Rhinehessen: The Mineral Soils of Germany's Wine Country

The Rhinehessen region in Germany’s wine country is a study of contrasts. The vast area is planted to just over 28,000 hecters of wine, dominated not by Riesling, but by Muller Thurgau. Ultimately though, this is Germany, and in Germany Riesling is still king. Groebe, Wittman and Straub wineries all share a common bond in this wine region. The minerality of the soil is a constant expression of the wines produced here and the Rhinehessen wines are clean, minimal wines. They also share a family winemaking history that extends hundreds of years.

Walter Straub greeted me at his modest estate, crammed against neighboring wineries like proverbial sardines. His winery, located in the village of Neirstein, has been in his family since 1710. The first and former Straub, a widow with nine children, settled here and planted grapes as a way to help make ends meet. The first recorded sale of wine to consumers however wasn’t until 1864. Twelve generations later, Walter is crafting wine.

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It’s not always easy, farming this region. In 2006 he lost 40 percent of his crop to botrytis. Walter’s wines, including his gruner-veltiner, are restrained, clean wines which express his hillside vineyards rich soil and benefit from their perch overlooking the Rhine River. I’m surprised, and pleased to see a gruner-veltiner on his list, normally the domain of Austria than Germany. “The image of gruner-veltiner is not very high currently,” Walter says. “It was very typical in the 19th Century. But it was pulled out and replaced with Silvaner.”

Silvaner, a tedious grape, produces more yield and, similar to the jug wines of the Central Valley in California, it was an issue of quanitiy over quality. But gruner is on the rise in the States and it’s becoming more and more available by the glass at restaurants and wine shops. His Soil to Soul is made expressly for the U.S. market, a soft easy drinking Riesling with a mild sugar bump for the American consumer. “Styles are ever changing and you need to change your style,” he told me in reference to heavier residual sugar levels demanded by palettes across the globe, most notably American and the UK. Soil to Soul is a mild rielsing with residual C02 left in, for a “fresh and fritzy” style he says. “These are the perfect lunch wines, as they are low in alcohol.” Straub wines are currently in 25 states.

In Westhofen is the Groebe winery headed by Fritz Groebe. He learned winemaking from his father and grandfather and continues the tradition. Though he has a modest tasting room, a few blocks away from his vineyards are his underground cellars, located in the small village. The street is loosely known as “cellar way” and the cellars are 500 years old, back when all the cellars here were used for wine. “I don’t need cooling equipment,” he jokes. Now the majority of these dank underground rooms are used for all types of storage or they remain empty. But descending the 15 steps below the street, the place holds the allure you’d expect: the walls and ceilings are ripe with mold, draping from every inch of wall like a damp, smelly carpet.

Some of his casks predate World War II. And it was during the war, as the allies moved through towns like this one, that Fritz’s grandmother, in an attempt to save some of the wines, hid them in one of the giant casks filled with water. But French soldiers shot up the casks and the wines that could have been passed to Fritz were destroyed. And so many years later the winery still holds its ground. In fact it’s been on this ground since 1763.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.