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The rise and rise of organic wine: Rhineland, Germany

The rise and rise of organic wine: Rhineland, Germany
“If you think you know German wines, drink again.” That was the challenge laid down by the Rhineland’s young vintners. It was a challenge Andrew Copestake was happy to take.

In the often-mysterious language that surrounds wine there are winners and there are losers. But perhaps the biggest losers of all are the befuddled consumers, easily dissuaded from drinking Californian Merlot by a throwaway line in a Hollywood movie; easily persuaded to drink too young Beaujolais by an annual faddish wine run.

Germany has suffered its own share of the language. More than once on my trip to the Rheingau and Rheinhessen regions of the world’s eighth largest wine-producing country I hear the spectre of Liebfraumilch raise its ugly head. The damage the eponymous, industrial wine did to Germany’s reputation is incalculable. But all of that belongs to the past, to an era of Demis Roussos and Margot Ledbetter, of prawn cocktails and when the English had barely got to grips with the avocado.

It was during this era that I made my first trip to the Rhine region. Back then I was barely out of short pants and got easily drunk on a single shot of schnapps. Wine was something my father did in a shed at the bottom of the garden, to dubious effect, with fruits we collectively gathered from hedgerows at the sides of country lanes.

Today I would describe myself as an amateur wine enthusiast; certainly not a connoisseur. I know what I like, even if I don’t always like how little I know. I need my wine producers to be wine anoraks so I don’t have to be. And arguably the biggest anoraks of them all right now are the growers producing organic and biodynamic wines.

Currently they cultivate a mere 4% of Germany’s total vineyard area (though this compares favourably with other major European wine-producing countries, which
The rise and rise of organic wine: Rhineland, Germany
average between 2% and 4%), but an increase of up to 6000ha is anticipated in the next few years as demand for organic produce of all kinds continues to intensify.

Being a tiny minority is not the least of their challenges. To date there is no official EU recognition of organic wines, only wine produced from organic grapes. But as the German Wine Institute is keen to point out, there is no difference in the winemaking techniques between organic and conventional vintners. Where they part company is in the maintenance of the vineyards themselves. In order to minimise environmental damage and maintain a balanced ecosystem organic vintners have abolished the use of artificial and chemical substances. Weeds are removed by hand. Their vineyards are instantly recognisable by the various types of deliberately harvested green cover that lie between the steep rows of vines and which are designed to keep organisms in the soil as active as possible. Plant protection measures are also minimised with only sulfur, copper, and latterly sodium bicarbonate used to combat damaging downy and powdery mildew. The eagle-eyed will spot tiny plastic pellets tucked amongst the leaves of the vines, which contain a high concentrate of the sexual scent of the female vine moth and are intended to confuse the males into chastity. The male moth’s loss in procreation is the consumers gain in pure drinking pleasure.

They have been cultivating wine in the region for over 2000 years, ever since the Romans introduced viticulture into what was then Europe’s northern wine-growing limits. The oldest documented mention of a vineyard in Germany, the Niersteiner Glück in the Rheinhessen, dates from AD742. In the Rheingau, monks at the ancient Johannisberg monasery accidentally invented the now sought-after Spätlese (late harvest) wines as early as 1775. And on some estates production is still overseen by nuns whose predecessors have been cultivating the vineyards for centuries. So there has been a lot of pleasure along the way.

But today, rather than follow convention, there is a growing band of young turks, dynamic producers experimenting, not just with grape varieties, but also with production techniques. And they have had some dramatic results. A few have formed into supportive communities, like the alarming-sounding Rheinhessen Five, or the more touchy-feely Message In A Bottle group.
Alexander Gysler is a member of the latter. He has taken organic production one step further than the biodynamic techniques first outlined by the philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. His family-run Weingut Gysler estate is experimenting with bio-dynamic wine production, which to a novice can sound like a lot of complex hokum and includes the use of water that has been ‘energised’ by a system of Tessla lights and vine growth stimulation via the strategic playing of Gregorian Chants!

As passionate as he is earnest, the fresh-faced Gysler, with barely a furrow on his brow, concedes you don’t have to believe in bio-dunamics, but you should at least give it a try. He has been trying with some of the region’s most ubiquitous grape varieties, including Riesling and Silvaner, for almost half a decade and the resulting acclaim speaks volumes.

