Wilhelm Haag, of the Fritz Haag winery on the Mosel, one of Germany’s most famous riesling producers and nominal market leader in the region, died on December 16, 2020 after a new outbreak of cancer. He was 83 years old.
In a statement issued by the Association of German Wine Estates Prädikat (VDP), he was described as “one of the greatest wine personalities of the 20th century and the father of the German wine revolution.”
News of Haag’s death slowly seeped into the international wine community. Haag died in the middle of the second national work stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic in Germany. According to his son Oliver Haag, the family decided not to announce the death to discourage gatherings, as the funeral was very limited.
Haag was born in 1937 into a family whose history of viticulture in the Moselle region dates back to 1605. The Fritz Haag winery, located in the heart of the Moselle, is the showpiece of Brauneberg, a village that takes its name from the majestic brown slope of ferruginous shale that rises above the Moselle. Brauneberg’s two Gewächse, Juffer and Juffer Sonnenuhr, have in the past produced many of Germany’s finest Rieslings.
Haag took over the winery from Fritz Haag in 1957, when he was 20 years old, after his father fell ill. At the time, it was a small and respected winery that carried out various agricultural activities in addition to winemaking.
The age of the Haag coincided with a period of feverish industrialization and transition to large-scale wine production in Germany. In the decades following World War II, labor-intensive viticulture in the steep, slate-covered historic Moselle vineyards was increasingly abandoned in favor of highly productive mechanized practices on the newly created plains.
Hectares of historic Riesling vines have been uprooted in favor of new grape varieties grown for higher yields and uniform ripening.
The work of Haag’s two sons and their families also made Moselle famous. Courtesy of the vineyard Fritz Haag
In fierce opposition, Haag “fought passionately for tradition and quality,” says Oliver. Haag dedicated the estate’s activities exclusively to the cultivation of Riesling, the only grape variety he believes expresses the inimitable “delicacy, elegance and mineral purity” of the Moselle, Oliver says. “Product after product,” Oliver says, he has expanded the estate’s operations into a few vineyards, concentrating his production on “a small number of artisan grapes and artisan wines of exceptional quality.
According to Kirk Willy, president of Fritz Haag’s U.S. importer, Loosen Bros. Haag’s characteristic insistence on “absolute and uncompromising quality” was the driving force behind the reputation of Moselle wines during Haag’s 20 years as president of the Grosser Ring, the Moselle branch of the VDP, from 1984 to 2004.
Haag forced the regional association to impose strict quality requirements as a condition for membership in the POS. The early commitment to preserving the origins of old, isolated vineyard sites and traditional grape varieties reflects the origin-based classification framework that the PDV now represents throughout Germany.
It was a big challenge, Willie said, but one that Haag approached, not as “a general who tells his people what to do, but as a collaborator.
At the heart of Haag’s heritage is the winemaking fame that his two sons and their families brought to the Moselle. Since 2005, Oliver and his wife Jessica have continued to build Weingut Fritz Haag’s reputation by focusing on dry wines. Wilhelm’s eldest son, Thomas, and his daughter-in-law Ute are known for their spectacular transformation of the Weingut Schloss Lieser, a historic wine estate in Lieser that had suffered from decades of decline. In recent years, Thomas’ children, Lara and Niklas, have also played a role.
Wilhelm was known for his exceptionally strong handshake, “a firm bear hug that conveyed his intense joie de vivre directly to your bones,” describes Willie. It was “an expression of friendship that was deeply personal,” Oliver says, so much so that “shaking hands last year was incredibly difficult for him because of the coronavirus.
Wilhelm Haag’s next of kin include Ilse, his 55-year-old wife, their sons, daughters-in-law and five grandchildren.