Sensational Dry White German Rieslings Starring Dönnhoff, Gunderloch, And Heymann-Löwenstein
by Ken Gargett
This time around with German rieslings, no distant ramblings down memory lane, no exploits of idiotic friends, and no attempts at alpine ascents. I’ll just look at the curiosities and glories of German wine. Well, perhaps one or two minor detours.
When I first started exploring the world of wine, conventional wisdom declared that German wine was white and it was varying degrees of sweet. Sure, there were token reds, but they were nothing more than an oddity. And there were dry wines, but they were simply where winemakers couldn’t get their grapes ripe/sweet enough.
However, conventional wisdom was hopelessly wrong – or at least, it is today.
Germany is making some very exciting reds, especially from Pinot Noir, where it is known as Spätburgunder. Climate change has played a significant role here. I realize that there are places in the world where climate change is questioned, to put it politely, but I have yet to meet a winemaker anywhere who has the slightest doubts as to its impact, although some in Germany consider it positive in a way as it has provided better conditions for vintage in recent years. Germany could get horrendously cold, making some vintages extremely difficult.
Sweeter wines ran through the light, refreshing, slightly sweet styles like Kabinett, increasing in levels of sweetness to Spätlese, then Auslese, Beerenauslese, and finally the incredibly sweet, intense marvels called Trockenbeerenauslese. These are rare and extremely expensive.
There is also a style called Eiswein (“ice wine”) where frozen berries are harvested and barely any juice at all is squeezed from them, but what does emerge is again very sweet and intense. These are also the sorts of wines for which one usually has to sell at least one kidney for a half-bottle.
A friend managed to get a number of halves of Dönnhoff Riesling Oberhauser Brücke Eiswein from 2004 (his kidneys are supposedly still intact). Dönnhoff is one of my all-time favorite producers, not just in Germany but from anywhere. Brilliant wines, and this Eiswein is something truly special. My friend has shown it several times up against the 2001 Yquem, truly one of the greatest of all Yquems, and it always more than holds its own.
Dry Germans: Heymann-Löwenstein
The dry Germans are called trocken (which just means “dry” in German), and we are seeing some wineries putting out stellar efforts. Why the change? In days gone by, the climate meant that Riesling in Germany seemed far too severe, too acidic, to be offered dry.
Try a bone-dry Riesling from somewhere on the southern island of New Zealand and you can see why that style of wine will put a dentist’s kids through school. Warmer vintages, careful selection of sites, and better winemaking has meant that not all German Rieslings still have to be sweet.
After all, if places like the Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia can make thrilling dry Rieslings, why not Germany? It is, after all, the grape’s spiritual home.
Some producers are not seeking to make “dry” or “sweet” wines. They simply want to make the best wines they can, reflecting the terroir. And no white grape is able to reflect terroir as clearly as Riesling.
One of our local importers kindly forwarded me a quote from UK writer Jancis Robinson, a well-known Riesling fan. “Kindly indulge me while I remind you why Germany’s signature grape Riesling is the greatest white-wine grape in the world. And is so twenty-first century in so many respects. The wines it produces particularly precisely express where they were grown (like Pinot Noir). They last and continue to evolve interestingly forever (at least as long as Cabernet Sauvignon). Rieslings are generally particularly refreshing and relatively low in alcohol. And they go superbly – generally better than white Burgundy and other Chardonnays – with food. Nowadays most Riesling is dry, not sweet. And German dry Riesling is one of the wine world’s undervalued treasures.”
One of those producers who aims to make the best wine he can from his terroir is Reinhard Löwenstein from the Mosel winery Heymann-Löwenstein. He works with his daughter Sarah. I visited there a few years ago and it was an intriguing, if a little bewildering, experience – the architecture alone gives you a clue with a mix of old and new (perhaps you need to see it).
As Löwenstein explained, the consideration of green harvesting, improved canopy management, the use of skin contact, bâtonnage, and lees contact, has all assisted in turning what would once have been seen as poor vintages into fine ones.
