Leo Alzinger Jr.
Austria’s Wachau, some 90 kilometers west of Vienna (about an hour’s drive), is a dramatic region of steep, terraced vineyards looming grandly over the Danube River. The Alzinger estate, run by Leo Alzinger and his son Leo Alzinger, make some of the most delicate and finessed wines of this famous region. As the importer Terry Theise has written, the wines are so “sanguine and calmly transparent… you wouldn’t be surprised if the cellar master was the Dali Lama.”
The Alzingers farm some of the most famous vineyards in the region, including the Loibenberg and Steinertal. With only around 11 hectares under vine, this is a true father-and-son operation. The Rieslings tend to come from the highest vineyards, parcels rich in primary rock. Harvest often happens later than many in the Wachau yet the old vines here do not simply produce more sugar, they rather push the physiological ripeness to greater balance. Alzinger crushes whole cluster with a short maceration, then allows the must to settle for 24 hours. The estate is seeking not opulence or power, but finesse and delicacy.
Hans-Joseph and Eva Becker
The dry Rieslings of Hans-Joseph Becker taste unlike anything else coming out of the Rheingau. This has less to do with any condemnation or critique of the noble establishment, and more to do with a vision that is so singular and steadfast that it feels totally irrelevant whether anyone thinks Becker’s “aesthetic” is genius or folly. It just is. The dry wines, of which the first vintage was 1971, present a bizarre vocabulary: dried earth and rocks, herbs, something vaguely subterranean, a savory, briny, smoky atmosphere that slowly reveals fine layers of bright citrus. They flaunt a rather prominent acidity, recalling the nervous wines of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. In another way, they seem to have more to do with great Chablis than what we often think about as German Riesling.
Though the estate has farmed organically for many years, they have been certified since 2011. Natural fermentations are used exclusively and the wines spend up to two year in the traditional barrels of the Rheingau, the 2,400-liter “Doppelstücks.” The wines are profoundly ageworthy and the deep cellar under the estate still contains treasures from many past decades.
Beurer | Swabia
When it comes to German Riesling, Jochen Beurer stands as a man apart. A one time European BMX champion running a small garagiste estate in Swabia, Jochen could hardly be farther removed from the landed traditions of his more Northern neighbors. Similarly, his dry, terroir-saturated wines from the historic, limestone dominated hills around Stetten have little in common with what most Americans think of as “German Riesling.” These are, first and foremost, Swabian wines, steeped in the traditions of a region that has long remained outside the national mainstream.
The vineyards are tended biodynamically, the objective is to yield wines that breathe life, “not cola.” Respect for nature and patience are reflected everywhere: in cool years, Jochen is inevitably the last to pick; successive tries are the norm; spontaneous fermentations follow their own course, usually including malolactic. Elevage is slow and careful and wines are committed to bottle when only the time is exactly right. Beurer’s wines are completely unforced yet strikingly intense, long, structured and saturated in minerality.
Clemens and Johannes Busch
Clemens is the fifth generation winemaker at his family estate. Living in a restored, half-timber house built in 1663, Clemens’ commute to his vineyard is simple: cross the Mosel River. The grand wall of vines, the Marienburg, rises dramatically on the other side of the river. Already in 1974 Clemens avoided herbicides and stopped fertilizing. He began practicing organically in 1984 and was certified organic by 1986. Since 2005 he has started incorporating some biodynamic practices into this vineyard management. In 2007, Clemens Busch joined the VDP.
The estate is currently around 16 hectares in size. The Marienberg, as with so many vineyards, was expanded by the 1971 German wine law to encompass many other parcel names. Clemens Busch is beginning to reclaim these sites by making parcel-specific bottlings: the blue-slate Fahrlay, the red-slate Rothenpfad and the gray slate Falkenlay, to name the three key bottlings. The style at Clemens Busch is unmistakable; these are wines of texture, size and power. The estate produces top class dry and sweet Rieslings.
The Dönnhoff family came to the Nahe over 200 years ago. As with Emrich-Schönleber, the history here is of mixed agriculture. It was only with time that the estate began to concentrate more and more on wine, until that was the sole focus. Helmut Dönnhoff, one of the legends of German winemaking, took over the estate with the celebrated 1971 vintage. He has, in the years since, brought the estate to the pinnacle of German winemaking. Helmut’s son Cornelius has been working with his father for many years.
Weingut Dönnhoff is currently around 25 hectares, with key holdings in the Hermannshöhle, Brücke, Felsenberg and Dellchen. Indeed, one of the many assets of the estate is the diversity of terroir, from slate, sandstone, limestone (Hermannshöhle) to porphyry and loam (Brücke) to quartzite (Krötenpfuhl) and red sandstone (Höllenpfad). The estate’s style is grandiose, layer after layer of fruit that remains both pure and gossamer – a supernal elegance, perfect balance, a filigree that is simply ravishing. The estate is famous for both their Prädikat wines as well as their dry wines.
