29 Mar The 9 Things You Need to Know About the Rheingau Region of Germany
It’s not easy for me to just take off to Europe and explore wine regions these days! Between kids, budget, and M.C. Ice’s day job, we can’t jet set the way we’d like. But this year, with my new amazing project, The Weekly Tasting, it was important that I go with Laura Maniec, Master Sommelier and co-Weekly Taster, and our team to seek outstanding wines for the packs. And that brought me to the largest wine trade show in the world, ProWein in
Düsseldorf, Germany (when I say large, like 60,000+ people attended this year and every winemaking country in the world had wine there!).
Here’s the deal: If you’re heading to Düsseldorf anyway, and flying into Frankfurt, AND you’re someone who is obsessed with Riesling, you have to tack on a few days to visit famed wine regions of Germany. Although I think it wouldn’t have been too hard to plan these visits on my own (READ: You can do this yourself!), I was fortunate in that I have a great relationship with the Wines of Germany, who has taught me, through the bottle and their materials, about the Rieslings and regions of Germany for years. Collaborating with them on some of my must-see producers in Rheingau and Mosel, the most esteemed of all Germany regions, I had an amazing 4 day experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.
There’s so much to share that I’m going to break up the trip into a series of posts. This one will be the 9 things to know about Rheingau. I’ll follow it up with some producer reviews and then write on the things I learned about Mosel and add producer info there too.
Getting to Rheingau
After landing in Frankfurt and hopping in my sweet rental car (a Mercedes A35! Again, thanks Deutsch Wine Institut!), I drove a really quick and manageable 40 minutes west to the east side of the Rheingau region. I stayed in the village of Kiedrich, a super small town (Tip: when I visit again I’d stay in Rüdesheim on the west side of the Rheingau, since it’s a bit more touristy and easy for a foreigner to negotiate. Few spoke English in Kiedrich and it had only two or three stores. No one took credit cards and the sidewalks rolled up at 8 PM! Thankfully, I found a bank machine and grabbed food on the run!).
I visited six Weinguts (wineries) while in Rheingau and from each I learned about the region and the quirks of each part of it. I compiled this list because to understand Rheingau deeply, you have to consider a few points, which I didn’t really get until I was there.
So here are the 9 things you need to know about Rheingau:
1. Books, web sites, and other wine writers always talk about Rheingau Riesling (78% of the grapes are Riesling) as being rich, “broad-shouldered” or “bolder” than the elegant wines of Mosel: NOPE. If you’ve ever read that before, put it out of your mind. Rheingau wines, when made well, are actually elegant, wispy, and in their youth, SHY, to put it mildly. Frankly, some of these wines taste like nothing when you put them in your mouth — except maybe tart with a rocky note and in the sweet wines, a little peachy. Rheingau is NOT a wine for today, it’s a wine for tomorrow. The fruit, the minerality, the character — all come out after 6 or more years. Mosel gets status because it’s not that kind of wine. It shows its fruit and beauty immediately. Even young wines in Mosel will have excellent fruit with excellent acidity — they are immediately accessible and likable. That’s not Rheingau. Here, you have to gain an ability to discern what components will mature into something outstanding. With much experience before going there and even more after, I can tell you that someone could conceivably go to Rheingau and taste young wines and think every single one was thin, acidic, and overly mineral in character. But if you revisited those wines years later, you would find them subtle and complex. They need time to come out of their shells.
2. Rheingau is located right on the Rhine River, in an unusual place where the water takes an unexpected change of course. Instead of continuing its relentless drive directly to the North Sea, the Rhein turns for just 27.7 km and runs from east with west. This area is where the entire Rheingau region lies. It allows the vineyards to face directly south or southwest, capturing the warmest sun possible so the grapes can ripen. At 50˚ latitude, only this situation makes premium grape growing possible. It’s as if Bacchus himself turned the river to make this ideal grape growing mecca.
3. The Taunus forest is at the top of the slope of Rheingau — making the wine growing region sandwiched between the river and the forest. The forest helps absorb the cool weather that blows in from the north, keeping in heat and providing much needed humidity when it’s dry in the summer — the trees and the river keep things warm and vital and are another reason Rheingau makes world class wines.
