High and dry

  • Monday 1 April 2002

The Rheingau's strength is its dry Rieslings, even though its reputation is for sweet wines. STEPHEN BROOK finds out why the message still hasn't got through.

The Rheingau should be Germany's flagship wine region. It is, after all, the heartland of Riesling, where the grape's natural acidity can be exquisitely balanced by its intense fruitiness. But for many years it seems to have been holed beneath the water, limping through the choppy seas of wine fashion. This noble white variety was first mentioned in a document in 1435 and may well have been present in the vineyards decades earlier. The Rheingau itself is grounded in tradition and history: viewed from the Rhine that flows beneath its 3,000ha (hectares), it offers a silhouette of castles, mansions and monasteries, and is still dominated by estates that belong to noble or formerly ecclesiastical domaines.

This perception of an underperforming wine region – with great renown but limited popularity – is something of a distortion. The quality of the wines is now extremely high, which was seldom the case 20 years ago; and the Rheingau is the first of the German wine regions to implement a vineyard classification system. If its image fails to match its actual performance, this may be because its growers have been arguing among themselves for two decades about stylistic issues. In the mid-1980s I was researching a book on sweet wines, and called on a prominent grower, the youthful Bernhard Breuer of the Georg Breuer estate. In his tasting room he had lined up dozens of bottles, modern and ancient, for me to taste. 'I am happy to show you a range of sweet wines,' he told me, 'but you have to understand that in the past Rieslings from the Rheingau were dry.'

Stephen Ress of the Balthasar Ress estate in Hattenheim agrees. 'But they were dry because the wines were kept in cask for at least three years, and then in bottle for some years after that. It was only in recent decades that we developed the technology for chilling and filtration that allowed winemakers to stop the fermentation and leave some residual sugar in the wine. A century ago that wasn't possible, as the wines kept fermenting until they eventually stopped, by which time they were usually fairly dry in taste.'But by the 1970s, 70% of Rheingau wines, manipulated by new technology and dosed with süssreserve (unfermented grape juice), were quite sweet. Not surprisingly, many soon assumed that this was the authentic style of Rheingau Riesling. Breuer and many others were determined to fight this assumption, since they believed that high levels of residual sugar not only resulted in wines that were poor matches with food, but that residual sugar often disguised poor quality and overcropped grapes. In 1984 Breuer co-founded the Charta association of growers, which pledged to produce under its logo wines that were made to higher quality standards than the 1971 wine laws required, and that were stylistically similar: off-dry wines, with 9–12g of residual sugar balanced by high acidity. The late Graf Matuschka-Greiffenclau, another crusading co-founder of Charta and owner of the great Schloss Vollrads estate, organised countless banquets to demonstrate how well Charta Rieslings matched a whole range of dishes. By the early 1990s Breuer and Graf Matuschka were going one step further, arguing in favour of a vineyard classification that would enable growers to highlight top vineyard sites – Steinberg, Erbacher Marcobrunn, and so forth – on the labels, while suppressing the names of lesser sites. This was traditional practice in the region until the 1971 wine laws proclaimed that all vineyard sites were of equal merit.

After a long and sometimes bitter struggle, a classification was finally approved in late 2000. Despite all these initiatives, the image of the Rheingau remains fuzzy. Estates with a strong domestic market tend to follow Breuer's lead by focusing on essentially dry wines, marketed under the estate or village name – except when the wines come from renowned vineyards, and releasing nobly sweet wines only in exceptional vintages. There is little stylistic cohesion in the Rheingau, although dry wines far outnumber sweet ones.

Fifteen years ago dry Rheingau Rieslings were often too austere for their own good. Even many Charta wines were too high in acidity for comfort. Today the wines are better balanced, and top growers voluntarily reduce yields to around 50 or 60 hl/ha, and manage their vineyards using minimal soil-destroying herbicides and pesticides. The maximum yield in the Rheingau is 88hl/ha, but what is not widely realised is that over-production can be carried over to potentially leaner years. Germany's leading association of quality-oriented growers, the VDP, insists on a maximum yield of 75 hl/ha in the Rheingau, but here too there are loopholes. 'All this rule means,' explains Breuer, 'is that if you crop 85 hl/ha one year, you can only bottle 75 with the VDP logo, but there is nothing to stop you using the rest in a regular bottling. So theoretically you can still produce as much as you want, and an overcropped vineyard will give diluted wines across the board, including the wines bearing the VDP logo! My own view is that any surplus production should be sent for distillation.'

As one explores the Rheingau one begins to understand its diversity. Its swathe of south-facing vineyards flank the Rhine at the point where, having flowed north for a long period, it veers west for some 30km before resuming its northward passage at Assmannshausen. Between the river and the forests of the Taunus foothills lie vineyards, the sites closest to the river enjoying the balmiest temperatures, those further inland being somewhat cooler and enjoying a longer growing season. To the east the sheltered sedimentary soils at Hochheim give the richest, most robust wines of the region.

Estates don't differ greatly in their approach to vinification. Some use selected yeasts; others prefer indigenous yeasts. Most favour a long cool fermentation, often for many months. Many properties retain the classic 1,000-litre casks in which to ferment and age the wine; others have switched partially or wholly to stainless steel. Some bottle early to retain the fresh fruitiness of the wines; others bottle later to bring out the complexity of the wine rather than its primary fruit characters. Perhaps the most significant differences are between those persisting with the hi-tech winemaking for which Germany became famous, who clarify the must, often by centrifuging, before fermentation; and those who prefer natural sedimentation and ageing on the fine lees. Over recent years there have been shifts in patterns of ownership. Many tiny properties have vanished, their vineyards absorbed by larger neighbours; and a few larger estates, such as Groenesteyn and Aschrott, have sold up.

There has also been a change in generations, and formerly lacklustre estates such as Spreitzer have been transformed into rising stars of the Rheingau, in this case delivering a range of elegant, zesty wines at sensible prices. Other relative newcomers include the Flick and Barth families, who are rapidly making a name for themselves. Young Johannes Eser is now making the wines at Johannishof, which produces a larger proportion of non-dry wines than most other estates. Other stars of the region are Künstler, Leitz, Becker, Kesseler (mostly for his elegant Pinot Noirs), Breuer, Weil (renowned for the most dazzling and costly TBAs but deserving of his reputation for concentrated dry wines too), and Peter Kühn in Oestrich. Kühn is modest to the point of shyness, but a stroll with him through the vineyards tells you all you need to know about his dedication: the Burgundian-style trellising systems, the higher density, the insistence on controlling yields by severe pruning. The wines are glorious: even the simplest Rheingau Riesling is delicious.

There are a handful of underperforming estates still around, especially among the larger aristocratic domaines that lack the personal touch of a closely involved owner/ winemaker. But overall the quality in the Rheingau is extremely high. If the world as a whole doesn't realise it, this is not entirely because we are too blinkered to appreciate the glories of Rheingau Riesling. It is largely because the region has been too dominated by infighting and style wars to present a unified front to the wine world.

Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.

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