When you think of Napa Valley, you think of bold, juicy reds and ripe, oaky Chardonnays and yet the region to the south of this world-famous region is more than capable of creating elegant, cold-climate wines. Carneros is perhaps a tad less known than its neighbouring production regions and yet its wines are also excellent. Some of the USA’s finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is grown here and, whilst it doesn’t have the same household name-trait as Sonoma and Napa, its wines are sought after in the USA and in many parts of the world as well. Not only is this region known for mouth-watering, Burgundian-style Chardonnay and elegant Pinot Noir but for its excellent sparkling wines too.
Perhaps the region’s best-known producer of bubbly is Domaine Carneros, situated inside a beautiful palace resembling the Château de la Marquetterie (close to Épernay in the Champagne region of France). It also shares similar ownership: both estates are operated by Taittinger.
When talking about sparkling wines from anywhere other than Champagne, a common question arises? Is there a market for these wines, is there any reason that these products should become unilaterally available? Especially in this case, with Champagne-brand ownership, the appeal of US sparkling wine in Europe at least is perhaps not really very attractive – even established wine producing nations in the EU have trouble remaining viable and relevant: Champagne's market dominance excels over all regions and is constantly (and rightfully) the bubbly that all other sparkling wines are measured against – how can a US producer create wines that are attractive and appealing to all drinkers?
Well, first and foremost, Domaine Carneros is a US-market intended product. Whereas Champagne is widely available and incredibly successful in the US, there is a demand for domestically-produced, high-quality sparkling wine too. In the case of Domaine Carneros, the wines are similar in style to those of the Champagne producer Taittinger and yet, in the premium sector, very different. The entry-level bubblies might indeed lack appeal in Europe (especially when you consider that the retail price is likely to be similar or higher than the French wines), the top-segment is not only good, but also unique.
Taittinger is also not the only Champagnoise producer making wines in California: Moët, Mumm, Roederer and a handful of others also make wine here – with increasing success: many of these products are available outside of the USA and Moet’s Domaine Chandon has developed into a chain of wineries all over the new world: Brazil, Australia, Argentina and even China are home to “Chandon”-Brand wineries.
However Roederer and Taittinger are the quality drivers in French-know-how, Californian bubbly with both brands operating a series of entry-level Brut wines and prestige, Californian-style sparkings.
Late last year, I had the chance to visit Domaine Carneros and tasted the entire range of sparkling wines. Whereas the three “basic” wines are perhaps best-placed only on the US market, the three luxury lines were astonishingly good: The vintage Blanc de Blancs, the "Ultra Brut" and flagship “Le Rêve” wines were excellent: combining both the elegance of Taittinger and the Champagne with the fuller, bolder and more modern style of Californian winemaking.
Below you’ll find my reviews of the six Domaine Carneros sparkling wines.
The Domaine Carneros Rose is one of my favourite American sparkling wines: with a wonderful citrus character in the way of tangerine peel and pink grapefruit, it is completed with a wide variety of stone fruits, red berries and then ends on a brioche-style, biscuity finish, leaving it impeccably clean despite being full of fresh flavour.
Vintage tasted: 2012
This modern, slightly creamier and fruiter take on Demi-Sec is very good with signs of white peach, lychee, apricot and a handful of floral elements: rose petal, a brief hit of lavender and a yeasty undertone lead the wine into a long, off-dry finish with a crispness that completes the wine and tidies up the sweeter edge, leaving it compact and clean rather than sticky and clumsy.
Vintage Tasted: 2011
My favourite of the "basic" Domaine Carneros wines is the Ultra Brut. This Pinot Noir-Chardonnay Cuvee is bursting with character: plenty of delicious yellow fruit: lychee, lemon peel and cooking apple. Excruciatingly dry, the minerals that come through are salt, steel and a touch of toasted white bread. Whilst being very dry, the wine impresses with an unusually creamy body.
