The origin of sickly sweet Liebfraumilch, Rheinhessen is a dirty word for most wine lovers. But things have changed, says Freddy Price, who urges us to be more open-minded

If there’s one wine that can be blamed for German wine’s image problem, it’s Blue Nun. Ubiquitous at student parties and old people’s homes in the 1980s, mass-production was so successful that Liebfraumilch became the world’s biggest generic wine brand, selling 175 million bottles in 1984 alone. Fortunately, sales have been in decline ever since.

It was not until the mid-1990s that research by the German Wine Institute discovered the obvious – Liebfraumilch is cheap and sweet, appealing mainly to the elderly. The damage was done though, summed up by the oft-heard phrase: ‘I don’t like German wine, it’s too sweet.’

The region responsible, Rheinhessen, still produces one in four bottles of all German wine, and much remains very ordinary. Some, however, is superb, and deserves a far more discerning audience. Most of Rheinhessen’s land is suitable for mixed farming, meaning wine is just another product for many farmers, who are happy to sell in bulk to big bottlers who blend and sell them. Hence the names of the best growers and vineyards have remained unknown. The politicised 1971 Wine Laws permitted wines from within five miles of the best-known villages to be labelled with their name, demeaning the reputation of many, and leading to the bankruptcy of many famous producers.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, most growers planted a hotchpotch of ‘new’, early-ripening, high-yielding, sweet white varieties such as Ortega, Bacchus, Huxelrebe and the older Müller-Thurgau. Vineyards were sprayed with too much chemical fertiliser, insecticide and herbicide: picking was by machine: in the cellars rapid temperature-controlled techniques for fermenting musts with cultured yeast in stainless steel tanks replaced traditional methods of slow fermentation in large oak barrels with indigenous yeasts. Yields doubled.

Things weren’t helped by the pathetically weak and bureaucratic wine laws for Liebfraumilch, which state that: the wine must be from one specific region – Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Rheingau or Nahe (making up over half the total wine area of Germany!); it must include 70% of any blend of Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Kerner and Riesling (the other 30% can be any white grape!); and it must have 18 to 40g per litre of residual sugar (the maximum for a dry wine is 8g!!).

Today, the two leading brands, Blue Nun and Black Tower, no longer have Liebfraumilch on their labels: they supply supermarkets with a range of rather more attractive and drier whites (including straight Riesling) and reds. Meanwhile, the renaissance of Riesling has come to the rescue of German wine.

Turning the clock back involves more time, effort and money, however: the soil must be corrected: more Riesling, Silvaner and Burgundian varieties must be planted: picking must be by hand. As yields are halved, new markets must be found for these more expensive wines. Thankfully, a brilliant generation of young growers is changing the whole nature and quality of Rheinhessen wines. They talk to each other, compare results, jointly market their wines and travel to other countries – things previous generations did not do. Below are some of the names to watch.

Wonnegau

The Happy Land, as it is known, is a legendary, almost forgotten, hilly area of Rheinhessen, northwest of Worms. The climate is benign and the soil composed of limestone, iron-rich red soil and clay in places, and alluvial gravels, sandstone and loess in others. Riesling was first recorded here in 1490, and this is where today’s Rheinhessen Revolution began.

When Klaus Keller of Weingut Keller married his wife Hedwig in 1972, she persuaded him to plant the elegant Riesling from her native Saar. Life was hard until the quality of their Rieslings was recognised in 1992. By 1996 their range of wines was considered to be the finest in Rheinhessen. In 2002 Klaus gave his son Klaus-Peter full responsibility for the 60% Riesling, 30% Weissburgunder, Grauburgunder, Pinot Noir and Silvaner estate. In each vintage every wine is immaculate, from simple Silvaner Gutswein (estate wine), dry Grosses Gewächs (grand cru) and noble sweet Riesling Auslese from Westhofener Morstein and Kirchspiel, to the great Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Dalsheimer Bürgel. UK importer: HoR

From 1990 Weingut Wittmann’s vineyards have been organic, and from 2003 biodynamic, which is reflected in the wines’ purity and authenticity. In 2003, Günter Wittmann handed over to his son Philipp, the president of Rheinhessen VDP (Association of Quality Wine Estates). Half the vines are Riesling, including the Grosses Gewächs dry Rieslings Westhofener Morstein, Kirchspiel and Aulerde, the noble sweet Ausleses, and half Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Chardonnay and Silvaner. WBa

Friedrich Groebe calls himself ‘wine artisan and traditionalist’ and says ‘I want my wines to have Riesling character and expression – no pears or passion fruit!’ His Weingut Groebe has 65% Riesling, mostly in the Grosses Gewächs vineyards, Westhofener Morstein, Aulerde and Kirchspiel. The dry Grosses Gewächs Kirchspiel Riesling 2004 has great fruit and limestone terroir flavour and will develop with time. The glorious, but not overpowering 2004 Kirchspiel Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese makes a good comparison with the 1988, his first vintage, which had the orange tinge of the vintage and a subtle and endless flavour of ripe figs and apricots. N/A UK; +49 6258 6721

Florian Fauth was 19 when he started in 1999 at his family estate, Weingut Seehof. The estate has 18% Riesling, 10% each of Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), 8% Silvaner and 5% Scheurebe, leaving a huge 49% of ‘other varieties’, which Fauth will gradually reduce, to concentrate on the noble varieties. 90% of the vines are in Westhofen, notably the great Riesling vineyards, Morstein, Kirchspiel and Aulerde. Among the 2005s, I love the juicy, ebullient Auxerrois, the dry yet rich Westhofener Morstein Riesling, and the luscious, pineappley Scheurebe Auslese. N/A UK; +49 6244 4935

In 1990, Gerhard Gutzler decided to concentrate on quality wines and in 2006 he was elected to the VDP. Today, Weingut Gutzler has Spätburgunder (32%) Riesling (28%) plus Chardonnay, Auxerrois, Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder. It owns vines in the top Riesling vineyards, Westhofener Morstein, Kirchspiel and Aulerde, plus Niersteiner Ölberg and the vineyard from which the name Liebfraumilch was derived, Wörmser Liebfrauenstift Kirchenstück, whose 2005 dry Riesling was powerful with a typical slightly smoky nose. The 2003 Westhofener Morstein Spätburgunder on limestone soil was fine and elegant with good acidity to ensure future development. Gerhard, having achieved so much, has handed over the responsibility for the wines to his young son Michael.

