“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of the giants”
So there I was, in the middle of Holland planning my summer holidays and looking for my very own giants. Innovators, dreamers or simply talented winemakers who together share the same vision: To create wines that inspire and express not only themselves but a large group of people surrounding them, being a family, a village, a region or sometimes, even a nation.
Greece is, as much as every other winemaking country in the world, very proud of its wines. Greeks are Europe’s eighth highest wine consumers and most of the wine consumed in the country’s bars and restaurants is local. The continuously rising crowd of wine professionals are generally focused on the local product and it is not until someone decides to subscribe to a higher level of wine education that he/she is introduced to international grape varieties such as Riesling, Zweigelt, Negroamaro and Malbec.
21st century is, however, a time of communication, development and international connection. Anyone who refuses the aforementioned principles is doomed to isolation, narrow-mindedness and limitations. That is why I decided to turn my summer holidays trip to a wine journey through Europe, discover the tasting profile of Germany & Austria, regions quite unknown for me and share my experience with anyone who is interested on learning more about wine but for some reason cannot reach these areas.
Day 1: From Utrecht to Trier
I left the Netherlands on a sunny Monday morning on the 22nd of August. The temperature was quite high given the season standards and as you will read further in our story, climate change starts leaving its mark everywhere.
My first stop was the twin villages of Bernkastel-Hues in Mosel and Weingut Wwe.Dr.H.Thanisch (https://www.thanisch-vdp.de/en/). The first lady of the estate, Sofia Thanisch would welcome me in the tasting room with an honest smile and the estate’s whole range of labels standing side by side on a table.
The winery’s tradition dates back on 1636 and it takes its name from the widow (witwe in German) of Dr.Hugo Thanisch, who died in 1895 at the age of forty-two. The winery is a member of VDP Quality wines of
Germany and is run by the fifth generation of women in a row! The drawing on their wines’ label depicts the vineyard slopes next to the village of Bernkastel and their most famous wine “Berncasteler Doctor” is one of the most famous and the most expensive vineyard in the whole Germany.
Ms Thanisch is very friendly, simple and helpful. She speaks of the Riesling grape as if it were her child and she describes the region’s tasting profile as “crispy & acidic with pronounced peach and apple aromas”. “Based on the vintage”, she explains, “the wine can develop apricot or even tropical aromas”.
We started the tasting from the 2021 Trocken VDP Gutswein. Simple but elegant, metallic and citrusy with a long aftertaste, it is the entry-level Riesling of the winery.
Moving up on the classification pyramid, the 2021 Bernkastel-Kues “Alte Reben” VDP Ortswein came along. The VDP Ortswein is the second level of the classification pyramid in Germany and it originates from a village’s best vineyards. They express the terroir of the area and in regions without the next category, VDP Erste Lage, they are of particular importance. The wine we had from the highest level, VDP Grosses Gewächs, was the 2020 Graben GG and here, the elegance and balance of the region truly unveiled. On the nose we encountered some yeasty aromas, butter & honey and the mouth was filled by distinctive minerality. “It can age beautifully and will definitely improve within the next five years”, stated Ms Thanisch. Being a founding member of the VDP Auction which takes place every year in Trier, she describes the event as “a wine presentation of the current vintage to people. It resembles a bit the Bordeaux En Primeur event in France”. Her opinion about the upcoming natural wines trend is quite firm: “I don’t like them. Natural wines are definitely a hype but people have to remember, the newest is not always the best. A wine should also be tasty, that is something we tend to forget.” When I asked her how did the Covid-19 pandemic affected the wine sales she said that “people turned towards sweeter wines”. And our next wine would confirm that.
Ms Thanisch served the 2021 Badstube Kabinett feinherb. Feinherb is a term to describe off-dry wines with very little residual sugar, barely perceptible in the mouth. With a low 10% abv the wine was surprisingly structured and balanced, leaving the mouth with an airy blossom sweetness. Next following, the Fruchtsüße wines of the estate. A term used in Germany to describe fruit sweetness and is usually connected with the sweeter classification levels. However, we tasted both Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese wines under that term and it was impressive to see the development of the aromas as the sugar levels went up and the acidity down. The Kabinett would retain its acidity displaying green apple aromas and a peppery aftertaste while the Spätlese would appear more structured with jasmine blossom and chamomile aromas. The Auslese displayed magnificent concentration while, surprisingly, retained some of its mineral character until the end.
I asked Ms Thanisch what would the future bring for the estate. “Both of my daughters are close to the winery. Christina in a more active role, running the estate and preparing to take over while Juliane has a more supportive role from abroad.”
