The Rheingau is close to my heart. Frankfurt is where I was allowed to manage my very first wine list as a sommelier, and from there I was able to visit the prestige vineyards and producers based around the famous villages along the Rhine River.
Once you cross the Schiersteiner Brücke from the south and turn left, a route packed with history and tradition opens up in front of you.
From Eltville in the east to Rüdesheim in the west, this is one of the most famous 20km stretches in the German wine world: the home to such A-list vineyards as Schlossberg, Nussbrunnen, Gräfenberg, Berg Schlossberg and Höllenberg.
The reason for this is simple. Most of the time, the Rhein flows from south to north. But here it briefly turns through 90 degrees to run east to west. This means that the Rheingau’s vineyards have a full southern exposure and are protected by the hills of the Taunus mountain range to the north.
The Rhine River has a warming effect during the night but also maintains a constant temperature during the ripening phase.
Don’t forget, we are at 50 degrees north here. This is still a cool wine region and grapes sometimes struggle to ripen fully.
All About Riesling
The Rheingau is Riesling. Fact. There is some Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, and good Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) on the west-facing, slate soils of Assmanshausen when the river makes a turn back to the north.
But 80% of the Rheingau is planted to the White Queen.
Though some of the country’s best Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenausles come from here, the wines generally tend towards the dry style.
Soils change constantly, from slate in Assmannshausen, to quartzite in Rüdesheim, and löss/clay soil in the centre of the region and on the top of the hills. The slopes are steep and can quickly climb to almost 350m above the river.
Located above the village of Kiedrich the Gräfenberg is owned almost exclusively by Weingut Robert Weil, which has 9.7ha of its 10.5ha. Only two other producers take grapes from here.
It is famous for wine of higher, sweeter qualities such as Beerenauslese, Trockenberenauslese and Eiswein. But what people don’t know is that it also produces some of the best dry Rieslings, from fresh crisp Gutswein, through the delicious Kiedricher up to Grand Cru (Großes Gewächs – usually known as GG) quality.
For GG, low yield, 40hl/ha is a standard, the use of large Stück (1200l) or Doppelstück (2400l), mostly old casks, is a given.
As the vines became older, the Riesling in some smaller parcels of the Grafenberg vineyard stood out, for giving wines with more complexity, flavour intensity and the character.
Home of Monte Vacano
One such ‘special’ parcel was the Gräfenberg-Lay in the north-west, very close to the Turmberg. The soil here is predominantly slate, called Phylliteschiefer, which is spread throughout the Gräfenberg but has a higher content in this parcel. The vines on this 0.5ha parcel are now 40-60 years old.
And this is the home of a special new launch from the Robert Weil winery: Monte Vacano.
Named after the founder’s wife (she was a descendant of the Vacano family in Lombardy) 100 years ago, it used to be made just for the family. After the 1922 vintage it was incorporated into the regular GG Gräfenberg.
But Wilhelm Weil decided to revisit his family’s traditions and bottle the 2018.
Wild-fermented, and matured for 24 months on its lees in large traditional Stück, the Monte Vacano comes 100% from the Lay parcel of the Gräfenberg. Production is tiny – there are only 1200 bottles (plus a few magnums and one double-magnum) – and prices are around the €130 mark.
On the 6th of March at the VDP Rheingau Reserve Auction, one 12l bottle 2018 was under the hammer for an incredible €18,000. The Magnum got auctioned off at 520€.
This new arrival is not cheap. But it is a genuinely exciting arrival on Germany’s fine wine scene – innovative and experimental. And I really hope that this will inspire other Rheingau producers to follow Wilhelm Weil and his team – to respect the region’s traditions while still trying to do something different.
The professional journey in hospitality is rarely straightforward. You can begin as a sommelier and end up running a hotel, or start by pulling corks and polishing glasses, and end up as a world-beating bartender.
Take Giovanni Ferlito.
It might be hard to believe, but the current head of wine and beverages at the Ritz Hotel began as a bartender at the Hard Rock Café in his home town of Catania. His main influence was not Gerard Basset or Paolo Basso, but Tom Cruise in Cocktail.
The Sommelier Collective caught up with him to find out how he got to where he is now, and who and what has inspired him on his amazing journey.
You said you came into wine ‘sideways’ – tell us a bit about your journey
After Hard Rock Café I worked for a big Italian resort company, Valtur. That job took me all over the world and I made my way up to Bar Manager, then F&B Manager. It was an opportunity to understand the whole hospitality operation, to know a bit of everything about costs and leadership.
When did you come to the UK?
In 2010. I planned to continue as an F&B Manager, but the problem was that my English at the time meant that I wasn’t even able to do an interview! It was really, really poor.
So you started to study, I guess?
Yes. I would have taken any job just to pay my studies. I knew a lot about hospitality, spirits and cocktails, and I’d taken a few wine courses, but I wasn’t a real professional sommelier. I sent out a few applications, and got a call from Locanda Locatelli. Virgilio Gennaro was the head sommelier, but it was really funny. He did the interview in English, even though we were from the same part of Italy. He really wanted to put some pressure on me, to see my potential.
And was that what lit the wine spark for you?
It was my first experience as a sommelier, but I wasn’t yet sure that it was going to be my new career. I was just learning something new. It’s Virgilio’s fault that I’m in wine. He was so passionate about it, and he transferred that passion into me.
Where did you go from there?
To Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. I found another passionate wine lover with great charisma as my boss: Hugues Lepin. And I though that’s the person I want to work with – I want to learn everything from him. Then it was clear that I wanted to do wine.’
Do you think qualifications are an essential part of wine education?
It depends. It’s important to take courses, but something that is non-negotiable is that you have to have passion. You might have the knowledge, but if you don’t have the passion you won’t be able to share it with your guests. Hugues Lepin, for instance, has no qualifications at all. But if you speak to him he knows the producers, the soils, the stories, everything. You can learn more from someone like him than taking WSET Level 3. For someone at my level you’d probably already expect that I am a Master Sommelier or have a Diploma, but in fact I started my Diploma last year.
How do you go about working with your suppliers?
I’m a big fan of building the relationship with the suppliers, rather than just looking at pure contract. My job would be much easier if I just worked with ten suppliers, signing contracts based on retros and volumes, but it would lack dynamism and uniqueness. With wine we have 20 main suppliers, and we work with another 15. I’m more interested in the story behind each product than the retro stock they might be offering.
What do you love most about the job?
The variety. It’s like being an entrepreneur – I need to do a bit of everything. I need to be on the floor, but there’s a lot of work to do behind the scenes too. I’m lucky to have a strong team – I couldn’t do this on my own. I delegate a lot.
What are your favourite wine styles?
In general I’m interested in the expression of the terroir, and I like diversity. I prefer wines made with indigenous varieties – a Nero di Troia from Puglia, for instance, or a Lacrima di Morro d’Alba from the Marche. And I love Germany. I really appreciate Riesling.
And what excites you about being part of The Sommelier Collective?
I’m looking forward to sharing my knowledge and transferring my passion to youngsters in the hospitality industry – and to be able to talk to my peers. There’s nothing else in our industry that brings all the sommeliers under one roof.