Riesling Rising

We track the origin of the Riesling grape variety in Germany’s picturesque Rhine region.

“Schloss Johannisberg thrones over all,” said the great German writer Goethe when describing the elegant baroque palace - now a winery - perched on the vine-covered hill of Johannisberg. It’s as true today as it was two centuries ago, when he wrote it.

You can’t visit this region, less than an hour’s drive south-west from Frankfurt Airport, without standing on the castle’s terrace and admiring the panoramic views over the valley of the Rhine River (one of Europe’s longest, running from the Swiss Alps into the North Sea).

If you’re a wine lover, you’ll want to do a lot more than just look, however. Schloss Johannisberg is arguably the most famous wine producer on the Rhine and a place of pilgrimage for sommeliers from across the globe, as this is where the much-loved Riesling vine was first planted as a solo grape variety. That first happened between 1720 and 1721, but it wasn’t until 1775 when Spätlese-style (late harvest) wine was discovered by chance that the grape achieved notoriety.

While it sounds like a fairy-tale, the story goes that the estate’s owner, the prince-bishop of Fulda, sent a messenger with an order to harvest the grapes. However, after he was inexplicably delayed by a few weeks, the grapes began to rot (known as botrytis).

It looked like the harvest would be a disaster but the next spring the resulting wine was found to be delicious. The combination of Riesling grape and late harvesting is still the basis for the greatest white wines of the Rhine today.

There’s a contemporary reason for the sommeliers’ excitement, too. During the decade that energetic Christian Witte has been director of the winery, he and his team have once again made the dry and sweet Rieslings from Schloss Johannisberg among the best white wines in the world. The aromatic richness is balanced by a great mineral freshness, and the sweet Rieslings have a vibrant acidity that makes them sparkle. They are prototypic modern Rieslings of the Rhine - nuanced, perfectly balanced and with a wealth of flavours and aromas (and generally prices are not exorbitant).

There was a time during the latter half of the 20th century that German Rieslings weren’t so well regarded, or indeed, well balanced. A glut of charmless, cheap and overly sweet Rieslings gave the variety an image problem that it can’t shake to this day.

Yet for almost all sommeliers, it’s considered the king of wines - versatile, expressive and with a purity of flavour that means it’s not just great when matched with food, it’s also an excellent accompaniment to an afternoon spent with friends.

Witte’s success in helping turn Rieslings reputation around is even more interesting when you learn he doesn’t have a wine background, but rather he came from business administration. Before the turn of the century it would have been unthinkable for someone like that to get a job of this importance, but Germany’s wine industry is changing. Today, many students at the wine university Hochschule Geisenheim, just down the road from the estate, are from non-wine backgrounds. Witte studied there, too.

Cellar Dwellers

Whether you’re a wine lover or not, a tour of the Schloss Johannisberg cellar is essential because it’s one of the most beautiful in the world. You can find a bottle of Riesling dating back to 1748 in its ‘bibliotheca subterranea’, or underground library of rare wines. (Few people realise that although German Riesling is usually a light wine drunk young, the best have enormous ageing potential. That 1748 is almost certainly still drinkable, but, of course, the historic bottle isn’t for sale.) Schloss Johannisberg also has a restaurant serving hearty German food, but if you want sophisticated dining, then the Rhine region, or the Rheingau as it’s known in Germany, offers many options. Try the nearby Kronenschlösschen Hotel & Restaurant. The cuisine is just as contemporary as the ambience is nostalgic, and it has a stunning list of local Rieslings stretching back decades. 

Less than 10 minutes’ drive up the road is the beautiful Kloster Eberbach, an erstwhile Cistercian monastery founded in 1136 (and now owned by the state), which also has its own eponymous wine estate. Unlike Schloss Johannisberg, which is surrounded by its vineyards, Kloster Eberbach is set at the edge of the forested Taunus Mountains above the vineyards, and the preserved medieval architecture of this sizeable complex is fascinating to explore (it was used as the set for the interior scenes in the 1986 movie The Name of the Rose starring Sean Connery). If you stand in the nave of the church or walk through the cloisters, it’s easy to imagine that the past six or seven centuries didn’t happen. For true wine lovers, the Lay Brothers’ Refectory, with its impressive collection of wooden presses dating from between the 17th and 19th centuries, is a must-see, as is the cavernous Cabinetkeller - established in 1730, it’s the cellar where the monks’ best barrels of Riesling were matured.

