Silvaner has to be one of the most underrated varietals of all. When done well it is expressive, elegant and highly interesting: in Rheinhessen, Franken, Baden, Alsace and Pfalz, this is a frequent occurrence: Silvaner is more than capable of offering up world-class wines and yet most of the world hasn’t even heard of it.
On its own and without intense selection and crop reduction, Silvaner is often fairly neutral in taste. Like Müller-Thurgau and indeed the majority of the Pinot grapes, its character is tuned by the soil it grows on and how the winemakers chose to produce the wine. Whereas Silvaner is one of the most exciting varietals in Germany, it often produces bland, tasteless wines that fill supermarket shelves. In this form, it is seldom expensive and Silvaner is one of the workhorses of the German mass-producers: millions of litres of forgettable liquid, produced with the sole intention of getting someone drunk on the cheap.
But the true story of Silvaner is completely different.
Some of Germany’s most interesting and expressive wines are made of this varietal. Unlike Riesling, it isn’t particularly well-known overseas which leads to the vast majority being consumed within Germany and Alsace. Even the best wines made from this varietal rarely exceed 30€ a bottle which makes it a bit of an insider-tip for lovers of wines with small budgets: there are world-class Silvaners on the market for under a tenner, sometimes even for half of that price.
Franken is the spiritual home of Silvaner and its wines represent the pinnacle of the varietal’s production. Grown mostly on limestone soils on the banks of the Main, Franconian Silvaner is often very characterful, packs a decent amount of acidity and works astonishingly well with a wide varietal of dishes: particularly Asian cuisine. From top producers right down to regional co-ops, Franconian Silvaner is one of the world’s most important wine culture-products. Prized nationally for its Silvaner, without this varietal, it is hard to picture Franken as a major production region. Whilst many argue that its reds and Rieslings are the true gems of the region, my personal impression is that Silvaner is the specialty here.
Rheinhessen is also an important production region for Silvaner. With its limestone soils, many of the producers in and around Westhofen are prized for their fantastic, decent and smooth Silvaners: newcomers and established names alike consistently serve up some of this varietal’s top wines. Perhaps cleaner and lighter in style than those from Franconia, the wines are excruciatingly modern in style with elegance being perhaps the key word, wines here often display slightly less acidity and have a higher concentration of creamier, buttery notes.
In Alsace, Silvaner (most-often labelled as Sylvaner here) is a slightly more simple, everyday affair although the region produces a high number of good quality wines – whereas Alsace is also probably best known for its Riesling, Alsatian Sylvaner is highly underrated and, whilst it sometimes can feel a little dull (as is the case in Germany also), wines with a higher level of acidity can be particularly good: the old vines in the Zotzenberg Grand Cru site offer up some of the best examples of Sylvaner worldwide.
Even in the Riesling and Pinot-dominated Pfalz are there examples of fantastic Silvaner: again, mostly reliant on chalky soils, the wines here present themselves with a reliable acidity, a decent structure and, thanks to the way some of these wines are produced, they offer up stunning examples of modern, crisp, dry wines. In Baden, a region blessed with sunshine and ripe soils, many producers experiment and succeed with Silvaner. In the Kaiserstuhl and Markgräflerland, the varietal is widely planted and, whereas the majority of these wines are indeed forgettable, a few sites offer optimal growing conditions and excellent results.
I have compiled a list of wines to try: from entry-level, affordable wines right up to Grand Cru, Grosses Gewächse and experimental natural wines from a whole host of producers. If you have any suggestions, please use the comments section and I’d greatly appreciate being able to add more to the list based on your tips!
Alsace, Baden and Pfalz
Finding these wines where you live
Almost all of these wines are exclusively available in Germany. Many of the wineries do ship overseas or work with importers in several regions worldwide. If you're having trouble locating any of the above wines where you live, please get in touch and I'll gladly assist you in getting hold of more information.
German wine has it hard.
Not only are the names of the wines unpronounceable for about 95% of the world’s population, its flagship products are so poorly understood or mislabelled that only a select few know what is hiding behind the brown glass and olde-worlde label.
Riesling? Isn’t that the sweet, sour, floral stuff that your Nan drinks?
