Rheingau and Mittelrhein Riesling: Rising to 2017’s Challenges


Like the nearby Nahe and many parts of the Mosel, the Rheingau and Mittelrhein were seriously impacted by late April 2017 frost that killed off buds unusually advanced thanks to an atypically warm late winter and early spring. A hot, dry high summer put young vines or those in especially drought-prone sites under stress. But in most vineyards, heat also turbocharged what was already a precocious growing season. An August 1 hailstorm decimated vineyards around Hattenheim, Hallgarten and Oestrich, with somewhat less damaging hail striking other Rheingau sectors later that month, accompanied by wind damage. And so, well before harvest approached, vintage 2017 had already proven difficult for local growers and destined to be low-yielding. But difficult did not mean unpromising.

Andreas Spreitzer, carrying on the tradition of his great-grandfather (left), an ex-restaurateur who founded Weingut Spreitzer in 1899, has once again, with brother Bernd, fielded an outstanding collection.

Mixed Blessings

“If things stay hot and dry, we might be starting the harvest with Trockenbeerenauslese, like we did in 2003,” opined Andreas Spreitzer when I tasted with him in early August 2017, “while if we get inopportune rain it could be like 2006 or even 2000,” which are the closest since 1984 that Riesling Germany has come to a disastrous vintage (though for diametrically opposed reasons). In the event, neither extreme was quite realized. But 2017 ended up featuring the earliest harvest in most estates’ history. (For some, 2003 or 2011 retained that distinction, but 2018 would beat them all everywhere.) And late summer did indeed bring rain, which was beneficial in reviving parched vines but challenging in other respects, and far in excess of what was needed to break the midsummer drought.

Mid-September saw must weights for which growers forty years ago would have given thanks had they been achieved by late October, but this was far from an unalloyed blessing. Not only would longer hang time probably have benefited flavor development, but acid levels were stubbornly high, for reasons that are still under dispute. Is this traceable to vines having malingered during the drought period, or more to the late-summer chill that descended on most German Riesling regions, especially at night, locking in acidity rather than permitting it to drop? The chill was arguably welcome insofar as it slowed the accumulation of sugar, promoted aroma-building and retarded botrytis. Even so, rot pressure began building, and in many vineyards, ignoble botrytis broke out. Most growers decided to disregard high acidity and begin harvesting, in order to avoid both additional crop losses to rot and excess volatility or alcohol from grapes whose health might be compromised or whose must weights could overshoot the limit for balanced dry wine. (Must deacidification would end up being widely practiced, though I am reasonably confident that it was not used on any of those wines I judge to be vintage standouts.)

Echoing a common refrain, Johannes Eser observed that “you had to work very precisely but quickly” – an injunction that could only be fulfilled by estates with a skilled, flexible, indefatigable and numerically sufficient harvest team. Naturally, though, the degree to which fruit succumbed to rot or overripeness varied considerably according to location and to an estate’s viticultural regimen throughout the growing season. While he is a newcomer to the region, one can hardly take exception to Urban Kaufmann’s observation that “whoever worked diligently in [his or her] vineyards, then harvested clean and selectively, was rewarded with delicious wines. But whoever didn’t... well, let’s just say that this is a vintage with large variations [Schwankungen] in quality.” All of this having been taken into account, things might have been worse. My survey of vintage 2017 Rieslings reveals that precipitous rot and overripeness were less problematic among top Rheingau growers – despite their farming in part gentle and relatively water-retentive slopes – than among those in many of the Middle Mosel’s steep-sloped and theoretically fast-draining sectors, where some of the late summer’s highest precipitation was recorded.

Johannes Leitz's hundred liters from these shriveled berries, picked in late September 2017 in the Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck, ran from the press (very reluctantly) almost as clear and green-gold as a Kabinett. The resulting TBA represents a high point of this German Riesling vintage.

Median = Memorable?

Happily, there are lots of exciting wines among the Rheingau 2017s I tasted, as well as a couple – namely, from Ratzenberger – among those of the Mittelrhein, where average quality tasted was merely good. The better wines share palpably high extract, efficacious acidity and a sense of abundant energy, the most impressive often displaying textural allure as well. “This is going to be recognized as a grandiose vintage,” insisted Robert Weil, who drew a comparison with 2004, and placed it in the following context: “I’ve come to recognize that median-ripe [mittelreifen] years are the best. Ten years ago hardly anybody thought that way, but today it’s becoming widely recognized. Those are the years that convey animation and maximum drinking pleasure, but are also long-lived.” Of course (for the 29th year in a row!) Weil’s estate rendered Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen; but by mittelreif he means a vintage in which substantial acidity is retained at harvest and in which, on the whole, must weights are less than record-setting. 

