|It takes one journey into the heart of Germany's wine country, beyond the bustling cities of Frankfurt and Cologne, to experience one of the most magical, unspoiled, unmodernized places on earth. This is a land of medieval towns, tiny wine villages and castles that stand like timeless sentinels over the winding Rhine River. This is the fabled land of the Rheingau -- a wine region frozen in time and almost too beautiful to bear.
But German wine? You mean that stuff that's too sweet and the ultimate in unfashionable?
Think again. There's no doubt German wine has gotten a bad rap, especially in America, mainly due to the influx of cheap imports in the seventies and eighties. German wine was something to get sloshed on -- the drink of college students and those who didn't know any better.
This was the image I grew up with. And I was happy to see it dissolve as glass after glass of excellent Rheingau wine was placed before me on my recent trip to the region. From the fresh, fruit-forward rieslings to the ultimately luscious, parting-of-the-heavens Beerenauslese dessert wines, German wines have definitely left a lasting impression once again. And this time, the review is quite favorable.
On The Road
My journey started in Cologne. When I stepped from the train station and stood before the world-famous Cologne Cathedral, I knew I was on my way. To travelers, Germany's Rheingau and Mosel wine regions provide a poignant reminder of our human heritage. Tradition, viewed with almost religious passion, runs deep here -- from the layered beauty of the landscape, to the centuries-old architecture, to the great castled testament along the banks of the winding Rhine River that have survived urbanization.
After a steering wheel-clenching careen down the Autobahn, I was greeted by the sloping hills along the banks of the Rhine: a patchwork of vineyards perched at insane angles. In no other country, as I was to learn, is viticulture so precarious.
There's a joke among locals that winemakers in Germany are born with one leg shorter than the other in order to work the hills (some at a 70-degree slope). Yet despite these challenges -- and sometimes because of them -- Germany produces some of the loveliest, lightest and most delicate white wines in the world; wines that are low in alcohol (meaning your head is clear after a day of tasting), balanced and loaded with subtle nuances in aroma and taste.
The Rheingau measures a mere 20 miles in length along the Rhine River, between the villages of Wiesbaden and Rudesheim. Along this stretch is a succession of concentrated Germanic villages and soaring vineyards hugging the rugged hillsides.
Of all the great vineyard areas in Germany, the Rheingau is the smallest. There are only some7,700 acres of vines, making this region a quarter the size of the Mosel/Saar/Ruwer, one of Germany's most notable regions. Wines from the Rheingau are some of the best in Germany, carefully crafted to the highest standards.
My first stop was in the tiny village of Oestrich-Winkel, one of many small villages that run the length of the Rheingau. After checking in at the Swan Hotel (a mere 400 years old) I was off to visit with Georg Breur, a pioneer in establishing Rheingau quality standards within the region.
In 1983, Breur founded Charta -- a voluntary group of about 50 leading estates that willingly impose strict rules on their winemaking in order to revive the reputation of the region -- which created a "model" Rheingau riesling for all in the region to emulate. The Charta trademark -- tall brown bottles embossed with a double Romanesque arch -- usually indicates a quality wine, made in the dryer, traditional Rheingau style.
It didn't take long to appreciate Rheingau wines and their fresh, fruit-laden flavors and pronounced slatey mineral qualities. Smells of perfume, smoke and honey, backed up by taut acidity, enable these wines not only to stand up to rich, spicy foods but also to age gracefully for decades. Rheingau wines are loaded with nuance, subject to variations from changes in microclimate and elegantly appealing. These are balanced wines, and even the sweeter versions have enough acidity to keep them approachable and refreshing.
After a luxurious overnight at the Hotel Swan, it was an early start for a day of tasting. At my first stop, I found Joseph Leitz at his home-based winery trying to coax his three-year-old daughter into the family car. To my surprise, I learned that most of the wine producers operate in this home-based fashion because of land constraints and the inability to gobble up huge plots of property to establish sprawling Napa-style wine estates.
We drove to the top of a slope, where we looked upon Leitz's prime strip of growing space. I learned that on the far side of river, where an ancient toll tower still stands, boats were once charged a whopping 80 percent toll (based on the value of the ship's cargo) to continue North with their goods. Later, over a glass of wine in Leitz's kitchen, I discovered that dizzying heights don't discourage local winemakers. Without the help of tractors or machinery, they till the soil almost entirely by hand. Obviously their dedication to quality is fierce. In fact, some 20 years ago, in an attempt to improve regional quality, acres of vines were torn out by many producers to lower yields and improve regional quality. In a good year, Leitz will produce just over 4,000 cases.
A few hours later, when I walked into the estate of Weingut Hupfeld , I was ready for lunch. But first it was upstairs to a tiny tasting room overlooking village rooftops and the Rhine River. Adherents to Charta standards, the Hupfelds poured a half dozen wines covering a wide range of sweetness and styles. Nuances of pineapple, banana, grapefruit rind, petrol and mineral qualities showed consistently throughout the tasting, and variations from vineyards only yards from one another proved to be vast. The Hupfelds are especially proud of their Hocheim Konigin Victoria Riesling, produced from a historic vineyard named in 1854 after the Queen of England upon her visit to the area.
