“My passion for wine and what is connected to wine has not changed. Solely my imagination, to go from young, innovative winegrower to a classic, has grown.” — Joachim Heger
Just a few miles from the French border, in Germany’s southernmost region of Baden, Joachim Heger farms the extraordinary grand crus (Grosses Gewächs) of Ihringer Winklerberg and Achkarrer Schlossberg. On the steep slopes of the volcanic Kaiserstuhl, Joachim gives voice to unique, delicious, age worthy expressions of pinot noir (spätburgunder). For close to 40 vintages, his work has revolutionized the way we can interpret the potential of this ancient wine region. Burgundian varieties thrive here, beneficiaries of a startlingly warm climate, where vineyards bear names like “Gras im Ofen” and sun-baked volcanic hills are crowned with wild cacti. Joachim made a name for himself and for Baden with pinot noir, but he also embraces classic Germanic varieties, foremost riesling and silvaner, by allowing each to work its magic on the unique volcanic and loess soils. The results are supremely fresh, energetic wines of unmistakable depth and character.
Joachim’s grandfather, Dr. Max Heger, was a country physician and enthusiastic hobby winemaker with the luck to live in the little wine paradise of Ihringen. His patients, primarily local winemakers, sparked his interest in making wine himself. He acquired vineyards on the Achkarrer Schlossberg and Ihringer Winklerberg, even then widely acknowledged as the top sites on the Kaiserstuhl. In 1935, he founded the Dr. Heger estate. His son Wolfgang, known as Mimus, took over 14 years later and it was he who brought the estate to the forefront of German winemaking — thanks to his world-class sites and dedication to quality at a time when this was not the rule for Baden’s wines. In 1981, Mimus handed the role of cellar master to his son, Joachim, a position Joachim has enthusiastically held ever since.
Joachim and his wife, Silvia, also founded a second winery, Weinhaus Heger. Joachim explains: “Wine prices in those days were very low. It was not possible to realize a profit from the steep slopes and small terraces. The techniques and winery equipment were outmoded. We had to act to carry out the necessary investments and changes and also to employ skilled staff.”
Today, all the Grosses Gewächs and Erste Lage wines are made under the Dr. Heger label, while Weinhaus Heger is the bigger estate, with a more flexible scope. Taken together, the Heger wineries produce a broad spectrum of wines, from quality entry levels of great value to some of the finest GGs in Germany. As a Schatzi, Joachim has worked with us to find the best range of wines to offer in the U.S.
Joachim was born in Ihringen in 1958. Wine always played a decisive role in Heger family life, and Joachim’s father’s quality philosophy had an immense influence on him: “My father had a profound knowledge of winemaking, but also very good tasting skills.” Everything was in place for Joachim to assume the family profession of winemaker — except Joachim himself. His intention “was to become a country doctor, like my grandfather.” Joachim started his oenology studies at Geisenheim, but he still had his heart set on medicine. After a year or two, he realized wine was calling him home. His wife, Silvia, “was the one person asking me: do you want to be the last in the family tradition? She encouraged me to think over the situation and finally find my vocation as a winegrower. Her dauntlessness and her down-to-earthness were a great motivation for me.” He returned to Ihringen, “and informed my grandma that I will become a winegrower and winemaker. I went back to Geisenheim, to continue my studies with ambition.”
After graduation, Joachim gained hands-on experience at several estates. In addition to the crucial influence of his father, he was also inspired by three mentors: his friends Helmut Dönnhoff, Wolf Salwey, and Herbert Krebs, head of the “Qualitätsweinprüfung” department at the State Research Station Freiburg.
When Joachim took over the estate, he dedicated himself to redefining the potential of pinot noir in Baden. His focus has always been on maximizing the vitality of his vineyards. He works tirelessly in the challenging terrain, and over time has incorporated organic fertilizers, cover crops, and, in selected vineyards, horse-plowing, all, as he puts it, “to better express this distinctive terroir.” He believes “these methods are essential tools for retaining and improving the fragile ecosystem of the vineyard.” Massal selection and clonal choice are also critical for Joachim, as the careful match of pinot clone to specific microclimate is of special importance in this hot, arid climate.
Quite unusually for a winemaker of his generation, Joachim says travel and connections with peers from other regions have been key to his professional education. “A decisive role in my life as a winegrower has always been to be in a circle of close friends, all of them winegrowers. We have travelled to all important wine regions of the world. On these trips were Georg Breuer, Bernd Phillipi, Werner Näkel, Paul Fürst, Werner Knipser, Helmut Dönnhoff, Christoph Tyrell, Wilhelm Haag, just to name these. Those journeys were extremely fruitful and broadened the horizons of all of us. Helmut Dönnhoff said they were like school excursions. We were like pupils, insisting and curious. We tasted and exchanged our impressions and information with each other. We returned home with newer and deeper insights. It was most interesting for me to learn how different the international world of wine is from our Kaiserstuhl area.”
