Johannes Leitz was in New York recently to present a range of his wines over lunch. Based in Germany’s Rheingau region, Leitz is a pragmatic grower who learned everything on the job.
The Leitz family has been making wine in Germany since 1744. Leitz’ grandfather, Josef, rebuilt the damaged winery after World War II. His father took over, but died in 1965. His mother kept the winery going until Leitz himself took the helm at age 21, in 1985.
Though the learning curve was slow at first and the family did not have a lot of money to invest in vineyards or the cellar (his mother owned a florist shop and Leitz also ran a wine bar in Rüdesheim from ’85 until 1999), being on his own turned out to be an advantage.
It allowed him to experiment, without constraints from his father, or tradition. “Everything I know in the cellar is learning by doing,” he said.
Leitz also enlarged the estate from a little more than 7 acres in 1985 to its current size of 99 acres. The vineyards include some of the steepest and best in the Rüdesheim area of the Rheingau: Berg Schlossberg, Berg Rottland, Berg Roseneck and Berg Kaisersteinfels.
He spends a lot of time in the United States promoting his wines, yet most of his time is occupied in the vineyards. Canopy management is important for Leitz, allowing him to get ripe, healthy Riesling grapes at harvest.
For example, he converted his vines from cane pruning to cordon-trained and spur-pruned in 1992, which lowered yields and decreased the number of berries per vine. He was the first in the area to grow grass between rows in the vineyard to reduce vigor. He also shears the tips of the newly formed grape clusters, allowing the remaining berries to stretch out for better aeration.
Rüdesheim is a sister city of Meursault in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune. Leitz spent time with growers in Meursault, where he learned about the use of indigenous yeast for fermentation.
He also uses pressurized tanks for his dry “estate” Riesling Eins Zwei Dry. He feels it “cracks” the yeast cells, giving a better effect of lees aging for larger volumes of wine.
The result is a white full of fresh floral, apple and grapefruit flavors.
Leitz’ range consists of wines finished with Stelvin closures that are fermented with cultured yeasts in stainless steel and those that are vinified and aged in wood with indigenous yeast, finished with cork.
For example, the Riesling QbA Rheingau Eins Zwei Dry 2008 is the current entry-level Riesling for the dry-style wines; the equivalent of the fruity style is the Riesling QbA Rheingau Dragonstone 2008, not tasted at this lunch.
Leitz did present tank samples of a few 2009s. The Riesling Kabinett Rheingau Rüdesheimer Klosterlay 2009, though still a touch yeasty, was full of peach pear apple and stone flavors backed by crisp acidity. There was a preview of the Riesling Spätlese Rheingau Rüdesheimer Magdalenenkreuz 2009, also from tank, that exhibited a broader, richer attack and more forward peach and apricot flavors. These two wines are also from the stainless steel fermented, selected yeast, Stelvin part of the range. The vineyards are flatter in this part of Rüdesheim.
As the Rhine River makes its turn to the north, a slope of hard quartzite and gneiss rises steeply from the river. Here you find some of the region’s best vineyards and those that Leitz feels need some gentle oxidation in the maturation prior to bottling. Consequently, they are fermented and aged in 1,200-liter casks with indigenous yeast and finished with cork.
Leitz’ Riesling Qualitätswein Rheingau Rüdesheimer Berg Kaisersteinfels Alte Reben 2009, in the dry style, offers smoke, mineral, pineapple and pear notes matched to an intense, long profile. Still a cask sample, it revealed fine potential. To understand how it might develop, we tasted the Berg Kaisersteinfels Alte Reben 2005, which proffered a huge nose of smoke and flinty stone, with floral, apricot and honey flavors that just wouldn’t quit.
At Leitz, the “dry” wines have about 11 grams of residual sugar, balanced by fine acidity, and carry the Alte Reben designation. Both the ’09 and ’05 vintages delivered very ripe grapes.
A cask sample of the Riesling Spätlese Rheingau Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland 2009 featured piercing aromas and flavors of peach, quince, persimmon, citrus and mineral, firm and well balanced with a long finish. The Riesling Spätlese Rheingau Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg was muted on the nose, yet explosive on the palate, with orange, apricot and honey flavors, great finesse and subtle mineral elements.
There was a Riesling Qualitätswein Tröcken Gold Cap Rheingau Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland Alte Reben 2007, whose reticent nose lead to spice, melon, persimmon and umami flavors, very complex, long and dry paired with the Riesling Spätlese Rheingau Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck from cask. The latter had fireworks of aromas underscored by spice and mineral, immediate sweetness on the palate, but graceful, with apple and peach notes.
Each pairing of wines was matched to a spring menu put together by Gramercy Tavern. Each course had sweet and savory elements that brought out the fruit in the wines without overpowering the mineral and spice components.
The final two wines were paired with the cheese course. Leitz featured his Riesling Auslese Rheingau Rüdesheimer Klosterlay 2006 and Riesling Beerenauslese Rheingau Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg, both of which I had not previously tasted. The former showed smoky mineral tones overlaying apricot and honey flavors on a dense frame, all vibrant and lingering. The latter was sweet and concentrated, full of apricot and honey notes, refined and harmonious.
Leitz is one of the top estates in the Rheingau and a name worth seeking out for pure, authentic Rieslings. Just remember the Stelvin bottlings are more approachable early, while the Berg labels are the heavyweights and warrant cellaring to really show their mettle.
Fred Brown — Maryland — March 26, 2010 5:00pm ET
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