Some great wines obscure their own greatness, and seemingly get noticed out of the corner of your eye, and then only if you’re only paying close attention. Some great wines sidle up next to you, inclining their heads as if to say, “Hey there, good lookin’.” And then there are the great wines that blow through the doors of the restaurant and knock you speechless on your ass.
Welcome to Weingut Dönhoff, unquestionably home to some of the world’s greatest Rieslings.
Weingut Dönhoff sits unassumingly on the green banks of the placid and pastoral Nahe river, nestled in the little hamlet of Oberhausen. Its proprietor, Helmut Dönnhoff, seemingly shares the gentle and deliberate character of the river, with a warm geniality that will lead him to apologize for arriving at the tasting room in his work clothes. Mention that you prefer your winemakers with dirt on their boots, and his eyes will twinkle, and he might say, “Yes, better that than a salesman.”
The Dönnhoff family has been farming the grey slate hillsides of the Nahe river valley around Oberhausen for somewhere between 250 and 300 years without interruption. Like many German farms in the region, the Dönnhoffs were a relatively self-sustaining, mixed farm up until the 20th century, growing cereal crops, vegetables, fruit and livestock in addition to grapes.
Helmut’s grandfather Hermann made the transition from mixed farm to focus entirely on winegrowing, and was succeeded by his son Hermann after him. Helmut was born in 1949, and grew up playing (and working) in the vineyards with his father, and following his formal education, went straight to work in the fields and the cellar. Dönnhoff took over day-to-day responsibility from his father in 1971, fortuitously perhaps the greatest vintage of the century. From the initial 10 acres of land he began working as a young man, Dönnhoff has grown the estate to nearly 60 acres of hillside vineyards situated along the bends of the Nahe river and some of its side valleys.
The Nahe river, like the slightly-more-famous neighboring Mosel river, is also a tributary of the mighty Rhine that runs from west to east before turning north to join the main flow. The Nahe sits approximately 50 kilometers to the south, however, and thanks to being in a rain shadow from some nearby mountains in between, it also receives about 20% less rain than the Mosel, making it one of the driest regions in all of Germany.
The vineyards of the Nahe tend to be slate-covered hillsides with varying additional mineral content depending on the site, but the slate of the Nahe is grey slate, a less oily and slightly harder stone than the Mosel’s famous blue slate. The Nahe also tends to have more limestone in the soil than quartzite or other minerals, all of which the producers of the Nahe suggest leads to slightly more delicate acidity in their wines.
Dönnhoff, like most of the world’s greatest producers, obsesses about his wine primarily in the vineyards, sparing no expense to ensure the quality of his fruit. I asked him about irrigation in the vineyards, which I saw in some of the neighboring vineyards in the Nahe.
“We irrigated in the Fifties,” says Dönnhoff. “My father and his colleagues added it for frost protection. They used it and the results were not good. After 10 or 15 years of doing it we realized that the wines were not better. In particular we saw that in places we did not irrigate, the wines were better. The roots went deeper, the wines were more intense. So we stopped irrigation 25 years ago, and spent 250,000 marks to rip it all out. All my colleagues couldn’t understand at the time why we would do that.”
For the past five years, Dönnhoff has been joined in the vineyards and the cellar by his son Cornelius, who will be taking over when his father decides to slow down. For now, however, the two work side by side in an intense collaboration that continues to uphold Dönnhoff’s spectacular level of quality. They farm all of their vineyards sustainably, and some, such as Felsenberg, organically.
Winemaking at the domain is remarkably simple. Dönnhoff makes several passes through the vineyards, and then rushes the fruit to the winery to be pressed off the skins within three hours of picking. Then, after some settling of the juice, and depending on the vineyard site, the wine will either go into stainless tanks or into large oak barrels for fermentation using native yeasts. Following fermentation the wine will either be aged in old oak vats or stainless tanks until it is ready to be filtered and then bottled. Dönnhoff has designed his cellar to have enough capacity to hold a vintage either entirely in steel or entirely in wood, depending on what he feels it needs.
The estate produces a bit of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, in addition to the range of Rieslings below, which include a few lower priced blends from several vineyard sites, and reach their apogee in the various single-vineyard bottlings at the various ripeness levels of the German Prädikat system.
