Rheingau

Meeting Weil’s new ultra-premium from the slopes of the Gräfenberg

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 ‘elbow bend’ in the Rhine – site of some of Germany’s most prestigious vineyards

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.

The Gräfenberg

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.

The hallowed slopes of the Grafenberg – owned almost exclusively by Robert Weil

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€.

Wine Available in the UK from Bibendum. Price on request, tiny quantities available.

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.

Understanding clones part I: Burgundy versus Germany

This is the first of a series of articles in which I will be looking into the advantages of using different clones of one grape variety to produce complex and diverse wines. I’m going to start with Pinot Noir, which I’m sure you know has a reputation for being one of the hardest to grow.

When I started visiting German vineyards and tasting Spätburgunder (as Pinot is called in Germany) from different regions 15 years ago, I detected noticeable differences in style and taste.

The wines were delicious, but I found myself wondering whether the wines were all from the same grape. Of course, they had to be because the label said so. But why were they all so different?

The answer started to become clear to me years later when I visited Champagne with a group of sommeliers. There we were confronted with numbers like 777, 113 & 115: different clones of Pinot Noir.

So what lies behind those numbers?  How do you decide what to plant? What are the benefits? And what are the differences?

A Wild Selection

A key term you will come across when visiting areas famous for Pinot Noir is Massal Selection. This is the process where growers use different cuttings from several vines in an existing vineyard and plant them into a new vineyard.

The new vineyard will now contain different clones, with different specifications and different needs. For a grower, this is a way of guaranteeing complexity and diversity.

But Massal selection doesn’t just give you a diverse blend flavour-wise, with more than just one characteristic, the clonal mix gives vineyards added flexibility to react to environmental challenges.

Burgundy versus Germany

This form of vineyard management has been performed in Burgundy for many decades, but in Germany this has only been the case over the last 20 years.

With climate change bringing warmer and shorter vintages, and less rain and humidity, German winemakers saw the opportunity to use French clones alongside their more resistant, higher yielding and more vigorous clones of Spätburgunder: Freiburg, Mariafeld and Geisenheim.

Joachim Heger, of Weingut Dr. Heger, a pioneer in the Kaiserstuhl Region in Baden, was fortunate to inherit a vineyard planted by his father with cuttings from the Clos Vougeot vineyard. This particular parcel was planted in 1956, as part of the larger Winklerberg vineyard, as a Massal Selection and is called “Häusleboden”  

This vineyard is in a warmer site in the Kaiserstuhl and produces intense, perfumed wines with hints of earth and spice. Yet even in his cooler sites – more north or north-west facing – Heger still prefers French clones to maintain freshness and protect the thin skins from bursting.

French Clones

French clones are thin skinned, have small berries and low yield but are high in concentration. They bunches are tight and do not allow an efficient air circulation and. As a result the bunches are every prone for fungal diseases.

Clones such as 667, 777, 113, 115, 823 and 864 are the most commonly used.

While 113 and 115 clones are very perfumed and light in colour, 667 and 777 are more intense with a darker berry aroma and darker colour. When blended they do enhance each other and make beautiful wines. The Pommard, (also known as Clone 5) is a clone designed to produce a wine on its own due to its natural concentration and texture and meaty and gamey character.

The German Option

Because Germany has a history of cooperatives there has been an emphasis on making grape growing profitable. Since high yields and large grapes were necessary German clones tend to be thick skinned with large berries.

In the past harvest would be done way into October with higher humidity. The very loose clusters allow a good air circulation during the later months of the year in order to prevent grey rot.

Resistant grapes with high sugars and lots of liquid are indeed profitable. Clones like Freiburg 52-86, Freiburg 52-84, Geisenheim and Mariafeld are very common and widely used for this purpose.

Today, those who have chosen to work with German clones to produce quality wines are in the fortunate position of having older vines that are smaller in size and naturally have more concentration and flavour. The clones are still resistant to damp and rot, and the vigour is reduced to control the sugar production and to keep the acidity.

To round up…

Cllimate change has meant that it is vital for growers to be flexible and to be able to react to different challenges throughout the year. So there is a definite advantage in being able to make use of different clones. While some Winemakers in Germany prefer to work with German clones, we do see a change in the vineyards towards the French clones.

It will, of course, be very difficult to convince the French to use German clones – or, indeed, any other clones which are not French.  But other areas around the world are experimenting with a selection to establish a pool of clones to determine those which work best for their environment.

Thanks to climate change, German winemakers are increasingly experimenting with whole bunch or whole cluster fermentation on both groups of clones; a technique which they see as vital to maintain freshness when there are higher ripeness levels.

When visiting winemakers and when trying to understand the wines, you will need to understand the grape material the winemaker uses for their wines. In my experience, asking them about which clones they are using and why is one of the most fascinating conversations you can with a viticulturist or winemaker.

Clones are a fascinating area, and there are two more grape varieties which are particularly worth writing about: Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. I will cover them again in follow-up pieces for the Sommelier Collective. So stay tuned!

‘Riesling and fizz – what’s not to love?’

Two years ago, I joined a group of sommeliers on a Wines of Germany trip to Berlin. The idea was to ask top restaurateurs / sommeliers over there for their thoughts on the country’s wines. They would pick out key trends, and some of their favourite producers and the group would try them – often with food.

Some trends – single vineyard Rieslings and Pinot Noir – the group were expecting. Others, such as a big rise in natural wine, tapped into movements that were appearing all over the world.