Hofgut Falkenstein | Saar
The Weber family farms about 8 hectares of mainly old Riesling vines—over 40 percent ungrafted—in a remote side valley of the Saar, known as Konzer Tälchen (the little valley of Konz). Erich Weber and his wife, Marita, built up the property of the then-dilapidated Falkensteiner Hof (established in 1901) from scratch. All the Riesling grapes are hand-harvested and the whole grapes are gently pressed in a pneumatic press for two to three hours. The musts are left overnight to settle naturally and vinified with ambient yeasts in old oak Fuder casks.
Their top vineyard sites are located on various south-facing hillsides, including the once highly rated Krettnacher Euchariusberg and Niedermenniger Herrenberg. The soil is primarily gray slate, with some quartz. The father-and-son team of Erich and Johannes Weber believe in low yields (one cane per vine) to produce an array of light-bodied, unchaptalized dry (trocken), off-dry (feinherb), and sweet Saar Riesling wines—all of which are cask-by-cask bottlings.
Eva Fricke does not come from the Rheingau, yet she may be part of the story of how the region saves itself. The Rheingau is perhaps the most famous winemaking region in Germany. However, over the last few decades the great names of centuries past seem to have lost something essential. There seems to be an unspoken philosophy of “good enough” and a complacency that has mired even some of the legends of this region.
Leave it to an upstart from Saxony, a strong-minded winemaker with a few hectares in Kiedrich and Lorch, to try and change this trajectory. After studying widely (in Australia, Bordeaux, the Piedmont, Spain) Eva returned to Germany to focus on the Rheingau. She worked with J.B. Becker and then with Johannes Leitz where she was the vineyard and operations manager. 2006 was the first vintage of her estate – microscopic quantities were produced. Still, she has quickly established a reputation in Germany and abroad with wines that have the textural breadth of Rheingau Rieslings, yet with uncommon rigor, focus, mineral.
Austria’s Wachau, some 90 kilometers west of Vienna (about an hour’s drive), is a dramatic region of steep, terraced vineyards looming grandly over the Danube River. Franz Hirtzberger farms a unique area of the Wachau, the “Spitz.” This, the western-most and coolest area of the Wachau offers the wines a stern, mineral structure.
If the cooler location offers the wines a natural austerity and rigor, the fascination here is that Hirtzberger is able to counter these sharp angles with a singular style of opulent purity. The seek optimal ripeness with rigorous vineyard work –it is not uncommon for the estate to do between 4 and 5 passes through the vineyard seeking the perfect grapes. While fermentation is in stainless steel, the elevage takes place in larger, older foudres. These are towering expressions of Austrian white wine.
Leitz | Rheingau
Johannes “Josie” Leitz has become one of the more important winemakers in the Rheingau. Once the most celebrated and esteemed of German winemaking regions, the Rheingau has in the late 20th century and early 21st century been dominated by mediocrity. Josie and a new generation of younger growers (see Eva Fricke) are trying to change this.
Josie has grown the estate from just under 3 hectares to around 40 hectares and in so doing has established some of the most popular bottlings in the U.S. While the savvy marketing, with names like “Dragonstone,” “Eins, Zwei, Dry” and “Leitz Out” has helped, the quality in the bottle is undeniable. And While Leitz may be best known for these more popular bottlings, the estate produces a range of single-vineyard Rieslings from celebrated sites such as Berg Schlossberg, Berg Roseneck and Berg Rottland that are among the best being made in the Rheingau.
Egon Müller | Saar
Egon Müller IV
This is perhaps the most vaunted estate in Germany – as the wine writer John Gilman has put it, this is “the DRC of Germany.” The estate focuses on a single vineyard, the Scharzhofberg. Likely cultivated since Roman times, the vineyard was managed by monks until it was secularized by Napoleon in the late 18th century. The history of the estate as we know it today begins in the late 19th century with Egon Müller the first – it was he who cemented the reputation of greatness at exhibits such as the 1900 Exhibition Universelle et Internationale in Paris. Egon Müller the second ran the estate for only a few years, dying in a tractor accident in the vineyard in 1941. Egon Müller the third returned from England as a prisoner of war in 1945 – this was his first harvest and he managed to bring in only 1,200 liters from 7.4 hectares. Egon Müller the third died in 1991, though his son Egon Müller the fourth had been working at the estate since 1985 and has since continued the legacy of greatness.
The focus at the estate is Prädikat wines – Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese and (gulp) BAs and TBAs. These are widely considered to be among the greatest white wines in the world, with a combination of intensity, fine-ness and elegance that is simply incomparable.
In 1875 the great castle of Lieser (Schloss Lieser) was built by the Baron von Schorlemer; in 1905 a winery was erected next door to the castle and by the mid-20th century the vineyards, the wines, of Lieser had achieved great fame. In the 1970s the estate was sold and quality began to decline. By the early 1990s, the estate was in bad repair, it had no clientele, its cellar of historic wines was emptied and its history of greatness nearly forgotten.