Most influential were the trips to Burgundy Joachim made with pioneering Franconian pinot producer Paul Fürst: “Burgundy opened a complete new perspective. We learned that all is about terroir, soil, and aspects. But also how important the growers’ absolute commitment is to manual work and the steady and deep look into these components.” Joachim also learned from the New World, with trips to the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, where he met, among others, Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen, with whom Joachim enjoys “a great and inspiring friendship” to this day.
Joachim and Silvia have two daughters, Katharina and Rebecca, both of whom are now pursuing wine studies. “Every time I follow their engagement in wine and see how they form their views, I am happy,” says Joachim. “I am sure they will bring new elements and influence.” He himself has now worked nearly 40 vintages, time enough to put his personal stamp on the estate, as well as on specific wines from single vineyards in the grand cru holdings. Walking the vines with Joachim, you can feel his passion for the land as he breaks down his terroir for you not just parcel by parcel but vine by vine. He is a gregarious, quick-witted, and intensely spirited guide. “My passion for wine and what is connected with wine has not changed,” Joachim muses. “Solely my imagination, to go from young, innovative winegrower to a classic, has grown.”
“Pinot noir has a very long tradition in Baden,” explains Joachim. “The first vines were planted in the year 883 by emperor Karl the Fat at Lake Constance. The production of high quality wines was interrupted and set back again and again in several wars during the last centuries. Yields were quite high and there were few outstanding wines.” All three generations of Hegers have been committed to elevating wine quality from the Kaiserstuhl. It is a compact zone comprised of 4,200 hectares of vines planted around the stump of an extinct volcano that rises above the Rhine River Valley, just east of Alsace. Geologically speaking, the Kaiserstuhl is a rare place indeed. Volcanoes in the Kaiserstuhl formed here during the late Tertiary period, at the end of a long succession of eruptions, starting in the Cretaceous. Heavily eroded volcanic vents mark the landscape and the rocks that remain are of the Miocene, dating 16 to 19 million years before the present. These volcanic rocks are of alkali-carbonate structure and contain elements of magnesium iron silicate, which can be found here as the gem peridot — a crystalline material that weathers slowly and provides good drainage. Adding to the uniqueness of the region, prior to volcanic activity in the Jurassic, sedimentary layers formed in the eastern part of the Kaiserstuhl that resulted in the creation of two distinct neighboring geological formations. On top of this diverse mother rock, from 0 to 40 meters deep, are loess soils that were blown here after the last Ice Age from the northern Limestone Alps in modern-day Austria. The climate here is equally intriguing. The Kaiserstuhl is the warmest and driest place in Germany. Almost bizarrely, among the vines, wild grape hyacinths sprawl and iris plants blossom. Figs, apricots, even orchids and wild cacti grow well here, while rare butterflies and sand lizards thrive in abundance. It’s a magical place and Joachim knows how to let this speak through his wines.
Vineyards and farming
Joachim works such a wide array of vineyards and farms in such accord with their needs, it is difficult to summarize. To focus on even just three of his holdings gives a sense of the great range he has to play with. The Winklerberg, which has been called one of “the most privileged vineyards in Germany,” was subjected to Flurbereinigung in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and deleterious enlargement under the 1971 German Wine Law. However, Joachim’s vineyards are within the original Winklerberg: exceptional, with steep, sloped terraces, mostly southwestern exposures and shallow, weathered volcanic rock soils. His holdings on the Schlossberg give him a mostly south-facing amphitheater of steep banks of sparse volcanic and loess soils. By contrast, the Tuniberg is a small, terraced hill that lies between the Black Forest and the Kaiserstuhl, with a cooler microclimate and soils of limestone and loess. Joachim’s farming takes many forms, but among the most impressive is the organically worked, hand-harvested, horse-plowed parcel of old vine silvaner that goes into his “Pferd Willi” bottling.
In the cellar
Cellar style at both Heger estates is determined by the purpose of the wine — from snappy rosés all in stainless to profound old vine silvaner made with native yeasts, neutral barrels, full malolactic, and very little SO2. For his flagship, pinot noir, Joachim seeks clarity of site expression and freshness above all. This is achieved by hand harvesting at the peak of physiological ripeness. In the cellar, fruit is de-stemmed and given a cold soak, inspired by the work of Henri Jayer. The Erste Lagen ferment in stainless, then racked by way of gravity into a mix of new and neutral barrique. Grosses Gewächs wines ferment in 100% new, extra lightly toasted barriques, preparing the wines for a long life in the cellar yet making them hard to resist in their youth. In addition, Joachim also makes some Erstes Gewächs weiss- and grauburgunder from both the Winklerberg and Schlossberg. These selections redefine the potential of these varietals in this place and they are among the most delicious, unique whites of Germany.