N/A UK; +49 6244 90 5251

The Battenfeld-Spanier estate has been organic since 1995. Oliver Spanier is a young man with a mission to make great Rieslings (50%) and Spätburgunders (20%) in forgotten vineyards in south Wonnegau. 2003 was his first vintage to hit the headlines, 2004 was even finer, and 2005 has confirmed him as a master of Riesling. His top-quality dry Rieslings are Hohen-Sülzner Kirchenstück ‘R’ and Flörsheimer Frauenberg ‘R’: the 2005 of the former has great richness, structure, balance, and only 3g of sugar per litre; the latter, picked at the end of November, has greater finesse and a classic mineral character. N/A UK; +49 6243 90 6515

Nierstein

Nierstein starts just south of Mainz and includes Oppenheim and Nackenheim. The best sites are on the slope facing east, the Rheinfront, where the soil is weathered red slate with plenty of iron. The style and quality of the wines is due to the soil, the steep slope and the Rhine, which gives warmth from reflected morning sunshine and cool breezes at night, as well as plenty of botrytis in the autumn for the noble sweet Riesling.

In the early 1980s Fritz and Agnes Hasselbach took the bold step of reducing their yields to aim for quality. From 1989, Weingut Gunderloch has been consistently among Rheinhessen’s top three. It boasts 80% Riesling and has made the reputation of Nackenheimer Rothenberg as the finest vineyard in Rheinhessen for noble sweet wines. The 2004 Rothenberg Rieslings live up to all my expectations: the dry Riesling has all the qualities of a brilliant Grosses Gewächs, though not labelled so: the Auslese has little botrytis, great Riesling purity and characteristic Roter Hang richness: the Auslese Gold Kapsel is fabulous and the Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese outrageously glorious. Sie

Roland Gillot has a faithful clientele for his Weingut Kühling-Gillot dry Rieslings (46%) and, his passion, Spätburgunder (10%). The 2003 Grosses Gewächs Spätburgunder Oppenheimer Kreuz, matured in 100% new oak for 28 months, is deep in colour and has great complexity, needing time to develop. His daughter Carolin has taken responsibility for the whites and made a splendid range in 2004 and an even finer one in 2005. The Grosses Gewächs Riesling Niersteiner Pettental is already showing sheer class; just 3g of sugar per litre and a perfect balance of ripe fruit and power. WSc

Dr Alex Michalski has been director of Weingut Sankt Antony for over 30 years and the dry Rieslings were brilliant until the middle of the 1990s, when they became less consistent. In 2005, Detlev Meyer, a successful businessman, bought Sankt Antony and in 2006 he took a 30-year lease on Weingut Heyl Zu Herrnsheim from the Ahr family. With 22.5ha of fine vineyards (65% Riesling), a new young team, new cellars and extra investment, there is great potential. Of the 2005 potential Grosses Gewächs Rieslings, Niersteiner Ölberg is the most seductive now and Pettental the most promising for later. N/A UK; +49 6133 50 9110

Peter von Weymarn arrived in 1969 and rapidly made the 17ha of Weingut Heyl Zu Herrnsheim’s prime vineyards (70% Riesling) fully organic. From then until it was sold in 1994 to the Ahr family, this was the leading Rheinhessen estate for dry Rieslings, with Sankt Antony a close rival. The vineyards deteriorated in recent years but the 2004 dry Grosses Gewächs Riesling Pettental has great authority and fruit without heaviness, while the monopoly vineyard Brudersberg is even finer, more delicate with less richness but greater length. The vineyards are being reorganised and regenerated but the different character of each wine from each estate will be kept. Arm

Bingen

Binger Scharlachberg is a legendary steep, south-facing Riesling vineyard with quartzite, weathered red slate and loess soil. Weingut Villa Sachsen had a great reputation but in recent years the quality dropped. The family of Michael Prinz zu Salm-Salm, the president of the VDP, took full control in 2006 and embarked on a massive investment to improve vineyard and cellar. The Riesling is in the best part of the terraced Scharlachberg and Felix Prinz zu Salm-Salm, soon to complete his studies at Geisenheim, will be responsible for restoring the reputation of this historic estate. N/A UK; +49 6721 99 0575

Siefersheim

Siefersheim is a hilly village southeast of Bad Kreuznach. Its soil is volcanic porphyry and sandy loam, like that of Schlossböckelheim in Nahe. The brilliant young Daniel Wagner’s grandfather made great Rieslings and now he is doing so at the family estate, Wagner-Stempel. It has 47% Riesling, 31% Burgundian vines and 8% Silvaner, and the wines are fermented with indigenous yeasts in large oak barrels. The two potential 2005 Grosses Gewächs Rieslings are Siefersheimer Höllberg, from old, low-yielding vines (25 hl/ha), which is enticingly dry and ripe, and Heerkretz, a cooler late-ripening terraced vineyard with greater finesse and length. His botrytised Ausleses have a mineral purity of Riesling to rival those of Weingut Dönnhoff in Nahe. WKe

Freddy Price is the author of Riesling Renaissance (Mitchell Beazley, £25)

Written by Freddy Price