02 May A Travel Itinerary for Rheingau: My Successful Fieldtrip
I’ve waxed poetic about my recent trip to Rheingau in both written and podcast form, but in a general way. I didn’t talk specifics about where and what to drink, which I know you probably want to know, especially since most of these producers have wines available in places other than Germany. So in this post I’ll review the highlights of my recent trip, exclusively discussing producers I visited!
I had great success on the trip. Each Weingut (wine-GOOT, German for winery) I visited had a different style and a different vibe, but all embodied the essence of Rheingau one way or another.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’ll say once again that I owe the itinerary to Wines of Germany (especially Michael in Germany and Laura Walker in NY!)! I added input, but they also made great suggestions and helped make this superstar lineup possible. So without further ado, here’s a great itinerary of what to drink with background on all the producers, should you ever find yourself in Rheingau or with unfettered access to the top producers’ wines!
I started my trip at the legendary Weingut Robert Weil. Instantly recognizable by their pretty,
Tiffany-blue capsule and label, these wines are some of the finest in Rheingau.
The winery is not on the Rhine River, but in the sleepy village of Kiedrich, which is three miles from the river on the south slope of the Taunus mountain range. Grapes for wine have been growing in this place since at the late 700s (yes, that’s about 1,200 years).
The Weingut got its start in 1875. It was then that Dr. Robert Weil, a former professor at Paris’s Sorbonne University was forced to flee France and return to Germany. He took a job as a journalist in Wiesbaden, the thriving metropolis of the Rheingau (that’s sort of a joke because there are no big cities here!) right near his brother, who was the minister and choir director at the church in Kiedrich, a few towns over.
Dr. Weil became interested in wine and bought vines in Kiedrich in 1875. He then acquired a
gorgeous estate from an aristocratic English family on which the winery sits today. It’s a thing of beauty and takes you back in time, even thought the attached tasting room and cellar are awash in glass and completely modern.
Things really came together as Weil bought two local wine estates. Flash forward four generations later to today and after continuous ownership, Robert’s great grandson, Wilhelm Weil, now co-owns the estate with investor Suntory beverage group from Japan. The vineyard holdings are about 90 hectares/222.4 acres, 75 ha/185 acres that are planted. Although this seems tiny for a vineyard in a New World location (some of the more elite vineyards in Australia or Napa Valley are hundreds of acres), Weil is one of the largest estates in the Rheingau! Their production exceeds their acreage – they make some lovely basic wines from grapes bought from contracted growers. That said, their estate vineyards are where the action is.
My guide to Weil was Nicolas Pfaff, their export manager. He was smart, nice, and the perfect person to explain fundamentals of Rheingau to me. I couldn’t have had a better first person to meet with – he helped set the stage for the entire trip (I have lots of video of him explaining things, so you’ll get to know him too as soon as I clean it up!)
Nicolas took me to their patio that overlooks the three main estate vineyards of Weil, which are nearby to
one another and flanked by the Taunus forest on the top of a steep slope that tops out at about 780 feet/ 240 meters.
Right across from the Weingut, is their Gross Lage (Grand Cru or best) site: Gräfenberg. This vineyard is the only one in the world from which grapes of every Riesling quality category – including Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese – have been harvested every year without exception since the 1989 vintage. Turemburg, an Erste Lage (Premier Cru) means tower mountain for the Medieval tower ruins that the vines flank, and Klosterberg, another Premier Cru near the old monastery, are both excellent quality.
These vineyards are inland and on slopes of up to 60% grade, where the sun hits them directly. Still they’re cooled by Rheingau’s omnipresent breeze, which keeps the grapes cool, even on hot days. The wines, made only of Riesling, are elegant and fresh. Their sweet wines are among some of the most expensive in the world.
My take on the wines: The dry styles each possess a lightness and minerality. And although Nicolas focused on showing me their dry wines, I have to say I found many of them too young to be tasting. 2015 was a superb vintage in Rheingau, but these wines need at least 5-8 more years to be truly great.