The last wine, 2021 Lay Kabinett Cuvée Christina was my favourite. She personally selected the plants to be vinified and is the only wine of the estate where new wood is used. The fruit is discreet but present and gives a lot of promises for the future. Exactly like the heiress of an emblematic wine estate, next to the river Mosel.
Day 2: From Trier to Hessen
I woke up in the city of Trier, founded by the Celts on 4th century BC and considered Germany’s oldest city. I got everything packed and ready to go and I waived the city goodbye from the long bridge in its entrance.
Route 53 follows the river and driving between the vine plants and the river was definitely a memory to carry forever. The slopes are so steep they get almost vertical at some spots and I couldn’t stop wondering how challenging the harvest must be.
Around noon I reached the city of Traben-Trarbach, lied on the so-called “valley of dawn” and I headed towards my next appointment, meeting Adolph Huesgen from Villa Huesgen (https://villahuesgen.com/en/). The Villa was built in 1904 by architect Bruno Möhring and it is considered an Art Nouveau jewel of the Middle Mosel. At the back there is a fairy-tale rose garden that leads in the tasting room where Mr Huesgen would introduce me to their wines.
A very tall and imposing figure but on the same time kind and smiling with a great sense of humour! His ancestor, Johannes Huesgen, moved from the Netherlands to the Mosel and founded the wine trading estate Huesgen back in 1735. The connection between now and then is undeniable as their total export volume reaches 80% of their annual production. Mr Huesgen is consulting wineries around the world and has worked for ten years alongside Tim Mondavi, son of the winemaker legend Robert Mondavi.
What is the secret though behind their success? “Our motto is written on the back of every bottle we produce: Made by happy people. We believe that the wine production should not be over-complicated and that simple is usually the best.” And with that he poured our first wine, 2021 ByTheGlass Riesling, his entry level wine that would depict that simpleness he talked about. A stainless steel tank Riesling, fresh, citrusy and very enjoyable overall.
The next two wines he presented were rather unexpected I must admit…A single vineyard Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and a rosé blend of 95% of Pinot Noir and 5% of St.Laurent, an aromatic black grape variety popular in Austria. “This is us trying to adjust to the new climatic conditions of the region” , he says, “At the moment we have not had a proper rainfall for over three months!”
Villa Huesgen is a member of Fair ‘n Green, the seal of sustainable viticulture. It helps winegrowers to objectively measure and verify sustainability goals (e.g. reduction of CO2 emissions, higher biodiversity, social commitment) and to achieve them collectively. “Our production is 100% sustainable and we hardly use any additive chemical at all. We also buy grapes from 10 different small producers and we make sure only biological spraying is allowed.”
Next in line, the 2021 Schiefer Riesling Trabener Würzgarten with good structure, typicity and some salinity deriving from the local blue and black Devon slate, which gives the wines of Villa Huesgen its distinctive taste as it can store the heat and give the wines their mineral character. The following label was Enkircher Steffensberg Riesling Kabinett, a single vineyard medium dry (residual sugar 2.5gr/L) Riesling made of 40-50 years old plants.
The grapes are gathered at night/early morning hours and the juice runs freely to the lower level of the winery acquiring as less intervention as possible. More complicated in the mouth than the previous, with stone fruit aromas, candied lemon and a herbal, long aftertaste.
Being my personal favourite, I couldn’t help noticing the blue colour dominating everywhere, from the walls of the tasting room to the wine labels. “If you take a closer look on an empty bottle under the light you will notice the glass is also blue. It has been like that since the mouthblown bottles of the 19th century and we kept the same colour to honour our tradition.”
Moving to the Grand Cru Riesling of the estate, the Alte Reben Wurzelecht Enkircher Steffenberg, a delicate wine for special occasions. Coming from ungrafted vines and matured in old oak barrels, we encounter honey, peach and sweet apple on the nose giving way to a persistent freshness and a long aftertaste. “It can age up to 10 years beautifully and we used cork instead of a screw-cap here because we want it to develop”, said Mr Huesgen who have saved, apparently, something special for the end…
A special edition wine, 2019 Huesgen & Margan is the offspring of a friendship over continents stretching back almost forty years! The German handcrafted viticulture and hand-picking combined with Australian winemaking gave a unique outcome. Balanced acidity (8 g/L) and residual sugar (7 g/L) compose the backbone of a “vin-de-garde”. Typical rubber and petrol aromas on the nose followed by citrus fruits and a long lasting minerality in the mouth. “You can see it is a product of an Australian and a German winemaker working together. It combines both mentalities and principles!” said Adolph Huesgen smiling.
