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Germany’s Top Dry Rieslings: Großes Gewächs

2012 September 27

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Top rated Riesling vineyard in Germany’s Pfalz region

As you might have gathered if you’ve followed my blog for awhile, I’m a lover of fine wines in general. I appreciate nearly everything that’s made with skill and passion, regardless of variety, region or style. I am particular fond of certain older regions and well made traditional style wines from those regions, but I also believe that innovation and exploration play a vital role in the development of my favorite beverage.

But even though I enjoy and appreciate virtually all types of fine wine, I have to admit there’s one type in particular that I don’t just enjoy and love — I revere. That wine is German Riesling.

Riesling is an incredibly versatile white grape, capable of being produced in virtually every form wine can take—from sparkling and very dry, to off-dry and very sweet. Grown in ideal locations, like Germany’s cool climate hillside vineyards, where the grape has been cultivated for over 600 years, Riesling also beautifully expresses the unique character of the site in which it is nurtured. In this way, it has transparency and can convey a pure expression of place, soil, sun exposure and climate—those multitude of factors that give a wine that sense of what the French call “terroir.” For me, the red grape counterpart of Riesling in this regard is Pinot Noir, especially in its ancestral home, Burgundy, where it has been grown and studied for centuries as the Germans have done with their Riesling.

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Nearly ripe Riesling grapes

Since I’ve admitted I revere German Riesling, you can imagine how thrilled I was to have the chance to spend several days last month exploring some of Germany’s terroirs and comparing side by side the latest vintage of Rieslings from many of the country’s greatest vineyards. My trip was organized by the German Wine Institute for a group of about 17 wine, food and travel writers from all over the world.

In future posts, I will go into more detail about some of the producers and regions we visited. In this first post on the trip, I want to report what I learned about Germany’s unique national organization of leading producers—the VDP. I also want to share with you my new found appreciation of dry German Riesling—the style that’s currently most popular in Germany itself.

First, the VDP. This is an organization that is now over 100 years old, having been launched in 1910 when winemakers’ associations from four of Germany’s wine regions joined together to promote what were then called “natural” wines—wines made from particular vineyards and/or regions that were not blended together, and that were made without added sugar (a process commonly known as chaptalization).

VDP stands for Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, which translates as Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates. Prädikat is an umbrella term used to denote the highest category of quality wines produced.

The membership of the VDP currently stands at 197 wineries or wine estates, representing all of Germany’s winegrowing regions. In this respect, the organization is unique as compared to all the quality oriented winery associations and quality classifications elsewhere, in that it is not simply limited to one region—like St. Emilion’s recent reclassification in Bordeaux, or Burgundy’s vineyard classifications. Instead, it is nationwide.

What is also fascinating to me is that the VDP has, in a process that has literally taken over 100 years, tried to merge the Bordeaux method of classification with that of Burgundy. In Bordeaux, the classifications within each commune of Bordeaux are based on designating the top estates, regardless of their vineyard holdings. In Burgundy, by contrast, it’s the vineyards that are classified, regardless of which producer owns them, or pieces of them. Burgundy’s vineyards are classified into four tiers: grand cru (the top designation), premier cru, village level or simply as generic Burgundy.

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VDP President Steffen Christmann meeting with our group of writers

The VDP essentially identifies top producers from each growing region by admitting to membership only those producers that it deems to meet certain criteria—which include maintaining lower yields and practicing sustainable viticulture. The vineyards in each region are then separately classified, much like those of Burgundy, by looking at a number of factors, including historical designations of superior vineyards, the vineyard’s hillside location and exposition, and whether wines of that vineyard are ageworthy and consistently expressive of distinctive traits and characteristics.

Under the latest version of the VDP’s governing charter, adopted in January of this year and effective for the current vintage, vineyards in most of the wine growing regions represented within the VDP are designated by four tiers: grosse lage (the top level, comparable to Burgundy’s grand cru), erste lage (the equivalent of Burgundy’s premier cru), ortswein (equivalent to Burgundy’s villages) and gutswein (basically regional wine). Where a vineyard is owned by more than one producer, the vineyard classifications are carried out by the regional associations. Instead of these four tiers, regions can opt for a three-tier system where the top tier is erste lage. This is the option chosen by Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheinhessen. The Rheingau region is still phasing in the four-tier system.

