Archive for the ‘Work at Dönnhoff’ Category

Anyone who has stood on the slopes of the Ürziger Würzgarten and marvelled at the brilliance of the wines which are produced from it or made the 90km pilgrimage from Adelaide along the Main North Road to Australia’s Clare Valley and been blown away by the bone dry brilliance of its Rieslings will vouch for the magical qualities of this grape.

I believe truly that there is currently more great Riesling being produced than ever before. And yet, among the masses, Riesling continues to be snarled at for being sweet and of dubious quality.

Mistakes of yesteryear

The origins of Riesling’s image crisis are firmly rooted in Germany in the 1980’s, where through the proliferation of “cheap and sweet” wines like Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun, the reputation of German wine dropped like a lead balloon, taking Riesling down with it.Generation Riesling

Nowadays, although the Black Towers and Blue Nuns are thankfully less prevalent (although they can certainly still be found skulking in supermarkets and off-licences throughout the land), their enduring legacy has been to create an almost pathological distrust of medium sweet wines among a generation of British wine drinkers.

Against this background, you would have hoped that the German wine authorities would have bent over backwards to help their producers shake this monkey off their backs by allowing them to clearly identify the level of sweetness on their wine labels.

Sadly, this has not been the case. To this day producers are still held hostage by the infamous “1971 Wine Laws” which require them to overpopulate their wine labels with information which, although to the delight of wine anoraks like me, is to most UK consumers totally meaningless and gives no clues as to sugar levels.

The same can be said for their Alsatian cousins up the Rhine. Whilst it may be true that Rieslings from Alsace have tended to be drier in style, there are inevitably going to be exceptions. And with most Alsatian wine labels giving no indication as to the level of sweetness, it is not surprising that consumers quickly begin to mistrust these wines, fearing the stealthy presence of residual sugar.

 Riesling Down Under

But while the Rieslings of Germany (and to a lesser extent Alsace) were struggling with an image crisis, something really smart was happening in the New World. During the 1980′s, the Australians woke up to the fact that they could potentially produce world class Riesling. But they took one look at the reputation of German wines and realised that producing great wines was not enough.

What followed was a brilliant piece of marketing. The Australians distanced their Rieslings from the stereotypes associated with Old World Riesling by creating a no-nonsense, consumer- friendly style which came with the guarantee of dryness.

These wines, paired with innovative new techniques such as cold stabilization, have achieved great success off the back of Australia’s pivotal role in kick-starting the New World wine revolution. Faced with the choice between a bottle of “Clare Valley Riesling” and “Hochheimer Kirchenstuck Spätlese Trocken Riesling”, it is not hard to understand why nine out of ten punters went for the Aussie Riesling.

Food friendly and appealing to the global demand among younger wine drinkers for dry aromatic white varieties, Australian Riesling seemed the perfect fit to convince a sceptical UK public of Riesling’s potential.

However, any chance of success on this front was dealt a killer blow by our supermarkets here in the UK. Frustratingly, their perpetual discounting of Australian wines over the past few years has taken its toll and severely damaged the reputation of mass-market Australian wines. This, together with the strength of the Aussie Dollar, clobbered Aussie Riesling’s already fragile reputation and arrested much of the progress that was being made on the mainstream front.

 Friends or foes?

The Revolutionaries

So despite their differences in terms of style and marketing, these two great Riesling producing nations actually have a lot in common. They are both producing some of the world’s most exquisite expressions of what the Riesling grape can achieve but are both prevented from fulfilling their potential because of their reputations.

So what can be done about this? Competition between Old and New Worlds is crucial to ensure that quality remains high and prices remain in check. But there is also a great deal that the Old and New Worlds can learn from each other.

There is no better example of this than during my recent visit to the Mecca for Riesling aficionados – the Dönnhoff estate in the German village of Oberhausen. Here, I met with owner and chief winemaker, the great Helmut Dönnhoff. Asking him about the relationship between Old and New World Riesling, he regaled me with the story of a recent trip to Australia where he met with a number of leading Australian Riesling producers, including Jeffrey Grosset and Peter Barry. He recounted that he was so impressed with the quality of the Rieslings that he drank that he began to doubt the relative quality of his own wines.

It followed that the first thing he did upon touching down on German soil was to make a beeline for his cellar where he conducted a private tasting of his wines. He said that an hour later he emerged, exhausted but safe in the knowledge that whilst the Australians may be producing outstanding Riesling, he could sleep easy knowing the wines of the Nahe could hold their own against the best of them.

Helmut and Jeffrey have become great friends and he insists that they can learn a lot from each other. I believe that if Riesling is to fulfil its true potential on the world stage, it will be necessary for Old and New World producers to collaborate and communicate with each other and exert their influence on a united front to promote Riesling’s virtues.