Löwenstein talked of looking for ripeness in correlation with the sort of wine one wants to make, calling it oenological ripeness. The residual sweetness varies and is usually around six to eight grams per liter, sometimes marginally higher. At this level, it is practically irrelevant, slightly over the bone-dry threshold. His aim is “harmony,” and he does not refer to his wines as trocken. Are we looking at the future of German Riesling?
Dry Germans: Dönnhoff
Helmut talks of the variation of soils throughout his vineyards and the importance of volcanic soil, which is much younger than the slate. Some vineyards have chalk, which helps to disguise higher acidity and which suits dry styles. There is also red sandstone (this is found in Dönnhoff’s Höllenpfad vineyard) and each gives different characteristics to the Riesling – “a different face.”
He sees his region as giving the wines elegance and minerality rather than volume. The lower rainfall here, in comparison with the Mosel, also benefits drier wines.
Although Dönnhoff offers some of the most thrilling sweeter wines on the planet, its drier styles are also not to be missed. Unfortunately, tiny quantities and massive demand mean that many of us do miss them. Looking at my notes of the drier styles, phrases like, “great purity, depth, like stumbling your way through slate fields, pristine, focus of a laser, elegant” and the like appeared regularly.
Helmut, like pretty much every German winemaker, has views on German wine laws, both those longstanding and newer versions (which I looked at a while back and which, in all good conscience, I simply can’t bring myself to inflict upon readers again).
It is, however, worth mentioning the term Grosses Gewächs (commonly shortened to GG). This is used to identify some of the very finest wines from Germany and is specific to dry wines. It was never part of the official German wine laws but came about as a group of the better producers got together in the early 2000s and came up with the concept.
Refined in 2012, a Grosses Gewächs comes from a Grosse Lage, which translates as “great site.” These great sites have been determined by the German VDP classification system. VDP refers to a group of producers and is invite-only.
Never ever miss the opportunity to add any GG wine from Dönnhoff to your cellar.
And if I may be allowed a small and unplanned digression, my last story mentioned the extraordinary Auslese from Egon Müller from the 1971 vintage. Fans of German wines will know that this is a legendary year. I ran through several decades of vintages with Helmut, and it is worth mentioning his opinion of 1971: “never seen better grapes . . . nothing compares . . . outstanding.”
My visit to Dönnhoff a few years ago was one of the most memorable of my life. Incredibly informative, stupendous wines, and more. Although I am talking dry today, I can’t help but mention one of the truly greatest wines I’ve ever tried, Dönnhoff’s Oberhauser Brücke Riesling Eiswein from 2013.
The temperature plummeted to minus 9°C that year, making it ideal for Eiswein production. But when Helmut received the call that it was time to go – these grapes are harvested in the middle of the night – he ignored it. It was only when Cornelius had to take the dog out and realized just how cold it was that Helmut was roused.
Production was 100 half-bottles, 48 standard bottles, and a few magnums. Around 20 percent of all of this went to the annual charity auction and remaining magnums are family only. Helmut very kindly opened a half for us. Seven percent alcohol only; a serious 14 grams acidity but 200 grams sugar to balance that. This was truly outstanding in every possible way and a 100-point wine every day of the week. There is not a human alive today who will outlive this stunning wine.
Back to the topic. I have looked at some of the Dr. Loosen trocken wines previously so I won’t rehash that, but it is yet another producer, long famous for its thrilling sweeter styles, who is making wonderful dry styles. Robert Weil is another.
Dry Germans: Gunderloch
Gunderloch from the Rheinhessen region is definitely worth looking at as well. I’m sure that its 2019 wines are available somewhere in the world, but our local importers very kindly provided me with the chance to taste a short vertical of the Rothenberg Riesling Trocken 2016, 2017, and 2018.
I mentioned 2019 because, while those are three exceptional years, there is talk that 2019 could top them all. This generation’s 1971?
