A Clean Slate

  • Wednesday 17 November 2004

Germany’s finest wines are all about where they come from – an interplay of terroir (soil, climate, altitude) and human intuition. Joel Payne picks 10 sites that have driven dry Riesling’s quality revolution, and recommends his favourite wine from each site.

At a recent presentation in Berlin, Michael Prince zu Salm-Salm, President of Germany’s Prädikat Wine Estates, spoke of grosses gewächs as ‘being somewhere between Porsche and Goethe’. The individual personality of a wine originates in the vineyard, but the expression of this culture would be impossible without man’s intervention.

The concept of grosses gewächs (great growth) is simple enough – to highlight the finest of any given vintage. Low yields from outstanding sites combined with hand harvest and a late release of the young wine have inspired winemakers to coax maximum quality from their vineyard’s potential. The goal is to achieve a perfect balance of ripe fruit and acidity.

With the release of the 2002 vintage a new logo – the numeral 1 with a cluster of grapes – will be used to symbolise wines of this status. In general wine names will be limited to the name of the vineyard and the grape. For many producers the mention of the site suffices. Kirchenstück is Riesling and so there is no need to write the latter on the label.

A grosses gewächs can only be produced in a restricted number of classified sites, a step towards bringing the concept of grand cru to Germany. More importantly they are subject to a sensorial examination by their peers. At present this preliminary classification is a private endeavour and does not yet have the full approval of the authorities – and some of the best producers still play by the old rules.

It is often said that wine is a lens through which you can see the site that produced it – lit in Germany by Riesling. The following is a selection of dry Rieslings that will introduce a new generation of consumers to German wine’s individuality, and are harbingers of exciting worlds to come.

Berg Schlossberg, Rudesheim (Rheingau)

This vertiginous site in Rüdesheim juts into the Rhine at the western end of the Rheingau where the river veers north towards Cologne. Composed of weathered slate sprinkled with quartz, the Rieslings typically show an austere, often flinty character in their youth. With bottle age a refreshing aroma of peach emerges and the wine develops an almost creamy fullness without losing its mineral acidic backbone.

Since the reform in 1971 this vineyard sprawls over 30ha (hectares), but its true core was never more than 8ha. The Breuer estate in the centre of the village owns 3ha of these. Their 1980 was one of the first Rieslings made along the lines of a first growth and they are one of the few producers in Germany who can line up 10 or more vintages to show how well their wines age. Their 1993 was the best dry Riesling of that memorable year.

Bernhard Breuer, who died at the height of his fame at the age of only 57 earlier this year, was for 25 years the motor that drove this estate to eminence.

Despite being a founding father of grosses gewächs in Germany, Breuer left the group two years ago. A clash of personalities was a part of the story, but his unswerving belief in the inherent character of an individual site was another. ‘Our current classification is based too much on potential ripeness,’ he often asserted. ‘High sugar contents do not alone make great wines.’

Breuer, Berg Schlossberg 2001

2001 is a perfect example of Berg Schlossberg’s character. Last year incredibly closed, it is now just showing its huge potential, if not yet its charm. 2005–2018. £23.99 (2000); You

Kirchenstuck, Forst (Pfalz)

There is a consensus that Kirchenstück is the finest vineyard in the Palatinate. The problem is that it has only 4ha of vine and at least 10 estates flouting the name, each with its own style. Few would doubt, though, that Dr Bürklin-Wolf and Dr von Bassermann-Jordan are the kings in this fiefdom.

With only 0.5ha Dr Bürklin-Wolf can hardly pretend to dominate this site, but no one has done more to bottle its essence than Christian von Guradze and his wife Bettina Bürklin. What makes this vineyard special, apart from the microclimate, is the weathered basalt on underlying loam that retain both heat and water. The grapes mature to perfect ripeness without being overblown. The ensuing wines are both rich and perfectly balanced.

This is their jewel in a crown that sports another six grosses gewächs wines and a handful of other fine sites. No one makes more great dry Riesling than this estate in Wachenheim.

