A while back, I wrote a post that picked the best places in the world to take a wine vacation. They were all great places, but they weren’t the only regions in the world that make great wines. There are many more that don’t get the same acclaim. And some of them manage to combine classic wines with beautiful surroundings and a rich history, like Germany’s Rheingau region – and especially its most famous name, Schloss Johannisberg winery.
Schloss Johannisberg is almost synonymous with the Riesling wines of Germany: in fact, at one time wines from the region were just called “Johannisberger”. It’s even credited with creating the sweet, luscious spätlese wines that have graced the tables of connoisseurs and kings – and there’s a story there, which I’ll tell later.
With all that fame, you’d expect visiting Schloss Johannisberg to be a fascinating experience, and it is. I had a chance to visit the winery on an excursion from my recent Viking river cruise. And not knowing a lot about Rhine wines, I was in for a real education.
Our first glimpse of the winery was across acres of green vineyards, all planted with the emblematic Riesling grapes of the region. And as we arrived at the estate house, it looked just as grand as it had from afar. Despite the ancient name, however – Schloss means “castle” in German – the buildings were fairly modern, for a good reason: they were rebuilt in the 1960s after the original ones were blown up in World War II.
Walking through a vine-covered trellis, we came upon another impressive view – the lush vineyards stretching off into the distance, with the river behind them (see the photo at top). And as we tasted a couple of the Johannisberg Rieslings, our host explained exactly how the river, the earth and the vines all combined to make the classic wines of the region.
The Rheingau, as this region is called, is a 50-kilometre stretch of the Rhine near the city of Mainz. And it’s the happy beneficiary of an accident of geography: it’s only here that the famous river diverts from its south-to-north route and flows east to west. That creates the south exposures that let local vintners successfully grow wine grapes in a place with the same latitude as Winnipeg. The result is the region’s fruity but complex Rieslings, with their flavours of citrus and herbs, as well as mineral notes from the quartzite stone beneath the soil.
Riesling is king in the Rheingau, and for that, the Schloss Johannisberg winery can take much of the credit. There have been vineyards on the property since at least the 800s, and for several centuries they were part of a Benedictine abbey that occupied the site. But in 1720, the owners decided to replant the entire estate with Riesling grapes. It was a revolutionary idea, but soon others followed, and Riesling wines became the stars of the entire region.
That wasn’t the only history made at Schloss Johannisberg. In 1775, the winery was owned by a prince-bishop who lived off the estate, in the city of Fulda. Each fall, when the grapes ripened, a courier was sent to seek his permission to start the harvest. But that year, the courier was delayed (held by highwaymen, in one story). And by the time he returned, the grapes were all infested with botrytis, a fungus sometimes called the “noble rot”.
The vintners decided to harvest them anyway, and the wines they produced were a revelation: sweet and intense, with great depth of flavour. They were so popular the winery started purposely leaving some grapes on the vine till late in the season to make the wines called spätlese — left late, in German. And soon, spätlese wines were a favourite after-dinner drink across Europe.
Having heard Schloss Johannisberg’s history, we were about to see it in person. A pair of doors led down a stone staircase into one of the darkest and most atmospheric wine cellars I’ve ever been in. In fact, these were the original cellars carved out by the monks all those centuries ago: they survived the destruction of WWII while the rest of the winery didn’t.
Armed with a welcome glass of wine, we walked between dim rows of barrels down to the place Johannisberg calls its “library”. Behind steel gates lay racks with thousands of bottles of precious Riesling, some relatively new, others so old that they’ve become legendary — including one solitary bottle from the 1748 vintage.
The ancient bottle sits in the corner, alone in its rack, a small monument to the long history of wine and wine-making in Germany. But even it isn’t immune from the ravages of time. Every 30 years, wine bottles must be re-corked, and each time, the small amount of wine that has evaporated through the cork must be replaced to keep the bottles full. So a few bottles are sacrificed to fill the others.
When there’s only one bottle left, however, there’s no wine available to refill it. What do you do? Wine makers have come up with a clever solution: they pour in glass beads to bring the level of the wine back up. That’s working so far, but a few more recorkings and they may be left with a bottle of nothing but glass beads.
Sitting in the half-dark of the cellar, we sampled a range of Johannisberg wines, each identified by their distinctive colour caps: a red seal for the light kabinett wine, silver for the top-quality first growth, green for the sweet, rich spätlese. The tasting showed the surprising range these wines can reach, from refreshing, easy-drinking table wines to dessert wines meant for savouring slowly.
The riesling wines of Germany, and the Rheingau in particular, seem to have fallen out of favour in recent years as New World tastes have changed from white wines to red, from sweeter wines to dry. But getting reacquainted with these wines at this iconic winery reawakened my taste for them.
Visiting Schloss Johannisberg winery was a rare chance to see one of the birthplaces of modern wine-making. And with a few samples of excellent wine to accompany the tour, it was a memorable experience. If you’re ever in the Rhine country, it’s a place well worth visiting: there’s a restaurant, and the winery hosts events like the Rheingau Music Festival. Great music and great wine: what’s not to like?