Tobias Köninger, 42, is an ecological winegrower from Kappelrodeck, a small village at the foothills of the Northern Black Forest in South-West Germany. This year, his vineyard has won two prizes for the best Riesling wine in the area. Right now, his vineyard is in a two-year testing phase to convert from conventional to ecological winegrowing. Julia talks to him about why he decided to make the switch to organic, the ups and downs in his journey and why the harvest season now starts earlier than ever.
“We nominated three of our wines for the ‘TOP TEN Riesling 2020’ award for the best Riesling wines in the Ortenau,” says Tobias Köninger while we sit in the reception room of his vineyard. Köninger is a pioneer in the field of organic winegrowing in the district where he lives and the only organic winegrower in his village which is well known for its wines. Compared to the 30°C outside, the reception room is pleasantly cool, and to my left is a shelf full of Köninger’s wine selection. He tells me that everyone was surprised when his Riesling ‘Lösswand’ won the first place of the wine competition. “Even the jury was surprised. Normally wines that were grown on granite soil win the competition, but our Riesling ‘Lösswand’ was grown on sandy soil,” he explains.
Soil, naturally, is one of the most important factors when growing vines. “It’s our capital,” says Köninger and adds, “with going organic, the water availability is better because we sow herbs and clover in the rows between our vines.” This adds biodiversity and makes for better humus – the dark materials in soils which are produced by the decomposition of plant matter and are essential to the fertility of the earth – which is especially important during dry periods. Weather and sun are mostly the same where Köninger grows his vines, but the soil is always different. “The soil needs to be tastable,” he tells me. “Minerals from our granite or sandy soil dissolve from the stone and ends up in the wine through the vines.”
The state Baden-Württemberg where Köninger’s vineyard is situated wants to increase the area of organic agriculture to 30 to 40 per cent till 2030. At the moment, it’s 13,2 per cent. “Politicians should listen to experts with knowledge on expanding ecological agriculture and only implement it in areas where it’s feasible,” thinks Köninger. Roughly nine per cent of Germany’s wine-growing fields are organic. Köninger is one of the people to bring forward the continuing growth of organic winegrowing in Germany. For now, he will continue his two-year testing phase no matter the consequences. “Afterwards, I want to certify the whole vineyard. This is a pilot project, especially in the region here,” he tells me.
It started as a childhood dream
Köninger gets his enthusiasm for the job from his parents. “My parents were winegrowers and had a distillery. As a child, I wanted to become a winegrower myself, so I started an apprenticeship when I was 16 years old.” For three years, Köninger spent his time learning at three vineyards. He even spent one year at an ecological vineyard. “In 1995, that was pioneer work,” he says. When the widowed owner of the first vineyard he apprenticed at asked him to provide her with wine, he started his own vineyard.
Every alternate row, Tobias Köninger sows herbs and clover to increase biodiversity and water availability. Photo: Julia Brunner
In 2017, Köninger first tried to make the switch from conventional winegrowing to ecological. The attempt failed because of the location of some of his vines who are in steep hillsides. “In 2017 we couldn’t drive into those hills with our machinery to bring out organic plant protection measures like sulphur or backing powder,” he explains to me. Therefore, he lost too many grapes.
This time, Köninger is working with a holistic concept: he will transform the hillside areas that are too steep into meadows for bees. He will continue growing vines in areas that are less steep. “Here in Kappelrodeck where we live, we have the problem of many steep hillsides,” Köninger says. “I can decide to transform some of my fields to meadows and use my remaining fields for growing vines, but not every winegrower here can switch from conventional to ecological winegrowing. It could mean a total loss of harvest for them!”
Climate change challenges farmers
Climate change is one major reason why every farmer cannot go organic, he adds. “It’s very difficult for agriculture overall, but for our vines here it’s actually good because we have a long dry period during summer,” Köninger says. However, it is questionable for how much longer climate change will have a positive effect on winegrowing in the region. “We lack water. Also, we’ve had dry periods before, but none with over 40°C,” explains Köninger.
Having healthy vines and grapes are the the most important thing for Tobias Köninger. Photo: Julia Brunner
When asked, Köninger tells me that there is no difference in the taste of conventionally or ecologically grown wine. “The goal for me is to have healthy grapes that are healthy without chemical pest management,” he explains. Generally, there are three differences when going ecological. “We no longer use glyphosate to get rid of grass that grows where our vines are. Alternatives are hacking or mowing the grass.” Köninger also does not uses chemical-synthetic agents. “We now use contact agents like sulphur, copper or backing powder to protect our vines,” adds Köninger. For his 10 hectares of vines that add 20 to 22 hours more for one plant protection measure. Compared to conventional winegrowers, he needs to do three to four measures more, so roughly 80 hours of work that they don’t have to do.
After our talk, Köninger shows me where some of his wine barrels are stored before we go outside. Directly behind his house are the first of his vine fields. Between every alternate row are the herbs and clover he told me about earlier. The first week of September will be exhausting when Köninger starts harvesting the grapes. “Due to the high temperatures we can now only harvest in the early morning,” he says while we walk back to the cold rooms of his vineyard. “And due to climate change, the harvest season starts earlier than ever.”