Johannes Hasselbach took over the reins at this Rheinhessen estate when his father passed away in 2016 and is currently the president of the local branch of the VDP. He is also taking this winery to new heights, the first winery in Germany to put its entire range under screwcap (could any variety be more suited in every possible way to this style of closure?). The Rothenberg vineyard is considered to be one of Germany’s finest.
Hasselbach is sixth generation with the estate founded in 1890, when the Nackenheim Rothenberg vineyard was purchased by Carl Gunderloch, a banker. Johannes, his great-great-great-grandson, works closely with his wife, Marie.
Gunderloch was a founding member of the VDP and one of only four such estates still active in the organization. They own 28 hectares of vines, 14 of which are considered “steep sites.” Often considered specialists in steep-site viticulture, Gunderloch’s finest sites are Rothenberg, Pettenthal, and Hipping.
While Gunderloch does have a number of varieties present in the vineyards, 80 percent is Riesling. The soils provide the basis for the winery’s “clear, mineral-driven Rieslings,” a mix of iron oxide laced with red shale and clays.
Winemaking begins with yeasts native to the vineyards followed by lengthy maceration periods on skins. The new winery alleviates the need for so much pumping, and the gentle handling of the juice benefits the wine. The extended maceration on lees is sometimes up to nine months or more.
The Rothenberg vineyard is approximately five hectares with a south-by-southeast exposure. Actually, it is about 20 hectares, but the key, the “heart” if you will, comprises around five hectares in the ownership of the Gunderloch estate.
This is a steep site, varying from 30 percent to a staggering 80 percent (with some of the very steepest in the hands of the Gunderloch estate) with exposed slate looking directly at the Rhine. Fifty percent of Gunderloch’s wines are exported to 20 different countries.
Gunderloch tasting notes
The three wines retail for around AUD$110 to AUD$120. The winery apparently devotes just 20 of the very best rows from this vineyard to this wine.
Gunderloch Rothenberg Riesling GG Trocken 2016 – Such an impressive Riesling. Limpid green gold. Gorgeous nose. The more time this wine was open, the more it blossomed. Florals, citrus, lemon zest, spices.
There is a hint of Iced VoVo (an old Aussie biscuit with a dusting of raspberry jam and coconut, very popular at one stage). Balanced, this has serious length and a seamless, supple texture. Some peach and cumquat notes emerged. Elegance throughout. A clean and dry finish but the palate almost seems sweet, so fresh and ripe it is. Drink this now for ten years. Love it. 96.
Gunderloch Rothenberg Riesling GG Trocken 2017 – Pale yellow with a hint of green. This is more mineral and slate than florals. Grapefruit is the dominant citrus for this vintage. More pear than peach and/or cumquat.
This is steelier and with laser-like focused acidity. Has a cold steel edge and the very early impression of complexity building. Good intensity and great length. Taut, fresh, piercing, elegant. This has 20 years ahead of it. A great future. This is a cracking young Riesling. 95.
Gunderloch Rothenberg Riesling GG Trocken 2018 – For me, this is the pick of the trio, though it is still far too young to be drinking it. If you want a wonderful young Riesling for today, the 2016 is the go.
The palest green gold, really very young. Even a little reticent. This sits somewhere between the ’16 and ’17 in style. There is slate, steel, wet stone, mountain river freshness, and there are notes of florals and ripe citrus, a mix of lemon and grapefruit. A whiff of apricot.
This is pristine, pure and with great focus. As with the two previous wines, the more time in the glass, the better it looked. Fiercely intense acidity but everything in balance. Incredible length and budding complexity. Such a long future. This will be amazing (already is). A wonderful wine. 97.
One final note: while working on this, I was also working on another piece about matching food and wine. One suggested classic was pork belly dishes and dry German Riesling. So I thought I’d give it a go after the tasting. Aside from going a bit heavy on the chili, which the Riesling actually handled extremely well, it worked a treat.