‘Liebe vergeht, hektar besteht’, or ‘love passes, hectares last’ is an old saying you can still hear in Germany’s winelands, now spoken mostly in jest. While it’s a wry take today, in the past it was a reality across the world – when dowries and land wealth counted for more than heart flutters. But what if love not only lasts, but two winemakers help to kick off a revolution in their region too?
This is what happened to Carolin Spanier-Gillot and Hans Oliver Spanier – H.O. to his friends. They met at Message in a Bottle, a regional movement determined to change the fate of Rheinhessen wine, founded in 2001. Back in the late ’90s, Germany was just awakening to its wine renaissance, but Rheinhessen – the vineyards extending between Worms, Alzey and Bingen, hugged by the river Rhine – was still a backwater of industrially-farmed bulk wine.
H.O. had been one of the founders of a group whose membership reads like a roll call of today’s German wine superstars: Wittmann, Wagner, Keller, Thörle, Winter… They knew that Rheinhessen had a glorious past and that the limestone sites in the Wonnegau and Zellertal, and the rhyolite escarpment that is the Roter Hang, were once among the most prized sites. ‘There were 19 boys and one girl,’ Carolin remembers. ‘It took a while until we clicked, but in 2003 we became a couple.’
Both of them had been born into small wine estates: Carolin into Kühling-Gillot on the Roter Hang, H.O. into Battenfeld-Spanier in the Zellertal. And both surprised their parents with their wish to take over. H.O.’s parents had started winding down their wine-growing activity and wanted him to study economics and business. Undeterred, H.O. branched out in 1991 and immediately set about converting vineyards to organic farming. In Carolin’s case, her elder brother didn’t want to take over the family business, instead preferring to pursue a path in law. But having worked alongside her parents throughout her childhood, by the time Carolin was 17 she knew that she wanted a life in wine.
The pair took their relationship to the next level fairly swiftly: H.O. started making Kühling-Gillot wines in 2004. ‘For my father-in-law, that was rather fast, but he didn’t flinch; he was on board. We made our decisions very quickly,’ H.O. says. ‘The great thing for me was that we could make the wines of the Roter Hang alongside the limestone wines in one cellar. This was spectacular for us, and we knew we’d created something that hadn’t been done before.’
We had the room to make our own mistakes, we played to our different strengths and we always saw eye to eye. We were always equal
They always kept the estates separate but learnt so much from vinifying wines from such different soils – plus they were pioneers of organic and then biodynamic farming. And Carolin’s parents were on their side, making way for the youngsters: ‘We got married in November 2006, and in 2007 we owned the estate – our parents backed us fully,’ she says. ‘This is why we could evolve. We had the room to make our own mistakes, we played to our different strengths and we always saw eye to eye. We were always equal.
‘We were always husband and wife, not superstar winemaker with the exhausted wife in the background. And we knew we wanted equality where our wines and our colleagues are concerned.’
They didn’t want one estate to trump the other. ‘We could have merged the two estates in 2006, but between us we have 11 Grosse Lagen, or grands crus, and we wanted to keep the identities separate: limestone at Battenfeld-Spanier, rhyolite at Kühling-Gillot. It was important to convey that we are terroir winemakers,’ Carolin says.
This is also why they were so active in Message in a Bottle: ‘Rheinhessen had reached rock bottom and we needed to re-tell the story,’ H.O. says. Both were instrumental in doing that – Carolin with delineated dry Rieslings that let every nuance of the Roter Hang shine with savouriness, H.O. with cool, chiselled Rieslings, Silvaners and Pinot Noirs.
Today, Rheinhessen is behind some of Germany’s most expensive wines. ‘We’re very grateful we could be part of re-writing and shaping this story,’ H.O. says. His only regret is that he didn’t have time to work in vineyards abroad to learn languages and absorb the culture. ‘The dark side of the moon would have been easier to reach than telling my parents that I wanted to leave and spend six months in Bordeaux,’ he says.
Things were different for Carolin. She went on numerous exchanges in her Geisenheim days, as far away as Australia, and worked a stage at Comte-Lafon in Burgundy. Their two sons, Louis, 15, and Leopold, 13, are already curious about following in their parents’ footsteps.
‘The two brands will forever be separate,’ says Carolin. ‘But it makes a lot of sense to work together.’ What tips do they have for other couples living and working side-by-side? ‘We’re lucky as we’re so often of one mind when it comes to style, but we’re also relaxed, sociable people with lots of friends outside the wine world. Things just keep getting better,’ says Carolin.
‘We each have our sphere and we don’t interfere,’ H.O. adds. ‘We leave room for each other, so each has autonomy.’ So love does last, just as the hectares do.