For the past couple of years I’ve been attending Prowein, the international wine fair held in Düsseldorf each March. It’s a monstrous affair, with almost 7,000 exhibitors from around the world hawking their wines, sakes, ciders, and spirits. As a counterpoint and respite to the vast scale of the show, my wife and I have been heading south afterward to visit the vineyards of Germany. This year we zeroed in on the Rheingau.
The Mosel, which we visited the previous year, tends to get more attention in the U.S. market. It’s larger, with 8,770 hectares of vines scattered along almost 250km of the twisting and meandering river. The Rheingau is just over 1/3 that size, and lies along a fairly straight line of river where the Rhine takes a break from its northward march to the Netherlands and runs east to west. The region’s vineyards all lie on the northern bank, reaching back just a few kilometers into the hills, once again offering a contrast to the Mosel, where vineyards enjoy all sorts of facings on both sides of the river.
While the Mosel does have more than twice the amount of Riesling vineyards than the Rheingau, the latter is more acutely fixated on the variety. It makes up more than 3/4s of plantings there, with Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) constituting much of the rest. Schloss Johannisberg set that trend for Rheingau, and indeed for the rest of Germany, in 1720, by planting almost 300,000 Riesling vines. The grape’s success there led rulers of several German regions to issue decrees favoring Riesling later in the century.
If the Mosel’s Riesling’s can be said to have a delicacy at their base, the Rheingau’s wines come from a center point of density, even power, in the context of a cooler climate area. With somewhat warmer growing conditions, the Rheingau typically gets more ripeness, and winemakers there often lean toward a drier style -- off-dry Spätlese and Kabinett wines are the exception, a corner of most producers’ portfolios rather than the core.
We tasted great wines from most of the Rheingau region, stretching from some remarkable wines from Eva Fricke’s vineyards in Lorch, the westernmost village in the Rheingau, to Eltville am Rhein, getting fairly close to Wiesbaden. But three vineyards popped up frequently in our tasting: Berg Schlossberg, Berg Roseneck, and Berg Rottland. All three are designated Grosse Lagen by the VDP -- that organization’s top category. As the names suggest, the three vineyards are neighbors, all clustered on the steep slopes of the corner where the river turns again north again.
Berg Schlossberg is the westernmost, situated above the ruined castle that gives it its name. At a 70% grade, it’s the steepest vineyard in the Rheingau (I can attest to the steepness of all three vineyards, as I went for a run through them one morning.) The slate soils retain some warmth, adding to the ripeness and power of the wines by prolonging ripening into the evening. Berg Roseneck lies up the slope a bit and slightly to the east; its soils are deeper, with more clay. The vineyards also flatten out to a modest 33% grade as one moves further away from Berg Schlossberg. Berg Rottland stretches from Roseneck to the town of Rüdesheim, and once again reaches down to the river. It maintains that 33% slope, but the soils change once more, with slate and quartzite intermixed with loess and clay; overall the soils are much more diverse than in the other two.
Looking over my tasting notes, it seems one moves from more intense and mineral expressions to a fruitier character as one moves across the three lage, though that balance may change as the wines age. On that note, one big takeaway from the trip was how much Rheingau Riesling profits from time in the cellar (those of the Mosel do, too). Even just a few years brought a generosity to wines whose younger versions seemed austere. Some may last for decades, but even having the patience to wait just three or five years could make a great difference in how much pleasure these wines can bring.
Leitz Berg Schlossberg Riesling 2016 GG. An intense and focused wine, but not tight or closed. Shows a flinty mineral character alongside quince and apricot notes. Light- to -medium-bodied, with good length.
Wegeler Berg Schlossberg Riesling 2016. Focused, and perhaps a bit leaner on the palate than some Schlossberg wines, but not suffering for it. Complex and generous, showing notes of spice, quince, and Asian pear. Shows lots of finesse and silkiness on the palate, with great length.
Allendorf Berg Roseneck Riesling 2017. Exuberant and complex, with a mix of citrus and stone fruits accompanied by spice and ginger. Medium-bodied and focused, with superb length. One of my favorite wines of the trip.
Leitz Berg Roseneck Riesling 2016. Leitz’s portion of Berg Roseneck is one of the cooler, more difficult parts of the cru, but yields pleasurable wines nonetheless. The 2016 shows peach and apricot notes, with some mineral notes. It has a lighter, pearly texture, with good length.
Balthasar Ress Berg Rottland Riesling 2017. Still quite closed and tight, with a hint of reduction. Shows citrus and spice notes, especially on the finish. While not so generous now, it should open up. The 2015, below, was drinking much better.
Balthasar Ress Berg Rottland Riesling 2015. Very aromatic, in contrast to the 2017. Floral, with exotic spice, melon, and marzipan notes. Juicy and fresh, with good length.
Leitz Berg Rottland 2016. Fruity and light, with peach, tangerine, and mandarin notes. Shows some gentle sweetness and good length.
Breuer Berg Rottland Riesling 2017. Just released when tasted, and a little tight. An intense base of flinty minerality supports apricot and spice touches. Light, but with a firm, beeswaxy texture. Good length.
Wegeler Berg Rottland Riesling Spätlese 2016. A bit of an outlier, but only because this isn’t a trocken, dry wine. The hint of sugar squeezes a lot of fruit and perfume out of the wine, ranging from simple citrus notes to touches of cantaloupe, quince, and even lychee. There are also hints of spice and mineral. The sweetness is gentle and well-balanced, too.