Sunday, July 13, 2008

An Evening of Nahe Wines Featuring Donnhoff and Schafer-Frohlich

On Friday evening, a small group convened at The Wine Country to indulge in some great wines from two superstar producers, Donnhoff and Schafer-Frohlich. We also learned a little bit about the Nahe, a small winegrowing region that has less renown than the Mosel and the Rheingau, but is being recognized for producing some real gems.

The Nahe region encompasses an area through which the Nahe river flows. It runs somewhat parallel to the Mosel river, but to the south, and the flows into the Rhein. The valley is not as deep and cut as the Mosel, though the hillside vineyards are still steep. The other major difference between the Mosel and the Nahe is that the Mosel primarily has slate as its growing medium, while the Nahe is made up of a blend of soil types, including slate, volcanic rock, and finer clay and loess. As a result of the more southerly location compared to the Mosel and the soil type here, Nahe wines are typically more fuller and weightier in the mouth compared to Mosel wines, and have some spice. However, they still tend to have elegance and structure and very good acidity (though not as high acid as say the Ruwer and Saar wines).

We tasted 8 wines, and there was not a bad one in the bunch. There were 3 Schafer-Frohlich wines and 5 Donnhoff wines, so that Donnhoff did end up dominating the tasting. The first flight was between 2 dry wines, 2006 Schafer-Frohlich Bockenauer Felseneck Spatlese Trocken and 2005 Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannshohle Riesling Trocken Grosses Gewachs. Both wines showed exceedingly well, with the Schafer-Frohlich Spatlese Trocken showing that laser-beam focus and fantastic acidity for which his wines are well known. There is nothing vague or sloppy with Schafer-Frohlich wines - they always seem to me to be well delineated and purposeful, forward and direct, while showing a lean profile, never too fat. In contrast, the Donnhoff Hermannshohle Grosses Gewachs filled the glass with a rich aroma that almost seemed to indicate a touch of botrytis - rich pie spices and heady perfume-destined flower. On the palate, the Donnhoff went on and on, giving richness in mouthfeel and flavor from here to eternity. I was bowled over by the wine when I tasted it before the class, how the wine opened up in the glass with time, filling it with its very huge presence. When the class tasted it, they felt the same way. It was a superb, awe-inspiring wine.

The next flight was of two Kabinetts: 2006 Schafer-Frohlich Estate Kabinett and 2006 Donnhoff Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett. The Schafer-Frohlich had the telltale slatey-beery-matchsticky aroma that results from natural yeast fermentation, while showing apricot aroma underneath all that. On the palate, the wine is a true Kabinett without overly fat fruit - there was balance and good acidity. The Donnhoff Kabinett was delicate and spicy at the same time, also a true Kabinett without overblown fruitiness.

The 3rd flight consisted of two Donnhoff 2005 Spatleses: 2005 Donnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Riesling Spatlese and 2005 Donnhoff Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg Riesling Spatlese. The Norheimer Kirschheck showed brighter acidity and less weight, while the Felsenberg was more fleshy and fuller and bigger on fruit, body, and length. Both wines did not seem to express a great deal of acidity, reflecting possibly the ripeness of the vintage. They came off a bit soft, though the fruit was pure and clean. It is possible also that at this point in 2008, they are not in their best phase for drinking - perhaps there was more brightness a year ago, and more complexity in a few years.

For the last 2 wines, we decided to serve them on their own. The 7th wine was the 2004 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese. I had just brought this wine in (along with wine #2, the Donnhoff Hermannshohle Grosses Gewachs) for this tasting, so I was curious to try it. It turned out to be one of my favorites of the tasting. The wine simply had more balance and complexity than the 2 Spatleses from 2005. This may have been for several reasons. 2004 was a more classic vintage, not as warm, and the wine had more acidity, which was great for a Spatlese (or any wine, really). Second, it had more development, and just flavor beside simple fruit. It had also done that thing that people describe as "losing its baby fat" - so it was not just a wash of sweet fruit on the palate, but a balance of something almost saline - the minerality - being as prominent as the fruit, along with great acid - it was something I easily gulped down (while some of the 2005s had to be sacrificed to the dump bucket - not because I didn't like them, but because there is so much I can drink at a tasting, and I chose to drink the 2004!). Third, of course, is that the Brucke is an excellent vineyard. I'm not sure how the Brucke ranks compared to Donnhoff's other vineyards, but I'm sure it is up there - in the past I tasted an eiswein from this vineyard that was beyond amazing. And here was another example of the perfection that was this vineyard.

The very last wine was a 2005 Schafer-Frohlich Bockenauer Felseneck Riesling Beerenauslese. This wine delivered. It was a fabulous noble sweet wine from an excellent noble sweet wine vintage, and it was made by skilled hands. A botrytis-honey sweetness fills the glass with its intoxicating perfume, and leads you to a palate of rich wine that has enough acidity to back it up. This is a very special wine that would conclude the fanciest of wine dinners, or it could just serve as the meal itself with a great blue cheese like Stilton. Forget Port, this is where it is at!

In all, a very successful tasting. In a biased way, the Donnhoffs blew away the Schafer-Frohlichs, but that could have just been because the two houses should not be tasted side-by-side. No one had any complaints about any of the Schafer-Frohlichs though - they are all superb wines. But hedonistically, it was hard not to acknowledge and bow down to the master, Donnhoff. His style, to me, is not as subtle as I think importer Terry Theise describes him to be. It's not that I'm saying he hits you over the head with his wines, but they are by no means subtle. One class participant put it this way - if you want something to go with your meal, the Schafer-Frohlichs seem to do just that in a great way, but if you want the wine to be the star attraction, then serve the Donnhoff. The wines just seem to demand you to put other things and hold and behold it. The wines are super-rich, minerally, fleshy, and full of spice and goodies. They seem to show well in their youth and have the bones to age for decades. Pretty great stuff.

For my money, I crave the 2005 Donnhoff Hermannshohle Grosses Gewachs and the 2004 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke. They are both pricy wines, but I figure for the right occasion, bringing a bottle of these to a dinner party would be really, really fun.

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