Rheinhessen 2018: Revelatory Rieslings
BY DAVID SCHILDKNECHT | NOVEMBER 12, 2020
For any oenophiles still unaware – or seeking proof – that Rheinhessen justifies a buzz of critical acclaim and consumer excitement currently unsurpassed worldwide by any Riesling growing region, a perusal of the wines turned out in 2018 should do the trick.
The famous Roter Hang of Nackenheim and Nierstein is enjoying a renaissance thanks especially to efforts at Gunderloch and Kühling Gillot, along with headline-grabbing wines from prime parcels that Keller acquired from the former Franz Karl Schmitt estate.
Surmounting Vintage Limitations
In characterizing the 2018 growing season, Klaus Peter Keller harkens back to an old saying of which his grandfather was fond: “Kleiner Rhein, Grosser Wein!” The Rhine indeed shrank to alarmingly low levels in 2018. But disrupted river traffic, like protracted heat and drought, is far more common now than it was when the aforementioned adage was coined; and if that saying were true, then we must lately be riding out a nearly relentless wave of great wine, including from once again drought-challenged 2019 and 2020. Indeed, it’s no doubt with folk wisdom and longstanding tradition in mind that so many observers – including even some wine journalists who ought to have known better – announced a “vintage of the century” in autumn 2018, something which by no means materialized. Instead, as my previous reports have made abundantly clear, not only is quality in 2018 far from uniform – due to local weather patterns but even more to how adequately vintage challenges were addressed – there are only a few German Riesling growers who will suggest that vintage 2018 is among their three or four most successful of the past two decades.
Ironically, the extent to which grapevines, unlike traffic on the Rhine, avoided coming to a standstill in summer of 2018 testifies to the paradox that, summer drought notwithstanding, this was actually a fairly well-watered recent vintage, especially in comparison with its two successors. Thanks largely to heavy late winter rainfall, an abundant supply of groundwater greeted the outset of vine activity. And paradoxically, too, this year of “kleiner Rhein” brought lots of wine; indeed, high yields are one of vintage 2018’s potential weak points. Keller claims that for most of Rheinhessen, the summer drought of 2018 was rivaled only by those of 1911, 1959, and 2001 – and few wine lovers need to be reminded that those vintages are legendary. But at the same time, Keller notes that at 10 inches (the same level recorded by Daniel Wagner in his “Rhinehessian Switzerland” sector), rainfall over the winter of 2017/2018 was the most abundant in many a year. The stage was set for what, thanks to a spring that was shockingly warm even by recent standards, would be turbocharged vine metabolism. And a perfect flowering, along with whatever internal mechanism it is that causes vines to compensate for a small crop one year with a large one the next, pointed toward abundance. A second consecutive year of hail in Keller’s neighborhood – specifically in the Morstein and Brünnenhäuschen vineyards that had been devastated in August 2017 – put only a small dent in the overall output of top Rheinhessen growers.
Readers of my previous reports on vintage 2018 – in particular the report covering the Nahe that kicked off this series – will already be familiar with some of the approaches taken that year to preserve acidity and moderate must weights. These included, in no particular order, early harvest, grape chilling, moderation of skin contact, and gentle (often fractional) pressing. But readers will also recognize that growers needed to adapt their entire viticultural regimen to the developing situation of this unprecedentedly precocious growing season, just as they have had to adapt and rethink their management of soil, canopy and crop in the face of climatic warming. There are arguably no German growers more receptive to rethinking and innovation than Rheinhessen’s regional leaders, and they have an outsized share of vintage 2018 successes to show for it.
If this looks to you like a young man willing to rethink his family’s already justly celebrated wine legacy, you’re right. Johannes Hasselbach is unafraid to explore new stylistic paths through his long-renowned Nackenheim and Nierstein vineyards.
Talent Without Timidity
For much of the past seven decades, Rheinhessen has had to live down a reputation for inexpensive bulk wine, much of which, prior to the 1990s, sold successfully as Liebfraumilch – both inside Germany and abroad – to a clientele that sought soft, slightly sweet but undistinguished wine. What suited Rheinhessen to this high-volume role during Germany’s post–World War II economic rise was above all the availability of fertile, mechanically harvestable flatlands that could be converted to viticulture, and access to grape crossings specifically designed to promote grape sugar even in growing seasons that would challenge or foil attempts to ripen Riesling. Those crossings, and the former-potato-fields-turned-vineyards, are still with us, but their acreage is shrinking. By the 1990s, it had become clear that if Rheinhessen was to have a flourishing viticultural future, it would have to be one associated with high-quality Riesling (and to a far lesser extent Pinot Noir). But nobody could then have imagined that such a future would emerge within a decade and result in Rheinhessen Rieslings selling for some of the highest prices of any German wines. Even more improbably, those Rieslings would emerge from parts of Rheinhessen that for at least the better part of two centuries had languished in relative obscurity.
