Category Archives: Rheinhessen

“Wine hiking” is a thing in my home region…

We’re currently in Piemonte, enjoying the region for our first time ever. More on that in another post. Before we came here, we spent five days with my family in Nackenheim, a village just south of Mainz along the river Rhine. Nackenheim is fortunate to have some of the best soil along the Rhine between itself and Nierstein to its south: the Rothenberg. As the name indicates, its soil is of intense red color, an iron-rich sandstone and clay mix including red slate.The vines face east, down towards the Rhine to get maximum exposure on this steep hill. I grew up in these hills, hiking and biking, and the sight of the soil makes my heart skip a beat.

Shortly before we got Nackenheim, my mother informed me there’d be a “wine hike” the Sunday we’re there. We were intrigued. Armed with glasses we bought for 10 euros each (which included servings of four different wines), we set out on the 2.5 km trail, which led us into the vineyards and by four stands manned by winemakers. It was a nice day (I even caught a sunburn), and over 400 people were out and about on the trail, I was told by a winemaker. This particular hike was to celebrate a wine made in honor of my hometown’s most famous son: Carl Zuckmayer (yeah, I know…not that famous), a German playwright whose books were banned by the Nazis and has a literary voice I enjoy.

In any case, I realized I haven’t really posted much from my hometown, which should deserve a bigger place on this blog, and so I decided to share some photos.

Hope you’re all doing well, and sure hope a wine region near you starts wine hikes soon!

Even snails like our vines...

Even snails like our vines…

Baby vines, a little older vines.

Baby vines, a little older vines.

Hiking along, high above the Rhine.

Hiking along, high above the Rhine.

Overlooking the vineyards along the Rhine towards Nierstein. The yellow plants are rapeseed.

Overlooking the vineyards along the Rhine towards Nierstein. The yellow plants are rapeseed.

We were relieved there was not a single "shark" in the vineyards ("kein" means "no").

We were relieved there was not a single “shark” in the vineyards (“kein” means “no”).

I love gnarly vines, and the buds keep them young.

I love gnarly vines, and the buds keep them young.

Drinking wines while hiking does have its perks. And even German reds can discolor your teeth.

Drinking wines while hiking does have its perks. And even German reds can discolor your teeth.

At the final pit stop, it was hard to leave.

At the final pit stop, it was hard to leave.

Heading back town into the village, the iconic church towering above it.

Heading back town into the village, the iconic church towering above it.

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Tasting at Gunderloch Part 2: The sweeter wines

My tasting notes.

My tasting notes.

As promised in my piece about our wonderful tasting at Weingut Gunderloch that I published last week (if you missed it, check it out here), this installment brings you the tasting notes on the sweeter wines. Bear in mind that I am naturally a lot fonder of the sweeter versions in general.

From the flagship dry wines, the Grosses Gewächs (GG), we moved on to one of the most ubiquitous Gunderloch wines of all: the 2011 Gunderloch Jean Baptiste Riesling Kabinett. The wine is named after a character in Carl Zuckmayer’s “The Merry Vineyard”, a play from the 1920s. Zuckmayer was actually born in Nackenheim and the play was quite scandalous. The Jean Baptiste Gunderloch in the play is a winery owner with some twisted ideas about morality. Only in the 1950s and 1960s did Nackenheimers and Zuckmayer reconcile…but I digress. The wine is available all over the world: I have seen it in restaurants in Seoul, Korea in 2000 and I had it in Anchorage. It is the wine that made Gunderloch known to the more general public. I have tried pretty much every vintage since the early 2000s at our local wine festival. I started out really liking it but found the ones produced in the mid-2000s a bit wanting. But that’s enough of an introduction, let’s see how the 2011 fared: In the nose I got gooseberry and a nice freshness, probably carried by acidity. On the palate, it showed some moderate sweetness, was fruity with a nice acidity. I thought the vintage worked alright. There are definitely other Kabinetts out that offer more drinking fun, but at least this one is available widely.

We followed the Kabinett with the 2011 Nackenheim Rothenberg Riesling Spätlese (for those familiar with the German wine classification system we went in the right order, up a notch). According to Johannes, none of the grapes used for this wine were botrytized, which means they showed no signs of the noble rot that can get to grapes. In the nose, we got a great spontaneous fermentation nose that is initially a bit off-putting (because they smell a bit bad), but usually heralds great things for the glass. I got a lot of exotic fruits and the wine also smelled of cream. A very nice nose indeed. On the palate, it was really creamy and felt wonderfully balanced: some acidity, healthy sweetness, all in great symmetry. The best thing for me was its finish. My notes read: “loong, looooooong, very, very long”. It was just a beautiful rendition of a rich Spätlese. And unlike the GG from Rothenberg, this seemed quite accessible already.

