The Rheingau, while small, is Germany’s most prestigious wine-growing region. Hugh Johnson, in his majestic book The World Atlas of Wine, describes the Rheingau style of wine, at its best, as “the noblest in Germany”.
Riesling is the dominant grape, representing 80 per cent of all plantings. A tasting of rieslings from the great 2012 vintage in London highlighted the international launch of a new labelling system under the VDP banner. VDP stands for Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter, or association of German wine estates. Its symbol or logo is a stylised eagle holding a bunch of six grapes.
To the novice wine drinker, German wine laws and labels can be daunting. Think of VDP as the most prestigious association of Germany’s best winemakers. Its members “are obliged to maintain an unwavering commitment to quality,” according to the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in London.
Wines made under the VDP system use their own labelling terminology trademarked to the VDP, and do not form part of the national German wine law. None-the-less, VDP stands for excellence.
The best vineyards under the VDP system are known as “erste lage”, which effectively means they are the best vineyards in Germany. The best dry white wines from these vineyards are labelled as “grosses gewachs”, usually abbreviated as “GG”. If you see “GG” on a label it means you are encountering the best rieslings in Germany — think of them as the equivalent of the grand cru wines of Burgundy.
Rheingau refers to a small section of the Rhine river that produces superbly age-worthy wines. The Rhine river mostly flows north south trough Germany. But for about 20 kilometres it runs east-west before resuming its northerly course.
This means the vineyards of the Rheingau, on the northern bank of the river, face the south and receive lots of sun. Combined with protection from the Taunus hills, this provides superb conditions for growing grapes. We must remember that Germany does not have as much sunshine as many new world wine regions like Australia or Chile.
Rieslings from Rheingau were once considered the best wine in the world. Two hundred years ago, these wines fetched the highest prices of any wines in the world — higher than Burgundy or Bordeaux or Champagne. But then the world lost interest in this grape variety. Rieslings are sometimes described as heavenly for wine lovers but heartache for wine marketers because the world seems to prefer other white varieties like sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, based on the fickleness of fashion.
The Rheingau region pioneered the modern style of German dry white wine in the 1980s. These rieslings have medium to full body and flavours at the ripe peach end of the spectrum.
The best 2012 rieslings at the London tasting included the Kiedrich Grafenberg from the Robert Weil vineyard, the Rudesheim Berg Scholssberg from the Geheimrat Wegeler vineyard, the Oestrich Lenchen Rosengarten by Josef Spreitzer and the Hochheim Konigin Victoriaberg by Joachim Flick. All were elegant with a piercing acidity balanced against slight residual sweetness — think ethereal lightness and power at the same time. All with wondrous flavours of ripe peaches or tangy limes and pineapple.
It is a pity that the names of German wines are so complicated for many Asians new to the world of wine. In countries where face or reputation are so important, many people are reluctant to face the embarrassment of getting the pronunciation or label wrong.
Yet these marvellous wines reflect the modern style of the best German rieslings, and would be ideal with most forms of Asian food. A chilled riesling with dim sum or fish is a true delight.
In the Rheingau area the Rhine is upwards of one kilometre wide. Humidity from the river provides excellent conditions for the production of botrytis-style wines, known as noble rot. In Germany these wines are described as beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese, usually abbreviated respectively as BA and TBA.
Beerenauslese wines are rare and expensive sweet wines whose flavours are enhanced by noble rot. Trockenbeerenauslese are even rarer and are made in only the finest vintages. These grapes have undergone such a degree of noble rot that the berries have shrunk to the size of tiny raisins.
The best trockenbeerenauslese are among the world’s most expensive wines. Such was the case with the final wine presented at the London tasting, a 2011 Schloss Johannisberger trockenbeerenauslese. It received 98 points and was named the best TBA in Germany this year. A superbly balanced delight of golden honey and lemon zest whose flavours of ripe apricots and peaches linger in one’s mouth for ages afterwards.
But it retails for 1,040 euro a half bottle. We have to pay for our indulgences, and this wine is like the gods singing.