Rheinhessen – welcome to your intervention

Bronze statue tipping his hat above a German Riesling vineyard on Rheinhessen's Roter Hang
Nackenheim Photo Credit: Paula Redes Sidore

A jack of all trades is inherently a master of none. While finding the right focus can help, that is often easier said than done. Sometimes a more drastic solution is needed. Intervention, anyone?

Rheinhessen! I’m so glad you could make it today. Won’t you join us? Feel free to grab something to eat before you sit. There’s coffee, tea, and water.

And a big box of tissues, in case we need those later.

Wine? No, at least not like that. But I’m glad you raise the issue, because wine is actually what’s brought us together here.

I know this won’t be easy to hear, but your friends are concerned. They feel something needs to be done about the issues you’ve been avoiding.

Welcome to your intervention

No need to be alarmed. This is a safe space and everyone here cares about you. [Glances somewhat nervously at Pfalz.] In their own way. Before you arrived, each of us put to paper one characteristic we respect about you. I think it would do us all well to read those now, to set up a foundation of mutual appreciation and support before we do anything that might leave us feeling defensive.

Photo Credit Deutsches Weininstitut

The first slip says… size! Yes, Rheinhessen, you are indeed Germany’s biggest winegrowing region. A whopping 27,159 hectares, compared to, say, just 462 hectares in Hessische Bergstrasse. You’ve always been a big boy, and you’ve kept on growing in recent years. In fact you’ve added almost 1,000 hectares in the past 15 years. I’d say that’s a sign of prosperity, something to be proud of.

Our next slips says… proximity to the Rhein! Yes, water views galore! You claim one whole bank of the river from Bingen all the way to Worms via Mainz, one of the Great Wine Capitals of the globe. It’s worth mentioning that one portion encompasses the Rheinfront, a famous hillside stretch of terroir between Nackenheim and Alsheim that most people simply call the Roter Hang, or Red Slope. There’s no place quite like it in Germany or anywhere, really.

And I think our next slip hits a similar note… yes, here it is: “ample backside.” [Hard glare at the Pfalz.] I think what they’re trying to say is that you’ve also done a fine job using those gently rolling, land-bound hectares away from the river, between the Rhine and Alzey. It’s quite clever of you, actually. Everybody here in Germany focuses on the rivers, but those 27,000 hectares have to fit, well, somewhere.

And up next is… soils! Absolutely. You, Rheinhessen, have an enviable range, from Quaternary-era loess and loam to Tertiary marl to Devonian quartzite, with plenty of clay, slate, gravel, and more in between. And of course: Rotliegend, a remarkable red sandstone and siltstone mix found in very few other places. Soils are a little like family: you can’t pick what you get, but some are luckier than others. And in that regard you hit the jackpot.

Closeup of rotliegend soil in Germany's Nierstein vineyards
Rotliegend soil, Nierstein. Photo Credit Paula Redes Sidore

Next we have… moderate climate. Check! Thanks to the natural protection of the forested highlands that ring your western and northern flanks, and the moderating influence of the Rhein along your eastern edge, Rheinhessen is actually one of Germany’s warmest and driest pockets. I mean, just look at poor Mosel, which still has its thick sweater on… come sit by the radiator if you’re cold, dear!

And here’s one from your friends from the east: history! Yes, I can see why that’s something they’d appreciate. Wine has been grown here since at least Roman times — little surprise, as the ancient conquerors saw the agricultural promise of this region and their descendants later chose Mainz as a major center for the Church. Napoleon loved the region, too. He conquered it in the late 18th century, so it was French for a spell. Even after that ended, secularization meant that some of your esteemed terroir passed from ecclesiastic into private hands. But through it all, you’ve kept the tradition of winegrowing within the context of mixed agriculture.

Next up… “Boy-next-door charm.” I can see that. Rheinhessen borders directly on many of Germany’s other winegrowing regions — the Nahe, the Rheingau, Mittelrhein, and the Pfalz — and it’s just a handful of kilometers from its edges to Hessische Bergstrasse or Baden. Truly at the heart of Germany.

We’ve got two more slips here. The first says: amazing winemakers! No doubt, there is a world-class pool of talent working in Rheinhessen. Just to name a few recent Winegrowers of the Year: Julia and Klaus- Peter Keller (Feinschmecker, 2019), Philipp Wittmann (2018, Vinum), Volker Raumland (2017, Vinum), Carolin Spanier Gillot (Falstaff, 2015). Weingut Bischel with Best White Wine Collection (Eichelmann, 2020). The list goes on. You raise them talented, no doubt!

