NEW ZEALAND (Wairarapa) – He studied viticulture during the 1970ies at Geisenheim University. Then he worked as winemaker in England for a few years, at a time when viticulture was of no importance yet. But then the busy bee was longing for home, where he, together with his wife Irene, founded a wine estate in Bischoffingen am Kaiserstuhl in 1985. He soon attracted attention because he worked a lot – and skilled – with barriques and even vinified Müller-Thurgau in new wooden barriques. His models were the wines from Burgundy, powerful, elegant growths with a slight wooden touch (which 30 years ago irritated wine testers).
Johner made it to the top. Today, his 17-hectares estate belongs to the leading wine estates in Baden. But some day, the Kaiserstuhl region became somewhat too strait. It was good luck that Patrick, his son (born in 1972) was also interested in viticulture, also studied viticulture, and his father thought he also should get to know the new world. So, they traveled together to Australia and other countries. During one of these trips, Karl Heinz Johner saw a for sale ad: 50 hectare of vineyards in New Zealand for a converted 220,000 DM. He contacted the seller…
The offer fast turned out to be unserious. But Johner got into contact with other people, for a while he even reflected about a partnership with a German colleague. The plans crushed due to different views. But the temptation to harvest twice a year and to leave the winter in Germany behind led him to the decision to establish a wine estate in New Zealand. He knew that the Kaiserstuhl estate was in safe keeping. He started with 14 hectare in Wairarapa Valley, near Wellington, the capital.
The man from Baden was fascinated by the new experience of making wines in a climate different from that in the Kaiserstuhl region, with cool nights and steady wind. The vines are planted close to each other, the grapes are strictly reduced, like at the Kaiserstuhl. In general, the yield is half the amount as in Germany. They are targeting for a style of their own. Many New Zealand wines are true beefcakes with a lot of alcohol. Above all the white wines produced by Johner Estate, like Sauvignon blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, are rather slim, playful, juicy. They go down well. The basic Pinot noir, too, can be a lightweight. The higher qualities as well as Syrah and cuvees often become powerful and forceful. His customers like his sparklings (blanc de blanc und blanc den noir). And the Pinot rosé, which smells of strawberries, is the first wine to be sold out each year. The Pinot noir red wines are pretty stable. The 2006 and 2010 vintages, which he is storing in a cooled container (his improvised “treasury”), showed themselves very charming during a tasting on the spot.
The 65 year-old man extended the vineyard to 27 hectare, which are not planted completely yet; thus, he is part of the boom of New Zealand’s wine business. During the past 25 years, the area has grown from just under 5,000 hectare to far more than 30,000 hectare, the number has grown from over 100 to about 600 today. This led to turnover problems and to manpower shortage in wine business at times. Johner’s most important distribution market is Germany (45 percent of the New Zealand harvest). And he hired winemaker Raphael Burki from Switzerland as administrator on the spot; Burki is as diligent as to allow Johner to leave him alone for seven months every year. He spends a prolonged period on the wine estate three times a year, mostly during summer. “When we have winter in Germany, he becomes depressed, so, he has a good reason to travel again”, Irene, his indulgent wife, laughs. Sometimes, the journey to New Zealand or back is exhausting. He has to cope with a journey taking 36 hours, and with a time lag of 12 hours. Recently, in December, Johner arrived in Baden after as long as 60 hours because a plane had to be diverted, so, he missed the connection flight…
He probably had preferred to spend Christmas in New Zealand instead. The wine estate does not include a palace, unlike some other estates which you pass by when you go to the secluded Johner Estate. There is a niche wine shop and one more building, which includes apartments, storehouses, the container for the ripe wines – that’s all. “But I’m pleased with that”, the guy from Baden is beaming; he is happy when private customers come to the estate for free wine tastings, thus, gaining new buyers thanks to his generosity, which in New Zealand is not natural.
From time to time, colleagues from Germany and from other countries come to visit him. For instance, the guestbook contains an entry by Ernst Triebaumer and Margarethe, his wife, from Rust, Burgenland. Ernst – just under 70 years old and already a legendary vintner because he once caused a red “big bang” in Austria by his 1986 Blaufränkisch Mariental – can today afford something like a trip to New Zealand. He wrote into the guestbook: “Great compliment for the quality of the wines. Good look at the end of the world.” (rudolf.knoll)