Dr Bürklin Wolf, Kirchenstück 2002

For the past 10 years this vineyard has produced one of the most stunning dry Rieslings in Germany. The 1996 was a monument, the 2002 carries the torch to a new level, perhaps the finest dry Riesling Germany has yet produced. 2006–2020. £45 (2003); Lay

Rothenberg, Nackenheim (Rheinhessen)

The Rothenberg vineyard in Nackenheim would probably be unknown today had Fritz Hasselbach and his wife Agnes not resurrected the Gunderloch Estate. The village of Nierstein lies only 5km further south and traditionally most of the great names in Rheinhessen were located there.

The Gunderloch vineyard rises as a stretch of weathered red slate above the Rhine just before the river turns west at the foot of the Rheingau. An offshore island creates unusual microclimatic conditions that influence the warm style of the wines. Gunderloch owns 9ha of the 12ha in the Rothenberg, but seldom makes more than a few thousand bottles of its finest dry Riesling.

Fritz Hasselback has wisely chosen to release this wine a year later than the more approachable spätlese and auslese. His Rothenberg seldom shows well before its third birthday.

Gunderloch, Rothenberg 2001

The 2001 is the finest dry Riesling that Fritz Hasselbach has released to date. A touch of smoked venison has begun to add complexity to the underlying tones of peach and spice. The sheer weight of fruit is still masked by a steely mineral backbone. Up to 2017. £28; Sie

Idig, Konigsbach (Pfalz)

There is a myth that only old vines produce great wines. Exceptions prove the rule. The Idig vineyard from the Christmann Estate was only six years old in 2000 when it produced a wine that denies simple description.

The vineyard itself has always been first rate, but few producers had worked to exploit its potential. Steep slopes with southerly exposition are not common in the Palatinate. Add to that the small amphitheatre protecting the vines from westerly wind and rain and you are near a winemaker’s dream. Few vineyards are so warm over the year, few have as much limestone and clay. Of the 18ha Steffen Christmann owns only slightly more than 2ha, but his pawns have already been promoted to queens.

Christmann, Idig 2000

This wine was the finest dry Riesling from the 2000 vintage in Germany. Depth and elegance are seldom so well paired. Up to 2013.

N/A UK; +49 6321 66039

Morstein, Westhofen (Rheinhessen)

Although first mentioned in 1282, the Morstein vineyard was unknown to all but a few cognoscenti until recently. The wines from Rheinhessen were unpopular, and even die-hards who drank Riesling from Nierstein turned up their noses. All that has changed since the Wittmann Estate put Westhofen on the map.

The village lies in a valley that draws warm air from the Rhine floor. The Kirchspiel vineyard also produces elegant wines, but Morstein has been more consistent in bringing forth great dry Riesling. Of today’s 140ha the original vineyard is an amphitheatre of less than 50ha rising on the slopes of an underground mountain. In its heart Günter and son Philipp Wittmann own almost 4ha with a southerly exposure, well protected from the westerly winds and rains. The limestone outcroppings generate rich wines of intense mineral expression and astonishing length.

Witmann, Morstein 2001

The 2001 Morstein was the finest dry Riesling made in Germany that year. Wild herbs spice up the bouquet and compact fruit pours luscious flesh onto a good backbone. Up to 2015. £14.99 (2002/2003); WBn

Pechstein, Forst (Pfalz)

Numerous sites in Forst often produce a grosses gewächs, which is why some compare this village to Vosne-Romanée in Burgundy with its full house of grands crus. The most unique is Pechstein, a rare outcropping of volcanic rock. Pech in German means jet black and aptly describes the colour of the soil.

Now surpassing 21ha, the original Pechstein was only half that size. Dr von Bassermann-Jordan owns 1ha in the heart of the slope and produced a 2002 that outshines their Kirchenstück, the more aristocratic site.

Although the estate has owned fine vineyards in the Palatinate for over a century it was not until the arrival of winemaker Ulrich Mell that the lustre surrounding the name of Dr von Bassermann-Jordan began again to shine.

Dr von Basserman-Jordan, Pechstein 2002

Few dry Rieslings in Germany have such salient features as those from this site. Flinty does not suffice. Radiant and complex must be added for good measure. WBn

Holle, Hochheim (Rheingau)

Hochheim has several outstanding vineyard sites, of which Hölle and Kirchenstück are arguably the best.

