Max Dexheimer

Marveling at the Magic

Location: the village of Saulheim, Rheinhessen, Germany

Owner & winemaker: Max Dexheimer & his partner Marika

Vineyard area: 10 hectares, estate-owned

Vineyard management: certified organic

Soils: limestone, loess, clay

Main varietals: Riesling, Pinot Noir, Weissburgunder, Sylvaner

Winemaking: manual harvest, spontaneous fermentation only. Vinification in traditional German Stückfass barrels (1200l) or old oak barrels of different sizes (350 to 2,400 liters). Traditional method for sparkling Hannes Brut Nature. No fining, no filtration, only minimum sulfur addition if needed (10ppm max)

Annual production (approx.): 40,000 bottles

 

Fun facts:

  • Max is a 5th generation winemaker – the winery in Saulheim was founded by his great-grandfather in 1896, and the family still makes a bit of wine under the historic Walldorf label. The family also runs a traditional restaurant that carries the same name and is presided over by Max’s 90-year-old grandmother.
  • Supported by his father, Max is gradually overtaking the family vineyards and changing the direction into completely natural winemaking (while his father is getting ideas from Max as well, such as making pet-nats).
  • Another great support in Max’s life is his partner Marika – an Estonian sommelier and entrepreneur who came for the harvest and stayed because of love.
  • Max is part of a close, mutually-inspired circle of friends including other exciting young German winemakers Andi Weigand, Andi Mann and Martin Worner aka Marto, all classmates from the famous Geisenheim University.
  • The intriguing labels are all cut out of one big painting made by Max’s friend, representing the energy that he’s feeling when working in the vineyards.

 

 

Jump to wines | Max Dexheimer’s Instagram

 

“Some years, this vineyard produces wine that is so concentrated and smoky that you almost think, whoa – this Pinot seems oaky! But it’s not, as we basically only use the old traditional Stückfass [1200-liter oval oak barrels, typical for Germany] that I inherited from my ancestors. I think it’s simply the soul of the site – its soil is way redder than elsewhere, and I think the iron content might be causing this smoky character that’s so different from my other vineyards,” Max Dexheimer smiles and lovingly shakes his head at the barrel sample of one of his Pinot Noirs that he’s just served us in his old cellar, half-buried underground below the house where his whole family lives. (For this is a family affair, but more on that later.) “I have my experience with our vineyards and clones, so now I know this is a wine that needs time to open and lose its edge.” In order to do that, this young Pinot enthusiast keeps the wine for some three years in the barrel while having fun with other plots and grapes in the meantime.

Pinot Noir and its different facets and clones are definitely one of Max’s centers of interest–and it’s no wonder. His native Rheinhessen area (one of the Palatinate’s winegrowing regions, located some 40 miles southeast of Frankfurt) boasts limestone terroirs and a favorable continental climate; thanks to his family dexterity (“my granddad was really good at swapping vineyards”) and long history (he’s the 5th generation of a winemaking business started in 1896), Max also enjoys many older vineyards on the coveted white slopes. 

“Yes, I believe we have nice tension in the wines, something I’m aiming for in reds and whites alike. And one of our vineyards is even allegedly planted with some “Romanée Conti” clones, although I suspect the French guy just told me that to sell it at a higher price point,” Max laughs off our hinted comparison. “In the end, my thinking is: do we really need to try to do it like the guys in Burgundy–and fail, or should we try to discover our own way?”

 

An Old-vine Guy

These older plots were the first that Max started to progressively take over and care for after his studies in Geisenheim, and he remains a huge old-vine fan despite its drawbacks. “My dad wanted to rip one site up the other day, as there were more than 1,000 plants missing,  but I said, no, it’s so amazing, we can’t take down a 40-year-old vineyard. Of course we have lower yields, but we started to progressively re-plant them. Old vineyards give you a different experience that makes it absolutely worth adjusting to and keeping it alive–if I want a young-style wine, we do that with our younger vineyards,” Max explains his way of thinking. 

“I think that’s also the advantage of the “natural wine approach” – you shouldn’t be so strict, but rather be conscious of the varying conditions we have every year and then make the best possible wine out of the grapes we have at hand. Not to look at your portfolio and think “we need a Grand Cru Pinot Noir” and push it in there despite the actual raw material. I believe that’s how all the enological additions of sugar, acidifiers and all that stuff started back in the day,” he reflects on the drawbacks of trying to mold wine into what it’s not.

“It’s like with kids,” his partner Marika chimes in, “every kid is different, every wine, every vineyard is different, and we should support them to be who they need to be, like a parent. If you feel like a kid isn’t really good at math, you’re not going to push him into math, you’re going to look at it like, okay, where is your talent?” Marika knows what she’s talking about – not only as a mother, but mainly as a nurturer of a young Pinot Noir vineyard that produces wine that’s “juicier, brighter, more ‘disco’”, from the “baby pinot noir” vines that are supposed to be released under the abbreviation BPN.

She joined the team in what sounds like the most romantic and fateful story – one year, Max had little luck looking for harvest interns, and Marika didn’t end up working where she originally thought she would, so one day she wound up as the sole helping hand at Dexheimer’s. “Somehow, those long night shifts in the cellar helped bring us together,” they laugh. Marika, an experienced Estonian sommelier and wine importer didn’t hesitate to move over (together with her little son, no less) to the small town of Saulheim, where they now work as a strong team with enviable dynamics and adorably obvious love for each other. “Before Marika came, we really lacked people, and I was running around like crazy. Now, I’m still running around like crazy, but somehow we can get the work done by the evening at least,” Max delights. (Another strong contribution by Marika to the success of the operation is her impeccable taste and wine collection – our visit has somehow turned into a sort of pre-harvest party with mags of Foillard and other delicious classics flying around at night.)