- 2015 Rheingau Riesling Trocken, VDP Gutswein (dry regional wine from Rheingau)
- 2015 Kiedricher Riesling Trocken, VDP Ortswein (dry wine from Kiedrich village)
- 2015 Kiedrich Klosterberg Riesling Trocken, VDP Erste Lage (dry wine from a top site, Klosterberg)
- 2015 Kiedrich Gräfenberg Riesling Trocken, GG VDP Grosse Lage (dry wine from the best site, Gräfenberg)
The standout: Grosses Gewäch/GG (Grand Cru dry wine), Kiedricher Gräfenberg. Honeysuckle, apricot seed, blackberry, minerals, herbal notes, flowers, and minerality, with bright acidity with something unexpected or hidden power underneath the ethereal elegance. The Kiedrich Klosterberg Erste Lage (Premier Cru dry) was also fresh with white flowers, apricot, and a lovely light elegance
I found the sweeter wines outstanding. Sweet wines tried:
- 2015 Rheingau Riesling Tradition, VDP Gutswein (regional wine from Rheingau)
- 2015 Rheingau Riesling Kabinett, VDP Gutswein (ripe wine, a little sweet)
- 2015 Rheingau Riesling Spätlese, VDP Gutswein (later harvest wine, a little sweet)
- 2015 Kiedrich Gräfenberg Riesling Spätlese, VDP Grosse Lage (later harvest wine from their top site, sweet)
All Robert Weil’s sweet wines were delicious – I think I prefer them to the dry. As with the dry wines, the Gräfenberg Spätlese was one of the tastiest wines of the trip
The Gräfenberg Spätlese is darker in color, you smell and taste slate, honey and honeysuckle, gardenia, sweet lime, and mineral. The wine is audaciously good with high acid and perfectly balanced sugar.
A fabulous place to visit with top notch wines and a friendly staff!
In the town of Hattenheim, right on the Rhine, I next enjoyed the pleasant, traditional wines of Balthasar Ress. This place started five years earlier than Weil, in 1870 when Balthasar pivoted from butchery to hospitality to restaurateur and then vigneron, although at that point only for his family’s own consumption (they still have a lovely wine called “Von Unserm”, which translates to “our own”).
Over the years the Resses acquired some top vineyard sites in Rheingau. Although half the size of Robert Weil, at 46 hectares, or 114 acres total, Balthasar Ress is another huge estate for the Rheingau. Riesling is 90% of the plantings and the parcels are in prestigious areas like Berg Roseneck, Berg Rottland and Berg Schlossberg (Rüdesheim), Engelmannsberg, Nussbrunnen and Schützenhaus (Hattenheim) as well as Höllenberg (Assmannshausen).
Today, the great grandson of Balthasar, Christian Ress, runs the business. He seems to be a dynamo, and into all sorts of wine-related businesses. He has a growing chain of wine storage vaults/hang out places where you can drink your precious bottles from your locker (the Wine Bank), a wine import business into Germany and, of course, the traditional wines (and some non traditional ones too — I’ll get to that). In 2009, amid waning reviews and what seemed to be an identity crisis for the winery, Christian hired Dirk Wuertz, a winemaker, famed wine blogger and internet TV wine journalist to make the wine in a more modern, relevant style.
It seems to be working. I met with one of their domestic sales managers and on-the-ground hipster dude, Marius Baumeister, and we had a great evening shooting the breeze and sharing good wine.
My take on the wines: Their basic wines from their pleasant sparkling (which is hand riddled, meaning guys ride around on bikes and turn the bottles a little bit upside-down every day to get out the dead yeast cells inside the bottle from the second fermentation to a point where they can be removed), to the fruity “Von Unstrum” Riesling I mentioned above, and their dry Rüdesheim Village Wine (Ortswein) are nice sippers. They have a pleasantness about them that makes them fresh, yet flavorful. Like Weil’s wines, I do think they are shy and could use about 5 or 8 years of age to improve, but they were still pleasant.
I really enjoyed the Grosses Gewächs (top dry wines). Their style is fatter and heavier than a place like
The Grand Cru 2014 Rüdesheim Berg Rottland had blood orange, caramel, smoke, gunflint, and great acidity. It goes through malolactic fermentation so it’s a bit heavier and creamier. Fantastic. The 2015 had a similar character and will evolve into something close to the 2014 with time.
