This is sponsored content in collaboration with German wine tour company Bottlestops, however all editorial and opinions are my own.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Bottlestops and I can’t imagine it’ll be the last. Since the first trip they invited me on in 2017, the Mainz-based boutique German wine tour company has gone from strength to strength – even despite, quite remarkably, the events of the last two years. Bottlestops owner and guide Jérôme Hainz seems more passionate than ever about showing visitors to Germany just how good German wines can be, and also how fascinating German wine history and culture is, so when he invited me to join another tour at the end of October, I jumped at the chance.
I meet Jérôme at the train station in Mainz and climb into his very comfortable mini bus alongside five other wine lovers who are visiting from Canada, Finland and the United States. I am joining Bottlestops’ Not Only Riesling – Rolling Hills of Rheinhessen tour. The six-hour trip incorporates visits to two of the region’s winemakers, including tours and tastings, and a stop at a country inn for lunch. As we head west out of the city towards our first stop, Jérôme enthusiastically introduces himself, Bottlestops and the Rheinhessen wine region, and and outlines the order of the day. “There’s only one rule on this tour”, he tells us. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question!”
The Rheinhessen Wine Region
Rheinhessen is the largest of Germany’s 13 winemaking regions. Grapes have been cultivated here since Roman times, and the region’s mild climate and mixture of soil types mean that a wide variety of them are grown on its hilly slopes. Rheinhessen may be less well known amongst visitors from abroad, who mostly make a beeline for the dramatically steep vineyards of the Mosel or the romantic, castle-topped hills of the Rheingau, but as someone who now calls Rheinhessen home, I think they’re missing a trick. As does Rheinhessen-born Jérôme: as we drive out of the city into its surrounding countryside, both sides of the road now fringed with neat rows of vines, he points to sloping vineyards in the distance on the other side of the Rhine, and jokes, “the best thing about the Rheingau is the view from Rheinhessen”.
Schloss Westerhaus, Ingelheim
Our first stop is at Schloss Westerhaus, a winery just south of the sprawling town of Ingelheim. It sits grandly at the top of a slope in the Selz Valley (named after a tributary of the Rhine, the Selz, which flows across Rheinhessen) with sweeping views of its vineyards below. With harvest already done and dusted for the year, there are no grapes left on the vines, but their leaves bring warmth colour to the landscape with their autumnal yellows, oranges and reds. With a slight dampness in the air, thick streaks of fog hanging over the valley and the heady smell of fermentating grapes emerging from Westerhaus’ cellars, it’s an atmospheric day in German wine country.
Schloss Westerhaus is owned by Ivonne und Johannes Graf von Schönburg, who are the fourth generation to run the estate since it was acquired by the von Opel family (of automobile manufacturing fame) in 1900. We are warmly welcomed by the pair in their tasting room, which opens out onto a cobbled patio at the front of the winery, for a glass of their entry level chardonnay/Weißburgunder (pinot blanc) blend – fresh, light, citrussy and, Johannes laughs, “a good wine for a morning tasting” – before heading to their cellars for a tour.
A member of Germany’s VDP association, an independent organisation that promotes the country’s finest wineries, Schloss Westerhaus focuses on making burgundies (Weißburgunder, Grauburgunder, Spätburgunder – Pinots blanc, gris and noir – and chardonnay) and Riesling. Johannes first takes us down into Schloss Westerhaus’s historic red wine cellar, a dimly lit, arched underground room filled with oak barrels of Spätburgunder, before leading us up a spiral stone staircase to a bright room filled with wooden barrels, shiny steel tanks and the sweet, musty smell of fermenting white grapes.
Johannes is incredibly generous with his time and information, sharing not just details of his winemaking processes but also stories about the winery and his family history and answering our plentiful questions. Back in the tasting room, the group gathered around a standing table, he talks us through a generous selection of his excellent wines and we learn about his and Ivonne’s plans for the winery’s future, and the effects of the climate crisis on winemaking and the challenges it presents for their own work. It’s a thought-provoking end to our first stop of the day.
A rustic lunch at a country tavern
We drive onwards to Schwabenheim an der Selz, a small town whose history has been recorded as far back as the 11th century, to have lunch at Landgasthof Engel. A charming inn located in a beautifully preserved and restored half-timbered building, Engel belongs to a Schwabenheim winery, Weingut Immerheiser, and serves regional, seasonal German food. The autumn menu lists the likes of venison stew, rabbit with mustard sauce, and spinach dumplings: I pick the plump cabbage roulades, which may not have been particularly photogenic, but were among the most flavourful and moreish I’ve ever eaten.
As we wait for our food to arrive, Jérôme, armed with a map, takes the opportunity to tell us some more about Germany’s wine regions as a whole, explaining how they fit into the country’s diverse natural landscapes and providing further context to our morning tasting as well as Germany’s wider wine production. The Bottlestops website promises that on this tour, “you get bottomless information about wine in Germany in general but also plenty of insights into the local wine culture and history”, and Jérôme absolutely delivers.
Our afternoon was spent at Braunewell in Essenheim, a short drive east of Schwabenheim, still in the Selz Valley. I’ve been a fan of the winery for some time, both for their high quality wines and their commitment to producing them sustainably, and was thrilled to be finally visiting.
Braunewell has a French-German history that goes back as far as the 17th century, and the winery today is run by three generations of the same family. Their original 1970s buildings are complimented by an impressive modern wine shop, completed last year, which has a stylish interior furnished with natural materials, and view directly onto their vineyards. It’s here that we meet sommelier Christian Stelljes, who hands us each a glass of sparkling rosé and leads us straight down into the cellars.
Braunewell produces their sparkling wines according to the champagne method of bottle fermentation, and in the sparkling wine cellar, standing between countless glossy bottles turned nearly upside down in their riddling racks, Christian details their entire process from start to finish. Next, he takes us into Braunewell’s treasure chamber, a stone cellar filled with wooden crates of their best wines from the last 50 or so years; and in the adjacent two rooms of gleaming steel tanks, we sample a chardonnay, not yet fully fermented, direct from its tank. In a huge, plain cellar bathed in blue light, we learn about the different types and sizes of oak barrel they use – the oldest from 1935.
We exit the cellars, emerging into the late afternoon sunlight, and wander into the winery’s so-called grape garden, where a row of each of the varieties they cultivate is on show – no longer a grape to be seen, of course, but the leaves varying shades of yellowing green, orange and red. It’s a lovely touch, being able to see all this directly from the tasting room, which is where we end our tour, sitting on high stools at a table, sampling another generous selection of very good wines.
The road home
Our glasses drained, we hop back into Jérôme’s van and drive back to Mainz. Yet again, I come away from a Bottelstops tour having learned a great deal about not just German wine, but its history and culture, met some fantastic people (both at the wineries and in the tour bus!) and tried some very – very – good wines. I’m consistently impressed by Jérôme’s choice of wineries on his tours, today two dynamic businesses that compliment each other well with their mix of family tradition and forward-thinking winemaking practices. The six-hour tour flew by and I enjoyed every second of it. I’d highly recommend booking one yourself.
A note on buying wine
I have the luxury of being able to order wines for delivery from both of these wineries, however I also purchased a couple of bottles from each winery on the day as a small way of showing my appreciation for ours hosts’ time. There is, however, no pressure at all to do so, either from Jérôme or the wineries themselves.
I joined Bottlestops previously on a tour that took in both the Nahe and Rheinhessen wine regions. For more information about Bottlestops’ German wine tours, including their Not Only Riesling tour, visit the Bottlestops website. You can also follow Bottlestops on Instagram.