But there was one trend the group had not been expecting: the resurgence of sekt.

It’s popular, but…

At five bottles per person, Germany has the highest per capita consumption of sparkling wine in the world – and a lot of it is sekt.

Much of it is sold at a low price in the country’s supermarkets where it does a sterling job of slaking the population’s thirst in the evenings and at weekends.

And successful though they are, it’s safe to say that these standard expressions of fizz are not typically sought after by UK sommeliers.

But the last ten years has seen a big rise in what you might call ‘artisanal’ sekt – much more ambitious wines made with real care and attention.

Sekt instead of Champagne

The quality of these wines is reflected in the fact that the Restaurant am Steinplatz in Berlin has now felt able to de-list the two dozen champagnes on its sparkling list and replace them with sekts.

It’s not a gimmick, it’s a stylistic choice – and one the restaurant felt it could make without sacrificing quality.

Pascal Kunert of two-star restaurant Coda in Berlin has called it a ‘revolution’, and certainly these wines often had our Berlin tasters scrabbling for superlatives.

While the cheaper sekts are usually tank fermented, the top classification levels – somms should look for ‘Winzersekt’ or ‘VDP sekt’ on the label – must be made by the traditional method, with time on lees.

Winzersekt (which means ‘grower’s sekt’) uses only estate grapes – often Riesling – and must spend at least nine months on the lees. Typically, the Riesling sekts have bright green apple and peach flavours, with toasty, smoky notes.

VDP sekt must come from an estate that is a member of the country’s premium group of wine producers – the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter. The fruit must be grown specifically for Sekt production, early-picked (and by hand) and whole-cluster pressed.

There are two tiers of VDP sekt: one that requires a minimum of 15 months on the lees and a second for single-vineyard and all vintage wines that require 36 months on the lees.

Riesling + bubbles = happy

Riesling, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the most common grape in the upper quality levels of sekt. It’s used in 40% of the Winzersekts, for instance. And given the historical love for the variety amongst most sommeliers, this, in itself, is a major attraction.

‘You get Riesling and fizz at the same time. What’s not to love?’

Jan Konetzki, Director of Wine, Ten Trinity Square

The ‘Riesling plus bubbles’ factor was a big attraction for Joan Torrents, too. The Pantry & Co restaurateur included two Riesling sekts by the glass as part of his activity during the last 30 Days of Riesling in 2019.

While the sparklers needed a little hand-selling, it was worth the effort.

‘It was reassuring to see such a positive feedback from the public,’ he says. ‘There was an overwhelming majority of people suddenly woken up to the greatness of both German Riesling and sekt.’

Pinots and Chardonnay too

That said, there is more to sekt than just Riesling. A quarter of the varieties used in the wines are Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc or Chardonnay. In fact, the rise of ‘Pinot’ varieties in sekt is adding real stylistic breadth to the category. They are broader, richer and less ‘zingy’ than Riesling versions.

When it comes to sekt, the huge range of options available is very much a strength.

‘It’s all there, from serious vintage sekt to more casual non-vintage bubbly,’ says Jan Konetzki. ‘There is much more than Riesling sekt. Sekt brings you variety. It’s very 2021 and beyond!’

Three best

Two years ago Wines of Germany ran a competition to find the 20 best Sekts. Over 200 were tasted, and the top 20 unveiled at Prowein 2019. Interestingly, they came from across the country, from Baden up to Nahe and the Rheingau across to Franken.

The most expensive wine had an RRP of €39, but most were well under €20, positioning them somewhere between Prosecco and English sparkling wine. These are wines, in other words, that are not just interesting and different, but affordable. They can add a real layer of interest to your wine list without being outside most customers’ price range.

So, where to start? If there is one downside to sekt, it’s that it remains – for the moment at least – relatively hard to pick up in the UK. Though increased demand from Riesling-loving somms would probably help to change this.

‘I am certain that market would love sekt if they had the chance to taste it,’ says Pantry & Co’s Joan Torrents. ‘It’s a fabulous food-matching fizz and adds diversity in the world of bubbles. So let’s find a way to embrace it!’

CASE STUDY

Paul Morgan, Fourth and Church, Hove

We have stocked Bibo Runge ‘Provokateur’ Rheingau Sekt for a while now. It is a great wine: Riesling character, nice sparkle, and a touch of red fruit which I understand to be a dosage of Pinot. Really cool label as well.

To sell a wine like this, the team needs to get behind it, try it and understand it with some detail. Then I will limit other sparkling wines by the glass so it makes customers try something new. I reckon 95% of the time they love it and will buy it again. They seem pleased that they have some additional knowledge.

The Sekt message is not all that clear here, but we try to always have a selection of unusual lines and push the fact that they are high quality/niche/special etc. They have to be hand-sold though so we have to keep the team abreast of what we have and why we have it.

Find your own winner

Sommelier Collective members wanting to find out which producers are making quality sekt could do worse than start with the results for the competition that Wines of Germany ran in 2019: Germany’s Best Sekt Wines Selected.

Over 200 entries were received, and a judging panel of 11 jurors, from 10 different countries, narrowed them down to a shortlist of 20 and then, finally, three winners.

The wine that came second, from Griesel in the Hessische Bergstrasse region south of Frankfurt, is available through Wine Barn.

The results and write up are here, click here.

This article was sponsored by Wines of Germany.

‘You have to have passion…’

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.

Contact Giovanni or view member profile.