Innovation is always in the picture for family Huesgen. “I had this crazy idea at some point to try and produce Eiswein in the estate. I would wake up my children at 4 am and make them harvest at -7°. At the end the quantity was so little it wasn’t even worth producing it…”. Amongst others, his daughter is about to produce the estate’s first natural wine. “You have to keep evolving and be always a step ahead if you want to survive and thrive. Especially now that times are changing so fast. We decided to renovate the whole building this year and created appartements for visitors in order for a whole family to be able to enjoy a vineyard experience while being together”. Despite all that though, the last wine would be a real ode to tradition.
2018 Enkircher Zeppwingert Auslese Riesling is the estate’s sweetest wine with the estate’s signature balance to prevail once more. The nose displays now a ripe and exotic fruit character with hints of lemon juice and herbs like tea and verbena. It was the figure on the bottle though that drew my attention. “This is Johannes Huesgen, the first owner of the vineyard and to honour him we covered the label with his portrait. In fact, we wanted also to honour his wife, Maria Angelika Huesgen and that is we created our only sparkling wine, Mademoiselle Sekt Riesling, the dosage of which comes from the Auslese we make. This way husband and wife will always be bonded through these two labels”.
As I was leaving the Villa, I took a last mind picture of the idyllic scenery: The Mosel slopes encircling a state-of-the-art building, vineyards hanging from them. A rose garden with bees flying all over it. The sky blue colour of the estate and wines made by happy people…
Day 3: From Hessen to Hattenheim
My next stop would be the village of Hattenheim and the wine region of Rheingau, where Riesling is again the king but displaying here a more earthy, stone and rough character than the delicate terroir of Mosel.
Weingut Georg Muller Stiftung (https://georg-mueller-stiftung.de/) was another founding member of the VDP German wine estates, established in 1910 and Georg Muller’s intensions were for it to work in favour of the poor habitants of the city of Eltville. That is why the vineyard was inherited to the city and it wasn’t until 2003 when the city council decided to privatize the wine estate and search for the right person to return it to its former glory. Peter Winter, well-known in the wine business at the time would lease the vineyards from the city, directing the proceeds to charity projects, remaining thus loyal to the estate’s original cause.
Experimenting a lot with Pinot Noir, Mr Winter is determined the region can make outstanding examples of this grape. Indeed, the 2007 Cuvée Daniel Spatburgunder won the first place at Meininger’s Red Wine Prize award in 2016 scoring an impressive 93/100.
We had to rush to keep up with our schedule and Mr Winter was unfortunately unavailable at the time so I asked the employee to give us a taste of the most exceptional Riesling of the estate. And what a winner that wine was…2018 Hallgartener Jungfer Riesling GG impressed me with its massive complexity from the first sip, indicating though that it was still a bit too young to be consumed. Its mineral and earthy character were unique, feeling literally like drinking from a stone glass! Ripe stone fruits and nuts were unravelled in the mouth leaving a rather dynamic, powerful and yet somehow crystal clean and elegant aftertaste.
I was about to leave when our guide informed me about a contemporary art gallery in the cellar downstairs. I would never expect to experience such a spectacle before and it wasn’t until the first cool breeze coming out of the underground would touch my face that I realized how lucky I was.
The barrel cellar, built in 1876, radiated a pure earthy energy and the various art exposures would complement an unusual scenery, a game of shadows and colour among stone walls and huge barrels. The humidity would preserve the estate’s old vintages in a perfect way and my stay there for those minutes would make me feel part of history.
The vineyards in the Rheingau are in significantly lower altitude and less steep slopes than those in Mosel. As I was waving goodbye to the region the sad and discouraging image of the partly dried Rhine river would make me consider how much this world has changed. What was humanity’s impact upon it and whether the tide could still turn…
With these troubling thoughts I would spend the night in a hotel in the area, enjoying the local Cantharellus mushrooms and the river fish along with a, what else, glass of Riesling!
Day 4: From Hattenheim to Iphofen
I must admit, reaching the last region I would visit in Germany I felt already that my mission here had come to a glorious end. I was feeling thrilled and grateful I got to visit legendary wine regions like Mosel & Rheingau and visiting Franconia, I felt like expecting the dessert of a luxurious dinner menu. I would have never guessed then, I had another thing coming…
Entering Franconia, the region makes a very clear statement that it has nothing to do with the previous ones. The stony, steep hills covered by vineyards and the villages next to the river shores are succeeded by plain fields of grain and vine plants, in between fruit trees and scattered forest hills here and there. The villages assemble these in the Mediterranean and I would later find out that the locals are also warmer and simpler than their neighbours.
