Rheinhessen is the largest wine region in Germany. It features a landscape of rolling hills but also steep slopes in the areas along the Rhine. Some of the best vineyards are located on the steep west bank of the Rhine – Rheinterrasse, between Oppenheim and Nackenheim – and around the towns of Worms and Westhofen.
Like in most other German wine regions viticulture and winemaking came with the Romans. They discovered the fertile land, the diverse soils, and the many sun filled summer days.
Because of many local microclimates, Rheinhessen is able to produce many different grape varieties and wines in many different styles.
The town of Worms and the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) are home to the far from spectacular Liebfraumilch, a semi-sweet wine style of low quality, produced not just in Rheinhessen but in several German wine regions.
Today all quality-oriented winemakers in Rheinhessen – and beyond! – never produce wine such as this. In fact, they all hope that everybody would simply forget this chapter in German wine history. So, let’s try to do that.
Mainz, the center of German wine
The size of the Rheinhessen region in combination with its proximity to the Rhine (providing a means of transportation) was highly influential in German winemaking history. Mainz has long been a major wine trade hub and present-day Mainz remains home to several wine industry organisations, including the German Wine Institute (DWI) and the Association of German Prädikat (“Premium”) Wine Estates (VDP). Every year Mainz hosts a number of wine festivals and fairs – some of them are also open to the general public.
Grape varieties – increasingly red
Like in other German wine regions, Riesling is the first grape variety of choice. However, Müller-Thirgau is almost as important followed by Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris – known as Weißburgunder and Grauburgunder – amongst the white varieties. For the reds, Dornfelder is the most grown red grape and the third most grown grape overall. Pinot Noir comes in as the second most important red grape and number 6 overall.
In general, there is an ongoing shift towards red wines in Rheinhessen. This shift was first led by Dornfelder and then Pinot Noir. Over the last 10 years, red varietial vineyards have doubled in size. Today one third of Rheinhessen wines are red.
Terroir and wine styles
Overall, soils in Rheinhessen are mostly made up of loess, limestone, loam, sand and gravel. 'Rotliegendes' – a red clay soil – is also found in the vineyards facing the river, as well as slate.
This soil combination produces wines with earthy fresh fruit styles. Around Westhofen soils have a high concentration of iron, which allows for the making of elegant wines with a lovely aromatic nose and great minerality.
Rheinhessen has three subregions: Bingen, Nierstein and Wonnegau:
Bingen is in the northwest – bordering the Nahe wine region. This region includes the town of Ingenheim and it is in this part of Rheinhessen that most of red grapes are grown.
Wonnegau is located south of Bingen and includes the areas around Worms and Alzey, the two major grape-growing areas of Rheinhessen.
Nierstein has long received critical acclaim as a leader in terms of quality, with wines made from great fruit coming from vineyards along the river, the soils there contain rich mineral riverbed deposits that infuse the wines with great palettes of flavour.
What’s new in Rheinhessen?
There is a lot going on in Rheinhessen. A new generation of talented wine makers is emerging. They are well-travelled, picking up ideas and expertise from other wine regions, and many of them were not even born when their parents were sipping away on a glass of Liebfruaenmilch in the seventies.
It is this new generation of “junge winzer’s” that is driving the change and elevating winemaking in Rheinhessen. They favor quality over quantity, they look for particularities in vineyards, they re-work the land and they embrace each site’s uniqueness by planting and cultivating vines that strive under different conditions. With the best fruit in hand, winemaking can begin. Here they employ the best of old and new winemaking practices, techniques and have made the needed investment in the equipment to do so.
The energy this new generation of winemakers is bringing is shaking up the wine business. Some have even managed to challenge the belief that the region’s best wines are coming from vineyards along the Rhine. Maybe, the very best of wines from Rheinhessen come out of vineyards in Hügelland – a lazy, far less spectacular place in a part of Rheinhessen previously known only for making uninteresting wines for the supermarket shelves.
There is really only one way to find out: Go discover.
The new generation of winemakers shaking it all up. The “Junge Winzer”.What are the most popular grape varieties in Rheinhessen?
Riesling, Sylvaner, Dornfelder, Spätburgunder.What types of food works well with wines from Rheinhessen?
Sylvaner for salads, tapas, shellfish and grilled fish. Dornfelder for burgers and pizza.