4. In parts of this region, the land rises from the river to nearly 300 meters/1,000 feet on sharp slopes with anywhere from 20% to 70% grade. Most of the vineyards are located either in the high slopes or on the slightly flatter (but NOT flat) land lower down. Unlike what I thought it would be, the vineyards aren’t next to the Rhine. The main road and some train tracks run along the river. Usually the main towns are located adjacent to the river too, so the vineyards begin above the towns and continue high up the slope until they reach the Taunus forest.
5. Rheingau is small. From Wiesbaden to Rüdesheim (which I would consider the end of Rheingau, even if it’s not the region’s boundaries) it’s just that 27.7 km/17 miles where the Rhein turns. That’s 26 minutes on the small highway (the 42) that runs along the Rhein. If you count the outlying, western areas of Assmannshausen, which does a lot of Pinot and Lorch, whose wines taste nothing like the rest of Rheingau’s wines, it’s still only 50 km long. The region does stretch inland, but as I mentioned, the area is sandwiched between the Taunus forest at the top of the slopes and the Rhein. It’s incredibly compact.
6. The soil types vary from town to town but are consistent. You’ll find some slate, and lots of loam and loess soil — good for drainage, and excellent for producing elegant wines. Not the “every soil type on earth” that you’ll find in Napa, for example.
7. Most of the top producers age or ferment their Riesling in….wait for it…OAK ( I was shocked). These are not small barrels nor do they have the same purpose as what we think of when we think oak. They hold anywhere from 500 L to 2400 L or more. The most common size in Rheingau is the 1200 L size, called the Stükfass. They are NOT toasted, rather steamed and many are treated with water and other neutralizers for a year or more to remove any chance of oak flavor seeping into the wine. Why do they use oak? Some is tradition but mostly it’s because the barrels allow natural micro oxygenation and a slight tannin transfer to provide these highly acidic wines more body and a fuller note. The wines are nearly all aged sur lie as well (on the dead yeast cells), some even for years, to add more body to them.
8. Rheingau has a lot in common with Burgundy.
First Romans and then monks from the Catholic Church came here and tended vines. They realized there was differences in slope and exposure, and classified the top vineyards, just as the clergy did in Burgundy. The four level system — basic wine, wines of the village, Premier Cru, and Grand Cru vineryards all exist, just with different names. Those who participate in the VDP, which is a wine growing organization of 200 top producers (although not being a member doesn’t make you bad!) use that exact classification.
|Regional Wine = Gutswein||Village Wine = Ortswein||Premier Cru = Erste Lage|| Grand Cru = Gross Lage
(if dry GG or Grosses Gewachs)
8b. Also in common with Burgundy: Napoleonic land ownership laws applied here. That means that, when they died, large land owners were legally bound to break up their properties equally amongst their children, and they to their children and so on for generations.The result is exactly as it was in Burgundy: Wine producers can own a half a hectare here and another in a separate village and there isn’t any consolidation. This proves to be a huge obstacle for producers thinking about expenses in managing a harvest (you have to drive all over the damn valley to get to your sites!), and nearly impossible for people looking to do organic (when your neighbors spray and you all own tiny parcels, it’s inconceivable).
9. German wine law really screwed things up here. Even though the wines have been revered for centuries, and a formal vineyard classification similar to Burgundy existed from 1867, which lasted for 100 years Rheingau’s system is not known the world over as it should be. Wars shifted the production to bulk wine and when, in 1971 the climate finally calmed down, the German government ignored Rheingau’s classification and classified wines by must weight (the mushed up grapes, stems, seeds and juice)/sugar content — Oechsle (pronounced ECK-sla). That meant only sweet wine was valued. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the top producers banded together and decided to essentially revive the Burgundy-style classification that improvement began. Still, the German wine law is convoluted and the VDP producers with their elegant classification system, have it right. If the government would adopt this system, German wine would be a whole lot easier to understand.
So that’s my 9. The people I met in Rheingau were among some of the most genuine, cool, interesting in the wine world. The producers here have pride, love their work, possess a fundamental understanding of how to work the land– it’s as though they get their vitality from it. And as for the future, with Geisenhem University, one of the best universities for winemaking and viticulture in the world, located here, the abundance of young talent with fresh ideas seems endless.
In the next few posts I’ll detail some of the great producers I visited so you have an idea of who these top producers are. I’ll include videos too — don’t miss them!