But surely such labour intensive production methods result in correspondingly higher prices? Not according to Gysler. A bottle of his Weisheimer Riesling Halbtrocken, which the San Francisco Chronicle waxed lyrical over, sells for €5.90, whilst even a half bottle of his Huxelrebe Beerenauslese, which Lufthansa have selected to serve to their First Class passengers, fetches a reasonable €12.00.

However, one man who has little truck with the kind of language the SF Chronicle lauded on Herr Gysler’s Riesling (“white floral perfume, ripe citrus, slate and spice aromas, zippy yellow plum, mango cream ad infinitum) is Oliver Spanier of the Weingut BattenfeldSpanier.

“Every guy should say for himself how a wine tastes,” he says whilst dismissing the poetic licence that can lead some to make comparisons with misty dews and cuban cigars rolled on the thighs of virginal damsals. He lives up to his reputation as a young gun, firing off opinions with a quickfire rapidity that belies the patience he must assuredly extend to the painstaking procedure of growing his grapes organically.

Unlike some of the larger estates in the region, neither the BattenfeldSpanier, nor the Weingut Gysler have restautants attached to their tasting rooms, though the Gysler family have converted a large loft that can be used for private functions. Naturally they are happy for you to sample the wines as a stand-alone, but when combined with food it should, of course, be organic.
Gysler often uses the Culinary Competence catering company run by Michelin-starred chef Peter Scharf, who is keen to point out that with over 200 herbs in the area to choose from, marinating a salmon or rendering a simple garden salad with exquisite flavours should be a breeze.

I got to see how much of a breeze at the Hotel and Weinhaus Zum Krug in the tiny village of Hattenheim where the chef belongs to another organisation, Die Diktatur, which is dedicated to the revival of traditional tastes and styles of cuisine with produce sourced from local organic farmers. My young schnapps-toting self remembered the Rhineland food as being an unforgiving combination of salty potato soups and hunks of chewy meat, worthy of a Russian prison camp, or perhaps an English boarding school.

But despite the traditional décor of bare untreated woods and a hefty carving of the patron saint of winemakers, the food at Zum Krug was as delicate and complex as the wines I was now beginning to assocaite with the region. Tender slices of smoked river trout were served with a delicate herbed potato salad; a foam of sheep’s cheese sat perkily on a carpaccio of air-dried ham, and with just a splash of fresh pesto sauce dribbled over; a shoulder of lamb had been lightly tossed in a fragrant elderberry oil. And all were served with the wines of the charming Peter Jakob Kühn.

Something of an elder statesmen in the organic movement, Kühn is the antithesis of Oliver Spanier, quietly spoken and with a perennial smile upon his face. Along with his wife, a former German Wine Queen, they extend their environmentally friendly wine-producing practices towards every facet of their lives, refusing to fly, only eating native foods, resisting the pull of corporate marketing and listening to the waxing and waning of the moon.

Like their younger compatriots they don’t expect us to all join the organic club overnight. They simply ask that we give it a try. And there is nothing mysterious about that.

Rheingau and Rheinhessen Organic Vintners:
Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn. Mühlstr, 70. 65375 Oestrich. Tel: +49 (0) 6723 2299.
Weingut Heyl zu Herrnsheim + St. Antony. Wilhelmstrasse 4, 55283 Nierstein am Rhein. Tel: +49 (0) 6133 57080.
Weingut Brüder Dr. Becker. Familie Pfeffer-Müller. Mainzerstr. 3-7, 55278 Ludwigshöhe. Tel: +49 (0) 6249 8430.
Weingut BattenfeldSpainier. Bahnhofstrasse 33, D-67591 Hohen-Sülzen. Tel +49 (0) 6243 9065.
Weingut Gysler. Grosser Spitzenberg 8, 55232 Alzey-Weinheim. Tel: +49 (0) 06731-41266.

Where to stay:
Hotel Zwo. Friedrich Ebert Strasse 84, 55276 Oppenheim. Tel: +49 (0)61 339494-0. Stylish modern rooms and a great breakfast choice combined with a small yet inventive restaurant for cosy dinners.

Where to eat:
Hotel & Weinhaus Zum Krug. Hauptstrasse 34, D-65347 Hattenheim. Tel: +49 (0)6723 9968.
Netts Restaurant & Winebar. Meerspinnstrasse 46, 67435 Gimmeldingen. Tel: +49 (0) 6321 60175.
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23 August 2009
By: Andrew Copestake
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