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the Masters of Riesling

Text and photographs © 2006, Tom Cannavan

This in-depth feature on Germany's 'Masters of Riesling' features profiles of six producers and 80 tasting notes. It is presented in two parts. This is part one, and there is a link to part two at the bottom of this page.

Those who love them would probably like to keep the secret to themselves: that fine German Riesling offers some of the most thrilling, complex and delicious drinking around. For those prepared to look beyond their undeserved, but understandable reputation, here are wines with the purest, most scintillating expression of fruit, yet real minerality and wonderfully nuanced flavours. It's no wonder those who follow the path to Riesling enlightenment wear such happy smiles.

Changing times


Even for Germany's best winemakers, the past few decades has been a time of struggle, self-examination, and ultimately, change. A huge disservice was done to the German industry through the 1970s and 80s by short-term, profit-driven producers. There was massive planting of mediocre grape varieties on undistinguished sites, vast over-production from high-yielding vineyards, and sugary-sweet wines with little appeal for the true wine lover.

The tide also turned in public taste, with drier, full-bodied whites in demand, and the flavours of the New World appearing on the scene. I drove through the Mosel Valley with Ernie Loosen. He pointed out bare, weed-strewn hillsides. These slopes have been abandoned by the latest generation of winegrowing families, just as the world turned its back on the wines.

Masters of Riesling

   I travelled to Germany to meet a group of winemakers collectively known as the 'Masters of Riesling'. These are independent, family-owned estates from across six German regions. As well as Dr Loosen of the Mosel, I met Helmut Dönnhoff in the Nahe, Fritz Hasselbach of Weingut Gunderloch in Rheinhessen, Joseph Leitz from Rheingau, JL Wolf from the Pfalz and Rudolf Furst from Franken.

The 'Masters' title is little more than a marketing concept, yet there is no doubt that this elite group represents some of the finest Riesling production not only in Germany, but also anywhere in the world.

There has been a certain amount of re-engineering of German wines, with a move to drier, fuller wines with higher alcohol. The Masters of Riesling contains its share of traditionalists and modernisers, and the wines cover all styles, from the rich, Burgundy-influenced wines of JL Wolf's southerly Pfalz vineyards, to the crisply aesthetic and bone-dry wines of Paul Furst.

But one thing if for sure: this was a cast-iron, dead-cert, absolute banker of a display of tour de force winemaking from the series of excellent vintages enjoyed by Germany in the past decade or so. There were some great wines here, and some fantastic producers flying the flag for one of the world's great grapes, and some of its greatest wine regions.

Meet the Masters

Weingut Dönnhoff, Nahe

Helmut Dönnhoff runs one of the most highly regarded estates in all of Germany, in the village of Oberhäus in the Nahe region. About 80% of his vineyards are in what is unofficially classified as Grand Cru sites in a system that is really very much like Burgundy. There is a call from some quarters to officially recognise and make legal these sites as German Grand Crus specifically for dry wines, so that the term can appear on labels.

But Helmut is pretty certain it wouldn't work, just as he's certain it wouldn't work if you tried to impose a Grand Cru classification on Burgundy today: there would be so much resistance and so many people would opt out, that the Grand Crus would have little credibility.

Helmut says that the hot, unusually warm and sunny conditions of 2003 gave him "the vintage I'd always prayed for," where the wines would have as much richness, opulence and ripeness as he wanted. But like many other people he has since learned that in fact those conditions are not good for his wines. Having got the "experiment" out of his system, he realises that the lower alcohols, better acidity, more expressive minerality and finesse of more typical German growing conditions are absolutely right for his wines.

In many ways Dönnhoff is a real traditionalist, not only in his refusal to countenance screwcaps or synthetic closures for any of his portfolio, but in the classic, elegant proportions of his wines with their scintillating marriage of sweet fruit and razor-sharp acidity. This was a most impressive range.

