On returning home at the beginning of October, I made myself a promise. I want to explore much more of this beautiful area in which I’m so lucky to live. I want to see more, learn more, taste more – and share more of it on here. So, what a joyful thing it was to receive an invitation from Bottlestops to join a tour of the two wine regions that border the Rheingau to the south: the Nahe and Rheinhessen. Off to a good start.
Bottlestops is a small local business owned and run by Jérôme Hainz. Originally from Mainz, but having lived abroad for many years, Jérôme decided he wanted to share the viticultural joys of his home turf with English-speakers by offering a variety of small group wine-tasting tours in and around his hometown. And so it came to be that on a beautiful Saturday two weekends ago, I joined five other wine lovers to embark on the Bottlestops “Not Only Riesling” day trip, departing from Mainz at 10am.
Wine tasting in the Nahe
The Nahe is one of Germany’s smallest wine regions and, so it seems to me, one of its least well known. Named after the river that runs through it, it’s a steeply hilly area filled with vineyards, fields and orchards and, in the warm, honey-coloured light of an unseasonably warm October day, buckets of charm. The Nahe may not boast the romantic castles of the Rheingau and the cruise boats that zip up the Rhein alongside them, nor is it sprinkled with Michelin stars like the Pfalz, but without these obvious draws for tourists, it feels gentle, peaceful, and rather like a well kept secret.
Thanks to its wide range of soil types, the vineyards here produce some very interesting wines. They are predominately white: lots of Riesling, of course, and also Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Weissburgunder (Pinot blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot gris/Pinot grigio). Reds are also produced here: Spätburgunder (Pinot noir) and Portugeiser to name the most widely grown two. There are fewer wine cooperatives in the area than in other German wine regions, and most of the wine sold by estates is directly to the consumer.
We visited very different wineries in the Nahe. The first was a family-run business on an estate that has been producing wine since 1730, in a small town a 45 minute drive from Mainz. We tasted some excellent sparkling and white wines in their beautiful modern Vinothek (wine store), Jérôme and the vintner carefully explaining the effect that different soil types have on the wine, before touring the cellars with the husband-and-wife winemaking team, learning about each step of their wine-making process along the way. We finished up with another tasting upstairs in their event room, and the option to order wines for us to pick up on our way home again.
The second tasting and tour took place at a much larger, state-owned VDP estate a 10 minute drive along the river. The VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter e.V. – the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates) is an organisation whose members must adhere to very strict winemaking standards – stricter than those set by German wine law – which ensures high quality wines are produced according to a four-tier classification (succinctly explained in the VDP’s very helpful flyer). This particular, very professional estate came complete with guest rooms, a restaurant, award-winning architecture and some pretty spectacular views.
The tasting here was a little more formal, the seven of us sitting with one of the very warm and welcoming managers of the Vinothek around a long wooden table in a room overlooking the steep vineyards where they grow the grapes for some of their award-winning wines. We learned a little of the estate’s history – and heard a couple of excellent anecdotes about some of their wines going under the hammer at extraordinary prices – before being talked through tasting ten very different, high quality white wines, in part comparing similar wines made with grapes grown in different soils (a theme across all three winery visits, and a totally fascinating one). None of the tastings throughout the day assumed a high level of knowledge from us as wine-tasters; the vintners were all happy to answer our questions, however basic, and their enthusiasm for their wines and their passion for winemaking was infectious.
From the tasting room, we went back out into the picturesque courtyard, crossed the neat guest house lawns, and followed our host down into the cool cellars to have a look at the great wooden barrels and learn about the estate’s sparkling wines.
Lunch in the Vineyards
Between our first two winery tours came a rustic lunch stop that for me, was the highlight of the day. After finishing up our first tasting, we climbed back into Jérôme’s very comfortable mini bus and followed the vintners up into the hills for a wander through their vineyards.
We wandered along happily, discussing the harvesting process with the man in charge of it, taking in the views across the valley, and tasting a couple of sweet green grapes plucked straight off the vines. A group of hot, sweaty workers lead by the vintners’ daughter emerged with buckets overflowing with grapes; they turned out to be the local football team, who’d been roped into harvesting the last of the fruits.
We all ate lunch together, sitting at tables overlooking the valley: bowls of hot goulash were served up from table laden with baskets of bread rolls, two enormous rings of Fleischwurst, and a tray each of Zwiebelkuchen – a cakey onion tart served traditionally at this time of year with potent new wine known as Federweisser – and Streuselkuchen (a yeast dough covered in crumble). Sitting there in good company, enjoying the warm October sunshine and clear views for miles, eating simple local food and drinking some excellent wine produced from the vineyards around us was – honestly – nothing short of pure bliss.
Wine tasting in Rheinhessen
We spent the late afternoon in the outskirts of a town in the Rheinhessen wine region, 40 minutes back in the direction of Mainz. Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest wine region, with a landscape a little less hilly than the Nahe but no less scenic, surrounded by hills and forests. Like the Nahe, many different grape varieties are grown here thanks to the varying soil types. The most widely grown (and well known) are Müller-Thurgau, Dornfelder, Riesling and Silvaner, which the area is famed for and which has been regaining popularity after years of being seen as rather old-fashioned and uncool. The reds grown here include, again, Spätburgunder and Portugieser.
Our third and final winery stop was at another small family-run business, one with a 550-year wine growing tradition, run by a young, ambitious man who’s following in the footsteps of several generations of winemakers. We sat together on the sunny patio of the family restaurant run by his sister, tasting a selection of very interesting white wines under his guidance, and sampling some Handkäs’ mit Musik, a pungent sour milk cheese dish from the neighbouring state of Hessen that is marinated in vinegar, caraway and onion – and is very much an acquired taste.
Buying wine from the vintners
In both of these wine regions, much of the wine is sold to private customers as opposed to large firms, so it’s a great place to support small/family businesses, many of whom have had loyal customers for very many years. There was no pressure from Jérôme or any of the vintners to buy any wine, but I came home with three bottles from the first two wineries (which I’m saving to try and impress my in-laws with).
Dinner in Mainz (and a stroll to walk it off)
Upon our early evening return to Mainz, we piled up the rickety stairs of a tiny old wine tavern close to the river Rhein for a glass of Federweisser (potent young wine) and some edible specialties from the Pfalz that included Saumagen (stuffed sow’s stomach), Leberwurst (liver sausage) and Lachs mit Reiberkuchen (smoked salmon with potato cakes). After our meal – quite unplanned – we ambled into town and around part of the city’s oldest quarter, Jérôme enthusiastically sharing historical facts and stories about his hometown to complement our nighttime wander through the cobbled streets and market square. It was the perfect end to a thoroughly lovely day.
Of course we struck gold with the weather, but Jérôme’s passion and well-organised visits to three very different, very good wineries made for a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday. Each individual wine tasting was fun and informative; the tour as a whole is a great way to get to know the area better if you live here, and if you’re visiting, it’s a fantastic way to learn about what the region has to offer. I’d highly recommend it.
I joined the Bottlestops “Not Only Riesling” tour of Rheinhessen and Nahe as a guest of Bottlestops, but all opinions are (as always!) my own. The six-hour small group tour is in English, costs 130€ and includes guided wine tastings, water and light refreshments in between, and round-trip transportation from Mainz. You can book the tours directly via the Bottlestops website.