possible even in a better known for the opposite.

Now Roterfaden’s wines are among the first mentioned by people with on-the-ground knowledge of the southern German wine scene. The wines sell better in Berlin or Brooklyn than they do at home. “It just happened that people outside from our region realized something is different here before people inside did,” Samara says. A red thread, you could say, through the conversation about what's happening in German wine today. Grape Collective’s Valerie Kathawala sat down with Samara and Hoffmann to find out more about how Roterfaden came to embody this dynamism.

Valerie Kathawala: How did you two come to be in this little corner of Germany?

Hoffmann: My grandparents on both sides were farmers. About 50 years ago, they built this farm where we live now, in Rosswag. They were farming cattle, mostly for milk, and they had fields of cereals, too. Because it's a wine region, they also had some vineyards. When my grandparents retired, nobody took over. But there was already the place and the equipment and the vineyards.

At what point did you realize you wanted to take over the vineyards and make wine?

Hoffmann: In Germany, it's very common that when you finish school at 18 or 19, you go to study. My brother went to study, so I realized I have to as well. Everybody I knew wanted to be an architect or a doctor. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was living on this farm. I was raised here. But there was no connection to farming and there was nothing really exciting for me. For a long time, I didn't have the feeling farming was something that would give me a lot of pleasure.

By chance, I realized you can study winemaking. I read about Geisenheim in a book. “OK,” I thought, “this might be interesting.” I started studying and realized immediately there are so many different subjects and I loved it. I met so many nice people, including Olympia.

And you, Olympia? What was your start in wine?

Samara: My father has been in wine exports forever. He was working for a really huge seller, doing exports. We had wine all the time at home and we had so many wine people there. My father was always giving me a wine glass and was asking what I smelled and I guess I was always saying really good stuff.

In Greece, like in Germany, everybody goes to study when they are about 17. So, I also had to study, and it was actually kind of a coincidence, something like Hannes. I said, "OK, I will study wine. It sounds like fun." That's it. My parents asked whether I want to go to Germany because I knew already German from being in a bilingual school. Colleagues of my dad, they said, “OK, there's this university at Geisenheim. If she wants to study wine, she has to go there.”

But then I got to Geisenheim, which is a tiny village. And I come from Thessaloniki, which is huge. It was a cultural shock. I didn't understand the people because they all spoke slang. And there was all this mathematics and physics, economics and biology. The boring things, the basics. It was really hard. But then I met Johannes and everything became easier.

What came next?

Samara: Hannes finished Geisenheim two years ahead of me. He had already been a couple of times in South Africa and Mallorca for harvests.

Hoffmann: I came back in 2010, while she was still studying. I was here, working for a very close family friend, Jochen Beurer. I worked for him for about two years and learned a lot from him. Later that year, we went to California because Olympia had to do a harvest internship to finish her studies.

Samara: Hannes was in Sonoma, I was in Napa. We planned it from the beginning that if we start traveling and working in wineries, we will always work in different wineries because that way we take double experience. He was in Chalk Hill in Sonoma and I was in Rutherford Hill in Napa -- big wineries. We were already starting to get into the whole biodynamic thing, but my dad organized that first trip because he had the connections and he’s more connected to the commercial part of wine.

Hoffmann: It was a very good experience in terms of organization and logistics -- something you don't really learn in the Old World: how you really organize your company. But the winemaking, for us, was recipe-like. We had time to travel a lot, so we did the whole California, up and down. You can’t believe it, coming from Europe, that they built a train in Napa to sell wine. “Robert Parker 90 Points: this way!”

Samara: After that we went to Montpellier, France for almost two years because then Hannes was done with his studies and I decided to do a master's.

Hoffmann: Olympia comes from Greece — one of the best places in Europe. I come from Germany — where we have also have tradition and it's kind of beautiful as well. But we Germans, we love the south. So we went to the south of France. We were enjoying it so much we were really thinking of staying there. You start thinking about what you want in the future.

Samara: But then we had to leave for the second year of my master's. We went to Udine, in Friuli, where Italy borders Slovenia and the whole orange wine thing came from. Very interesting. We stayed there for eight months. For vintage 2013, we went to Austria. I was in Burgenland, in Gols, working for Claus Preisinger. Hannes worked for Muhr-van der Niepoort in Carnuntum.

