The first time I saw a picture of the Mosel River with some of the world’s steepest vineyards clinging to its hillsides, Germany became an instant forerunner on my wine-travel bucket list. Anytime you study something deeply, you become fascinated with the nuances and outlying possibilities of the topic at hand. For me, unique soil, climate, vineyard location, grapes, and culture all combine to make the most interesting wines and places to visit. Germany has all of these and much more not to mention some of the most hospitable people I’ve met.
On a recent trip to the Rheinhessen and Mosel wine regions which I was fortunate enough to get to see through a bursary sponsored by Reh Kendermann in my Masters of Wine program, my great expectations were not only met but exceeded. My father and I spent over a week touring the two regions which are about 45 minutes and 90 minutes respectively from Frankfurt.
Our trip started at the Hinterconti Bed and Breakfast in Bretzenheim, a short drive from Bingen and Reh Kendermann’s property in Rheinhessen. A lovelier host and cozier accommodations would be hard to find. Kristina, the owner, is a bundle of warmth and energy with great attention to detail which is plainly obvious in her modern oversized rooms, the beautifully rustic and chic bar and dining areas, and her amazing wine selections which she handpicks herself. She regularly visits local wineries and selects her favorites for the bed and breakfast.
We were extremely fortunate benefactors of her fantastic taste and her wines were some of our favorites of the trip. I fell in love with Gebruderkauer’s Secco and Rosé. My dad’s favorite was her Jakob Schneider Riesling. The Secco is a lightly sparkling wine made from Riesling and Scheurebe grapes while the Rosé is made from Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir). Some of our most tranquil trip moments were spent on her terrace patio sipping these refreshing and lively wines with singing minerality.
Bretzenheim itself is also charming. It is a tiny town, so quiet at night that you can hear voices down the road. Grapevines form arbors over many of the streets and old red brick walls line the sidewalks. Biking and hiking trails abound in Germany and the one leading out of Bretzenheim took us to a stunning mustard-colored field of swaying wheat.
There are also several good restaurants. Taverna Tipota (Greek) offers the most beautiful vine covered patio I’ve seen. With vines well over 50 years old, it’s a cool respite from the summer heat with very good food. The Italian place just next door to Hinterconti is run by a native Italian and his personable Croatian wife. The food was fantastic and very authentic. I even had an Italian after-dinner drink with raisins that I’d never seen before. Patios reign in this part of Germany and this was another very pleasant area to while away the time. Weinguts (wine tasting rooms) line the streets and I wish we’d had more time to investigate them.
Rheinhessen itself is one of 13 Anbaugebietes (Germany quality wine regions) and is sometimes overlooked due to its famous Mosel and Rheingau neighbors to the west and north but it shouldn’t be. Some of the most exciting German wines are coming from this region due to an infusion of young winemakers and the revival of some historic properties. At the center of this region is Reh Kendermann which is a bit like the Gallo of Germany with its immense creativity, attention to quality, and incredible product portfolio. They also have many brands that belong to them but are not labeled with the Reh Kendermann name so their presence is much larger than it might appear.
Alison Flemming (one of the few Masters of Wine in Germany and Export Director) hosted us with her incredible team at Reh Kendermann for the better part of a day. We started with a true MW tasting exercise, complete with actual questions we’d see on an exam (I think my Dad has even more respect for the MW program after attempting this exercise himself!). She told us a few key things about Rieslings:
- If the wine is sweet, it is most likely to be from the Mosel. Rheingau does do some sweet wines occasionally but it would be more unusual for other German wine-producing regions to produce them.
- Mosel Rieslings will taste more earthy and mineral, often with a “petrolly” character to them while Rheingau will exhibit more yellow fruit flavors. Sweet Mosel Riesling will have lower alcohol as the yeast simply can’t convert the high sugar levels to alcohol (fermentation will stop naturally).
- Sweet Sauternes will never taste as fresh as a sweet Riesling due to the high acidity in Riesling.
- Botrytis wines made in a wet year will show more fungal notes in them.
The first flight was a fascinating set of two Sauvignon Blancs (yes Germany does very well with this varietal) and a Grauerburgunder (Pinot Gris). The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Kalkstein from Pfalz (a region further south) had zippy acid, savory herb aromas, and classic flavors of grapefruit and lime. Made from Kalkstein (limestone soil), I initially thought it was from New Zealand due to its exuberant profile. The other Sauvignon Blanc was Reh Kendermann’s 2015 Island Bay from Marlborough, NZ which was paler in lemon color with bright citrus fruit, zesty acid, and grassy flavors.