See all UK stockists of Dönnhoff wines on wine-searcher.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Trocken 2005
Very pale green with a tinge of yellow. Lovely fresh, but slightly mealy nose, with limpid, dry pear and apple fruit. Nice weight and fullness on the palate, with beautifully crisp, zesty lemon acidity and again that dry apply acid adding a quality of tautness, whilst retaining lots of charm and fruitiness into a long, pure finish.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Pinot Blanc Dry 2005
This 12.5% wine is made in large old wood casks. Lovely rich, waxy fruitiness, with plenty of floral and grape skin qualities. Loads of grip on the palate - a really tangy, mineral edged dry orchard fruit quality, but plenty of skinny grip and taut acidity.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Pinot Gris Dry 2005
Rich, leesy, skinny notes, with some peach kernel and hints of dry apricot fruit. On the palate this delivers a shock of dry, rapier like acidity, with plenty of pithy grapefruit and lemon and lots of tension. A very linear style and perhaps needs food, but undoubtedly refined and extremely long. Obvious quality.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Hermannshöle Trocken 2005
Again this has a touch of perfumed, floral character, with a touch of talcum and some waxy, orange peel and pear. Lovely mouthfilling weight and intensity of fruit. There is lovely grip and presence here, with a great core of minerality and very fine lemon zest acidity that tingles on the tongue in a long, racy finish. Lovely. Note that only the vineyard name (Hermannshöle) appears on the dry wine, whereas the village plus vineyard (Niederhäuser Hermannshöle) appears on the sweeter styles.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling 2005
Fine peachy, slightly floral nose, with some pear drop and very ripe, sweet pear fruit. On the palate a little bit of yeast character becomes evident, but the fine, sweet-edged, racy fruit comes through. This is crisp and clean, with plenty of citrus and mineral acidity, and the wine finishes almost dry, with a tangy presence.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Oberhäuser Leistenberg Kabinett 2005
From a very slaty soil in the Leistenberg vineyard, there's a sense of ripe pear and melon skins, with hints of herbs and flowers, but really it is minerality that drives this wine. There's a fine sweetness on the palate, with a clean, pure, racy star fruit and Asian pear crispness. Lovely sweet fruit plays out against a pure, subtle but very decisive white fruit acidity. Very delicate and long.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Norheimer Kirschheck Spätlese 2005
A very fine minerality here, with delicate spice and taut, orchard fruit aromas. On the palate there is lovely fruit here, with masses of quite unctuous, rich, tropical edged peach and nectarine. Fruitier than the Leistenberg, with lots of orangy character too, but that crisp, dry mineral and lemon zest raciness and acidity pushes through, along with that little spiciness, into a very elegant and long finish. A delightful wine.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg Spätlese 2005
There's an immediate smokiness and even a suggestion of nuttiness to this, with fairly restrained, but ripe, peachy fruit. On the palate the fruit and spicy richness of this wine comes through, with a tangy, full mid-palate of quite weighty, sweet, enriched quality. The acidity gives lovely support, though it impact is lessened by the sweetness of fruit.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Norheimer Dellchen Spätlese 2005
A subtle, delicate orchard fruit nose, with a touch of waxy lime and a stony minerality coming through. Really delightful palate, with such delicate, fine, refined fruit sweetness, pink grapefruit acidity and just beautiful completeness and harmony. Magnificent balance and pinpoint, precise fruit quality into a supremely long finish.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Oberhäuser Brücke Spätlese 2005
Fruit is the overriding driving force here, with sweet, ripe pear and ripe apple aromas, and a touch of juicy nectarine. There is still that signature undertone of minerality. Beautifully smooth, silky palate, where sweet fruit plays very delicately on the palate - there is such purity and finesse, with an achingly pure, ethereal quality to the fruit. Fabulous balance again, with all the acidity and hints of spice and waxy weight perfectly composed within the overall framework. Stunning. From a very special vineyard close to the river ("Brücke" means bridge) with a microclimate that sees warmer days and cooler nights, from soils which are slaty, but covered with a layer of loam.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube Spätlese 2005
Minerals, slate and smokiness, with a rich, almost tropical fruit sweetness. The palate has a lovely, fairly straightforward sweet fruitiness, but it has lovely texture and weight and real persistence. Lovely balance again, with a shot of acidity really streaming through the long, quite spicy finish.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Niederhäuser Hermannshöle Spätlese 2005
Quite subtle, discreet, orchard fruit skin aromas, with a stony, cool precision. Lovely delicacy, with orange and tangerine flavours, racy fruit quality and lots of precision and finesse. The balance is just thrilling again here, with such lovely mouth-wateringly fresh and juicy fruit, that tight, restrained minerality, and fine, delicate but decisive acidity.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg Auslese 2005
Plenty of richness and evident Botrytis, with a touch of honey and touch of ripe berry fruit. Still that fine, clean minerality. The palate has weight and has richness, with a deal of full, nectarine, more sumptuous mango fruit, but as always wit this house it seems, a restraining hand reigns everything back, in this case delicate mineral and lemon acidity and adding a sense of finesse into a very long finish.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Oberhäuser Brücke Auslese 2005
Limpid, fine, sweet pear and light honey notes, a touch of spice and smoke, but plenty of very pure fruit. On the palate less opulence and sweetness than the Felsenberg perhaps, but such lovely harmony and such a holistic wine, with lovely elements of fruit, minerality and acidity just playing delicately across the tongue. Beautiful stuff.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Niederhäuser Hermannshöle Auslese 2005
A subtle, clove-like herbal quality at first, and dominant notes of minerality with wet stones and a delicately peppery quality. Fine, fine, limpidly clear and pure, honey-edged fruit. The palate is wonderfully delicate, with crisp, racy, very nimble acidity, a real core of minerality, and subtle, complex notes of floral and tropical fruit adding layers of complexity in the finish.