Samara: Austria was really good because we were already starting to build our own winery in our minds. We knew that in Austria, they work a lot with Blaufränkisch, which is the same variety as Lemberger. We knew this would bring us a lot of inspiration.

Hoffmann: We were surrounded by very good people, so it was a great vibe and we learned a lot. It was the moment when we realized that this variety we are focused on now actually has the potential we had seen in it. There’s just a small region here in Germany where it’s grown. Now, they’ve started to plant a bit in the Pfalz and other regions because they realize it's nice, but we have this since generations. My grandmother, who is almost 90, told me we always had just had this one variety.

You founded your winery, Weingut Roterfaden, in 2014. How did you start?

Hoffmann: At first, we worked the vineyards we had, about half a hectare, the way we wanted it to be. We worked biodynamically from the beginning — not certified, but to figure out if the vineyards like it, if we like it. 2014 was a trial vintage.

Samara: We had from the very beginning Riesling and Lemberger planted by Hannes’ grandfather.  But we also we got another vineyard that was Pinot Noir.

Hoffmann: The very first year was super fun. We realized how it's going to be, what it’s like to work in our terraces. We were working with buckets and not even a real press. We made a thousand liters. We asked many people to taste because we wanted their opinion and we realized, “OK, we have confidence. This is something. ‘This is drinkable,’” as we would say in the region. Let's make it official in 2015. And then '15 was fantastic weather: easy and warm and hot, not too dry —  a good year to start.

Samara: Every year, we’ve brought a little more equipment into the cellar. We bought a wooden vertical press. We found some older barrels to use. And we’ve stayed with this basic equipment because we don't need anything more. Our barn, where the winery is now, was just an oldish building. At the end of October, when we had the red wine still fermenting, sometimes, at night, you had 2 degrees Celsius. We had to put old blankets on the barrels so that they could continue fermenting because if they are on the skins and they stop fermenting, it would be a catastrophe. It was quite funny, but also a little scary. This is when we realized we want to stay here. After vintage 2016, we renovated the barn. Now it’s our winery and our house.

What were growers around you doing when you started?

Samara: Everything that was produced here, stayed here. There was no inspiration from the outside. No one came and told them, "You have to do better." When herbicides came, for them, it was a huge evolution because they didn't have to work that much. In this region, it's all about working and producing, not about having big dreams.

But we started from zero. We could build our own ways and our own customers. We gave from the very beginning the message that if people want us, they follow us. If they don't, they go somewhere else. That was a challenge, but at the same time, the luxury, because we didn't have to lose any customers — we didn't have any!

Hoffmann: Yes. We had the luxury, we could do what we wanted to do, just exactly the way. For example, we only do Landwein. At the beginning, some people asked, "Are you sure you want to do this?" We said, “What for? There's no expectation of the wines because we are the first to make them. If somebody has a problem with the label that it doesn't say "quality wine,” they can go buy something else. Somebody else will love the idea or the wine. And it worked out.

Samara: We never forced anything. We just produced and said, "We will see. This wine will find its fans.” Somehow, on its own, most of our production is going outside of Germany. For us, it matters that we work with people who understand the wines. If these people are outside of Germany, fine, as long as they can pass along our mentality and our philosophy, it's fine — wherever it is. It just happened that people outside our region realized something is different here before people inside did. People outside of Württemberg or even outside of Germany, but I would say outside of Württemberg because in Berlin, people really like the wines.

Hoffmann: In Germany, if people know Lemberger, many, especially the older generation, say, “I don't drink Lemberger. I want something tasty.” We ask people just to try it. If they do, they're like, "Wow. This is very different. This is Lemberger? It's amazing." OK. But it takes a lot of energy and time to do this.

Samara: We have no shop, no opening hours. People were calling us and saying, "Can we come by?" You know how it is. Here, they stay for two hours. You talk and you talk and you open all the wines. It's not California. They drink and they drink and then they take only one bottle and they leave. You lost two hours that you could have spent in the vineyard.

Hoffmann: When you come here, you will realize it's a tiny, beautiful village, but …

Samara: …we’re in the middle of nowhere. People are not exactly passing by.

Yes, when you look at a detailed wine map of Württemberg, Rosswag is the tiniest red speck, all on its own. Does it belong to a larger subregion?

Hoffmann: It's called Stromberg — but nobody knows it.

Samara: It's in a beautiful forest, also called Stromberg.

Who else is making wine like you are in Stromberg? What is it like to work there?

