Wednesday, 12 October 2011

German Wine Trip: Rheingau Day 3

We received a pleasant surprise in the form of a phone call from Stefan Ress inviting us to visit his winery. We had made an enquiry to visit earlier but somehow the reply was lost, so we are extremely grateful that Stefan followed up on it. Balthasar Ress is one of the top estates of Rheingau, now in its fifth generation of family ownership with Christian Ress. The winery owns 45 ha of vineyards and produces around 350,000 bottles a year. It exports to various markets including North America, Scandanavia, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia. Stefan calls it "a small little globalised company".

We started off with a wine tasting, and quickly developed a headache trying to understand the complicated German wine classification system. In the Rheingau, producers are moving away from the 1971 Prädikat system and back to the traditional terroir-oriented grading. Officially, the system is only recognised in Rheingau, but other producers use similar terminology. In summary, if the wine is dry, and made from a vineyard that has been classified as a Erste Lage (Grand Cru), they can label it as a Erstes Gewächs (Rheingau only) or a Grosses Gewächs (rest of Germany). If the wine is made with residual sugar, then it will have the designation QmP, which stands for Qualitätswein mit Pradikät, and has six levels of ripeness from Kabinett to Trockenbeerenauslese. Many wine books will say that Kabinett wines are dry and that the QmP system is representative of ripeness at time of picking, not the sweetness of the wine. In practice, most of the wines that have the words Pradikätwein will be sweet, even at the Kabinett level. A good rule of thumb is to look at the alcohol level. If the alcohol is around 9% to 11%, that means that there is some residual sugar in it and it will taste sweet.

Balthasar Ress is one of the first wineries in the region to start picking grapes this year, but the last to finish. Accompanied by the friendly and energetic Stefan, we were able to taste grapes on the vine and observe how the pickers harvested. Each worker had two baskets, and healthy grapes were being sorted into one basket for the dry wines while bunches with botrytis (destined to become sweeter style wines) were placed into another basket. The vineyards looked very healthy. In recent times, producers in Germany have moved away from using chemicals in the vineyard to more environmentally friendly techniques. For example, Stefan pointed to a small brown capsule clipped every few rows. These capsules emit pheromones that confuse vineyard pests, preventing them from breeding and laying eggs.

Balthasar Ress stands as a model of innovation. They have a significant presence in the social media, and are constantly trying out new ideas such as their wineBANK, a personal wine storage facility that also doubles as a private tasting room.

Our next stop, the wine estate of Robert Weil, was undergoing extensive renovations to accommodate increased production. New winemaking facilities were being built as the current one had exceeded capacity. Robert Weil is one of the larger producers in Rheingau, with 80 ha under vine and an annual production of 600,000 bottles. Their top vineyards (Klosterberg, Gräfenberg and Turmberg) are located around the village of Kiederich. The picture below shows the soil difference in the three vineyards.

The design of the wine labels clearly indicates the style, varietal and vintage of the wine. Just like the wood panelled exteriors of the estate manor, the bottles have a beautiful aesthetic that make them visually appealing. This seems to be reflected in the quality of the wines, I feel that there is a clear precision and elegance in them. Wines from each vineyard have their own character; I found the Klosterberg quite fruity while the Turmberg had nervy acidity and a taut minerality, perhaps reflecting the higher percentage of slate in the soil. My favourite was the Gräfenberg wine, which had an abundance of white peach and floral notes with just the slightest hint of vanilla and richness.

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