And our final slip for now says: “all those grape varieties!” I agree. The German Wine Institute lists ten varieties of note in Rheinhessen, more than in any other region. Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Dornfelder, Grauburgunder, Silvaner, Weißburgunder, Spätburgunder, Portugieser, Chardonnay, and Scheurebe, which was actually first created in Rheinhessen in 1916. It’s a lovely list, and you put it to practical use, with one-third planted to reds, two-thirds to white. Feels like a smart balance.

But that last point touches on the very reason we’ve all gathered here: Rheinhessen. It might not feel like it to you, but you’re in crisis.

An identity crisis in Rheinhessen

When people think of you, they don’t know what to think. It’s not quite that you’re misunderstood. Nor are you hiding in plain sight. You’re just… there. And for all the talent you have, that feels like an incredible waste.

Now, let’s slow down: we’re not picking on you here. Being biggest is rarely the quick path to respect in the wine world. Look at Languedoc-Roussillon, Castilla–La Mancha, Veneto. Biggest in each of their countries, none of them really ever taking the star turn. 

Yet with all those factors we mentioned before, you’re definitely swipe-right material. So the fact that it isn’t all coming together almost makes it seem like you’re working against yourself.

You’ve switched directions so
many times that at this point
what you’re really good at is
reinventing reinvention.

We’ve seen you get excited about one thing or the other in the past. You took great pride in Liebfraumilch [ until that kinda went off the rails], then you went hard for “more is more,” quantity over quality. Also known as Müller-Thurgau. Then there was the whole “RS” Silvaner phase, I think you still even have the tattoo. Then you went all-in on affordable reds. In recent years you’ve swung to dry Riesling…

From where we sit, it looks like you’ve switched directions so many times that at this point what you’re really good at is reinventing reinvention. But each of these iterations sort of stays in place, even when you’ve moved on, muddling how people perceive you.

Could it be that we’re dealing with self-esteem issues? I know your background is a little different than some of your other friends’. While many of them have been all about wine-growing for centuries, even today you still are largely structured for mixed farming. I think it’s a wonderful thing — better for the environment, too. And then there’s the sheer volume of bulk wine made within your borders. It could understandably make you feel… different.

That’s why it’s important that we talk about it, because you should be proud of these things. Earning a living is something to be respected, and supports a lot of people. 

Besides, some of your fellows here are in the same boat. Even if they don’t like to talk about it, most years Pfalz comes in at number two on the bulk wine list [smirks just a little at Pfalz’s surprised reaction]. But there’s an important distinction. The Pfalz has also earned a reputation for being adventurous. Or, take Baden. When half its wines couldn’t get AP recognition, they embraced that and went Landwein counter-culture. Now I think we all agree their wines are slapping. Even the little guys like Mittelrhein have their calling cards — you are a Romantic little devil, MR! — but you, Rheinhessen… you’ve just sort of settled.

The funny thing is, it’s something that your own elite winegrowers pushed back against years ago. Tired of being called “world-class tractor drivers with poor winemaking skills,” as our friend Anne once reported, they came together in 1992 to form Message in a Bottle. We all loved the core message that Rheinhessen wine could wow you, and some years later that movement morphed into Maxime Herkunft, committed to low yields, high quality, and an origins-based quality pyramid. But the association only represents a sliver of Rheinhessen winegrowing, and its voice hasn’t really broken through to the wine aficionados, let alone the general public.

Perhaps that’s where it hurts most, Rheinhessen. You have so much to offer, but instead the focus is on how you do so much of everything that most people think of you as a kind of general store or “Land of a Thousand Hills.” 

Stone Trullo in Rheinhessen vineyard in Westhofen with Vosges Mountains in background
Trullo (vineyard cottage) in Westhofen. Photo credit Paula Redes Sidore

We’re left to wonder what YOU see when you look at yourself in the mirror, once you’ve removed all the masks. Do you see just any wine, or do you see something special? Because, we do.

Go ahead, let it out. We’ve got plenty more tissues if we need them.

Where do we go from here?

Change has to come from within, you know that. But maybe you can draw inspiration from what your friends see in you. There was one more slip I was holding back. I think now is a good time for you to hear it: “Plays well with others.” Even if you’re uncertain about who you want to be, it’s reassuring to see that you’re working hard right now to explore with others. 

Take Weingut Riffel, a family-run biodynamic estate in Bingen am Rhein that wanted to understand more deeply what makes their region unique. So they experimented using the Scharlachberg site, planted to Riesling but looking out at some points on the Nahe and others on the Rhein. It’s a fascinating one-to-one comparison. Or Weingut Kruger-Rumpf, with two separate projects (2Strom and GrosserStrom) that combine fruit from top sites on those two regions. 

