Pfalz’s wines once ranked among the best in the world, but were lost from view for years, only now to be rediscovered by the German region’s producers, writes GARY WERNER

Hansjorg Rebholz believes less is more. The label for his finest wine indicates the bare minimum. ‘It shows our name, the name of the vineyard, and the year,’ he says.

There is no mention of the grape variety (Riesling), the level of ripeness (spätlese), the style (trocken), or any other words that typically encumber German wine labels. Rebholz explains that these details are just not necessary.

‘We have only one wine with the name Kastanienbusch,’ he says, ‘and this single expression is the most important thing about such a great site. If we were to make 10 different styles from this vineyard – a kabinett trocken, a spätlese, and others – the name would have no real meaning. But if a top vineyard is worked to create only one wine, and it’s always the best wine, then that name will mean something special.’

Rebholz cultivates 14ha (hectares) in the village of Siebeldingen, in the Pfalz region of southwest Germany. Riesling accounts for just 35% of his plantings, while half the vineyards are devoted to Pinots Noir, Blanc and Gris. There are also small parcels devoted to Chardonnay and 60-year-old Gewürztraminer vines. Such a diverse composition is typical of the southern Pfalz. But rather atypical are the very limited yields that Rebholz harvests from his land. In an area where 120hl/ha is the norm, yields here are as low as 25 to 30hl/ha. This restraint is evident in the clarity and concentration of the entire range of Rebholz wines.

Even so, only the finest two or three wines – the Grosses Gewächs, or ‘great growths’ – carry the name of a specific vineyard. The majority of his production is classified as Gutswein, or village wine. However, these wines do not take their names from the local villages. Rebholz instead designates them according to the soil on which they grow.

‘The second wine of Kastanienbusch is called Rotliegenden,’ he says. ‘That’s the name of the soil. It’s a red slate, and it gives smoky aromas. Other Rieslings from around Siebeldingen are Buntsandstein. It’s a sandy soil typical of the mountains here, and it gives citrous, fruity aromas. In this way, I try to communicate the basis of what is in the bottle.’

Such reasoning has made Rebholz a leader among Pfalz wine growers. And since the mid-1990s, he and like-minded neighbours have led a campaign to resurrect widespread recognition of – and respect for – their best vineyards.

If this seems strange in a country where wine law denies the very existence of terroir, it is even more so in a region that generates tanker-loads of low-quality Liebfraumilch and Portugieser rosé.

However, the Pfalz is blessed with an amazing tapestry of terroir – especially in the central district known as the Mittelhaardt. Soils here include basalt, limestone, sandstone, loam and loess. The Haardt Mountains rising to the west help shield this area from Atlantic weather systems, so the climate is one of the sunniest, driest and warmest in Germany.

The setting’s benefits were evident to the Romans, who converted the Rhine plain to general agriculture, and put the hill slopes under vine. Building on this foundation, the Bavarian government of the early 19th century conducted a detailed assessment of the land here when it came under their control after the surrender of Napoléon. Their survey was complete in 1828, and the corresponding map classified the vineyards of the Pfalz according to their relative quality.

This work paved the way for a golden age, when the region’s wines were recognised as among the best in the world. When the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the ceremony was performed not with Champagne, but with a Pfalz wine (from the von Buhl estate).

And yet a century later, that glory was gone. The forces of history and technological ‘progress’ had largely reduced the region to a source of insipid, factory-farmed quaffing wine. Then, in 1994, new inspiration to study and express the local terroir came with the rediscovery of that old Bavarian vineyard classification. This work began at the Bürklin-Wolf estate in Wachenheim.

‘We knew we had to change,’ says Christian von Guradze, director of Bürklin-Wolf. ‘Only a new focus on our finest sites could help rescue our wines and their image around the world.’

Guided by the map drawn up in 1828, Bürklin-Wolf assessed its 84ha holding and established a four-tier classification. The producer also carried out extensive work in the vineyards, cut yields, bought new winery equipment, and committed to a single style: full, rich, dry Rieslings.

The philosophy was embraced by other leading producers. One of the first, in 1996, was the Christmann estate.

Steffen Christmann farms 15ha at his family’s home in Gimmeldingen. Riesling makes up 70% of plantings, which is typical of central Pfalz. The rest is devoted to small amounts of the three Pinots.

Christmann works with two basic soil types. Sandstone dominates the vineyards near Ruppertsburg and Gimmeldingen, and the wines are lighter, more exotic, and reveal themselves earlier than those from adjacent areas. Chalky loam forms the basis of the vineyards near Königsbach and at Idig – his 3.5ha signature site. Here the wines are dense, structured and slow to open most years.

Such a detailed understanding of his sites has been gained through significant change. ‘Twenty years ago, we were all focused on the economics, and we lost a sense of terroir. Now we’re working to recover the potential of what we have here. Each year there is a stronger fingerprint of the soil in the wines.’

