2022 Rheinhessen & Nahe: Rain in the Nick of Time


This report concentrates chiefly on Riesling and Pinot Noir, as many estates also produce wines from other varieties. Where Nahe and Rheinhessen estates have made wines that will be sold at the Bad Kreuznach auction in September, the tasting notes appeared in a separate Pre-Auction-Report. A specialized report on Sekt, i.e. German sparkling wine, is also planned for later in the year.

The 2022 vintage evoked two primary emotions in winemakers across Rheinhessen and Nahe: relief and surprise. “If I had no background at all and did not know better, it would never occur to me that they are the result of a hot year – because the wines have a cool character,” said Frank Schönleber of the Emrich-Schönleber estate in Monzingen, Nahe. He was not alone. Many shared their misgivings over the summer, the relief afforded by reviving rather than damaging September rain, and their surprise at how the wines turned out.

Here is the background Schönleber referred to: according to the Deutscher Wetterdienst (German Meteorological Service), 2022 was the “sunniest summer since records began.” It also was the sixth driest and among the four hottest years since 1881. Historic drought in Germany’s west, low water and dried-out riverbeds, impaired inland navigation, forest fires and drinking water shortages were just a few of the headlines that dominated the news during a relentless and non-stop summer from June to August. In the federal state of Rheinland-Pfalz, home to both Rheinhessen and Nahe, 2022 was the second-hottest summer after 2003 on record and the driest and sunniest since records began. Indeed, listening to the local radio station in my car in July 2023, the news bulletin reported the forest fire drills undertaken by local fire brigades – on the 49th degree of latitude. This is where we are now. So, are the winemakers just putting a good spin on 2022 or is there more to it?

A view of the mighty Rhine from a vantage point on the Roter Hang, looking along the Rothenberg vineyard and further down to Pettenthal.

Rain Just in Time

Philipp Wittmann in Westhofen, Rheinhessen, describes the season: “It was an early year, a hot year, with a dry and hot summer. Budburst was in mid-April, and relatively early flowering started in late May/early June. Then we had summer almost immediately. June, July and August were warm, with hot summer days. It was interesting to observe how the vines weathered and survived the summer while it was so hot and dry. Grass was yellow. Only the vines were still green. Though the younger vines suffered, the old vines marched on. I think it was self-regulation. We had a very early harvest of Pinot varieties. It almost felt Provençal. We had rain on 6 and 10 September. It was absorbed well by the soil. You hardly saw that it had rained as the water was absorbed immediately.” This prompted a break in the harvest, which resumed for Riesling from 15 September to early October. “We were actually enthused by the quality of the grapes,” Wittmann continued. “But not by the yields, only 4,500 liters per hectare (the average is 55hL/ha) and in the top sites even lower. But we were compensated by great quality, very balanced musts, of course, with softer acids, not like the crisp acidity of 2021. It was rather in the mode of 2018, 2019 and 2020 – but finer in acidity with really palpable acids. I am amazed at how much freshness the wines show – which cannot be explained by the vegetative and harvest dates.” Like others, Wittmann also notes that the dryness meant low disease pressure. “On the one hand, grapes were perfectly healthy. On the other, the timing of harvest was really à point. We avoided overripeness. I am not a fan of very early harvest – harvesting before physiological ripeness does not make sense, but in 2022, you could really time this well. I love grapes when they have a golden shimmer in the green rather than a golden shimmer in a riper color. I think the lower yields helped achieve ripeness in this shorter vegetative period. The older vines were really resilient.” Wittmann’s account mirrors that of many: rain came just in time, and the harvest often happened in two stages – Pinot first, then a break, then Riesling – what is more, the weather turned. From the rain events onwards, cooler weather and, above all, cooler nights followed. The fact that the rain was absorbed and temperatures cooled prevented rot – but noble botrytis was also a rarity in 2022.

Surprise, surprise.