The Hölle produces denser, more athletic wines that Gunter Künstler – being serious, but with a coy smile – likens to Latour. Kirchenstück being finer, he speaks of Lafite.

In 1983 the Hölle was extended to 30ha, but the original vineyard had only 7ha, of which Künstler acquired 6ha when he purchased the Aschrott Estate in 1996.

The chalky clay and loam soils hold water and heat well. In October, as other vineyards begin to lose their leaves, the Hölle kicks into high gear.

‘We have never had to chaptalise a Riesling from the Hölle,’ asserts Gunter Künster, who has been making outstanding dry Riesling since 1990.

Künstler, Hölle 2002

Künstler makes four dry Rieslings from the Hölle, the Gold Capsule auslese being the ultimate expression of the vineyard. A late harvest ensures perfect physiological ripeness in a Riesling of inimitable depth and stature. 2005–2016. £10.95; J&B

Kastanienbusch, Birkweiler (Pfalz)

The southern extension of the Palatinate borders on Alsace. Some German wines here are even grown on French soil. Although the region has been given little attention, Hansjörg Rebholz heads a budding renaissance – and his Kastanienbusch vineyard has played a significant role in the resurrection of the area’s reputation. His Weisser Burgurnder (Pinot Blanc) and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) are perhaps more well known, but that does not diminish the stature of his Riesling.

The Kastanienbusch vineyard sprawls across some 76ha, but only a small part merits the classification grosses gewächs – and of that only a sliver has the weathered red slate soils on which Riesling thrives. Rebholz’s wines are proof of the German hypothesis that you cannot classify vineyards, but only wines from high-minded producers.

Rebholz, Kastanienbusch 2002

Wild herbs and honey are the hallmarks of this vineyard – and in spite of the density of fruit the wine dances across the palate. The rigid mineral acidic structure will soften. 2005–2017.

N/A UK; +49 6345 3439

Berg Rottland, Rudesheim (Rheingau)

The more gently sloped Berg Rottland is the other great vineyard site in Rüdesheim. The weathered slate here is chalkier, with hints of gravelly loam, and the wines are more full bodied than in Berg Schlossberg. Often the result of botrytis that gives Riesling a more southerly character, these wines are reminiscent of the Palatinate.

Less than half of today’s 30ha form the core of original vineyard, of which about 6ha in a small dell are the choicest. This is where the Josef Leitz Estate produces one of its finest wines. Johannes Leitz, who took over the family property 17 years ago at the tender age of 22, has turned it into an icon of the Rheingau.

An unassuming star, he harvests his grapes ‘à la minute’, as he says, as if he were a chef choosing ingredients for a succulent dish. His 2002s, although from an difficult vintage, were the finest made in the Rheingau and the pinnacle of a still young career.

Leitz, Berg Rottland 2002

This dry spätlese is the quintessence of what a Berg Rottland should be: rich, sensuous and beautifully structured. Apricot pits in the aromatics give way to a backbone of acidity that in a blind tasting might be taken for a Riesling from the Wachau. Pure exuberance! 2004–2015. Sie

Hubacker in Dalsheim (Rheinhessen)

For purists the Hubacker vineyard lies on the wrong side of the tracks. Great Rieslings from Rheinhessen are produced on the Rheinfront, not in the hilly backwaters. Yet no one of late has been producing dry Riesling with more consistency than the Keller Estate.

The Hubacker comprises some 30ha. The core vineyard, once called the Oberer Hubacker, is a mere 4ha in size, wholly owned by the Kellers. The gentle slope rises to a summit that belies the underground limestone bluffs that support the vineyard. Maturity comes slowly here and the grapes are often picked after the neighbours have finished the vintage. The late harvest gives the Hubacker an exotic character that is seldom found elsewhere.

