Yesterday I attended one of the most exciting tastings I have yet to experience. It was the annual Weinforum Rheinhessen (or “Rheinhessen Wine Forum”) which, as you may guess from the title, is focused on showcasing the wines from the Rheinhessen region.
Sadly, I think the Rheinhessen region still suffers a bit from the infamous Liebfraumilch image (think Blue Nun). However, I’ve been living here now for almost two months and 1) I have yet to encounter the so-called “plonk” wine and 2) I am never, ever bored with the wide diversity of wines that come from this region. Every time I turn around, I am confronted with yet another grape crossing or a new take on an old favorite (such as a Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris cuvée) or a “Riesling horizontal” (if you will) demonstrating the grape’s expression from varying soils such as limestone, Rotliegend (compacted clay/sandstone with iron), loam…
Honestly, it must be fun to be a winemaker in Rheinhessen because these wineries are always coming up with new wines. Like with most German wine, the majority that is produced here is sold in the domestic market and I’ve been told that both the trade and consumers are always seeking “something new”, which leads to all this experimentation. As for yesterday’s tasting, I honestly felt like a kid in a candy shop—there was such a wide assortment of wines to try. In fact, I didn’t even taste any Riesling [gasp]. I had just returned from a Rheingau tasting the day before where the selection was mostly Riesling and honestly, I had enough (no offense towards Riesling, but I’m a person who likes variety and therefore was looking to try something different—fortunately, I came to the right place).
The tasting was split into two levels, with the red and sparkling wines on the ground floor, and the white and sweet wines upstairs. For the most part, it was a “help yourself” tasting, which meant you didn’t have to wait around for someone to give you a pour (somehow, I can’t ever imagine seeing the honor system employed at a consumer tasting in the U.S.). Also, all the wines were organized by category (generally by grape variety and sometimes by color or sweetness level).
I started upstairs with the (mainly) dry white wines, then finished downstairs with the reds and bubblies. Sadly, I didn’t manage to taste the sweet wines (I think my tasting limit is three hours, esp. since I didn’t want to find myself later that evening wandering aimlessly through Mainz in search of the Hauptbahnhof…)
So, here are my basic impressions, which I hope will give you a general understanding of what Rheinhessen wine is about:
- Burgunder, Burgunder: Germany really needs to start promoting its white Pinots (Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris). I’ve tasted plenty of both now, which are very common in Rheinhessen. A good Pinot Blanc or Weissburgunder is refreshing with lots of Mediterranean fruit―no, not tropical―I mean Mediterranean, e.g. mandarin, persimmon, mirabelle (yellow plum), etc. As for Pinot Gris or Grauburgunder, these wines tend to be a bit more earthy—I have found the best expressions to be those harvested at Spätlese level (which means more concentrated flavor) and fermented dry.
- Morio-Muskat Kabinett: This was my favorite white wine selection. Morio-Muskat (or Morio Muscat) is yet another adventurous German crossing supposedly between Silvaner and Pinot Blanc (though others claim it is Silvaner x Muscat). This particular wine from Weingut Kurt Erbeldinger u. Sohn definitely had the Muscat flavors matched perfectly with a slight sweetness.
- Even more white grapes: I repeat, the variety was endless. There were wines from more traditional varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (and of course, Riesling), to traditional German varieties such as Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau/Rivaner, as well as more obscure varieties like Gelber Muskateller, Kerner, Huxelrebe…
- I Heart St. Laurent: St. Laurent is a red grape variety originally from France (a member of the Pinot family―Pinot grapes in general do very well here) that I am consistently running into. I would say that it is becoming one of my favorite Rheinhessen red wines. The tasting featured two St. Laurent wines, both of which were delicious: fruity (I would go with raspberry tart) and good acidity, which makes St. Laurent wine very food-friendly.
- Don’t knock Dornfelder: I’ve encounted a few people who tend to make fun of this grape variety. Perhaps it’s plagued as being some cheap, entry-level red wine, but Dornfelder does have the ability to express itself quite nicely. It’s grown frequently in Rheinhessen and this tasting offered several nice examples. The best ones displayed cherry pie flavors, along with some cinnamon/nutmeg notes. In fact, I found the best Dornfelder (’09 Dornfelder Spätlese Trocken from Weingut Hans Hermann Buscher) to have an intense fruitiness that I’d normally find in a Red Zin.
- ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ (esp. in regards to engineering new grape varieties): Leave it to the country that brought you Audi, BMW and Mercedes to also deliver such intricacies as Müller-Thurgau, Dornfelder and Kerner. What has become obvious here is that Germans love creating new grape varieties. There seems to be this ongoing pursuit to breed the perfect match between fruit and climate, particularly lately in regards to red wines. At this tasting alone, I encountered yet two more red wine crosses: Cabernet Dorsa (Cabernet Sauvignon x Dornfelder) and Regent [(Silvaner x Müller-Thurgau) x Chambourcin]. Yes, things can get very technical indeed.
- Barrique vs. Holzfass: Since red wine for the most part is only a fairly recent phenomenon in Germany, most winemakers are just beginning to experiment with barrel-aging. The tasting made a good point of this by dividing the red wines into two categories: 1) Those that received no oak aging or were aged in traditional Holzfass (oak containers often significantly larger than the usual 225L barrels that are re-used year after year until kaputt) and 2) wines aged in traditional French oak barrels. It was interesting to see how the wines took to the barrique-aging. Overall, I found most of the red wines (namely Spätburgunder, aka. Pinot Noir) to be too delicate to withstand barrique-aging and generally found the extra oak contact to overpower the wine. However, the one red wine that seemed to benefit from being in barrique was indeed the Regent. It was an ’08 Regent QBA Trocken that I sampled from Weingut Bungert-Mauer—not bad at all. In fact, this particular wine reminded me very much of an ’09 Bordeaux barrel-sample: smooth finesse, full of black fruit flavor, but still young.
- Wine Royalty Everywhere: What colored this tasting even more was that everywhere you turned you were bound to spot a Wine Princess, or maybe even a Wine Queen. They were easy to distinguish by their golden crown imprinted with metallic grape vines. I really would love to have such a crown as a souvenir, but I don’t believe they’re for sale.