The US Model

This idea of collaboration between Old and New World Riesling producers has, in fact, been put into practice very successfully in the US over the past few years.

A great example of this is Long Shadows Vintners in Washington State. Long Shadows was the brainchild of former Stimpson Lane CEO, Allen Shoup. It was Shoup’s dream to run a winery as a joint venture with winemakers from different regions of the world, whereby he would harness their expertise to produce wines grown from Washington State grapes. Nowadays, Long Shadows produces many varietals, but when it comes to their Rieslings, Shoup has called on Armin Diel, owner of the renowned Schlossgut Diel winery in the Nahe region of Germany. Together they produce the Long Shadows Poet’s Leap Riesling which has been a real hit with the critics in the US.

Another example of the marriage between Old and New Worlds is Eroica. Eroica is the joint venture between famed Mosel winemaker Ernie Loosen and Bob Bertheau of Washington giant, Chateau Ste. Michelle. The idea behind Eroica was to draw on both Old and New World techniques and philosophies to create a wine which not only reflects the region from which the grapes are grown, but also its US and German heritage. Since its launch in 1999, this partnership has seen continued success and shows just what can be achieved when producers collaborate and explore unchartered territory.

 Never Say Never

There are those who say that Riesling will always be a niche wine. They say that a grape that expresses its character so vividly and displays such a range of styles will never be able to cater to mass-market tastes.

I disagree wholeheartedly.

There is no doubt in my mind that Riesling can rise to the challenge. The overall quality of Riesling being produced worldwide at all price points has never been higher. But the key to unlocking its success lies in the ability of its producers to effectively communicate the style of their wines.

The Australians have led the way admirably on this front, showing that a consumer-friendly Riesling can work spectacularly well. Now it is time for the Old World to follow suit. This will not happen overnight but when it does (and it will), there will be nothing stopping Riesling from rightfully regaining its crown as the King of white grapes.

DSC00047-300x168It doesn’t happen very often but every now and again I have a wine “moment” – this is where I taste a wine that is so good, so complex, so memorable that I am thinking about it for days.

This happened to me the other day. The wine in question was a bottle of Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Spätlese Riesling 2011.

Dönnhoff is regarded by many as one of (if not the) finest producers of Riesling in the world.

The estate is set in the heart of the Nahe wine region. The Nahe is a relatively small German wine growing area and takes its name from the Nahe River that flows through the region. The region’s best vineyards are usually found on steep slopes towering down over the Nahe river.

This brings me to the Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle – the jeDSC00091DSC00091wel in Dönnhoff’s crown! The Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle vineyard is a little over 8 hectares in size and is positioned on the north side of the Nahe River.

The soil is quite complex and the upper part (where the very best grapes are grown) is made up oDönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Spätlese Riesling 2011f volcanic and slate soils. The slope has a calf-burning steepness of 30-45% and only Riesling is planted – my kind of vineyard!

The wines – like this one from Dönnhoff  - are known for having intense mineral and spicy notes with immense concentration of fruit. This is thanks to the soil structure and also the position of the steep slopes overlooking the Nahe river, which reflects the sunlight onto the vines.

I don’t mind admitting I have a real soft spot for this vineyard. Not only did I spend a magical few months working on it during my time at the Dönnhoff estate a couple of years back but also served the Niederhäuser Hermannhöhle Riesling from Jakob Scheider at my wedding! So, yeah, I’m a convert!

I won’t bore you with any more minutiae about this vineyard but if you love Riesling (dry or off-dry) then I urge you to explore the wines produced from grapes grown in this vineyard. You  will find one of the purest and most memorable expressions of the Riesling grape in the world.


As I mention in Part 1 and Part 2, I recently made the decision to leave my job as a lawyer in the City to follow my passion for wine. The first stop on my wine adventure was a month’s work experience at legendary German winery, Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff

Now that I have returned to UK soil, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the four weeks that I spent at Weingut Dönnhoff and share with you some of my highlights.

New vineyard. After spending an exhausting first week bottling wines from the 2011 vintage, much of my second week was spent outside working in the vineyards. The final two weeks were a combination of the two but a real highlight was helping to plant young rootstocks in a new vineyard plot in the Norheimer Dellchen. One of the really smart things that Helmut Dönnhoff has done over the last 20 years is to acquire parcels in numerous vineyards throughout the region. By cherry-picking the best sites as they become available, he has been able to maintain very high quality not only in his top single vineyard wines but also in his more generic estate Rieslings.

Lunch breaks. The way that we took our lunch breaks was a breath of fresh air for me. Each day we would all assemble in the communal galley at 12.30 to have lunch together. Lively conversation would flow – often about wine and football (which suited me down to the ground) – and there was also usually a bottle of something to hand so that we could wet our beaks on the good stuff before heading back to work. A definite improvement on my time as a lawyer, where I routinely spent my lunch breaks alone at my desk!