Or to make it even more personal: how about the Hoffmanns and Schiefer-trifft-Muschelkalk? Local boy Jürgen (from Appenheim) and Carolin (from the Saar) fell in love. Both are winemakers. Instead of going for one region or the other, they went for both, producing wines distinctly of each region from one shared location (Appenheim). But they also created one line that blends fruit from both locations into a delicious labor of shared love. Really romantic stuff.

Maybe that’s a good place to take a break and call it a session. We’re all proud of you for being open to new ideas and trends. There’s a certain leadership in that, too.

But honesty and authenticity matters, too. Think it over, and when you’re ready, let’s come back together and talk about more than just your “sea of vines.” You’re worth it.

Need-to-Know Traditionalists

Weingut Gunderloch

For six generations, the Gunderloch family has called the “Haus am Rothenberg” home. Nestled amidst the distinctive red slope of Rheinhessen’s “Roter Hang,” in the curve of the Rhine River between the towns of Nackenheim and Nierstein, the 25-hectare estate with sites in Rothenberg, Pettenthal, and Hipping is led today by Johannes Hasselbach. This founding member of the VDP continues to refine, and perhaps even define, what Rheinhessen wine is, not least through its efforts promoting organic viticulture in the region. Respect is perhaps the word of the day here: for the vineyards, for tradition, and for the future. The estate began its own organic certification process in 2020. Hasselbach’s blend of experience, ingenuity, and focus infuses each and every one of the estate’s expressive Rieslings, Pinots, and Silvaner in ways that can only come when the vineyard is not so much a site, but a home. 

Weingut Keller

If there is one name that represents German wine as juggernaut, this is it. Over the past two decades, Klaus-Peter and Julia Keller have directed the world’s attention to Rheinhessen and kept it riveted there through sheer force of vision and craft. “We are happy, but never satisfied!” — the couple’s motto — is palpable in each exacting, utterly terroir transmissive Riesling, Silvaner, Scheurebe, and Spätburgunder that emerges from the 24-hectare estate. From their base in Flörsheim-Dalsheim, the Kellers (joined by father Klaus and now son Felix) have single-handedly put sites like Westhofener Kirchspiel, Niersteiner Hipping, and Dalsheimer Bürgel on the map. There are genre-defining Kabinetts, majestic dry GGs (not to mention the crowning glories that are G-Max and AbtsE), and a range of truly noble sweet wines. Quality and the small-scale of production mean Kellers bring stratospheric prices. Luckily for the rest of us, their entry level wines convey a good share of the headliners’ intensity, finesse, and joy.

*Weingut Prinz Salm

This is the very definition of a reference estate, as it is the oldest family-owned winery anywhere in Germany. Felix Prinz zu Salm-Salm is responsible for just under 20 hectares of choice holdings in Rheinhessen (and the Nahe). As befits 32 generations of winegrowing, sustainability is key. Weingut Prinz Salm was one of the first estates to be certified organic in the region, beginning its transition back in 1988, and now carrying the Fair’n Green seal. With a firm focus on Riesling and its expression across a range of terroirs, most intriguingly on rare green slate, as well as fine renderings of Spätburgunder and a clutch of regional varieties vinified in a 450-year-old cellar, Prinz Salm makes a fine starting point in any exploration of Germany’s vinous history.

Must-Taste Modernists

Weingut Andi Mann

Although the estate is in its 11th generation, the wines coming out of this winery today break significantly with the past. Mann believes his wine must show an unmistakable sense of place. And that place is 10 hectares of hilly, volcanic — specifically porphyry — and limestone vineyards in and around the town of Eckelheim in Rheinhessen’s “little Switzerland.” The winery is in the process of converting to organic farming with some biodynamic principles already in play. Mann seeks out cool sites wherever possible, even as he carefully nurtures a classic Rheinhessen varietal portfolio. Balance, energy, openness, and provenance form the cornerstones here. 

Bianka and Daniel Schmitt

“Pushing the natural wine envelope” was not a phrase associated with Rheinhessen before Bianka and Daniel Schmitt launched their estate. Every bit the b-side to Keller’s A-game in Flörsheim-Dalsheim, the Schmitts have embraced biodynamic farming (and have been Demeter certified since 2012) across their 17 hectares and argue for reasoned cellar minimalism. They are unafraid of radicalism for the sake of philosophical expression and take stylistic risks accordingly. Bianka, from Hungary, and Daniel, whose family estate they are gradually taking over, turn heads with complex, savory Rieslings, Weissburgunder, Silvaner, and Blaufränkisch, along with a spectrum of pét-nats and inventive blends that have freshness and invention as their hallmarks.

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