“Had you asked me during harvest how 2022 would taste,” said Hans Oliver Spanier of the Battenfeld Spanier estate in Rheinhessen’s Wonnegau, “I would never have thought it would turn out this way. It was clear that the wines could tend to flabbiness or lack of tension. That the must weights did not explode was a good sign, but I would not have expected this relative finesse.” Johannes Hasselbach at the Gunderloch estate in Rheinhessen’s Roter Hang said: “I am enormously surprised by the vintage; I am surprised by the freshness and elegance because I did not expect it. I was on my back foot. It was extremely dry. The vines started to show signs of stress. I was rather grumpy around harvest, but once the wines had fermented dry, the vintage finally showed itself, and I was so surprised by the freshness. We had great pH levels in the must, and the acidity is just a gram lower than last year on average, and the wines somehow kept their tension.” Karsten Peter of Gut Hermannsberg in the Nahe said: “The astonishing thing is that it does not taste like a hot year. We never expected this.” In Bingen in northern Rheinhessen, Erik Riffel of Weingut Riffel noted another effect: “It was not only dry and hot; there also was a massive wind. It was like a giant, hot hairdryer. This exacerbated that drying effect. Everything was reduced in vigor. We had the lowest yield of the past decade: 15% less than our average.” With relief still palpable in his voice, he noted: “The rain, when it finally came, was a total boon. Everything breathed again. The vines started growing again. There was another growth spurt. The shoots and canopy grew again.” Christine Huff of Weingut FE Huff on the Red Slope made the same observation: “The rain in September was miraculous: the vines revived, greened again. Initially, we feared that the grapes would split and rot, but they did not, nature seemed to soak up the rain, and the nights cooled down, which really helped.”

Carolin and Erik Riffel in Bingen are a power couple when it comes to top Riesling....and Pinot Noir.

A Different Kind of Elegance

Wittmann’s neighbor, Fritz Groebe of the eponymous estate, also in Westhofen, said: “I worried throughout the summer. In late July and early August, when the weather did not change at all, I was worried about alcohol monsters and bitter notes in the wine from thick grape skins. Then a miracle happened. We had a few days of rain in early September, and the weather turned. After the rain, the nights went down to 3°C, and the days rarely went above 14°C. The water helped the grapes to drop between 6 and 8 degrees of Oechsle once the vines could drink again. [He means that the lack of water had concentrated the grapes, and therefore, the sugars, once they could drink the rain, normalized.] After that, the sugar levels stabilized again, and we had stable acidity, almost identical to 2021, but exclusively tartaric acid – there was no malic acid left. Considering the summer, I could barely believe it. I only understood when I saw how the musts evolved and tasted. The difference to 2021 is the difference in acidity structure. The 2022 wines are warmer in fruit. The analytical values are similar, but they are fundamentally different wines.” At the diagonally opposite end of Rheinhessen, at Wagner-Stempel in Siefersheim, where there was “not a drop of rain for 7.5 weeks,” Cathrin Wagner said: “The period of rain gave the vines the possibility to hold on for longer – and quite contrary to the expectation that it would be an opulent vintage. Two thousand and twenty-two presents itself with freshness. It has a different kind of elegance from 2021 – but an elegance.”

Dealing with Change

Helmut Dönnhoff of the eponymous estate in the Nahe has lived through rapid climatic change. He has harvested more than 50 vintages, starting in the early 1970s. His son Cornelius began making the wines in 2007. Both father and son reflect on how their respective challenges have changed completely. Helmut had to do everything in the vineyard to ensure ripening. His son Cornelius must do the opposite and do everything to align physiological with sugar ripeness while avoiding excessive alcohol and retaining acidity. “We never looked at acidity,” Helmut says. “We cared about sugar. We harvested extremely late to catch every ray of sun. This has changed completely – now we monitor acidity because sugar is always sufficient. It is like two different phases in my life.” Helmut dates these changes to the hot year of 2003 and the slow learning curve that followed. “It took a while to adjust. In 2005, 2009 and 2011, my generation perhaps was too influential. Perhaps the wines turned out a little too powerful, but we needed these vintages to learn. Cornelius was with Jeffrey Grosset in 2003 – and then in New Zealand – in his youth, he saw Riesling in hot conditions, and we benefitted immensely from his experience.” The other thing that changed completely was harvest order: “Spätlesen were the wines we harvested latest. Today, they are picked at the beginning of harvest: to make sure there still is sufficient acidity. For the dry wines, we wait a week or two longer.” This is a story that can be retold endlessly across Germany.

