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.
By Sean Arthur, Food and Beverage Manager, Holland and Holland Shooting Grounds
Throughout my own career I have approached my guests with my 72 page wine list, been guided to the host of the table for the wine selection and been asked loud and proud “We need a good red for the mains, do you have any Bordeaux?” as if that is the most logical choice for any occasion.
Of course, why not?
But I have always been an advocate of expanding the guest’s repertoire of go-to styles. There are occasionally those more worldly guests that are aware quality wines exist outside of the obvious suspects, but I always felt they were too few and far between, especially when working in a classic fine dining atmosphere.
So how do we change this habit and broaden the horizons without compromising on selling “THAT” big bottle of high-earning 1er Grand Cru in favour of a mid-range Zin?
Now, I don’t mean we should over-stock ourselves or force sales upon people. But there’s definitely a case for showing a passion for other styles and broadening the mix of sales in the room each service.
For myself and my sommelier team this brought about a lot of discussion in the room, amongst the team and even across tables between guests. And with the diversity in sales my Junior Somms became much more confident.
Each time we were presented with the request for a robust French red – for this purpose lets suppose its right bank Bordeaux – I would bring up the selection and point out favourites, but before leaving the table for them to peruse and discuss I would flick forward to the Californians and give some comparatives.
For example, if the host’s eyes widened at the sight of a vertical of Léoville Barton from 1988 forwards then I would mention the new and exciting styles I added from Orin Swift. The prices would be comparable (maybe a bit cheaper) and I’d particularly point out the “Abstract” Cabernet Sauvignon, “Mercury head” Cabernet Sauvignon or “Papillon” listed as Bordeaux Blend.
Some customers might wonder about the lack of back-vintage variety, but I’d just tell them that that’s not Orin Swift’s ethos. They are about putting out well-made and explosive wines to be enjoyed when released. You can age them if you want, but… you know, drink it.
Rather than focusing on comparing grapes and terroir, it’s the story that gets me each time and is something I love presenting in the dining room.
Yes, of course the Old World have stories, but often I found the newer wineries’ stories to be more diverse and more relatable.
Orin Swift began when David Swift Finney bunked off Uni for a year to go drinking in Italy (I’m paraphrasing slightly). He fell in love with wine, and when he came back he trained at the Robert Mondavi Winery before eventually setting up his own venture.
As a story, that’s more fun than ‘handed down from aristocrat to aristocrat through the generations’.
Your guests come for the food and ambience, but they will forever remember that something new, or that wild story that led to their occasion being truly amazing. For me, it’s the exploration and the story that creates the stand-out experience. Wines like this can help to do that.
A few facts on Orin Swift to get you started
David Swift Finny inspired in Italy, trained at Robert Mondavi Wineries and founded his winery in 1998.
His Palermo is a good place to start.
Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon
Aging: 12 months, 39% new oak
Notes: Deep dark crimson colour, powerful aroma of currants, vanilla and cedar wood. Explodes onto the palate with powerful blackcurrant and dark cherry fruits, luscious and smooth.
Stockist: Enotria & Coe, £28-£35