VDP members wines are distinguishable by a seal showing an eagle with an inverted triangle of grapes on its chest. Wines from vineyards designated as Erste Lage also display a logo consisting of a numeral one that partly frames a cluster of grapes similar to that on the eagle’s chest.

To give you some sense of the amount of wine produced by VDP members, and the relative numbers of vineyards designated as top tier, here are a few statistics. The VDP’s 197 member estates harvest about 2.6% of Germany’s total annual crop, cultivate about 5% of the country’s total vineyard area and account for more than 8% of German wine sales. While only 22% of Germany’s vineyards are planted to Riesling, 55% of the VDP members’ vineyards consist of Riesling, giving them 7% of the Riesling vineyards planted worldwide. Wines from VDP-classified Erste Lage, the top vineyard locations, amount to a mere 3.2% of VDP estates’ production.

In an effort to simplify somewhat the labeling of German wines, which can be very intimidating to consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere, the VDP has also sought to refine the use of terms that can get confusing. For example, “trocken” is supposed to mean a dry wine, but because Germans, who buy the vast majority of all German wine produced, mainly want dry wines, trocken often gets put on labels even where it is redundant or confusing. Wines that are actually sweet, like auslesen and trockenbeerenauslen, often have “trocken” appended to their name. This really makes no sense, and should, in my view, be banned as a practice. And there should also be no need to identify a wine that is normally dry, like Pinot Noir, as a “trocken,” but most bottlings of Spätburgunder (the German name for Pinot Noir) that I saw on this trip sported the totally redundant “trocken” designation.

To clearly indicate what the VDP considers the very best dry wines from the top vineyard sites in each region, they have adopted a system by which a dry wine from a VDP grosse lage vineyard may be designated as Großes Gewächs. Wines so designated have to be from one of the specific traditional grape varieties ruled as permissible for that region. The grapes for these wines must also be selectively hand harvested, the yields must be limited (to a max of 50 hectoliters per hectare), and the grapes used must be at least ripe enough to qualify for Spätlese status. (Note: the top level of dry wines for VDP members in the Rheingau region is designated as Erstes Gewächs, not Großes Gewächs.)

I will go into more aspects of German wine labeling and the different categories of non-dry wines in future posts. The focus of the remainder of this post is on these top level dry wines, the Großes Gewächs.

On our first full day in Germany, our group had the opportunity to participate in the second day of an annual two-day “preview” tasting, primarily for media and major wine merchants, of the 2011 Großes Gewächs that were to be released starting September 1 of this year. This event, which takes place in a large, modern facility in Wiesbaden, is known as Vorpremiere Wiesbaden.

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RJ at Vorpremiere Tasting

In a full day of tasting, starting about 9 am and ending around 5:30 pm, I managed to taste 114 Rieslings, almost all of them Großes Gewächs (or, in the case of wines from the Rheingau, Erstes Gewächs). I also tasted 19 Pinot Noirs from noted producers which I’ll report on separately.

This was certainly the largest number of high quality dry German Rieslings I’ve ever sampled at one tasting, and the experience, coupled with further tastings, food pairings, winery visits and discussions throughout the week, gave me a lot to think about.

Up until this trip, I have tended to avoid dry Rieslings in my purchasing decisions, and have greatly favored German Rieslings with some level of sweetness, balanced by the grape’s remarkable and persistent acidity. I have simply found Rieslings with some sweetness to be round and very food friendly, with buoyance provided by their underlying acidity. Few other whites – with the exception of off-dry Chenin Blancs from France’s Loire Valley – tend to have that combination of sweetness, complexity and good acidity. That combo, for me, makes them wonderful to pair with Asian food, somewhat spicy food of all kinds, and my summer staple, heirloom tomatoes. I find that dry Rieslings simply don’t embrace and surround the acidity of tomatoes in the harmonious way that sweet Rieslings do.

What I came to realize during this trip, however, is that dry Rieslings from Germany do possess the same wonderful minerality—and, from top sites, the expressive sense of place–as the sweeter wines. And though they may not pair so well with the kinds of foods I’m used to matching with sweeter wines, they go perfectly well with other dishes—like chicken, seafood, and straightforward vegetable dishes—just like other great dry white wines (e.g., Chablis, Muscadet, dry Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blanc). So rather than discriminating against dry Rieslings because they are not my beloved sweet German Rieslings, I learned on this trip that they could be high quality additions to my arsenal of dry white wines for food pairings. And, like most German wines, the dry Rieslings continue to be excellent values, especially when considering their high quality level.

