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The Battle of the Rheingau

August 30, 2000|STUART PIGOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By most subjective tests, the Georg Breuer Nonnenberg is a great Riesling. It's rich and sophisticated, with complex apricot, spice and mineral aromas. When German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hosted a banquet for the leaders of the European Union in March, it was one of the wines served.

No matter. Under a controversial new vineyard classification, it can never be considered one of the region's best. The Nonnenberg vineyard, near the town of Rudesheim in the Rheingau region, is not included on the official map.

Rather than classifying wines in a hierarchical manner by place, as the French do, the Germans have always classified them by sweetness; or, more specifically, by the sugar content of the grapes at harvest. In order of increasing sugar, the ranks of the pradikat system are kabinett, spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese.

This has led to a famously contorted system in which wines are labeled according to producer, region, vineyard, sweetness and, occasionally, by the winery's own assessment of the wine's quality, indicated by such things as the color of the bottle cap that covers the cork.

On Friday the German state of Hessen, to which the Rheingau belongs, will issue the first French-model vineyard classification in the nation's history. Under this new law, Rheingau wines from designated areas that have passed a blind tasting test will be designated as First Growths, Erstes Gewachs.

The law is "a real innovation for the German wine industry," says Silvia Diemer, director of the Rheingau Winegrowers Assn., which represents all the region's winegrowers and has worked vigorously for the new legislation for three years.

To Bernhard Breuer, director and co-owner with his brother Heinrich of the Georg Breuer estate, the vineyard classification about to become law is "fundamentally flawed."

He says the methods used for classification have resulted in the inclusion of many flat vineyards with heavy soils at the expense of steeply sloping vineyards with stony soils. The first, he says, "have never given a superior quality wine" and the quality of the second "has been known for centuries. . . . They are some of the most famous vineyards in all Germany."

Despite these exclusions, Breuer finds the classification overly generous. He points out that the law grants possible First Growth status to 2,797 of the 7,979 acres planted in the region, a bit more than 35%. In Burgundy, by contrast, only 14% of the vineyard land qualifies.

"This is complete humbug," he says.

The winegrowers' Diemer counters that the classification was cautious, not generous. "Many people consider the Rheingau the pearl among Germany's winegrowing regions."

This is not the first attempt at creating a quality classification. Breuer and a group of fellow vintners started the Charta association in 1994. They included only 19% of the Rheingau vineyards.

"At the time even that made us anxious that we were being a little too generous," Breuer says.

The Charta classification was based on a wide range of factors, including climate, geology, documented tradition and the experience of recent generations of local vintners. This makes it far closer to the French vineyard classifications. By contrast, the new law favors areas that have the potential for producing grapes with high sugar levels.

"I agree that the new classification is not quite 100%, but the crucial thing is the quality of the wines which pass the blind tasting test and end up bearing the Erstes Gewachs name," says Wilhelm Weil, director of the Robert Weil estate in Kiedrich and president of the Rheingau branch of the national association of elite estates that helped develop the criteria.

Furthermore, he says, the new law recognizes only vineyards that have low yields (a maximum of 50 hectaliters per hectare), that are harvested by hand and that pass a blind taste test. Weil anticipates that these rules will result in less than 1% of the region's 1999 vintage qualifying as First Growths.

"In a decade," he says, "we might come close to 5%, which is still a strict selection."

Weil is one of Germany's foremost producers of sweet Rieslings. Though his dry wines rarely match those from Breuer, his amazingly concentrated, essence-like trockenbeerenausleses from the Grafenberg have several times set world record prices for a young wine (of any type) at the annual wine auctions organized by the Rheingau chapter of the estate association.

(You don't have to pay thousands of dollars per bottle for a Weil wine, though. The estate's 1999 Riesling Spatleses are superb late-harvest wines with rich apricot fruit and a marvelous balance of fresh acidity and grape sweetness, and they cost less than $35 a bottle in the U.S.)

It is not these wines that are in question, though. The fear of some industry observers is that full-bodied but unsubtle wines from unknown producers may pass the blind tasting test for First Growth status, rapidly eroding the new designation's image.

Bernhard Breuer has already declared his intention to boycott the new initiative. He will continue to market his best dry Rieslings from the top sites of Berg Schlossberg and Berg Rottland (both Rudesheim) and Nonnenberg (from Rauenthal) under these names without the Erstes Gewachs designation.

The 1997 and 1998 Nonnenberg wines are very impressive, the former more accessible now, the latter needing cellar time but capable of aging for 20 years and more.

Both show just how far the best dry German Rieslings have come since the thin, sour wines of 15 and 20 years ago. The question is whether a new name is necessary to promote them, and if so, whether Erstes Gewachs can successfully establish itself after such a bad start.

*

Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer.

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