Hoffmann: It's probably 98% coop. Not everybody has a vineyard, but many of the families have connections to grape growing because their fathers or grandfathers used to have a vineyard or were farmers like everyone else. But everybody knows: grapes go the cooperative.

Samara: People looked at us and said, "Oh, these are the ones whose vineyard doesn't look like a golf course.” People were super curious at the beginning. “Oh, Who are they? Looks like they do something different. Working organically?” But because we're professionals and everybody knows that we studied at Geisenheim, they're kind of like, “Well, they should know what they’re doing."

The thing is: we are the only ones. We don’t have any local exchange with other growers. We have to drive to Jochen Beurer, who is 40 minutes from here. We can’t see each other that often because we're all very busy. You miss having, on a weekly or even a monthly basis, people around you that share the same mentality, so you can talk about your vineyards, your work. We don't have this here. But, at least we have each other, which is awesome.

Hoffmann: Somebody has to start it. And every year, there are more people that don't spray herbicides in the village. It is getting better.

What makes Stromberg distinctive?

Samara: Lemberger. There's something really special about this variety and the way it can grow here. Somehow it seems to be really a perfect combination of the variety to this place.

The second thing I would really focus on is our village, Rosswag. You walk down the road and it's surrounded by forest. All you see are some really nice, old houses.Then you cross this hill and you go down and see the village and then this massive mountain of vineyards. It has this energy and this light because it's all south-facing. You're like, "Wow, where does this come from?" Nobody really knows it because it's such a hidden place.

Hoffmann: The vineyards are very dominant because they go so high up --  300 meters [nearly 1,000 feet] above sea level. It's not crazy steep like in the Mosel, but still. I left this place for almost 10 years but I came back on purpose. We have had many people coming here, sometimes from far away. They are always super surprised and excited. They say, "I never imagined that you could find this in Württemberg.”

Samara: When you're in the vineyards, you have on your left and right the vines, but then you see the river and this really nice little valley with meadows and some corn or cereal fields and then the forest. It's not a sea of vineyards. It's super diverse. Since you don’t see any industry or city, you feel like you're in a super tiny, peaceful place, completely extracted from everything else. To me, it’s quite like in Jura.

Take us on a little walk along a row of Lemberger in your vineyard.

Samara: Under your feet you have this limestone, related to schist. It's really flat, but it doesn't split that much. The vine roots have to suffer to go through it and it's a warmer limestone like the yellows that you have mostly in Burgundy. I guess this is why Lemberger likes it because it's a bit harder soil.

We have some cover crops and we don't mow unless it's really, really humid at harvest and you see that you have disease pressure. We don't open the soil at all, only if we want to prepare it for the cover crops. We're still debating a bit with ourselves how to avoid opening the soil because we have drier and drier summers and we are in a quite warm area, so we don't want to lose that much.

We prune quite gently and leave only one shoot. We do the self-pruning. Have you’ve heard of it? When the vine has two channels and you want both sides to stay active, you alternate each year which side you take the shoot from. You leave one bud from the one side. Then the next year, you take care that you alternate, that you take from this side of the shoot. It keeps the vine vivid, active, energetic. We don't tip the vines. We don't take off any leaves at all. We don't do any green harvest. This is all completely against our philosophy.

Hoffmann: We try to manage yield from the beginning. Because we don't fertilize, we don't open the soils, our yields are pretty low. I mean, especially compared to what others from here do.

Samara: We spray copper and sulfur mixed in a tea that we make ourselves. We try to grow almost all the herbs here on the farm, so we use chamomile, nettle, and some others that help depending on the period that you are helping the vine through: drought or the very beginning of the period that needs to grow or blooming and so on. We have seen that helps a lot in the vineyards.

Hoffmann: Our disease pressure is usually not super high. We don't have a super dense canopy, so it's very airy and open. It's impossible without sulfur and copper, but the thing is because we spray organics on a weekly basis it creates what we call a “sun cream” for the vines. We have the feeling we do something nice for the vines every time that we spray. It feels better for us. It feels better for the vineyard. Of course, every time it's just a little bit, but you can see, the vines are super healthy.

What does the Lemberger harvest look like for you?

Samara: Typical Lemberger harvest for us is in mid-September to early October. The rest of the region usually harvests two weeks later. At harvest, depending on the vineyard and the status of the grapes and and their aromas, we decide to leave some stems. We decide at the last minute. Not too much, but always a percentage, maybe in the warmer years, it's a bit more.

