Monday, November 15, 2010

1st International Riesling Symposium, Rheingau, Germany

Pictures: Wilhelm Weil opening the 1st International Riesling Symposium at Schloss Rheinhartshausen in the Rheingau in Germany

The 1st International Riesling Symposium

“In the midst of today’s Riesling renaissance, it is important that the leading Riesling regions of all continents work together and exchange thoughts,” said Hessen’s former Prime Minister Roland Koch in his opening remarks and set the stage for the 1st International Riesling Symposium that took place at Schloss Rheinhartshausen in the Rheingau in Germany on November 11 and 12, 2010. It was attended by top winemakers, representatives from the trade and restaurant sector, and journalists. The conference was organized by the VDP Rheingau. The VDP is Germany’s elite winemakers association; it has about 200 members.

Eight very interesting lectures, four outstanding wine tastings - one in the morning and one in the afternoon of each day - and a walking wine dinner provided for two fascinating and highly entertaining days around Riesling. The symposium was attended by about 150 people, including such luminaries as Jancis Robinson from the UK, Willi Bruendlmayer from Austria, Helmut Doennhoff from the Nahe, Ernst Loosen from the Mosel and Colette Faller from Domaine Weinbach in Alsace. Top winemaker Wilhelm Weil and wine journalist Ingo Swoboda orchestrated the two days event.

Worldwide, there are about 34000 hectares planted with Riesling. Germany – with 22400 hectares – accounts for 2/3 of the total. The second largest Riesling producer is Australia, with 4500 hectares. But this is only about 1/10 of the total. Nevertheless, Australia was a bit underrepresented at the 1st International Riesling Symposium. Alsace follows with 3500 hectares. Austria, the US with Washington State and New York State as well as New Zealand make up the remainder. But overall, Riesling is really a niche wine, accounting for less than 1 percent of total wine production in the world - but a very special niche wine.


David Schildknecht, one of the most influential American wine writers, opened the discussion by asking if the Riesling's recent success has not been a pyrrhic victory. Due to rapidly expanding production in the New World, the Riesling niche risks to get over-crowded: "The surface devoted to Riesling in Washington State has nearly tripled in the course of the past decade, and that in California - coming off of a quarter century-long decline - nearly doubled."

He also was not sure whether the German push for the dry style is the way to go. David Schildknecht said: “German growers’ dry wines have declared total victory on their home turf ... at the same time, a tidy volume of residually sweet Riesling remains - varying by region – that, perversely, is in demand almost solely abroad, but there increasingly ardently - in the US, the work of importers Terry Theise and Rudi Wiest have contributed to this success.” Wilhelm Weil confirmed that “while 30 years ago, residually sweet wines accounted for about 80 percent of Germany’s total wine output, this share has dropped to only 10 to 20 percent today.”

David Schildknecht also criticized German wine growers for pushing the alcohol content too high. He said: "Impossible to overlook are the numbers of Grosse Gewaechse that reach 14%, a level of alcohol with which they - to say nothing of the consumer - have difficulty dealing". David argued for a lower level of alcohol content and more remaining sweetness in the wine: "German Rieslings with 10 to 20 grams of residual sugar reflect not just the natural course of fermentation, but also long-standing tradition".

Another highlight was the brilliant presentation of Prof. Hans R. Schulz from the Geisenheim Wine College (right next door to where the symposium took place) under the heading “Riesling – Past, Present and Future”. Prof. R.Schulz provided us with a scientific view of climate, vineyard site and viticultural management issues, using data from the world’s main Riesling producing regions - Geisenheim in the Rheingau, Washington State in the US, the Okanagan Valley in Canada, Blenheim in New Zealand, Colmar in France, Vienna in Austria and Adelaide Hills in Australia. The main message for the Rheingau winemakers was that there are indeed challenges ahead, but these challenges are manageable. “The mitigation potential for Riesling to maintain its distinctiveness even in a changing climate is large for the Rheingau winemakers” Prof. Schulz concluded. However, he did not say much about how things look for winemakers in other regions.

Jim Trezise, Chairman of the International Riesling Foundation (IRF),confirmed in his presentation that “Riesling is now the fastest growing varietal in American sales.” But he added that “although an increasing number of consumers like Riesling, overall, consumers continue to be confused by the variations in sweetness. This is why the IRF has introduced a Riesling Taste Profile for the back label that gives the consumer an idea of each individual wine’s flavour. Now used on some 15 million bottles of its member’s wines, including by Germany’s Schloss Johannesberg in the Rheingau, the IRF hopes that it will make buying a bottle of Riesling less difficult for the normal consumer.

Ulrich Sauter, a well-known German wine and gourmet journalist, shared with us the research he has done in terms of replacing - or supplementing – the one-dimensional wine ratings, such as the Parker points, with a multi-dimensional approach, based on cluster analysis. Interestingly, his research suggests that the factor "terroir" is a less decisive factor for how the wine ultimately presents itself in the glass than the ripeness of the grape at the point of harvest and the vinification approach of the winemaker.

