Beginning with a departure from the Mosel in the early morning (having been entertained by none other than the inimitable Dr. Ernst Loosen the evening before) we darted northwards to the stifling-hot sloping vineyards of Weingut Jean Stodden in Ahr. Then southeastwards to the equally Hades-esque, vertiginous terraces of the Rheingau managed by Weingut Leitz in the afternoon. By this stage of the day this pasty Irish wine advisor, along with the remainder of the party on the ABS “Masters of Riesling” trip bus, had succumbed to slumber (tasting fine wine all day is hard work but someone’s got to do it). Curiously however, this was perhaps the most fitting prelude to arriving in the middle-Nahe on a warm, Summers evening, as the view that met us from atop the towering Waldgasthaus Lemberghütte lookout point was nothing short of dreamlike.
It was in this spot, high above the river in the early evening that were we met by the effervescent Anne Dönnhoff who, as we each disembarked, encouragingly handed each of us a cold glass of Dönnhoff Riesling QBA 2018 and exclaimed, “Welcome to Middle Earth!” gesturing over the vast, undulating, burnt-green expanse that lay below us. This first glass acted as the perfect elixir to rouse us and as we cracked our eyes the true magic of the region was revealed. Anne is the wife of Cornelius who, along with his father Helmut, holds the ownership and winemaking reins at the estate – the fourth generation to do so. She told us of how vine growing in the family can be traced back at least 250 years but it was Hermann Dönnhoff (Helmut’s grandfather) that laid the cornerstone for the estate’s success at the turn of the 20th century, focusing on planting Riesling vines in prized vineyards and selling the resulting terroir-driven wines under their individual site names. It was these distinct vineyard sites, or Grosse Lagen, that Anne began to point out from atop our verdant observation deck.
Directly below us – due west – lay the Leistenberg vineyard. “Lei” means “slate” in the local dialect and the vineyard certainly lives up to its name with its steep, terraced, southeast-facing slopes producing Kabinett wines with precise definition and minerality. To the northeast, just across the river, Anne outlined the “L-shaped” Felsenberg vineyard. This site is famous for its intensely precipitous, southfacing slopes that produce powerful, age-worthy, flinty Rieslings from volcanic porphyry soil. On the edge of the vineyard stands the Felsentürmchen (“small rock tower”) – its image bears the labels of all the wines derived solely from this site. Closer to the river and in the same direction Anne pointed to the small (but extremely valued) vineyard of Brücke of which Dönnhoff hold sole ownership. Running adjacent to the Luitpoldbrücke (Luitpold Bridge) on the edge of Oberhausen village, this sheltered, south-facing 1.1ha vineyard enjoys a moderating influence from the River Nahe, promoting early-flowering and a long growing season allowing for the production of concentrated Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and (in some vintages) Eiswein. Right next door to Brücke lies the iconic – and slightly conical – Hermannshöhle (“Hermann’s Cave”, referencing the small mine in the middle of the hillside) vineyard which for over a century has been revered as the Nahe’s top-ranked site by which all others are judged. Its varied soils ranging from blackish grey slate mixed with extrusive igneous rock, porphyry and limestone, along with its southern aspect, steepness, range of altitudes and proximity to the river allow for an array of powerful, complex Riesling’s to be made from this site ranging from bone dry Grosses Gewächs to luscious, botrytis-affected Trockenbeerenauslese. “And there is where we’ll be dining tonight!” Anne said, pointing to a charming building directly below the vineyard in question. Aptly named ‘Hermannshohle Restaurant Weck’, it seemed to be carved into the hillside like a hobbit hole in the Shire (maybe we were in Middle Earth after all!). With the formal tasting scheduled for the next morning we descended back down into Oberhausen and met Helmut before enjoying a fine dinner of locally-caught river Perch alongside he and Anne, complete with an array of perfect Dönnhoff accompaniments throughout.
The tasting began early the next morning as we had over twenty wines to get through before our departure for the Rheinhessen at 11am (a hard life, I know). As we would mostly be sampling from the 2018 vintage Helmut began by outlining how the year played out. “Everything was perfect for this vintage”, he said. Early budbreak in April thanks to mid-Summer-like temperatures in early spring paved the way for quick development uninterrupted by the frosts that marred the previous year. This warm, sunny weather and vigorous growth continued throughout the spring, with flowering proceeding smoothly and the vines exhibiting excellent health; “You could almost literally watch them grow”, said Helmut. The summer continued with day after day of clear blue skies and high temperatures, shifting concerns to the lack of precipitation and potential for drought (which in August was a catastrophic reality for many others in Germany). However, thanks to the deep roots of the older vines and the efforts of the Dönnhoff vineyard team in maximising water retention and reducing drought stress in each individual site, they were rewarded with perfectly ripe fruit across the board come harvest. If anything, Helmut joked, it was the human side of the Dönnhoff operation that suffered most during the 2018 vintage as the intense sunshine and high temperatures meant that vineyard labour was shifted to the early morning hours when temperatures were slightly cooler, establishing a regular “siesta rhythm” at the winery that any Spaniard would be proud of.
