Germany has a viticultural history which stretches back over 2,000 years. They currently have 102,000 ha of vineyards. There are 13 German wine growing regions but the current emphasis in marketing terms centres around two grape varieties, Riesling and Pinot Noir (know in Germany as Spätburgunder). Plantings of white grapes such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are growing in Germany but it is also getting “redder”. In the 1980’s 11.4% of the vineyard area were planted with red grapes, by 2015 that figures had risen to 35%.
Globally, Germany is the largest producer by far of wines made from the Riesling grape and 65% of all grapes planted in Germany are white.
German wines are seeing a small revival at the moment, the UK on trade is re-discovering German Riesling and German Pinot Noir is also gaining traction. It is now unusual for a top restaurant not to have a German wine on its list. Importers too are taking German wine a little more seriously with many of them extending their lists and some new importers looking at Germany for the first time to revise and grow their German offering.
German wine is now starting to be an important player in the on-trade due mainly to increased interest from Sommeliers in trips to Germany. You might not guess it, but according to the German Wine Institute, Germany is the world’s third largest producer of Pinot Noir. Since Pinot Noir loves warm spots in cooler climates, Germany is eminently suited to growing it and there are delicious wines in every region. Production costs and strong domestic demand spell high prices, but there are bargains to be found.
More and more wines from young, ambitious producers who have yet to make their name are being shipped from Germany’s borders, which should be well in reach of a clued-up independent merchants.
I recently visited Rheinhessen just as the 2018 harvest was starting. After a warm spring and a very sunny mid-summer, the 2018 German grape harvest began in August. Previous early harvests in Germany occurred in 2014, 2011 and 2007.
As a judge at Mundus Vini, one of Germany’s top international wine competitions, the four days in Pfalz judging at the summer edition of the 23rd Grand International Wine Awards was an interesting experience. 4,300 wines from all over the world were judged by an international panel of 170 judges. The competition takes place twice a year in Neustadt am der Weinstrasse and the programme includes trips to key German wine regions.
This year, our first port of call was Rheinhessen. With 26,500 hectares under vine Rheinhessen has approximately 2,000 wines estates and is the largest wine growing region in Germany. Rheinhessen to the left of the Rhine centres around the cities of Mainz, Worms and Bingen. This is one of Germany’s most exciting wine regions and the young innovative producers working in the region are certainly drawing more recognition for their wines.
People like Jochen Dreissigacker whose winery we visited have brought an enormous qualitative leap to the region’s wines.
When the Roman’s came to Mainz 2,000 years ago they built their villas on the warm southern cliffs and started planting grapes. In Medieval times, the region’s numerous cloisters became engines for the region’s wine culture. Riesling was first mentioned in 1490; in March 1780 the first official demarcation of terroir in wine history was made in the region of Rheinhessen. The new law specified that only Riesling and Traminer could be planted.
Napoleon occupied the region from 1797 so Rheinhessen thus became part of France, this proved to be of benefit to the German wine industry as the French introduced enormous improvements. In 1816 the area between the cities Mainz, Worms and Bingen was officially named “Rheinhessen” and was placed under the patronage of the Grand Duke of Hesse. As a result, 1816 is considered to be the year of the region’s official birth.
Large winemaking estates then formed along the Rhine as the region’s importance grew. Expansion continued during the 20th century especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s in terms of thegrowthofareasundervine. By the year 2000 a major redgrape boom was beginning, as plantings of red grape varities such as Dornfelder, Portugieser and Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) increased. The region’s key white grapes also expanded to include Riesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Rheinhessen’s classic variety, Silvaner. Today,70% of Rheinhessen’s vineyards(26,500ha)are planted with white grape varieties. Muller Thurgau is the most widely planted grape, followed by Riesling and then Silvaner.
Which brings me to Riesling, the second most planted grape in Rheinhessen but the most important in terms of the focus for many of the region’s winegrowers. Riesling is a wonder of a vine, like Cabernet Sauvignon it preserves its identity no matter where it is grown. Riesling also has enormous ageing potential, in Germany it is the lynchpin of their wine industry. Riesling is suited to Germany’s cold climate, mainly because Riesling’s wood is so strong, it can survive at low temperatures.
Riesling is a noble grape variety, it is capable of many styles. It can be made in a light tangy style, a richer dry petrolly style or as an ultra sweet botrytis style. Each is valid in its own terms and very great wines exist within each style profile. The grape produces a wonderful balance of fruit and acidity and most Rieslings tend to be low in alcohol.
Soil plays a major part in German wines. The slate on the Mosel’s steep slopes produces delicious slate flavours with fruity acidity. The clay red soil in the Rheinhessen vineyards gives extra richness. The volcanic soil in the Pfalz produces rounded wines with lower acidity. The heavy Rheingau soil, on slopes overlooking the Rhein and protected from winds by the hills, produces white wines with a steely acidity. Riesling’s power lies in its natural acidity which allows its wine to age for an extended time. No other variety reflects the character of the soil it is grown on so expressively.
At the Dreissigacker Estate the vines are grown on gentle slopes on a mostly clay based foundation. The estate dates back to the 18th century and originally involved a wide range of agricultural products. The family focus on wine began in the 20th century during the 1950’s when Philipp Dreissigacker took over the business. Today his son Jochen who began running the estate in 2001, is one of Rheinhessen’s best know winemakers and is the golden boy of the restaurant scene with 70% of the Estate’s wines sold in restaurants.
Riesling is a key grape variety for Jochen Dreissigacker, with a focus on quality he prefers to make his wines from older sites where the average age of the vine is between 30 and 55 years. The heavy clay soil on the undulating hills have a low acid level. Jochen’s aim is to produce a more Burgundian style of Riesling. Parts of his estate also contains crushed limestone and most of the vineyards are south facing. Jochen told us that the minerality and texture found in his wines comes from a mix of soil types and blended styles.
Another key factor in terms of the quality of his wine are his farming techniques. Utilising a mix of machine and hand harvesting he is very careful in terms of the handling of his grapes. Everything to avoid any possibility of oxidization. He also individually ferments in 35 different small tanks. This allows him to mix soil types and styles into the final blend.
His flagship wines are his Single Estate Rieslings, the winery in Bechtheim where the Dreissigacker Estate is ultra modern. Enormous investment is obvious, this brand new state of the art winery sits in the middle of a sea of vines and windmills, the enormous financial investment is very obvious.
From the 2010 vintage onwards, Jochen’s wines all have organic certification. He reduced the yields in the vineyard by creating a much healthier soil which in turn was lower in vigour. He told us ‘The path to any truly great wine is to limit the amount of grapes that are allowed to ripen’ As expected of an organic estate, his approach in the cellar is as natural as possible, using only wild yeasts to ferment the must and harvesting only fully ripe grapes. His wines, with the exception of the Auslese, are all fermented to full dryness.
We tasted his three of his single estate Rieslings; the 2011 Kirchspiel, 2013 Geyersberg and 2015 Rosengarten. All three were sublime, edgy, with a glorious minerality and clean pure fruit. This was one of the finest expressions of the Riesling grape I have ever tried. Bone dry with a subtle mineral character and wonderfully expressive citrus fruit flavours that was more lime than lemon, each wine had a hint of honey, and held a clear expression of the soil the grapes were grown on. The Rosengarten was the most ripe and mouth filling, the Kirchspiel the most elegant. The Geyersberg showed the most minerality and like one’s children, it would be hard to pick a favourite.
Dreissigacker’s wines are distributed in the UK by Liberty Wines.