If you’re in Germany prospecting, as I was a few years ago, there’s a good chance you end up in Rheinhessen – wondering why you didn’t start out here. The Mosel and Pfalz…too well-trodden. The Nahe…still too small. The Rheingau….still too inimical to the development of ambitious young talent, though that situation is improving. Here in Rheinhessen it’s party time.
Nor is this a new story. Wittmann and Keller have seen to that. (Wagner-Stempel, to me, is an honorary Nahe estate, both in terroir and stylistically.) What is new is an evolving sensibility among both growers and tasters that there is no longer any reason for this place to be seen as mundane.
This gives rise to a larger discussion better carried out in an issue of TRINK. And that conversation is along these lines: Insofar as Rheinhessen was viewed as a bland, ordinary region from which bland-ordinary plonk issued, and insofar as this attitude prevailed until as recently as (let’s say) some time in the 1990s, which came first, the wines or the reputation? In other words, were the wines banal because it was assumed nothing better could issue from there? Certainly the Pfalz was also victimized by the supermarket trade and the swollen rivers of Müller-Thurgau derived garbage that such a market demanded. But the Pfalz at least had a track record of offering Grand Cru wines from a small fraternity of noble estates in the area between Ruppertsberg and Wachenheim (including Deidesheim and Forst, the Chambertin and Musigny of Pfalz wines), whereas the Rheinhessen had…Nierstein, a fine terroir (and a lot of superb wines) pitiably trashed by the wine law of 1971, which allowed the “Nierstein” name to be used for rivers of sugary pablum.
If great wine was indeed written into hidden corners of Rheinhessen, then we need to ask to what degree we can blindly trust the codification of great vineyards we see elsewhere in Europe, not to mention the stratospheric prices that follow them. The simple answer is, there is great land as yet unlocked, but how great, and what will it take to unlock it? And supposing we have known for a few hundred years that (for example) Erbacher Marcobrunn is a great vineyard, and thus it is a Grosses Gewächs, as it should be. But we have only known (again for instance) that Siefersheimer Heerkretz is a great vineyard for maybe twenty five years, due to the wines of (at most) two growers, and so is it justified to also call this a Grosses Gewächs, with the presumption it is equal to Marcobrunn? After all, they have the same designation.
I won’t try to answer those questions here. Others have, and will, at great length (and with reference to the Great Philosophers), but right now I want to admonish myself for ever supposing Weingut Braunewell was a “commercial” estate. Mind you, I have unqualified respect for responsible and conscientious commercialism. It’s not a dirty word for me. But I’m starting to feel that the Braunewell brothers’ purposes are as capital-S serious as those of any other serious grower.
One such purpose is to express the “truth” of their sub-district, the Selztal. There are hilly vineyards here (not crazy-steep but also not what we’d call “rolling”) and there’s limestone soil (rare in Rheinhessen in similar concentration), and there is altitude (relatively speaking) and a kind of lift to the wines that belies the outmoded reputation of Rheinhessen for making soft “mellow” wines. Not here: Some of these are like newly sharpened knives.
Braunewells are serious about Pinot Noir, very serious about sparkling wine, serious about dry Riesling, and sensibly flexible about wines with RS when called for. I wish I’d gotten to work longer with them; I added them to the portfolio just two years before I, ah, “retired.” I see them as a hidden gem, not least for a Liter wine (“our daily Scheurebe”) that’s as ridiculously drinky as any wine I have ever had.