What looks like Côte-Rôtie or time travel along the Mosel is actually a piece of Rheinhessen back-to-the-future innovation: Kai Schätzel’s experimental tightly spaced, single-post-trained Nierstein vineyard.
The meteoric rise of 21st-century Rheinhessen Riesling is above all owing to the efforts of Klaus Peter Keller and Philipp Wittmann, building on the quality-conscious determination of (and in continued collaboration with) their fathers, Klaus Keller and Günter Wittmann. The opportunity for this success was created by German consumers’ increasing – and, by the 1990s, overwhelming – preference for legally dry rather than residually sweet wine. That stylistic upending, which also benefited the Pfalz, left many traditionally important wine estates in other regions eager to follow the new fashion, but struggling to generate memorably distinctive wine. As the new century dawned, other youthful overachievers followed in the footsteps of, and were inspired by, Keller and Wittmann; among them, Daniel Wagner of Weingut Wagner-Stempel and the husband-wife team of Carolin Gillot and Oliver Spanier (Kühling-Gillot, Battenfeld-Spanier) rapidly attained elite status. But the talent and hard work of these now-celebrated denizens of Rheinhessen has not been exclusively confined to their vineyards and cellars. Some of it has been devoted to self-promotion – and how could it have been otherwise, given the need to create a new identity for an entire region?
Rheinhessen winegrowers have not just been bold in proclaiming the virtues of their terroirs and wines; many have shown themselves to be fearlessly innovative as well. To the extent that a bigger-is-better mentality seemed to settle over the German winegrowing and gastronomic community early in the new century, growers in Rheinhessen were early in recognizing that this would put them on a collision course with climate change, and today this region is a hotbed for rethinking viticultural and cellar procedures. A striking example of stylistic intrepidness is a recent revival of residually sweet Kabinett. On the face of it, this seems less a case of climate adaptation than of defiance if not outright denial. It also challenged a growing consensus within the elite VDP association of German wine estates that Kabinett had no future outside of the Mosel and Nahe. But no one who tastes the Kabinetts of pioneers Klaus Peter Keller and Kai Schätzel – or more recent efforts at Groebe, Gunderloch and Kühling-Gillot – can fail to be convinced. Indeed, you won’t find many Pfalz VDP members belittling Kabinett anymore! And many of these low-alcohol, subtly sweet Rheinhessen Kabinetts originate from the fast-warming slopes of the Roter Hang, no less. (Strub, not a VDP member, has bottled consistently fine Nierstein Riesling Kabinetts for decades.)
That a collection of wines from Klaus Peter Keller dazzles while resetting the bar for affordability and attainability has become practically commonplace. His 2018s once again inspire awe while a few of them set records at auction.
A Tale of (at Least) Three Terroirs
It’s worth briefly distinguishing the broad geological and climatic categories into which the wines covered in my Rheinhessen reports can be sorted. Even though I won’t attempt in these few paragraphs to associate subsectors and soil types with specific organoleptic characteristics of the resulting wines (a daunting and controversial undertaking), my mini-survey will serve to underscore and help explain why Rieslings from this largest of Germany’s official winegrowing regions are so diverse. It should also help put into perspective those instances in the course of my estate introductions and tasting notes where certain soils or sites are associated with alleged viticultural challenges and opportunities or indeed even with particular organoleptic characteristics. (Such instances tend to involve claims attributed to the winegrowers.)
For close to two centuries, quality Riesling in Rheinhessen was overwhelmingly associated with a small, contiguous group of largely steep vineyards near (and many facing) the Rhine in Nackenheim and Nierstein, on the distinctive compacted, plate-like sandstone of the Ober-Rotliegendes, rock strata formed during the Permian Period. Because of the red color of this rocky raw material and its associated soils, this small subsector became known as the Roter Hang or “red slope.” (You’ll also sometimes see it referred to as the Rheinfront.) The nature of the underlying rock, relative steepness of slopes, proximity to the river, and predominantly southerly or southwesterly exposures of the Roter Hang add up to a warm microclimate, whose ability to ripen Riesling reliably even before the advent of global warming goes a long way toward accounting for this Rhinehessian subsector’s longstanding notoriety. But the southernmost sites in Nierstein (as well as those of adjacent Oppenheim) are cooler and dominantly loamy, featuring a high level of calcium carbonate (a.k.a. calcaire or active lime). As such, they set the tone for most of viticultural Rheinhessen.
