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Weingut Dönnhoff

Tasting Year

2022

There’s a lot to be said for not knowing exactly what’s in your cellar. I was moving some boxes around to make space for new arrivals, and opened one box expecting to find Chablis. What I found was a case of old reds I had entirely forgotten I owned. The case included a bottle of Barolo from 1966, which I hastened to prepare for drinking while we still had the cold weather that really lets such wines sing.

 

It was from a producer named G.L. Viarengo & Figli, at a property in Asti called “Castello D’Annone.” The cork was curiously sturdy and while there was a “correct” amount of sediment, I expected more. The color was properly fragile; no sign of having been freshened. Decanted an hour before tasting, the wine remained inert over the hours we took to finish it. That is, it neither faded nor flourished.

 

And how was it, and why am I telling you this to introduce a tasting report on the wines of Dönnhoff? 

 

The Barolo was very good, not transcendent, but very good. It wasn’t perfect; it was bloody and somewhat animal, and it had a small nuance of rot expressing as naphthalene, but we enjoyed its earthiness, and its frailty (a 55-year-old Barolo of uncertain provenance, after all!) was enjoyably poignant. What makes me pause is the degree to which I forgave its imperfections. I wanted to like it. There was much to like about it.

 

It comes down to the principle of making allowances. The flaw in the old Barolo could be forgiven because the whole wine was so haunting. And the “issues” I had with a few of the dry Dönnhoff Rieslings can likewise be “permitted” because of my love and regard for the family whom I’ve known since 1987, and a community of wines that have been inspiring as no other.

 

 

 

The night before, I poured us a small glass of Dönnhoff’s Norheimer Kirschheck Spätlese as a sort of liquid granita to refresh the palate after a hearty winter dinner.  I found the wine almost entirely different from my impressions when tasting it. Now, instead of being rather prominently “sweet” it was super fresh and crisp and led with minerality. Obviously ones palate is altered by having eaten a meal, yet still; what to make of this?

 

So I re-tasted several of the dry Rieslings with which I’d struggled, dismayed by their tendency toward bitterness. I’d tasted all of them repeatedly, but in my “anything is possible” mindset I wanted to challenge the opinion I’d formed. Most of the wines were unchanged, except for what had been the worst offender, which improved significantly. Whether that matters, I’m really not sure.

 

We understand, or ought to, that “tasting” is a fleeting moment with a given bottle. The reason I re-taste so diligently (or obsessively) is to administer a reality check both to myself and to the wines. But if a wine that tasted bitter over four different exposures suddenly, a week later, had shed the bitterness, what could this indicate, and how could it help?

 

It indicates that wine is a moving target, as we know, and it doesn’t help much, because 99% of every wine bottle opened will be consumed then and there. Nobody’s going to buy a wine in order to open it and drink it a week later. You could I suppose decant it a day in advance, and somehow keep it cold – but should you need to?

 

The larger picture, for the topic now in play, is that Dönnhoff was not entirely free of the ’20 vintage’s tendency for dry Rieslings of unexceptional ripeness to taste very strict indeed. Whether you agree with me that “bitterness” was the result will depend on the degree to which our palates align. All of the wines with which I struggled had attractive characteristics, mostly of aroma and polish. Some felt bitter all the way through, while others only showed it on the finish.  I was once told that the “German taste” appreciated bitterness; whether this is true, I can’t fathom. I do know I dislike radicchio and frisee, which seem to have no flavor other than bitterness, whereas I like mizuna and arugula and the “peppery” greens, which could also be said to be bitter. One wine’s finish grew sour with alarming speed, as if you were watching a stop-action film of a body shedding flesh before your eyes.

 

 

 

I’m showing these as though I tasted them all the way through, but in fact I broke them into small flights – there are 17 wines in all – so that each day I’d taste both dry and sweet wines rather than moving up the line and having all the sweet wines in a single chunk. If any wines on earth justify the most deliberate possible tasting tempo, it is these.

 

The lineup of wines at Dönnhoff has codified itself, and variations are scarcely to be found. If they tasted, say, the Felsenberg and thought “this won’t make a good GG; it’s too brash and fierce,” I don’t suppose they’d make a one-off that showed the wine with better balance. The item is the item.  Nor have I reason to expect they’d taste the wines five years later and think “It turns out ’20 wasn’t really a vintage for dry Rieslings below the GG level…” because that would challenge the basic template. But I am not fond of basic templates, as I’m sure you know. Even if the solo on the record was great, do we want the player to play the same solo night after night on stage?

 

The lighter dry Rieslings were generally attractive in aroma and atypically strict in taste.  I infer it is an element of the vintage that may have taken them by surprise – assuming they agree with me, which I doubt. In many cases an infantile bitterness will diminish with fining (if you fine) and/or with the first filtration, and I think a lot of growers depend on that happening, if they perceive bitterness in their baby-wines. As a rule I think they’re correct, but 2020 seems to have smashed that rule.

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2015 Pinot Brut                                                                                   +

Hand-riddled, 51 months of tirage, disg. 08/10/2019, and as its predecessor was 100% Pinot Noir I’m assuming this one is also. Also noteworthy; alc. Is just 11.5%.

The refined, lovely fragrance could easily be a good 1er Cru in Champagne (Chigny?).  It’s just an excellent Blanc de Noir, irrespective of its “modest” origin.

 

It’s balanced on the dry side and the long lees-aging gives it an appealing creaminess, usefully, as it also shows the prominent acidity of the vintage. Look, it’s hardly a surprise that a Dönnhoff sparkling wine is classy and smart and thoughtfully conceived and executed. In light of that basic approval, it’s worth considering its details.

