The German Wine Region You’ve Probably Overlooked

The Nahe — A Study in Soil Diversity

 


Sometimes overlooked for its larger and better-known neighbors, the Nahe is leveraging its geological diversity to build a reputation in the global wine world as a region for distinctive, world-class wines.    

Situated about 45 minutes southwest of Frankfurt, the Nahe is named for the river that winds through the region.  Spanning 125 kilometers (78 miles), the river Nahe rises near Nohfelden in the Saarland, stretches east to the region’s capital town of Bad Kreuznach and then north to Bingen where it flows into the Rhine.

Framed by the Hunsrück hills and the North Palatine Uplands on either side of the river, the Nahe is a pastoral region of rolling green hills and expansive meadows dotted with charming villages of historic timber-framed homes, vineyards climbing steep hillsides, and striking rock formations jutting from the valley floor.  

The steep south-facing slopes along the river Nahe and its tributaries, the Alzenz and Glan, are among the finest terroirs in Germany for distinctive, elegant Riesling. Just over a quarter (29%) of the 4,200 hectares of vines in the Nahe are planted to Riesling, clinging to steep slopes climbing from the banks of the river.

Müller-Thurgau, the grape created by Swiss Botanist Hermann Müller in 1882 by crossing Riesling and Gutedel, was the most planted grape in the Nahe (and across Germany) until Riesling overtook it a few decades ago.  Today, the early-ripening grape accounts for 13% of vineyard plantings followed by Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) with 8%, and Silvaner 5%.  

Dornfelder is the most planted red grape in the region with 10% of hectares followed by Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) with 7%.  Lesser-known varieties like the aromatically charming Pinot Madeline are also thriving in the region.

“Although vines have been cultivated in the region since Roman times it was only under the German Wine Law of 1971 that the Nahe was declared an independent region,” explained Ernst Büscher of the German Wine Institute.  “This is one reason why it’s like a hidden treasure for many wine lovers.”

Though the Nahe valley is one of the smallest regions, accounting for less than 5% of the 105,000 hectares of vineyards in Germany, it’s one of the most geologically diverse, boasting 180 different soils.

In his book, Reading Between the Vines, renowned wine importer Terry Theise writes, “Riesling does more than just imply terroir: it subsumes its own identity as fruit into the greater meaning of soil, land, and place. Riesling knows soil more intimately than any other grape.”

This truth can be found in Riesling’s many expressions of the diverse soils of the Nahe.  

From melaphyre, quartz-porphyry, and light sandstone soils in the upper Nahe, to loess and red sandstone in the central part of the region around Bad Kreuznach, to the slate and argillaceous shale soils of the lower part, the varied soils speak through Rieslings and other varieties.  

“The soil diversity is the foundation for this multifarious microcosm called the Nahe region,” explained Andreas Held, Sommelier at Meisenheimer Hof, a historic hotel and restaurant in the village of Meisenheim.

“On each soil you have different grapes, cultivated by different winemakers with their own ideas and philosophies, who create their wine in different styles with different techniques. That adds up to an oenological treasure chest.”

The Rieslings of the Nahe are not the one-dimensional, sweet wines that flooded the market in the 1980s and 90s.  As a small region overshadowed by its larger neighbors, Nahe winegrowers collectively focus on producing quality wines that are transparent and expressive of their place.  

Wines, especially Riesling, made from grapes grown in conglomerate soils express more minerality while those grown in slate soils tend to be more elegant and fruitier.  The Riesling made from vineyards planted in red sandstone are aromatic with racy acidity and those grown in loess were more aromatically restrained while the wines made from grapes grown in sand were creamier.  

The current climate in the Nahe is mild and dry and getting warmer.

“When I took over in 1971, the weather was different,” explained Helmut Dönnhoff, head of the renowned Dönnhoff estate.  “Today, the average temperature is warmer so the grapes have better physiological ripeness.  I can say right now it’s near perfect.”

With over 45 vintages of experience, few are as qualified to speak on the climatological impact on wine quality in the region as Mr. Dönnhoff.

One of the most respected winemakers in Germany,  Dönnhoff’s Rieslings are some of the highest-regarded in the world.

The Dönnhoff family came to the Nahe over two centuries ago, settling in the small hamlet of Oberhäusen, situated in the central part of the region along the banks of the river.   The family operated a traditional farm with livestock, vegetable and fruit gardens and some vineyards until the 1920s when Helmut’s grandfather, Hermann Dönnhoff, transitioned to cultivating vineyards.

When Helmut took over the vineyard and cellar in 1971 (widely considered the best vintage in decades), he farmed four hectares of vines.  Today, he and his son, Cornelius, farm 28 hectares of grand cru vineyards across nine different vineyard sites and produce about 17,000 cases of wine.

Cornelius joined his father in the vineyard and cellar in 2007 after completing viticulture studies and internships in other regions.

Cornelius is one of a number of talented young winemakers who grew up in the region, studied viticulture at prominent universities and apprenticed in other regions gathering experiences to bring back to the Nahe.   

Among this group of winemakers writing the next chapter of the Nahe wine story is 25 year-old Laura Weber, 11th generation winemaker at Weingut Udo Weber, situated in the village of Monzingen in the central Nahe.  

“I studied [oenology] in Geisenheim from 2012 to 2016,” said Weber.  “When I came back to our winery I updated the logo, created my own line of wines, and focused on expanding to other markets by participating in exhibitions in Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria.”

Twenty kilometers east of Weber, in the village of Niederhausen, winemaker Jakob Schneider, 35, is helping raise the stature of the Nahe region at his family’s estate, Weingut Jakob Schneider.

