Essence of the Rheingau

Regular readers of this blog will know that with my focus on blind tasting, I like to get to the bottom of ‘what makes a wine a wine’ and how a particular region is expressed in the wines that come from that region. I recently got back from a tasting trip to the Rheingau in Germany – famous for its Rieslings – and have been thinking about the essence of Rieslings from that region.

Copy of an old map of the Rheingau showing the Rhine river's westerly turn and the site of the vineyards.

Copy of an old map of the Rheingau showing the Rhine river’s westerly turn and the site of the vineyards.

The Rhine, in its journey north from Switzerland, makes a westerly detour near the city of Mainz exposing the northern slopes of the valley to the sun and making ideal growing conditions for grapes. This 30km stretch before the river resumes its northerly course makes up the Rheingau region. Indeed, so successful at ripening is the mesoclimate of this region that the alcohol levels in Rieslings can reach over 15% abv – scarcely believable given its situation at 50°N!

Crossing the Rhine on the car-ferry with the Rheingau vineyards on the northern bank.

Crossing the Rhine on the car-ferry with the Rheingau vineyards on the northern bank.

Most Rieslings made here are dry – following the fashion over the last two decades for dry wines that has all but extinguished the drive to make off-dry and sweet styles, for which the region was famous for. Fortunately, some producers are still making the exalted sweet Auslese and Beerenauslese wines, and we can only hope that these wines find a new audience in the near future to keep them alive.

Wines at Rheingau producer Domdechant Werner.

Wines at Rheingau producer Domdechant Werner.

Over the course of my few days of tasting Rheingau Rieslings I was struggling to identify particular aroma and flavour notes. In general, the wines seemed to defy the obvious fruit notes that are the first port of call in any tasting note. Yes, every now and then there were hints of fresh green apple, lemon, lime and grapefruit and white peach in a warm vintage. However, most of my notes consisted of descriptors of things you’re unlikely to associate with wine or even put in your mouth! Aggregating the most common words for both aromas and flavours from my 100 or so notes I came up with: brine, sea salt, iodine, quinine, chalk, cream/milk candy, pickle juice, lemon and basil.

Stainless steel vats of Riesling in the ultra-modern winery of Robert Weil.

Stainless steel vats of Riesling in the ultra-modern winery of Robert Weil.

Rather than having obvious flavour components, these wines came across as highly textural. They were steely, austere and highly structural. The acidity was always high – drawing a long finish down to the back of the palate. Although in a ‘dry’ style, some residual sugar is needed to balance this searing acidity, which has the by-product of creating extra weight on the palate. Most of the wines I tasted had a good deal of tannic mouth-feel on the inner surfaces of my lips – the result of a good whack of skin contact during the winemaking process. Additionally, it is common practice to mature these wines on the lees for some time. This gives a creamy texture to the wine, as well as the cream/milk candy note I picked up on the palate. (Rheingau Rieslings don’t undergo malolactic conversion in general.)

I loved these wines from an intellectual point of view – trying to identify exactly what was going on in the glass is always a source of pleasure for me. But as a wine to enjoy, I liked the minerally austerity, the savoury – even salty – flavours and the highly textural aspects of the palate. I’ll be adding several of these to my cellar!

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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7 Responses to Essence of the Rheingau

  1. Very interesting. I have not had many dry Rieslings from the Rheingau, but I could relate to the struggling with identifying common denominators in dry Riesling in general (I am more familiar with Mosel Rieslings). I like your observation of a more textural feel of the wines…

    • James says:

      Thanks for your comment. Yes my first experience with German Riesling was through the Mosel and the off-dry to Spätlese style wines became some of my favourite whites. However, I have learned to appreciate the dry styles too and thoroughly enjoyed the textural components of the Rheingau Rieslings I tasted.

      Coming to the sweeter styles though – are there any generic characteristics that would distinguish Mosel from Rheingau in your view?

