What’s the difference between Rheingau and Rheinhessen?
The nomenclature of German wine can be confusing – even for serious wine enthusiasts – with compound names and a quality system predicated on harvest sugar levels. When three of the thirteen wine regions contain the word “Rhein” even the places can be confusing: Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Mittelrhein. Until 1995 there was even a fourth with the Pfalz known as Rheinpfalz.
Rheinhessen is the largest of the 13 German wine regions and grows a large range of varieties; Riesling is the most significant but only accounts for around a sixth of the total, with Müller-Thurgau, Dornfelder and various Pinots also prominent. Historically it was part of the Hesse region but is now part of Rheinland-Pfalz.
Confusingly, the Rheingau is part of the state of Hesse! In her book The wines of Germany, Anne Krebiehl MW states that “No other region has shaped the identity of German wine and therefore Riesling as comprehensively as [the Rheingau]”. Riesling is most definitely king here, accounting for 78.8% of all wines, with Spätburgunder a distant second at 12.2% then Müller-Thurgau leading the small change.
This article compares two similar Rieslings from Rheingau and Rheinhessen, both Trocken (dry), 12.0% in alcohol and retailing in the €20 – €25 bracket in Ireland.
Dreissigacker Rheinhessen Riesling Trocken 2015
Jochen Dreissigacker took over his parents’ firm in Bechtheim and set about bringing it right up to date. A modern winery building was established using gravity to move around the grapes, must and wine. The vineyards were converted to organic production, with certification coming in 2010, and now biodynamic practices are also used for the majority of the estate. Minimal intervention is the key so that vineyards and grapes can express themselves to the full. Dreissigacker never use commercial yeasts, chaptalise with sugar before fermentation nor add “‘süss-reserve” for sweeter styles after fermentation.
The estate has six named vineyards around Bechtheim and Westhofen, each with their own unique soil types, microclimates and identities. Totalling 21 hectares under vine, the most important variety is Riesling which accounts for 55% of the total, with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay among the others. This estate wine is a blend of Riesling from different sites, mainly with loess and marl soils.
The nose on this wine is easily identifiable as Riesling: lime, lemon and apple blossom. On tasting the strong core of acidity is striking, but there’s also breadth and texture – in fact more than one might expect from a Riesling. The lime notes are joined by a touch of honey and a pleasant bittersweet tanginess, and it ends with a dry, textured finish.
- ABV: 12.0%
- RS: 5.0%
- RRP: €23.99 (2019 vintage)
- Stockists: 64 Wine, Glashule; Alain and Christine Wine and Card Shop; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Martins Off Licence, Fairview; Redmonds of Ranelagh; The Wine Centre, Kilkenny; wineonline.ie; World Wide Wines, Waterford
- Source: purchased from 64 Wine
Robert Weil Rheingau Riesling Trocken 2019
Weingut Robert Weil has over four times as much vineyard area as Dreissigacker with 90 hectares, all of which is planted to Riesling. The eponymous Dr Robert Weil purchased his first vineyards in 1867 while teaching German at the Sorbonne, but shortly after had to return home as tensions rose between the two countries. There he became a journalist while expanding his holdings and his range of wines; his Auslese Riesling became famous throughout Europe.
Robert’s son Wilhelm (from 1920) helped to steer the winery through turbulent times and was a leader for the winegrowing industry. His grandson Robert (from 1959) helped Weil’s Rieslings to regain their reputation for excellence. The current owner/manager is another Wilhelm who took over in 1987. He undertook serious investments in the vineyards and cellar, even introducing the distinctive and now iconic “Tiffany blue” labels.
Although they have just a single variety, Weil make an extensive range of wines, and differing sugar levels necessitate as many as 17 different passes through the vineyards during a harvest which can last ten weeks or more. In the winery – as with Dreissigacker – gravity rather than pumps is used to move juice and wine. Both wild and commercial yeasts are used for fermentation, with fuller bodied dry wines in large oak casks and sweeter or fruit forward wines fermented in stainless steel tanks.
This 2019 Riesling Trocken pours very pale in the glass, as you’d expect. The nose has intense, fresh lime overlaying a mineral edge. The palate initially shows soft citrus fruits, backed up by a strong streak of acidity which underpins the whole show, and then juicy orchard fruits. This is a well made, balanced wine that gives a lot of pleasure. It’s not the most complex of wines, but it is the entry level from Robert Weil and represents fantastic value for money.
- ABV: 12.0%
- RS: 8.4 g/L
- RRP: €24.95 (currently down to €21.95)
- Stockists: O’Briens stores and obrienswines.ie
- Source: Sample
So what can these two wines tell us about the differences between the Rheingau and Rheinhessen? I think this is too small a sample to compare the two regions, but it does make for a comparison between the two producers and two vintages. The Dreissigacker is four years older than the Robert Weil so it is further along its journey to maturity; the Weil is still fresh and shows more primary fruit, fitting for their desire for wines to be both food-friendly and pleasant to drink on their own. The Dreissigacker is more textured, mineral and serious, perhaps slightly less obvious or accessible for some drinkers.
I really liked both! For a refreshing sip in the sun with friends I’d pick the Robert Weil, but for a dinner with some good food the Dreissigacker would be my choice. Perhaps more investigation is required…