Monday, September 20, 2010

Germany: Beyond the Mosel (First in a three-part series by Kent Benson)

When most people think of German wine country, they think of the Mosel, and rightly so. It is Germany’s best known wine-producing area and most of the wines exported to the U.S. come from there.

And yet, there are twelve other wine regions in Germany, all of which are producing quality wines. I recently visited some of these lesser-known regions and came away with a heightened appreciation of their wines.

Every winery I visited had the latest equipment. The winemakers were deadly serious about making great wine. Many had traveled to other storied wine regions throughout the world seeking the secrets to making better wine.

My first stop was the Rheingau, a mere 20 mile stretch along the only portion of the Rhine River that runs east to west instead of south to north, providing the perfect growing conditions on its south-facing slopes. The area’s largest city is Wiesbaden, but it is also home to a world famous wine school in Geisenheim.

While there is a minute amount of Pinot Noir (called Spätburgunder) famously produced at its western end, the Rheingau is Riesling country. A tour of the Rheingau would not be complete without visits to Kloster Eberbach and Schloss Johannisberg.

If you enjoy history and beautiful Romanesque and early Baroque architecture, you will love Kloster Eberbach. Founded in 1136 on the site of a former Benedictine monastery, Kloster Eberbach was the first Cistercian monastery on the east bank of the Rhine. In 1803 the abbey was dissolved and the property was turned over to the nobility as part of an agreement to compensate German princes for former German territory acquired by France as a result of the French Revolution.

Today, the Abbey is owned by a charitable foundation and the vineyards and winemaking enterprise are run by the German state of Hesse. There is a modern vinothek (wine tasting room and shop) on the Abbey grounds, as well as a hotel and restaurant. The awe-inspiring buildings are surrounded by beautifully manicured grounds. Wines available include Riesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Grigio), Dornfelder (a light red), and Spätburgunder, as well as dessert and sparkling wines.

Less than five miles to the west is Schloss Johannisberg, whose history reaches back 900 years. It is referred to as the first Riesling estate in the world. Founded as a Benedictine monastery in 1100 on a mountain which was soon thereafter called Johannisberg (John’s mountain), due to its basilica built in honor of John the Baptist.

With the monastery having been destroyed by war in 1525, the Prince-Abbot of Fulda purchased the estate in 1716 and built a palace and planted the first Riesling vines. It was during the Prince-Abbot’s ownership that the tradition of Spätlese (late harvest) wines began.

In 1775, the messenger sent to Fulda to secure permission to begin the harvest was delayed for several weeks. When he finally arrived back at Johannisberg, the grapes were infected by a mold that had shriveled the grapes. Nonetheless, the grapes were harvested and the resulting wine was beautifully sweet. The mold had served to concentrate the sugars in the grapes’ juice. A statue in the courtyard of the palace now pays tribute to the fateful messenger.

After changing hands several times, in 1816 the estate was placed in the hands of an Austrian statesman, Prince von Metternich. It remained in the Metternich family until 1974 when it was acquired by the Oetker Group, a large, diversified German company.

Destroyed by bombs in 1942, the palace was eventually restored by the Metternich family, who saw it through to its completion in 1965. Fürstin Tatiana von Metternich resided in the palace until her death in 2006.

There is an excellent restaurant on the property and don’t miss the breathtaking view from its veranda. Sitting atop the steep vineyards, it offers a panorama which includes a view of Geisenheim and the Rhine beyond.

Schloss Johannisberg specializes in Riesling. They have a unique system for categorizing their various offerings. In keeping with that famous German orderliness, the color of the capsule indicates the quality level and style of the wine in the bottle.

Many Americans are surprised to learn that German wine producers reserve their best vineyards for the production of dry wine, those designated as trocken. So, be sure to sample both the sweet and dry styles.

The Rheingau has it all, beautiful architecture, stunning views, and great wine! Next time we’ll venture south to the Pfalz and Baden.
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