Dönnhoff (Germany) Riesling Niederhäuser Hermannshöle TBA 2005
Not finished sample (cloudy) destined for auction. Yeasty ferment aromas dominate, along with a nutty quality. As you work the wine in the glass the honey and dripping, figgy Botrytis begins to come through. On the palate this is as thick as engine oil, and like a slick of honey and liquidised Muscat grapes, with unbelievable intensity and length, and of course, fantastic balance. Hugely promising.

Dr Loosen, Mosel

Dr Loosen is the biggest name of the Masters collective, thanks to the "Dr L" and "Naked Grape" brands (the latter developed in conjunction with Dr Loosen's UK Agency), that can be found in many supermarkets and high street stores. But most wines bottled as 'Dr Loosen' come from single vineyards, classified as 'Grand Cru' in an old 19th Century map of the Mosel. On a visit to the Erdener Prälat, the vertiginous height and steepness of these slopes was breathtaking.

Ernie Loosen is a dynamo, whom I have encountered several times over the years at tastings, dinners and conferences around the world. He travels incessantly, and is a wonderful ambassador for quality German wines.

Whilst, Ernie buys in some fruit from other growers for the Dr L label, even here he insists that he only every buys from slatey slopes, not from the large flats on the other side of the Mosel. The picture below is taken from the top of Dr Loosen's Grand Cru Erdener Prälat, looking across the Mosel to miles of vineyard planted on the valley floor by the big German brands.

The estate has belonged to the Loosen (pronounced LOH-zen) family for over 200 years. When Ernie took over in 1988, he realised that with his treasure trove of old, ungrafted vines on some of Germany's highest-rated slopes, he had the raw materials to create something of real world class. He set about dramatically reducing crop sizes, and stopped all chemical fertilisation. He turned to gentler cellar practices, with a minimum of handling and use of technology. Back in the charming winery on the banks of the river, I tasted through the 2005 range. Again, this was just a stunning collection of wines, brimming with minerality and a sense of place, but with beautiful fruit quality.

See all UK stockists of Dr Loosen wines on wine-searcher.

