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Rheingau Days

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 28, 2008 11:21am ET

I’m in Germany, the Rheingau, to be exact.

I’m supposedly on vacation, but the real reason I'm here is an invitation to a wonderful tasting of older Rheingau wines from every decade of the 20th century. It’s also an excuse to visit some German friends living near Frankfurt that I have not seen in several years.

And I don’t mind a brief escape from New York, which seems to be suffocating under scaffolding these days.

The weekend kicked off with a tasting of wines from Rheingau’s Hessische Staatsweinguter Kloster Eberbach, which has one of the largest collections of older German Riesling and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) in the country.

The tasting took place at Restaurant Zum Krug (www.hotel-zum-krug.de) in Hattenheim, itself the source of the best list of Rheingau wines in the region. Owner Josef Laufer and his staff organized an excellent meal around the 16 Rieslings and Spätburgunders chosen by the Staatsweinguter’s managing director, Dieter Greiner. All the bottles had been opened seven hours earlier, at 1:00 p.m., but not decanted.

We began with a blind offering. It was clearly an older Riesling. I was thinking 1975 from the nose, but it was dry and that threw me off a little. It turned out to be from 1945—the Riesling Steinberger Kabinett Naturrein (all the wines pre-1971 were labeled Naturrein, referring to no chaptalization, the equivalent of a Qualitätswein mit Prädikat today). It had been picked at 94˚ oechsle, or spätlese ripeness.

A second bottle was even fresher and more complex than the first. The bouquet was reminiscent of a pine forest, with spearmint, butter pastry and a hint of furniture polish. It was very lively with mouthwatering acidity, moderate length and a mineral aftertaste (90 points, non-blind). It had been recorked, a practice the winery does with all its wines between 30 and 40 years of age.

“When the climate was colder, our fathers knew how to make wine at 85˚ oechsle that aged a long time,” said Greiner.

Dinner proper was ushered in with a trio of Spätburgunders: 1943, 1953 and 2004. The ’53 Spätburgunder Kabinett Assmannshausen Höllenberg, from a very ripe vintage, exhibited a sweet, minty bouquet. It was rich and sumptuous, with balancing acidity, notes of caramel and honey and a long, rich finish (89 points,non-blind). It turned slightly vegetal with air.

The Spätburgunder Kabinett Assmannshausen Höllenberg 1943 was browning in color and started out with an earthy, musky bouquet. It continued in a woodsy theme, with vestiges of dried berry, a lively structure and a dried cherry finish (87). The Spätburgunder Spätlese Trocken Assmannshausen Höllenberg 2004 offered fresh berry and cherry aromas and flavors on a vibrant, elegant frame and fine length (88 points, non-blind).

The 1953 was overpowering for the duet of pigeon, itself moist and slightly gamy, served with a red pepper cous cous and a saffron mousseline.

The next course consisted of warm lobster in a curry sauce accompanied by three dry Rieslings: 1920, 1938 and 2006, all from what is now called Berg Schlossberg in Rüdesheim.

The pale amber color with a touch of green on the Kabinett Berg Zollhaus 1920 was a bit disconcerting, but the wine was, after all, close to 90 years old! A musty cellar and antique shop bouquet gave way to a hint of caramel. It was dry and sharp, with good weight and a lemon note, a big difference between the aromas and flavors. It reminded me of the dichotomy between the nose and palate of the 1996s. Though it improved with aeration, it remained tired, musty and sherrylike (79 points, non-blind).

The Riesling Kabinett Dickerstein 1938 had roughly half the acidity of the 1920, according to Greiner. It was a deep golden color, featuring a clean, elegant bouquet of lemon candy and pine forest, followed by the barest hint of sweetness on the palate. Firm and delicate, with a long, smoke- and mineral-tinged finish, it was a remarkable dry Riesling (92 points, non-blind).

Its contemporary, the Riesling Berg Schlossberg Erstes Gewachs 2006, packed a range of smoke, flint and stone elements into its elegant frame. Ripe and complex, it displayed great balance and length (92 points, non-blind).

The ’38 and ’06 paired beautifully with warm lobster and tempura battered cockscomb on a bed of lemon parmesan risotto.

The next course proved to be more challenging. Three beerenauslese were matched to stuffed oxtail and foie gras. The bridging component between the dish and the wines was a base of grilled pineapple for sweetness. It never quite worked with the wines as a whole, though the pineapple flattered the wines more than the meat.

