Producer: Kessler Zink
Country Hierarchy: Germany
Food Suggestion: Fruit-based Desserts
Wine Style: Dessert – Lush and Balanced
Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest region for producing the quality wines of the Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) and Prädikatswein designations, with roughly 26,500 hectares (65,000 acres) of vineyards as of 2014. Many of its most significant viticultural areas are favorably influenced by the Rhine river, which runs along its north and eastern borders. The Rhine, along with the Nahe river to the west and the Haardt mountains to its south, form a natural border. Rheinhessen covers an area south of Rheingau, north of Pfalz and east of Nahe, and is located within the Rhineland-Palatinate federal state.
The region has been cultivating grapes for wine production at least since ancient Roman occupation. It’s also the home to the oldest surviving records of a German vineyard. Named Glöck, the vineyard was included in a deed for a church and vineyards gifted by Carloman – a duke of the Franks of the Carolingian family and the uncle of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne – to the diocese of Würzburg in 742. Within a century, dozens of villages were cultivating grapes throughout Rheinhessen. An early documentation of Riesling as a distinct grape variety, identified as Rüssling, was also found in records from the city Worms dating back to 1402. The size of the region, and its location on the Rhine, has given it a significant role in Germany’s wine industry history. Its largest city, Mainz, has been an unofficial center for wine trade, being home to several national wine organizations including the German Wine Institute and the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates (Verband Deutscher Prädikats-und Qualitätsweingüter e.V.)
Pettenthal vineyard overlooking Nierstein ©Weingut Keller
The region predominantly produces white wine, in-line with the majority of German wine production, however it is known for growing relatively diverse range of grape varieties. Müller-Thurgau has been the most planted variety for much of Rheinhessen’s modern history, however Riesling has gained in prominence and over the last half-decade the two grapes have come to occupy a similar share of the land under vine, roughly 16 percent each. Dornfelder, the most widely planted red, accounts for 13 percent of the land under vine, with other prominent varieties include Silvaner, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir). Despite the diversity, Riesling and Spätburgunder are the only varieties permitted in the VDP Grosse Lagen wines of Rheinhessen.
Also significant to the region is the Scheurebe grape variety a crossing made in the Alzeysubregion by Georg Scheu in 1916. For most of its existence it was thought to be a crossing between Riesling and Silvaner, but recent DNA testing has ruled out Silvaner as a parent. While Scheurebe has enjoyed some popularity in the past, the grape’s share of the cultivated area in Rheinhessen has been on the decline.
The region was also the birth place and major producer of Liebfraumilch – a mass-produced, semi-sweet, white wine style originally produced in Worms. When the wine gained international popularity, it greatly damaged the wine-producing reputation of Rheinhessen, and even Germany, both of which have only began to recover in recent decades.
Because of its size, Rheinhessen has variety of soil types and climatic influences. Many of the best-known viticultural areas are close to the Rhine, which forms a steeply embanked valley that is able to trap heat, while the river moderates temperature and reflects sunlight. The Taunus hills, Odenwald, and Hunsrück Mountains shelter vineyards from harsh weather, giving Rheinhessen a mild climate compared to the rest Germany, with a relatively long growing season. Annual precipitation is also relatively low, roughly 500mm, making it one of the country’s driest wine producing areas.
Rheinhessen is divided into three Bereiche, known for producing wines in varying degrees of quality and having different soil composition. Nierstein is often regarded as the leader in terms of quality, due to its proximity to the Rhine and the rich mineral deposits found on the riverbed. The Roter Hang (Red Slope), so-named because of its iron-rich red-hued sandstone, is found here – between Nackenheim and Nierstein, as part of the Rheinterrassesub-region of Rheinhessen. Bingen lies to the north-west and includes the town of Ingelheim, where the majority of red grapes in the region are grown. Wonnegau is further south and includes the centers of Worms and Alzey, two of the largest grape-growing regions in Rheinhessen.
Riesling is a light-skinned, aromatic grape of German origin which is – if the majority of top wine critics are to be believed – the world’s finest white wine grape variety.
For many, the claim above may seem at odds with the sea of chaptalized, low-quality wine exported from Germany in the late 20th Century. In truth, very little of that infamous wine was Riesling at all, but instead higher-yielding grapes such as Müller-Thurgau and Silvaner), but the reputation has nonetheless stuck. Riesling has also been stereotyped as just a sweet grape, used only to make sticky wines. But while botrytized Rieslings are among the finest sweet wines in the world, the majority of global Riesling wines are either dry or off-dry.
Riesling vines above the Mosel
The Riesling vine holds a very different place in the wine world to such great grapes as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay. While these immensely popular varieties have conquered every corner of the winegrowing world, Riesling is conspicuously absent from the core wine regions of France, Spain and Italy. Its fanbase is smaller, but fervent.
Riesling’s spiritual home is unquestionably the regions that trace the middle Rhine and the lower Mosel, two of Europe’s great wine rivers. Here we find the key wine regions of Germany, most famously Mosel, Rheinhessen, Rheingauand Pfalz. Riesling vines cover the steep, slate-rich hillsides above these famous rivers, and are used to make crisp, refreshing wines with pronounced acidity.
On the other side of the Rhine lies Alsace, once German but now part of France. Here, Riesling is the most important wine grape variety in terms of both quantity and (arguably) quality. Alsace Riesling has its own individual style, richer and more generous than those made in Germany. This is made possible by the region’s sunny, dry mesoclimate and the shelter provided by the Vosges Mountains.
Austria also produces a large quantity of Riesling, most notably from its eastern Wachauand Kremstal regions. This is made mostly in drier styles, although Lake Neusiedl, just southeast of Vienna, creates a sufficiently humid climate for the production of sweet botrytized Riesling.
Happily, Riesling has found several New World niches to which it is very well suited. The high quality Rieslings now made in Australia’s Clare and Eden valleys have proved this with particular competence. Most notably, Clare Valley Riesling has emerged as a style in its own right, with crisp, citrus-scented acidity and aromas of toast and honeysuckle. Just across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand is also making high-quality Riesling in Canterbury and Otago, while South Africa’s Riesling is also showing promise. The famous ice wines of Canada are made mostly from Riesling or Vidal, and have further demonstrated the cold-resistant characteristics of this hard-wooded variety.
There are various clones and sub-varieties of Riesling in existence, and the variety has multiple variations on its name (e.g. Johannisberg Riesling, Rhine Riesling). To complicate matters, there are several white grape varieties that bear the name Riesling, but are entirely unrelated. The most notable of these are Welschriesling (Riesling Italico), Okanagan Riesling and Cape Riesling, which itself is also known as Crouchen, Paarl Riesling and Clare Riesling.
A rare, pink-skinned variant of Riesling – Roter Riesling – is grown in Germany and Austria. There is ongoing debate as to whether Roter Riesling is a mutated form of traditional Riesling, or vice-versa.
Synonyms include: Weisser Riesling, Johannisberg Riesling, Johannisberger, Rhine Riesling, Riesling Renano.
Food matches for Riesling include:
- Quiche Lorraine; zwiebelkuchen onion cakes (dry)
- Thai green curry (off-dry)
- Key lime pie (sweet)
(source: wine searcher)