The 2015 Grauerburgunder vom Kalkstein was also from Pfalz and was a harmonious balance of citrus, tropical fruit, and wet stone flavors backed up by medium acid and a round body. 2015 was a relatively early harvest from early September. 2016 conditions were cool and rainy in May and June but warm and sunny weather in July and August should mean the grapes are picked from mid September. Incidentally we were told that “dry” German wines typically have around 7 g/L of sugar in them, slightly more than other dry wines, as this is a kind of “sweet spot”.
The second flight featured 6 different kinds of Riesling, one of the most fascinating exercises of all. Riesling can be dry or sweet with everything in-between. We tasted two dry Rieslings in the 2015 Riesling Roter Hang, Rheinhessen and the 2015 Kalkstein Riesling, Pfalz. The first was grown on red slate (helps with earlier drinking) and was bone-dry on the palate with robust creamy texture. The second was also bone-dry with crisp acidity and medium aromas of lemon juice and ripe yellow fruit.
The 2013 Oppenheimer Riesling trocken was a more vivid lemon gold in color with petrol and tart fruit notes from the cool 2013 vintage. The palate was slightly off-dry and exhibited yogurt notes due to partial malolactic fermentation (rare for a Riesling) along with subtle toastiness and elegant acidity.
On the sweeter side, we tried the 2015 Kendermanns Riesling, Mosel (45 g/L sugar), the 2015 Signature Auslese (70 g/L sugar), and the 2005 Leiwener Laurentiuslay Riesling Beerenauslese, Mosel (160 g/L sugar). All were around 8% alcohol. The Kendermanns Riesling tasted of dried peaches and apricots with earthy slate notes. Its yeasty character revealed its youth.
The Signature Auslese had some fizz to it from residual CO2 and tasted of ripe fruit, apricot, and petrol. Very refreshing and lively style.
The Leiwener Laurentiuslay Riesling was lemon gold in color with medium plus aromas of marmalade and apricot with botrytis touches (honey). This was an elegant and well structured wine with dense complexity and a long finish. 2005 was a perfect year for botrytis according to Alison and this wine was one of the last vintages made from old vines on guyot trellises.
Reh Kendermann – The Company
Reh Kendermann has the most awarded wines in Germany (901) and won the best Riesling award in 2012 and 2013. It is also one of the largest wineries in Germany and makes a large amount of private labels as well as contract bottling. The company is at the very forefront of innovation and yet is a historic one dating from 1920 with Carl Reh’s founding of a trading company for grapes, must, and wine in the Mosel region. It was one of the most fascinating winery visits I have done due to its cutting edge technology, future vision, wide brand portfolio, and the number of highly creative projects going on within the business.
Reh Kendermann has a diverse and expansive portfolio of wines and brands with a total annual production of 45 million bottles coming from 4 modern facilities. 60% of their wines stay in Germany with 11% going to New World countries and 23% going to other European countries. The other 6% is made up of de-alcoholized wine. The U.K. is the key export market with Scandinavia, Canada, and the U.S. being continual markets of interest as well as Japan. Wines are made in sizes from 18.7 cl up to 1.5L and some are also packaged in bag-in-box (very popular in Scandinavia). Only 20 different bottles are used in order to maximize efficiency and production.
The Kendermanns line is made up of modern easy-drinking wines while the Carl Reh line comprises more traditional styles. Reh Kenderman’s portfolio also includes the Romanian brand Val Duna (Merlot and Pinot Grigio), Waka Waka (South African Sauvignon Blanc/Chenin Blanc blend and Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon blend), and Fern Point (New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc). Bottling is done within the country of production for all of Reh Kendermann’s wines as they believe this gives the producers more credibility.
Their biggest brand of all is Black Tower which is also the number one brand from Germany, selling over 15 million bottles annually. This long running brand was founded in 1967 in a black ceramic bottle. There have been many bottle iterations over the past 49 years but the black bottle has always been preserved in some way. In 2010, there was another bottle change to make it appear more contemporary (now only the top half of the bottle is black) and the logo itself was feminized a bit in 2016 to look softer. Young people think Black Tower is an old fashioned brand which is why some of the above changes were made. A special campaign focused on millennials (the WOW campaign) is currently underway in an effort to attract this key demographic group to Black Tower for the first time. The U.K., Ireland, Canada, and Scandinavia are the biggest markets for Black Tower.