When tiny Fürfeld was mapped in Napoleonic-Prussian detail in 1816, Daniel Wagner’s steep, uniquely melaphyre-based parcel above the Thal Mill was already planted, though not his nowadays well-known Heerkretz and Hölle vineyards in nearby Siefersheim. (The same map identifies Westhofen’s Morstein and Benn sites by name.)
The subsector known as Wonnegau essentially covers the southern half of Rheinhessen and for much of recent history was thought of not just as the Rhinehessian “interior” – being largely far back from the region’s Rhine River perimeter – but also, derogatorily, as Rheinhessen’s “hinterlands.” That perception has radically changed since the 1990s; in fact, the Wonnegau subsector, as home to the Keller and Wittmann estates, has been the driving force in reestablishing Rheinhessen’s viticultural reputation during the waning 20th century and early 2000s, a period during which by coincidence several of the most prominent estates of the Roter Hang fell on hard times or shut their doors. The Wonnegau’s top vineyards tend to be on breezy rolling hills whose soils are dominantly clay-rich marl high in calcium carbonate. Variations on that theme are often defined by the depth and nature of surface soil – such as sand, loess or pebble overlays and admixtures – or, put differently, by clay content and by how far down one has to go to reach limestone mother rock. And for all of the credit that is due those Rheinhessen vintners who succeeded in bottling bright, animating 2018s, it must be said that their success also points to the Wonnegau’s relative climatic advantage vis-à-vis much of the adjacent Pfalz.
Cooling breezes are also a notable feature of the small northwestern subsector of Rheinhessen that has long gone under the evocative name “Rhinehessian Switzerland,” and which has become essential to discussions of Rheinhessen viticulture thanks solely to the 21st-century ascendance of Weingut Wagner-Stempel (though one hopes that within the next decade, additional estates will become noteworthy). This high-elevation subsector features rocky slopes of volcanic origin, particularly ones underlain by crystal-rich porphyry and melaphyre familiar from the nearby Nahe but not found elsewhere in Rheinhessen.
In addition to the three aforementioned subsectors, the specific Einzellage Binger Scharlachberg requires mention for historic significance as well as relevance to my reports. This quartzite- and iron-rich weathered slate mountain faces Rüdesheim across the Rhine and lies immediately east across the Nahe from Münster-Sarmsheim and Bingerbrück. Like the vineyards of those two Nahe communes, Binger Scharlachberg is familiar to 21st-century Riesling enthusiasts thanks to the endeavors of Krüger Rumpf. (Tasting notes on their Binger Scharlachberg Rieslings will be found in my reports on the Nahe.) For the past several years, through an unusual arrangement with a Bingen-based winegrower, Weingut Wagner-Stempel has also produced impressive Scharlachberg Riesling, albeit in tiny amounts. Another Rheinhessen vineyard that defies subregional generalizations is the Wormer Liebfrauenstift (its name notoriously bowdlerized into “Liebfraumilch”). Wilhelm Steifensand and his wife Katharina Prüm are lately striving to restore this riverside site’s historic reputation, so hopefully oenophiles will once again begin hearing about it (including perhaps in my reports).
A Shout-Out for Silvaner
Many readers will be aware of Silvaner as a grape largely associated with Franken, a German growing region rarely represented outside of its native Free State of Bavaria, to say nothing of internationally, and one that I regrettably seldom have occasion to visit. But Franconia is not the only place with a long Silvaner tradition or with growers who are intent on showcasing that grape. It was once the mainstay of Rheinhessen viticulture, the source of that region’s everyday dry wines and, during a late and unlamented post–World War II period, a significant grape in Liebfraumilch. German wine growers are still inordinately fond of tracing today’s woes to the Liebfraumilch phenomenon and other contemporaneous ills, and there is more than a little truth to that line of descent when it comes to the low esteem into which Silvaner has fallen. Fallen, that is, among those oenophiles outside Bavaria who are even familiar with it.
In the late 20th century, Rheinhessen growers collectively launched a major marketing campaign to revive interest in the grape, but the results were disappointing – at least if judged by the number of growers who have since marginalized Silvaner or dropped it from their portfolios. And it must be said that traits which once recommended Silvaner to consumers – notably its predilection for building must weight more rapidly than Riesling and at much lower acidity – are not just less fashionable today but also, in an era of global warming, translate into significant risk of blowsy, flabby wine. That risk explains why, among prominent 21st-century champions of Silvaner, so many farm cooler and/or prominently calcareous sites rather than those in immediate proximity to the Rhine River. (Gunderloch and Schätzel are successfully bucking that trend, albeit via pronounced stylistic innovation.) It also explains some of the extra viticultural care that must go into crafting Silvaner if the resultant wines are to be succulent but also lithe, animating, refreshing and nuanced.
