Rheinhessesn's image as the birth-place of Liebfraumilch does the region no favours as between the villages of Nierstein and Nachenheim lie some of Germany's best vineyards. I couldn't wait to see how they had fared in the 2015 vintage.
A stormy night in Deidesheim
My night in Deidesheim was stormy, the heat of the day had been stifling and by evening the stage was set for some of nature's fireworks. It began as I was finishing a plate of sauerkraut and saumagen, a local sausage and one time favourite of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
I was on the point of going out for a post sauerkraut stroll when the heavens opened with no real warning. The great shower in the sky was turned to maximum. Immediately hotel staff emptied out, stripping the outside tables in a flash. The impressively tall and caped Maître d' came running out with an immense black umbrella. 'Herr Orford, you are wetting yourself!'
Nierstein becomes Rheinhessen: the most important wine region in Germany
The next morning began in radiant sunshine as I got my things together for the short drive north towards Nierstein. The wine region changes its name to Rheinhessen and is the most important wine region in Germany, producing more wine than anywhere else. It is also very old as there were vines planted here in Roman times. And me being me, I quite like to fantasise that Hildegard of Bingen might have trodden some grapes round these parts in her time!
One of the problems with the Rheinhessen is that quality doesn't always come to mind when thinking about it. This is the birth place of Liebfraumilch after all. And yet there are great vineyards here, quite possibly some of the best in Germany. They are to be found directly facing the Rhine between the villages of Nierstein and Nachenheim. The feature of interest is an escarpment that looks over the river called the Roter Hang (or red slope). This is a steep slope of red slate and from vineyards called Hipping, Pettenthal and Oelberg, among others, truly great and undervalued rieslings are made.
Looking down on the Rhine from the Hipping vineyard planted on the Roter Hang
My meeting was with Konstantin Guntrum, head of the family firm Louis Guntrum. This is one of Sebastian Payne MW's discoveries and I can see why he was so excited. Louis Guntrum have excellent vineyards here so the potential exists. Moreover Konstantin has been trying to raise quality. This was a great tasting and not just from rieslings coming from the great slopes. So called lesser wines from pinot blanc, pinot gris and even gewürztraminer were also very good.
Into the Nahe & on to Dönnhoff
Garmin, my trusty navigator for the trip then took over for the drive over the hills to Oberhausen in the Nahe. The Nahe is a fascinating micro region with a multiplicity of terroirs and wine styles that somehow bridge the gap between Mosel steeliness and Rhenish opulence. The visit of course was to Dönnhoff, one of the leading figures in the Nahe. The tasting did not disappoint with wine after wine showing sublime purity and precision.
Rotenfels mighty 1000 ft cliffs
No visit to the Nahe can happen without getting a glimpse of the Rotenfels, mighty thousand foot cliffs of reddish rock. The only slight problem is finding anywhere to stop so once again I carried on, making sure to avoid running over the file of hikers on the one hand, then half a dozen cyclists coming the other way. The Nahetal is desperately pretty and an obvious destination for tourists.
Next stop: Rheingau
There used to be a rail bridge at Bingen but this went in 1945 and though there has been talk about rebuilding, for now, the only bridge is further upstream at Mainz. Happily though there is a ferry which glides across the water in a few minutes allowing one to take in the view of the Rüdesheim slopes and the decidedly un-politically correct monument to the victory of 1871.
The destination was the old town of Hochheim and the cellars of Gunther Kunstler. Hochheim gave its name to Hoch used by the Victorians as a general name for Rhine wines. Kunstler represents a generation of young Turks who revolutionised the somewhat aristocratic and staid Rheingau of the past. Certainly he, with the likes of Robert Weil, completely changed the Rheingau and brought it back to winning ways with intense and largely dry rieslings. But he does other things too such as a chardonnay, Chablis-like in style, and more astonishingly an albariño (which Gunther translates as white Rhenish: is this in reality an offshoot of riesling? A tantalising thought!)
Back to Bacharach and across the Rhine again
By evening I needed to be downstream in Bacharach. Not far away but involving going back across the Rhine again. Garmin seemed to think there was another ferry so I followed her instruction and sure enough, a few picturesque miles away was a sign for a ferry. A quick turn to the left and the road seemed to disappear into the water. And so I waited for what seemed like an age and on my own until two ladies turned up with a push chair. Eventually the ferry turned up but was rather smaller than I expected. In fact there was just enough room for one car and a pushchair! The ferry doesn't just go from one side of the river to the other. It follows the course of the river for maybe half a mile, dodging sandbanks and islets. From getting back on land to my stop was only a short ride.
Bacharach is in the Mittelrhein, another small region and one that links the Rheingau with the Mosel. Vineyards seem to plunge down into the river here. The slopes seem barely possible. The region is not well known and most of the grapes here are turned into sparkling wine. The best vineyard in Bacharach is called Hahn and when made by the Jost family, this is one of my favourite rieslings.
It's a pretty medieval town that seems very untouched. I'm there for the wines but for the tourist, this is a good stopover, a good place to explore the Rhine gorge and of course the famous Loerelei rock. This is a massive cliff overlooking the water and it said that many a mariner has found death on the rocks after having been lured on to them by a mermaid. Mendelssohn stayed here and began writing an opera based on the legend. And there's a brooding poem by Apollinaire which Shostakovich set to music as part of his sombre fourteenth symphony.
The tasting at Toni Jost was one of the highlights of the trip: twenty or so wines of unspeakable beauty, starting with a pinot blanc which was one of the best I tasted.
The famous Loerelei rock near Bacharach
Where to go next?
Germany revisited part two: and onto the Mosel >
Return to trip overview >