Alongside all this history, the Kloster Eberbach winery opened its new high-tech cellar facility at Steinberg, the largest wall-enclosed vineyard in Germany. It’s a great place to tour for anyone who thinks German winemaking is old-fashioned. 

Wine of the Rhine

A short distance from here, the Rhine turns northwards and the valley narrows to a gorge. This is the wild and dramatic ‘Romantic Rhine’ celebrated by 19th century poets such as Heinrich Heine and painters like JMW Turner. Their works popularised the beautiful and rugged landscape, and soon some of the world’s first wine tourists were taking steamers through the Rhine Gorge.

You can still do that today. Located in the World Heritage Upper Middle Rhine Valley region, the picturesque town of Rüdesheim is a good place to hop on a cruise, with operator Köln-Düsseldorfer running a number of tourist boats and steamships along the river. It’s one of Germany’s biggest drawcards thanks to its dramatic scenery; here you’ll find the Lorelei cliffs, and the small wine-growing region of Mittelrhein. The vineyards are much steeper here, making production costs higher, but because the region doesn’t have the same cachet as nearby Rheingau, bottle prices are lower. Over the years, that combination put a lot of producers out of business, but those that remain continue to create high-quality products (with friendly price tags).

One of those is Cecilia Jost of the Toni Jost estate. It’s located in the middle of the walled medieval town of Bacharach on the left bank of the Rhine. The scale of winemaking here is much smaller than Schloss Johannisberg, partly because you simply can’t fit a large facility into the narrow streets, which are lined with timbered houses. Young winemakers such as Jost have been responsible for moving German Riesling into the 21st century by simplifying the range of wines available and making them more fruit-driven.

Climate change has also played a role. Spring now arrives a couple of weeks earlier, and the summers are not as cold as the Rhine Valley’s cool-climate image would have you think. (If you come between June and August, be prepared for some 30 degrees C days.) That has made the wines more generous in body and less tart than they used to be.

During autumn mornings, the valley is often filled with mist, and watching this burn off as the sun comes through is truly spectacular. With views this good, it’s worth staying a couple of nights. North of Bacharach, set above the medieval town of Oberwesel, is Burghotel Auf Schönburg, a castle that’s been transformed into a hotel. With this as a base, you can explore the small-scale producers, knowing that if one Riesling isn’t to your liking, there’s another down the road to discover.

Drink

Here are a few more wineries to help you find your favourite Riesling.

Von Oetinger

Rising star winemaker Achim von Oetinger produces some of the best dry wines in this region. The winery, which is situated very close to the bank of the Rhine, has an Italian restaurant and small hotel.

Weingut Spreitzer

The brothers Andreas and Bernd Spreitzer produce great light-bodied Rieslings of the region that are extremely consistent in quality and good value for money. Rheingaustrasse 86, Oestrich.

Weingut Robert Weil

Situated in the Gothic village of Kiedrich, this producer embodies the Rheingau of the 21st century. Wilhelm Weil produces great Rieslings ranging from bone dry to honey sweet, and generally quite full bodied. Mühlberg 5, Kiedrich.

Weingut Dr Randolf Kauer

When Randolf Kauer founded his small winery in 1982, he was one of Germany’s first organic producers. Today Kauer is also professor of organic wine production at the Geisenheim wine university. Sleek Rieslings with a crystalline clarity that are great value for money. Mainzer Strasse 21, Bacharach.

Keller

Klaus-Peter Keller’s powerful and subtle dry Rieslings have made him the star winemaker on the Rhine. However, it’s a long drive from the other producers featured here, and don’t expect a castle. Bahnhofstrasse 1, Flörsheim-Dalsheim.

Stuart Piggot - Published in Voyeur June 2016
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