In the classification scheme, what comes after a Spätlese? … Yes, an Auslese. So we followed that wine with the 2011 Nackenheim Rothenberg Riesling Auslese. Johannes told us that in contrast to the Spätlese, 100% of the grapes used for this wine had the noble rot on them. In the nose, I got mostly pineapple. The wine looked heavy in the glass. On the palate, there were minor signs of ripeness, thanks to to the botrytis. This Auslese distinguished itself by being nicely mild. There was a noticeable and welcome acidity (some winemakers struggled with the low amounts of acidity in that vintage). All in all the wine was warming and very expressive in a gentle way. Definitely different from a lot of Mosel Auslesen I know that can be overwhelming that young. This one was not out to be a rock star, rather it seemed to hold back a bit and just letting on that it is a great wine. It should be interesting to taste it in a couple of years.

The tanks holding Trockenbeerenausele at Gunderloch

The tanks holding Trockenbeerenauslese at Gunderloch

After that, we got lucky. As in seriously lucky: The photo above shows the three tanks that stood in the tasting room: two 190 liter tanks of Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) and an 8 liter glass bulb full of single vineyard TBA from the Rothenberg. The unpronouncable Trockenbeerenauslese is the highest ranked and most rare of Germany’s wines (ice wine might be rarer, but I am not even sure it is). It literally translates to dry berry selection and that gives you an idea. The grapes are usually very shrivelled and picked individually. The juice you press from them is thick and syrupy, with concentrated sugars and low water to dilute it. The wines made from them are masterpieces, and take a long time to ferment. We had the tasting in late June, and the wines were still slowly fermenting. Johannes said they’d give them as much time as they need to finish the job. And he let us try some.

2011 Gunderloch Trockenbeerenauslese

2011 Gunderloch Trockenbeerenauslese

It is a rare occasion to try one of these, yet even rarer to try them at the winery while they are still fermenting. I remember, when we visited Dr. Hermann winery once in spring, Christian was just filtering the 20 liters of TBA he had made. And he proudly shared some of it with us. It makes you feel quite blessed when that happens. As you can see from the photo, the wine is of dark, dark amber color and highly viscous. In the nose, we got ripe plum and raisins. On the palate, it was still all over the place, which TBAs tend to be for quite a while after bottling, too, but there was definitely honey (which is a standard you taste in a TBA) and a nice spicy note to it. It was definitely exciting. Johannes said what every winemaker will tell you about their TBA: this one will be good in a hundred years. I am still looking for folks to either invite me to try a 100 year old TBA, or who are willing to wait it out with me. Should be fun. I already envy future generations!

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Meeting the Vintners: Weingut Gunderloch, Nackenheim (Rheinhessen), Germany

Gunderloch Estate in Nackenheim (Photo taken from winery’s website)

I cannot believe it took me this long to write up our visit with Gunderloch winery last June. But finally, finally I found the time and being in the right spot for it. There is so much emotional connection to this winery for me. I’ve lived in Nackenheim until I went off to studies in Trier at age 19. Gunderloch winery is a mere 200 meters away from my home. I went to primary school with the owners’ eldest daughter. I know all of their children rather well. And yet, until that tasting, I never had a “real” tasting with them, as in sitting down and trying their wines in a specific order the way I tasted through Mosel wines that I love so much. I guess it is a common phenomenon: You don’t give as many thoughts about what is physically close as to what is further away. It’s like the gorgeous cathedral in Oppenheim, just two villages south of Nackenheim, that I only visited the first time when I was 17. And I was struck how awesome it was. Before that visit, I knew it existed but I never really bothered.

Gunderloch is pretty much a household name for any American Riesling drinker. Fritz Hasselbach, the current winemaker and husband of owner Agnes Hasselbach-Usinger, has done an amazing job of promoting his wines abroad, most of all in the U.S. I remember his daughter telling me that she went to a presentation somewhere in the U.S. in the mid-nineties and Kevin Costner came up to her and praised her father’s wines. That was pretty epic at the time (now, I wasn’t even sure anymore how to spell his last name…). The winery was established by Carl Gunderloch, a banker from Mainz, in 1890 and is currently run in the fifth generation. They own a bit over 12 hectares (around 31 acres) in Nackenheim and Nierstein on the so called “Roter Hang”, or red slope, a hill facing the Rhine going straight South from Nackenheim to Nierstein. The Roter Hang is considered one of the prime spots for vineyards in all of Rheinhessen, the growing region. Gunderloch owns plots in the following vineyards:  Nackenheim Rothenberg, Nackenheim Engelsberg, Nierstein Pettenthal, Nierstein Hipping and Nierstein Oelberg. They own an astounding 80% of Nackenheim Rothenberg, which together with Nierstein Pettenthal, is what they term their Grand Cru vineyards.

Roter Hang viewed from Nackenheim southwards to Nierstein

Roter Hang viewed from Nackenheim southwards to Nierstein

Over the last years, Johannes Hasselbach, Fritz’ and Agnes’ son, has begun taking over making more and more of the wines with Fritz Hasselbach still very much involved in the wine making. 85% of their wines are made from Riesling, 5% each from Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, with the remainder being Traminer and Silvaner, and the red varieties Dornfelder and Pinot Noir. The winery has considerable clout, being the only winery that ever received 1oo points in Wine Spectator for three different wines, their 1992, 1996 and 2001 Nackenheim Rothenberg TBA. The 2002 Rothenberg Spätlese was named best Spätlese by the German wine guide Gault Millau and it remains one of the best wines I ever tried (completely tropical fruit bomb). If you want to know more about the estate, you should check out Rudi Wiest’s, their U.S. importer’s website profile of the winery.

