Lesson 19 – Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen
Hello again everyone. Now that we got the basics of German wine and wine law out of the way, let’s get into the the wine-growing regions. To help out with this I need to introduce you to a few more terms. While we talked about how German wine isn’t ranked in quality by an appellation system, they do have geographical designations. Just like most other countries, their system has increasing grades of specificity. However, this does not guarantee quality. And, in many cases, quality is measured by sweetness, or ripeness level of the grape at harvest.
OK, so how is this done? First there are 13 main wine-growing regions. Last week I gave you a list of all of them. To refresh your memory here it is again:
- Franconia (Franken)
- Hessische Bergstraße
- Mosel (previously known as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer)
- Palatinate (Pfalz)
- Saxony (Sachsen)
I’ve highlighted the ones we are covering today in BOLD. Once you’ve established the region, then you need to figure out the district or appellation. This is known as the Bereich.
Next is the sub-appellation known as the Grosslage. The term means “collective site.” This is a group of growers under a collective in a specific region. Some are better than others. Same for a Bereich or major Region.
The last term to cover is Einzellage. This is a single-vinyard wine area. Prior to 1971 there were 30,000 of these Einzellagen. Individual plots of land. Similar to the the “climates” of Burgundy, however they didn’t denote quality either. In 1971 Germany passed a law that reduced this number to 2,600. The thinking was that 30,000 was just too many to keep track of. With this new law, these vineyards had to be at least 5 hectares (12.5 acres) in size. As a result many of the original 30,000 merged into each other to create the 2,600.
To add to the confusion, the current law does not require the term Grosslage to be on the label. So if you do not know the difference between the Grosslage or Einzellage you could end up with a really great wine (if the Einzellage is great) or a more generic wine from a Grosslage.
OK with that out of the way, let’s start with Mosel. Mosel used to be called Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. However in 2007 it was changed to Mosel since it was considered a more consumer-friendly name. This area runs along the Mosel river from the border of France and Luxembourg to the city of Kolbenz. The map below shows all the German wine regions. #6 is Mosel.
Map of the wine regions in Germany. Created with TheGimp based on Image:Deutschland_topo.png by Wikipedia User de:Benutzer:Captain_Blood.
Just like much of Germany, wine grapes this far north has difficulty ripening depending on the grape, climate, elevation, and aspect. Riesling is the dominant grape here, however it needs the steep hills of the area to really shine. The hills the vineyards are on can be as steep as 70 degrees making mechanical harvesting impossible. Therefore all the grapes are hand picked. This adds to the cost of the wines from this area. In addition to the Mosel river, two tributaries called the Saar and Ruwer feed into the area. Hence the name Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.
The climate here has moderate rainfall, and the steep hills warm quickly to help in the ripening of the grapes. This continues even into late harvested grapes. The soil varies throughout the region. Depending on location it could be sandy, clay, limestone, alluvial, quartzite, or slate. For the results for Riesling, however, slate is preferred.
There are a total of six districts in Mosel. Within those districts there are 19 Grosslagen and 524 Einzellagen. Below is just the districts:
- Burg Cochem
- Ruwertal (Ruwer)
Of these we will concentrate on just three; Bernkastel, Ruwer, and Saar.
First is Bernkastel. This is sometimes called Mittelmosel (Middlemosel). As you might expect it’s pretty much in the middle of the Mosel region. Most of the quality wines from Mosel will come from here. One of the claims to fame of this region is what is known as “The Doctor” vineyard. This doesn’t refer to Dr. Loosen which is a popular and decent label from this district.
The brief story is that an Archbishop of Trier, Boemund II, was terminally ill in the 14th Century. As a last resort wine from this area was given to him because it was reputed to have healing powers. Well, the Archbishop drank some and recovered from his illness. He declared that the vineyard itself was the best doctor in Bernkastel, hence the name of the vineyard.
Of the Grosslagen to look out for here is a list:
- Badstube – home of the Doctor vineyard
Now remember, not every wine from these Grosslagen will be outstanding, however many good wines are made in these areas. Some will not have the Grosslage name on it, but will have the Einzellage instead. For Michelsberg you want to find wine that is from the areas around the town of Piesport.
Next is the Ruwer. This is a small area along the Ruwer river in the southern part of Mosel. In comparison to something we’ve covered before, the number of vineyards here are about half of one commune in the Côte d’Or. Wines from here can be tricky. Without the right set of conditions, they don’t live up to their full potential. For years with cool temperatures, the wines are too acidic. In warmer years they are considered some of Germany’s most delicate and gentle wines. There is only one Grosslage here, but it is rarely used.