Apropos of Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen, the experiences of Rheingau growers varied rather dramatically. Some reported having attempted in vain to select any usable nobly rotten grapes, and even the Kühns, expert though they are in that art, managed only 35 liters of Beerenauslese, which, Peter Bernhard Kühn reported, “is lying in our archive and won’t be offered for sale,” or at least, not any time soon. Andreas Spreitzer did indeed harvest a TBA such as he had already envisioned in August, but I don’t consider it one of the high points of his fine vintage 2017 collection. That the aforementioned Weil BAs and TBAs (of which there are, in aggregate, four) turned out splendidly comes as no surprise. But out of the blue – in a genre which I have never considered his forte – Johannes Leitz rendered a Trockenbeerenauslese from the Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck that must surely count as the Rheingau wine of the vintage and one of the two or three most exciting among vintage 2017’s relatively plentiful TBAs. (“Plentiful?” you ask. On the Mosel, yes, they were; though as my impending report on that region will argue, the truly exciting among these are exceptions.)

Slope and soil help compensate for the riverside risks of rot in Mittelheim's St. Nikolaus vineyard, from which a recent late-released 2016 and 2015 by Peter Jakob and Peter Bernard Kuhn (here seen spraying a biodynamic treatment) are among the elite dry Rieslings of their respective vintages.

The 21st Century Rheingau in a Word

Intriguingly, the oft-employed German word Aufbruch can mean a crack-up, or it can refer to an awakening. And Aufbruchsstimmung describes a feeling of optimism, but can also denote the mood that prevails among revelers who sense that it’s past time for the party to break up. When it comes to the Rheingau, I’m still wondering which sense of Aufbruch is most appropriate. Nobody would deny that this region is home to some heroically overachieving growers and vintners, whom it gives me great pleasure to visit every year. But it’s also undeniable that the Rheingau long ago slipped from its once-secure status as Germany’s – and thus the world’s – leading Riesling region, and that in many Riesling-growing circles it is regularly referred to as underperforming and resting on its laurels. Although no recent winery closures approach the significance of Schloss Eltz in 1977 or von Gronesteyn in 1995, some half-dozen of the Rheingau’s iconic noble estates have passed from their founding families’ hands over the past quarter-century, several under difficult or even desperate circumstances. The sale of Schloss Reinhartshausen and the scandal that rocked Schloss Schönborn – both in 2013  –  can be viewed with regret, yet might end up representing awakenings, provided new owners at the former and reorganization of the latter are successful.

The Rheingau’s biggest news of 2018 was the sale of Langwerth von Simmern, yet another venerable old-line, ennobled estate and among the last such to have remained in the hands of its founding family. After selling off their spectacularly furnished Rheingau manor, its parkland and a considerable share of vineyards, the Langwerth von Simmern family leased out the remaining 45 vine acres – including prime holdings in the Erbacher Marcobrunn, Hattenheimer Nussbrunnen and Rauenthaler Baiken – to Weingut Dr. Covers-Kauter, an estate that has recently attracted considerable critical attention inside Germany for its Assmannshausen Pinot Noirs and Rüdesheim Rieslings, and whose already extensive vine acreage thereby more than doubled. Apparently, Langwerth’s vinous raw materials from vintage 2017 were in large part not even bottled. Covers-Kauter will have made 2018 vintage wine from their newly acquired vineyards – some bottlings might even be marketed as “von Simmern” – but they only began farming these in early 2019. I plan to catch up on developments at that address – another ray of hope for the Rheingau. The 2013 acquisition and subsequent transformation of Weingut Hans Lang by Urban Kaufmann and Eva Raps certainly proved a godsend for the region, and it looks increasingly likely that recent investment and reorganization at iconic Schloss Johannisberg will pay long-term dividends. Until a few years ago, this was another of the Rheingau’s numerous huge underperforming estates relying on past glory and historical importance to uphold their reputations. Yet positive recent developments at Schloss Johannisberg are directly connected with the breakup of sister estate G. H. Mumm, where chronic underperformance with Riesling prevailed until the end.   

A view across the vineyards of Winkel (Schloss Vollrads in center) toward those of Oestrich and Hallgarten illustrates how much the degree of slope varies among top-notch Rheingau vineyards.

Challenges to Rheingau Revival

The Rheingau continues to benefit enormously from its heavy tourist traffic and its proximity to several wealthy major metropolitan markets. But these may also have inhibited the quest for excellence. It’s almost certainly not accidental that so many of this region’s top estates have long sold much of their wine abroad. Johannes Leitz had established a reputation internationally long before his dry Rieslings gained appropriate recognition among his compatriots; and few of Germany’s late-20th-century Riesling champions were more globally attuned than Wilhelm Weil, Gunter Künstler or the late Bernhard Breuer.