 

One part of it is diffident and even a small bit steely, mostly on the palate. Eventually the fragrance sheds its sweet-fruit and closes down on mineral notes. I’m using my Juhlin stem, but when I retaste I’ll add MacNeil’s Crisp & Fresh to see if it grows more hedonic. Also, if I were at the winery I’d ask for a second bottle; something flirts and feints and hints at TCA on the back-palate, though both the actual cork and the greeting fragrances seem correct. But some of the diffidence and clipped-ness I’m sensing could be a suppression of fruit we’d see in below-threshold TCA.

Curiously, the actual finish (after spitting) is clean and lingers into some fine tertiaries. So while the wine is already impressive, I’m feeling a little schmutz someplace among the more esoteric nuances.

 

Finally I poured us a (MacNeil) glass to sip while dinner was cooking, because sometimes cork appears when you’re not looking for it. Was it there – was it notthere? It was never there in the excellent finish, and it was barely even a surmise on the aroma; only in one oblique corner of the palate might it have been crouching, trying not to be conspicuous. 

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2020 Riesling Trocken

This is the “basic” estate Riesling, primarily from volcanic soils. There is also a feinherb variant that doesn’t say “feinherb;” it just doesn’t say “Trocken.”

 

It is a year later than I usually taste the new vintage at Dönnhoff. The fragrance of this wine is almost achingly expressive. The finish is markedly smoky and complex. Between those poles is a wine that feels determined to be dry. Of course it’s intended as a dry wine, and yet it feels adamant, and that adamance obtrudes on the lapidary and musical nature we cherish in these wines. It rather seems to shake you by the shoulders to make sure you’re getting the message.

 

I left this open bottle undisturbed and tasted it again six days later, using the flattering nature of the MacNeil Crisp & Fresh  glass to ensure I wasn’t just being Mr. Crankypants. It didn’t really work. In the Spiegelau the wine was almost juicy enough to make its grumpiness less pronounced – and the finish is truly lovely – but I continue to feel that basic estate dry Rieslings shouldn’t be contrary. And I am fully aware that “contrary” is a value judgment based on my particular impression. To see a dry Riesling that succeeded completely, read on….

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2020 Tonschiefer Riesling Dry Slate                                               +

As usual with the slatey site Leistenberg, a riot of aroma and yet classy aroma. And also, as usual, this wine punches way above its weight.

 

You have all the throbbing-scree minerality, all the energy, all the precise expressiveness you saw part-way in the basic estate Riesling – but none of the sharpness. You also have an unheard-of authority and stature for a Riesling with “only” 12% alc, and really, only Germany can pull this off in today’s climate era.

 

So Leistenberg isn’t exotic, at least not in its dry form, but it is the outer limit of minerality in a rendition that’s thoroughly dry and lavishly juicy – in other words, balanced! We’ve learned to revere this estate for its grandiose GGs and its legendary sweet wines, but Cornelius (and his father Helmut) could easily be proudest of this wine for all its savage loveliness.

 

In Helmut’s father’s time (and at the beginning of Helmut’s time also) the estate didn’t own the necklace of Grand Crus for which they are now famous. It was a few vineyards in Oberhausen (Felsenberg, Kieselberg, a tiny lozenge-shaped site along the river that would later be named Brücke), and perhaps most beloved, this Leistenberg. 

 

It’s in an east-facing lateral valley, steep, and a lot of it fallow, as it’s costly to work and doesn’t fetch high prices. It’s breezy there, and misses the afternoon sun, and so its rieslings can remain on the vine very late in the season with little risk of botrytis. The family believe it’s predestined for Kabinett wines, even if it could be “forced” into a showier form. My old friend Helmut is wont to show Leistenberg wines if he brings out any antiques from the cellar, and I think as he grows older he’s found a wellspring of tenderness for this unheralded beauty.

 

But be aware, if the usually mystical Dönnhoff wines do have a more corporeal, extroverted side, here is where you’ll see it. The wine projects its voice all the way to the back rows of the theater. And while it may be modest in size, it is magnificent in nature.

 

It was retasted (and drunk both with food and as an apero) and I remain persuaded; this wine has even-temperedness and balance.

 

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2020 Höllenpfad im Mühlenberg Riesling GG                                 +VDP Grosse Lage, the back label adds “Roxheimer” and “trocken” to the full name.

This hails from a cadaster in the Höllenberg with older vines and, apparently, a capacity for elegance unusual for this earthy vineyard. Cornelius started bottling it separately with the 2017 vintage, and it has impressed ever since.

 

It stands out from the “regular” Höllenpfad  by dint of greater minerality, a more evenly balanced weight (this wine glides while the other one stomps) and greater length and embedded tertiary flavors.  (Curiously, it faded a little over the days, while the “basic” Höllenpfad [not reviewed] improved.) Yet it’s ambitious to position this as a GG astride the likes of Felsenberg and Hermannshöhle, and to me it’s a kind of vestibule that leads you in to the “elite” wines.

 

It doesn’t taste at all like Pinot Gris, but it shows a corpulent structure that brings PG to mind. It also brings Franken to mind, and even more improbable, some sites in the central Wachau. Its toasted-dough notes may remind you of Berg Rottland (in Rüdesheim), which also carries image tones of the Wachau. This even is peppery, another Wachau cognate, though few if any Wachau Rieslings show the digital pixilation that lies at the core of this curiously compelling wine.

 

And while it is very much in line with “the German taste” for strictness and austerity (in their Rieslings, I hasten to add) – and understanding that you don’t come to this wine looking for “pretty,” its pleasures aren’t merely cerebral.

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2020 Dellchen Riesling GG                                                                 +

Full name “Norheimer Dellchen Riesling Trocken,” and alas, the STUPID HEAVY BOTTLE too many GGs are guilty of using – in this case especially so, as a FAIR & GREEN member estate.

Apropos “secrets.”  The always riddlesome Dellchen is the most introverted great wine in the world, I’m sure.