Entering the village of Iphofen in the afternoon I got the impression most residents would be in the middle of “siesta” as there were hardly any people walking on the streets. I parked my car under the shade of a tree and I headed to Weingut Hans Wirsching (https://www.wirsching.de/en/), famous and awarded winery of the region, established in 1630(!). Sylvia Neubert would welcome me smiling and leading me to the wine tasting room of the winery, decorated as a museum corner with bottles dating back to 1750 and ancient drawings of the estate and the first winemakers.
Even though I was aware of the grape Silvaner as part of my wine studies, I rarely had the chance to have a tasting oriented exclusively around it. “The unique flask-shaped green bottle is found only here and it dates back on the Medieval years. Wines from the area are bottled the same way ever since”, Ms Neubert explains. Silvaner is the signature grape of the Franconia region and its key characteristics are freshness, minerality, elegance and almost complete lack of fruity flavours. We started off with the 2021 Iphofer Kalb Silvaner trocken VDP Erste Lage. With less than 4 g/L of residual sugars the wine felt light as a feather in the mouth, displaying herbal tones and discreet citrus and orange blossom aromas. Moving up on the classification ladder, the 2018 Iphofer Julius-Echter-Berg Silvaner GG trocken would be a revelation of elegance and grace. Its name reveals single vineyard microclimate conditions and the highest quality level in the area. “The vineyards in Julius-Echter-Berg along with the ones in Kronsberg and Kalb are our best. It’s all because of the adjacent forest hills which protect the plans from the strong winds and allow them to retain a cool temperature, even in the warmest months.”
However, the estate makes much more than just Silvaner…We tried two different Riesling wines, coming from the Julius-Echter-Berg and the Kronsberg vineyards, both displaying significantly less acidity and less fruity character than the ones in Mosel and Rheingau.
The effect of climate change could not be left out from another conversation. “Silvaner is particularly resistant to sun exposure and heat conditions because of its thick skin. So I suppose we are lucky the current extreme temperatures do not affect our vineyards and climate change does not seems, yet, like a threat. We are, however, obliged to harvest earlier to avoid higher levels of residual sugars than the desired ones. The harvest nowadays lasts usually less and it is quite common to remove vine leaves more often in order for the plant not to be overweight. Finally, we tend to water the young plants much more than we did in the past.” (A/N: in Germany watering of the old vines is not allowed by law)
Furthermore, the estate is making wine out of local varieties such as Muller-Thurgau, Bacchus and Scheurebe. I have never tasted a Scheurebe before and the 2021 Iphofer Kronsberg Scheurebe Alte Reben trocken Erste Lage would not let me down. Extremely expressive and aromatic, its aromas resemble these of Sauvignon Blanc with pear, lemon and green pineapple on the nose and great intensity and length in the aftertaste. “Scheurebe was very popular around the 1970s-1980s and Weingut Hans Wirsching decided to add it to their portfolio in 1972. It currently covers 1/10 of the Franconian vineyards”, adds Sylvia.
Last but not least, the 2021 Iphoffer Bacchus kabinett Ortswein is a fine example of a pleasant wine, high in residual sugars and low in alcohol. It is a traditional grape of the area and its typical muscat aroma makes it an ideal aperitif or a wine for a warm summer night.
How did such a traditional region though managed to survive and thrive until today? “Thanks to the flexibility of the region we were able to adjust to modern standards and demands. It helps a lot that people turn nowadays to more discreet, low in alcohol wines and not as much to powerful, in-your-face wines. The local grapes are ideal for such options and they can easily be adjusted to customer’s taste. They are considered, also, culinary wines and find their place in restaurants’ wine lists around the world quite easily. Combined with local dishes, fish, salads, light meals in general, they ‘ll make a beautiful match”.
I left the winery with the irresistible blossom aftertaste of Silvaner in my mouth and as the wind made the grain around me shake and the crickets broke the afternoon silence I felt like I had a new favoured wine region.
Day 5: From Iphofen to Vienna
The trip to Germany had come to an end and the last day of my wine journey was dedicated to Austria and the city of Vienna. There, on the north-eastern outskirts of Vienna, in the historical city centre of Großjedlersdorf lies the winery of Rainer Christ, a visionary winemaker who would let us in the magical world of his local wines.
“ It’s a historical region as people started cultivating on the banks of Danube river as far as 3000 years ago. The Bisamberg hill is Alpes’ last hill and its unique geological diversity is ideal for vine-growing. The region was once covered by the sea during the ice age and the soil is still full of gravels from that era. Along with the coral limestone they form the geological underground of the region giving a fresh salinity on the estate’s wines.”
