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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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Meeting the vintners: Weingut Reuscher-Haart, Piesport (Mosel), Germany

I am slowly but surely getting there, catching up with my winery visit notes from the Germany trip. A couple more to go, and I promise I will also be posting more tasting notes and shorter pieces soon…

But back to the story: For June 16, I had made arrangements with Weingut Reuscher-Haart for around 4:30 to 5:00pm, right after the tasting at Weingut Dr. Hermann. We were about 2 1/2 hours into our tasting there when I realized that there was no way we could hold that time frame. I stepped outside and gave Mario Schwang, owner and winemaker at Reuscher-Haart, a call. He was more than relaxed: We should come whenever we were done. If he was not there, then his father Hugo would do the tasting. No problem at all. We are always welcome. This response gives you a really good impression of Mario. He is one of the nicest and coolest winemakers I know. Ever since our first tasting there in 2011 he has let us know that we are always welcome, whenever.

The Reuscher-Haart winery has a long history. The two families date back to 1624 (Reuscher) and 1337 (Haart) respectively, and the coat of arms on their labels bring that home. The winery is still located where the seat of the Haart family was, with a garden adjacent to the Mosel. The merging of the families happened in 1919 when Elisabeth Haart married Matthias Reuscher. Their portraits adorn the tasting room, too. Mario and his father Hugo have a very clear vision: They have cut back on their yields to increase quality in their grapes, and since 1987 they have been using integrated, natural methods of protecting their grapes without inescticides. The vinification also happens in gentle steps: Reuscher-Haart owns temperature controlled stainless steel barrels that lets Mario and Hugo use very low temperatures (5 to 8 C) in fermentation to preserve natural aromas. They clarify their wines without any clarifying agents.

Mario (left) at our wine tasting in 2011

We first came in touch with this winery through my friend ManSoo (whom else?). He suggested stopping by there and our first wine tasting in June 2011 was awesome. First, Mario’s father Hugo took us on a Vineyard Safari in their old Land Rover. We drove through the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, stopped occasionally and Hugo filled us in on their gentle approach to cultivating vines, and what the work in the vineyards means for the winemaker. After a good hour or so, we headed back to the estate and had a tasting with Mario. Not only did we have a lot of fun, we also liked their wines a lot. The basic Gutsriesling is probably the best price-value bargain you can get at the Mosel (I mentioned it previously here). We had been back for their wine presentation in August 2011, and Nina took some of her visiting friends there and had a great time, too.

The winery is located in Piesport, home of the Goldtröpfchen (Gold droplets). Reuscher-Haart owns vineyards in Goldtröpfchen, Domherr (Canon, as in a priest assigned to the cathedral), and Falkenberg (Mountain of Falcons) as well as the lesser known Günterslay and Grafenberg. Most international readers connect Piesport with “Michelsberg”. That, unfortunately, is the least appealing vineyard in Piesport. Unlike Goldtröpfchen, Domherr and Falkenberg, it is not located on the Northern side of the Mosel, where it would get full sun exposure all day, but on the South bank of the river, in flat terrain that used to be farmland and was not used for growing wines until a couple of decades ago. Another thing one should know is that the Goldtröpfchen used to be much smaller and was extended significantly under the German Wine Act of 1971. Old Piesport wineries were fighting this and got permission to label the core piece of Goldtröpfchen as “Piesporter Domherr”. So Domherr is the heart of Goldtröpfchen. Unfortunately, hardly anyone knows this and Domherr has therefore not been as succesful as the Goldtröpfchen…

During our vineyard safari 2011: Piesport Goldtröpfchen behind us, Piesporter Michelsberg on the other side of the Mosel

By the time we finally made it to the winery, we were already two tastings in and it was approaching 7:00pm. We were also constrained by the European soccer championships, because we wanted to watch the match that night which started at 8:45pm. This did not right by Reuscher-Haart, but given that Mario is a member of the “Weinelf“, Germany’s national soccer team composed of winemakers, he understood. Also, we were just three weeks away from Mario’s wedding, so their level of relaxedness was even more impressive. Another thing that happened was that we completely forgot to take pictures which is why I am using photos of older tastings there…

Member of Germany’s wine soccer team!

Mario had to run some errands, so we tried the first wines with Hugo. It is always interesting to get a glimpse into the relationship in these family businesses. While Hugo is obviously very proud of Mario and his work, he is still very much involved in day to day decision processes. The latest contention they had was about labelling. Mario has tried out a new label design for one of their export bottles to the U.S. and Hugo was not fond of it. The cool thing was that we got to discuss the virtues of both approaches, and that there are no hard feelings involved. It is a dispute about how best to present their products.

Their newest project is the planting of a new grape called cabernet blanc. Hugo explained that it is a new crossing between cabernet sauvignon and resistant grapes. Its main advantage is that it is fungus resistant. The berries are small and leave room for air between the grapes. In taste, it is being compared to a mix of sauvignon blanc and riesling. I am already curious about the results.

We tried a total of nine wines that evening and were very happy with what we got to try. I will write about some in seperate posts. If you are unclear about what some of my designations mean, check out the at a glance sheet on German wine classifications.

The line in 2011

We began with their dry wines. Most of them had not been bottled yet (Mario and his father believe in late bottling, given the wines as much time as they need to ripen), so we just went with the two 2010s they still have available. The 2010 Piesporter Falkenberg Riesling Kabinett had aged quite nicely: good fruit, very fresh still, nicely long in the finish. The acidity was pleasant. The 2010 – Urgestein – (a dry Spätlese from the Domherr) was awesome. Coconut in the nose it was a powerhouse on the tongue with a forceful acidity. Very impressive.

The two semi-sweets were both Spätlesen from the Goldtröpfchen. The 2010 Spätlese RZ 13 had nicely aged, but was not really my taste. I would have wished for some more sweetness in the wine. The 2011 “Überschwang” was a beautiful delivery of a classical Mosel riesling with a fruity nose with a not overbearing sweetness.

I compared their dry and sweet gutsriesling in a seperate post here.

Their sweet wines of 2011, though, were all very impressive. The Goldtröpfchen Kabinett had apple notes, was very fresh with an awesome amount of acidity and will probably be good for a while. There were two spätlesen from the Goldtröpfchen, one with 9% ABV and the other with 8.5%. The 9% ABV one was incredible: gooseberry and tons of tropical fruit on the nose and with the same notes on the tongue. It was fresh and is well worth storing. The 8.5% in contrast, had hints of sauerkraut on the nose (yes, that was weird!) and seemed a whole lot sweeter on the tongue. I think it needs a bit longer to settle and show its true colors.

We had to rush out to get to see the match, so we did not try their blush and red wine of 2011, but I remember the 2010s as pretty decent, too. It was great seeing Mario and Hugo again, and I wish we had had more time to spend with them. They are both visionaries and it is great to learn from them. I look very much forward to our next encounter and what they will come up with next. Mario speaks great English, so don’t hesitate to go visit! And make sure you ask for the vineyard safari. You can find Reuscher-Haart wines in the U.S. German and European readers can order their wines through the winery website. Pricing is quite reasonable, and the wines are well worth the money.

Steep vineyards in the Goldtröpfchen

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