 

A Geekily Good Grower (& His Dad)

Despite all this geeky talk about Pinot Noir (that we easily fall for, especially after tasting a little verticale of his archive vintages), Max’s production is just as strongly focused on whites. There’s Riesling, obviously, which is pure, vivid and precise; in the future, Max wants to approach it in a similar way as the reds, with more time and in barrels and single-vineyard bottlings, to showcase once again the diverse personalities of their plots. They also excel at sparkling wine production – their Hannes, a méthode traditionnelle [secondary bottle-fermented] Brut Nature, is so elegant and creamy that you could easily mistake it for a good Grower Champagne in a blind tasting. This is courtesy of long aging on lees (up to 30 months) and the classical triad of grapes, including Pinot Meunier. 

“I’m in a lucky position that my dad was open-minded and planted nice varieties that were rather uncommon in Germany, such as Meunier. It’s not a huge vineyard, but it’s exactly what I need for a nice sparkling wine. When going through my winemaking experiences, I tried it out in 2014 and really loved it – for a certain time it became our daily drink with some friends, so popular that somehow 400 bottles were missing when we later took inventory,” Max laughs. Having downed several bottles of Hannes during our visit, we can’t blame them – this wine, however layered and geek-worthy, also offers a yet-another-sip-inviting acidity and drinks incredibly easily. 

Max also makes a similarly refreshing (although obviously less complex) pet-nat, a style that even inspired his dad – who still produces wine under the family’s traditional Walldorf label – to make his own. “Yeah, he thought it was nice when I first made it and then suddenly, a year later, he made his own to sell it to his ‘classical’ customers,” Max chuckles. Quite a hilarious turn of events – so how is this “conventional winemaking parent–natural wine child” dynamic (by the way, other rising German growers, including our 2naturkinder, Andi Weigand or Piri Naturel share a similar situation) actually playing out in this case, we ask? 

“We both have our specific vineyards that we work with, and those I’ve been taking care of for some 10 years now look very different due to the different soil treatment. [Max was greatly influenced by working with Hans Herzog in Marlborough, who introduced him to biodynamic farming.] But, my dad had already stopped using chemical fertilizers and spraying herbicides 20 years before that, so everything is in really good condition and certified organic. I’ve just made small adjustments and have a different method of pruning, or we of course harvest only by hand, something my father gently mocks us about when the vintage comes and he’s done three times faster than we are,” Dexheimer Jr. grins. But I like the hand-picking process and the quality it brings. There’s no way I’m using a machine harvester myself.” 

Overall, Dexheimer Sr. is very supportive of the new direction, transferring more and more vineyards to the respectful care of his son. The fact that he’s had his own bottling line for a long time is a great help, too. “It was really important for my dad to have the process fully in his own hands, and I benefited from it tremendously as well, as I could really get my first experience with unfiltered wines without having to discuss doing it with a conventional mobile bottling unit, which can sometimes be a challenge,” Max recalls. 

The cellar is progressively becoming more and more Max’s space too – the big old Stückfass barrels are being renovated and filled with more and more pure juice, the best of them guarded by a wooden cat statue. A sort of cross between a cellar totem and Best In Show trophy, this little “Cheshire Cat of Saulheim” is always placed on top of the best barrel from the last vintage. Judging from what we saw and tasted, she’s going to have a tougher and tougher job deciding where to nap in this promising Dexheimer operation.

 

Wines

Hannes Brut Nature — Back to the top

The name of this wine comes from local slang for naughty boy or little rascal – a word that Max apparently heard from his parents a lot when he was little! A couple of decades later, the little rascal is making a stunning méthode traditionnelle sparkling wine that’s so well-behaved and elegant you’d easily take it for a good grower Champagne.

Grapes: Pinot Noir 60%, Chardonnay 30%, Pinot Meunier 10%

Vineyard: limestone. Estate-owned and farmed organically by Max himself

Making of: the current edition is a blend of vintages 2017, 18 and 19. All grapes were hand-harvested, direct pressed, the wines then spontaneously fermented and aged on lees in neutral oak barrels for a varying amount of time. Blended at the beginning of 2020, bottled for the secondary bottle fermentation and left on yeast for 27 months. Disgorged in May 2022, zero sulfur and zero dosage added.

Personality: stunningly pure and enjoyable. Elegant notes of toasted bread, nuts and a little yeasty touch reminiscent of good French bubbles, with a nice velvety texture perfectly intertwined with tiny bubbles, vibrant acidity and mineral finish. Serious yet incredibly easy-drinking, this wine is a much-welcome refresh at any moment of day or tasting – we just can’t get enough.


Riesling — Back to the top

Grapes: Riesling

Vineyard: limestone. Estate-owned and farmed organically by Max himself

Making of: the grapes are hand-harvested and direct pressed. Aged on lees in traditional German “Stückfass” large oak vats. Bottled unfined and unfiltered, with a tiny addition of SO2 (10ppm max).

Personality: ultra charming. Lovely precision with rock-like minerality and refreshingly direct acidity, rounded by a bit of lush peach and velvety texture – a truly enjoyable white wine you’ll enjoy on its own or with all sorts of treats.

 

 

 

 


Pinot Noir — Back to the top 

Grapes: Pinot Noir

Vineyard: limestone. Estate-owned and farmed organically by Max himself

Making of: the grapes are hand-harvested and macerated for 18 days. Gently pressed and then aged on lees in neutral French oak barrels, for 36 months. Bottled unfined and unfiltered, with a tiny addition of SO2 (10ppm max).

Personality: spicy, generously elegant and full of lush fruit – the perfect companion to all sorts of stews or red meat dishes.