3-star Michelin Chef from Restaurant Vendome in Germany provided some insights on how to combine Riesling with food. Georg Mauer, a wine retailer in Berlin, offered his thoughts on the Riesling renaissance from the trade perspective. Daniel Decker – under the heading: a brief history of the vineyard classification for the Prussian Rhine Province, including the former Duchy of Nassau - took us back to the 1800s and early 1900s, when the first attempts were made to systematically classify vineyards. Interestingly, these attempts were made with a view of taxing the revenues of the wine makers appropriately. When he does not write about wine, Daniel Deckers is a political journalist at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He just published a book about the history of the VDP. Finally, H.B. Ullrich reported about the annual Rheingau Gourmet and Wein Festival.

Wine Tastings

There were 4 impressive wine tastings, showing Riesling from 4 different perspectives. They also clearly demonstrated the versatility of this very special grape. We tasted wines that were bone dry, noble sweet, slightly sweet, young and aged.

Josef Schuller, Weinakademie Oesterreich, past Chairman Institute of Masters of Wine, London, led a tasting on dry Rieslings. This tasting included 21 dry Rieslings, of which 3 were from the new world, 3 from Alsace, 6 from Austria, 2 from other German regions than the Rheingau and the remaining wines from the Rheingau. It was a “blind tasting” and we then tried to identify the new world, the Alsatian, the Austrian and the non-Rheingau wines. Interestingly, 2 of the 3 new world wines were identified rather swiftly as were 2 of the Alsatian wines. For the other wines, it turned out to be more challenging.

Stephane Gass, Sommelier at the 3 Michelin star restaurant Schwarzwaldstube “Traube Tonbach”, ably led through a tasting of 21 Rieslings with a touch of residual sweetness. The focus of this tasting was on what kind of food pairing might fit with Riesling with a little bit of residual sugar.

Jancis Robinson, Financial Times, led a fascinating tasting of 21 aged Rieslings. We started out with a 1970 Heiligenstein Riesling Schloss Gobelsburg, a very delicate bone-dry wine. A highlight was the 1959 Steinberger Riesling Spaetlese, Hessische Staatsweingueter Kloster Eberbach.

Caro Maurer, MW, Der Feinschmecker, guided us through 21 noble sweet wines. There were many impressive wines, including the 2004 Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg, Selection de Grains Nobles, Domaine Weinbach, but it was Weingut Hermann Doennhoff’s 2008 Oberhaeuser Bruecke, Riesling Eiswein, which got a round of extra applause.

I will report about the tastings separately in more detail on Schiller Wine. Here are already a few pictures.

Pictures (from top to bottom): Aged Riesling Tasting Seminar with Ingo Swoboda, John Dade Thieriot (Dee Vine Wines in San Francisco), Jancis Robinson and Wilhelm Weil on the Stage, and Armin Diel, Nik Weis, Ernst Loosen and Egon Mueller commenting.

Walking Wine Dinner

A Walking Wine Dinner with 5 renown Chefs from the region - Frank Buchholz,Jens Fischer, Kazuya Fukuhira, Mario Reuter and Harald Ruessel - and the wines of the participating wine producers concluded the first day of the seminar. I was happy to find Armin Diel’s Poet’s Leap from Washington State, a wine that is popular in the US, but difficult to find in Germany. Armin told me that you can buy it in Germany at Schlossgut Diel.

Pictures: Frank Buchholz, Restaurant Buchholz, Mainz and his dish "Duo of Red Salmon with Basil Sour Cream and Buffalo Mozzarella"

The Context

The 1st International Riesling Symposium followed the 3d Riesling Rendezvous hosted jointly by Dr. Loosen and Château Ste. Michelle in Seattle in Washington State with over 350 wine professionals attending from all corners of the world earlier this year. The next Riesling Symposium is planned to take place in Melbourne, followed by the fourth Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle and the 2nd International Riesling Symposium in the Rheingau in 2012.

Interestingly, I believe, I was the only wine blogger participating in the event. My participation had been arranged by Ernst Loosen, the German winemaker who is highly popular in the US, and, as a far as I can see, the most important Ambassador for German wine, and in particular for Riesling, in the world. Thank you Ernie for inviting me.

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1 comment:

  1. Hallo Herr Dr. Schiller,

    besten Dank für Ihre ausführliche Darstellung des Internationalen Riesling Symposiums im Rheingau. Ich kann nur sagen, aufwärts mit unserem geliebten Riesling in den besten Terroirs weltweit. Und da freut es natürlich, wenn man engagierte Mitstreiter hat.

    Mit besten Grüßen aus dem Rheingau

    Wilhelm Weil