I was fortunate enough to be invited on the recent Masters of Riesling trip by renowned German importer 'ABS Agencies' this past June. This trip involved visiting some of the most prestigious German wineries across the country over four wine filled days, sounds fun right...
And off we go
Setting off very early on Monday morning from Clapham to fly out of Heathrow, the plan was for the group to meet for a quiet coffee and get to know each other before the tour started. But instead, a one for all dash to the gates through the chaotic airport was more in line with what has now become synonymous with any travel in 2022. Luckily any stress from the queues, mayhem and sleep deprivation were soon forgotten as we landed in Stuttgart and the real adventure could begin.
We were greeted at the airport by Schnaitmann winery, who obviously understood the assignment as they had a nice cold bottle of Sparkling Blanc de Noirs waiting for us before we set off, made from 100% Pinot Noir; it was the perfect start to the trip. As we made our way about 30 minutes outside of Stuttgart into the Necker Valley, it was an excellent chance to get to know my fellow travellers, who were made up of ABS staff and a good mix of retailers, private sales and buyers from the UK.
As we drove up to the vineyards, I began to get a sense of just how hard these producers work to preserve the uniqueness of their different wines. Each twist and turn of the road brought about another vineyard, with different soil composition, aspect and overall flavour. We climbed from 400 to 500 meters plus in what seemed like no time at all, to some of the highest vineyards in the country and an amazing view of the valley below us, which the Mercedes Benz factory calls home. We stopped within the vines for a refreshment break before getting into the winery itself, where we met Rainer Schaitmann who set up the estate in 1997, although his family winemaking history goes back a mere 500 years.
Within 8 years of starting up he was invited into the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, a German organisation that promotes the country's top wines and estates) and remains the newest member. After a brief introduction, we sat down for a traditional German lunch of Spaghetti Carbonara and began our first tasting, working in the Burgundian order of red wines and then the whites. The Simonroth Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) was a lovely introduction to the range, with soft crunchy fruit; this was followed by the Lemberger (Blaufrankish) which for those that haven't had it before is a great summer red. Then the Grosses Gewächs Spatburgunder's (GG, the Grand Cru wines from Germany) have a rich, complex body and are well worth trying. After this came the range of Rieslings, all of which were really terroir driven. The Bergmandel is a fresh style with white flowers and apricot, the Gotzenberg is mineral driven with racing acidity, and the Lammler is a big juicy Riesling packed full of fruit.
Karl H Johner Winery
After a quick look around the cellars it was time for our next tasting with Karl H Johner. Patrick, whose father set up the winery after spending a decade working in the English wine industry, had made the 2 hour trip from Baden to show us his wines. This was quite the flight of German wines, showcasing everything from Rivaner (Mueller-Thurgau), Grauburgunder, Blauburgunder, Spatburgunder, Gewurtztraminer and even a Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from their New Zealand winery... something I definitely didn't think I would be trying on this trip!
These white wines all had a delightful fruitiness to them which is a result of the unique little universe that the Baden region finds itself in, nestled in between Lake Constance with its view of the Alps and the landscape of the Tauber River Valley. The Rivaner we tasted was a blend of 2019, 20 and 21 and had green apple, asparagus and bell pepper. The Grauburgunder was more melon and lemon, both very easy drinking. The Blauburgunder had a touch of Chardonnay added which gave more depth, and lots of zesty fruit with good acidity. Next, we tried several Spatburgunder, which displayed vibrant crunchy red cherry, then the 2017 Blauer, which uses 100% new oak, this was a particular treat and had added vanillin, sweet spice and light chocolate flavours. We finished with an off-dry Gewurtztraminer that was basically just adult fruit juice, just what we needed after lunch. A quick coffee and German pastry and we were ready to van off to the next tasting.
We then had Sebastian Furst of Furst winery collect us for a 'quick' 2 hour commute up to Franken to visit his winery. After hotel check-in and a swift cleansing Pilsner we were back in the vineyards and up yet more hills to the winery. On route, we visited a few Grosses Lage vineyards, which are the Grand Cru equivalent, this allowed us to really see what makes these wines tick, and the various soils really do make all the difference in these wines. The vines are brimming with fruit already and Sebastian spoke that 2022 should be a very high yielding vintage for them, one to watch with interest. At the winery we met Paul Furst, who not only would be cooking for us this evening but also set up the modern day winery in 1979, this is another family that could trace their winemaking roots back to 1638!
Dinner was on top of the hill overlooking the valley eating a mix of local dishes and yet more pasta, would this be the theme of the trip? After dinner we were musing about all things wine when someone mentioned Nuit Saint George Blanc, at which point Sebastian snuck off and produced a bottle of 2004 Clos De L'Arlot, quite the treat to finish off Day 1. As the hotel was all down hill we somewhat rolled straight into bed ready for an early start the next day and the promised full range from Furst.
Day 2 began bright and early, maybe not as early as the day before but definitely a lot brighter. We headed back up the winery to what has to be one of the most incredible views from a tasting room, with a floating staircase leading you above the winery to an open room overlooking the vines and valley below it was just magical. The wines definitely complimented the view, the Spatburgunder's had a real Burgundian feel to them, they all had a subtle different use of oak, no new oak and up to 15% whole cluster gave extra complexity to them. The best thing about tasting through the full range is that you really get a feel for each wine and the intrinsic differences between them. In all we tried all seven 2020 vintage wines starting with the Tradition which had red berry and sour cherry, in the middle we had the Burgstadter with more ripe fruit and cassis, then leading up to The Centgrafenberg GG which had clove and Christmas cake spice starting to come through with a real brooding feel about the fruits.
