When I was growing up the Rheingau was a name to conjure with. The general reputation of German wines was not high but there were some well-known high spots. These included the Mosel of course but also the Rheingau with its historic properties (Schloss Johannisberg, Vollrads and more), its south-facing position on the turn of the majestic Rhine and its reputation for quality. What I did not know was just as significant. This pre-eminence was not passed on to it by aristocratic right as it were, though the nobility played their part. The Rheingau’s continuing place at the high table of German wine has been due to an ability to innovate, to respond to big changes in the market and to continue to earn its place as one of the world’s great wine regions. Johannes Eser of Weingut Johannishof explains.The story starts way back with the Cistercian monks bringing Pinot Noir to Assmanshausen back in the thirteenth century. In the late middle ages the church and noble houses, later the state, build up significant holdings of land which gave them the power to carry out research and to exploit the potential of this bank of the Rhine. The 50º parallel runs through it and so it is on the semi-official northern limit for successful viticulture. The growing season here is 1º C warmer than in the Mosel but cooler than the more southerly Pfalz. What is more, the region is protected by the Taunus Mountains to the north and the lower Hunsrück range to the west; and of course, the wide Rhine river acts as a heat store and moderator of temperatures. It is pretty dry with most of the 500mm of rain falling in winter, but that can be put to good advantage by encouraging deep rooting on the very mixed, loess and slate soils. The limitation of the region is that it cannot expand its area, defined as it is by the forest above the vineyards and the Rhine in front of them. Today there is a struggle to maintain vineyard land from encroachment for building houses in this very attractive area – Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Mainz and Bingen are all on the doorstep.
And how has the Rheingau maintained its momentum over the last two decades? This has been a fairly turbulent time with a need to move from the traditional sweet wine styles of the past, to respond to currency fluctuations and to scandals, not of their making. In the 1980s the German consumer – along with most of the rest of the world – decided that it was fashionable to drink dry wines, even though their own country was one of the world’s leading off-dry and sweet wine producers. At the same time, the former powerhouse of the Deutschmark proved a liability as it dropped in value against the US dollar, meaning that overnight important export markets shrank dramatically. Finally, the wine scandal in Austria cast a shadow over its larger neighbour, making the wines difficult to sell. Something had to be done.
The first initiative was the so-called Charta category, pronounced ‘Carta’ in German. The Rheingau set its sights on being a premier Riesling region and, at nearly 80%, has the highest proportion of this variety planted.* As a result, the question has been how to present this high-acidity wine to a world increasingly in love with dry styles. The Charta formula proved a winner:
- a simple category: excellent dry-tasting Riesling. That’s it; no complex vineyard names, no Kabinett, Spätlese etc
- the fruit must be estate-grown and bottled and reach quality standards
- 100% Riesling – no blends with the blander Müller-Thurgau as had been common in preceding decades
- dry but not as dry as the official ‘Trocken’ category. The formula for residual sugar is the total acidity level plus 3, up to maximum 13g. So the wine must taste dry, but given typical acidity levels of 7-8g/l, they can be softened with up to typically 10-11 g of residual sugar. That’s clever: not everyone wants to drink really dry cool-climate Riesling.
- the wines must be matured for a year before they are sold
- the most revolutionary step was to insist on a tasting panel which could reject wines deemed not to be up to scratch. Today both barrel and bottled samples are scrutinised by a panel of growers, wine journalists and scientists.
The Charta initiative was and continues to be a big success. All the top producers we visited have a Charta wine and, more importantly, consumers know exactly what to expect, which is, shall we say, unusual for German wine labelling. In the following generation, the same group of growers have been early adopters of the VDP’s Grosses Gewächs (GG), dry Grand Cru wines from single vineyards. This has been a much more complicated, not to say controversial matter, but that’s the subject for another day. It would be invidious to pick out wines from the estates we visited as the standard of winemaking was so uniformly high:
- Weingut Johannishof have excellent wines in a range of styles and levels and have old vintages to buy;
- Weingut Georg Müller Stiftung showed Riesling up to Grosses Gewächs level but also its ambitious, for me over-oaked Auxerrois, and a ladder of pretty good Pinot Noirs;
- Weingut Josef Spreitzer emphasises long hang time for maximum varietal expression. They are creative with their marketing: very good Charta Riesling, but also Riesling 101 which is a selection from top vineyards in an off-dry style, 101 being the code for a starter module in American universities!
- Domdechant Werner, actually on the Main river overlooking Mainz, but part of the Rheingau nonetheless: a classic, traditional range to Auslese and beyond with old-school labels to match
- Schloss Vollrads, one of the oldest documented wine estates in the world (13th century), still doing the quality business: a great Alte Reben (old vines) 2005 was a particular treat
- Schloss Johannisberg: you have to taste the Spätlese here as the estate is credited with the invention of this style with a statue which tells the story; plus a restaurant with a fabulous view of the vineyards and the Rhine
* Rheingau 2,500ha, 79% Riesling; Mittelrhein, 310ha, 67%; Mosel 5300ha, 61%; the Pfalz has the greatest extent (5,600ha) but that only makes up 24% of its vineyard: Deutscher Wein Statistik 2013-14, p. 7, Deutsches Weininstitut
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