I won’t go down the path of defending Riesling, it can do that on its own. I will however defend the labelling. In the past I have hinted at the simplification of German wine classification and the VDP and its members have done a good job – it still seems a little over-complicated for some but…..and I mean this seriously: why are international consumers so willing to split Bordeaux into appellations and yet are not prepared to do this with German wine?
In Bordeaux there are a whole host of styles from white to red to sweet. All of these wines are described with a theoretical map, varietal-compositions are hotly-discussed and we even talk about tertiary aromas and how they define the wine in the glass. Burgundy is even worse. It is incredibly complicated and we are forced to split not only the Côte de Nuits from the Côte de Beaune but from the hundreds of AOCs within. On top of that we then separate between Villages, Premier Cru and Grand Cru – you can study Burgundy your entire life and will still come across an AOC you’ve never heard of before.
I named only two of the French production regions and yet the world seems to only want one generic German style – “Rhein Riesling”.
Winemakers often argue that German wine is too complicated: too many names, too much information on the bottle….too much German. Whilst I’ll admit that Le Montrachet Grand Cru sounds nicer than Scharzhofberger Grosse Lage, in effect it is exactly the same information being portrayed here: even better in fact: the German label even tells you whether the wine is dry or not and which varietal it is you are drinking.
And yet people will argue that this is too complicated, too “unsexy” and yet I think we should embrace this: people often enquire about English translations for “Spätlese” or “Auslese” – when was the last time a French producer thought about translating “Grand Cru” or “Vielles Vignes” – we should relish these German words and enforce that they become part of international wine lingo like “Reserva”, “Classico”, “American Viticultural Area” and the like.
I am sometimes genuinely of the impression that German wine should continue being German: bowing to consumer demands is a very unsustainable business: consumers are notoriously non-loyal.
So crack open a bottle of Geheimer-Rat Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan Deidesheimer Hohenmorgen VDP. Erste Lage Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese and thank the heavens that it isn’t called “Rhein dessert wine” – there is no culture in that.
Napa Valley is one of the few New-World regions with the luxury problem that plagues so many of Europe's top production regions: space. In Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Montalcino and Bolgheri, production is limited by the geographical constraints of the landscape and the strict AOC/DOC/DOCG incentives controlling them. In the vast Californian plains, this isn't normally a problem: Mendocino, Central Coast, Lodi and the like have grapes to spare, vineyards for sale and, whilst water might be few and far between, the purchasing of land is both easy and, compared to Europe's most-beloved production regions, relatively cheap too. Only Napa in California breaks this rule: the average bottle of Napa is much higher than the Californian average and, when you consider that Napa counts for less than 10% of US wine production and around a quarter of wine revenue, you get a fairly accurate picture of the situation here, rising prices due to high demand in arguably one of the world's finest wine production regions.
Whereas many top Napa producers looked beyond this central Californian AVA, setting their sights on the above-mentioned regions of California, at least one chose its base overseas - a few thousand kilometers South on the Pan-American Highway: Argentina - more precisely Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza in the foothills of the mighty Andes.
Paul Hobbs is arguably one of the finest winemakers alive today. Not only are his top, single-vineyard Cabernets some of Napa Valleys' finest but his single-varietal wines sourced from Napa and Sonoma are some of the best-priced, most reliable wines on the market. Those who have been lucky enough to sample the latest few vintages of the (Beckstoffer) Dr. Crane and (Beckstoffer) To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignons know that they belong in the international red wine Hall of Fame - top wines from historic vintages in one of the world's best production regions. Don't just beleive me: google what the top critics have to say.
Let's face it though: these aren't wines for every day: I certainly don't have the cash to enjoy 150-300€ wines every day and thankfully there are some parts of the world where it is possible to make great wine for a great deal less: Mendoza for example. The rise and rise of Mendoza is unprecedented: no other region is improving in quality as quickly as Mendoza and, unlike the top regions in France, Spain, Italy, Australia and the USA, the wines remain entirely affordable....unless you wish for something more expensive and, certainly these days at least, that isn't hard anymore in South America. One of Argentina's pioneers: Catena Zapata also operates from Mendoza and some of its reds, particularly the Malbecs, often carry three figure price-tags. Viña Cobos, the name of Hobbs' operation in Argentina also producers high-end, luxury wines and yet the series is remarkably good throughout, from the entry-level Felino wines right through to the flagship "Cobos" sourced entirely from the best parcels of the fabulous Marchiori vineyard.