The 2011 vintage in Germany was a balanced, productive vintage, with more normal yields than the previous two vintages, and without the searing acidities of 2010. It was also not as super ripe as 2009. I found many fine examples in this tasting, as well as a number of disappointing wines given the high level of the Großes Gewächs classification. Some of the latter probably didn’t perform well because they were too recently bottled, and were therefore either somewhat shut down or showing a lot of reduction (i.e., sulfur notes) on the nose and/or palate.

The tasting format was an unusual one for me. The wines were arranged on multipage listings in order by region, town and vineyard, generally in flights of five or six wines each. Those of us who were tasting stationed ourselves with our six glasses and spit bucket in one of two large rooms. To obtain the wines, you had to fill out a little order slip, indicating either the flight you were ordering, or the individual wines, if you weren’t ordering an entire flight. Volunteers wearing black T-shirts would pick up your slip and then return, several minutes later, with a carrier containing bottles from the flight or flights you had ordered from. They would then pour your samples from those bottles–up to the six glasses we each had in front of us. After one had worked through that flight, you would order another, and so on.

We arrived at the tasting a little after 9 am, at which point I started in on the Grosses Gewächs from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, which were organized into six flights, starting with two wines from the town of Kanzem. After those, I tasted the two flights of wines from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer that were offered that were from Erste Lage sites, but whose sweetness exceeded the maximum permitted for “dry” wines designated as Grosses Gewächs.

At about 11:30, the vice president of the VDP. Armin Diel of Schlossgut Diel, addressed us and took questions, including a couple of mine.
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Armin Diel speaking to us at the Vorpremiere tasting

I then started through the seven flights of Erstes Gewächs from the Rheingau before breaking for the lunch, which was offered at the Hotel Nassauer Hof across the street. I rushed through that to get back to continue tasting, completing the Rheingau flights and then moving on through the five flights of Nahe Grosses Gewächs. I’d hoped to get to Rieslings from Rheinhessen, but was really suffering high acid wine palate fatigue by that point, so switched to a selective tasting of what I figured were the best of the Spätburgunders being poured, from nine notable producers, before my group left at about 5:30.

Also available were Rieslings from Pfalz, which I passed on since I knew we were going to be spending a few days tasting in that region. I also missed out on Rieslings from Franken, Baden and Württemberg, as well as a handful from Saale-Unstrut and Mittelrhein. I never intended to get to any of the Silvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris or Lemberger Grosses Gewächs that were poured.

Of the Rieslings, the top producers at this event for me, with scores of 91 points or higher on at least one wine, were August Eser, Domdechant Werner, Dönnhoff, Dr. Loosen, Friedrich Fendel, George Müller Stiftung, Grans-Fassian, Künstler, Prinz, Prinz von Hessen, S.A. Prüm, Schloss Schönborn and Wegeler.

The best 2011 Rieslings for me at this tasting, wines that I rated 91 points or higher, were, by region, as follows:

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
Grans-Fassian Trittenheimer Apotheke Großes Gewächs – 91 pts
Grans-Fassian Dhroner Hofberger Großes Gewächs – 92 pts
Dr. Loosen Graacher Himmelreich Großes Gewächs – 91 pts
Dr. Loosen Erdener Treppchen Großes Gewächs – 91+ pts
S.A. Prüm Bernkasteler Lay Großes Gewächs – 91+ pts
S.A. Prüm Graacher Domprobst Großes Gewächs – 91+ pts
S.A. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr “Langenberg” Großes Gewächs – 92 pts
Wegeler Bernkasteler Doctor Großes Gewächs – 92 pts

Nahe
Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Großes Gewächs – 91 pts

Rheingau
August Eser Oestricher Lenchen Erstes Gewächs – 91 pts
Domdechant Werner Hochheimer Domdechaney Erstes Gewächs – 91+ pts
Künstler Hochheimer Hölle Erstes Gewächs – 91 pts
Friedrich Fendel Rüdesheimer Klosterlay Erstes Gewächs – 91 pts
Georg Müller Stiftung Hattenheimer Schützenhaus Erstes Gewächs – 91+ pts
Prinz Hallgartener Jungfer Erstes Gewächs – 91 pts
Prinz von Hessen Winkeler Jesuitengarten Erstes Gewächs – 91+ pts
Schloss Schönborn Rüdesheimer Berg Schloßberg Erstes Gewächs – 91+ pts
Wegeler Rüdesheimer Berg Schloßberg Erstes Gewächs – 92 pts

For my complete tasting notes on all the Rieslings tasted and brief profiles on each of the producers listed above, see below.

