Natural wine opens a path to profits

One winery has accelerated growth and profitability after exploring the natural wine scene. Simon Woolf talks to Jan Matthias Klein of Staffelter Hof in the Mosel.

Jan Matthias Klein/Horiz
Jan Matthias Klein/Horiz

Here’s what it doesn’t say in the secret instruction manual for great commercial success as a winery: Launch a new line of cloudy natural wines, made with no added sulphites and adorned with offbeat arty labels. But that’s exactly what enabled Jan Matthias Klein to scale his family’s business and more than double profits. 

Although Mosel winery Staffelter Hof can trace its history back to the year 862 AD, it has little else that marks it out from the valley’s other 3,200 wineries, which are typically small, traditional and focused on classic Riesling and Pinot Noir styles. Klein took over operations and winemaking from his father in 2005 and set about trying to find a point of difference.

His first innovation was the conversion to organic viticulture (2011-2014), Then came the creation of a wine-based mixed drink, with a partner: Mari, a blend of Riesling, mate tea and elderflower. Mari (“Follow the Llama”) launched in 2013 but failed to take the world by storm. Klein admits that “we just couldn’t figure out how to make it scale”.

In 2014, something happened that “changed everything” as Klein puts it. He’d been following the developing online controversy around natural wine. “People were talking about it on social media, complaining about all the faults in natural wines and so on” he says. He decided “maybe I’ll just try to make one and then I’ll have a better understanding [in order] to discuss it with the evangelicals.”

Klein decided if it was going to be ‘natural’, that meant “zero zero, no added sulphites, nothing”. He also opted to go all out with his top vineyard, Kröv Steffensberg. As he explains “I wanted to make something good, so I chose pretty much my best fruit. I was already thinking about what I needed to do to get away with no added sulphur. So I did a 12-hour skin maceration, then fermented it in an old barrel with a lot of lees stirring.”

The wine was bottled by hand, as Madcap Magnus — Magnus is the name of a legendary wolf that forms Kröv’s village emblem. He also commissioned a new label, from friend Aaron Scheuer, a local craftsman who specialises in upcycling. “I visited Aaron’s workshop and started looking at some sketchbooks he had from his time in Hamburg” says Klein. “They were sketches for themed rooms at a brothel. I loved the style!”

Klein had no real plan to sell his new creation, but explains, “I put a price tag on it and luckily there was some interest in the press.” He quickly picked up Finnish and British importers who were looking for natural wines from the Mosel, and easily sold all 1,250 bottles. His pre-existing Canadian distributor showed interest, but asked if he could make a cheaper, more easy going natural wine.

The result was Little Bastard, first made in 2016. A Riesling- and Sauvignon Blanc-heavy blend, it is also unfiltered and without any additions, but more youthful and less oxidative in style than Madcap Magnus. After the first vintage sold quickly (with another great label from Scheuer), Klein scaled up production to 5,000 bottles in 2017 and also added a ‘natural’ Pinot Noir, “Little Red Riding Wolf”, to the range. “I could see it was going somewhere by 2017,” he says. Klein started picking up importers in new markets such as Asia and the US, and “in some places the interest came through the natural wines, but they also now buy our classic wines.”

A bumper harvest in 2018 enabled him to broaden the natural wines range further, to 10 different labels. This now totals 20,000 bottles and represents about 30% of the winery’s total output and a higher proportion of its turnover. “The natural wines are priced about 50% higher than the classic wines” Klein says, “as obviously a bit more effort has to go into them.”

Not wanting to turn his back on the classic styles, Klein has segmented his brand. The natural wines are marketed just as Jan Matthias Klein, while the classic styles continue under the Staffelter Hof moniker. “It’s so I don’t have problems in countries where I have a different importer for each range” he explains.

How would Staffelter Hof have developed as a business without this surprise deviation into natural wine? “Financially, it would have taken me a lot longer to develop the export business to where I am now,” says Klein, “Our turnover has doubled in the last four years and a lot of that is due to the natural wines.”
Klein was no natural wine fanatic at the start of his adventure, but just wanted to understand the concept of minimal intervention winemaking (the term he prefers over ‘natural’). “I’m still very passionate about my classic wines, because Mosel is unique” he says, “but natural is where I can just go crazy and try things that would otherwise be seen as wrong.” 

In 2019, Klein also began attending natural wine fairs as an exhibitor. Does he like drinking natural wines himself? “Actually I started really enjoying them because there are more good ones being made now!”

Simon Woolf

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