Below are tasting notes of a number of wines from Viña Cobos.
Getting hold of these wines where you live.
Lee Markham and Peter Stuckwisch
I am not at all secretive of that fact that I sometimes cheat on my favourite varietal Riesling. Like all chronic cheaters I have a whole series of mistresses I can contact: sometimes Chardonnay, sometimes Silvaner and sometimes even Sauvignon Blanc. My favourite mistress though is an Austrian specialty: Grüner Veltliner.
I particularly like Grüner Veltliner because of its fresh and robust character without a profound reliance on acidity: it rewards with refreshing drinking and none of the stomach-acid issues in the night. It also ages excellently losing its bright fruit and robust spice structure for absolute elegance: perhaps only Riesling and Chardonnay age better when it comes to white wine and yet Grüner Veltliner hardly ever shares the same attention. Not only is it a fabulous varietal on its own, just like Riesling and Chardonnay, it differs just as much according to where it grows: even the same river banks produce vastly different wines a few kilometres further downstream: Kremstal, Wachau and Kamptal might all be best known for their cultivation of Riesling and yet the Grüner Veltliner that emerges from the same vineyards is just as worthy of recognition.
Thankfully I share this opinion of Grüner Veltliner with Peter Stuckwisch: a good friend and fellow Austrian wine lover. A few weekends ago, he arranged a blind tasting of several young wines: different regions, different producers and different styles from classic, young, clean-cut Veltliner right up to Botrytis bombs and natural wines from some of Austria’s youngest winemaking talents. His tasting notes can be found here (German Language). Mine can be found below.
Getting hold of these wines where you live
Many of these wines are widely available in Germany and Austria. A handful are also available in the UK and USA. If you are interested in purchasing any of the above-listed wines and are having trouble locating them where you live, please get in touch and I will gladly assist you in getting hold of a bottle or two.
English fizz is no longer just an insider. Wine critics and journalists worldwide have handed victory in blind tastings to English bubbles often enough for us to realise that this definitely isn't simply a national gimmick anymore.
Why shouldn't it be good? With much the same soil, the same climate and, in many cases, the same know-how as that famous region a few hundred kilometres to the South-East, English sparkling wine is one of the wine-industry’s fasting-growing sectors.
Names such as Chapel Down, Ridgeview, Camel Valley and Nyetimber have brought these fantastic products into supermarkets where consumers often boycott their previously favourite Champagne brand for some fantastic British wine.
It’s diverse too. Whereas some producers have gone along the lines of creating wine as similar to Champagne as possible using the same varietals and similar production techniques, others have opted to create a new style of wine – a British sparkler that uses varietals grown (nearly) only in England to make unique and fabulous creations.
Although the production and retailing of English sparkling wine is popular, the Rosés from UK producers have been slower into the racks of your local grocer. It won’t surprise you but the Rosé is also very good. Many producers opt for the often more difficult job of allowing the grape skin to define the colour of the wine rather than (as is commonplace in most of the Champagne region) pouring a small amount of riper red into the final product for the pink hue.
Here are my favourite English Rosé sparkling wines.
Finding these wines where you live
All of the above-listed wines are widely available in the UK. Many of them are now available in mainland Europe and a select few in the United States. If you are having trouble finding the wines where you live, get in touch and I'll gladly assist you in finding them.
As the Saar slowly and majestically meanders on its journey North to join the Mosel, it passes several of Germany’s most-famous and prized vineyards. In Wiltingen; Scharzhofberg, in Saarbrücken; Rausch, In Ayl; Kupp and in Kanzem; Altenberg. The rolling hills and sleepy communes perhaps disguise the fact that these are some of the world’s finest vineyards when it comes to the production of white wine, specifically Riesling.
With parcels of vines in many of the above-listed vineyards, Weingut Van Volxem is one of the region’s biggest names. With so much of its vineyard space in Grand Cru (Grosse Lagen) sites, it has one of the largest portfolios of top wines: no less than six top dry wines and a handful of sweet wines sourced from the same sites.
