February 2004. Philly – Paris – Frankfurt. After filing a claim for lost baggage – thanks, Air France – our group piled into three rental cars and headed straight to the riverside village of Bacharach. Following a quick stop at the hotel and a bite to eat – bratwurst and Jever Pils at Restaurant der Zupferkanne – it was straight to Weingut Ratzenberger, our only appointment of the day and the first destination of a nine day wine trip to Germany and France. Finding our way up the valley road to Steeg, Jochen Ratzenberger greeted us at his winery’s street-front door, paused for a moment to grab some stemware and led us right back out to our vehicles. Typical to the pattern at almost every winery in Europe, weather allowing, our tour would begin in the fields. Not surprisingly given the view we’d appreciated from the Bacharach village square, our route took us straight up hill and onto the single lane, switchback access roads to the vineyards.
Standing on a precipitous, narrow footpath between two sections of the St. Jost vineyard, we were able to take in the view of nearly the entire estate. We were also exposed to the full force of the damp, cold, February wind blowing up the valley off the river, gaining a clear sense of just how peripheral this area is to viticulture. On the steep slopes above Bacharach and Steeg, Jochen’s vines are perfectly poised to receive every last ray of the sun, without which they would fail to ripen sufficiently for the production of quality wine. In cool climates, southern exposure can make the difference between a good site and a great one. In the Mittelrhein, southern exposure is an absolute must. And site is everything.
The tiny village of Steeg, home to the Ratzenberger family and winery, sits in the crook of a valley, due west from Bacharach at a point where the Rhein flows almost perfectly north to south. The Ratzenbergers’ property is based primarily on three einzellagen (single vineyards) perched on the northern face of the valley slopes:
- Bacharacher Posten, nearest to the river at an average elevation of 150 meters,
- Bacharacher Wolfshöhle, a Großes Gewächs site, next up the valley at an elevation of 300 meters, and
- Steeger St. Jost, also Großes Gewächs, the westernmost site perched between 400-500 meters directly above the tiny hamlet of Steeg.
A fourth vineyard site, Kloster Fürstental, lays one valley to the south of Steeg. Due to the special climate and exposure of Fürstental, which is kept dry by breezes from the river and by wider than average row spacing, its Riesling now goes to the production of just two styles: Sekt and Eiswein.
Moving down the valley to a gentler slope nearer the river, Jochen uncorked a bottle of his Sekt, poured us each a glass and took a few moments to tell us more about his land. His vineyards are dominated by blue and black slate from the Devonian era. On the upper slopes, little if any topsoil is in evidence. Labor is almost entirely manual and in many spots necessitates a system of guide wires which he utilizes while working to prevent tumbles down the perilous inclines. Jochen makes the most of his land by farming to low yields and working the soil and plants as naturally as possible. Fertilization is completely organic. Pheromones are used, both to attract beneficial insects and put-off malevolent ones, in place of insecticides. Fungicides are used in small quantities to prevent vine diseases which can thrive in this cool, damp arena.
Making our way back to the weingut, we headed straight for the tasting room, opting to save the usual cellar visit until after we’d warmed up a bit. It was time do a little sampling.
- 2003 Bacharacher Rivaner QbA trocken
Jochen’s work with Rivaner – a name which he prefers to its synonymous Müller-Thurgau – should be enough to make Jancis Robinson eat her rather dismissive words on the vine. His 2003, bottled only 10 days earlier, showed fresh, peachy fruit and good acidity along with richer texture and riper flavors than the previous year’s version. Finished at 4.5g RS and 5.5g of acidity, fermentation lasted 3.5 months.
Rivaner is planted on the flatter lands where Riesling would not ripen.
- 2002 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Spätlese trocken
Beautiful length. Peach, apricot, lemon, yeast and slate flavors abound on a ripe frame, also larger in scale than the wine of the previous vintage. 4.5g RS. From this site, Jochen produces only Spätlese trocken, Kabinett halbtrocken and, in very good vintages, a Großes Gewächs.
- 2002 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken
Hints of grapefruit, peach and white truffles, along with a spritzy mouthfeel that, Jochen explains, comes not from added carbon dioxide but rather from a combination of inherently high acidity and the natural carbon present in the slate rich soil of the St. Jost.
- 2002 Bacharacher Posten Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken
More muscle than present in the previous two wines, also a more intense slatiness. Tightly wound yet showing great length on the palate. Posten is a site with a high percentage of gray slate along with quartz and some clay, giving wines with fuller, creamier textures.