Vintage Tasted: 2011
This Chardonnay & Pinot Gris Cuvee Brut is long and smooth. It impresses with a fuller body and more complete aromas than are usually found in American fizz: Almonds, Hazelnut, and macadamia are offset with tropical fruit: pineapple, mango, kiwi and even a touch of banana. Perhaps the boldest and most voluptuous of the Carneros sparkling wines, the finish is crisp and yet remains long on the tongue after swallowing.
Vintage tasted: 2010
Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs
Le Rêve is a modern expression of Taittinger's excellent Comtes de Champagne: just like its french counterpart, it wallows in discretion: a playful and elegant approach rather than an all-out taste-bomb: wonderful notes of honeysuckle, pear and a touch of spice: cardamon and coriander - the fuller fruit notes are well-hidden but definitely there: a decent, structured and well-made sparkling wine -undoubtedly one of the USA's finest.
Vintage tasted: 2009
Finding these wines where you live/ Visit
Domaine Carneros in the USA
Domaine Carneros in the UK
But, there are a handful of names attracting attention for producing such wines: Sauvignons that don't just taste like mass-made Marlborough, Merlots that avoid mimicking the Medoc or Shiraz that doesn't bore the hell out of you. Furthermore, one estate is doing it really well: producing such wines alongside established German-style wines made of varietals more commonly associated with the Pfalz: Riesling and Pinot Noir.
Oliver Zeter in Palatinate's Neustadt produces Germany's best Sauvignon Blanc and yet not because of its reliance on gooseberry, peach and fox urine but because the best side of the varietal is displayed with a unique Germanic flair: besides a touch of the fruit you might expect, there is a clear structure: one of the defining aspects of well-made Riesling - there is a touch of spice, something other Sauvignon Blanc from the Pfalz often lacks. It doesn't stop at Sauvignon though. Zeter also makes a Chenin Blanc and whilst that might indeed be a touch exotic, even by Pfalz standards, the wine relies on its solid good quality rather than being "one of the only Chenin Blancs from this region". Again, deeply complex, the wine exhibits the characteristic acidity of Chenin Blanc and the classic cleanliness of German wine: whereas the wine is naturally fermented and left on the lees for a long time: a practise typical in the Loire, the wine impresses with both structure and spice.
Changing colour for a moment and switching to Syrah, here is a wine with the wonderful black fruit and pepper elements of Syrah with an excellent character: superbly incorporated wood, a floral touch and a metallic feel. The "Z" Cuvée is also a treat - a Cuvee of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, the wine is a reliable red of traditional character but a noteworthy different feel to anything you may have had before: with the clarity and cleanliness of Bordeaux, the Syrah spices the wine up giving it a fuller feel despite ensuring it remains elegant. The temptation is for winemakers to use varietals like Dornfelder or Cabernet Mitos/Dorsa in such Cuvees and this wine proves that this simply isn't necessary. Often these varietals remove elegance creating obtrusive fruit, giving the wine a darker colour or just raising the residual sugar level to make them easy to drink. Cuvee "Z" is reminiscent of another top Pfalz red: Knipser's Cuvee X.
And here is where you expect for me to stop and yet it would be a shame if I were not to mention Zeter's classic German wines. They too are more than worthy of a passing recognition. Starting with the entry-level Riesling, the wines express true character and perhaps something more than just excellent drinkability. The basic Riesling is a brave wine: despite it being the "simplist" Riesling in the Zeter portfolio, it offers up notes typical of longer maceration times, longer on the lees and plenty of acidity: something several producers are anxious of offering-up these days for fear of losing their mainstream customers.
Perhaps the most stunning German-style wines in the range though are the excellent Pinot Noirs. With perhaps a more Francophile touch than any of the other wines in the Zeter range, the Pinot Noir Reserve is a juicy, elegant and addictive red with structure, spice and a non-reliance on fruit. Deeply complex and wonderfully moreish, it is my favouite wine in the Zeter series.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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Blanc De Noir