The Discovery of Spätlese (“Late Harvest”)

In many places the value of the Riesling wasn’t recognised well into the 18th century, not least because of the harvest habits. In order to be able to better control the imposition of their levies, many landlords intended to carry out the wine harvest without interruptions.

The harvest started with the grape variety, whose grapes were ripe first, the Kleinberger. The Riesling, but also other grape varieties which were not yet fully ripe at the time, were also harvested and of course in this way remained way below their actual best.          

This changed only within the course of the 18th century when Riesling became a real competitor for the Kleinberger.

The Riesling owes its breakthrough to the monasteries. They formed the centres of quality viticulture; they had extensive vineyards and were not burdened with oppressive levies. The monasteries were able to afford quality-consciousness more easily than a simple wine grower - to express it casually. 

Johannisberg Palace wrote an essential chapter of the history of quality viticulture in the Rheingau in the 18th century: the discovery of the noble rot and of the value of late harvest was made here in 1775. With support of the Archbishop of Mainz the Benedictines had founded a monastery from 1106 - 1108 on the mountain Johannisberg. While the Cistercian monastery of Eberbach already played a central role in the late Middle Ages with respect to the development of the Rheingau wine culture, Johannisberg Monastery only gained decisive influence in the area of viticulture in modern times after the monastery and the Johannisberg had come into the possession of the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda. A contract which was signed by the Archbishop of Mainz Lothar von Schönborn and Prince Abbot Konstantin von Buttlar from Fulda regulated this transition 20 June, 1716.
Under the leadership of the prince abbots from Fulda, who were also prince bishops of Fulda from 1752 at the same time, Johannisberg Palace was built and the systematic expansion of the monastic winery was undertaken. More than half of all the monastic vineyards were established during the first five years (1716 - 1721) of the Fulda rule. Moreover, the cultivation area was further extended by clearings.

The estate of Johannisberg is considered to be the first Riesling wine-growing estate. The activities of the prince abbots during the years 1717 – 1721 were already been mentioned; in the years between 1719 and 1720 they had 38,500 Riesling vines established, a total of around 5 hectares and then pushed ahead the extension of the Riesling vineyards due to the good harvests during the following decades.

The prince bishops of Fulda employed a waiter on Johannisberg who presided over the monastery’s economic administration. One task of the Johannisberg waiter was to seek permission for the annual grape harvest in Fulda. For this purpose a courier, who delivered a sample of the grapes, was sent from Johannisberg to Fulda. This grape courier is responsible for discovering the benefit of late harvest and the meaning of the noble rot since he came back from Fulda with a delay of around 14 days in the autumn of 1775.

The two-week delay of the Johannisberg grape courier was the precondition for this discovery. Since the monks in the monastic winery had to wait for the permission from Fulda to start harvest and had not, like all the other wine growers, brought home the grapes before Saint Gall, it was possible for the fungus causing noble rot, the Botrytis cinerea, to spread on the grapes without ruffle or excitement. The formation of the noble rot was facilitated by the dry and warm weather, which prevailed well into the autumn of 1775.
At the same time the Riesling cultivation, which had in the meantime been strongly extended in the vineyards of the monastic winery, favoured the formation of noble rot since the Botrytis cinerea developed particularly well on the Riesling grape.

The grape courier’s ride is historically documented by the research results by Dr Staab, Johannisberg.

This historic event was made popular by the first volume of “The Spätlese Rider“ of the KARL comic series by the authors Apitz & Kunkel.

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