As well as being one of the most prestigious vineyards in Germany – one of three that have their own appellation – Schloss Vollrads may be the oldest identifiable vineyard on earth. At least, it’s the one with the longest verifiable history as a producing vineyard. The Greiffenclau family took possession of the property in 1097; the earliest surviving record of wine sales dates from 1211, over 800 years ago. Just for perspective: That’s four years before the Magna Carta.
The once-fortified tower for which the estate is named was built in 1330 on the foundations of a Roman fort dating from before the fourth century. The whole German system of wine appellations has its roots at Schloss Vollrads, which was the first to designate a wine suitable for aging as “Kabinett.” Only Pompeii can boast identifiable vineyards pre-dating Schloss Vollrads’s, and their producing history was dramatically interrupted for 1900 years.
Being a sort of history nut as well as a wine nut, I happily accepted the offer to taste some of Schloss Vollrads’s recent wines over a lunch at Shun Lee Palace, near Lincoln Center. The Schloss produces nothing but Riesling, in all its German gradations of dryness and sweetness, and I’ve always found that Riesling of almost any kind matches well with Chinese cuisine. So this was a Trifecta for me, and I looked forward to the lunch with what the pulp writers call “keen anticipation.” The wines didn’t disappoint.
Rowald Hepp, the general manager and winemaker, represented Schloss Vollrads. Charming and knowledgeable, he has been running the estate since 1999.
For centuries, the Schloss had been the heritage of the Greiffenclau family, whose last scion was Count Erwein Matuschka Greiffenclau. He was an imposing man – 6’5’ tall, gracious, and a notoriously fast driver – who loved the vineyards and their wine, but apparently was not so skilled at handling finances. When the estate was forced into bankruptcy in 1997, Matuschka walked out into the vineyards and shot himself, a gesture that in these hard (headed) financial times seems both stirringly romantic and decidedly unhelpful.
The Schloss Vollrads vineyards consist of 81 hectares of south-facing slopes along the banks of the Rhine, west of Frankfurt, in the Rheingau. They usually enjoy a long growing season, with relatively mild winters and relatively hot summers, ideal for Riesling. Field work is rigorous and precise, to control yields and maximize ripeness: removing lower portions of clusters to control molds, green harvesting, multiple hand pickings, manual sorting of individual grapes and clusters after harvest – all are routine procedures at Vollrads. Since 2003, the estate has used no cork: bottles are sealed with glass, which, Hepp says, allows the wine to mature properly without any risk of cork taint.
The wines tasted at the luncheon were all from the 2011 vintage. As Hepp described it, this was not an easy one for German winemakers. A very cold early winter preceded an unusually mild January and February, spring-like conditions in March, and summer-like ones in April, all of which resulted in very early budding in April and blossoming in late May. Actual summer then was hot and rainy, causing a season-long struggle against rot, but also inducing quick ripening. Harvest started on September 14, the earliest ever for the Rheingau, and an Indian summer prolonged the harvest to mid-October, when the strongly shriveled grapes for auslese, beerenauslesle, and trockenbeerenauslese were gathered. Hepp was very happy with the quality of the harvest, describing the grapes as “richly aromatic and spicy, with perfectly balanced acidity.”
Here are my tasting notes on the day’s wines (with my usual caveat about all tasting notes: They were accurate for me at that one particular time and place – they may not be at all true for you, and even for me they are not engraved in stone).
Riesling QbA* dry: intriguing lemon and acacia blossom aroma; great fruit and acidity; lovely long citric finish. Hepp estimates 3 to 5 years aging potential. Quite good, especially for an estate’s base wine.
Riesling Kabinett medium-dry (sometimes designated “halb-trocken”): again, intense acacia blossom and lemon aromas precede an intensely floral and mineral palate with lively acidity. A trace of sweetness shows only in the slightly hazelnutty finish. Very fine.
Riesling QbA: lemon/lime nose; bright and sprightly, almost frizzante, on the palate. Slightly sweet lemon in finish. Lovely Riesling character throughout. Very good.
Riesling Kabinett: Small mushroom-and-earth scents mixed with flowers; floral and apricot in the mouth; great minerality in the finish. Again, excellent varietal character throughout. I would guess this wine would cellar quite well for up to ten years. Very fine.
Riesling Spätlese: Fermented at very low temperatures for up to 14 weeks in stainless steel. Hepp’s technical notes are, for my palate, very accurate: “Incredible fruit complexity. Stunning floral aromas of peach, raspberry, and honeysuckle, with hints of apple blossoms and traces of ginger.” I would add that the low alcohol and the striking acidity, which easily supports the residual sugar, keep the wine light and agile on the palate, right into and through its luscious finish. Should cellar well for more than a decade.
Riesling Auslese: Hepp calls this “an amazing wine”; I found it lush, rich and complex with a whole spectrum of sweet fruit flavors, all sustained by terrific acidity. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I loved sipping this wine as dessert. Very fine.
Over all, these 2011s all displayed that rich floral and mineral character that is the hallmark of the finest Rieslings. Their lower alcohol and varying degrees of sweetness defined them as classic German wines – wines perhaps not always easy to match with foods (but I kept thinking how much any of these wines would love a smoked trout!), but exquisite in themselves, and when you do find their right partner, absolutely incomparable.
* QbA is the basic classification of German table wines, technically a niche below Kabinett and all the rarefied levels of sweetness that ascend from there: Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA).