Tasting Notes: 2008 Riesling Hochheim/Rheingau/Germany

A couple of weeks ago, the Weinfreundeskreis Hochheim, of which my wife Annette and I are founding members, invited 5 winemakers from Hochheim to present their new wines of the 2008 vintage. We were at our German domicile at that time and had the pleasure to participate in this wonderful tasting

Hochheim is one of the top wine producing villages in the Rheingau region with about two dozens winemakers. Already Goethe spoke of its distinctive microclimate: ‘…among the magnates of Rheingau wine, Rüdesheim, Johannisberg and Hochheim, there can be no dispute about rank!…’. The Őchsle tend to be higher here than in other areas of the Rheingau. And it was the English Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) special preference for Hochheim wine that prompted the abbreviation ‘Hock’ for all good Rhine wines. But Hochheim is perhaps best known in the U.S. through President Jefferson. This is where Thomas Jefferson, when he was Ambassador in Paris, visited in 1788 and brought vine cuttings back to America to plant in his own vineyard.

Hochheim is about 50 minutes from Frankfurt Airport by S-Bahn. Most of Hochheim’s winemakers sell their wine directly to the consumer at their premise, which is typical for the German wine market, and many operate cosy Gutsausschänke (Restaurants), where you try their wines and eat hearty local food.

The previous vintage, 2007, is an outstanding one. The April 30, 2009 issue of the Wine Spectator carries an in-depth review of that vintage. 2008 was an excellent year, but in terms of Őchsle, i.e. sugar content at harvest, 2008 did not match the previous year.In 2008, relatively cool autumn weather enabled grapes to ripen gradually and remain healthy. Crisp, lean Riesling wines with a fresh, fruity acidity are typical for the 2008 vintage. After cool weather in September, the Hochheim growers decided to wait until October before beginning with the harvest. For the most part, must weights reached 80 to 85 degrees Őchsle. As such, the 2008 vintage will be known particularly for high-quality Kabinett wines. It is a vintage which tends to be high in terms of acidity. The winemakers told us about their struggle with the high level of acidity, which they tried to contain through natural methods, such as leaving the grapes longer in the vineyard, and, if necessary, with chemical methods. The latter, however, has as a side effect, a foaming of the must, which can lead to a loss of aromas.

The following winemakers were present. They are all typical German winemakers with 5 to 10 hectares of land only. All wine estates present were family-owned and family- operated wine estates, often covering three generations of the family.

Weingut Dienst has a nice Gutsausschank, which is open throughout parts of the year.

Weingut Hück sells about half of its wine in its Gutsausschank, where excellent, basic food is served.

Weingut Diefenhard

Weingut Schäfer is gaining increasingly international recognition, but does not export any of its wines. Last year, the first prize in the dry category at the Best of Riesling Competition was awarded to the 2007 Hochheimer Kirchenstück Spätlese from Weingut Schäfer. (see my posting at www.i-winereview.blogspot.com of August 9, 2008)

Weingut Rebenhof is known for its special, including cultural, events at the winery. The winemaker also stressed that the Rebenhof is one of the few wine estates in the Rheingau, that has a long tradition of biodynamic winemaking.

Also present at the winetasting, as a member of the Weinfreundeskreis, was Franz Künstler, the father of Gunter Künstler, who currently owns Weingut Künstler . Künstler is one of the very best German winemakers. Weingut Künstler is one of the two winemakers of Hochheim who have ventured out to the American market (the other one is Weingut Domchechant Werner), benefitting from the increasing popularity of Rieslings in the US and in general in the world. Franz and I have been member of the Weinfreundeskreis Hochheim since its beginnings 30 years ago. In the US, his wines are imported by Rudi Wiest, Cellars International, 1780 La Costa Meadows Drive, Suite 201, San Marcos, California 92078, Phone:001-760.566.0499, Fax:001-760.566.0533

We tasted 15 Rieslings, 3 from each winemaker, ranging from the Qualitätswein besonderer Anbautgebiete (QbA) category, where winemakers are allowed to add sugar to the must, to boost the alcohol level, to Spätlese wines, were chaptalisation is not allowed, but where winemakers can add Süssreserve (sterilyzed juice) to sweeten the wine. All the wines we drank had already been bottled. The presentation did not include any Auslese, Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese, as these wines still resting in the barrel. The large majority of the wines were dry wines, reflecting the large demand for dry wines in Germany, while the American consumer tends to prefer the sweeter wines, when it comes to German wines.

Here are my impressions of the 15 wines we tasted, all Riesling from 2008:

Kabinett, trocken (Kabinett indicates that it is a Prädikatswein, excluding chaptalisation. Trocken indicates “dry” without perceptible residual sweetness, never more than 9 grams of residual sugar per liter. All wines had around 7.5 grams per liter of acidity)

1. Dorothenhof, Weingut Dienst. In the upper range of the trocken category. Nice mineral flavors. No vineyard specification, suggesting that it is a cuvee from various individual vineyards. Euro 4.00

2. Wickerer König Wilhelmsberg, Weingut Hück From the neigbouring village, Wicker. Weingut Hück owns the entire König Wilhelmsberg vineyard. As the other two wines from Weingut Hück, a very dry wine, with a remaining sugar level of only 2.3 grams/liter. Mineral flavors. Euro 4.00

3. Hochheimer Daubhaus, Weingut Diefenhard. The fermentation stopped at a sugar level of 6.5 grams/liter. A cuvee from various individual vineyards, all belonging to the Daubhaus Grosslage (collective vineyard). Shows green apple and minerals.

4. Hochheimer Hölle, Weingut Schäfer. In the upper range of the trocken category, with a hint of white peach. Euro 6.50

5. Hochheimer Reichesthal, Weingut Diefenhard. Lean with lemon flavors. I detected a touch of Grüner Veltliner.

Spätlese, trocken (same as above, but higher Őchsle requirements, i.e. sugar content in the must at harvest):

6. Hocheimer Hofmeister, Weingut Hück. A bone-dry Spätlese, with a remaining sugar level of 3 grams/liter only. Shows grapefruit and mineral.

7. Hochheimer Reichesthal, Weingut Dienst. A dry Spätlese with tender minerality. Euro 8.50

8. Hochheimer Kirchenstück, Weingut Schäfer Euro 9.50. A dry Spätlese, displaying an elegant interplay between delicate fruit and refreshing acidity. Hint of white peach.

9. Hochheimer Kirchenstück, Weingut Rebenhof. A dry Spätles harvested at an Őchsel level of 95 degrees. With peach, grapefruit and orange hints. Euro 7.00

QbA, classic (QbA indiactes that chaptalisation is allowed; the residual sugar content of a classic wine can be twice as high as the acidity, up to a maximum of 15 grams per liter. The concept of classic was introduced a couple of years ago. A classic wine is supposed to be a good quality table wine that brings the characteristics of the region to the fore. Classic wines are often cuvees as the three wines we tasted and, in terms of sweetness, in the halbtrocken category)

10. Classic, Weingut Hück An off-dry classic wine, with nice tropical fruit and mineral flavors. Euro 4.50

11. Classic. Weingut Diefenhard. An off-dry-classic wine, with great character and a full nose.

12. Dorotheenhof, Weingut Dienst. An off-dry classic wine with beautiful aroma of ripe summer melon and soft citrus. Euro 5.50

Sweet wines

13. Hochheimer Hölle, QbA, Erstes Gewächs, Weingut Rebenhof. A sweet QbA and Erstes Gewächs. The concept of Erstes Gewächs (First Growth) was introduced in 1999 in the Rheingau region, imitating the Grand Cru designation in neighbouring France. The wine is from a specific area of the Hochheimer Hölle, which is 100 % Tonmergel (marly clay). Interestingly, this is a QbA wine, suggesting that the wine grower chaptalised the wine to boost the alcohol level, as it is common practice in France. Hint of citrus and green apple. An outstanding Rheingau Riesling. Euro 13.00

14. Hochheimer Hölle, Spätlese, Weingur Rebenhof. A sweet Spätlese with a remaining sugar level of 69 grams/liter. The elevated level of sweetness was produced by stopping the fermentation, which is the preferred method of Weingut Rebenhof (as opposed to adding Süssreserve, which I personally prefer). Floral, lime and peach aromas. Euro 6.00

15. Hochheimer Domdechany, Spätlese, Weingut Schäfer. A sweet Spätlese with 85 grams/liter of remaining sugar. Domdechany is Hochheim’s best vineyard. The nose was loaded with citrus and tropical fruits and the body was bold and round. Euro 9.00

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