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.
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.
Fritz doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides and demands that all grapes be hand harvested. “Hand picking is basic for quality wine,” he tells me. He wants to insure that the fruit is treated well. That also explains why Fritz wants his vines to have a minimum of 15 years in the ground in order to produce quality fruit. The vines need maturation time. 65 percent of Groebe wines are Riesling, though pinot noir and pinot gris are also offered. Part of the beauty of tasting wines in Germany is that so many winemakers have an abundance of older vintages, which they feel showcase the wines much better than a release that is two or three years old.
Back in the cellar, Fritz opens up a 19 years old Riesling that he and his father made together. The deep gold hues and viscous balanced, near honey like notes remind me that German wines best express tradition, family and the belief that many things in life are worth waiting for.
The narrow winding streets of Westhofen feel like a corkscrew, sharp bends and you’re face to face with a tractor or harvester trying to negotiate the cobbled streets. Breaking free of the constraints, I drive through open fields of fallow land, flanked by hillsides packed with vines. It is then that I arrive at Wittmann Winery, operated by Phillip and Eva Wittmann.
“The winery has been in the family since 1663,” Eva says. Their tasting room is decorated with their personal collection of modern art and adds to the personality of the place. Though tradition is important, Phillip and Eva are using modern technology in concert with traditional farming. Wittmann is certified organic and, like most of his Riesling brethren, a full 95 percent of the wines are Riesling, though Phillip does make some chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir. There are heavy clay and limestone soils in this area, “which provide the minerality,” Phillip says, and his wines clearly reflect that.
His winery, though not open for tours, is spotless and his state of the art presses look brand new. Phillip uses mainly native yeasts and after two to five hours of gently pressing the juice, allows between four to 18 hours of skin contact with the juice in order to maximize his clean wines. In contrast to the gleaming stainless steel tanks, he takes me 25 feet below the production area, deep in the bowels of the earth. He too has wooden casks from the late 1800s and yes, he too has one cellar that dates from the middle-ages and the dichotomy is a visual feast.
As we taste through the 2007 vintage, and this is what the public can taste, it’s easy to make the connection between the environment and the wines. Wittmann wines are clean, minimal with a balanced acidity. “2007 is a very good vintage. We had more hang time and a mild summer,” she says. “This has good aging potential.” Unfortunately for Phillip and Eva, most wines are drunk too young. “The 2007s need until at least 2010 to mature,” Eva advises. It’s tough though, because they are tasting so well right now, however for those with patience, the wines will be fantastic down the road.