Catching on

Rediscovering and classifying the terroir, then expressing it in great wines, proved infectious. Other early advocates included the Mosbacher, Bassermann-Jordan and von Buhl estates.

But with an ever-growing number of private classifications systems, it became very confusing, all compounded by the fact that similar efforts were progressing in other German wine regions, such as the Rheingau, Nahe and Rheinhessen.

Enter the VDP, the national association of the country’s leading wine estates. In 2002, the VDP launched a uniform classification system for its membership. This system is represented by a quality pyramid with three tiers. The pinnacle of this pyramid is occupied by wines from the best vineyards in Germany – the Grosses Gewächs or ‘great growths’.

The criteria came into force, for participating growers, from 2004. But they do not represent an end. In fact, the work appears to be just starting.

‘Right now we have only a direction. It is not a destination,’ says Rebholz. ‘We will need 10 or 20 years to achieve all that we are capable of doing.’

Christmann elaborates: ‘We now have a means to identify the best vineyards. But we still have to work to get the best from these special sites. And it’s not easy for everyone to follow this route.’

Veteran grower Bernd Philippi, of the Koehler-Ruprecht estate, is one such voice of dissent. ‘I don’t know that these guidelines are helpful,’ he says. ‘What the VDP can do, anybody can do. Anyone can say they have a wonderful site and call it a great growth.’

Outside the law

Philippi raises a good point. The VDP classification system, though binding for participating members, is a voluntary programme. Many would view this as a fatal flaw, but those driving progress in the Pfalz see it as an asset.

‘We would like to keep this “illegal” as long as possible,’ says Gunther Hauck, of Bassermann-Jordan. ‘If a system runs by law, it has its eyes on those who have the most problems. So it allows this and that and everything.’

Rebholz, who is the president of the Pfalz chapter of the VDP, adds: ‘We need to work outside of the law so we can refine the classification. This is also why it is best that only the top estates participate in the system right now.’

One of the greatest challenges ahead is achieving a uniform approach to style for each classified vineyard. ‘It should be like Burgundy’s Le Montrachet,’ says von Guradze. ‘One vineyard yields one wine style, and that’s it.’

Christmann elaborates again. ‘We need a system where sites that are Grosses Gewächs for one estate are Grosses Gewächs for every estate which works that land. This is hard where you have so many owners in one vineyard, but we all know this is the way forward.’

As these producers work together to determine exactly what each vineyard represents, they are already agreed on the stylistic strength of the region. ‘We are sure the dry style is where we do our best,’ says Christmann.

And the wines can be thrilling to taste. Pure, vivid flavours of apricot and peach are married with compelling minerality. Their weight and density and richness are immensely impressive.

Even more focus and depth should emerge as these dedicated people move towards a better understanding of this complex terroir, and refine the classification system that they are developing to guide their journey.

A taste of Pfalz: Gary Werner’s top tipples:

 Weingut A Christmann, Idig 2003 

Youthful, intensely focused aromas of apples, peach, and lemon. Dry, crisp and full. Exuberant flavours of apple, lemon, pear and spice reflect the vintage. Long. N/A UK; +49 6 3216 6039

 Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl, Pechstein 2003 

Medium-intensity, youthful aromas of apricot and pear with citrus notes. Dry, crisp and medium-to-full bodied. Brilliant peach, apricot, lemon and spice flavours. Excellent. £16.50; WPf

 Weingut Dr von Bassermann-Jordan Kalkofen, Deidesheim Riesling 2002 

Medium-intensity lemon, ripe apple, peach, and flint aromas. Dry-to-off-dry and full-bodied, with peach, pear, lime, and spice flavours. Persistent finish. Excellent. £14.99; WBn

 Weingut Dr Bürklin-Wolf, Gaisböhl Ruppertsberg 2001 

Youthful aromas of lemon and pear. Dry, crisp, and full on the palate. Flavours of lemon zest and grapefruit and golden apple persist through a very long finish. Very good. £22.60; Lay

 Weingut Georg Mosbacher, Ungeheuer 2003 

Intense, youthful aromas of pear and lemon, with mineral notes. Dry, crisp and full-bodied. Pear, apple, lemon and mineral flavours with a long finish. Excellent. N/A UK +49 6 326 329

 Weingut Müller-Catoir Haardter, Bürgergarten Spätlese trocken 2002 

Medium-intensity ripe pear and peach and mineral aromas. Dry, crisp, linear palate of apple and spice and mineral flavours. Very, very long. Excellent. £14.50; HoR

 Weingut Okonomierat Rebholz, Kastanienbusch 2003 

Medium-to-pronounced, youthful aromas of ripe peach, apple and lemon, with a mineral edge. Dry, crisp and medium bodied, with spicy apple, lemon and mineral flavours. Long. Excellent. £29; Win

Written by Gary Werner