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Germany - Winegrowing in the Rheingau

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
Photo: Burg Stahleck with the village of Lorch and its vineyards, Rheingau © Provided by DKBooks Burg Stahleck with the village of Lorch and its vineyards, Rheingau

Burg Stahleck with the village of Lorch and its vineyards, Rheingau

Photo: Drosselhof wine bar, Rüdesheim, Rheingau © Provided by DKBooks Drosselhof wine bar, Rüdesheim, Rheingau

Drosselhof wine bar, Rüdesheim, Rheingau

Winegrowing in the Rheingau

At mainz the mighty Rhein (Rhine) River turns a corner and heads due west for 20 miles (32 km). Lining the north bank are south-facing vineyards that stretch for a few miles inland until forests on the higher slopes mark the end of land suitable for viticulture. Riesling has been grown here for centuries, and on its western fringes, around Assmannshausen, Pinot Noir can claim an equally long tradition. More than any other region, the Rheingau is dominated by large aristocratic and ecclesiastical estates that survive from medieval times.

In the 19th century Rheingau wines were as costly as the finest growths of Bordeaux, but more recently the region’s reputation has slipped, as yields have risen and winemaking standards declined. The top producers have now reversed the trend, but still argue among themselves over stylistic issues. In the 1980s some forward-looking local growers, notably Bernhard Breuer of Georg Breuer and the late Graf Matuschka-Greiffenclau of Schloss Vollrads, founded the Charta Association, which sought to promote dry Rieslings with a good acidic structure as ideal food wines. They were, they asserted, the German equivalents of fine Chablis. Charta only had limited success, but it launched a series of vital debates, first about wine styles, and then about vineyard classification. Breuer and others believed the Rheingau would only recover its reputation if it focused on its outstanding sites, those with Erstes Gewächs (first growth) status. But who was to determine which were the top sites? Inevitably, the discussions became both political and personal, but eventually a list of first-growth vineyards was published in 2000. Unfortunately, compromise ruled the day, so that one third of the Rheingau emerged as worthy of Erstes Gewächs classification, which some growers thought was a ridiculously high proportion. In practice, estates have been cautious about using the designation on the label, reserving its use for one or two outstanding wines in each vintage. The prevailing style is essentially dry with a good backbone of acidity; and, in exceptional vintages, breathtaking sweet wines from grapes attacked by botrytis.

Although the top wines of the Rheingau are superb, they tend to lack consistency. The naturally high acidity is difficult to balance, and there is less stylistic uniformity than in the Pfalz, for example. Moreover, many estates remain in the hands of absentee aristocratic landlords, who employ managers to run the properties. Managers are less likely to take the risks necessary for outstanding quality than owner-winemakers. But it is not for nothing that the Rheingau vineyards were revered. Riesling, whether dry or sweet, can attain true magnificence here, and will continue to do so.

The Rheingau villages

soil type: loam, clay, quartzite
red grape variety: Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder)
white grape variety: Riesling
wine styles: red, white, sparkling, dessert

At the eastern limit of the Rheingau, just across the river from Mainz, Hochheim’s vineyards rise gently up from the river bank to the charming main street of the old town. The mesoclimate here, warmer than the rest of the Rheingau, usually results in wines of considerable body and power. Farther west, behind the extensive but unremarkable vineyards of Eltville on slopes set back from the river, is Rauenthal, boasting a number of outstanding sites including Baiken, Gehrn, and Nonnenberg. Kiedrich, one of the Rheingau’s loveliest villages and home of the Gräfenbach vineyard, is also tucked back into the foothills of the Taunus Mountains, while Erbach, best known for its distinguished Marcobrun vineyard, is unusual in that it lies close to the river bank. Even more unusual is the Schloss Schönborn Estate in Hattenheim, which has vineyards on an island in the middle of the Rhein. Oestrich is joined to Winkel and Mittelheim to the west. The best known sites here are Schloss Vollrads, on the slopes well away from sprawling Winkel, and Lenchen and Droosberg, closer to Oestrich itself. Hallgarten’s vineyards, to the northwest, are the Rheingau’s highest—but the only well-known vineyard here is Schönhell, and the wines are perhaps not as well known as they should be.

More a hamlet than a village, Johannisberg is famous worldwide for its Schloss (castle) and abbey, both reconstructed after bombardment during World War II. The best-known vineyard stretches below the Schloss and its terrace, where the soils have a high quartzite content. In summer, the narrow lanes of Rüdesheim are thronged with tourists, few of whom cast more than a glance at the vast sweep of vineyards that lie above and to the west of the town. The vines here suffer easily from drought stress, so, unusually, they fare better in wet years than in very dry ones. Located between Johannisberg and Rüdesheim, the town of Geisenheim has some good vineyards, such as Kläuserweg, but is best known for its wine college and research institute, which researches everything from new crossings to viticultural practices, and attracts students from the world over.

Farthest west and hidden around the bend of the river, Assmannshausen and Lorch are detached from the other Rheingau villages—as much in their wines as in their location. In Assmannshausen the slate soils are almost entirely planted with Pinot Noir, while Lorch, right on the border with the Mittelrhein region, produces clean, racy Rieslings that in fact have more in common with those of the Mittelrhein than the Rheingau. These wines are underestimated and comparatively underpriced.

Kloster Eberbach

In 1155 the Archbishop of Mainz gave a Hattenheim vineyard known today as the Steinberg to the Cistercian order. The monks built a monastery, Kloster Eberbach, nearby, and its vineyards proliferated. After being seized by Napoleon, it became a ducal property, and was then taken over by the Prussian state. Today the monastery is the headquarters of the State Domaine and a popular location for wine auctions, which attract bidders from all over the world. Wines are no longer made here, but the monastic ruins, the attractive wooded grounds, and the restaurant and wine shop add up to an appealing tourist attraction.

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