It was with the harvest of 1992 and the arrival a new general manager that things began to change. Thomas Haag, the eldest son of Mosel legend Wilhelm Haag (of Weingut Fritz Haag), had come aboard to change the direction of this estate. In 1997 Haag purchased Schloss Lieser and since then it has quickly risen to among the very best in Germany. With holdings in Niederberg Helden and Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr, Schloss Lieser’s style is unapologetically sharp. These are chiseled Rieslings of mineral and purity.
Schlossgut Diel | Nahe
Caroline Diel represents a new generation for Schlossgut Diel, the famed Nahe estate. Taking the reins from her father, Armin Diel, Caroline has redoubled the estate’s focus on quality and sustainable viticulture.
Caroline is most comfortable in the vineyard, and the time spent there shows. Vineyard work at Diel is meticulous and as natural as possible. “There are so many directions you can go with pruning, canopy management, cover cropping… Once the grapes are harvested it is your job to not hurt anything and really to just get out of the way.” The cellars at Schlossgut Diel date back to the 16th century and are some of the most beautiful in Germany. Once in the cellar, a very traditional approach is taken. The majority of the wines are fermented in large barrels, with some smaller casks used for red wine (including used 4th and 5th use DRC barrels), stainless steel, and enamel tanks. Fermentations are ambient, and with the cool and naturally humid cellars the wines develop slowly and beautifully.
Barbara and Johannes Selbach
One of Germany’s most erudite young winemakers, Gernot Kollmann has followed impressive turns at Van Volxem and Knebel with his current position, stewarding the once-dormant Immich-Batterieberg to the forefront of Mosel wine. Located in Enkirch, on the lower part of the Mittelmosel, its name and Jugendstil label refer to the Batterieberg or “demolition hill,” a steep cliff face of solid slate blasted to rubble by Carl August Immich in the mid-1800s to make it cultivable. The estate’s vineyards are located in Enkirch and the lineup (Batterieberg, Ellergrub, Steffensberg and Zweppwingert) recalls a previous legendary era in German wine, when all four were among the highest-ranked sites in the Clotten’s 1897 viticultural tax map for the Prussian government.
Grapes are hand-picked at extremely low yields and vinified close to dry in a combination of used barriques and stainless steel, utilizing exclusively ambient yeasts and minimal amounts of sulfur. Many of Kollmann’s techniques would be familiar to Immich’s 19th-century forebears, yet he is moving the estate squarely forward while staying rooted in tradition. The wines are compellingly vibrant and quintessentially terroir-driven.
In 1999, after a number of winemaking stints in Germany and further abroad, Daniel Vollenweider purchased a one-hectare plot of vines in the once-famous Wolfer Goldgrube. This is prime Middle Mosel real-estate, a site with historic fame and a genetic gold mine of old, un-grafted vines up to and beyond 80 years old. Yet, as with so many of these sacred places, the Goldgrube was going slowly fallow (or, at the very least, under-performing) because it had no author to write its story, no one to sing its song.
Then came Daniel. In his first few vintages, Daniel’s focus was almost exclusively on sweet wines; the results were extraordinary. The wines showcased an explosive energy, glossy and kaleidoscopic mid-palates with a sternly Germanic definition and detail. In 2003, Daniel was awarded the winemaking “Discovery of the Year” by the influential wine publication Gault Millau. As early as 2005 Riesling dorks in the U.S. were already talking about the wines. By 2009 the Gault Millau had ranked Daniel at four stars, at the same level with heavy-weights Karthäuserhof, Schloss Lieser, Willi Schaefer and Zilliken. Farming roughly 4 hectares in the Middle Mosel, these are dense and powerful wines with rigorous structures.
Von Winning maintains some of the oldest parcels in the Grand Cru sites of Forst, Deidesheim and Ruppertsberg. Andreas Huetwöhl and Stefan Attman work in tandem to craft the wines of the estate – every decision is informed by passion for the Pfalz terroir and experiences at estates in the Côte d’Or and abroad. For example, the estate’s newer vines are planted at a very high vine density – 9,500 vines per hectare, as opposed to the more typical less than 5,000. This creates competition amongst the vines, forcing the roots to grow deep, and naturally reducing yields. The vineyards are planted to a single-cane trellising system, prevalent in Burgundy, and Grosses Gewächs wines ferment in 500-liter French barrels.
Von Winning practices organic and sustainable viticulture. The estate’s premium wines are treated with a minimalist approach and with the highest respect in the cellar. Gentle clarification, a natural and spontaneous fermentation and the abandonment of fining agents create wines with a distinctive indigenous and very elegant style. Pumping the juice or wine is never necessary in the gravity-flow winery, allowing for minimal, and gentle vinification.