By now, the Riesling Beerenauslese Steinberger Kabinett 1934 was off-dry, with a typical furniture shop, petrol, pine and mineral bouquet. Honey, orange marmalade and grilled almond notes exited with a smoky cast (89 points, non-blind). The Riesling Beerenauslese Steinberger 1971 smelled like a dry Oloroso, exhibiting piercing scents of grilled nuts, caramel and burnt molasses. It was much sweeter than the ’34, yet with bracing acidity and concentrated flavors of lemon and honey. Overall, it was clean and elegant (91 points,non-blind).

The Riesling Beerenauslese Steinberger 2003 dished up youthful honey, marmalade and pineapple aromas and flavors that were sweet, intense, concentrated and well balanced (94 points, non-blind). It was the exception to the more classical ’71 and ’34, which, along with 1937, was the best vintage of the 1930s. “Even in this hot vintage [2003], Steinberger can bring elegance,” commented Greiner.

With a dessert of tiramisu made with trockenbeerenauslese, three TBAs were poured from the Rauenthaler Baiken vineyard. The 1949, from the original Baiken (it was expanded with the reorganization of the vineyards after the 1971 Wine Law) had a light espresso color with a green hue. A hint of molasses on the nose, along with bitter chocolate, introduced notes of caramel and orange peel. It was moderately sweet, with bright acidity and a touch of salinity on the finish (90 points, non-blind).

The 1990 showed caramel, treacle, marmalade, mineral and smoke aromas and flavors matched to a thick texture. Intense, yet extremely well-balanced by the vibrant structure, it had fine length (96 points, non-blind). The 2005 showed great promise. Pungent botrytis aromas augmented pineapple and orange preserve notes, very concentrated and flavorful, with great cut and a very long, clean finish (94 points, non-blind).

In all, a fascinating tasting experience.

James Riley Whitcomb
Portland, OR USA —  April 29, 2008 1:30am ET
Okay, I'm going to embarrass myself here... I am frankly quite new to WS. In the early '70s I lived in California's Marin County and took frequent day trips up to Napa and Sonoma Valleys for wine tasting. My focus at the time was mostly on Cabs with some interest in Chenin Blanc (I even bought some grapes and made mine own.) I obviously missed something along the way, because I never realized that some whites (Riesling in particular) could be laid down for so long. I thought only reds improved with age. Can you set me straight about this?Thanks...
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  April 29, 2008 4:50am ET
James,There are several whites that age well, if made carefully from reasonable yields. In a dry style, white Burgundy and some top quality Chardonnays from around the world; Alsace Riesling; Austrian Riesling and Gr¿ner Veltliner; German Riesling; Chenin Blanc-based whites from the Loire such as Savenni¿s and Vouvray to mention a few. Sweet dessert style wines also age well because of their high residual sugar content and acidity (e.g. Sauternes, Vouvray Moelleux, Auslese, BA and TBA from Germany, VT and SGN from Alsace, etc.).
Ralph Klinkenborg
Frankfurt / Germany —  April 29, 2008 5:36am ET
Many years ago the Rheingau used to be one of the top white wine regions of Germany but it has lost out lately to others areas. It seems the young innovative winemakers are elsewhere. Rheinhessen is really rocketing ahead. Have you tried Wittmann, Keller, K¿hling-Gillot to name a few? Or the Saar region with Van Volxem? Even the Pfalz on the whole is doing better than the Rheingau. They seem to have rested too long on their laurels.
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  April 30, 2008 10:30am ET
Ralph,It's true the Rheingau traditionally made wonderful wines and still have some of the great estates in Germany. I think you will see that many are now under new direction and are making improvements to quality, such as Schloss Johannisberg, Schloss Vollrads, Schloss Reinhartshausen, Staatsweinguter Kloster Eberbach. In addition, I recommend that you try Leitz, Johannishof, Franz Kunstler, Spreitzer, Schloss Schonborn and Robert Weil as examples of top quality Rheingau Riesling.I like both Keller and Wittmann, but am less familiar with the others.Ralph, having just returned from Frankfurt, you are fortunate to be so close to several excellent wine regions.
John Rater
minneapolis minnesota usa —  May 2, 2008 4:13pm ET
I tasted a Winkeler Hasensprung spatlese years ago, and other Rheingau wines more recently, with a finish that echoed in my mouth for a very, very long time... I don't often get that intense length from other Riesling areas.

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