Perhaps it is the Scharzhofberger wines that Van Volxem is best known for: its dry Scharzhofberger is a truely fantastic wine that drinks well young and even ten years later. This legendary site is probably Germany’s most famous vineyard and the one most commonly associated with the Saar region as a whole: whilst part of the Mosel production region and the reliance on slate-soils, Saar wines are often very different to those of the more widely-known Mittelmosel.
However, it isn’t just the winery’s top wines that impress: whereas entry-level estate wines (Gutswein) are the calling-cards of every winery and the ones they makes most money with, several top German producers release dull, lacklustre wines in this market segment. This is not a practise that Van Volxem is familiar with: its “Saar Riesling” and “Schiefer Riesling” (from purchased grapes) wines are both remarkably good and, just like their big brothers, keep for the best part of a decade, if not longer. The secondary tier too is fascinating Alte Reben, Rotschiefer and the Wiltinger-village wines are all very good and offer fantastic value-for-money. It’s even worth mentioning that the winery’s two non-Riesling wines are also some of the best non-Riesling wines from the Saar altogether: the producer’s Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc) is a thrilling take on the Devonian slate soils without the piercing acidity of Riesling. It is perhaps only topped by the winery’s Windvogt made of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc sourced from a unique parcel in Wawern with a micro-climatic situation leading to successful cultivation of Chardonnay in what is a cold-climate production region.
The top Riesling wines are so very good though and Van Volxem has so many of them: besides the above-mentioned Scharzhofberger, the winery produces some of the finest wines from the other top Saar vineyards: Ockfener Bockstein, Wawerener Goldberg, Wawerner Ritterpfad, Kanzemer Altenberg, Wiltinger Gottesfuß and Wiltinger Kupp. All of the wines express the sites expertly and yet all of them have a very similar set of winemaking characteristics: The Van Volxem style.
The Van Volxem Style
Whereas many other Mosel and Saar producers opt for medium wines with medium bodies and a high amount of residual sugar, the majority of Van Volxem's wines are dry in style. Again, dry Mosel wines have a recent tendency of wanting to hide their acidity and yet the Van Volxem wines make use of this acidity rather than attempting to hide it behind over-obtrusive fruit. The wines are also fairly unique in colour with a much deeper pigementation than many other producers' products in the region. A spice structure holds the wines together, joined with the acidity, and it leads them feeling rather fuller - perhaps even Burgundian in style - despite being completely different in taste. The dryness is approachable and sometimes hovers close to the beginning of medium or halbtrocken despite never crossing that boundary in the single-vineyard wines. Whereas the winery does produce two Kabinetts, an Auslese and a Beerenauslese, its competence lies with dry wines and they are undeniably stamped with the Van Volxem style - a set of characteristics that exists in the top-wine: The Scharzhofberger P right down to the simplest manufactured wine: "Schiefer Riesling" - this style is even applicable for the winery's fantastic "1900" Brut Sekt - an hommage to the Saar-sparkling wines of the days gone by, where Saar bubbles were favoured over the wines of Reims, Ay and Epernay.
It also belongs to the Van Volxem Style to recultivate historic sites. In 2015 and 2016, Van Volxem has worked together with Mosel producer Markus Molitor to revive the historic Ockfener Geisberg vineyard - the first wines should be available in the 2019 and 2020 vintages.
A selection of recent Van Volxem wines
Purchasing these wines where you live
All of the Van Volxem wines are widely available in Germany and Austria although the top wines from 2015 are mostly sold out already. In the UK, Berry Bros. and Rudd has a good selection of Van Volxem wines (click here). In the US several retailers stock the wines - if you have any trouble finding a retailer, please get in touch and I will gladly assist you in getting hold of the above-mentioned wines.
It’s difficult to think of either Californian wine or New-World wine in general without automatically thinking about Robert Mondavi. Not only are the Mondavi wines some of the most important products to originate from California, but the winery’s story is part of the modern history of wine: few wineries in the New World have had such a sustainable influence on viticulture as this Napa-based producer.
However, it is not necessarily the Napa Valley wines that people associate with this brand but rather the mass-produced wines from other Californian regions: Twin Oaks, Private Selection and Woodbridge are three entry-level sub-brands that operate in the European marketplace and, whereas the wines offer decent quality for a fair price, they are perhaps better suited to everyday drinking rather than belonging to the category of "fine wine".