My next stop was a jaunt away from the river, past the historic Kloster Eberbach monastery (which appeared in the film The Name of the Rose), to one of the largest, most modern facilities in the Rheingau -- Robert Weil . The estate is located in the beautiful Gothic village of Kiedrich and is managed by Wilhelm Reil, a forth-generation member of the family that founded the estate more than a century ago. After forming a partnership with Japanese investors, the estate was able to completely overhaul its facilities. The result? Fresh, modern wines produced traditionally in a state-of-the-art facility.
As we tasted the 1997 vintage, the Rheingau Riesling Spatlese Halbtrocken was the most memorable -- a fruity, flowery, pleasantly sweet wine bursting with fresh springtime flavor. Then, indulging in a little barrel tasting, I was pleasantly surprised by one of the juiciest pinot noirs I've tasted this side of California.
The day ended with a stop at Balthasar Ress . Since 1870, members of the Ress family have been producing classical German wines. My first reaction upon arriving was one of surprise at the extent to which tradition had been kept alive throughout the Rheingau. Said Stefan Ress, "We see ourselves as part of a long lineage, paying attention to all that has been done throughout the years. We also see future wine making as an extension of our past. We think long term." As one of the larger producers in the Rheingau, Ress makes between 16,000 and 21,000 cases a year.
As dusk fell over the tasting room, we enjoyed the fruits of their labor as Stefan, and soon-to-be-heir Christian, poured some of the most exciting wines of my stay. They were overjoyed with the late-harvest rieslings in 1996, which they were able to produce Auslese and Beerenauslese wines from. "1996 is the most normal year since 1987. It's a year that shows the quality of the best vineyards," says Ress, who attributes the high quality of recent vintages to the now widespread practice of selecting only the best grapes, which lowers overall production but results in better wines across the board. "Our more recent vintages show how much we have learned about selection in the vineyard."
My stay had ended, and I drove the slow and winding road along the mighty Rhine back to my medieval hotel. I was told that German winemakers believe wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery. After a visit, it's easy to understand this simplistic philosophy. With a land as spectacular as the Rheingau, you'd expect the vineyards to produce something exceptional in the way of wine. And they do.
Riesling: The King of Germany
German wine is overwhelmingly white, with only 18 percent of its vineyards planted with red varieties. Germany's "Noble Grape" -- the varietal that comprises, with one-dimensional authority, the entire country -- is riesling. Perhaps no other wine region is so driven by a single grape as Germany is by riesling. Riesling is what put German wine on the map.
German riesling has a proprietary status -- it's the standard by which all other riesling grown in other areas are judged. These are wines that possess delicacy, freshness and finesse and can age, in many cases, for well over a hundred years. Forget that riesling is one of the few grapes that can grow this far north. Forget that in a world of dry wine, German riesling is the predominantly sweet exception to the rule. Riesling is to Germany what pinot noir is to Burgundy -- the world class feather in the country's viticultural cap.
When blessed with ample sun and a southern slope, riesling can actually reach higher levels of dryness than many other wines. Prices of Rheingau wines have risen steeply in recent years, especially the Auslese levels and above, largely due to the marked rise in quality standards. But it's still possible to find Kabinetts and an occasional Spatlese at affordable prices.
VISITING THE RHEINGAU
Most wineries of the Rheingau, including those mentioned here, are glad to accommodate visitors. However, this is not California, and most expect tours and tasting appointments to be booked in advance. Easter Sunday through October is tourist season. The rest of the year, river boats, cable cars, museums and other attractions close for the winter months. For information on visiting the Rheingau and other German wine regions, and for information on buying Rheingau wines in the states, contact the German Wine Information Bureau 212/896-3336.
Additional Wineries Worth A Visit:
Kloster Eberbach (Eberbach Monastery)
Tel: (49) (6723) 9178
This former monastery dates back to the 12th century, with wine being cultivated here for more than 800 years. It's the home of the German Wine Academy and considered the cultural wine center of the Rheingau. Wine tastings are arranged in the historic rooms of the monastery, with a flight of 10 wines running about $16 U.S.
Schloss Vollrads (Castle Vollrads)
Tel: (49) (6723) 5270
Fax: (49) (6723) 6666
This wine estate is a beautiful, romantic setting for wine tasting. The gourmet restaurant serves regional specialties that change according to the season. Special chanterelle (pfifferlinge in German) mushroom dishes are wonderful.
Tel: (49) (6723) 9930
Fax: (49) (6723) 9931
Martina and Klaus Wenckstern
Tel: (49) (6723) 8090
Fax: (49) (6723) 7820
Breuer Rudesheimer Schloss
D-65385 Rudesheim am Rhein
Weinkeller Altes Rathaus
Tel: (49) (611) 305 434
Located in the cellar of the former town hall, this establishment serves cold appetizers and cheese plates complemented by a diverse wine selection.
Weingut J. Becker's Im Weingarten
Tel: (49) (6123) 725 23
Fax: (49) (6123) 75335
For simple appetites or wine only, try this outdoor riverside pub. The menu is limited to snacks, but customers are welcome to bring a picnic to enjoy with the excellent wines.