Schneider studied viticulture at Geisenheim University and interned at Knoll in the Wachau region of Austria before returning to his family’s historic estate, which was established in 1575.

Today, three generations of Schneiders farm 18 hectares (and 26 ha of leased vineyards) on steep-sloped vineyards overlooking the Nahe River.  

“I’m continuing the traditions of my father in the vineyard but, I’m making changes in the cellar like installing air conditioning and purchasing new equipment,” explained Schneider.

In Münster-Sarmsheim, a small village on the western side of the Nahe, Georg Rumpf runs his family’s estate, Kruger-Rumpf.  

With roots in the region dating back to the late 18th century, the family sold most of their grapes to larger producers or co-ops until 1984.  Since completing his viticulture studies ten years ago, Rumpf has overseen the expansion of Kruger-Rumpf vineyard holdings from 15 hectares to 43 today.

“We’ve had the chance to get new vineyards in recent years,” said Rumpf.  “Like vineyards planted in the 1930s in the Abtei (TK), which are the most notthern in the Nahe and this year we acquired new blocks in the village of Waldlaubersheim, some of the highest altitude vineyards in the region.”

Though Kruger-Rumpf, Dönnhoff and other established estates have distribution in the U.S. and other markets outside of Germany, most Nahe wine is sold direct to consumers in the region.

The majority of wine produced in the region is sold direct to consumers from family tasting rooms but winegrowers are focusing on expanding to important markets like the U.S. and attracting wine tourists to the area.

The region is tourist-friendly, easy to navigate, and offers plenty of outdoor activities like hiking and riding the rails on a draisine.  Natural spring spas in Bad Kreuznach, Bad Munster and Bad Sobernheim provide a place to recharge.

For the history-minded wine tourist a walk around the historic ruins of Klosterruine Disibodenberg—once home to Hildegard von Bingen, 12th century abbess, philosopher, and writer—designated a ‘Landmark of Wine Culture’ by the German Wine Institute in 2010, is a must.  

For a taste of the historic, diverse region seek out wines from these producers:

Emrich-Schönleber
Schäfer-Fröhlich
Gut Hermannsberg
Schlossgut Diel
Weingut Tesch

Like dry Riesling, the Nahe Valley’s time has come.  Prost!

A few of my favorite wines from my recent trip to the Nahe:
 
2012 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Großes Gewächs (GG)
Hermannshöhle is Dönnhoff’s oldest vineyard and one of the most revered sites in the Nahe and beyond. It’s a steep-sloped hill of argillaceous slate with limestone veins.  ‘Hermann’ is derived from the Roman god of messengers and travelers, Hermes and ‘Höhle’ means a small mine in the middle of the hillside.  A beautiful, balanced, expressive Riesling. Light gold color in the glass, aromas of peach, ripe pear, lychee and flint jump from the glass. Flavors of pear, peach skin, saline and hints of chalk. Wonderful texture in the mouth, racy acidity; lengthy lemon-mineral finish.

Jakob Schneider 2017 Riesling Trocken Melaphyr
A delicious QbA (‘quality wine’) Riesling from Jakob Schneider. Melaphyr is a reference to black-red volcanic rock in the vineyard.  Smoky with notes of exotic fruits, spice, dried lychee and hints of ginger around a mineral core. Lovely citrus acidity and balance.

Kruger-Rumpf 2009 Spätburgunder R Trocken
Elegant, charming, and expressive, this wine serves as a great example of why Pinot Noir is growing in popularity and importance in the Nahe (and Germany as a whole).  This wine is made from Pinot vines planted in the 1980s and 90s on hillside vineyards in Münsterer Rheinberg, predominantly quartz and slate with some loess soils.  Fresh with crackling energy, notes of ripe cherry, violets, mushroom, and stone; notable acidity; lengthy red berry finish.

Gut Hermannsberg Blanc de Blancs Brut Vormals Koniglich-Preussische
This Sekt from the historic Weingut Hermannsberg is one of a growing number of delicious, dry sparkling wines available in the Nahe.  A focus on producing quality sparkling wine is an emerging trend in the region.  The term ‘Sekt’ became the official designation in Germany in 1925 when ‘Champagne’ could no longer be legally used for German bubbles. A blend of Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay grapes from Hermannsberg’s Grosse Lage (Grand Cru) vineyards, the juice was aged in stainless steel tanks and demi-muids and made in the traditional (champenoise) méthode. Complex and vibrant with notes of stone fruits and saline; creamy texture and lengthy brioche finish.

Schlossgut Diel 2014 Kabinett Schlossberg
Located in the lower Nahe, this estate was purchase by the Diel family in 1802.  Today, Armin Diel operates the winery his daughter Caroline is the winemaker.  The Riesling for this wine was grown on steep, south-facing slopes of slate and clay soils.  Aged in neutral oak barrels made from local forests and then in stainless steel.  An elegant and balanced Riesling, aromas of spice, pear and peach skin jump from the glass with flavors of flint, peach water, and sweet pear.  Zingy minerally acidity.




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Comments

  • Snooth User: Zuiko
    Hand of Snooth
    540750 838

    I spent some time in this region and can say that a few of the auslese wines I had were super.

    Aug 31, 2018 at 3:31 PM


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  • Snooth User: Cowwash
    2190396 13

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    Sep 11, 2018 at 7:14 AM


  • @Zuiko - Any particular producers I should look for?

    Sep 11, 2018 at 10:09 AM


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