We were on the road before 9am, and driving east on the north bank of the Rhine could see the impact of the unusually high rainfall – the Rhine seemed enormous, and was flowing through trees that clearly should have been on its banks. Luckily for us we had beautiful weather and as we arrived at Rudesheim the vineyards on the slopes provided a brilliant green backdrop with the blue skies and fluffy clouds.
We met Jan Schmidt at Weingut Leitz, and he jumped on the bus and guided us up into the vineyards. Over an hour or so we learnt about the different soils of these south facing slopes – and the increasing quality of wines as the height and steepness of the slopes increased. In the Bischofsberg vineyard where we fist stopped, Erste Lage vineyards are on the gentler, chalk based slopes, while Grosse Lage vineyards are on the steeper quartz based slopes. Most of the vines are planted on trellises that descend the countours – maximising the exposure to morning and afternoon sun, and demanding some pretty adventurous types to drive the tractors up and down them!
In the Kirchenpfad vineyards, with the backdrop of the Germania monument (built after the Franco Prussian war, facing Munich with a companion angel looking menacingly towards France), Jan showed us some of the impacts of this year’s record levels of rain – some vineyards had been virtually washed away, and there were patches of vines with very yellow leaves suffering from chlorosis. Leitz keep the space between rows of vines covered with vegetation, which is not only pretty but is also a protection against erosion. We could just spy the only remaining terraced vineyards in the Rheingau at Berg Kaisersteinfels, near the old toll island where the river bent round from the North.
We tasted six rieslings at the original winery in the village, in an airy tasting room opening out onto a very inviting looking swimming pool. Working our way up through the quality levels (and increasing levels of residual sugar) we enjoyed a fresh mineral VDP Gutswein, a more intense VDP Ortswein, three VDP Grosse Lage wines from different vineyards, with contrasting characters of minerality, fruit and sweetness. Finally we were treated to a 2006 Spätlese from the red slate vineyards of Berg Schlossberg, which showed a completely different ‘mature’ character – burnt caramel and stewed plums on the nose, and a rich palate which was both sweet and savoury.
As usual, we didn’t want to leave such a lovely place, with such a great guide to the intricacies of just one German wine region, but we said goodbye to Jan, and drove to Schloss Vollrads, one of the most famous names in German wine. This was a completely different visit. We toured the grounds with the lake and tower, and then walked through the manor house (on a stately home scale), learning about the history of the estate, which after 22 generations of the von Greiffenclau family, helped along by an Oppenheimer at the turn of the last century, was now owned by a bank.
Guided by Heike, in the gardens we drank a fresh Kabinet, and after another of even higher quality in a galleried entertaining room in the house, we completed the tour in what had been the most expensive room ever decorated in Europe – the walls were ‘papered’ with gilded leather. It felt right to be drinking a richer Spätlese in such fine surroundings.
We then walked across the courtyard to the restaurant, where we ate outside – an entirely vegetarian three course lunch with the prettiest presentation of freshest ingredients. Another challenge to any preconceptions we had about German food. Very pleasantly accompanied by a Riesling which one or two of us stocked up on in the shop.