 

Superficially this one seems expressive enough, full of mints and peppercorns and brilliance, yet at the point where you think it will lapse into a swollen mid-palate it instead becomes whispery and obscure. It’s something I rather like, but this isn’t one of those GGs that puts on a show for you. The Jancis glass helps it unfold, which it does with a sort of firm flourish. I like (what I suppose to be) the cask notes, and I appreciate its elusiveness after that riotous beginning.

 

Most of all I like a wine that expresses a profound interiority, that doesn’t lead with obvious fruit or even blatant mineral. Like the site itself, the wines are hidden away. I’ve never known Dellchen to be overt, certainly not in its youth. I’ve never had one ten years old (or older), so I still don’t know what secrets it stores in its spectral soul.

 

Right now the wine summons a silence. It is beautiful in its suggestive coquettish way; it wants to be attended to, but not to give itself away. It has a stern expression on its inscrutable face, but a richness that reassures. All the flavor nuances I can contrive seem better suited to red wines than to white.

 

Six days open seems to have made it more skeletal, but a swell of saltiness lets the wine meet you at least half way. And the MacNeil glass succeeds in dragging this painfully shy guy out onto the dance floor.

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2020 Felsenberg GG

Full name is Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg Riesling (which doesn’t appear on the front label) Trocken – and it is of course a VDP Grosse Lage.

The great porphyry site stands in gorgeous contrast to its colleagues in Niederhausen and Norheim (and Roxheim, recently). And it’s hardly shocking that this smells divine, albeit a little bashful straight from the bottle.

 

The palate, at least at first, is markedly stern and mineral – and not really even “mineral” but really a dusty slide of rock-crush. The normal spices and exotica reveal themselves – eventually, as if reluctantly – from the Jancis. Yet it is adamantly minty and brash, as if the flavors passed through a fuzz-box. It’s rather an orgy of geology, but not as much fun as that might sound.

 

The wine is certainly impressive. It has command; it positively seethes with expressiveness. Yet that describes it, but doesn’t evaluate it. All that (duly striking) impressiveness seems to be saying Now you see here, young man!  

 

Tasted again after three days, it is slowly emerging from an interior so dense as to seem opaque. It’s also clearer than ever that the wine is too dry. I’m also aware it could be in its “shedding-its first-fruit” trough, and even allowing for that, I doubt that fruit alone would correct the imbalance – though I’d more easily accept an argument that time will deliver elements that will show the wisdom of those initial choices.

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2020 Hermannshöhle Riesling GG                                                   ++

VDP Grosse Lage, full name includes “Niederhäuser” and “trocken.”

You know, it isn’t easy not to approach this reverentially. The usual treatment for this condition is a short-cut called “blind tasting,” but if you do not believe in that practice, you learn something valuable. However bated your breath might be as you raise the glass, you must also apply an unforgiving beam of attention that grasps the wine no matter the feelings or expectations you brought to it. The word for such an internal battle is “professionalism.”  

 

Meanwhile I just tasted the wine. It completely kicks ass. It does so in the way Hermannshöhle often does, by posing a host of nuances and elements proximate to one another, whether in a horizontal line or in a circle, or both, and daring you to glean them all, and figure out the driving energy behind their interaction.

 

I’ve named those nuances before, many times before. If you sought to list them doggedly, you’d probably fine around a dozen. A lot of action occurs in these wines. The way they interact is more difficult, like an itch you can just not reach. Hermannshöhle isn’t really serene. It’s a jazz ensemble, cooking. Different vintages showcase different soloists, and ’20 is one of the cool ones like 2016. As it sits in the glass it starts to feint toward redcurrant (and currant leaf) and also with the enticing aroma of very sweet red beets roasting. The palate is a triple fugue of interaction, with a frisky salty energy similar to that of the Leistenberg, but with nobler flavors and with a route toward repose.

 

“Nobler” flavors? Isn’t that impossibly subjective? Yes and no. Something arises from a long history of many peoples’ subjectivities that coalesces into a consensus that certain pieces of land can give wines of surpassing intricacy and beauty. This idea can be challenged, and is often challenged, with arguments I can easily appreciate and respect. I tend, myself, to leap over them, because I consider how things would look if the “other” side was right. To classify land is beyond human ability and would be riddled with fallacies. Okay. That leaves us with a chaos whereby a host of names – I mean thousands upon thousands of names – will show up on wine labels and the consumer has no way to suss what they signify, other than the wine comes from someplace named –x-.

 

I accept that any classification is a codification of value-judgments made by imperfect people with (at times) dubious motives. But we mustn’t let the perfect prevail over the good. The poor wine consumer is entitled to a little clarity, a littlesimplicity, even if these are imperfect. Yes it will be flawed, but it’s better than nothing, and to the objection that it will over-simplify things and make infants out of wine buyers, I say – I’ll take that chance as the lesser by far of two evils.

 

Meanwhile Hermannshöhle GG 2020 just keeps getting finer in the glass, and while it doesn’t completely escape the willful asperities of the vintage, it offers so much intricacy and class that my world is elevated by having tasted it.

 

After several tastings/drinkings I must say I’m left wondering. Not about the wine; the wine is superb. No, what’s curious is that Hermannshöhle is usually the highest among a range of high summits, but in this vintage it is markedly and dramatically higher (i.e., better) than its neighbors. Why, I wonder?

 

A final curiosity: whereas the Dellchen tasted best from the MacNeil, this tastes best from the Spiegelau. These dry ‘20s, even one as splendid as this guy, are moving targets.

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2020 Riesling                                                                                      +

As marvelous as the dry estate Riesling smelled, this is three orders of magnitude better. It’s richer, giddier, more euphoric; there is simply more here. And sorry, but you’d have to be insane not to prefer it.