In stark contrast to these wines are those produced in the company’s home in Oakville, Napa Valley. Not only are they some of the world’s best-known bottles but also a major cornerstone in international wine altogether. Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc dominate the winery’s parcels of land and the jewel in the crown of these vineyards is the to Kalon site, shared by Robert Mondavi, its Rothschild-Partner-Project Opus One and grape-grower Andy Beckstoffer. Perhaps one of California’s most important and indeed finest vineyards, it is a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, with a few rows of Sauvignon Blanc vines. The winery is also in possession of some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs vineyards in the neighbouring region of Carneros – their closer proximity to the Bay and the Pacific climates serve as prime growing conditions for Burgundy varietals.
However, it is Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc that makes Robert Mondavi the relevant winery it is today: some of the USA’s finest and most-famous Cabernets and Sauvignons leave the cellars here.
The winery’s relationship with Sauvignon Blanc is unique and also one of the key reasons that the varietal is so widely-planted in New Zealand’s Marlborough: amongst others, it was Robert Mondavi who persuaded the Spence brothers to plant and market the grape on New Zealand’s first Sauvignon-Blanc winery (these days trading under the name of Matua). He also rebranded Sauvignon Blanc in the States: whereas the varietal mainly celebrates good press and favourable reviews in Europe, stateside it was popularly considered as cheap, relatively-uninteresting wine. With a rebranding to Fumé Blanc, the wines were a success: Fumé Blanc is synonymous with the Mondavi brand and the term is still used by the winery and several other producers in California, the rest of the New World and even in Europe.
Perhaps however, the estate is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, as are most of the large and famous Napa producers. From its Napa winery, Mondavi create a series of wines based on this varietal: a general Napa Valley wine, a Stag’s Leap District-sourced wine, an Oakville-sourced wine and the flagship Reserve to Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Fumé Blanc 2014
This Sauvignon, with a minimal amount of Sémillon, is a luscious and fruity take on this popular style. Rather than the gooseberry and stone-fruit domination that is so often the case with New-World Sauvignon, the wine takes on a creamier feel with plenty of wood in the background. The fruit structure is made up of silky grapefruit (without the bitterness) and plenty of tropical fruit: mango,papaya and banana with a wonderful, aromatic herb finish made up of a touch of vanilla, a dash of cloves, plenty of almonds and a touch of white pepper.
Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
The entry-level Napa Cabernet is a wine that drinks well both young and after a few years in the bottle. With a rich uptake: Cassis, blackcurrant and plenty of red plum, the wine impresses with an impressive volume. With a sense of freshly-ground coffee and a light peppering of festive spices, the tannins are still firmly in place but the wine is still remarkably open.
Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
The 2013 Entry-Level Napa Cabernet starts in very much the same way: Cassis, red plum and blackcurrant but carries a youthful sense of forest fruit in there as well: blueberry, wild strawberry and even a dash of cranberry slips into the body. The wine is fuller in general with a riper feel: the fruit is thicker and yet doesn’t overwhelm. The wine is finished-off with big tannins that hint at a long lifetime. On the finish is espresso, finest tobacco and a touch of leather. This wine is undoubtedly a value-for-money masterpiece in a region otherwise well-known for hefty price tags.
Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Interesting in the Oakville wine are the different fruit phases: not only are Cassis-notes, Blackcurrants and black cherries present here but they each occupy a brief spell in the wine’s attack. With a creamy-confectionary feel on the body and a decent amount of espresso, the finish is slightly peppery and wonderfully round – whereas this wine is likely to remain in the drinking window for a decade still, it is easily approachable now.
Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Again, the approachability of such a young Napa Cabernet is what impresses most about this wine right now. Not only are you treated to the full array of black and red berries in the other wines but they are still in the primary fruit phase lending the wine a fullness and a slightly sweet sensation that leads into a composed and rather fragile body. The finish is toastier than the 2010 and the overall feel is slightly more compact than the less-expensive Napa Valley wine.
