Having recently returned from a short trip to Germany, I am once again in love with its vineyards and wines, Riesling in particular. A trip along the Rhine and its tributaries is one of the great wine visits, matched only by the Douro in Portugal for sheer drama. Driving alongside the river, you can only gaze in wonderment at the wall of verdant vines sweeping up from its banks on impossibly steep slopes (some with a 70 per cent gradient), dotted with towering gothic castles.
The Rhine is a busy thoroughfare for huge barges carrying goods north and south. In summer, boats full of tourists take in the spectacular views, stopping in quaint villages that line the river. Spring is less crowded, more relaxed.
As the river changes direction, the vineyards disappear; exposure to the sun is vital to ripen grapes in a cool climate, and Riesling ripens later than most. The soils change, too, offering a unique opportunity to study the effects of terroir on a wine. I once walked along the Nahe valley with a producer; every 100 metres we would stop by a vineyard, where he would point out the change in soil type and exposure. He then poured a glass of wine made with grapes from that vineyard. Each was distinctly different as the soils went from slate to granite to loess. It was a brilliant demonstration of the critical importance of soil and sun in the more northerly climates.
The vineyards have been here for centuries. Once the church owned much of the land; the Cistercians in particular had vast estates. Kloster Eberbach in Rheingau was the centre of a huge agricultural enterprise, with the largest medieval wine estate. Founded by Bernard of Clairvaux, in 1136, it continues to produce wine, although today it is the property of the state of Hesse. The historic monastery is worth a visit.
The wines of Germany are unique. Fond as I am of Austrian, Alsatian and Australian Riesling, none has the precision, refinement or delicate complexity of great German Riesling.
German wine has gone through a quiet revolution over the past two decades. A new generation of winemakers produces wines made in the Trocken style – dry, or off-dry, although a little residual sugar is essential to counteract the bracing acidity. Germany produces plenty of other good white wines and some impressive Pinot Noir, known as Spätburgunder, but Riesling remains the king and is planted in almost all the best sites.
German wine law has always been mysterious. But now the VDP, a group of about 200 elite estates, has adopted a pyramid system of classification, similar to that of Burgundy. At the base of the pyramid are Gutswein, the equivalent of Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc in Burgundy. The next level is Ortswein, which equates to Villages wine. The two top levels are Erste Gewachs and Grosse Gewachs, similar to Premier and Grand Cru in Burgundy. Members must adhere to these categories.
If all of this seems confusing, I recommend seeking out any German Riesling with the word Trocken on the front label – you will be in for a treat. Names such as Willi Haag, von Winning, Breuer, Geil and Wagner-Stempel are worth looking out for.
This week’s wines include the Carl Ehrhard Orange Label Riesling, from Rüdesheim in the Rheingau. Moving up in price and quality, the father-and-son team at Emrich Schönleber in the Nahe region have built up a reputation as one of Germany’s finest producers (the top wines are superb but everything here is utterly reliable). I have featured it before, but their Riesling showed wonderfully at a tasting with the Cork & Bottle wine club in Cork last week, so I thought it deserved another mention. At a higher level still is the Künstler Stielweg (or steep way), a single vineyard wine from the Rheingau. It is expensive, but certainly worth the money.