 

The palate is vigorous, racy, even a little screechy. The vintage doesn’t seem to be sedate here. But this wine is like calliope music, almost absurdly cheerful, with all the interplay of fruits and salts and minerals you could ask for, in a jittery form that misses the limpidity of other vintages – if “misses” is the right word, because there’s very little this wine misses, except perhaps for repose.

 

The length here is ridiculous! The range of associations would run the length of the page. Let’s just say a dozen fruits, a half-dozen spices (especially in the cinnamon/coriander vein), and tinctures from a 16th-century apothecary. It is also utterly delicious, in its electric spastic-lime way.

 

It’s one of the great gifts of the wine world. For very little money, you get to drink a gorgeous wine with fathoms of facets and with a complexity you’d normally pay a lotmore to obtain. It ages decades. It dances with almost every food you throw at it. And, at risk of laboring the point, it shows the immense benefit of the right measure of RS – as little as possible, as much as necessary. And “necessary” was a big, big issue with 2020s.

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2020 Niederhäuser Klamm Riesling Kabinett                                  +

VDP Grosse Lage

Neighbor to Hermannshöhle, but situated in a concave bowl, with a (very) steep section and a large-ish flat section, on a mélange of porphyry and rotliegend. Old Hans Schneider (see my report on Jakob Schneider) would say it was the “Nierstein type.”

 

It’s just the third vintage since the Dönnhoffs obtained it. Helmut would always say it took time to unearth a vineyard’s “talent,” and I wonder if this will always make a Kabinett. Not that I’d mind!

 

The wine smells amazing. Charcuterie and peach blossom prominently, with smoky porphyry notes in the background. And it’s hard to fathom how the palate could be better; there’s moderate sweetness, explosively expressive mineral/fruit interplay, esoteric spices, and finally a lavish green profile like wintergreen and key lime. It has the sharp grip of ’20, whose wines often feel shod with crampons, but here it adds lift and an aerial soaring note because this wine has enough fruit and a seamless balance.

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2020 Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett                         ++

I sometimes wonder, is this the Dönnhoff wine I actually love the most? It seems to offer everything we have any right to require from German Riesling (provided we’re not fussbudgets about RS); it smells like ten raptures, it arrives on the palate singing its fool head off, it finishes dry and mineral, having so perfectly threaded the sweetness needle. It’s like a comice pear that’s a day away from ripe. In vintages like ’20, it nibbles back at you. In the context of its juice-explosion!

 

A smart sommelier might have assembled a vertical of Hermannshöhle – whether Spätlese or GG – but the smartest of the smart, the über-hip, would have a vertical of Leistenberg Kabinett, and (s)he could have it going back 25 years, because this wine ages splendidly. Truly a treasure in the world of Riesling.

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2020 Norheimer Kirschheck Riesling Spätlese                              +

VDP Grosse Lage.

This shows the comeliest side of ’20. It flirts with excessive sweetness (fragrance and finish) but the fine-grained yet assertive acids pull the sugars down on the palate.

 

Lovers of Kirschheck – myself among them – will know what I mean when I say this ’20 is a song of the green element, by which I mean wintergreen, balsam, aloe vera, key-lime – with only delicate allusions to apple and rose and peach blossom. That said, the usual rapture will be found, albeit in another key signature.

 

It’s an achievement in a vintage that set up some roadblocks. How do you get enough sweetness to mitigate the acidity but not have the wine too sugary? The result is an explicit lesson in managing somewhat inconvenient analytical values while still crafting a wine that people can drink. The result is a wine of angular prettiness that pivots on the sleekest of points.

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2020 Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese                                 ++

VDP Grosse Lage

Brücke’s a little like Dellchen; it doesn’t explain itself. It just plays its music. It’s also one of those rare wines that feels primordial, like an ur-riesling.

 

This is an especially good vintage of a wine that often seems opaque at first. Not now.  We are raring to go.

 

Having just tasted Selbach’s wines, I’m finding a thread between Brücke and Zeltinger Sonnenuhr. Neither are wines of explication. Both are analogue and driven by umami. Neither wine describes itself, but both sing in a language you don’t speak, so that you hear the music and the sound of a human voice but you don’t have a “text” to refer to. The part of the brain that seeks to grasp and understand is frustrated, but the part of you that responds spontaneously, limbically, imaginatively and emotionally – that place is lit up like a thousand klieg lights.

 

Thus I can’t bear to try and “describe flavors” because I’d have to shove away the loveliest accord the wine offers. I find it wooly and doughy and haunted and numinous. I’ve said this before: Hermannshöhle, for all its insane intricacy, can ultimately be fathomed and deconstructed. Brücke cannot. Brücke is like the little swoon you feel when you read a poem that is working. Brücke is an essence of melody, and who can explain melody? The wines go deep, as such things do.

 

Tasted again, let me approach it more concretely. It is driven by two dramas, one of sweetness and the other of acidity. It’s a leafier version of the fleshier 2015. It’s one of those moments where you can see the script enacted – sweetness balancing acidity – and you see that it works. It’s based in a rational aesthetic. Yet I think we also need to see it, not as two elements either canceling each other out or joining in a larger harmony that obliterates both pieces, but rather as a symmetry of extremes. It’s a valid way for a wine to be, provided we’re careful to distinguish “balance” from harmony. What’s harmonious here is the umami I wrote about first, which will best be served by decades of aging whereby the young edges are smoothed, and the tertiary flavors develop. (the 2001 Brücke Spätlese, right now, is a heart-rending beauty.) The best thing about this ’20 is its rapturous fragrance, compared to which the sweet-acid conversation feels a little facile. 

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2020 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Spätlese            +++

All righty then – the icon.

 

The first thing you notice is it isn’t very sweet. This I like. The RS feels taut and tangy, like it was pulled as tightly as possible without tearing the lace.