Two recent trends in German Riesling-growing have become impossible to deny and dangerous to overlook: a narrowing of the harvest window and a shifting of that window into earlier, typically warmer and hence more rot-prone weeks of the year. “You needed to pick rapidly and selectively” has become a refrain in all too many recent vintages, 2017 being, as already mentioned, a conspicuous example. But simultaneous satisfaction of those two demands is difficult, and depends on having a large-enough, motivated-enough and skilled-enough team of pickers, plus an ability to deploy them at emergency-room tempo and with surgical precision. These criteria are difficult to meet in an era when crews at large estates are often short on labor and loyalty. Since the precarious 2006 harvest at latest, the potential role of mechanical pickers has been recognized among even many acutely quality-conscious growers. But mechanization doesn’t obviate the need for quick, skilled hands. To ensure quality under conditions where time is of the essence, those hands can be put to work on “negative Auslese” – the identification and cutting out of imperfect clusters – so that the machine can follow directly behind to harvest what’s left. Alternatively, machines might be employed on sites whose fruit is destined for generic bottlings (Fred Prinz has achieved excellent results by so doing), allowing human pickers to concentrate on the more important parcels. But concentrate they must. Estates compelled for bottom-line reasons to employ mechanical harvesters on a broad scale – and that includes a high percentage of those growing Riesling in the Rheingau – are unlikely to achieve excellence outside of vintages that feature grapes of uniform ripeness and health, which don’t come often (though 2018 was one such) and in future may well come even less frequently.

In addition to memorable wines by Eva Fricke and August Kesseler from what the latter refers to as the Rheingau's "sleeping giant," the steep slate slopes of Lorch are also home to Weingut Friedrich, which has just turned its vineyards over to Rüdesheim's illustrious Weingut Georg Breuer.

Skilled manual work is of course a factor throughout the growing season. In particular, it is impossible for a machine to prune strategically, or to pull leaves selectively to ensure an optimum balance of sun exposure, shade and air circulation on young Riesling clusters. Anyone who has extensively walked the Rheingau’s top vineyards over the last several decades will recognize the extent to which vine-grooming has suffered in many, even as chemical dependence and mechanization have increased. And even some seriously quality-conscious Rheingau estates reflect a tendency for a single producer to farm geographically and microclimatically disparate vineyards spread along the length of the region, perhaps spreading attention and human resources too thin. Johannes Eser of Johannisberg’s Johannishof has been significantly vested in the Rüdesheimer Berg for 22 vintages, yet the resulting wines seldom measure up to the quality coaxed from his family’s traditional holdings near the winery. Eser’s near-neighbors the Grosses at Weingut Goldatzel have rendered a lovely 2017 Rüdesheimer Bischofsberg (following a couple of less auspicious attempts) but that was from a mere nine rows of young vines, on which Gerd Gross – who acquired the parcel in 2009 – has been able to shower viticultural attention. Günter Künstler looks to be an exception to my generalization, inasmuch as he farms the geographical extremes of Hochheim and Rüdesheim. But a major reason why he has been successful is that the difference between the prevailing growing cycle in those two communes is also extreme, so much so that even in 2017, a year featuring one of the most compressed windows of opportunity for optimum harvest ever experienced by German Riesling growers, Künstler and his crew were able to finish up completely in Hochheim before picking their first grapes in Rüdesheim. And it’s not for nothing that Bernhard Breuer referred to his outpost in Rauenthal as a distinct estate, on which he lavished attention that would have been beyond the means of most proprietors.  

It’s true that many of the considerations just adduced apply in the Pfalz Mittelhaardt as well. But Riesling lovers old enough to recall the state in which that sector’s traditional leading estates of noble lineage found themselves in the 1980s and ’90s will recognize that, but for the heroic turnaround wrought at Bürklin-Wolf in the mid-90s under Bettina Bürklin and the massive, visionary investments of local magnate Acham Niederberger in purchasing between 2002 and 2007 Bassermann-Jordan, von Buhl, and Dr. Deinhard, we would likely still be lamenting the decline of another formerly world-renowned region. There are, after all, numerous examples of large, once-prestigious but long-dormant Pfalz-Mittelhaardt estates, as well as of ones that, like Weingut Josef Biffar, have closed.