Hoffmann: We de-stem the rest. We don't have equipment at all and we're not technically focused, but we have a very high quality de-stemmer, so we can leave the berries in top shape. We use a vertical press and it's a huge difference from the tank press. When we use the vertical press, the juice comes out really clear. You do have the lees, but you don't have the really aggressive, hard stuff.

Samara: Then we ferment in open vats. Most of the time, the wines start fermenting the same night. They're really fast -- usually done in three to four weeks. We do nothing. No added yeast. Natural cellar temperature. We don't work the wines during fermentation. The only thing that we do, once a day, is make sure the surface stays wet. Then everything goes straight into barrel. Just one racking. No filtering. That’s all. We bottle the basic Lemberger in beginning of September just around harvest, and the [higher end] Endschleife during winter.

Before we bottle them, this is the very first and last time that they get some SO2. In the end, we might have something between 20 and 30 milligrams. We feel safe adding that much because we thought about it a lot. We know the wines are stable, but it's a different style if you do not add any sulfur, the wines wouldn't be so clear and straight in their aromas.

We have experienced that with wines that are completely without SO2, they’re super nice in the beginning when you open them and they're really juicy and they’re lot of fun. But if you leave the bottle open, after three days, they're gone. They start to develop different tastes. I think it's cool that a lot of people do wines without sulfur, but for for our style, we like it this way. It’s more elegant. Also the wines travel and you don't know how they travel and where they get stored. You want to make sure that they arrive and no matter who opens the bottle, it's still the wine that we made.

What is very important, I think, is that the wine be very alive in its development. Maybe with some kind of reduction at the beginning ... or not. And you realize that it goes away after 5 to 10 minutes and then after half an hour, it changes the development, in a positive way most times. The next day, you taste it again, it's like, "Ah, it changed again!” That’s really exciting.

Where does the name of your winery, Roterfaden, come from?

Hannes: Roterfaden means red thread. We had a lot of ideas about what to call the winery, but none of the ideas were really convincing. Typically in this area, you use the last name of the winemaker or something like that. But ours was not a traditional winery that has been here since generations.

Samara: Hannes didn’t want to use his name. His name is Hoffman, really German. My last name is Samara. It couldn't really fit here. And we didn't want to use both our names. We had to find another name -- nothing too funny or too boring, something in between.

In December 2014, we knew it would be our first official vintage so we had to make the company official as well. We had to go to the accountant the first week of January to sign the contract saying we have now a company and so on. At Christmas, our parents were here. We all speak in English when both sides are together. We put thousands of bottles on the table and said, "Guys, now we have to find a name." Of course, a lot of bullshit came out. Then my father said, "Let's take things from the very beginning. You come from super different backgrounds. You grew up in very different environments, cultures, everything. But somehow you're really connected and you have this idea that goes through your life in the vineyard, in the winery, into the wine. Like everything is one thing that connects you and goes through. There is this expression in German that says it goes through like a red thread. And in Greek culture it is a theme, too. He asked, "Is there a name in German that explains this?"

We were like, “Can you name a winery Roterfaden? Weingut Roterfaden?" I don't know! But this was the only name that was left on the table. We thought about it for a few days. We decided it's different, people can remember it easily, and it just makes sense. It's not an invention. It's true. It also explains things in a way. Of course, you have to know the story, but it does.

Finally, what makes you happiest about wine growing and winemaking?

Samara: For me, it's the freedom of working with nature. You experience all the seasons. Somehow, you know that nature will be the one to decide everything. You don't have the upper hand, so you just let go. You do what you're supposed to do to support the whole process, but in the end it's nature that does it. It gives you freedom knowing that there's something much bigger there, that gives the thread to everything else and you are part of it.

Hoffmann: I agree. What I like very much about it is the productive part. I mean, there are so many different stages in the work. First vineyard, then cellar. At the end of the day, you produce something that has a memory. It's a bottle of wine that you have in your hand, but there's so much inside, there's so many thoughts and stories and you can keep it for so long and you can bring it out and open it 20 years later with friends or your kids. And you can remember everything. For me, something like this is so exciting and gives so much more than any other job I could imagine.

This is the second in a multi-part series charting the rise of Württemberg wines.

Photos courtesy of Weingut Roterfaden