 

Here’s something rare for me; a short tasting note. This is a great vintage of a great Riesling, giving everything one could dream of from such a wine.

 

In the mid/late 80s the zeitgeist was to tamp down sweetness as much as possible (in the “sweet” wines), and this mentality was still prevalent in the high-acid monument that was vintage-1990. But within a year or two, it was clear we’d been parsimonious with RS with ’90, which started tasting tart and unbalanced. Some time around ’92-’93 I was sitting with Helmut, who was ruminating that Spätlesen had gotten too “puristic,” and that a freer hand with RS would help them age better. This was true, and then it went too far. Not so much here at Dönnhoff, but generally, where it got ensnared in the “If-sweet-then-really-sweet” mindset, which condescended to those “little-old-ladies” who still liked sugary wines.

 

I bring this up because I sense Cornelius is pulling back a little; at least thismasterpiece is marked by a thrillingly taut saltiness (along with its insanely complex fruit), and if I’m right it’s a gesture I’d applaud.

 

Curiously (and wonderfully) this wine feels more seamless than the Brücke, even though it is also more lucid and logical. Tasted now a third time, I’m watching the pieces carefully and finding they’d rather not be watched. The finish resolves dry, and is not without acidity, but there’s greater repose and ease, the wine is less a collection-of-players and more an ensemble.

 

While it’s hardly surprising that this Icon is among the very best Rieslings of the vintage, when you actually taste it, it’s like it’s the first time. And in a sense it is, because a great wine erases what you expected or supposed. It starts from scratch. And it starts you from scratch, as if it created a dysphasic bliss. Beauty starts now.

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2020 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Auslese             +++

This is how botrytis should smell.

 

And this is the most perfect, sublime Auslese I have tasted in recent memory – and maybe not even “recent.” Only Selbach’s Domprobst plays in this field among the ‘20s I’ve had.

 

It’s sleeker, more piquant than the Spätlese, more playful, delicate, winsome, and yet you can’t fathom the perfection of this botrytis, or the degree to which it integrates with fruit and mineral and acidity. Poignant is the only word that will do. Tiny and shining, as if you held an entire galaxy in the palms of your hands.

 

That word “otherworldly” is prone to overuse. And really only part of this wine is divine. The other part is a clear portrait of worldly exquisiteness, and as is often the case with Hermannshöhle, it can be explained, if you have, like, a week or so. But with this estate there are often moments where you slip-the-surly-bonds and where you feel like these are different, in some crucial way, from any other wines. Because I’ve known this sensation so often, and because I don’t want the wine to drink me (except when I’m drinking for private pleasure), I’ve become a little hard-bitten with Dönnhoff’s wines the last few years. Well, hard-bitten little me is fucking overcome with this wine – the first tasting-sample since this thing started nine months ago that I was physically unable to spit – and I’ve been brought back to the Eden. Such beauty exists in this world? This place we take for granted, this place we disrespect, this place to which we suppose ourselves entitled to be indifferent? 

 

This place is riddled with secrets that every worm knows.

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2020 Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Auslese

Somehow this didn’t get the “VDP Grosse Lage” designation, though surely it is one.

 

The aromas are more turbulent than the Hermannshöhle – as usual. A quick out-breath of H2S vanishes in seconds. There’s a stirring purity of everything in the anise family – hyssop, anise-hyssop, star-fruit, anise seed, fennel frond, together with a dream song of gentle stones. Compared to the Spätlese, this has accessed the core, the part where the soul goes to hide when the world is just too mean and clamorous.

 

The botrytis, again, is discreet and perfect. And again – alas – there is a sideways hint of cork, which I’ll confirm (or not) when I taste it again in a couple days.

 

Fast-forward, three days later, Jancis glass, tasted outdoors on a 36º day – and yes, it’s corked. Just a little – but enough.

2023

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2021 Kreuznacher Kahlenberg Riesling Trocken

VDP Erste Lage. These wines tend to be clement, with a sort of semolina-sweet umami that harkens to the “wet-cereal” thing I get from loess-grown Rieslings and GVs.

It being a ’21, it’s more compact than its typical norm, but it’s also longer and more animated. It smells intricate, almost mysterious, from the Jancis glass. This isn’t a vintage for demure wines; nor is it aligned with Dönnhoff’s signature crystalline stillness of texture. So, what is it? The “calm” vineyard in the “jittery” year….if it loses a measure of repose it gains several measures of minerality and dialogue. It reveals a lovely herbal note – sorrel and bay leaf – and it does what few ‘21s seem to be able to do – it finishes entirely dry without anything sour or caustic from excessive acidity. The tertiaries aren’t loud but they linger.

It opens impressively with air. And like many of Dönnhoff’s wines it has the ur-Riesling thing they do, as though some deity had said “Make me a paradigm of this grape you seem to love so much.” Personally I can spare a dime for a paradigm.

It fluffs out over the days but never entirely escapes the sardonic finish of so many dry ‘21s. It simply inheres to the vintage, at least in the northerly regions, and all things being equal, the “big” wines – the GG types – are most likely to rise above it.

Tasting it now for the fifth time, it both “fluffs out” and maintains its finishing asperity, but what impresses most is the deepening in the mid-palate. It’s still a “small” player in the Dönnhoff canon – though it gains from warmer vintages – but it’s by no means slight or insignificant.

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2021 Tonschiefer Riesling Dry Slate                                               +

Yes I have jiggled the usual sequence, because this wine always over-delivers and it’s also a bundle of energy, which can make a wine like the Kahlenberg seem overly sedate if you taste it after. I have often written that this wine and its sweet sibling the Leistenberg Kabinett are the totemic Rieslings from Dönnhoff. 