Marius tasted me on some of Ress’s more unusual projects too. There is a natural wine,
2014 Resspekt, which was sunk under water for a few months for aging, and the vintage 2012 32 — 32 months on yeast – which was stinky, skunky, and like corn muffin and petrol. The orange wine was interesting but nothing special (I add the caveat that I’m not a fan of orange wine so what I didn’t care for, you may like!). Interesting and experimental? Yes. For me? No. But you gotta give them credit for trying out new stuff.
With a history dating back to the 1780s, this most progressive, exceptional producer of
Rheingau came into its own in the 1970s, when Peter Jakob and Angela Kühn took over the family estate. These passionate, dedicated people have managed to bring back the old way of farming in Rheingau – organic traditions that defined winemaking here for centuries before chemical farming became “convention.”
At this organic, biodynamic property, the proprietors practice what they preach: they make their wine in perfect harmony with nature and don’t cut corners.
You taste their efforts in the exceptional wines that are, in my opinion, the best in Rheingau
I had the joy of meeting with Angela Kühn, who took me on a tour of their estate’s properties (again, tons of video is forthcoming).
We went from the winery to the compost area, where organic, healthy, rich compost from cow manure, and leaves and branches from the forest are combined to create nutrient rich food for the vines in the spring and fall. We drove past the site where cow horns are buried with herb/manure mixtures to make organic teas that the Kühns spray on the vineyards to encourage healthy vine growth. We went to the thriving, steeply sloped vineyards, where the wine is really made. Budbreak was beginning and as you looked at Angela’s vines versus her neighbors’, who spend less time nurturing their plants, you could physically see why Kühn’s wines shine so brightly.
Riesling is not a wine that’s made in the cellar and Kühn embodies this concept. The grapes are picked by hand and pressed gently. The yeast for fermentation is all from the vineyard, nothing is added. Fermentation is done without temperature control, which means anything can happen – malolactic fermentation (making the wine creamy) is common and as the wine sits in large steamed (not toasted so there’s no flavor, but just a soft texture) oak casks, influence from the dead yeast (sur lie aging) helps the wines develop a complexity and richness on their own.
Each and every wine from Kühn is outstanding. I can list them here with a few comments but I can also say, without hesitation, that you can’t buy a wine from them that’s bad. If you go to Rheingau and miss this place, you will have lost a huge part of the puzzle as to what wine could be here and probably what it will be in the future.
Angela said Burgundy has had a big influence on her and Peter Jakob and Alsace’s top producers have influenced her son and the next gen winemaker, Peter Bernhard: the Kühns are deep thinkers and they like to visit other regions to learn techniques and draw inspiration. Drinking and visiting the top properties of Burgundy and other parts of France have given them a fuller appreciation of vineyard and terroir. As a result these wines are exceptional, as are the amazingly dedicated people who make them:
- 2015 Riesling Trocken (dry): apricot, honey, green herbs, with a minerality and depth you don’t get from this basic level of wine. The balance was perfection and the perfume distinctive.
- 2015 Rheinshiefer (the “slate vineyard”, as it translates): ripe fruit with lime, apricot, floral aromatics. Tart and fresh. I took a bottle of this home with me.
- The Premier Cru (Erste Lage), 2015 Oestereicher Klosterberg was like apricot, herbs, peach, and coconut. It was more restrained than the Rheinshiefer.
- The 2014 Dossberg GG/Gross Gewächs: like a bowl of peaches, pears, apricots, and nectarines. The oak casks lent a bit of softness and burnt sugar and the finish was tart but ever-lasting.
- The 2011 Lenchen Spätlese was like petrol and apricot from the aging. Outstanding.
And as a special treat, Angela poured us the 2015 Kühn Beerenauslese. It was one of the best sweet wines I’ve ever had. Acidity with sweet dried apricot, and a distinctive graham cracker note with nuts and lime – it tasted just like a key lime pie. A wine to dream about for a lifetime!
As I’ve already said, for me, you can’t do any better than Kühn in Rheingau (as their beautiful lab, would agree!).
If you travel to Rheingau, you can’t skip Schloss Johannisberg. It’s where Riesling truly began and for that reason alone you have to go to the site to see and feel the history that courses through the land.
When you roll up to this place, it’s arresting. A tree-lined, half-mile long street leads you to a huge palace, on whose backside lies the vineyards which make up the appellation of Johannisberg. Although the original building was destroyed in World War II, today’s palace was meticulously rebuilt in 1965. This place is more than just a winery, it’s an historical landmark and a tourist destination.