All the winemakers had to adjust, and after 2018, 2019 and 2020, the hot 2022 did not find them unprepared. Karsten Peter of Gut Hermannsberg in Niederhausen, Nahe, said: “There are a few things you can do in the vineyard [in such hot and dry years], like leaving more shade and trim the canopy to slow down metabolism, covering the slopes with straw, but all these have become the general measures of the past decade.” Hans Oliver and Caroline Spanier, the couple behind the Battenfeld-Spanier and Kühling-Gillot estates, respectively, in the Wonnegau and the Red Slope, pioneered the spreading of straw in the steep, hot slopes of the Red Slope. This Rhine-facing escarpment is a suntrap, and what spelled ripeness before climate change has turned into a challenge that demands a different approach. In 2005, the Spaniers began spreading straw almost knee-high in the vineyards in March. It will decompose throughout the summer, but crucially it preserves moisture and keeps the ground temperature down to 40°C on the hottest days – without cover, the steep and stony rhyolite slopes can reach a ground temperature of up to 70°C – plus the straw cover helps to prevent erosion. While the practice earned the couple strange looks in 2005, today, the practice has been widely adopted. They also did this in 2022 – despite the inherent fire risk.

Dropping fruit was another measure in 2022. Tobias Knewitz in Appenheim, Rheinhessen reported “dry periods of six to eight weeks.” He and his team cut “beautiful” fruit off to ensure sufficient water for the remaining grapes, as did Sebastian Schäfer in Rümmelsheim, Nahe. Helmut Dönnhoff, also in the Nahe, said: “In all our three- to four-year-old vines, we cut off all grapes to relieve them of stress.” Karsten Peter at Gut Hermannsberg noted that the “younger parcels at the top of the Kupfergrube suffered.” They had to be watered to survive, but before watering, fruit and shoots had already been cut to reduce the water need of the vine. “De-leafing was no longer necessary. The leaves already had withered,” he said. “Old vines, however, were another matter: they carried on.”

Carolin and Hans Oliver Spanier, of the Kühling-Gillot and Battenfeld-Spanier estates in Rheinhessen, are Germany's wine star couple.

Self-regulation and Shut-down

I can confirm this freshness and slenderness: the wines have moderate alcohol levels, and none of them seem opulent – the contrary, in fact. Yes, aromatically, they have the ripeness of the sun, but their body and weight do not suggest a hot vintage. This is down to two things. First, the wineries I visited are not by any stretch of the imagination representative of the German average. These are all winemakers who have worked painstakingly in the vineyard to ensure their viticulture is in line with the challenges of climate change. Second, there is such a thing as shut-down. This is when the vines get so stressed that they close the stomata on the underside of their leaves to self-regulate. High temperatures increase the evapotranspiration rate, and while Riesling can thrive in hot weather, it does not like water stress. Germany’s famously steep and well-drained stony slopes thus are prime candidates for water stress. It is clear that this affects young vines more than mature ones. Their roots do not reach far enough to ensure constant water supply – but in years like 2022 with prolonged drought, even mature vines slow down to protect themselves. Closing stomata means less uptake of carbon dioxide, thus less photosynthesis, less accumulation of sugars and less metabolization of acids. Grapevines are categorized into isohydric and anisohydric, depending on their capacity to regulate their stomata and, therefore, their metabolism and water use efficiency. Isohydric cultivars like Riesling can close their stomata and regulate themselves – and many did. Recent studies show that both water- and heat stress, especially when combined, also affect the hormonal messaging within the plant and grape composition. While I am not enough of a scientist to report proficiently on the full ramifications of this, it is clear that the partial or full shutdown during the prolonged hot and dry summer slowed or even shut down the metabolism of mature vines – resulting in these moderate alcohols. If the wines taste fresh, then I must also refer you to my 2021 Mosel report, where I explained one of those paradoxes: that buffering by minerals like potassium can make even high acidity from cool, wet years taste balanced. The opposite was true in 2022: with little water availability, less of those buffering minerals were deposited in the grapes, so there is less buffering, and even the lower acidities are perceived clearly. The question this leaves, of course, is how these wines will age – whether the sun and lack of rain, at least until the last minute in the case of Riesling, will make itself felt further down the line.

All this rather scientific stuff is borne out by statements like this one by Tim Fröhlich: “If anyone had told me that this vintage would turn out so cool and fresh, I would have doubted it. I believe if we had had water, as we wished for at the time, the wines would not have turned out so good, and that would have led to at least one degree more alcohol. I am more and more convinced that once leaf stomata have closed, it does not matter whether a heat spike hits 35° or 40° Celsius.” He made sure to read up on this and said: “28°C is optimum. Anything above and the stomata already start narrowing. It is an ingenious feat of self-protection.” Helmut Dönnhoff had the same observation: “We were scared in summer to have high sugar and low acid levels. But this was not the case. I was surprised that the alcohol levels were so moderate. I can only explain this by the vines stopping a bit to dial down their metabolism to ensure their own survival. The grapes were ripe. The acidity was lower but far more perceptible than you would suggest.”