Driving the Unimog. What a rush! Google search “Unimog” and you’ll get the idea.

My housemates. I was fortunate to have the company of three other lads in the accommodation block where I was staying – one from Germany and two from Poland. The German, Sebastian, 20, is currently carrying out a year-long work placement at Dönnhoff as part of his wine studies. The two lads from Poland, Mateusz and Mateusz, both 23, are in Germany for the year just to earn some cash. They are genuinely three of the hardest working people I have ever met and their humour and goodwill kept me in high spirits throughout my stay.

Visit to the Mosel. It was brilliant to have the chance to make my first trip to the Mosel, the most famous of all German wine regions. As we made our way from village to village, it was amazing at last to see so many of its magnificent vineyards after having spent so many years quaffing the region’s wines! The most striking feature was without doubt the steepness of the slopes. Previously, I had thought that the vineyards in the Nahe were steep but the Mosel takes it to a whole different level – some of the vineyards reach 80% gradient in places!

VDP Weinbörse. On my penultimate day in Germany I travelled to the city of Mainz for the annual tasting of VDP members. The VDP is an organisation to which most (but not all) of Germany’s top wine producers are members. Like any wine fair, you need a well laid out plan of action before you go into battle otherwise you won’t stand a chance. My focus was on the Rheingau, Mosel and Baden regions, as well as a cursory stroll through the Nahe section to say hello to Team Dönnhoff. After a good six hours slurping and spitting, I walked away exhausted but content in the knowledge that 2011 is generally speaking a magnificent vintage for Germany across the board.

Plugging English wine. Having drank so many impressive Germany wines, I could not head back to London without first spreading the word about the rapidly improving English wine scene. Our wineries continue to improve year-on-year – especially in the sparkling category – and I could not resist leaving boss, Helmut, a bottle of sparkling from East Sussex winery, Breaky Bottom – the Sparkling Brut 2008 (100% Seyval Blanc) to be exact.

It is amazing how quickly time flies when you are working hard and having fun but this experience was invaluable and I cannot thank Helmut and Cornelius Dönnhoff enough for this opportunity.

One thing’s for sure – it has certainly given the Revolution fresh impetus. Roll on 31 Days of German Riesling!


The wine featured in this video blog is the 2011 Felsenberg Riesling Spätlese produced by Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff in the Nahe region of Germany

As I mention in Part 1, I recently made the decision to leave my job as a lawyer in the City to follow my passion for wine. The first stop on my wine adventure is a month’s work experience at legendary German winery, Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff. Here is my write-up of my second week in the job:

After a tough but thoroughly enjoyable first week bottling wines from the 2011 vintage, I returned from the Easter break well rested and hoping to spend some time in the vineyards.

Following a short team meeting, I was given the nod to join the vineyard crew for the day which came as excellent news. The only downside, with the prospect of an eight hour day ahead of me, was that the weather was looking extremely ominous. Catching the eye of oneof the team, I gestured to the sky. His response was simply to shrug and say “April macht was er will” (April does what it wants). Not quite the reassurance that I was looking for but, reminding myself that I had not come to Germany to work on my tan, I grabbed my rain jacket and saddled up for the day’s work.

Before I joined the others up on the slopes, one of the lads gave me a quick guided tour in the van of the vineyards owned by Weingut Dönnhoff to help me get my bearings. Dönnhoff owns plots in a number of vineyards in the Nahe region and the majority of these are situated around the villages of Niederhausen and Oberhausen. The best sites are fiercely steep and south facing so that the grapes can soak up the maximum amount of sunlight as possible.

The vineyard where I spent much of the week was the Niederhausen Hermannshöhle, regarded by many as one of Germany’s finest vineyards. The first thing that struck me as I worked up and down the rows of vines was how steep it is. The slopes have a cramp-inducing 40% steepness in places and this certainly does not make the day’s physical labour any easier. I daresay I will have no excuses for not looking good in a pair of shorts when I return to the UK in May!

Although the grapes are usually harvested in September and October, a lot of time and energy is invested at this time of year in making sure that the grapes grow healthily and achieve the required levels of ripeness without any problems. Some of the tasks in which I was involved included training the vines around a wire high off the ground (to avoid damage from Spring frosts), fertilising young rootstocks (to promote healthy growth) and spraying the vines (to keep pests at bay).

At the risk of taking on the appearance of a mountain goat, I was relieved on the Friday to be working on one of the flatter vineyards towards the town of Bad Kreuznach. The morning’s work was much of the same – “vineyard management” – but for lunch we all went to a local Wirtshaus (or pub to you or I). After a cursory glance at the menu, it appeared that the general consensus was that the schnitzel platter was the thing to go for. Not wanting to break rank and ever the fan of a good schnitzel, I got in on the act.