- 1986 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken
Bottled at 9.2%, this “little” ’86 was just barely showing its age, which was apparent only on the nose. Petrol, slate and truffle tones sparred with extremely lively peach-driven fruit. Steely acidity was still very much in evidence and the wine was light straw in color.
- 2001 Bacharacher Wolfshöhle*** Riesling QbA Großes Gewächs
Fruit harvested at Auslese levels of ripeness, fermented to dryness and chaptalized ¼º with cane sugar to a final 12.5%. Jochen explained that the small degree of chaptalization allows for a long, slow fermentation, a desired trait for a wine destined to spend 36 months on its lees. Not surprisingly, this GG showed much fuller, richer textures, very firm acidity and correspondingly less delicacy than the previous wines. Flavors were much more autolytic than in the more typical Rieslings.
- 2001 Bacharacher Wolfshöhle Riesling Spätlese
Beautifully rich peach and young petrol character. To ensure balance and the potential for longevity, Jochen selects fruit for his Spätlese based not just on ripeness but also on high acidity. Fermentation was stopped at around 50g RS, not by addition of sulfur dioxide but rather by racking the wine off its yeasts. Harvest occurred around November 8, 2001, approximately one month later than for his Bacharacher Kabinett trocken.
- 1966 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Spätlese feinherb
This was as close as Jochen could come to a wine from my birth year (I’ll leave it to your guesses), which was uniformly horrible for wine throughout the world. Grace, minerality and acidity were still prevalent, lending the wine a surprisingly fresh feel in the mouth. Fruit had receded, leaving the wine totally tertiary in its flavor profile.
- 1976 Kloster Fürstental Riesling Beerenauslese
Luckily, we had a young pup along for the trip and he was able to beg this bottle out of the Ratzenberger cellars. Incredibly rich texture, with intense aromas of botrytis and flavors of orange oil, honey and figs. The finish lasted for minutes.
Having warmed our bones and tasted some wonderful juice, it was finally time for a trip downstairs for a tour of the cellar. The buildings that house Weingut Ratzenberger were built from 1850-1880. The cellars showed their era more apparently than the living and tasting quarters, from the style of raw stone cutting to the arches and nooks convenient for naturally cool bottle storage. Catching our eyes in the middle of the room was a set of pupitres where Jochen riddles his bottles of Sekt, a process which he still conducts completely by hand. It quickly became apparent that Jochen does utilize wood for fermentation and aging of some of his wines. A selection of 500 liter pièces, ranging from 2-50 years of age, were lined up, along with steel cuves of varying sizes, in the winemaking chambers of the cellar. While downstairs, we took the opportunity to taste from barrel a few more examples of the potential style just produced from the hot, dry growing season of 2003.
- 2003 Bacharacher Wolfshöhle Riesling Auslese
Though still very yeasty, this boasted tons of tropical fruit character. Most likely to be finished and bottled as Spätlese halbtrocken.
- 2003 Steeger St. Jost Auslese
More aromatic with brighter, citrusier fruit than the previous wine. Soft acidity. To be finished as a Spätlese trocken.
- 2003 Kloster Fürstental Riesling Eiswein
Jochen managed to make a tiny quantity of Eiswein in 2003. This sample, tasted from a 310 liter cuve, showed intense textural richness with lower than typical acidity.
- 2003 Spätburgunder
The only red we tasted all day, this 2003 barrel draw of Pinot Noir showed concentrated, dark ruby colors along with a gamey nose followed by ample raspberry fruit and smoke on the palate.
Completing our barrel tasting, Jochen grabbed a few bottles from nearby racks before leading us back upstairs for one more pass through his tasting room. Hey, we weren’t about to complain.
- 2003 Bacharacher Wolfshöhle Riesling Auslese
Bottled only four days earlier, this was very ripe and soft, showing off aromas and flavors of white peaches, oranges, fresh herbs, anise and lavender.
- 2002 Kloster Fürstental Riesling Eiswein
Not surprisingly, given the weather and vintage differences, this was not as rich as the ’03 we’d tasted from vat. That said, it showed a more balanced structure, supported by intense acidity (15-16 grams). The fruit for this wine was nearly harvested as a very ripe Spatlese until a cold spell set in, allowing for a botrytis-free harvest which ran from December 5-8, 2002.
- 1998 Kloster Fürstental Riesling Eiswein
5% botrytis along with a few years of bottle age had the ’98 Eiswein drinking like mango nectar electrified by brilliant acidity. Unctuous, oily and visceral on the palate.
I’m not sure we could have asked for a more propitious first visit. Between the casual warmth of the Ratzenberger’s welcome and the beautiful lineup of wines, our entire group – even after the long journey from the states – left energized and looking forward to the rest of the journey.