When one says “Pfalz” today, a wine region seething with youthful energy and ambition correctly comes to mind. For that one must give the local VDP considerable credit. I have many well-aired ideological and wine-political differences with the VDP, but its role in raising quality-consciousness is undeniable, and in the Pfalz especially, it has served as a lodestone for estates whose incoming generation aspires to excellence. But whereas each of 25 members in the regional VDP-Pfalz is familiar to me, at the very least by reputation and the occasional bottle coming my way, the 34-member roster of the VDP-Rheingau, representing a vine surface one-seventh that of the Pfalz, includes not just numerous addresses where I have experienced recent disappointments, but also numerous estates with which I have absolutely no experience. Some are enrolled pursuant to an agreement that incorporated the Rheingau Charta organization into the VDP. And some have no doubt been retained in deference to their roles as founding members of the 1910 Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer, forerunner of today’s VDP (for which, in turn, the 1897 Vereinigung Rheingauer Weingutsbesitzer was a model). Perhaps the sheer number of existing members within such a small region accounts in part for there being fewer estates or youthful vintners striving for VDP membership, and in the process challenging themselves.

Florian Weingart's uniquely functioning circular underground cellar, on the town line between Boppard and Spay, was still empty in mid-September, but ready a week later to receive the first grapes: Pinot from just beyond the new cellar door.

Climes and Vines

As I have often mentioned in my reports, there is reason to ask whether certain sites near the Rhine River that historically enjoyed the greatest reputations – Erbacher Marcobrunn being a prime example – might have become too warm and too susceptible to rot to retain that status, or at least to consistently render outstanding dry Riesling. Although it has indeed been a long time since I tasted a profound and well-balanced young Marcobrunn Riesling, I have encountered quite a few profoundly delicious wines from the Winkeler Jesuitengarten, a veritable poster child for the problems in question. But when you listen to Andreas Spreitzer explaining the combination of hypervigilance, harvest crew flexibility and sometimes just plain luck required for capturing Jesuitengarten fruit a moment before it tips almost inevitably and literally overnight into spoilage, you wonder how many quality-conscious growers would be willing to make investments in this site if their families had not already been vested in it for generations.

A further factor that might put the Rheingau at some disadvantage can be recognized by considering the vineyards from which one experiences the most memorable Mosel and Nahe Rieslings. Very many of the former come from massal selections, and often from ancient, ungrafted vines, while many of the latter issue from vines that trace their genetic ancestry to selections made under such notoriously quality-conscious ancient regimes as those of von Plettenberg and the Nahe State domain. To be sure, on both Mosel and Nahe, really old vines and vineyards that originated as massal selections have been sacrificed over the decades to the wholesale face-lifting, physical reorganization and redistribution of vineyards known as Flurbereinigung. But that reorganization took place on the whole earlier and more exhaustively in the Rheingau, in large part simply because the growers in such a prestigious region could afford their share of the expense (which is always split with the state). It’s true that most Rheingau slopes are gentler and thus more amenable to Flurbereinigung. But nearly the entire huge, sheer Rüdesheimer Berg, once a lacework of stone terraces, was face-lifted in the 1960s. Old vines and terraces, not to mention the “original” soil, were spared solely in the upper reaches of the Berg Kaisersteinfels (then deemed too rocky and windswept to merit the trouble!) and in the prime Hinterhaus. 

This ancient vine, manicured by Gerd and Johannes Gross of Weingut Goldatzel, almost certainly reflects massal selection performed on the Rheingau's first generation of post-phylloxera vines to arrive from the Mosel.

The Gross family of Weingut Goldatzel lovingly tends three ancient plots in the Johannisberger Vogelsang whose vines and fruit are utterly distinct from any around them. These almost certainly reflect massal selections made from the first generation of plants (most of which came from the Mosel) to have been introduced into the Rheingau after its own population was annihilated by phylloxera. The resulting wines are profoundly and distinctively delicious. For each of these parcels, there has to be a story to explain how it escaped being flurbereinigt; but, to begin with, each owes its preservation to a location on the fringes of the Vogelsang Einzellage, where if some ornery grower didn’t want to participate in the communal reorganization but instead cling to his rows of old vines, his colleagues could simply write him off rather than insist on bulldozing the offending plants. To be sure, proximity to Geisenheim’s world-renowned viticultural institute enhanced the likelihood that in the second half of the 20th century Rheingau vineyards would be replanted with state-of-the-art clones. But what counted as optimum vine selections 30–50 years ago may not qualify today, when far less importance is placed on yield and must weight. Growers need not only to introduce optimal new clones, or purchase pedigreed vine material from outside the region, but also to make selections from those precious few still-extant plots of high-performing old vines that are both figuratively and literally deeply rooted in the Rheingau.      

This report is based on visits with 13 Rheingau producers and four Mittelrhein producers in November 2018, the early start of harvest having thwarted my normal practice of tasting here in September. These sessions were supplemented by samples from one additional Rheingau estate, as well as by re-tastings of selected wines in early 2019. I greatly regret the absence of Weingut August Kesseler from this year’s report, but Kesseler and his right hand were traveling and unwilling to let one of their colleagues receive me during the 11-day window I made available. I hope to cover Kesseler’s 2017s as well as his 2018s in my next report. 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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