Reh Kendermann does a tremendous amount of market research and has special offerings for the current trends of low alcohol and Kosher wines. They are working with the U.K. Weight Watchers group on a wine with lower alcohol and hence fewer calories which is highly attractive to consumers both from the health and lifestyle point of view.
Reh Kendermann also makes an alcohol-free wine called Ebony Vale which is made from normally fermented wine and then de-alcoholized very gently by vacuum distillation at 32°C. Their winemakers believe that the taste is much better deriving from real wine versus water and wine which is how some of these wines are made.
Kosher wines are also produced and sold most commonly to the U.S., U.K., and Israel. In order to be Kosher, these wines must be heated at some point above 90 degrees Celsius for just a few minutes. When I asked about the impact of the heat on the wine, Alison said that the wine can taste a little bit less bright and less aromatic but other than that, they show very well. These wines also have 15 g/L Residual Sugar.
Another fun category is “trendsetting” wines. These range from Rosé (made from Portugieser, Pinot Noir, and Dornfelder), Black Tower Bubbly, B by Black Tower Fruitiful and Handwerk Red wine blend (Dornfelder and Cabernet crossings).
One of my favorite brands was Reh Kendermann’s Soil Series. This is a brilliant effort at making the wines easier to understand to consumers as well as to educate the public in a simple way about the wines and what makes them special. Grauerburgunder Kalkstein (limestone) and Riesling Löss (loess) are two examples of this product line. They each have a highly attractive and sleek picture of their respective soils as well as the variety name on the bottle. The wines themselves are excellent, tasting of classic minerality and freshness.
Another creative thing that Reh Kendermann does exceptionally well is to issue collectors bottles which they do 3-5 times a year with all kinds of themes from special events to seasonal commemorations. The bottles are simply beautiful and so eye-catching with vivid colors and lovely designs done by their own in-house label designer. Production is around 10,000 bottles.
Reh Kendermann’s logo itself is quite catchy which I inquired about. The black castle is taken from a tower in Rheinhessen where an evil ruler was killed by mice when he wouldn’t give the locals grain from his store in the castle during a poor harvest. “Reh” itself means deer and is also the surname of Carl Reh, the owner of the company. As of 2016, the logo has been revised to make the stationary deer look to be leaping as a sign of the company continuing to make progress and innovation.
From a winemaking perspective, Reh Kendermann has a 25 million liter capacity for wine making and tries to purchase as many grapes and must as possible in order to better control production. Ready-made wine is also purchased but only from long term partners whom they trust and with a strict selection process. 500 contract growers contribute grapes to Reh Kendermann (as they have few vineyards themselves) and grower-vineyard plots are very small. Average grape price per kilo was 1 Euro in 2013 and was 0.6 Euro in 2015 with much price volatility recently. Only 10,000L are made from Reh Kendermann’s own vineyards.
Another asset of the company is having 3 crushing stations and vinification plants all within one hour of their winery as this ensures the freshest fruit and least amount of grape damage during transportation. They are certified organic producers and bottlers which is quite impressive for such a large company. Reh Kendermann is also highly committed to sustainability and has implemented many energy saving and CO2 reduction practices. Glass, aluminum, paper, and plastic are all recycled.
Quality Control is of utmost concern at Reh Kendermann and they have an incredibly advanced, highly automated winery. They keep samples of every single bottle batch made (1 case batch per bottling) which are then stored in a warehouse. These are required to be kept for 2 years but Reh Kendermann keeps them for 3. If there are customer complaints, they can then compare the sample to the issue and see if the issue was from Reh or in the storage/transport since leaving Reh. Aging tests are also run on these samples to see how the wines evolve. There have been no justified callbacks since 2000. “Always test the test” is their motto.
Here are some of Reh Kendermann’s wines (priced $7-$15) that can be purchased in the U.S.:
Carl Reh Riesling, Carl Reh Sweet Red, Carl Reh Riesling Spätlese, Black Tower Rivaner, Black Tower Riesling, Black Tower Fruity White, and Black Tower Smooth Red.
Before I left for Germany, my mother-in-law asked me if there were any good wines in Germany (she’s a die-hard red wine drinker). I laughed and said “well of course there are!” As you can see from this in-depth visit with Reh Kendermann, there are not only fantastic wines but also an incredible focus on quality and creativity. Just as Gallo is one of America’s great stories, Reh Kendermann is definitely one of Germany’s.