A DIFFERENT BACKYARD
Different in size and scope, and separated only by the Rhine river, the regions of Rheingau and Rheinhessen showcase the unique winemaking styles of Germany’s wine country
The regions of Rheingau and Rheinhessen showcase the unique winemaking styles of Germany’s wine country
You may struggle to find the winegrowing region of Rheingau on a map. Straddling the northern bank of the Rhine River, Rheingau is one of Germany’s smallest wine regions, with just 3,000 hectares under vine. On the other hand, Rheinhessen, located just across the river, is the country’s biggest wine region with 27,000 hectares under vine. The marked contrast in acreage between neighbouring wine areas is a characteristic of Germany’s viticultural topography. Largely concentrated in the country’s southwestern corner, the seemingly interconnected wine regions resemble a straw-blown paintwork of irregular streaks—its longest trail of Baden stretches all the way down to the Swiss border—with an epicentre emanating from the Rhine.
The Rhine Valley is Riesling territory. The mineral-rich slate soils on the banks and hillsides, which lend the wine a steely freshness, are prime estate for Riesling producers. Rheingau, tiny as it may be, has a big reputation for making some of Germany’s finest Rieslings: 78 per cent of its vineyards are dedicated to Riesling, while the remainder are planted with Muller Thurgau and Spätburgunder, the German moniker for Pinot Noir.
More than 30 per cent of Rheingau’s vineyards are classified as Erstes Gewächs, the Rheingau equivalent of Grosse Gewächs or First Growths. Located just 35 minutes away from Frankfurt Airport, the region is also easy to explore, its small size allowing you to check off a few wine estates in a day.
Rheingau’s Oestrich-Winkel is a quiet town with cobbled streets, which squeak under vehicle tyres in wet weather—or, in our case, a late March snowfall; a meteorological hangover of the severe winter that blighted Europe this year. Oestrich-Winkel is also home to Peter Jakob Kühn, a family estate with a history of more than 200 years. Angela and Peter Jakob, the estate’s 11th generation of vintners, and their son Peter Bernhard manage the winery and its 20 hectares of vineyards.
The estate received its Demeter certification for biodynamic agriculture in 2004. “In the 1990s, we stopped the use of chemicals [in the vineyards] and began to notice a better intensity of flavours in the grapes. We were convinced that organic winemaking works,” says Angela. “At the start of the new millennium, we took the biodynamic approach as it creates a natural balance in the vineyard.”
Angela and her team took their cues from Rudolf Steiner, the late Austrian philosopher who advocated biodynamic farming. When the vines start to bear fruit, horn silica (finely ground quartz) is sprayed over them as it is believed that their mist gives a luminous quality to the plants, which help them absorb more sunlight. They also prepare their own compost—a mix of animal manure, green waste, and grape pomace—to nourish their vines.
“The compost creates organic matter or humus that allows vine roots to grow and receive more nutrients,” says Angela. “This gives our wines a strong structure and an intense aroma.” The estate’s Rieslings, whether they come from the basic Orstwein or premium Erste Lage tier, have a consistent taut line of acidity. The Riesling Trocken
2016 from their Hallgartener Hendelberg vineyard is particularly impressive, thanks to its minerally, floral finish that lingers on the palate.
2016 was largely considered a good vintage for many in Rheingau, despite a heavy rainfall in July. Late summer brought plenty of good weather, allowing the grapes to attain optimal maturity. “2016 was a dream for us as we had good ripeness and balance [in the wines],” says Reiner Flick, winemaker of Weingut Joachim Flick in the town of FlörsheimWicker in eastern Rheingau. “In contrast, 2017 posed a great problem with the frost damage,” he adds. “We lost 40 per cent of our crop and had the lowest yield—about 38 hectolitres per hectare—in the history of our estate.”
Weingut Joachim Flick, which occupies a
700-year-old mill, produces 180,000 bottles a year. Like the Kühns, Reiner focuses on Rieslings: 80 per cent of his vineyards are planted with the white grape. The Wicker Nonnberg and Könign Victoriaberg vineyards are undoubtedly his prized plots, offering Rieslings with perfumed notes and savoury accents. The Wicker Nonnberg ‘Vier Morgen’ Riesling 2016 is memorable with its velvety, floral layers and a long, herbaceous finish.
