This spring Janet and I have had the great experience of working our way south through some of Germany’s best-known wine regions – the Ahr Valley with its new-found fame for Pinot Noir, the long and varied Mosel and then historic Rheingau. These regions are dominated by one grape variety each, Riesling in the case of the latter two regions. This is the picture that wine lovers around the world have had of the German wine scene. But if you then cross the broad Rhine river, into Rheinhessen, you are suddenly in a world of varietal diversity. Of course, there is Riesling and Pinot Noir, but there is also high-quality Silvaner, Sauvignon Blanc, the two white Pinots, Scheurebe, Chardonnay and even the occasional surprise of good sparkling Müller-Thurgau! For reds, there is also Dornfelder and Portugieser. The point is that, outside the Riesling hotbed of Nierstein, you will be offered a range of varieties. In turn, this has allowed a new generation of winegrowers to experiment and to push boundaries. Rheinhessen is a dynamic region.
Our visits, for our convenience, were in the most northerly part of the region, though we do also know the excellent wines of Thörle, rather further south, which happen to be imported by our very enterprising local wine merchant, Caviste. Carolin and Jürgen Hofmann, both Geisenheim trained, have built a stylish new winery in Appenheim, facing the Rheingau across the river, to process their Rheinhessen fruit, while Carolin’s family have another property on the Saar. The two sites together produce a range which you could call contemporary and old-school Germany. Having visited hundreds of wineries of every shape and description, I have to say that the new winery is a model of elegance, contemporary style and spacious practicality. The labels are excellent too … and the wines match these externals. To pick out a few:
- Grüner Silvaner Appenheimer 2012, 70 hl/ha from 20-year-old vines is a model of assertive green fruit and mineral notes with a touch of vanilla and spice as 20% is fermented in oak. The wine is stirred on its lees and not racked until it is bottled for extra freshness and richness. (The grape variety here traditionally has ‘Grüner’ in front of Silvaner.)
- Laurenzikapelle, Sauvignon Blanc 2012: the fact that I am commenting on a non-indigenous grape should tell you how good this Sauvignon is. It is a pretty serious wine having been fermented 100% in barriques, mostly new, producing fine, lifted aromas, beautiful ripe apple to passion fruit flavours, well-integrated oak and good fruit-acidity balance. Impressive stuff.
The little star in the line up is Fritz Müller, Müller-Thurgau, a Perlwein, that is a semi-sparkler, injected CO2 at just 2.5 bar of pressure, made from bought-in fruit. The concept for this wine came from Guido Walter, wine merchant and important figure in the Munich restaurant scene who suggested a German alternative to Prosecco. The concept has been perfectly executed and brilliantly marketed for young drinkers by the Hofmanns. Fritz Müller has its own website (which you can look at if you are cool/young enough!), packaging and even newspaper. This instinct to make wine accessible and even trendy with younger German generations is what really marks out the German wine scene from its Mediterranean competitors. And now there is a family of Fritzes: a Portugieser-based pink sparkler, a tank-fermented ‘fat Fritz’, and even a bottle-fermented Royal. The ultimate quality accolade came from the inclusion of the original Fritz in last year’s revision of the sparkling wine bible, Christie’s Encyclopaedia. It is a truly extraordinary tale.
After a very good and substantial one-course lunch at Landgasthaus Engel in Schwabenheim, our second visit was to Bettenheimer, a well-established restaurant, guestroom and wine business in Ingelheim. There is a new winery out of town but we enjoyed a tasting in the sunny courtyard of the old house. While we tasted very good Spät-, Grau- and Frühburgunder, not to mention Chardonnay, I will concentrate on Silvaner which comes in five versions here. First, there is the simple Silvaner Trocken, in a litre bottle, with good melon and green fruit, medium acidity and length, a versatile complement for food. There are then three wines made in small quantities which are only sold together as a trio. They are three ‘village wines’ (in the Burgundian sense):
- Inghelheimer Sonnenheim Grüner Silvaner 2012, grown on sunny slopes of loess and limestone. In the winery after pressing the fruit is kept on the skins for three days under dry ice and then fermented in the traditional, neutral, 1000 litre barrels with cultured Champagne yeast as necessary, followed by partial malo. The resulting wine has assertive yellow fruit, a good honeyed concentration and lots of potential to improve in the bottle.
- Dexheimer Grüner Silvaner 2012, from vines planted in 1933, seriously mature; very mineral and even struck match-stick on the nose, concentrated with herbal, tropical fruit and a salty finish. Impressive.
- Niersteiner Grüner Silvaner 2012, very salty and mineral in expression, even wild. Again, this repays ageing when it will develop smoky, liquorice themes.
- finally, there is a top wine, Appenheimer Eselpfad Silvaner 2012, 25% of which is fermented in new barriques, the rest in stainless steel. The use of oak reins in the earthy extremes of Silvaner, and brings out ripe peach and almond notes in the very fine fruit. Great intensity.
While the diversity of the grape varieties of Rheinhessen is on display at Bettenheimer, it is great to see so much being made of Silvaner.
And, yes, there is Riesling in Rheinhessen. Louis Guntrum produces a usual range of wines which includes a fine spread of Nierstein Rieslings. They could hardly not as they have vineyards on the important red slate slope, the Rotenhang, which faces directly on to the Rhine. If you are interested in value, these Nierstein wines are the ones to look for. The excellent ‘village’ wine Niersteiner Riesling is a remarkable glassful for just €9 a bottle with intense fruitiness, good ripeness, elegance, some complexity and Riesling’s characteristic acidic streak. A mere two euros more will buy you the single-vineyard Sackträger or Oelberg with ripe mango fruit and layered fruit with minerality respectively. There is then a further step up to the Grand Cru Pettenthal and the traditional sweeter wines. After our little excursion into Rheinhessen’s diversity, we are back in Riesling heaven!
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