Raymond Blake visits the picturesque Middle Rhine region and samples its wares
‘Fairy-tale’, ‘Stunning’, ‘Jaw-dropping’… you can throw a thesaurus-worth of superlatives at the 65-kilometre stretch of the Rhine valley that runs roughly from Bingen through Bacharach and Boppard to Koblenz and still come up short. This is the Rhine of gorges and precipitous river banks, dotted with castles and villages that would not look out of place on Christmas cards and selection boxes of chocolates. For centuries it has acted both as an artery for transport and as a border but it is as a compelling tourist attraction that it is best known today. When people think of quintessential Germany it is an image of the Middle Rhine that their imagination conjures up.
The stretch of river and surroundings that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002 forms a link between two of Germany’s most famed wine regions – the Mosel and the Rheingau. Being sandwiched between two such prestigious neighbours has done little for the region’s wine reputation, which has languished in their long shadows. Indeed, it was its importance as a historical trade route between northern and southern Europe and the links between diverse cultures that that fostered, rather than its scenic beauty or vinous charm, which secured its inscription as a heritage site.
For the energetic the way to explore the region is on foot by way of hiking the steep slopes; for those less inclined to set the pulse racing the answer is a boat trip. Lazing on deck with a glass of the region’s Riesling in hand, while gazing at the slopes and marvelling at the Herculean effort required to cull such gustatory beauty from such forbidding sites, holds the greater appeal for this writer. When one comprehends the toil involved in working the slopes, one can understand that the price of the resultant wines, which at first may seem high, can hardly be adequate to reward the year-round dedication involved. Only a visit to the region is adequate to appreciate its beauty and grasp its historical importance. As UNESCO puts it: “…the river has over the centuries fostered a cultural landscape of great beauty which has strongly influenced artists of all kinds – poets, painters, and composers – over the past two centuries.” Go now.
Riesling vies with Chardonnay as the wine world’s greatest white grape and, in terms of adaptability and variety, if not outright popularity, it probably trumps the latter. Where Chardonnay is stellar in some regions, notably Burgundy, it can be humdrum and anonymous in others. Riesling, thanks to its calling card of tingling acidity, is never less than distinctive and is always able to thrill a jaded palate, usually by way of memorable intensity and certainly not hearty richness. In addition, Riesling can be used to make wine in every style from searingly dry to sumptuously sweet. It is a hardy, late ripening grape, resistant to cold, and is planted successfully in France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Up-state New York and Austria. It reaches its apogee, however, in Germany where, in addition to its myriad other attributes, it produces wines of deceptive frailty, the best examples of which are capable of ageing for decades. What’s not to like?
Mittelrhein wines are difficult to source, far more so than their cousins from the Mosel, the Rheingau or Pfalz, for instance. Yet perseverance is rewarded with wines of thrilling precision and persistence, exemplars of the delicacy and intensity that Riesling is capable of and which no other grape can match. Names to watch for – particularly if you are planning a visit to the region – include the following:
Toni Jost This family estate dates back nearly two centuries and is now run by Toni’s son Peter, assisted by his daughter Cecilia representing the sixth generation. It is generally regarded as the leading producer in the region and owns 15 hectares of prime vineyard, mainly planted to Riesling. The wines are noted for their flinty purity.
Kauer Randolf Kauer is a busy man, dividing his time between running this family estate and attending to his responsibilities as Professor of Organic Viticulture at Geisenheim University. The modest estate of 3.5 hectares was founded in 1982 and is noted for wines of remarkable purity. To safeguard that purity screwcaps have been used on all the wines since 2006.
Ratzenberger Third generation Jochen Ratzenberger has charge of this estate situated in the town of Bacharach. Vineyard holdings total 12 hectares, the majority planted with Riesling but there is also some Pinot Noir, which promises to be Germany’s trump grape in the future. Ratzenberger is particularly noted for the quality of its sweet wines; less well known are its bottle fermented Sekts.
Weingart Florian Weingart farms a mere 4.5 hectares of vineyards divided between three sites on south-facing slopes so steep that even standing in the vineyard requires strenuous effort. Dotted about are many abandoned vineyards, testament to the fact that the toil involved in working them and the modest return hold no appeal for today’s generation. Not so Florian, whose wines are models of reserve and effortless class.