2012 VDP VORPREMIER: 2011 GROßES GEWÄCHS RIESLINGS – Kurhaus, Wisesbaden, Germany (8/28/2012)

August Eser

This family estate has been producing wine since 1759. They’ve been a VDP member since 1971. Currently led by 10th generation owner/manager Desiree Eser, they own 25 acres of vineyards in 17 sites, scattered amongst eight villages. Their vineyards are planted 90% to Riesling and 10% to Pinot Noir. This 2011 from the Lenchen Vineyard in Oestrich was quite good.

August Kesseler

Balthasar Ress

Baron Knyphausen

Barth

Clemens Busch

Crusius

Detlev Ritter und Edler von Oetinger

Diefenhardt

Domdechant Werner

Dr. Franz Werner was the dean (“domdechant”) of the Mainz Cathedral. His father purchased this estate in Hocheim from Count York in 1780. Seven generations later it is owned by Dr. Franz Werner Michel. They own 33 acres of vines, all but 2% of which are Riesling (the remaining portion is planted to Pinot Noir). Their specialties are the dry Erstes Gewächs and luscious Auslesen. They’re a longtime member of VDP, since 1927.

Dönnhoff

Dönnhoff is a fabulous producer, of course. The family’s estate has been based in the middle Nahe for over 250 years. They’ve been led by Helmut Dönnhoff for 40 years. They own 62 acres of vines in eight erste lagen. Riesling accounts for 80% of the plantings; the remainder are Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The Hermannshöhle bottling was the standout for me in this lineup. Dönnhoff joined the VDP in 1991.

Dr. Loosen

The Dr. Loosen estate has been in the hands of the same family for over 200 years, and has been run by Ernst Loosen since 1988. Their 54 acres include some ungrafted 60- to 100-year-old vines in some of the Mosel’s most famous vineyards. All but 2% of their vines are Riesling, with the remainder being Pinot Blanc vines. All six of Dr. Loosen’s principal sites were designated as top sites in the royal Prussian vineyard classification of 1868, and the estate has followed that classification since 1988, permitting only its Rieslings from those classified sites to bear an individual site name. The best of this strong lineup for me were the Erdener Treppchen and Graacher Himmelreich.

Emrich-Schönleber

Friedrich Fendel

The Fendel-Hetzert family started growing grapes over 500 years ago. They have been based since 1860 in the Rheingau town of Rüdesheim. Brothers Walter and Paul-Peter Hetzert have jointly run the estate, which owns 31 acres of vineyards, since 1990. Most of their vineyards, 85%, are planted to Riesling, with 12% Pinot Noir and 3% Pinot Blanc. They’ve been a member of VDP since 2000.

Fritz Allendorf

Fritz Haag

Georg Müller Stiftung

Georg Müller started this estate, which was a founding member of the VDP, in the late 1800s. In 1913 he donated it to his hometown of Hattenheim, stipulating that the profits should support the town’s needy, at which point it became Georg Müller Stiftung. When Hattenheim was incorporated into the municipality of Eltville am Rhein in 1972, Eltville became the owner. Eltville decided to privatize it in 2003, and Peter Winter, then board chair of WIV (Germany’s largest wine marketing company), won the sales contract. The estate’s 32 acres are planted 80% to Riesling, 15% to Pinot Noir and Frühburgunder (an early ripening variant of Pinot Noir), with some Auxerrois, Ehrenfelser and Müller-Thurgau. The estate’s winemaker, Alf Ewald, was named “young vintner of the year” in 2003. The standout in this 2011 lineup was from Hattenheim’s Schützenhaus Vineyard.