Keller, Hubacker 1997

This auslese was the finest dry Riesling of the 1997 vintage, but both 2001 and 2002 are of similar pedigree – the latter perhaps overshadowed by Klaus and Klaus-Peter Keller’s Morstein. Up to 2010. N/A UK; +49 6243 456

Joel Payne is the co-author of the German Wine Guide (£13.94, Abbeville Press)

THE GENESIS OF GROSSES GEWACHS

The concept of grosses gewächs has been long in coming. The foundations were first laid in 1984 by the Charta association in the Rheingau. By 1987 the members had resurrected Dahlen’s classification of 1885 and were making ‘traditional wines from first-class sites’. In 1992 the first dry Rieslings using three Roman arches on the label to designate the quintessence of their production were released. Shortly thereafter both Rheinhessen and the Palatinate began developing like-minded concepts based on similar classifications from the 19th century.

Originally Michael Prince zu Salm-Salm, who became President of Germany’s Prädikat Wine Estates in 1990, wanted to work closely with the various public organs involved in implementing wine policy to establish guidelines for all producers in the country. His association had four goals. They wanted to ensure that: 1. grosslage, similar to Côte de Nuits Villages, and individual sites, such as a Richebourg, would be clearly differentiated; 2. only finer sites should produce quality wines; 3. yields for these wines be limited; and 4. levels for ripeness be set high enough to ensure the production of fine wine. This was outlined in a manifesto in April 1993.

By 1994 it was clear that there was little hope of finding common ground with the majority of growers dependent on high yields and low prices. In 1995 the Prädikat Estates began setting their own standards as the individual growing regions delineated rules that made sense for their wines. In 1998 a committee was founded to set national standards. The common denominator was that only noble varietals should be produced on the finest sites, that yields would be low, that hand harvest be made mandatory and that wines would be tasted to ensure they held up to expectations.

In the spring of 1999 the Rheingau officially presented its map of classified sites and the first wines were marketed as erstes gewächs or first growths. In July 2001 several other regions ratified their own systems of classification and in June 2002 the term grosses gewächs, or great growth, was chosen to differentiate them from those of the Rheingau which has legal precedence for the sole use of erstes gewächs. Lastly in March of 2003 the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer decided instead on erste lage, or first site, to designate wines of similar stature.

Thus today you have three terms – erstes gewächs, grosses gewächs and erste lage – that essentially mean the same thing. Add to this concoction the introduction of selection by the German Wine Institute for a similar category of wine and you have overlapping systems of classification as complicated as German labels were before. Worse, some of Germany’s finest dry Rieslings, such as those from Bernard Breuer, Josef Leitz or Franz Künstler, are still marketed by the old rules. Be that as it may, one major change has made an enormous difference: all of these producers concentrate on their finest sites and make wines that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. It seems sure that the concept of grand cru will gradually become synonymous with excellent dry Riesling from Germany. Let us hope the producers can work out the terminology.

STARS OF THE FUTURE

Heymann-Lowenstein, Laubach (Mosel)

Reinhard Löwenstein’s Rieslings prove that dry and Mosel are not necessarily antonyms.

Weingart Feuerlay (Mittelmosel)

Florian Weingart’s dry spätlese from the Feuerlay is the finest of its class.

Emerich-Schonleber, Halenberg (Nahe)

Werner Schönleber’s dry Rieslings have gone from strength to strength.

Diel, Burgberg (Nahe)

Armin Diel’s 2003 looks to be the finest dry Riesling he’s yet produced.

n Heyl zu Herrnsheim, Brudersberg (Rheinhessen)

In the early 1990s this was often one of the finest dry Rieslings made in Germany. Now under new ownership.

Koehler-Ruprecht, Saumagen (Pfalz)

Mature spätlese from the Saumagen are a tribute to Bernd Philippi’s individuality.

Mosbacher, Ungeheuer (Pfalz)

This estate has been making good dry Riesling for several years.

Furst Lowenstein, Kallmuth (Franken)

Under Robert Haller’s guidance this estate has returned the Kallmuth vineyard to its former glory.

Horst Sauer,

Lump (Franken)

Horst Sauer’s stickies are a legend in Franconia, but his dry Riesling auslese from the Lump merits equal attention.

Andreas Laible, Plauelrain (Baden)

No other estate in Baden can compete with Laible for honours in dry Riesling.

Aldinger, Lammler (Wurttemberg)

Red wine is usually associated with Württemberg, but about 10% of Germany’s Riesling is produced here – none better than Gerd Aldinger‘s.

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