“EVERYTHING WE DO IS LIKE [WHAT YOU’D SEE] IN CHAMPAGNE; WE HAVE THE SAME PHILOSOPHY AND THE SAME GRAPES.”
RED GEMS OF RHEINHESSEN
Unlike other estates in the region of Rheinhessen, Wasem Wein in Ingelheim am Rhein makes more red than white wines. “Red wines make up two-thirds of our portfolio, which is quite an uncommon offering when you consider that 70 per cent of Rheinhessen’s vineyards are devoted to white grapes,” says Philipp Wasem, the 300-year-old winery’s fourth generation vintner. “It’s because of our sandy soils—they heat up during the day and retain their warmth at night. They also don’t hold water well, which encourages the roots to grow deeper. Such conditions make the soils ideal for growing red wines.”
Spätburgunders form the bulk of Wasem Wein’s red wines, but Philipp says it is Frühburgunder—also known as Pinot Noir Precoce and the euphonious Pinot Madeleine—that is “very special” for the winery. The dark-skinned grape is an early ripening mutation of Pinot Noir and was popular in the 1960s until its susceptibility to diseases pushed it to the brink of obscurity in the 70s. Fortunately, Rheingau-based Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute rescued it by propagating new virus-resistant clones. Today, the grape is making a comeback, thanks to a new generation of winemakers like Philipp who are keen to give this supple, savoury quaff the platform it deserves.
“We get about 3,000 litres per hectare of Frühburgunder, so it’s not a lot. It is the first variety we begin our vintage with: it ripens six weeks earlier than Spätburgunder and produces very small berries that are quite sweet,” explains Philipp. “Normally, with wine grapes you get about four seeds per berry—and seeds correlate to berry size. With Frühburgunder, you get only one seed in it.”
Over at Weingut J. Bettenheimer, winemaker and Gesenheim alumnus Jens Bettenheimer, who took over the reins of his family winery recently, makes Frühburgunder, too. His Schlossberg Blauer Frühburgunder 2014 comes from a southeast-facing slope and is fermented with wild yeast before undergoing barrel maturation for 20 months. The wine is light-bodied with subtle touches of soy, cherries and strawberries. You can call it “Spatburgunder-lite”; think mellow Tom Hanks, not brooding Christian Bale. Despite Frühburgunder’s renaissance, Jens thinks it can be rather problematic to work with as the grape is a magnet for Drosophila suzukii or Suzuki fruit flies.
Jens adopts organic and biodynamic winemaking practices, but chooses not to get his winery certified, allowing him to intervene when the weather runs afoul. He is also reducing his use of copper in the vineyards. “My mother is part of the old generation of vintners who think reducing the yield is strange,” he says, chuckling. “Sometimes, she wonders why we don’t spray enough in the vineyard.”
In the town of Flörsheim-Daisheim, the organic winemaking estate of Raumland is making a name for itself as one of the country’s best Sekt (sparkling wine) producers. The amicable owner, Volker Raumland, makes bubblies from grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc and Riesling. He also uses méthode champenoise or secondary fermentation method in the bottle, instead of the Charmat or tank technique employed by the majority of Sekt producers.
“Everything we do is like [what you’d see] in Champagne; we have the same philosophy and the same grapes,” says Volker, who founded the winery in 1990 and produces 100,000 bottles a year. “The only difference is our grapes are grown on limestone, and not chalk, soil. Our earth is more like Burgundy’s.”
The limestone contributes a minerally character to many of Raumland’s sparklers. Volker’s Marie-Luise Brut NV—named after his daughter—is a Pinot Noir cuvée that offers rich, fruity aromas, vibrant flinty notes and a delicate, silky texture. (It is the kind of sparkling wine you’d like to serve blind to a bunch of Champagne diehards.) The estate’s non-vintage ambrosias are aged on the lees for at least three years, while the Prestige line of vintage sparklers are kept on the lees for a minimum of six years.
Twice a year, Volker makes the 350km drive to Champagne to gather some winemaking inspiration, noting that there is much to learn from their friends across the border. Indeed, it is such open-mindedness and humility that give German winemakers an edge over their European counterparts.