Not forgetting the white wines, these were equally sensational, much more use of oak, the new oak has Chardonnay and Riesling in them before they are used for the Spatburgunder. The 2020 Chardonnays have a well-integrated oakyness after spending 1 year in barrel and a further 6 months on lees in stainless steel. To finish off we tasted the 2021 Riesling Centgrafenberg (these names were all explained in detail but that pace and complexity was hard to keep up with, let alone jot down) which has very juicy acidity, white peach, pear and a touch of lemon sherbet from the malolactic fermentation, a great wine. Our time at Furst had now officially finished and we said our goodbyes with an eye on the next stop.
Villa Wolf and Dr. Loosen
A drive through the picturesque little villages in the valley to meet our next guide provided a mesmerising and peaceful journey for which I lost track of time. We then met Matt from Villa Wolf and Dr. Loosen, now our eagle eyed readers will point out that these wineries aren't exactly close to each other and you would be right, Villa Wolf in Pfalz is about a 2 hour drive from Franken and Dr Loosen is a further 2 hours north again in the Mosel, it would be a long day in the car but luckily Matt is an American so likes to talk, I'm sure he won't mind me saying that and it definitely helped on the long drive. Arriving at Villa Wolf you are presented with the stunning unique country villa in an Italian style, which was completed in 1843. The grounds have been converted into housing so there is a quaint village feel surrounding the winery, which itself sits on the edge of the vineyards. After a light lunch we moved onto the wines, trying our first Rose of the trip and given the temperature was over 30 degrees it was a welcome start for all.
Moving onto the white wine we went through the Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) with its zesty lemon, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) which was more tropical, and Gewurtztraminer with that staple of Turkish delight and sweet spice. The Rieslings were next with the 2021 Riesling Dry cleansing the palette with its stone fruit and flinty minerality. The Wachenheimer started an interesting conversation within the group about classifying sweetness in wines, this wine has 7.8g of sugar but also has 6.8g of acidity to balance it out, making an off-dry wine but with only a hint of noticeable sweetness, delightful!
The GG were next up with the 2019 Wachenheimer Goldbachel and its full flavours of honeysuckle, apricot and peach and then my favourite of the tasting, the 2019 Forster Pechstein (Forster being the nearest village and Pechstein referring to the basalt soil) which was bone dry and brought out the flint and struck match which I love.
It was then back on the road, a few more of Matt's tales, an unscheduled stop on the way and we arrived in the Mosel. If you are a wine-lover, which if you have read this far down you would have to be, then I implore you to visit the Mosel, it is simply stunning. Picture the long slopes of Burgundy, sweeping hills of Piedmont and intense sunshine of the Barossa all set on a picturesque river in the middle of Germany. Even if you don't like wine it is worth a visit. Here we were met by Ernst Loosen, an absolute stalwart of the wine world; he has championed Riesling and the Mosel in particular and is a big part of the reason this grape is having something of a renaissance. He was keen to show us the aspect of the vineyards, which involved standing rather precariously on the edge of a busy road looking directly up with a steep drop behind us. One thing I have learnt on this trip is that if you are with Ernst you are in for a wild ride, so just hang on and enjoy it.
The trip around the vineyards was fascinating, back in the day they used slate to protect the soil as it was too hard to irrigate, this involved the poor workers lugging bags of rocks into the vineyards, these rocks remain to this day and work by reflecting the sun away from the soil, this may protect the vines but it also makes the fields unworkable on hot summer afternoons, due to the heat generated. He also told us how he is bringing back German clones of Riesling and traditional root stock, he states that the rocky soil makes it impossible for Phylloxera to survive. Interestingly this view isn't always shared with the German authorities and there were a few choice words regarding these bureaucrats which are probably best not to repeat on a public forum.
Moving on the tasting there was of course an impressive line-up in store for us, starting with the newly designed L Riesling, meant to sit as the entry level wine, a tasty drop on a hot afternoon. We then went through the different terroirs once again, the Erdenenr with its red slate to give a more muscular body, the Wehlener with blue slate and delicate white flower aromas, a particular favourite of mine was the 2016 Wehlener Sonnenuhr 'Im Laychen' GG which reading back my notes says 'Holy S**T', I think I liked that one! We then got to the sweet wines, which delivered in spades from the kabinett all the way up to the Beerenauslese, which was brimming with honey, nectar, peach syrup, and bitter almonds, all making it incredibly moreish. Ernst was telling us about his 'projects' which involved utilising different wine making techniques, some traditional and no longer used and some new and innovative, and prolonged aging to really show the true potential of Riesling. Besides causing a massive logistical headache for his brother to find storage for all these projects, it has meant that future generations of the Loosen estate will have plenty of wine for all of us to enjoy. One such example was a sparkling wine which has undergone 25 years on lees, to put this in perspective most Champagne average 3 years; needless to say it was a fantastic drop, full of complex nutty, stewed fruit with a long finish.
After this we had yet another opulent dinner followed by an infamous Ernst Loosen blind tasting, which we all brought a bottle to before Ernst delved into his impressive cellar to pull put some absolute gems highlights of which were a 1964 Rioja and a 1945 Chambertin, not sure what this has to do with Riesling but I really wasn't complaining. Much to my delight after all of this it was announced that they also make beer, which we of course also just had to try and I can report that it is very tasty indeed, I think.
And that is the half way mark... time for a break and a nice glass of Riesling.
Day 3 began with a few sore heads from the night before, luckily the beds in the Dr Loosen guest house are extremely comfortable and a freshly cooked breakfast went down a treat. Next stop Jean Stodden Winery and Donnhoff.
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