I don’t know how he does it, or if there’s actually any “doing” entailed, but somehow this wine manages to be irresistibly clamorous without being hyper or insistent. Helmut sometimes compares his wines to classical music, but this guy is slammin’ rock and roll.

It’s always been excellent but Cornelius has made it even better, and again, how in the world did they take a wine that’s already high-pitched in a vintage that can tend to be screechy and make something so giddy and beautifully wacked out? As if that weren’t enough, it’s also a wine that explains what is meant by “mineral” as well as any I’ve ever had.

It has all the signal virtues of the estate: impossible clarity allied with considerate texture allied with vivid energy allied with so much sheer information you feel like you never tasted wine before. (Or else you’re stoned, but that’s another story….) (I am not stoned, though I am definitely “mineraled.”)

Like many ‘21s, it needs all the fruit it arrived with, and it grew a bit steely over the days. Yet even so, it’s a seductive sort of steeliness, and it is easily mitigated by using my (tulip-shaped) Spiegelau.

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2021 Roxheimer Höllenpfad Riesling Trocken

VDP Erste Lage, and do say hi to Satan sitting atop a cask, on both the main label and the lack label. The name means “path to hell.”

Sandstone equals charcuterie, and we see it here. The wine, which can be a teeny bit clunky in hot years, is just twerking like a maniac here. It also has that acorn aroma of Iberico pork. If the site was ever going to offer either minerality or “polyphony,” it would do so in a year like ’21, yet I can’t go farther because I have a “90% healthy” bottle with an intrusion of TCA. Alas!

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2021 Höllenpfad im Mühlenberg Riesling GG                              +

No devil icon here; Lucifer don’t truck with no GGs. Mühlenberg is a “Gewann” (parcel) in the larger single-site, and its wine is as specific as the “Musigni” bottlings from Clos Vougeot.

For something essentially savory, this is implosively and remarkably gorgeous. If fruits or flowers emerge I’ll be eager to tell you, but right now it’s a wine that makes you salivate with appetite.

Would “rose hips” be too far fetched? There’s also the flavor of Wu-Yi oolongs, especially the (hard to find) aged ones. I wish you knew what I was talking about. A soul that vibrates to wine will often vibrate to tea as well.

’21 has suppressed some of this wine’s umami, but in return it has heightened both herbal and spice nuances. A hint of clove isn’t too outlandish to observe. Alongside the flavor of yellow beets there’s the tang of their greens. An echo of faded flowers is discernible. You can call it an “elevated savory-ness” if you want, a refinement of something inherently direct – not simple, just direct. You’ve taken something that’s completely satisfying and made it interesting.

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2021 Krötenpfuhl Riesling GG                                                           ++

Historically considered the best vineyard in Bad Kreuznach, it’s only recently been cast as a GG. It has 12.5% alc in contrast to the 13% prevailing among its fellows.

This is both sensational wine and also an improbably superb ’21 – not because it is superb but because of the way it’s superb – juicy, savory, almost creamy, and (in the best way) weirdly complex. How so? Because it’s an earthy complexity yet it is also refined. It isn’t explicitly mineral but it behaves with similar articulation.

It’s the best Krötenpfuhl they have made, which makes it the best I’ve ever tasted, or can remember. Along with the ’21 shimmer there’s a raw pretzel dough flavor, and along with that there’s a complicated side-note of brioche and French-toast, and along with all that there’s a comfortable limpidity and tinkling melody that’s pure Dönnhoff.

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2021 Dellchen Riesling GG                                                                +

Can 2021 make articulate this most obscure and riddlesome of vineyards? Well, yes and no.

You hear about vineyards whose wines “need time” and usually it’s word-noise, but I have never tasted a young Dellchen that was anything but hidden. Is Riesling too subtle for it? (Perish the thought, but some rascal ought to grow Scheurebe there, just to fuck with us.)

The aromas are strong and expressive. And then on the palate they veer off into the forest. Dellchen! In ’21 it is intensely savory, intensely mineral, and intensely allusive. You taste everything through a scrim. You surmise the presence of what you’d call “flavor” but it doesn’t register as things you can name.

Come on, Jancis glass – show me something! Is there a whisper of slate, an insinuation of lebkuchen? There’s a lot of a lot-ness, but does it show a face, or is it a doughy spectre, dancing always just where you can’t grasp it?

Unlikely as it sounds, there’s an odd affinity with some Pinot Noirs from Champagne. Wines that won’t explain themselves. But I should explain.

The wine has a ton of expressiveness, it has force and adamance, but it offers very little that can be encapsulated into what we call a “tasting note.” It offers a sort of principled resistance to description. Fine with me!

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2021 Felsenberg GG                                                                      ++

It only says Riesling on the back label.

An apex among porphyry-grown Rieslings, and in 2021 the fragrances are deranged.

It seems to have less density than Dellchen, but it also has more clarity; it is a kite more easily flown. It shows all the juju of terroir, about which I have spent decades trying to write half decent notes.

Accordingly, I’ll keep this one brief. The fragrance couldn’t be more beautiful. The palate has a lift and transparency that’s soaring and aerial and perhaps the tiniest bit slight. Yet it also shows the piquancy you might expect to find from Kupfergrube. 

A remarkable wine, numinously melodic and with perhaps a slight suppression of the underlying harmonies. I love it entirely, regardless of whether I’d call it “great.” On one hand, sure it’s a little “light,” but on the other hand look how high it bounces on the trampoline.

For my final tasting I used the Spiegelau in order to push the wine together rather than to pull it apart in order to “examine” it. The effect is to implode the salty minerality in a sort of introverted ecstasy of angular strength.

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2021 Hermannshöhle Riesling GG                                               ++

Okay Fair & Green member, what’s with the STUPID HEAVY BOTTLES????

I mean really, is there a greater vineyard in the world? Okay, a greater Riesling vineyard in the world?

