The birthplace of the illustrious Spätlese, Germany’s culinary capital and the spiritual home of Riesling, the Rheingau already has a few feathers in its cap. Many of those feathers might have come from the VDP eagle which soars over the Rheingau more often than it does in any other German production region: nowhere do you find the VDP logo as often as you do in the Rheingau.
The region might represent only a tiny part of German viticulture when it comes to the amount of wine produced but it is one of the country’s most important production regions, on a par with Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, when it comes to the importance of the wine that is made there. Whereas the Mosel is world famous for its sweet wines, it's the Rheingau’s dry wines that are some of the finest white wines in the world.
I remember reading a discussion about how the Rheingau region had lost its flair: this was at the time when the new VDP classification came into force (2012): all of a sudden huge Mosel names started releasing dry wines grown on well-known vineyards with the GG logo on the label. This, alongside the rise of Rheinhessen and the omnipresence of the Pfalz and Nahe, put the Rheingau into the shadows a little. Rheingau winemakers openly discussed the problems the region had: too traditionalist, too old-fashioned, not-attractive enough to new drinkers – plans were put into place, changes were made and I am pleased to be able to present a reinvented Rheingau: a region bursting with youthful innovation and home to a hundred new styles of wine.
One of the most exciting wines to emerge from the region in recent years is Schloss Johannisberg’s Weisslack – I’m referring to a wine that costs about 12€. Important though is the producer and their relevance in the region: Schloss Johannisberg is one of Germany’s most famous wineries: the inventor of the Spätlese and the world’s oldest Riesling winery – the fact that Schloss Johannisberg realised a change was needed is proof enough that this region required a refit. Its entry-level Gelblack is a fabulous wine: a typical old-world style Rheingau dry Riesling and, whilst this is appealing to a wine drinker, it often feels a touch dusty, a little over-complicated for a new drinker. Weisslack is different though: no wood, cleaner, more driven, a screw-top, fresher, skinnier and not-at-all-dusty: it tastes like a young wine from the Pfalz rather than a Rheingau wine although it does have a telltale Rheingau spice structure to it - it was created for restaurants and modern gastronomic ventures.
It isn’t just Schloss Johannisberg though: the new Gutsweine (estate wines) from the Rheingau producers have all been spruced up a bit: the ever-relevant Georg Breuer range has retained its freshness, the wonderful wines of Spreitzer have cleaned up their act too: mineral-driven, clean, compact wines with freshness at the forefront of drinkability. Of course the upper-echelons of a winery’s portfolio still retain individual elements of traditional Rheingau character but even here, the wines have been to the gym: look at the 2014 and 2015 Grosse Gewächse from Allendorf and Balthasar Ress: addictively drinkable Riesling with focus on staying slippery: aerodynamic wines that fit perfectly with almost any dish imaginable despite losing nothing that makes Rheingau wine fantastic.
Let’s forget Riesling for a moment…
Riesling is what the Rheingau is best known for but some of the most interesting and thought-provoking wines to have emerged in the last few years are made from Pinot Noir. Whereas this varietal isn’t new in the Rheingau, the wines in the last few years are not just more drinkable but fabulously modern too. Peter Perabo of the Bischöfliches Weingut Rüdesheim is one of Germany’s most gifted Pinot Noir artists: the winery’s Pinots are some of the region's finest and all of them combine both the German take on Pinot Noir and the international appeal of this sometimes (particularly in Germany) problematic grape.
Likewise Chat Sauvage is making some wonderful Pinot Noir from some of the finest sites for this varietal in Germany. Odder still is their reluctance to produce any Riesling at all: favouring Chardonnay as a white varietal and yet these wines aren’t gimmicky or Chardonnay-worshiping wood-bombs but excellently crafted Burgundy-like wines with an exquisite drinkability and, compared to the wines they are modelled on, astonishing affordability.
A natural touch
The rise of natural wine is undisputable. Whereas 100% natural wines are likely to remain a niche-market product: having regular wines influenced by natural-wine characteristics is a welcome addition to a winemaker’s toolbox: long grape-skin maceration, leaving wines on the lees for longer than necessary, aging in clay amphora or no filtration for example. Two wineries in the Rheingau have impressed with surprisingly drinkable wines using exactly these practises: Balthasar Ress and Peter Jakob Kühn. In the case of Peter Jakob Kühn, the dry Rieslings from Grand Cru vineyards have more than just a background natural-wine feel to them: long grape maceration is noticeable in both the Sankt Nikolaus GG and the Doosberg GG wines. Balthasar Ress has recently endeaved to extend the amount of time some of their Rieslings spend on the lees with three wines aptly named: 18, 32 and 42 according to the number of months they matured with their yeasts. Not only that, Balthasar Ress produces an orange wine made from Pinot Blanc – actually one of the only orange wines that you could suggest might achieve unilateral appeal: it might indeed be a niche-market product but it isn’t too specialist that it might scare adventurous drinkers away.
It isn’t just still wine experiencing a revitalisation: three of Germany’s finest Sekt producers operate in the Rheingau: Schloss Vaux, Sekthaus Solter and Bardong. All three make some of the nation’s finest sparkling wine both out of Rheingau wines but also those imported from other production regions. Schloss Vaux has been at the forefront of German sparkling wine production for more than a decade and its single-vineyard line is a wonderful expression of how Rheingau Riesling and Pinot Noir works fantastically in powerful sparkling Cuvees. Sekthaus Solter too is one of the nation’s most decorated producers of bubbly and has some rather interesting Cuvees in their portfolio: with some of the region’s best sparkling-intended vineyards at their disposal, the producer’s fine wines continue to impress.
Perhaps most interesting is Bardong with its tendency to leave wines in the bottle for a long time before release. It uses both Riesling and the Pinot grapes to make Sekt from some of the region's best sites for growing grapes intended for the production of sparkling wine. It isn’t just
Sekt-houses that are making fabulous wine: some of the region’s wineries are also creating fabulous sparkling Rieslings or Pinots and one producer in particular is preparing a sparkling wine sourced only from its Grand Cru vineyard: Schloss Johannisberg – their first Sekt in decades.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the "reinvented" Rheingau is that it is still ever-changing: whereas a lot has been done, the region shows no sign of slowing down in its progressive approach to winemaking. The days of restrictive governing bodies and a traditionalist VDP-leadership are over: whereas the VDP still enforces traditional practise and typical Rheingau wines are in its sights, its talons have released slightly and its member wineries have a little more room to play with than they did before: will we see Chardonnay Grand Cru sites in the near future? Probably not but we will see a whole host of new wines emerging from one of Europe’s most important production regions: the often overshadowed and yet utterly appealing Rheingau.
Some wines to try
Finding these wines where you live
Many of these wines are available in the United States and United Kingdom. All are widely available in Germany and most in Austria and Switzerland.
If you'd like assistance in finding these wines where you live, please get in touch and I'll gladly help you find a handler/distributor in your region.