Come on board with UDAY K CHAKRABORTY for a unique wine tasting tour, amidst the breathtaking vistas of the middle Rhine River
It was as if the gods had decided to give us an object lesson on the difficulties of making wine in northern latitudes. As we stood on the banks of the Rhine, still the most majestic of European rivers – watching the heavily laden barges push through the swell, a sudden shower of icy rains sent us scurrying for the shelter of the nearest hostelry.
It turned out to be a heaven-sent opportunity. For, as the sun came out again, tingeing with evening gold the fleecy white clouds that were all of a sudden hanging nonchalantly in bright blue sky over the forested green hills on the opposite bank, we found ourselves in a cosy Stube of the Hotel Baudobriga sampling the delicious produce of the Reis family’s little lacery of vineyards strung out over only nine hectares in some most improbable wine making country in the world.
The middle Rhine is not the greatest of German wine producing area, that claim is disputed by the valley of Mosel stretching off to the west towards Luxembourg, or the sunnier regions of the Rheingau and Rheinphalz further south. The middle Rhine is visited primarily for its scenery, fabulous vistas of steep wooded hills slopping down to fast-flowing old Father Rheine, rocky eminences studded with ancient stone fortresses and the legendary crag of the Lorelei. Just opposite Bingen you would notice the grapevines on the slopes of the hill that rises from the riverbank. On the crest of the hill stands massive figure of Germania, that was constructed to commemorate the foundation of German Empire at the end of Franco-Prussian War. Germania holds the recovered crown of the emperor in the right hand and in the left the imperial sword.
But it is impossible not to marvel at the little strips of planted vines that hang at improbable angles on steep slaty slopes, defying the passing traveller to believe that for millennia men have laboured here to tease grapes to yield their juice and then ferment it into nectar for kings. And it is tiny estates such as this which, more than the great vineyards of Rheinhessen give the essential flavour of the German wine industry at its best.
Indeed, the most rewarding German wines can be those made by small growers on tiny parcel of land and its best produce are seldom seen abroad; quite simply the growers are able to sell all the best of what they make in their own retail outlets or across their own bar
Today, almost all growers produce wines in three categories of trocken, halb-trocken and lieblich (dry, semi-dry and sweet). These descriptions however, are essentially a service to the customers and not art of the official classification system, which as anyone who has starred in great perplexity at a great splurge of Gothic lettering on traditional Rhine wine bottles will know.
Secrets behind the uniqueness
I am referring of course to those bottles which also carry the words Qualitatswein mit Pradikat or QmP for short. Anything else, I’m afraid, is not really worth it. True QmP German wine deserves to be treated with respect. The best is still made from the famed Riesling grape, though some special crossbreeds are also used. The most uniformly great German whites are still produced in the little riverside region west of unlovely industrial Wiesbaden known as the Rheingau.
A glance at a map will give away their secret: her, where the Rhine starts its S-bend west and then north, the slopes on the right bank face exclusively south, towards the sun. Here, the great villages are Winkled with Johanisberg castle high on its hill overlooking the cutely named Hasensprung (Hare’s Leap) vineyard, and Schloss Vollrads (the Rhine’s equivalent to Bordeaux’s grands chateaux), or Rudesheim where radical landscaping has changed the shape of the hillside but happily not altered the excellence of its produce.
The ferry from Rudesheim transports cars over to the pleasant little ton of Bingen, a good starting place for an exploration of the vast fertile vineyards that made up Rudesheim. The best wines are concentrated in a few little villages around Oppenheim and Nierstein. Further south still leads to Pfalz, famed for wine since the days of the Roman emperor and later coveted by Napoleon. The little town of Kallstadt boasts the excellent Annaberg vineyard, rare in being allowed to label its wine by the vineyard name alone, which produces intensely flavoured wines from both the Riesling and crossbred Scheurebe grapes.
If the best tip for buying German wine from an importer is to find one or two you like, and stick to them. The only advice when in the region itself is to stop overnight often, taste as many as possible and buy up your favourite when you leave. Experience, experiment and enjoyment are, after all, what the travel is all about.