I met my awesome tour guide, Dieter Salomon, and he took me around. He was relaxed, cool, and much more down to earth than what I expected. I was worried the tour was going to be stuffy or too rehearsed, but that wasn’t the case at all. I learned a lot, got an informative tour, and had fun!
To give perspective, when I say OLD, the first vineyards of Schloss Johannisberg were first mentioned in 817. So 1,200 years of viticultural history. Ownership has changed from the church to royalty and then to various aristocrats before it landed with the Austrian Prince von Metternich in 1816, whose family held on to the domain until 2006 when Tatiana von Metternich, the final member of the family, passed away. It was at that time that Dr. Oeker, a large German corporation that makes baking powder and pudding mixes and stuff, bought it. It does have more of a corporate feel than the rest of the properties I visited, but as I said, it shouldn’t deter you!
Beyond just being old, Schloss Johannisberg is important in wine because it’s credited with being the first to plant all its vineyards to the Riesling grape in 1720 and the first to make Spotless (late harvest) on purpose. This second thing is a little dubious, since there’s evidence others waited to pick their vines and it was hardly by design that the first Spätlese was made. The story goes that a courier went 150 km/93 mi away to get permission from the Prince at Fulda, the then owner, to harvest the grapes but got delayed, most likely because he was having a tryst with a woman.
He got so wrapped up in his other “business” that he delivered the OK to pick a little late. At that point, some of the grapes were shriveled or had been infested with noble rot/botrytis, looked disgusting, and were sort of scary. Still, they vinified the wine and with a degree of surprise for everyone involved, it turned out to be awesome! Lucky break for the courier, to whom they have a monument rather than tomb, which was the alternative if the wine turned out badly!
Johannisberg is its
own appellation on its own hillside. It lies on the upper reaches of where wine can grow – in the vineyard there’s a reminder that we’re at 50˚N latitude (kind of the end of things for good grapes). But given the south facing slopes and the prevalent well-drained quartzite soils beneath the loam and loess topsoil the grapes grow happily and make great wines. The vines dig deep into the earth — so deep that while I was touring their famed underground library , the “Bibliotheca subterranea” of wines that store bottles from as far back as 1748, there was an area where the vine roots had broken through the cave ceiling and were creeping down the floor. Deep.
Like the rest of the wineries, these wines are made mainly in the vineyard. And like others the simpler wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks, the more complex ones in neutral oak casks. Although quite traditional in their outlook (you’ll find no mention of organic viticulture here, for example), Schloss Johannisberg makes predictably excellent wines:
My take on the Wines:
The top for me was their 2015 Rotlack Rheingau Feinherb, which was tight on the nose but had a
lovely, fresh apricot notes and a roundness to balance the sharp acid.
The 2015 Grunack Gross Lage Spätlese was also terrific – perfumed with a pear, golden apple, and mineral/soil quality, the wine has great acidity but the sugar was perfectly balanced to make this a wine of great dimension. It would be really great with roasted vegetables or even meat.
The crowning glory of these wines for me was the 2012 Rosalack Auslese: Honeyed with honeycomb (honey with wax) floral notes, and a delicate texture, the wine had amazing balance of natural sugar and high acid. This is just heavenly!
My final visit completed one of the best days I’ve had touring wineries in my 15 years of regular wine travel: I had the joy and pleasure of spending an hour or so with the young, brilliant, talented, firecracker of Rheingau winemaking, Theresa Breuer.
Breuer was founded in 1880 as part of a wine merchant company under Peter Breuer. The Breuer family started making wine only at the beginning of the 1900s, when Georg Breuer took over, enlarging the estate, and exporting wine throughout the continent. His sons Bernhard and Heinrich expanded the vineyard holdings to 34 ha/84 acres in Rüdesheim and Rauenthal. A few years after Bernhard’s untimely death in 2004, Theresa Breuer took over the winery when she completed her course of study in winemaking in the University of Geisenheim.
Along with Kühn’s wines, these wines are some of the best I’ve had from Rheingau. Like many, they do demand age to reach their potential, but these wines are so pretty!
