A new spirit of experimentation has lifted the Rheinhessen region out of the doldrums, with the potential to become one of the jewels in Germany’s vinous crown, writes Ashika Mathews
While the beauty, purity and elegance of Germany’s best wines have long been appreciated by oenophiles around the world, for some consumers the image of German wine has been dominated by certain large brands such as Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and Black Tower. These mass volume products required industrial grape production, which came mostly from the vast 26,500 hectares that is Germany’s largest winegrowing region – Rheinhessen.
Although these large brands became iconic in their own way they also, sadly, stifled premium production, and other regions such as Mosel and Rheingau raced ahead in terms of quality. In Hugh Johnson’s first edition of “The World Atlas of Wine”, 1971, he talks about unexceptional Sylvaner producing Liebfraumilch from Rheinhessen, a name with no legal connotations and one which could be used for any wine and usually mild, semi-sweet blends. However, he also mentions superb vineyards from the Rheinhessen as famous as Bernkastel in Mosel, around the villages of Nierstein and Bingen.
These Rheinhessen vineyards lost quality and were largely forgotten during the 1970s and ’80s. But since the ’90s there has been a small revolution in the cellars and vines, as has occurred in so many other places around the world which were once associated with bulk production. The revolution has been led from the front by ambitious young winemakers. The Rheinhessen is known for the relatively youthful age of its winemakers, who have brought a dynamism that was badly needed, making it an exciting place for consumers and visitors.
These Rheinhessen vineyards lost quality and were largely forgotten during the 1970s and ’80s. But since the ’90s there has been a small revolution in the cellars and vineyards, as in so many other places in the world associated with bulk production
One of the original band of revolutionary troubadours is Daniel Wagner, a co-founder of Message in a Bottle, a collective of winegrowers who wanted to share their new style of wines with consumers and each other. They have now been succeeded by the group JunGen. Daniel’s eponymous winery Wagner-Stempel is located in the northwest corner of Rheinhessen in Siefersheim. He is in the fortunate position of owning swathes of two Grosse Lage (Grand Cru) sites called Heerkretz and Höllberg. He started in 1992 and has evolved from being meticulously technical and precise in the early days, using only stainless steel and inoculating with yeast, to understanding his vines and fruit in a more instinctive way, allowing him to relax and let the wines express themselves. His calling card wine is a Riesling called Porphyr – the name of the volcanic soil here – which is a blend of the two Grosse Lage sites. The wine is quite magnificent with saline minerality, juicy acidity and intense fruit concentration.
The Heerkretz vineyard is part of a project between Daniel and young winemakers, Matthias and Christian Runkel, who took over their family winery, Weingut Bischel, in 2006 and radically changed the set up, selling off 60% of the wine in bulk. They now own a piece of a Grosse Lage vineyard near Bingen called Scharlachberg (singled out by Hugh Johnson in the 1971 “World Atlas of Wine”). The soil here on this south-facing hill is quartz and slate, which lowers the pH and gives the Riesling a nervy, thrilling energy, as well as some sand, which absorbs heat and adds powerful structure.
The brothers have swapped a small piece of this vineyard for an equivalent piece of Daniel’s Heerkretz. It is fascinating to taste their wines together because although the winemaking is ostensibly the same, the final expressions are notably distinct. The winemakers themselves explain this by pointing to the wild yeasts that are present, not just in the vineyards but also in the wineries themselves. What
ever the alchemy, the results speak for themselves and all the wines tasted here are delicious but very different.
Founded in 1910, the VDP is the oldest national association of German fine wine producing estates. There are currently 200 members from all over Germany with strict regulations and entry requirements. Estates are monitored for five years before they can join and are audited every five years after that. It is the wine estate, rather than the site, that is accredited. Therefore, as Weingut Bischel is not yet a member (though they soon should be) they cannot put Grosses Gewachs (GG, a dry Grosse Lage) on the label of their Scharlachberg or Heerkretz, while Daniel Wagner can.
It is pleasing to see experimental ideas and congenial relationships between winemakers as they support and inspire each other, each new wave further augmenting the region’s re-acquired reputation for quality. However, it is not only the new mavericks making waves in the region. Weingut Schloss Westerhaus is a 17th century castle on a hill overlooking the town of Ingleheim. The Opel family has owned this stunning estate since 1900 and the current inhabitants are Count and Countess Johannes von Schönberg-Glauchau. The Count is hands-on, supported by his winemaker, Toni Frank. History is alive within the walls of this magnificent place but the wines are entirely modern with small tanks to keep parcels separate and experiment with different levels of skin contact, oak treatments, yeasts and varieties. It is a precise example of the evolution in the region.
Weingut Schloss Westerhaus is a 17th century castle on a hill overlooking the town of Ingleheim. The Opel family has owned this stunning estate since 1900
The 2015 Riesling GG – from 30 to 50 year old vines – is stunning with piercing lime intensity supported by a creamy lush texture achieved by leaving the wine on full lees right up until bottling, without any racking. The most exciting part of the tasting was a bottle of 2008 from the same GG vineyard. It is an anomaly that German consumers, on the whole, prefer their Riesling as young as possible, when it has one of the greatest capacities for ageing of any white variety. The 10-year-old Riesling still seemed youthfully energetic with the lime and salty minerality of the 2015 but with evolved complex, nutty, quince and spice aromas and flavours. The youthful austerity replaced with seductive toastiness. A fascinating wine that continued to reveal itself in the glass as I returned to it over the next hour.
Of course, it is not only about white wines here in the Rheinhessen. Weingut J Neus has a reputation as a virtuoso of Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir). The original founder of the winery came from the Mosel and began his business as a wine merchant, but the vines proved irresistible and soon vineyards were purchased and production replaced trading. The Schmitz family bought the property, with its grand villa and English styled country garden, in 2013. They immediately began making necessary changes to improve the quality, including picking earlier for better balance with alcohol levels, lowering yields and replacing old clones which may have historical value but are otherwise limited.
Here, Riesling is slowly being phased out in favour of the Burgundy varieties, also known as the Pinot family. Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc) is given a status in Germany it rarely enjoys elsewhere while Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) is inversely less valued. But it is the Spätburgunder that is of real interest. As Burgundy moves further and further out of the reach of most budgets, there are alternative Pinot Noirs being made in many parts of the world which, however, usually retain the distinctive sweetness of New World fruit. In Germany, this querulous variety has a dry, earthy savouriness and plump silkiness combined with a muscular yet featherlight structure that evokes true Burgundy. Not to say that these are, or want to be facsimiles, but they have something recognisably European about them.
This is only a snapshot of a region in an exciting phase of development with much more to discover. There seems no doubt that Rheinhessen has the potential to become one of the jewels in Germany’s vinous crown alongside its illustrious neighbours. The varieties and styles are particularly versatile with different cuisines, and are delicious in youth but reward cellaring and remain terrific value.