Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Visting the Rheingau - Part One

Vineyards along the Rhine River across from the town of Bingen (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

It had been far too long a wait, but I finally made it to Germany to visit wine regions. I had been on German soil, so to speak, dozens of times, but it was always to connect to a flight to Italy or back home to Chicago. How nice then that in early July, I was able to land at the Frankfurt airport and head to the baggage claim after having my passport stamped, instead of connecting to another flight!

I visited two regions over the course of three days, the Rheingau and the Rheinhessen, both named for their proximity to the Rhine River. This post will be part one about my time in the Rheingau; I'll write about my experience in the Rheinhessen soon.

While the Rheingau is one of the most famous and certainly one of the very best in terms of wine quality, it's also one of the smallest. The region's vineyards are situated just north of the Rhine River, taking a west to east orientation along the river. The large cities of Wiesbaden (north of the river) and Mainz (south) are at the far eastern boundaries of the region.

Vineyards at Johannisberg (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The towns that give their names to the most celebrated wines of the Rheingau are quite famous in their own right, names such as Johannisberg, Eltville, Erbach and Rauenthal, to mention just a few. The primary grape here - as it is throughout much of Germany - is Riesling, though the village of Assmannshausen, near the junction of the Rhine and Nahe rivers, is well known for its Pinot Noirs. Some estates also produce smaller amounts of Grauburgunder- aka Grauer Burgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc).

I visited four producers during my brief stay. Here are notes on two of these producers and the wines I tasted (I will profile the other two producers in my next post):

Georg Breuer (Rudesheim) - This outstanding estate, founded in 1880, has been owned by the Breuer family since the early 20th century. I met with Theresa Breuer, the granddaughter of Georg, who managed the firm for several decades. 

The wines here are very clean with admirable varietal purity; I was quite impressed with the 2009 Grauer Burgunder, which seemed much younger than five years old. This was a example of this variety with very fine texture, something not seen in most examples. The 2011 Spatburgunder is a pleasant wine with attractive wild cherry and iodine notes; though not meant for cellaring, this is a fine choice for the next 2-3 years.

Of course, it was the Rieslings that stood out here. Especially nice is the 2013 "Charm" Riesling, sourced from grapes from both Rauenthal and Rudesheim. This is a wonderful, absolutely delicious entry level Riesling with notes of white peach, lilacs and a touch of honey. There is very good acidity - a trademark of the very fine 2013 vintage, so this should retain its freshness over the next 3-5 years. It's also a wonderful value, priced at 9.50 Euro; this was a welcome sight, as quality Riesling is not inexpensive to produce, especially in this area.

One of my favorite wines at Breuer was the 2012 Rudesheim Estate Riesling with its inviting yellow peach and apricot aromas (classic Rheingau perfumes) and ripe, almost lush fruit. The wine has lovely complexity, with just a hint of sweetness and very good acidity; look for this wine to drink well for 7-10 years.

Kellerwelt (tasting room) at Breuer

Then it was on to the single vineyard Rieslings at Breuer. The top wines for me were the 2011 Rauenthaler Nonnenberg, a monopole of Breuer and the 2011 Berg Rottland Auslese. The former is designated as Trocken, meaning dry. (This descriptor has been used in conjunction with the praedikat designations of Kabinett and Spatlese, e.g., in the past, but will now be listed by itself,  if at all - see final section of this post below for further explanation).

The Nonnenberg Trocken offers the classic yellow peach and apricot aromas along with a hint of magnolia and has a very rich mid-palate and excellent complexity and a long, long finish. Here is a beautifully precise Riesling that truly speaks of the local terroir - this should age beautifully for 10-12 years.

The Berg (berg simply means "hill") Rottland Auslese has classic Rheingau aromas of apricot along with some tropical notes of mango along with flowery nuances of magnolias and lilacs. Medium-full with excellent concentration, there is also a delicate honeyed character on the palace and in the finish. This has outstanding complexity and a lengthy finish that has moderate sweetness, as there is very good acidity that cleans the palate. This is an outstanding sweet wine which can be enjoyed now, but will reveal greater complexities in 10-12 years.

I also loved their 2006 Brut, a blend of the Pinots - Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. Most people don't realize that Germany is the world's leading producer of sparkling wine, known as sekt; fewer still realize that most of these wines are made from grapes imported from other countries. Of course, these sparkling wines are for supermarkets; they do not reflect much, if any, character.

Thankfully, there are producers of sparkling wine in Germany that make wine according to the classic method, where the secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle. This is an excellent sparking wine of impressive complexity, very good persistence and style. Quite dry, this is beautifully made and will be a pleasure to drink for the next 3-5 years.

I also enjoyed the wines of Leitz, a small cellar located in Rudesheim, managed by 50 year-old Johannes Leitz, who has been at the helm here since 1985. Today, the firm has 40 hectares (100 acres) of vineyards of some of the most prized sites in the Rheingau.

The first wine I sampled here was the cleverly titled Eins-Zwei-Dry from the 2013 vintage. A trocken Riesling, this is a straightforward and charming wine; Letiz explained the name by telling me that he wanted his customers know that Riesling can be dry (and that he produces one). It's tasty, with simple charms and at 8.50 Euro, it's nicely priced.

The best wines here are quite rich with a distinct minerality that the finest German Rieslings are known for. A first-rate example of that at Leitz - at least for me on this occasion - was the 2013 Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling (trocken). This particular site is at the far western end of the Rheingau where the river turns north; the vineyard has a southwestern exposure and sits just a few hundred feet above the river banks.

Along with beautiful aromas of peach, there is also a strong note of flint, derived no doubt from the blue slate soil. Medium-full with excellent concentration, this has rich minerality, big persistence, very good acidity and excellent complexity; this should drink well for 7-10 years.

Even better was the 2012 Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Spatlese, a wine with only 8% alcohol. Offering intriguing aromas of petrol, guava and honey, this is a bright and delicious wine with a rich mid-palate, very good acidity and a lengthy finish with just a hint of sweetness. This should be in fine shape for 10-12 years more; in my opinion, this is a classic, first-rate Spatlese.


One of the things I learned on this trip was the recent shift as far as labeling German wines. The trend is to move away from the Prädikat designations of the 1971 German wine law; now wines would be named by quality level - entry level, commune (town) wines and finally single vineyard wines (lage). Of this last category, the absolute best vineyards, basically the Grand Cru would be known as Grosse Lage, with a few select wines being classified as Grosses Gewächs (G.G.) - great growths.

Also the term trocken is written on some wines, while not on others; the belief here from producers is that if the wine is not a Spatlese or Auslese, it is dry. Thus in their mind, their wine would not need the term trocken. Yet some producers believe it should be written on a label. 

It's all a bit confusing, even for some Germans that closely follow their country's wines. Hopefully this will all be straightened out soon.


Next post on the Rheingau: Robert Weil and Staatsweinguter

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