Dr Loosen (Mosel) Dr L Riesling 2005
Beautifully clean, limpid, fresh peach juice aromas and lovely sherbetty lemon notes. The palate has clean, fresh, but soft and peachy fruit and a nicely weighty texture. Very nice acidity - like crisp pear and apple juice rather than lemon or mineral, but lovely length and soft, easy summer drinking pleasure.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Bernkasteler Lay Kabinett 2005
A little more smoke and slate, with delicate apple fruit and a certain peachiness, with soft, sherbetty minerality. The palate is flooded with sweet, ripe, very lush and peachy fruit. Plenty of acidity and fruity crisp, racy quality. Lovely length and definition.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett 2005
Lovely fleshy nectarine and ripe, quite rich melon and delicate floral edged aromas. The palate has plenty of tang and crisp acidity, but the delicate, racy fruit flavours, with an underlying tropical richness and sweetness. Very fine and very long.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Erdener Treppchen Kabinett 2005
Treppchen means staircase. A bottled wine, with less expressive nose, perhaps because of recent bottling. Some fine stone fruit notes. On the palate the fruit sings through, with lots of tangerine and zesty orange zest fruit, with a certain creaminess and soft background strawberry note. The acidity is lovely, in a really beautifully composed and balanced wine. Delicious sweetness and glacial purity.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Urziger Würzgarten Kabinett 2005
Restrained, very refined mineral quality, with a little waxiness and a touch of clove. The palate has lovely weight, with a feeling of opulence and richness, but the racy mineral and crisp orchard fruit character persists. Lovely sweetness, with a perfumed grapy quality, and more of that clove like spice into the finish.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese 2005
Creamy apricot fruit on the nose, with a touch of nut kernel and a little herbal note. Lovely peachy, stone fruit flavours. The palate has a lovely perfumed, peach skin quality with very ripe, sweet, refined fruit, and a real depth of flavour to this wine. Deliciously tangy orangy acidity in a very moreish, beautifully poised finish.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Urziger Würzgarten Spätlese 2005
Immediate aromas of clove and a certain sweet earthiness, with nice pear and peach fruit. Lovely ripeness and lemon zest and peachy, lightly clove and spicy peach and delightful balance once again.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Erdener Treppchen Spätlese 2005
Again there is spice here, but touches of youthful pear drop and ferment banana notes. Such lovely fruit on the palate, with obvious potential and lovely acidity that is very pure and fine. This has concentration and delicacy, but will be better in a year or two.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese 2005
A little bit of wet wool, honey, and a small herbal note. Lovely lemon curd and zest aromas, and touches of nectarine juiciness. The palate has that glacial, clean as a whistle acidity and freshness, but lovely sweetness of ripe peach and pineapple juiciness. Delicious wine with real length and delicate balance.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Erdener Treppchen Auslese 2005
Very clean, sherbetty, glacial quality to the fruit. With some delicate spice and a background of really ripe, juicy apples and peach fruit. There's a little touch of honey too. The palate has fantastic concentration, with an unctuous quality to the fruit, with blossom and peach down dullness, and a lovely nectarine ripeness. Acidity here is quite generous in nature, but there is a lovely balance and cutting edge of beautiful, clean and poised minerality.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Urziger Würzgarten Auslese 2005
Very clean pear and ripe, deliciously fresh and crisp apple and white fruits. The palate has a lovely racy quality, with just delightful racy finesse, with wonderful lemon and mineral acidity and a shimmering array of white fruit and limpid, pure, gently honeyed white fruit. Absolutely beautiful wine.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Erdener Prälat Auslese 2005
Lovely nose, with dazzling, precise fruit quality. Shimmering ripe pear and racy, mineral-laced citrus aromas. On the palate this really sizzles, with shimmering quality of sherbetty acidity and zesty lime fruit, but a luscious undertow of honey and nectarine, with a thick, viscose feeling, but then that rapier like acidity just sheers through and leaves it tantalisingly pure and long. A brilliant wine.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese Goldkapsel 2005
Much more obvious Botrytis, with honey and quince jelly fruit, and a delicate lemony nuance. On the palate there's a beautiful intensity and power here, with a wonderful frisson of zesty lemon and those much riper mango and pineapple notes, with lots of lushness and a little touch of spice. Fantastic acidity here, keeping it beautifully clean and pure and balanced into a huge finish.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Urziger Würzgarten Auslese Goldkapsel 2005
Lemon, limes and minerals at first, with a waxy quality and lightly honeyed notes. Clean and precise. The palate has wonderful fruit again - a much racier quality to this wine, with tight, ripe peach and apricot notes, and a fat lemony quality, but the poise and thrilling precision of the acidity begins to tell, with touches of spice, floral notes and downy fruit giving complexity and finesse into the finish.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Erdener Prälat Auslese Goldkapsel 2005
Lovely Botrytis here, with the most delicate honey and guava and lychee exotic fruit. Masses of sweetness here, with a waxy quality to it, like nectarine and white peach skins, with a beautiful poised juiciness. The fruit is just beautifully refined and limpidly pure, and the delicacy and poise of the finely tuned, mineral acidity just keeps it perfectly balanced and compellingly complete and poised.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Urziger Würzgarten Beerenauslese 2005
Some very fine herbal and fennel notes joining the quite discreet Botrytis richness of barely sugar and honey (this wine is 100% Botrytis grapes). Though it is opulent, this is really very pure and glacial. There is weight on the palate and a rich texture, but this retains a sense of freshness. The sweetness is beautifully ripe and mouthfilling, with an intensity of sweet, ripe, burstingly sweet nectarine, and fabulous balancing acidity. Great length too in an amazing wine.

Dr Loosen (Germany) Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr TBA 2005
A touch of nutty, herbal character at first, but then plenty of honey and nutty, walnut character. On the palate there is weight again, and an even more unctuous edge to the texture, but once again it retains freshness. There's such a massive concentration of sweet, ripe, candied and nectarine fruit, a flood of honey, and figgy notes of concentrated, deep fruit. The whole picture is framed by that lovely acidity, with an orange and red berry fruit acidity giving a beautifully balanced finish.

Go to part II - four more Masters of Riesling profiled.