Robert Mondavi Reserve to Kalon Vineyard 2012
The 2012 To Kalon is far more composed than the other Cabernets in this list. Its fruit is present and yet ever-so-slightly closed: this is a wine intended for later on. A present acidic backbone runs through the wine, pairing excellently with the sharper notes of the cherry and blackcurrant in the initial fruit. With stable tannins on the finish, the wine expresses a reserved power – however, despite a general closed feel, it is still approachable – in stark contrast to other premium Cabernets from other parts of the world at this young age. I am looking forward to trying this wine in the future.
Finding these wines where you live
Seldom do you come across a series of wines that is both so very different and yet astonishingly good. Naturally-inspired wines with little-to-no winery refinement are rare finds and many of them are very….let’s call them specialist.
Natural wine is likely to remain a niche product for the remainder of its recent spell of popularity but the individual elements used in the creation of natural wine are most probably going to remain: new/rediscovered methods of producing wine to bring out certain elements of flavour and character: zero refinement, longer time on the skins, a longer period on the lees, less filtration, reduction of sulphates in the final wine, aging in clay amphora rather than wood or steel: these practises look set to remain and have revolutionised white wine in central Europe.
One series of wines heavily influenced by such practises are the NUMEN wines of Johannes Zillinger. The Austrian winemaker produces a handful of wines, all of which are very much in the spotlight in the German-speaking world: from the entry-level VELUE series, right up to the frankly experimental REVOLUTION wines, the entire portfolio is an attractive and appealing set-up.
There are four NUMEN wines and I have tried all of them except for the Fumé Blanc, something I attempt to change at the ProWein expo in a few months time. Below are my tasting notes on the other three wines in the series.
Johannes Zillinger NUMEN Riesling 2012
This pale, lemon yellow wine is clean and explicitly delicate on the nose but with a promising lemon juice aroma coupled with fresh, just-ripe, yellow fruit: yellow plums, apricots and a touch of quince against a mineral background with plenty of wet rock and fresh herbs. On the palate, the wine starts with an electric zing: the freshly-pressed lemon juice coupled with the sweeter edge of lime and this leads onto a thick, however remarkably elegant body of apricot and yellow plum. Perhaps a touch of litchi makes it into the show and the whole thing is rounded off by a strong but, by no means harsh, finish bringing the freshness and completing the clean-cut approach to the wine. Fittingly, this Austrian Riesling is bone-shatteringly dry furthermore accentuating the delicate, razor-sharp refreshing character of this young wine.
Johannes Zillinger NUMEN Grüner Veltliner 2013
With a deepset golden-yellow appearance in the glass, this Veltliner is rewardingly zesty on the nose: plenty of lemon peel with a sense of stone fruit lurking behind: white nectarines and petals hint at dried fruits. On the attack the wine is lead by a wonderful lemon and gooseberry feel: this moves into a clean-cut body with a remarkably crisp and slightly sour finish – the wines changes over time and eventually the racing acidity is tamed by an ever-expanding sense of fruit. Clean and very dry, the Veltliner taste only comes through after half an hour in the open bottle: a touch of pepper joins the show but nothing too dramatic.
Johannes Zillinger NUMEN Chardonnay 2013
This Orange wine is one of the easiest drinking oranges I have tasted. Initially quite hard and a tad closed, after a brief spell in the decanter, the wine impresses just as much, if not a tad more, than the above-mentioned Grüner Veltliner. Produced in much the same way, however without the addition of sulphates, this is a pure, natural wine, with little-to-no cellar work at all. To start with is the unmistakable nuance of curry plant, cumin, aniseed and a whole host more. This, paired with a ripe sense of orange juice and a touch of caramel reminds of Seville marmalade and candied peel.
After a while in the decanter though, the typical white wine notes pick up: rather a richer, riper take on chardonnay than the green-defined wines of Chablis, this is full in character, hints at yoghurt but never goes there and eventually lands on a pure, clearly-structured wine with decent, ripe cooking apples and a beautiful background hint of Calvados. Bone dry, lusciously long finish.
Finding these wines where you live
The VELUE series from Johannes Zillinger is available in the UK via Winestyle (click here). The wines are widely available both in store and online in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Bliss Wine is the US partner for Johannes Zillinger, click here for more information. For more information on finding these wines where you live, please get in touch and I will assist you in doing so.
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.
Ornellaia is pretty much a household name. Those lucky enough to have tried the winery’s flagship Bolgheri immediately recognise the wine to be one of the most important producers of the (relatively) newly-declared DOC on the Tuscan coast. However, priced at over a 100€, the wines aren’t intended for regular drinking but rather for special occasions.
