Thu 16 Jul 2009
Last Thursday morning, our group drove to Nierstein, not far up the road from Oppenheim where we were staying, to taste wines at Weingut Heyl zu Herrnsheim and St. Antony. The facilities for these estates are housed under the same roof and presided over by young winemaker Felix Peters. Heyl zu Herrnsheim has been producing organic wines since 1980, while St. Antony is in the process of changing to organic winemaking. We are in the Rheinhessen.
By the wine, the phrase “organic wine” is not allowed on German wine labels; the proper term is “made (or produced) from organic grapes,” though that situation may change by 2010 or 2012. The logic is that in order to be called organic wine, the entire process of making the wine must be “organic” and regulated as such. In any case, Felix Peters does not use the word organic on labels. “We don’t see it as dogma,” he said, “even though it’s important for the estate and the wines. Organic farming is very important for riesling because it’s a very late-ripening variety.” Indeed, we heard this comment wherever we went, from Prof. Kauer at the Wine Institute to many of the winemakers, that with organic and biodynamic methods, the riesling grapes ripen earlier. There’s a trade-off here: Longer hang time for the grapes versus the threat of late frost in the spring.
Readers may think it odd for a group of 12 people to belly up to the bar and start drinking before 10 a.m., but I promise that we spit and poured out far more wine than we swallowed — we’re all professionals here — which in a way was a shame because these were terrific wines. It helps not to eat too large a breakfast; you don’t want to feel bloated and slow when it’s time to analyze wines in rapid succession. Besides, the night before, we hadn’t gotten back to the hotel until midnight, after a long dinner with many wines, and after laying my head on the pillow about one, I rose at 6 a.m. to work on blog postings. See what I do for you, My Readers? Anyway, in those circumstances it’s best to be circumspect and not eat and drink like a fool.
The Rhine River originates in Alpine glaciers in Switzerland, flows north and then west to Basel and then heads north into Germany, picking up tributaries and power as it goes. At the city of Mainz, where the Main river adds its waters to the Rhine, the Rhine, confronted by granite hills, abruptly turns southwest for a few miles before shaking off the geological confines and continuing to flow north-northwest into the Netherlands and to the sea. Along that southwest bend, among steep hills, nestle the vineyards of the Rheingau, on the river’s north bank, and the Rheinhessen, on the south.
The Peter Antony and Heyl zu Herrnsheim estates consist of 85 percent riesling and 15 percent pinot blanc vineyards. The grapes go through spontaneous fermentation, that is, the winery relies on wild yeasts, not inoculation with manufactured yeasts, and the wines see a lot of skin contact for complexity and depth. These are, indeed, wines of complexity and depth, with the Heyl zu Herrnsheim rieslings having a slight edge over the rieslings of St. Antony, though in the final call, such distinctions hardly matter.
Here’s what we tasted that morning a week ago, with brief notes. My attempt here is not to spend heaps of verbiage on each wine but to offer an impression of the style of the house.
>St. Antony Bodenschatz Riesling 2008. Crushed gravel, yellow plums, jasmine, roasted lemon; lime leaves, citrus, gun-flint; spicy finish; fresh and vivid, bright minerality and acidity. Delightful. The price in euros is 6.90; the dollar equivalent would be $9.73. One impressive factor on this tour was the inexpensive nature of German wines. Of course when one gets into the realm of limited edition, late-harvest wines the cost goes up, but generally the wines we encountered, even of high quality, were relatively cheap. And there’s no ridiculous three-tier system to drive prices up along the way from winery to consumer.
>St. Antony Rotschiefer Riesling 2008. “Rotschiefer” is a brand for the two estates, their “most important wine,” Peters told us. This is fermented and aged 50 percent in 70-year-old wooden casks and 50 percent in stainless steel. The wine is a little fatter, smokier and fleshier than the preceding riesling, with deeper spice from start to finish. My notes end: “Incredibly vibrant and resonant — what life and vigor!” 9.80 euros ($13.82)
>Heyl zu Herrnsheim Rotschiefer Riesling 2008. The HzuH “Rotschiefer” derives form different vineyards than the St. Antony rendition, and more wooden casks are used in its production. Peters described this wine as having “a more typical riesling profile.” Perhaps it was slightly more intense and concentrated than the St. Antony. Lemon, pear, hint of peach; a blast of clean acidity; “big” for a riesling, almost forceful, trenchant minerality. 9.80 euros ($13.82)
>Heyl zu Herrnsheim Nierstein Brudersberg Riesling 2008, Grosses Gewächs. Grosses Gewächs, whimsically called “GG,” is an attempt by the estates of a region to agree on an official, though non-federal, ranking of the best vineyards; the equivalent is the French term “Grand Cru,” as it’s used in Burgundy. The notion of ranking vineyards was not only neglected by the Wine Law of 1971 but was actually dismissed as elitist, dealing a severe blow to the structure of German wines at the highest level. (I’ll discuss these issues more fully in a later post.) Anyway, Brudensberg is a monopole for HzH, that is, an instance of an entire vineyard owned by one estate. My notes: Wonderfully floral, flint and limestone, talc; tremendous presence & weight; squingeing acidity, crystalline purity and intensity — but earthy, almost “wheaty.” 30 euros ($42.30)
>St. Antony Nierstein Orbel Riesling 2008, Grosses Gewächs. This spends six months sur lie, 30 percent in wooden casks, 70 percent in stainless steel. Fat, fleshy and earthy, very spicy; dense and chewy; a riesling for chardonnay-lovers, maybe; a little bready and wheaty, dynamic minerality. 18 euros ($25.38)
>St. Antony Nierstein Ölberg Riesling 2008, Grosses Gewächs. Shimmering intensity and purity; peach and pear, very spicy, vibrant and resonant; very dry, huge minerality; jasmine and lilac, also the bready/wheatmeal factor. Superb. 22 euros ($31)
>St. Antony Nierstein Pettenthal Riesling 2008, Grosses Gewächs. Wow, earthy, dense, intense and concentrated; very dry, fathoms of limestone and skeins of vibrant acidity; taut, lively yet almost lush; bready, cheesy and leesy, but slick as a whistle and clear as a bell. Needs three or four years. Superb. 25 euros ($35.25)
>For a treat, Peters pulled out a bottle of Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Pettenheim Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 1991. (“halbtrocken” = “half-dry.”) At almost 18 years old, this wine was young, fresh and clean, offering lovely balance, vibrancy and resonance, aromas of peach and pear and jasmine buoyed by riesling’s requisite petrol aspect; silky in the mouth, slightly sweet entry that immediately goes dry, almost achingly so; towering minerality and acidity. Wonderful riesling with another five to eight years of life.
After the tasting, we took the bus out along a one-lane road to the vineyards, stopping to peer up at the steep inclination of Orbel and Ölberg. The broad river Rhine flows about 100 yards away, down the slope. The vineyards are so steep that small tractors are required for cultivation between the rows. Someone asked about using horses, but Peters said that the land is too steep for horses. The vineyards are not separated by fences or walls, as they might be in Burgundy. The territory is marked by hedges and drainage ditches and nothing else. I suppose that when vineyards have been in existence for 500 years or so, everyone knows where the boundaries are. You just grow up with it in this wine country.
This was a satisfying visit. The wines ranged from enjoyable to great, and we appreciated Felix Peters’ low-key, self-affacing and accommodating manner (which can’t be said, as you will see, for every producer we visited).
The wines of St. Antony are not imported to the United States, but small quantities of Heyl zu Herrnsheim wines seem to be available in Chicago and, oddly enough, Tennessee, though I think not in my part of the state. (Like Gaul, Tennessee is divided into three parts.)