11 Feb 2012

Due south (Rheinhessen, Germany)

As mentioned in a previous post, the Rhineland-Pfalz region has a lot of regions that are all a stones throw away from each other. This means that even though I had already been through the Rheinhessen region on my way to the Rheingau, it isn’t difficult to back track a little. Thus I was able to visit a few wineries here after all, who were kind enough to make some time for me at such short notice. The Rheinhessen is the largest viticultural area in Germany, stretching from the Nahe in the west to the Rhine in the east, from Worms in the south to Bingen in the north. In an area of roughly 26,000 hectares of land, you are undoubtedly going to get some variation in soil type, exposition and climate. Thus I was glad to visit two wineries at each end of the region, to see if the difference was discernible.

Vineyard in the Northern Rheinhessen
Vineyards in the Southern Rheinhessen
The Gunderloch winery was founded in Nackenheim in 1890 by Carl Gunderloch, who was a wealthy banker in Mainz. Part of the estate he acquired included vineyards in some of the most sought after locations, the Nackenheim Rothenberg. The red slate soils they have under their steeply planted vines produce the most unique wines from the Rheinhessen, both in their minerality and their longevity. The estate is run today by the great-granddaughter of Carl, Agnes Hasselbach-Usinger and her husband, Fritz Hasselbach, with great care and attention. The total vineyard holdings only amount to 12.5 hectares, of which they make a range wine of which 80% are rieslings.

2011 Gunderlock trockenbeerenauslese bubbling away
One of the first things that Agnes and Fritz did when taking the reins was to modernise the winery, by introducing stainless steel fermentation tanks. As the focus is on dry wines, the desire was to capture the fruity aromatics of the wine by fermenting cool and limiting skin and air contact with the juice. The winery has been moving back to more traditional methods recently, such as using old barrels to ferment the top dry wines, in an effort to capture the minerality of the soils in the more recent warmer vintages. The really modern thing the winery does that sets them apart from other German producers, is that every wine in their range in every market is sealed under a screwcap. In Fritz's words, "if they don't like the wine under the new seal, then I am sorry, but not one bottle has been faulty due to cork since making the change." The winery also produces a wine that is made from contract Rheinhessen fruit, called the Fritzs Riesling, which is a larger volume consumer/price friendly wine.

Gunderloch dry wines
Fritz was nice enough to show me around the winery and cellars before we sat down to taste some wines. We started by looking at the dry wines from the 2010 vintage, including the Fritzs Riesling which was lovely and fresh with a little R/S to keep it approachable and friendly, the Qualitatswein Riesling which had lovely orange and mango aromas and a soft acid freshness, the Nackenheim Riesling which had a slightly more reductive mineralic nose and more rich and concentrated youth, and finally the Nierstein Riesling which was fuller and broader and certainly more approachable now. We then moved up into the Grosses Gewachs 2010 Rieslings, which were a lot more dense and brooding in their complexity and minerality. The Rothenberg in particular was particularly dense in the mid-palate, and with such concentration and austerity makes you want to drink it in at least 10 years.

The Gunderloch GG wines and the Jean-Baptiste Kabinett
We then moved into the 2010  fruity wines, starting with the Jean-Baptiste Kabinett which goes very well in Japan, and the Rothenberg Spatlese and Auslese. The Spatlese had some lovely tropical pineapple mango characters, and had fantastic balance and concentration, whereas the Auslese had a more juby glycol texture and viscosity. Finally the ambrosial 2008 Nackenheim Rothenberg Trockenbeerenauslese, which includes the juice macerating on skins for 30 days and takes a year to finish fermenting. The wine is one of the most complex I have ever tasted, as it had the rich syrupy stone fruit and fresh acids, but then showed exquisite oxidative hazelnut and oats. As you can see from the photo below, it has an intense colour and thickness, and the viscosity is extraordinary.

Liquid gold, with Fritz looking on
The vineyards of Westhofen in the south of the Rheinhessen, lie in a fertile glacial valley of the Rhine, and this is where you find Weingut Wittmann. The family have cultivated wine grapes in the valley for almost 350 years, but for much of this time the wine they produced was sold in casks to wine merchants. Thus the family has had a bond with the land for a long time, and understand their unique terroir and the quality of fruit they grow. Since they began producing their own wines from the estate, they have developed a reputation for producing very elegant yet full-flavoured wines from a number of varieties. Over 50% of the estate is naturally dedicated to riesling, with the balance in different proportions of sylvaner, weisburgunder, grauburgunder and spatburgunder. Since 1990 they have been utilising organic viticulture for which they are certified, and have also implemented biodynamic practices for which they feel certification is unnecessary. I would have to agree, as I feel quite cynical about certification for marketing purposes. Interestingly the estate has been using the traditional technique of fermenting and maturing the dry wines in large barrels from the beginning in the 1960s, and persevered through the '80s and '90s when it was more common to use stainless steel exclusively.

Weingut Wittmann
Weingut Wittmann cellars
Benjamin Marshall who is the jack-of-all-trades at the estate showed me a few of the wines, which weren't many due to most of the 2010 wines being sold out and the majority of the 2011 wines yet to be bottled. We started by looking at two gutsweins freshly bottles from the 2011 vintage, the Silvaner Trocken and the Riesling Trocken. The Silvaner (actually the first I have ever tasted), had a slightly shy yeasty nose, bold fruit and some texture, but not much length or complexity. The Riesling was a fun fruity and approachable wine with nice clean lime and kiwi fruit characters. We then tried the Selection 'S' Weisser Burgunder 2010, which is the reserve wine of the variety. it had lovely volume and depth, and had the character of a pinot blanc made in a chablis style. We finished with an auslese from one of the classified vineyards, the Brunnenhauschen 2010. It had a very quiet kerosene mineral nose, was somewhat rich and syrupy, but had a lovely fresh finish. There were some hints of savoury characters combining with the bright citrus notes, certainly one for ageing.

Tasting at Weingut Wittmann
Click here to see more photos from the Rheinhessen, Germany.

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