What, I wonder, do the others do? I mean the reviewers who’ve been doing this for ump-teen years and have (like myself) spent their store of descriptors for this wine. I’m someone who actually dislikes repeating himself, so let me just say what this wine is like in 2021 – specifically in 2021.

The aroma is compelling, insanely complex, expressive to a point of brashness.

The body is twitchingly energized – you could say “on the light side,” but you could also say soaring and aerial

You could wonder, as I do, how a wine with 13% alcohol could also seem to be lighter than air.

If you know these wines, you will be pleased that this ’21 is as delineated and fastidious as always. You sought the Nth degree of complexity, and you shall have it.

You might have expected something more extravagant, but on the other hand you don’t often get to see it etched and chiseled like this.

I might say, if you wanted to grok Hermannshöhle absent anything that could be considered enticing or ingratiating, this would be useful. What the vineyard has to show, it shows here, in the urgent whisper I find so poignant. It’s in the nature of ’21 to emphasize the high tones, and in this case the spices, and among the spices the penetrating ones, but if you know these wines for years and years, it’s fair to ask whether Hermannshöhle will ever be so blatantly visible again. Will you give away a little power to obtain this degree of focus? I will, but that’s up to you.

Meanwhile, I have an empty glass that smells like an amalgam of every great white wine in the world, trilling away for what seems like forever. It’s not bad right now, to be me.

Is it possible to “damage” this wine? I thought I’d try. I’m re-tasting it in the kitchen with mushrooms sautéing in a skillet and a spatchcocked  chicken cooking under super-convection, so the room smells like the opposite of Hermannshöhle, and the ambience is all wrong.

Of course the wine stands up. It’s distorted, obviously, and only its high points are showing – but what high points! The wine is indefatigable.

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2021 Riesling

This is the (essentially) feinherb estate Riesling, a wine I’ve often thought a serious candidate for best white wine value on earth. In case you’ve forgotten, or – perish the thought – don’t yet know this wine, it’s grown (mostly) on porphyry, and usually establishes a perfect balance. What will it do in the stiff cold breezes of ’21?

It smells beautiful, a little brighter and brisker than usual, more skipping and aerial, less exotic. It’s still wonderfully balanced though on an angular pivot, with more explicit minerality than usual. It tastes as if some slate were in the mix. We also have a balsam-fir note and no small amount of jade-oolong, and star-fruit and Chinese 5-spice. As always, a lot going on.

It’s very much a ’21, with nearly all that implies. Acidity is a character but doesn’t chew the scenery. It’s almost alarmingly salty. Considering how chipper and lyric this is, the volume of spice and umami is more than noteworthy. If it were the first vintage I’d ever tasted I’d feel “Wow, this is excellent quality for an estate-riesling,” but having known it for several decades, I’d say that I like it a ton but I love it more in warmer years.

 

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2021 Niederhäuser Klamm Riesling Kabinett

VDP Grosse Lage. Adjoins the Hermannshöhle, and sits in a concave bowl, partly on a steep slope that traps the heat, and partly on a flat plain below it. Soils are the usual Nahe conglomerate, in this case of porphyry and rotliegend. Right now I don’t know anyone bottling either higher-predicate wines or dry wines of the GG type, though I imagine somebody must be. Helmut Dönnhoff always has a sense of the “talent” of a vineyard, and his working theory seems to be that Klamm is destined for Kabinett.

It leads with the charcuterie note typical for rotliegend, the “sweeter” element (Prosciutto di San Daniele comes to mind), but then there’s a vaulting brilliance carrying all kinds of counter-flavors; white peaches, salts, even ylang-ylang and fir. It shows the ’21 snap, and one “notices” the acidity on the finish. I imagine the Leistenberg would have cast a shadow over it, but I can’t say.

It has a sneaky length, this little guy. It appears to be rather slight at first, as the acids swallow the overt flavors on the first finish, but then it returns after 30 seconds with a complex (if delicate) echo of the porphyry twang, and this grows larger as the moments pass.

So, in effect we have a bright, grippy wine with inferential substance that becomes more explicit the more you taste it. The wine is silvery and a teeny bit snippy, but also peachy and a teeny bit salty. It is “balanced” but one perceives the arrangement of the pieces. Is it super-refined, or is it merely arch? You tell me.

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2021 Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese                                      +

VDP Grosse Lage. When I tasted it at the winery last May I noted it was “atypically available,” but today it has reverted to its usual inscrutability. I think the clue is in my sense of it being an ur of Riesling, and if that is (at least poetically) valid, then it could be a Riesling that exists before there is language to depict it. Regardless, Brücke is a wine for patient persons. In fifteen years or so, it can offer an experience without any equivalent that I’m aware of.

Like most wines, it displays more from the Jancis glass. This can be a mixed blessing, because part of what’s displayed here is an unseemly acidity, which seems rather a penalty for the taster looking for expressiveness. While it’s more analogue from the Spiegelau, it’s also juicier and more peaceable with those acids.

It presents as on-the-dry-side, which may be illusory, but somewhere within this sphinxlike creature is a kernel of implosive minerality, and a fine and essential beauty. I’m sure these things will blaze forth in time, but how much time, and what might travel along with the blazing….that I can’t predict.

Indeed I find myself asking, have any of you had the experience of encountering a wine that seems to know more than you do? My talents as a taster don’t seem to avail me, somehow, in the face of this numinous yet diffident god. The wine doesn’t offer up its flavors in any manner wherein they might be depicted or listed or even described. It’s like some charged boulder that grants immortality to anyone who licks it, but no one told you to lick it.