To my delight, a few minutes later no fewer than three schnitzels arrived in front of me together with chips and a token side salad – just the ticket after a week in the vineyards. Although I managed to polish them off, it was definitely a case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach. Feeling like I was about to burst at the seams, one of the lads mentioned that I would be spending the afternoon scaling the seemingly vertical face of the Hermannshöhle. Thankfully he was only joking but the look of fear in my eyes must have been evident for all to see!

On Saturday morning I woke up to a beautiful sunny day. I decided to walk through the vineyards to the neighbouring village, Niederhausen, home to Weingut Jakob Schneider. The previous week I had tried a bottle from Jakob Schneider and was very impressed so I was looking forward to doing a tasting of his wines. I was not disappointed. I was shown warm hospitality and the wines a delight, something that is becoming somewhat of a recurring theme during my time in Germany.

I have no clue what next week has in store but hopefully next weekend I will be able to visit some of the other top wineries in the region. Crossing my fingers that this beautiful weather is here to stay!

Here is the text from an article which I wrote for drinks industry trade magazine, Harpers, about my time working at Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff in the Nahe region of Germany.  It was published on 10th April, 2012.

Alex Down, 28, blogger on The Riesling Revolutionary and self-confessed German wine fanatic, recently made the decision to leave his job as a lawyer in the City to follow his passion for wine. The first stop on his wine adventure is a month’s work experience at legendary German winery, Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff. Below he recounts his first week in the job:

My journey to the vineyards of Germany began at the crack of dawn on the Sunday before Easter. Such was my excitement that I barely noticed the hour as I bounced through the revolving doors at Stansted on course for my 6.50am flight to Frankfurt Hahn. Arriving at Hahn (the Frankfurt can henceforth be dispatched as it is about as close to Frankfurt as London is to Dover), I boarded the splendidly named Mosel-Rhine-Bus and off we went through the idyllic countryside towards my home for the next four weeks – Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff in the village of Oberhausen in the Nahe wine region.

Arriving at the winery, I was greeted by Cornelius Dönnhoff, heir to the Dönnhoff throne and the current head winemaker. After the customary guided tour, Cornelius showed me to the room where I would be staying. An en suite bathroom and a balcony overlooking the famous Niederhausen Hermannshöhle vineyard – had I died and gone to heaven? It certainly felt like it but in an attempt to keep my excitement to manageable levels I decided to forego the temptation to crack open a bottle on the first night.

The following morning I reported for duty in the courtyard at 8am sharp. After exchanging brief pleasantries with my co-workers, I was informed that we would be spending the day bottling the 2011 Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc). In a nutshell, this is how the bottling process works: empty bottles are fed onto a conveyor belt which go into the bottling machine; the empty bottles are sterilised and then filled with the wine before moving down the belt where they are corked, capped and labelled; at this stage the wines are the finished product and the sole remaining task is for them to be stacked or packed.

This is where I came in. Once the bottles had emerged from the labelling section of the machine, it was my job to grab them and pack them (in six-bottle cases). As we began the day’s work, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Here I was, free from the shackles of the City and working in one of Germany’s finest wineries. By lunchtime, I was still in good cheer but definitely feeling the strain. By 5pm I was in tatters. Now, I know what you are thinking – sticking a few bottles in a box doesn’t sound too bad. But to put it in perspective, on the first day we bottled around 8000 bottles (which accounts for approximately 1335 cases)!

And things did not ease up over the next couple of days as more bottling was in order. It was certainly backbreaking stuff but it was made all the more manageable by the team and their ability to seamlessly interchange jobs with one another when someone needed to take a well-deserved breather.

By Thursday afternoon we had bottled the 2011 Weissburgunder, Grauburgunder and Tonschiefer (Dry Slate) Riesling. Although by the end of this process I was totally kaput, I nevertheless felt a great sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that I had played a part (albeit very small) in the lifespan of these brilliant wines.

That evening, all of the crew (vineyard and cellar) gathered round the table in the communal galley for wine tasting, hog roast and friendly conversation. The selection of wines was a celebration of the diversity of German wine styles – everything from a Dönnhoff Weissburgunder from the Nahe to a dry Riesling from Baden to a sweet Ruländer Spätlese from the Pfalz to a Müller-Thurgau produced by one of the crew members from his own tiny vineyard plot in the Nahe. But the wine of the night for me was the 1998 Jacob Schneider Niederhäusen Klamm Riesling Auslese – a classy wine from a much underrated producer which has aged with grace.

Could there have been a more fitting and enjoyable way to close out a hard week? Not to my mind. As for next week, I have been told that I will spend some time in the vineyards – very exciting. But, first, time to put my feet up with a couple of chocolate eggs and relax over the Easter weekend.

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