Until recently Germany’s Rheinhessen region had few well-known premium estates. But it was home to some huge brands like Black Tower and Blue Nun, producers of Liebfraumilch, the blast-from-the-past, slightly sweet (sometimes almost sickly) mass-market white. That market collapsed and, in the words of the long-standing chief editor of the Gault-Millau Guide to German Wines, Joel Payne, “something had to happen!” On the positive side, much has, he says, and in particular we have seen the large groundswell of younger producers.
The top three names among that group of young winemakers in this progressive wine region are probably Stefan Winter, Kai Schatzel and Jochen Dreissigacker, feted by top German producers and by insiders as important as British wine critic Jancis Robinson. “Dreissigacker has managed to turn out really quite thrilling, beautifully balanced rieslings from a wide range of vineyards,” she writes.
What have they been doing, to change the image of Rheinhessen so markedly in the last 10-15 years, and at such an impressive pace? “At that time a new generation of quality-focussed winemakers took over family businesses from their parents,” said Dreissigacker. “Just as I did.”
Drawing on excellent oenology educations and an international experience that their parents had not been privy to, they began to implement some quite radical changes. “From the work in the vineyards, to wine style and packaging – each detail has been questioned,” Dreisigacker said. Organic practices have been established: these work well due to climatic conditions, in particular sun exposure. Others have gone a step further, and work according to biodynamic principles. Dreissigacker and some of his contemporaries founded a group called “Message in a Bottle” and many of its founder members are among the best producers in Germany today, Dreissigacker said.
Joel Payne said the region was now probably the place to head for value-for-money dry rieslings (as well as silvaner and pinot blanc), commenting that dry riesling from the famous Mosel region rarely works as well.
But dry riesling does not attract the high prices of the legendary Trockenbeeranauslese or Eiswein categories. Is it possible for that to change? “Absolutely,” said Dreissgacker. “Dry Bourgogne or Bordeaux wines also achieve similar high prices as sweet wines do. So why should a great dry German riesling not achieve prices similar to Auslese wines?” After all, he said, there was the same investment of time in the vineyard, the same low yields and strict selection processes. Wines made with this attention to detail are complex, with great ageing potential – and Joel Payne noted that careful winemaking was now beginning to be rewarded with “a few extra pennies”.
A case in point, the single-vineyard Dreissigacker Geyserberg Riesling Trocken 2012 retails at around US$70, or about three times the price of the entry-level Dreissigacker Estate Riesling 2013. The estate wine is already very impressive with a precise, mineral nose, and a supple satin-like texture with a beautiful bitter grapefruit flavour at the back of a long finish. It is much more than a clean, linear, well-made wine.
Dreissigacker believes that a good wine should have a certain fingerprint of the producer, in addition to reflecting its origin and grape variety. “I believe that a Dreissigacker wine is recognizable as such,” he said, adding that “this applies for the estate riesling in the same way as for the single vineyards”.
What is apparent when tasting the Geyserberg is that it is in the same family as the estate wine, but it seems to deliver more of everything, compared with the estate wine. It seems to be more opulent, more concentrated, more intense and more mineral. “Yes, that’s exactly the point,” said Dreissigacker. “It offers much more since we harvest at lower yields, from older vines, from the heart of an excellent vineyard, at a higher level of ripeness.” As a consumer one absolutely feels what one is paying for.
Historically, dry wines have been the focus on the domestic market with sweeter styles strong on the export market. The high quality of dry wines is now increasingly recognised across the world, especially given their fit with a wide variety of cuisines. Dreissigacker believes that Germany’s wine community should increasingly go in the dry direction, though global lovers of the country’s sweet wines might be disappointed to hear that.