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2021 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Spätlese              ++

VDP Grosse Lage. If this is any kind of consort to the Brücke, it is also the antonym, because it is so explicitly complex (and also complicated) it begs to be deconstructed. But does it, actually, or do we feel that almost addictive impulse, to take a wine so ludicrously intricate and pull it apart so that we might understand it, or prevail over it, or at least fathom it? To Brücke, one must surrender; with Hermannshöhle, one must engage.

This is maybe too simple. That is, it works accurately enough, at least for me, and I know I’m not alone. So, what does this wine give us in 2021, and is it easier or harder to dig through it? I think about vintages like ’98 or 2004 (which was a year with a prominent and lovely flavor of cask) or 2008 or 2016 – but ’21 is a light sabre of brilliance compared even to those cool years.

No need to run through the “flavors” again; I’ve done it a dozen times and you probably have too. 2021 renders them so brilliantly that even the ethers have ether. Yet this rides atop something the Germans call “Fond,” which is the core that concentrates the consommé. It’s a little surprising to see that in ’21, but there it is. Just when you’ve almost decided the wine is “pitched high” or “ringing with overtone sizzles” this thing, this element comes along seemingly out of nowhere and stamps its cold little feet on the noble ground.

I’ll observe something I’ve said already about ’21. At times, when its wines are galvanic and amazing, one wonders whether they are delicious. In some instances – note “some,” please – this is beside the point. This is one such instance. You probably won’t smack your lips, and there are better wines to sip while you watch the ball game, but when you taste this, even if you’re not paying close attention, you will know; “This isn’t anything I know from my regular life.” See it for the blessing it is, and all will be well.

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2021 Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Auslese                                     ++

VDP Grosse Lage. A full 750ml bottle.

When Brücke is combined with a clean botrytis, sparks may fly. And something else I revere about this estate is, there is always a decided climb up to Auslese from Spätlese. An Auslese is never merely a “big” Spätlese, nor is a Spätlese merely a “small” Auslese. The dignities of the types are respected and understood.

For all I am wary of 2021 at times, it has given the occasional Auslese of a type we haven’t seen for decades – if we have seen it at all. It shows an ideal botrytis integrated with a purity of fruit and an electricity of structure – acidity on its best behavior – that create piquant and exquisite masterpieces. This is one of them.

Part of it is a mischievous little sprite and part of it is an indulgent parent who knows there’s only so much trouble the little one can get into. (My little boy had a thing he liked to do when he was toiler-training; he had a toy snare-drum which he would walk around banging the hell out of, yelling/singing “I make pee-e-e-e, in the toy-let!!!” Why am I remembering that now??) Anyway, this is pretty rowdy for such a meditative wine, and it’s pretty pensive for such a hyper wine, and like the best Ausleses it doesn’t feel all that sweet, and it’s also telling me I probably underrated the Spätlese….

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2021 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Auslese                 +++

VDP Grosse Lage. 

Dönnhoff can make wines that seem to climb out of the troposphere in which the rest of us all breathe. I believe this, and so I struggle against it, because it’s a way I challenge myself to discard expectations when I taste from an estate that has driven me to ecstasy many times before.

Anyway, <sigh>, this is one of those wines. If this wine doesn’t make you swoon, check to make sure you’re actually conscious.

It has less overt botrytis than the Brücke, and correspondingly more vinosity. It seems to have more low-note Hermannshöhle, from the more volcanic bottom of the vineyard, but I could be wrong. It has the sense of not having been “made in a winery” as much as having materialized out of nowhere in a chapel. It has the thing so many great wines have; the paradox of energy and silence. It is full of salt and savor yet it also feels like it’s standing beneath a shower of aurora borealis.

As clear as it is, it doesn’t explain everything for you. Part of it stays hidden.

But 2021, what do we make of it? The vintage seems to contain either ill-behaved children or glowing laughing gods. Dönnhoff seems to have finessed it much better than most, but I wonder what this vintage will look like in retrospect, and how the wines will taste in 15-20 years.

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2021 Hermannshöhle Riesling GG                                               ++

Okay Fair & Green member, what’s with the STUPID HEAVY BOTTLES????

I mean really, is there a greater vineyard in the world? Okay, a greater Riesling vineyard in the world?

What, I wonder, do the others do? I mean the reviewers who’ve been doing this for ump-teen years and have (like myself) spent their store of descriptors for this wine. I’m someone who actually dislikes repeating himself, so let me just say what this wine is like in 2021 – specifically in 2021.

The aroma is compelling, insanely complex, expressive to a point of brashness.

The body is twitchingly energized – you could say “on the light side,” but you could also say soaring and aerial

You could wonder, as I do, how a wine with 13% alcohol could also seem to be lighter than air.

If you know these wines, you will be pleased that this ’21 is as delineated and fastidious as always. You sought the Nth degree of complexity, and you shall have it.

You might have expected something more extravagant, but on the other hand you don’t often get to see it etched and chiseled like this.

I might say, if you wanted to grok Hermannshöhle absent anything that could be considered enticing or ingratiating, this would be useful. What the vineyard has to show, it shows here, in the urgent whisper I find so poignant. It’s in the nature of ’21 to emphasize the high tones, and in this case the spices, and among the spices the penetrating ones, but if you know these wines for years and years, it’s fair to ask whether Hermannshöhle will ever be so blatantly visible again. Will you give away a little power to obtain this degree of focus? I will, but that’s up to you.

Meanwhile, I have an empty glass that smells like an amalgam of every great white wine in the world, trilling away for what seems like forever. It’s not bad right now, to be me.

Is it possible to “damage” this wine? I thought I’d try. I’m re-tasting it in the kitchen with mushrooms sautéing in a skillet and a spatchcocked  chicken cooking under super-convection, so the room smells like the opposite of Hermannshöhle, and the ambience is all wrong.

Of course the wine stands up. It’s distorted, obviously, and only its high points are showing – but what high points! The wine is indefatigable.

2022
2023
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