When I ask Philipp Wittmann how the 2022 vintage will age, he says: “I think it will evolve well because the grapes were so healthy. I also believe that the extract is there via those low yields, and I think that it will have evolution potential like other riper vintages, but cooler vintages definitely will age longer.”

At what cost?

Christine Huff of Weingut Fritz Ekkehard Huff, who farms on the Red Slope and its plateau, also observes that the vines produce fewer leaves, then shut down. “The vines sort of adapt – but the yields go down extremely. If there are older vineyards that are affected with Esca, some vines do not make it. Replanting is really difficult: the young vines barely manage to gain a foothold in an older vineyard, and only about half of them take.” Then there is the question of yields: In hot years, “the plants seem to regulate themselves,” she noted. “But yields are just so much lower.” She wonders whether “this will still add up in the future.” Tim Fröhlich agrees: “In such years, it is simply not possible to have good quality and yield.” Frank Schönleber, for instance, harvested 20% less than his average.

The majestic Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube site in the Nahe region.


Here I advance a theory that may strike some as wishful thinking. Yet I think it bears voicing simply because the vine results from humans interacting with nature over centuries. The Germans have a word for this. The vine is a Kulturpflanze, a plant that is the product of human interaction that has evolved alongside us for centuries. Who says that it does not continue to evolve? When discussing climate change, Huff makes another point: “We winemakers are slowly adapting to all of this – and perhaps, who knows, the vines, too?”

Frank Schönleber has his own thoughts on this theory: “I believe that ever since 2019, we have seen a habituation effect in the Riesling vines. They seem to sense that there is less water. Their vigor is more moderate. They grow hesitantly after budburst, even at a time when water is available. They make rather small grapes which sort of seems to worry you. But then, when it gets hot and dry, it is a survival strategy that means not much water and energy is wasted. They can reach their usual ripeness with sufficient acidity and aromatics. In 2018, it was a completely different situation. I think this is a part of biology that is not fully researched. We know when the vine decides how many grapes it will grow in the following year and how big these grapes are – but how far the memory of the vine reaches back is still speculative. But the 2019, 2020 and 2022 vintages, for me, point clearly in the direction that there is such an effect of habituation and adaptation. Even in the summer of 2021, when ample water was available, it seemed that the vegetation moved with its handbrake half-engaged. This also points to this effect.” His observations, I must add, are made in top vineyards with careful management. Such adaptation is unlikely to be observed in high-yield farming that relies on much agrochemical input.

Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich's Tim Fröhlich with what he loves most: the rocky soils of his steep vineyards.

A Little Geology to Finish

To conclude, let me summarize the varied geology of Rheinhessen and the Nahe. What is Rheinhessen today – defined along its eastern and northern confines by the river Rhine and bordered by the Pfalz and Nahe regions in the south and west, respectively – used to be an inland sea within the Mainz Basin. The remains of that sea are the Tertiary limestone in the south and center of the region, created during the Oligocene and Miocene. The Wonnegau in the south as well as the Selzbachtal in the north are defined by these limestones. The vineyards surrounding the town of Ingelheim in Rheinhessen’s north have a history and centuries-old tradition of favoring Pinot varieties, especially Pinot Noir – and in the past, Pinot Noir Précoce – over Riesling. The estates there, namely J. Neus and Adamswein, exemplify this. Ingelhein still calls itself Rotweinstadt, or red wine town. The Roter Hang, or Red Slope, is a Permian escarpment of iron-rich rhyolite, a sandstone, running for 5 kilometers from Nierstein to Nackenheim, while much older rocks come to the surface in Bingen on the Rhine, where Devonian quartzite and slate appear. Rheinhessen’s northwest is climatically and geologically a bridge to the Nahe region. It is cooler and a transition into the Saar-Nahe Basin with its Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian and younger formations resulting from volcanic activity. While the Red Slope has long had prominence, this steep, stony escarpment allowed Riesling to ripen fully even in cooler times, just as the Binger Scharlachberg. The success of the ‘inland’ subregions is more recent – even though viticulture can be dated back to Roman times – because it was too cool for most of the 20th century to ripen Riesling fully. The Nahe, likewise, has been a beneficiary of climate change.

The wines were tasted during estate visits in late June and early July.

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