Weingut Christ (https://www.weingut-christ.at/) exists for over 400 years as an agricultural business and since 1971 exclusively oriented to wine production as the family thought it would be the most sophisticated road to follow. Christ wines are currently exported in 21 countries around the world and the winery has been awarded twice “Austrian winery of the year” since 2006, when Reiner Christ took over the family business. Mr Christ’s philosophy is focused on organic viticulture and minimum intervention to the plants. “We use no pesticide here and we renovated the winery so that we preserve the natural flow of the wine in a way that gravity carries the must naturally and we don’t have to use a mechanical pump. We even avoid irrigation so that the plant doesn’t get used to expecting water. This way the rooting system has to push harder to find water in a 50-60m depth underground. We might lose a bit in terms of quantity but we emphasize in the quality of the product.”
Climate change is again our number one topic and I was curious what would the impact be on the wines. “ Well, given that we didn’t have a proper rainfall since June, almost three months ago, we are headed unavoidably towards an early harvest in order to keep the sugars level a bit lower. The local meteorological station informed us that the period November 2021 to April 2022 was similar to Sahara’s microclimate. We established also an innovative nutrition method as we stack the leaves and wood that we get rid of from the vines, next to the plants. This way a sort of hummus is created raising the storage capacity from 1 to 10% this year”. “And what about natural wines?”, I asked. “ It is an interesting trend, mostly in developed countries in terms of wine culture. We experiment with them a bit, they take over a small part of our production. I like the prospect of reducing chemical impact on our wines but on the other hand we don’t want to change our style. Sometimes the addition of sulphite is a necessary evil and we try anyway to use as less as possible.”
Reiner Christ is talking passionately about his wines and listening to him makes me feel very optimistic for the new generation of winemakers around the world. A dreamer, with his feet on the ground though, completely devoted to his family heritage. The new age of Viennese young, local winemakers have come together forming an unofficial pact of quality around the vineyards. “It’s a gentlemen’s agreement for preserving the style of the area we work in.”
While I was interviewing Mr Christ, a wedding dinner was held in the next chamber. A small Heuriger ( Austrian term describing a culinary place with local kitchen dishes) is part of the winery and visitors can enjoy wine & food tasting combinations there. It started in 1927 with only two tables for the guests and in 2017 the restaurant would win the best-in-Austria award. The Viennese Heuriger is part of the UNESCO world heritage since 2019.
Speaking of wines, it was about time we tasted Mr Christ’s creations...We started with the 2021 Gelber Muskateller, an aperitif-style white wine with plenty of floral aromas like jasmine and citrusy flavours such as grape-fruit and orange. Good aftertaste and balanced acidity, a very joyful start indeed. Next came the 2021 Weissburgunder Der Vollmondwein, its title inspired by the cultivation taking place under the moon calendar influence and the harvest happening at full moon! It is a project Franz Christ started 25 years ago and various blind tastings confirmed the bonus of this particular vineyard management. Indeed, we encountered a massive and deep tasting profile here, juicy fruit flavours like apricot and pear, high acidity and a brilliant, peppery aftertaste. A culinary wine as more than 50% of its production is absorbed by the local restaurants. As we moved up the quality scale Mr Christ presented us the 2020 Ried Wiesthalen 1ÖTW Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC. Made from old vines, over 80 years old, this blend of local grape varieties vinified with extreme attention and care unveiled its many layers in the glass little by little. Millions of years old flysch sandstone, coral limestone and the richness of clay minerals alternate from the bottom of the vineyards to the top. This particular significance ennobles the vineyard as 1ÖTW (First site of the Austrian Traditional Wineries). The fruit here is riper and fuller, peach and pear followed by hints of brioche and honey deriving from the 13-months stay under its fine lees, a real gem. But Mr Christ saved the best for the end. His 2021 Ried Zwerchbreiteln Riesling is a real queen between his vineyards. Old vines on Viennese sandstone with crystallin enclosers are the basis for a special wine. Its rich golden yellow colour prepare us for what we are about to encounter. A complex, rich wine filled with juicy stone fruit flavours and aromas of orange peel, verbena and lemon. With a high ageing potential, this expressive Riesling left a long-lasting aftertaste while my mouth was craving for another sip. “The local trend nowadays is people looking for freshness and vitality in their wine. The boring, fatty and high in alcohol labels are no more popular. This doesn’t mean of course that our wines are weak. We can combine elegance and power.”
The sun had set in Vienna and we had to be on our way. I shook the hand of Reiner Christ and I thanked him for his incredible hospitality carrying a couple of bottles to taste at home. His humble, straight-forward and visionary way of talking about wine really inspired me and motivated me for my next journey.
To be continued…