Thankfully the winery produces both a second and a third wine: “Le Serre Nuove” and “Le Volte” respectively. For those with a stack of money left over, the winery’s “Masseto” Merlot is one of Italy’s and Tuscany’s most expensive wine – unfortunately, I’ve never tried it but it is claimed to be one of the world's best Merlots.
Last week (26.10.2016), I was lucky enough to check out the last few vintages of the second wine: Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia, a Bolgheri wine made using the younger vines of this already young estate. The wine is a Bordeaux blend with a slightly different mixture, according to the vintage.
Vertical tasting is always a great way to taste the gradual aging of a wine and the direct comparison between the vintages. We tasted the 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2014 wines with a few other special products from the Tuscan producer during the course of the afternoon.
Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2007
40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot
A racing acidity runs through this 2007 Bolgheri. Alongside the red berries brought in through the Merlot, a wonderful structural acidity and robustness is built around this by the higher-than-usual Cabernet Sauvignon percentage. The tannins fall into place behind the bright red fruit: cranberry, wild strawberry and rhubarb and, on the finish is a fuller sense of toasted wood and a touch of liquorice.
Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2008 (decanted)
55% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot
The red fruit in the 2008 Serre Nuove comes through in the form of sweet berries which, together form a compote feel: sweet strawberry, dried plum, blackcurrant and redcurrant lead onto a floral feel in the body of the wine which is finished off with a sprinkling of festive spices and an encasement of robust but smoothed tannins.
Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2009
54% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc
The ripest and most pleasurable wine of the tasting, the 2009 Serre Nuove is at its optimal drinking stage right now. With some of the ripest Merlot fruit in a Tuscan wine I’ve tried to date, the wine felt big, grand and, being perfectly honest, a bit like a 1990s Bordeaux. Despite the fruit still being remarkably fresh: blackcurrant, Cassis, cranberry and lots of excellent red plums, the spice structure was excellently incorporated into the wine: plenty of lovely leather aromas, a dash of espresso and even a touch of cocoa. The tannins were nice and smooth and, paired with an enchanting background acidity, the wine made for excellent drinking
Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2010
45% Merlot, 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Unfortunately the bottle at the tasting wasn’t in optimal condition. I’ll update this review if I get the chance to try the wine again.
Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2011 (decanted)
57% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Petit Verdot, 12% Cabernet Franc
The 2011 Serre Nuove has a huge potential. A wonderful sense of liquorice lingers in the background behind notes of blackcurrant and blueberry. Still compact, the wine isn’t quite ready for drinking right now but hints at the direction the 2011 is going to take: classic, large, fruity: a stunner. A wonderful smoky aroma is introduced with the tannins which makes the wine rather seem a touch mysterious. Look out for this wine in the future.
Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2014
50% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot
Still in the primary fruit phase, the 2014 shows off a wonderful array of bright and sharp red berries: Cassis, blackcurrant and even, thanks to a sense of acitiy, a touch of grapefruit and rhubarb. The tannins are slowly falling into place and the wine’s youth makes it refreshing.
Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia 2014
70% Sauvignon Blanc, 16% Vermentino, 8% Verdicchio, 6% Viognier
It’s lovely to try a refreshing new style of white wine from a red wine region. Tuscan white has always been a bit of a disappointment to me in the past and yet this Sauvignon Blanc cuvee more than makes up for it. With a hint at the exotic fruits in the body, the wine manages to retain some of the green notes that make Sauvignon Blanc so interesting: gooseberry, green apple and lime lead onto peach, arpricot and even a touch of pineapple. The finish is salty, hints at wood rather than relying on it and wine feels clean and compact.
Ornus dell’Ornellaia 2011
100% Petit Manseng
Big and thick on the uptake with dried plums, raisons and a whole host of tropical fruits, this wine’s botrytis aromas are in the foreground and, particularly the dried pineapple and mango aromas partially cover up a profound sense of new oak: vanilla and coconut. Long and thick, the wine reminds of well-made Sauternes although is already wonderfully drinkable. Caramel, clotted cream and and honey are worked into the wine expertly making making it a very rewarding drink.