Graf von Kanitz

Grans-Fassian

This estate has been family owned since 1624. The current owner is Gerhard Grans. Their 23.5 acres of vineyards, on steep slopes along the Mosel, are planted 88% to Riesling, 10% Pinot Blanc and 2% Pinot Gris. They have been a VDP member since 2001. I thought this lineup of wines was among the strongest of the entire tasting, with the Dhroner Hofberger being one of the best, for me, at this event.

Gut Hermannsberg

Heymann-Löwenstein

Jakob Jung

Joachim Flick

Johannishof (H.H. Eser)

Karthäuserhof

Kloster Eberbach

Kruger-Rumpf

Künstler

The Künstlers started growing grapes and making wine in 1648 in Southern Moravia (now Czech Republic). Franz Künstler purchased vineyards on the banks of the Main River in Hochheim after World War II. The estate is now run by Gunter Künstler and comprises 74 acres, of which about 75% qualify as Erstes Gewächs. The vineyards are planted 75% to Riesling, as well as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Silvaner. The wines from two of their Erstes Gewächs, Hölle in Hochheim and Berg Rottland in Rüdesheim, were particularly good. The Künstlers joined the VDP in 1994.

Prinz

Prinz, owned by Fred and Sabine Prinz, has been a favorite producer of mine for several years now, thanks to their tasty wines and very reasonable prices. They own 16.5 acres, planted mainly to Riesling, with 7% Pinot Noir and 3% Sauvignon Blanc. They strive for gentle handling of the grapes and age the wines on their fine lees. Prinz has been a VDP member since 2005.

Prinz von Hessen

This estate was acquired by Philipp Landgraf von Hessen for the Hessian House Foundation in 1957. It used to be known as Weingut Landgräflich Hessisches. It owns 84 acres of vineyards, planted 95% to Riesling, 3% to Pinot Blanc and Merlot, and 2% to Pinot Noir. It has been a VDP member since 1969 and is currently run by Donatus Prince of Hesse and his director, Dr. Clemens Kiefer. In the classification of Rheingau vineyards in 1999, about 70% of the estate’s plantings were classified as Erstes Gewächs. They are also known for delicious sweet wines from their top Rheingau vineyards.

Prinz zu Salm-Dalberg

Prüm (S.A.)

There is evidence of Prüm family members growing vines and making wine in the Mosel starting in 1156. This particular Prüm family estate dates to the mid-1800s when it was founded by Mathias Prüm, who named it for his father, Sebastian Alois Prüm. His descendant Raimund Prüm is the owner and manager today. The estate, which was a VDP founding member, now owns 42 acres planted entirely to Riesling in 11 of the Mosel’s Erse Lagen. This was another of the great lineups of the tasting, with the Wehlener Sonnenuhr “Langenberg” being one of my favorite wines of the day.

Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt

Reinhold Haart

Robert Weil

Schäfer-Fröhlich

Schloss Lieser

Schloss Reinhartshausen

Schloss Schönborn

Schloss Schönborn is another of VDP’s founding members. The estate claims over 660 years of vintage experience. It owns 124 acres, including the four Erste Gewächse represented in this tasting. Its vineyards are planted 91% to Riesling, 6% to Pinot Noir and 3% to Pinot Blanc. The current owner is Paul Graf von Schönborn. I have many of their luscious sweet wines in my cellar.

Schloss Vollrads

Schlossgut Diel

Spreitzer

St. Urbans-Hof

Toni Jost

Van Volxem

von Mumm

von Othegraven

Wegeler

Geheimrat J. Wegeler’s Rheingau estate was a VDP founding member and currently owns 119 acres there, all planted to Riesling. It is owned by the Wegeler-Drieseberg family. In 1900 the estate acquired a piece of the famous Bernkasteler Doctor site in the Mosel, and two years later they founded an estate in the Mosel, which now owns 35 acres in prime sites. The Mosel-based estate became a VDP member in 1999. This was another of the tasting’s strongest lineups, with the Rüdesheimer Berg Schloßberg being one of my favorite wines of the day.

Zilliken (Forstmeister Geltz)

6 Responses leave one →
  1. September 29, 2012

    Excellent article. More on Germany’s Grosses Gewaechs wines and the VDP and its new classification of German winers here http://schiller-wine.blogspot.com/2012/07/vdp-refines-its-classification-system.html on schiller-wine

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      September 29, 2012

      Christian,
      Thank you for the kind comment. Thanks too for the link to your post. There’s some very good info there.
      warm regards,
      Richard

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