Now, onto the wines. It would not be possible to cover every wine that was tasted but for the sake of this blog we will cover those that will be available to JN customers as well as a few standouts.
Starting with the dry wines:
2018 Riesling QBA Dry – Made up of a mixture of different vineyard parcels. Very pure and mineral with a refreshing acidity. Dainty body. Almost too good to be an estate Riesling! A wonderful introduction.
2018 Tonschiefer ‘Dry Slate’ Riesling – From the Leistenberg vineyard. Slightly more delicate; a wonderful nose of white peach and white flowers. More nervy and racy on the palate. Citrus and tropical fruits. Helmut’s “wine to share with friends”. He isn’t wrong!
2018 Kreuznacher Kahlenberg Riesling – From a vineyard 8km north of the estate and the one in which Helmut served his apprenticeship. A fuller wine – more stony and serious. Real florality with jasmine and orange blossom blooming through. Very fine with a long, tingling finish. Excellent!
2018 Felsenberg “Felsentürmchen” Riesling – Wow! Such a complex nose; lemon sherbet, pineapple, acacia, lavender, jasmine, lanolin. It smells alive! Concentrated tropical fruit on the palate of passionfruit and mango. Fruitier and rounder than what’s gone before but still reined by that powerful acidity. A wine of huge personality that will only get better with age, according to Helmut. “Drink it within the first year or leave it for at least five”. He wasn’t wrong – we sampled the 2013 immediately after and the development even at that stage was stunning.
2018 Hermannshöhle Riesling Grosses Gewächs – “The talent of this vineyard is outstanding”, says Helmut. It is the highest classified vineyard in the region and the age of vines can well exceed 100 years old. A hugely powerful wine, even on the nose which shows lemon verbena, jasmine, mandarin, lime and banana. White peach and tropical fruits follow on the palate with massive intensity and a full body. There’s almost a slight grip on the palate with the wine finishing taut and mineral. A truly aristocratic wine. Definitely worth revisiting in a few years!
And finishing with the “fruity” wines:
2018 Riesling QBA Off-Dry – Lime leaf, white flowers, orange and green apple. The fruity sweetness is balanced beautifully with the acid. Hard not to like! Great value.
2018 Kreuznacher Krötenpfuhl Riesling Kabinett – Apparently meaning “Frog’s Pond”; a neighbour of the Kahlenberg vineyard. Ripe lemon, white peach, white flowers and tropical fruit. The sweetness once again somehow barely registers thanks to the acidity. A summer wine! Who wouldn’t love this?
2018 Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett – Meaning “Slate Hill”. Mandarin orange, apricot, green apple and lime. Quite restrained now but will open up beautifully with time as all the ingredients are there.
2018 Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese – This vineyard, Helmut explains, has the highest contrast between daytime and night-time temperatures out of all the sites he manages thanks to the cold air sinking down from the mountain opposite it in the evening. For this reason, he says, sometimes the wines can take time to open up. The 2018, while very elegant and fine is indeed somewhat closed now. Disappearing for a while into the cellar, Helmut returns with two bottles to hammer home his point. The first is the 2004 vintage of the above wine which shows stunning development – somehow more creamy in texture, with a fuller body of lemon curd and honey and a more lavish, ripe aroma.
Introducing the second he said, “This is for the two 1992 babies in the room” – pointing to myself and another in the group, who he had been informed were the youngest in the party and with the same date of birth. In a wonderful gesture Helmut produced a 1992 Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Auslese. Its 27 years of aging had given way to a hugely opulent bouquet of honeydew melon, lemon curd, camomile, Earl Grey tea and orange blossom, with ripe pineapple, mango and honey following on the palate. Barely sweet at all and with a perfect balance, the length just went on! “It’s still young, just like you”, Helmut laughed. A real honour and a treat – testament to the class of the man.
2018 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Goldkapsel Riesling Auslese – So intense! Almost herbal nose. Mint, lime zest, grapefruit, lemon grass and apricot. Opulent, mouthcoating texture and wonderfully sweet but the rapier-like acidity persists to provide a fresh finish. Mesmerising!
2018 Oberhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Beerenauslese Goldkapsel – “This wine is like a dance”, says Helmut, his arms swaying. Such an intriguing nose – intensely herbaceous and almost yeasty (in a good way!). So pure on the palate – a cacophony of fruit and flowers that is initially luscious and mouth-coating but succumbs to the acid, leaving a mineral, almost peppery finish. Full-bodied yet completely ethereal and ultimately timeless. The perfect conclusion.
And with that we bid farewell to Helmut and Anne. I will forever feel extremely fortunate to have been able to experience Dönnhoff first hand – to visit the stunning Nahe region and observe their world-famous vineyards, to dine with them and understand their collective and personal history and to taste their incomparable wines under the guideship of the mastermind behind it all. I will also be eternally thankful to Anne and Helmut for their hospitality and kindness. It’s an experience I will never forget and it is with renewed enthusiasm and vigour that I hope to share the Dönnhoff story with JN customers.