Theresa works hard in the vineyard to perfect the fruit. I loved our discussion about how her family holdings are in disparate places and how that means that it’s impossible for her to become organic – sprays from her neighbors get on her vines and the other requirements for organic certification are impossible for a person without large, contiguous vineyards. I really felt her frustration when she discussed this (again, video forthcoming). Her struggle to do her best to farm using organic methods, but the inability to convince her neighbors to do the same brought into sharp focus the issues about how agriculture is so much more than just one producer’s responsibility, since it affects everyone around them. Still, she is one of the first members of the Fair and Green program, which is Germany’s sustainability initiative.
Breuer’s biggest holdings are in Rüdesheim, where the winery is located. Seven hectares are in Rauenthal, most of which is in Nonnenberg, of which Breuer has exclusive possession. The vines are mainly Riesling (81%) but they do grow some Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and a very cool, native grape called Orléans, a once popular variety that the Breuers resurrected from the dead along with another called Heunisch, which I didn’t taste.
There are no mediocre wines from Breuer:
The 2015 Sauvage – a dry entry level, “Rheingau” wine — and the 2015 Charm – an off dry, entry level Rheingau wine — are both excellent. They‘re pretty summer wines with jasmine flower, mineral, and lime notes.
The 2015 Rauenthal Village wine was full of minerality, honeysuckle, and etched acid.
The 2015 Rüdesheim Village wine was darker in color, softer, fruitier and tasted a little like burnt sugar, something I’ve found is a telltale sign of a wine being aged in a cask. It had a tangy acid that I loved.
I enjoyed the Orléans, a new one for me, with its grapefruit, floral, spicy notes. Georg Breuer is one of the only Weinguts in all of Germany to grow this historic variety. Theresa’s father planted a small plot and they’ve been making it since 2000.
The 2014 Rheingau Auslese had spice, slate, and herb notes with great acidity that hits on the finish. The acid was balanced against the sweetness and was fresh with floral notes.
The Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines are just exquisite:
The 2015 Terra Montosa was full of herb, ash, earth, slate, and minerals. It was elegant and spectacular. This wine has been made since 1990 but the name “Terra Montosa” is a nod to the history of Rüdesheim’s slopes: it comes from Latin “steep land” found in a local vineyard certificate dated 1074.
Of the two Grand Cru I tasted, the 2015 Rauenthal Nonnenberg and the 2015 Berg Rottland, I found the Rauenthal more accessible – with grapefruit, lime and slatey notes. The Rottland was closed and won’t begin to show its potential for another 5 years or so.I loved the Nonnenberg so much that I bought a bottle to hold, along with the Terra Montosa and the Rüdesheim Village wine.
All in all, a fantastic lineup. The caveat emptor I would have on these wines is that they need a few years before they are truly ready. Along with Weil, especially, these wines take their time to show you what they have so don’t be put off if you taste them and they’re tart – it’s just that you may have opened them before their prime!
Eva Fricke: Meh
I had a so-so visit that I was torn about mentioning but I figured you should know the great and the meh, so here goes…
I had asked to visit female producer with a new perspective and was directed to this relative newcomer. My visit was a bit of a cluster and I found the wines just as muddled. They’re made from property in Lorch, which is north of the town of Assmannshausen, known for making Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc more than Riesling. But Lorch is still up for grabs, so if you’re trying to buy land in what is technically Rheingau, this is where you can buy property.
The problem: these wines, to me, are not Rheingau wines. The soils are heavy clay with some slate. The marketing pitch is that these are more like the peachy, full, fruity wines of Mosel, but I didn’t find that at all. Along with some of the apricot and a touch of minerals, they had lower acidity, and tasted like herbal shampoo or tea. Many were bitter and lacked fruit, and were devoid of the nuance of Rheingau. I didn’t see the arc of aging potential I found in the other wines. I was told these wines were trendy in New York right now. I suspect this may be the result of clever marketing rather than solid wine. No bone to pick here, but the wines don’t measure up to the others, so my advice would be: don’t waste your time or money on these just ok wines.
So that’s my smash hit of a field trip, with all the gossip and lowdown on the producers! If you go to Rheingau, visit my top 5 and you won’t be sorry! And if you don’t get these wines and give yourself a virtual tour. You’ll taste the Rheingau in each of these bottles and be happy you did!