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Celebrating a 775th Anniversary : Germany's Oldest Shipper Gives a "Historical Wine Tasting" in Southern California


"Cabernet and Chardonnay don't have all the answers." The genial but slightly defensive speaker addressing a small group of Southern California wine lovers was Count Erwein Matuschka-Greiffenclau, 49, owner of Schloss Vollrads, one of the most celebrated vineyard estates in the Rhineland. It was an amusing preface to one of the most prodigious presentations of wines I've ever enjoyed.

I had to rub my eyes and blink to make sure I was reading the vintage of the first wine correctly. Yes, it was an 1862--not 1962--Schloss Vollrads Riesling Cabinet that launched us into this "Historical Wine-Tasting," presented to celebrate the 775th anniversary of wine growing in Count Erwein's family and the bicentennial of Germany's oldest wine-shipping firm, P. J. Valckenberg.

All the wines at this memorable event were born of the noble Riesling grape, defined by Hugh Johnson in his new "Atlas of German Wines" as "the world's greatest white grape variety." Unquestionably the tasting was also to underscore something else mentioned by Johnson--that these wines are "capable of indefinite aging" and that, "while demanding a good site (they ripen late), they repay with unrivaled character, finesse and 'breed.' " The 124-year-old Schloss Vollrads, while Sherry-colored and with that same nutty aroma, was obviously very much alive.

The second wine, a 1948 Liebfrauenstift Klostergarten Riesling of Rheinhessen from P. J. Valckenberg, gave pale-gold confirmation of the tasting's premise. Then followed some current releases in this 11-wine preface to our dinner, and we concluded with four selections that were hand-carried library treasures: Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling wines from 1897, 1911, 1964 and 1971. The 1897 Schloss Vollrads, Count Erwein told us, had been harvested from these shriveled clusters by the whole family in that long-ago December, and this was the last bottle!

To write about such unobtainable treasures goes against some of my long-held tenets of column writing, but in this country, Riesling wines are today in need of advocacy, though a number of California vineyards are producing splendid, thirst-quenching examples worthy of everyone's attention--and at modest prices.

The history of Riesling begins with Charlemagne, king of the Franks in the 8th Century, who noticed from his castle-residence in Ingelheim, above the Rhine, that the snows melted first on the south-facing slopes across the river; he directed that vines be planted there. In AD 1100, a monastery was built above the vineyard and dedicated to John the Baptist, marking the beginning of Johannisberg--"John's Mountain." Centuries later, the castle Schloss Johannisberg was ceded to the chancellor of Austria, Prince von Metternich, whose direct descendant, Prince Paul Alfons von Metternich-Winneburg, is still the nominal owner. (The 12th-Century cellars of the Schloss Johannisberg are open daily for tastings.)

More than eight centuries of splendid vintages have given the Riesling wines of the Schloss Johannisberg international acclaim of such a degree that post-Prohibition California vintners seeking prestige for Riesling wines called them, improperly, "Johannisberg Riesling." The actual botanical name of the grape is either Riesling or Weisser Riesling (White Riesling).

To Schloss Johannisberg we owe another debt: the production of late-harvest wines with botrytis-affected shriveled clusters--those sweet nectars dubbed Trockenbeerenauslese . In 1775, when the monastery was under the jurisdiction of the Prince-Abbot of Fulda, the abbot's messenger arrived late with the permission to harvest. The grapes, which by then showed rot, were seemingly ruined, but the fearful workers harvested the sad clusters anyway. To their amazement, the sugar-rich juice was wonderful beyond belief, and the wine from it was deemed a miracle. It was truly a "noble rot," and today we give thanks for this benign fungus.

Should those words inspire further investigation of the wonders of the Riesling vine, try the good Blue Nun of Sichel ($4.75), move along to Deinhard's Hanns Christoff Liebfraumilch 1984 ($6), then savor the wine that inspired pilgrims to call the wine of the Liebfrauenkirche (the monastery-church at Worms) Liebfraumilch, "Milk of Our Lady." The P. J. Valckenberg Madonna Liebfraumilch 1984 ($5) is named for the statue of the Madonna in the monastery vineyard. Also on the market is a Schloss Vollrads 1981 Matuschka Yellow Seal delight ($9.50). Try any of these alongside examples of Riesling from Chateau St. Michelle in Washington, the Jekel Vineyards of Monterey 1985 Johannisberg Riesling ($6.75), or a Chateau St. Jean 1985 White Riesling Select Late Harvest--which has 15.3 residual sugar and costs $7 for a 10th--and your adventure will be well under way.

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