Saar is the other area we will cover. The Saar river runs through this part on its way to the Mosel. Wines from here also need near-ideal conditions to be worth getting. Cooler years mean boring wine. Warmer years produce steely wines with mineral notes. There is also one Grosslage here; Scharzberg. The overall quality of the Grosslage is good enough that you will frequently see it.
Let’s move to the Rheingau. OK, not literally. Well, if you want to that’s cool with me. On the map above it is region #9. Here Riesling is King. Almost 80% of the plantings are Riesling. Situated along both the Rhein and Main rivers with Weisbaden in the middle, this part of Germany has some great conditions for Riesling. First of all, the climate is tempered by the rivers. In addition to that the Taunus mountains protect it from the cold. Almost all of the vineyards face south to get exceptional sunlight. The best parts have a quartzite and slate soil.
While Riesling is the most planted here, Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is the next most planted at around 12%. The one town here known for it is Assmannshausen. And the quality is very good too. However in recent years the grape has spread to other parts of the Rheingau.
Another thing to note here is the town of Johannisberg. This is where we get the term Johannisberg Riesling. The term was coined to help identify other grapes that contain the Riesling name as not being the “true” Riesling. It is in honor of the Schloss Johannisberg winery in the Rheingau. This winery has the oldest Riesling vineyard in the world.
Another claim to fame is this is the winery that is credited with discovering or inventing late-harvest wines. Back in the 18th Century the Abbot had to give the cellar master permission to harvest the grapes. One year that permission was delayed by 14 days. Once it was received and the grapes harvested, botrytis had set in and the grapes were given to the locals. They, in turn, produced what turned out to be some pretty good wine. From there, the winery produced ever later harvested wines.
Besides the sweet wines, the Rheingau is also known for dry wines. In fact, over 80% of the wine produced is dry. This dates back to 1983 when the Association of Charta Estates decided to revive the old style Rheingau dry wines. The Association produces wine according to a very stringent set of rules and inspection. Below is the list of criteria the wines must meet to carry the Charta symbol of a Romanesque double -arch on the label:
- 100% own-estate production
- 100% Riesling
- Grapes hand picked by tries (to hand pick the best grapes on multiple runs, or tries, through a vineyard)
- Minimum of 12% potential alcohol
- Maximum production of 50 hl/ha (220 cases/acre)
- No Prädikat allowed (there may be some older vintages that are Prädikat, but they are not dry. However, they will have been put through the other parts of the inspection and designated “Charta Designated” rather than “Charta Approved.”
One more thing to note is that these wines are normally in a tall thin brown bottle. Many times with the double-arch embossed on the bottle.
Lastly we come to the Rheinhessen. This is the largest of the German wine-producing regions. Located directly south of the Rheingau. On the map above it is region #10. The towns of Bingen, Mainz, and Worms triangulate the region. Similar in climate to Rheingau in that it is also protected from the cold from the Taunus mountains. However there aren’t the south-facing slopes here to take advantage of the sun. Along the Rhine river there are some nice southeast-facing slopes around Nierstein. Soils are more likely to have sand, silt, marl, and quartzite, than slate here.
Here, Müller-Thurgau is the most-planted varietal. Riesling is a close second. A wide variety of varietals are grown here. The red varietal Dornfelder is actually the 3rd most planted here. Silvaner, Blauer Portugieser, Spätburgunder, and a few others are grown in small amounts (5-9% each).
This is also the home of Liebfraumilch. The most well known being the Blue Nun brand of the past, though now they no longer make it. Liebfraumilch is a semi-sweet white wine. It’s considered a pretty poor wine.
The one place to really pay attention to is the part normally called the Rheinterrasse around Nierstein. This is the Bereich Nierstein district. About 1/3 of the Riesling in the Rheinhessen comes from this district. The other two districts are Bingen and Wonnegau. Bingen has some good Rieslings from Scharlachberg.
That’s it for this lesson. Next week we will cover the last two of the five major producers and give at least some mentions to the remaining. If nothing else, I’m sure you see that Riesling is the grape of Germany. And while most of it is sweet, the Rieslings of Rheingau are mostly dry. Thanks again to all of you for watching and reading.
Mark V. Fusco
Aspiring Sommelier in Training