‚€œThe last Princess von Metternich called this cellar ‚€˜The
Cathedral of Riesling,‚€™‚€ my guide said. It was easy to see why. The
gravel on the floor, strewn there to capture humidity, crunched
underfoot, as though the wines in the ancient casks were applauding our
cellar was really nothing special, as far as European castle wine
cellars go, though it was artfully lit to suggest the cathedral analogy,
the light reflecting through the flutes of sparkling Riesling sekt we carried as votives. Nothing special, that is, except for its location, at Schloss Johannisberg in Germany‚€™s Rheingau region.
A visit to Schloss Johannisberg is a necessary pilgrimage for any
Riesling lover. Not because of the wines, though they are great, but
because of the history, and the geography. The 50th parallel bisects the
vineyards, marking Europe‚€™s northernmost wine region.
The estate, above the small town of the same name where the Rhine flows
east-to-west for a short stretch, combines religious, diplomatic, and
viticultural history. The schloss, or castle, began as a monastery built
in the early 12th century, though more recent excavations found
Romanesque attributes that have been featured in the current
restoration. The castle itself was finished in 1728, but destroyed in
World War II by an errant Allied bomb. The estate, which is now about 80
acres, was planted to Riesling in the 1740s by the Prince of Fulda.
This nobleman, or at least his tardy messenger, was responsible for
German wine as we know it – one year, when the official decree to begin
harvest arrived late, the nervous vineyard workers were forced to make
wine from moldy grapes, and botrytis, or noble rot, was discovered. This
was the beginning of sp√§tlese, auslese and trockenbeerenauslese, the progressively sweet wines mimicked the world over as late harvest.
Schloss Johannisberg changed hands several times during the
Napoleonic Wars, eventually coming under control of the Hapsburgs. The
Emperor of Austria awarded it to Prince von Metternich for his work at
the Congress of Vienna, which restored European order after Napoleon‚€™s
defeat. The estate remained in the Metternich family until the last
prince passed away two years ago.
My guide on this tour was Christian Witte, the
estate‚€™s young and ambitious managing director. He spoke brashly of
restoring Schloss Johannisberg‚€™s wines to the status they enjoyed
before the First World War, when they were priced comparably to the
first growths of Bordeaux.
The company actually has two wineries, the Schloss and G.H. von Mumm,
located nearby. The Mumm label (not to be confused with the
better-known Champagne house) produces red wines and trockens, the
trendy dry style of white wines. The Schloss sticks to the traditional
‚€œTradition is not praying to the ashes, it is handing over the
fire,‚€ Witte said, practicing his marketing mantra. He acknowledged
that rebuilding the estate‚€™s reputation will be difficult given the
consumer‚€™s difficulty in deciphering Riesling in general and German
wines in particular.
‚€œRiesling is a wine-lover‚€™s dream, but it is a marketing
disaster,‚€ he said. ‚€œWhy do we have so many styles? Because we can!
With no other grape variety can you do that!‚€
To prove his point, Witte offered a dizzying array of wines, all
showing tremendous Riesling character but with significant differences
in sweetness and fruit expression. Trying to keep up, my notes are a
jumble of references to ‚€œred label,‚€ ‚€œgreen label,‚€ or silver,
‚€œlong cap‚€ and ‚€œerstes gew√§chs,‚€ one of Germany‚€™s attempts to
emulate the first growth concept. These are interspersed with
adjectives such as ‚€œzesty‚€ and ‚€œmineral,‚€ plus frequent
Finally, I put my pen down and concentrated on the wines. Tradition,
ambition, castles and cathedrals faded from my mind as I stared into the
fiery glint of Riesling in my glass.
Photos by Dave McIntyre: Schloss Johannisberg; the 50th Parallel; Christian Witte in the Cathedral of Riesling.