But to the tasting in June. I had contacted Johannes before we left for Germany and we managed to find a time for a tasting despite him being quite busy and in the midst of exams. I very much appreciated that. We took two friends along, a Canadian visiting us and a long time friend who just moved from Berlin to the Mainz area, and headed over to the estate on June 25, 2012. Johannes introduced us to their 2011 and some 2010 wines, a total of 13 wines. Up front, the line up was pretty impressive and there were a number of outstanding wines we tried. Johannes speaks great English and leads tastings in a professional and friendly way with lots of helpful insights. He started us off with showing us the characteristic red slate that forms the “red slope” which I grew up around. The slate on that hill is in different states of erosion, there are big plates of rock and small earthen chips of it. It crumbles rather easily was we experienced when touching it.

In the Gunderloch tasting room

In the Gunderloch tasting room

We started off with a comparison of their 2011 Gunderloch Weissburgunder (Pinot blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot gris). I am usually not a big fan of either grape, but both these wines were seriously yummy. The Weissburgunder promised gooseberry in the nose and was creamy without being heavy. It confirmed the gooseberry on the palate with a slightly salty finish. The Grauburgunder was heavier and riper than the Weissburgunder, with lots of peach aromas. According to Johannes, this was the first time that they harvested fully ripe Pinot blanc grapes. Usually they are not fully ripe which showed how warm 2011 was. Both wines can turn someone like me around who usually dismisses both grapes.

We then tried the 2011 Fritz’s Riesling trocken, an entry level wine they produce for European countries, and a bit sweeter for the U.S. market. The nose was beautifully floral with light fruit aromas. On the palate I got citrus notes and some slight bitter aromas. At 12.5% this was an alright and easy drinking wine.

And on to their 2011 Gunderloch Gutsriesling, their estate entry dry level wine. The nose was full of peach and some pineapple. On the palate, it was strong and spicy with citrus and bitter orange notes. According to Johannes it had a significant amount of acidity and showed great minerality. I couldn’t agree more and liked it quite a bit.

The 2011 Nackenheim Riesling trocken is their equivalent to a Burgundy village wine. On the nose, this wine showed ripe and mellow notes. On the palate it proved dry, full-bodied but too alcoholic for my taste with a tad of bitterness at the end. It seemed a bit closed and not quite ready. We compared this to the 2011 Nierstein Riesling trocken which I preferred much more: The nose had yellow fruit and peach aromas, and the flavor profile was alcoholic, citrussy and nicely fresh. Johannes explained that that was the usual set up for the Niersteiner and Nackenheimer Rieslings for them: Their Nierstein Pettenthal wines were usually more accessible early on with the Nackenheim Rothenberg wines coming later to the show. So it is always worth waiting a bit with the Nackenheim wines from Gunderloch. Lesson learned.

The next dry wines we tried were their flagship dry wines. First up was the 2010 Nierstein Pettenthal Riesling GG (Grosses Gewächs, a VDP designation for the most outstanding dry wines from a grand cru vineyard a winery produces). This wine proved that I actually can like and enjoy dry wines! On the nose it showed raisins, ripe fruits and some alcohol. I wrote down “awesome nose” in my notes. On the palate, it was dense and ripe, full of fruit with a racy acidity. To me, it tasted like the best of Riesling which I usually find in the sweeter Riesling Spätlesen…this one had 13% ABV and definitely was not sweet, though, but I loved it! Seriously outstanding.

The 2010 Nackenheim Rothenberg Riesling GG in contrast, proving Johannes’ point about the slower development of the Rothenberg wines, showed a very restrained nose, Nina got some papaya notes. On the palate, it was subtle with exotic fruits and a very long and enjoyable finish. The development curve of this awesome wine has just begun. It was just amazing to see how different these two wines were at this stage of their development. To a certain degree, Johannes told us, they have stopped presenting the Rothenberg wines to wine critics when they come out because they are just not ready and would risk a bad review…

My tasting notes.

My tasting notes.

Given that this blog post is pretty long already I will post the remaining notes about their off-dry and sweeter wines in another post (over here)…suffice it to say that we had a great time and tried some great wines from one of the best sites in Rheinhessen. It really moved me to taste what I only had read before but was never able to fully appreciate: That I was lucky to be born along one of the few true grand cru sites along the Rhine. What a blessing. Because of their successes, the wines tend to be more expensive than the usual Mosel Rieslings I present here. But the upside is that their wines are easily available in the United States, so go grab a bottle if you can and let Gunderloch transport you to where I come from.

Click the names for aerial views of the Nackenheim Rothenberg and Nierstein Pettenthal vineyards.

Johannes and I.

Johannes and I after a great tasting.

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