Day 1 Morning
After a 3am start for most of us, a weary band of wine trade stalwarts assemble at Frankfurt airport. Introductions completed, we await our lift to the Leitz winery in Rüdesheim. The stereotypical edifice of German efficiency begins to crumble as we wait, and wait, and wait for our driver to find us. However, we’re soon our way and before long the scenery begins to improve as we approach our destination. Rüdesheim seems quite lively with lots of water-related activities on offer. Our host is Eva Fricke, dynamic and very knowledgeable manager at Leitz. Eva runs us through a selection of Leitz wines, starting with the trockens (dry wines) and moving on to the fruchtigs (more fruity, aka sweeter).
Standout wines for most of the party are the 2009 Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Spätlese and, for excellent value, the 2009 Riesling Kabinett. A great tasting is followed by sustenance in the form of a thick, creamy pepper soup with a skewer of prawns. Huge steaks are then presented accompanied by strawberries and white asparagus. This combination gives plenty of scope to retry some of the wines. Only one of the party makes a convincing attempt to finish the steak.
After lunch, Eva drives us to the vineyards, starting with the Rüdesheimer Rottland Grand Cru site and, after some hair-raising high altitude driving, continuing to the Berg Schlossberg vineyard, which sweeps down to an ancient castle overlooking the Rhine.
Day 1 Afternoon
Gabby Dönnhoff picks us up at Leitz and delivers us to husband Helmut in Oberhausen, a village of 400 inhabitants, none of whom make an appearance throughout our visit. After a lovely welcome from Paula, the family’s delightful Rhodesian Ridgeback, we launch straight into a 3-hour tasting courtesy of Helmut Dönnhoff. It soon becomes clear why Helmut is widely regarded as Germany’s top winemaker. He’s thoughtful, passionate and dedicated to creating the best wines that each of his vineyard plots is capable of. He asserts that each plot has unique qualities, which he refers to as “talents”, which determine the type and style of wine most suited to that site. He sees no point in trying to produce all the various styles – dry, off-dry, Spätlese, Auslese etc from every terroir, preferring to concentrate on the style in which each site excels. Helmut’s wines are “wines of the vineyard, not of the cellar”. If he wanted to he could sell all his wines on the domestic market, but he prefers to distribute more widely – he’s particularly keen on the UK market believing that the UK consumer understands quality, unlike the Asians who are interested only in labels: My wines are my children and I want my children to go into good houses. I reflect that if his Eiswein is one of his children, I’ll undertake childminding duties whenever needed.
Day 2 Morning
After a lovely meal in a neighbouring village and a comfortable stay overnight at a small hotel in Niederhausen, German efficiency again has questions to answer as our taxi to Weingut Gunderloch gets lost on its way to collect us. Eventually we arrive in Nackenheim and are greeted by Agnes and Fritz Hasselbach. Fritz explains that his children are all interested in the wine business and have introduced some new ideas to the winery like partial malolactic fermentation with some Rieslings. After tasting the Gunderloch range, including the delightful Rothenberg “Grand Cru” Spätlese, Auslese and Goldkapsal, Sebastian Fürst of Weingut Paul Fürst treats us to some Pinots from Franken. I must say it’s all a bit of a revelation and it comes as no surprise when Sebastian reveals that Fürst Pinots have been mistaken for Beaunes in blind tastings. Careful vineyard management and vinification techniques including fermentation on skins and the use of French oak, allied to low yields, have resulted in Pinots that Germany can be proud of.
Day 2 Afternoon
After a vineyard tour in Fritz’s Land Rover Defender we enjoy a hearty lunch before being collected by Michael Stahlmann from Weingut Ernst Loosen. As we approach Bernkastel the Mosel valley scenery becomes more and more impressive as the world famous vineyards hove into view. Names which had previously existed as unpronounceable labels on eminently drinkable bottles take physical form – and what a form – Erdener Prälat, Erdener Treppchen, Ürziger Würzgarten, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Bernkasteler Lay, Graacher Himmelreich – sweeping precipitously down to the river in swathes of vines, often interrupted by rocky outcrops. Before the tasting Michael explains the unique advantages for winemaking enjoyed by the area: the Mosel’s steep, south-facing slopes create the perfect climate for Riesling. The generally cool conditions allow the grapes to ripen slowly, while retaining bright acidity. At night, the river holds heat to protect the vines from getting too cold. The Mosel’s stony soil and numerous rocky outcroppings warm the vineyards by reflecting sunlight and holding the heat of the day. This creates very warm microclimates in the best sites and helps to ensure excellent ripeness. The thin topsoil forces the vines to dig deep through the cliff for water and nutrients, producing vibrant wines that capture the minerality of the soil. Because Phylloxera can’t survive in the Mosel’s well-drained soils, it is one of the few regions in Europe where ungrafted vines are allowed. Dr. Loosen owns vines that are well over 120 years old, all on original rootstocks. Old vines are less vigorous and produce naturally lower yields resulting in higher concentration and richness. This formidable list of natural advantages is reflected in the wines – delicate, racy, elegant and round are adjectives that can be applied to the wondrous succession of delights that Michael pours - it’s an entertainment exploring the subtle differences between Kabinetts and Spätleses from the various sites.
After a short break, we return to the Loosen residence where Michael Stahlmann performs culinary wonders and, using his experience as a former sommelier, produces a succession of surprise bottles for us to identify. For me, the highlight is a 1981 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese – sweetness has dissipated to a large extent to be replaced by more complex savoury, nutty, honeyed flavours. After a fantastic meal, we retire for a beer or two and, eventually, sleep.
On arrival at the JL Wolf estate in Pfalz, we find tree branches all over the courtyard – result of a freak overnight storm that thankfully seems not to have damaged the vines. The estate has been leased to Ernst Loosen since 1996. By studying the well-documented history of the estate, which has been in existence since 1756, Ernst has developed a classification system similar to that applying in Burgundy. There are 4 Grand Crus and 3 Premier Cru sites all of which produce dry wines. As well as Riesling, Loosen uses Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir to create inexpensive but solid entry level wines. The Grand Crus are each responsible for one wine with Riesling the grape of choice. The tasters all applaud the Villa Wolf Pinot Noir Rosé which is bone dry with a hint of spice. The juice undergoes 4 to 5 hours skin contact before being “saignéed” off. The dry Spätleses from Pechstein (Grand Cru) and Beltz (Premier Cru) also impress.
The tasting continues with Patrick Johner of Weingut Karl H Johner in Bischoffingen. His wines include several varietals: Rivaner (aka Müller Thurgau), Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. The Sauvignon and one of the Pinot Noirs are from the Johner estate in New Zealand. Again the German Pinot Noirs are revelatory – wines full of structure and elegance.
After a meaty lunch with only gherkins representing the vegetable contingent, we head for the airport. At the Bar Goethe, I make the cardinal error of ordering a Riesling QbA thinking it will taste at least something like the Rieslings we have experienced over the preceding days. What a charmless, insipid, fruitless, bland concoction. It only serves to emphasize that with German wines, forget the classification - you’ve got to know the winemaker. Well, we got to know a few and I must say they are a dedicated, passionate group and as kind, accommodating and helpful people as you could wish to meet.