Happily, the aforementioned modern champions of Silvaner include a significant share of Rheinhessen’s most talented growers. I defy you to taste the Silvaners from Battenfeld-Spanier, Groebe, Gunderloch, Keller, Schätzel, Seehof, Strub, Wagner-Stempel or Wittmann and then tell me that Silvaner is not a grossly underappreciated grape! Sadly, though, I can also practically defy you to find these wines in American markets. A number of the just-listed estates’ US agents do not import their Silvaner, and nowadays, any wine from Keller is scarce, regardless of price. But what’s even more frustrating is that in terms of price/quality rapport, all of these wines (even Keller’s, if you can find them) represent terrific bargains. Consumer support is vital, so if you cannot immediately vote with your pocketbook, then I suggest you complain to the merchants from whom you purchase German Riesling, and hopefully those complaints will work their way up the supply chain.
Long internationally renowned for what he has built on his father’s legacy, Westhofen wine grower Philipp Wittmann has achieved from 2018 what might be his most exciting collection yet.
Explaining “Aus Ersten Lagen”
Especially since VDP members dominate my coverage of Rheinhessen, it will not come amiss – though, alas, it will be tedious – to explain a technicality of that organization’s vaunted classificatory “pyramid” as it applies specifically to this region. In 2012, the VDP rectified a conceptual oddity whereby top sites had been referred to as Erste Lagen – more or less “first” or “premier” vineyards – whereas, in an obvious allusion to grand crus, the dry wines bearing those sites’ names were called Grosse Gewächse. Henceforth, the top sites would be known, with obvious logic, as Grosse Lagen (or, as the organization now insists on stipulating, right down to the punctuation: “VDP.Grosse Lagen”). Having made this adjustment, the VDP proposed that the name Erste Lage be retained for a new tier of vineyards deemed worthy of mention, but ostensibly not equal in quality potential to the Grosse Lagen. This new premier cru classificatory tier was left to the discretion of each individual regional chapter. The Nahe, Mittelrhein, Rheingau and Pfalz began generating premier crus (engendering in the process some structural disparities into which I won’t delve here). The Moselaner have thus far resisted adding this layer of Erste Lagen (though it wouldn’t surprise me if they are eventually pressured to do so).
Daniel Wagner continues to reclaim barren portions of today’s Einzellage Heerkretz, known to wine lovers solely through his outstanding wines...
The VDP-Rheinhessen liked the idea of a new tier as an opportunity to make a quality statement, just as they had earlier made one by drastically restricting those surface areas of Einzellagen from which eponymously designated wines could be bottled. But virtually all of those vineyards that its members deemed worthy of label mention had already been classified as Grosse Lagen, and they weren’t about to indulge in self-depriving declassification when no other region showed comparable willingness. Instead, certain surface areas rather than specific named sites were designated as being of premier cru quality, and members agreed that henceforth bottlings named for a specific commune would be sourced solely from those surface areas (or from Grosse Lagen). Thus, village-designated wines from Rheinhessen VDP members that don’t specify a vineyard are not officially “VDP.Ortsweine” as you would assume, but are instead promoted (and designated on their capsules) as “VDP.Aus Ersten Lagen” – wines “from premier [cru] vineyards.” (To have designated such wines simply “VDP.Erste Lage” would have prompted the obvious but unanswered – and in many instances unanswerable – question, “Which Lage?”) Allowance is made for group approval of specific Erste Lage site names (whether drawn from the roster of official Einzellagen or of cadaster place names, a.k.a. Gewanne). But the sole such instance thus far of which I am aware is Monsheimer Silberberg, for which Keller received approval to designate wines grown there from Rieslaner (a grape for which he and his wife, as mentees of Hans-Günter Schwarz, have a particular fondness).
...and there is lots more rocky potential of Einzellage Heerkretz that could be claimed!
This report is based on visits with 16 Rheinhessen producers in late August, September and November 2019, supplemented by subsequent stateside assessment of samples that included wines from one further estate which I did not visit. Following usual Vinous practice, scores on those few wines that I have not tasted since they were bottled are expressed in parentheses as point ranges. Wines I rated 86 points or lower are occasionally alluded to but generally not accorded a tasting note. I make exceptions to that rule for wines I still deem good values, or where I think a tasting note will demonstrate some important point (which might be that I believe the wine in question is routinely overrated, or perhaps that its latest, disappointing performance requires special explanation).
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