Looking down at the St. Jost vineyard from the small footpath cut into the top of its hillside, perched high above the village of Steeg, it’s amazing to believe that vines can grow there at all, much less that people farm them by hand. Knowing the potential quality of the wines that emanate from the slope, it’s equally hard to believe that some of the owners of parts of this vineyard – and many like it throughout the Northern Rhein, the Nahe and the Saar – have chosen to let their land lie fallow. The work is just too hard. Thankfully, Jochen Ratzenberger perseveres.
Representing the second generation of estate production at Weingut Ratzenberger in the village of Bacharach, Jochen works 25 hectares of vines planted mostly to Riesling along with some Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and small quantities of Grauerburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Rivaner (Müller Thurgau). The property is based primarily on three Einzellagen (single vineyards). Posten, which is closest to the river, and Wolfshöhle, next up the valley, both lie above the village of Bacharach. Furthest from the river is St. Jost, spanning a larger elevation range above the tiny town of Steeg. The valley, which runs east-west, perpendicular to the Rhein, provides a perfect and necessary southern exposure to the entire property. In all three sites, slate of varying shades of blue and black – the same stone used for roofing the buildings in town – dominates the soil and provides a tough foothold for man and vine. The wines that Ratzenberger coaxes from these sites are without peer in the commune of Bacharach and can certainly be ranked among the best of the entire Mittelrhein region.
Capping off the better part of a week in the Philadelphia and New York areas, Jochen stopped by the shop yesterday to taste through some of his current releases with me and the rest of the crew. Following are some notes on what we tasted and what we learned along the way.
- Bacharacher Kloster Furstental Riesling Sekt Brut 2001: Year in and year out, this is one of the most special wines I sell. Made in the Champagne method, including riddling by hand courtesy of Jochen himself, this single vineyard sparkling Riesling spends five years on its lees before disgorgement. Always a clear expression of both site and vintage, it’s a wonderful pairing with oysters and other shellfish and makes a splendid aperitif. The 2001 vintage is drinking wonderfully, crisp, completely dry, showing a very fine mousse and brimming with lightly toasty notes of apple and peach. The Kloster Furstental einzellage is located one valley to the south of Ratzenberger’s primary property. Its soil base is richer in loam than to the north, its rows are more widely spaced and its orientation opens it to the winds blowing along the river. All of these factors combine to make it a dry site with very strong vines, ideal for production of perfectly healthy fruit. Botrytis does not occur here and grapes can hang long on the vine, in some vintages into February. Jochen makes only two wines from the Kloster Furstental – Sekt (from an early picking) and Eiswein.
- Bacharacher Riesling Kabinett trocken 2003: Ratzenberger’s village wines, produced only at the Kabinett trocken and QbA levels and labeled simply as Bacharacher with no vineyard designation, come from a cross-section of all three vineyards on the main property, usually dominated by fruit from Wolfshöhle. The warm, dry growing conditions of the 2003 vintage lend a creamier than typical structure to this bottling. The stoniness of all of the estate’s wines is present, soft yet dry, with hints of apricot on the palate. Jochen prefers this wine with fresh water trout caught in the streams near his home. Try it at home with any mild to medium flavored fish.
- Steeger St. Jost Riesling Spätlese trocken 2002: Looking back on my notes from a visit to Weingut Ratzenberger in February 2004, we tasted this very wine shortly after bottling. Three years on, it’s developing wonderfully. Spätlesen trocken, late picked wines fermented to total dryness, give a more intense, vinous flavor profile than that found in earlier harvests and lesser degrees of dryness. That vinosity shows itself aromatically, with intense scents of minerals, peach and lime zest and greater body in the mouth. These elements, combined with textures resulting from a higher-acid vintage, make this a great choice for pairing with oilier fish such as salmon or with game birds. The St. Jost vineyard, with its high elevation and soil base of slate, clay and sand, is ideal for this style. The only other wines made there are a Kabinett halbtrocken and a Großes Gewächs.
- Steeger St. Jost Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken 2003: The tasting order selected by Jochen surprised me here, as I would have expected to taste this before the Spätlese trocken. No matter, the wine is delicious. Very delicate and gentle, it shows crystal clear flavors of peaches and canned pineapple melded to soft yet refreshing acidity. This is incredibly versatile with lighter foods of all kinds, makes a wonderful aperitif and would hold its own with a wide range of modestly seasoned Asian cuisine.
- Bacharacher Posten Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 2002: Now the order begins to make sense, a clear progression from trocken to halbtrocken and on to sweeter styles. The aromas of this wine are the most intensely mineral yet, showing hints of what many refer to as petrol married to rich tones of apricot and a lush, persistent and lively mouth feel. Full body, lively acidity and a nuance of sweetness make this suitable for pairing with fatty birds and rich sauces. Posten’s proximity to the Rhein and its somewhat sheltered position, both contributing to light morning fog, make it an ideal site for the production of late harvest and botrytis effected styles. From here hail most of the Auslesen, Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen produced by Ratzenberger.
- Bacharacher Riesling Kabinett 2003: Not yet for sale, this was tasted from a sample bottle. It reminded me instantly of the 1998 Bacharacher lieblich wines. Soft and broad across the palate, its transparent flavors of white peach and slate, subtle acidity and very low alcohol (8%) make this a classic aperitif style. I’m already looking forward to its availability.
- Kloster Furstental Riesling Eiswein 2002: Back to the vineyard where the tasting began, this time with the showstopper. Real, handmade, farm grown Eiswein is a rarity in Germany. Some producers, depending on their vineyard sites, might only produce three or four bottlings per decade. Because of the special characteristics of Kloster Furstental though, Ratzenberger is able to make Eiswein, albeit in tiny quantities, in most years. Sporting 250 grams of residual sugar and 20 grams of acidity, this is pure nectar, unctuous, tooth coating yet still balanced. Subtler aromas but much more intense flavors emerge than in the earlier pickings – lemon and lime oils, kumquat, papaya, passion fruit and orange blossom honey. Its best possible serving scenario is straight up. If you must eat, pair it with a slice of good foie gras. But please, please don’t serve it with sweets; at $135 for a half-bottle, it would be the epitome of waste.
Looking at Jochen, with the flavors and textures of his Eiswein still lingering on my palate, it’s hard to imagine the dedication it takes to produce these wines. Always affable and perpetually relaxed, he tells us of the incredible toils of making his Beeren- and Trockenbeerenauslesen. It takes one person an entire day, selecting one berry at a time, to pick enough to make a single half-bottle. I’ve seen, in person, the guide wires used by Jochen and his picking and pruning crews to hold themselves in place while working the perilously steep hillside vineyards. And I’ve seen the tiny amounts of “topsoil” that must be carried back up the hill and redistributed after hard storms and at the end of the season. I would wonder how he justifies it all – perhaps thinking him mad – if I’d never tried the wines. They are Bacharach-Steeg in a bottle. They make it all worthwhile. Gladly, I think he enjoys them even more than I do.