      • James, I don’t want to take longer than necessary to reply, so I am doing it now. I agree with you that the advance of dry Rieslings have been the most exciting development in German Riesling. While there was always dry Riesling around in Germany, its quality nowadays seems leaps and bounds ahead of what it used to be (aka sourish acid bombs). I have had some amazing Grosses Gewaechs from my hometown Nackenheim Rothenberg and the Nierstein Pettenthal last summer that were just stunning.

        That said, I usually like some residual sugar in my Rieslings, it just seems to bring out the fruit a bit more which is what I like most about Riesling.

        But I digress, and want to answer your question. A caveat in advance: My coming of age with wine, despite having been born and raised in Rheinhessen, happened in the Mosel valley, where I lived for almost ten years total. As a proper Rheinhessen kid, I rarely traveled to “snobbish” Rheingau across the river and therefore simply don’t have much experience with Rheingau Riesling. Add in that its reputation has been talked down a bit over the last years and my interest was not necessarily sparked. So I am not sure whether I am able to say what generic characteristics make up a Rheingau Riesling.

        Regarding Mosel Rieslings, I would argue that their key characteristic is a tendency to be opulent, almost baroque in style. Even drier wines seem to show this abundance of flavors and playfulness. It is what I have yet to find in Riesling that is not from the Mosel. The Saar, in contrast, always seems to be a bit more austere, which might make it my (albeit just slight) favorite of all Riesling regions in Germany (the Scharzhofberg is probably my favorite vineyard in Germany). People talk about minerality for them, which is true, but there is such a coolness to these wines, even when they are sweet. A soothing coolness…

        Does that make sense or conform with your own experience?

      • James says:

        Thanks for your reply Oliver; most interesting to hear your perspective! Yes, I’d agree with the opulence of the Mosel style standing out, certainly in the Trocken styles. In the sweeter styles, yes of course the opulence is there too, but also in the Rheingau I found. Indeed, due to the mesoclimate of some vineyards, some grapes were achieving ripeness levels I never would have thought possible there! I’m not yet sure as to differentiate between these styles in the Mosel and Rheingau. I would hazard that the Mosel wines are more consistent, or ‘predictable’, in style (not a criticism), whereas the character of the Rheingau is more vineyard and producer dependent.

        That said, we had a fascinating tasting at Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt where we tasted side-by-side wines from their Mosel, Saar and Ruwer vineyards. Very interesting to see the different character of these vineyards and the effect the size of the local rivers has on the mesoclimate there.

        Agree with you about the Scharzhofberg. I also particularly enjoyed wines from the Josephshöfer vineyard – a monopole owned by Reichsgraf near Graach.

      • I think with the Rhine valley being so warm (relatively), chances are just better for great Rieslings to ripen in the (again, relatively) cooler Mosel valley, especially with climate changing and summers becoming warmer. Riesling, in my book, just needs a somewhat more restraint ripening temperature on the vine.

        I can see the predictability argument along the Mosel and don’t take it as a negative. But it needs to be said, and I am not implying that you are not aware of it, that qualities even from similar spots in vineyards also vary greatly along the Mosel. It does take a good winemaker after all. And that seems to have been one of the criticisms of the Rheingau in the past, that they rested on their laurels. The same thing was thrown against the Mosel, but it seems winemakers there caught on to the notion of having to be more diligent again earlier…

        Case in point being Kesselstatt. I LOVE the Kesselstatt Weinstube in Trier, their wine pub. To me, the best place to sit and begin an evening (or end it). However, for quite some time in the early and mid 2000s I was really upset because I just didn’t come to terms with their wines. They seemed haphazard, lazy, almost sloppy. Luckily, things seem to have picked up again. For about 10 years, I was unable to drink the Josephshoefer from them (a wine I adored in the late 90s), now I will drink it again…

        I love the differences in Mosel, Saar and Ruwer wines, they are what make this region even more compelling! I am so glad you had a chance to taste those differences!!

  2. James M says:

    Interesting you refer to the consistent mouthfeel of these wines. I always think the region that has an utterly distinctive mouthfeel is Alsace, where almost all the wines have an oiliness to them – that I’ve never noticed in other wines from the same grape from elsewhere.

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