These 2012 wines are simply tremendous. The vintage was a stellar one, and when you put near-perfect raw material in the hands of someone as accomplished as Dönnhoff, you can expect wines that walk that most exciting tightrope between delicacy and power with regal grace.
“It’s not so difficult to make an opulent wine,” says Dönnhoff as I wipe a tear from my eye and finish off the last of the Oberhäuser Brücke Spätlese in my glass. “It is difficult to make an elegant, opulent wine. Length is difficult to achieve. Riesling begins small and goes long and expands and plays always a new story.”
For as long as I have enjoyed German wine, the name Dönnhoff on the label has always been as near a guarantee of enjoyment as I’ve found in the wine world.
2012 Dönnhoff Riesling Trocken, Nahe, Germany
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and ripe apples. In the mouth, tart green apple and white floral flavors have a wonderful bright crispness thanks to racy acidity. Clean, wet-stone minerality lingers for a long time in the finish. Completely dry. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Tonschiefer Riesling Trocken, Nahe, Germany
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of sweet white flowers and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, gorgeously bright mineral flavors of crushed stone and wet chalkboard are scented with green apple skin and white flowers. Stunning, mineral brightness. Completely dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Kreuznacher Kahlenberg Riesling Trocken, Nahe, Germany
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and wet stones. In the mouth, zingy acidity makes flavors of green apple and white flowers burst on the palate sending the salivary glands into overdrive. Gorgeously bright, tart, sour, and deliciously floral. Stellar. Completely dry. 12.5% Score: around 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Roxheimer Höllenpfad Riesling Trocken, Nahe, Germany
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and rainwater. In the mouth, gorgeously bright and mineral flavors give the sensation of drinking liquid stone scented with green apple skin and white flowers. Hollenpfad means “pathway to hell.” The stones of the vineyard are red, and in the sunset, the paths through the vineyard look molten. “And it’s also hell to work,” says Helmut Dönnhoff. Completely dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $36. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Felsenberg Grosses Gewachs Riesling Trocken – Tank Sample, Nahe, Germany
Pale gold in the glass with a greenish hint, this wine smells of crushed stones and green apple. In the mouth notes of green apple, lime zest and white flowers vibrate like a struck chime of minerality. Gorgeous, crystalline, pure. Exceptional. Completely dry. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Hermannshöhle Grosses Gewachs Riesling Trocken – Tank Sample, Nahe, Germany
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and Asian pear. In the mouth, Asian pear and crushed stones have a neon lime zest quality to them that is positively electrifying. Gorgeous, vibrant, phenomenal. Incredible length. Completely dry. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Riesling, Nahe, Germany
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apples and jasmine flowers. In the mouth bright, crisp, and lovely green apple wet stones and white flowers crackle with bright acidity, and linger for a crisp, long finish. Off-dry. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Kreuznacher Krötenpfuhl Riesling Kabinett, Nahe, Germany
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and green apple. In the mouth gorgeously bright green apple and white flowers have a light sweetness and a deep crackling minerality thanks to perfect acidity. Gorgeously balanced, bright, and long. Lightly sweet, and like drinking liquid sunshine. It’s impossible not to have a smile on your face after a sip of this wine. 9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $22. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett, Nahe, Germany
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of lemon oil and white flowers and clover honey. In the mouth gorgeous wet stone and rainwater is scented with honey and bright lemon citrus. Fantastically bright, long, and gorgeous. Phenomenally balanced, as if it were a delicate sculpture etched in crystal. Off dry. 9.5% alcohol Score: around 9.5. Cost: $23. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Riesling Spätlese, Nahe, Germany
Palest gold, nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of ripe apples and Asian pear. In the mouth, gorgeous flavors of Asian pear, crushed stones, and candied green apples mix with white flowers. A nice salinity comes into the finish. Beautiful, balanced, and poised, this wine has a regal bearing that is utterly impressive. Off-dry. 8.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese, Nahe, Germany
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and honeysuckle. In the mouth the wine has an incredible texture of liquid satin, and flavors of wet stones, green apple, honeysuckle, and hints of lime juice. Perfectly balanced, gorgeous, and stunning, this wine is impossible to spit out. Lightly sweet. 8.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Neiderhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Spätlese, Nahe, Germany
Palest greenish gold in the glass, nearly colorless, this wine smells of rainwater, crushed stones and salted lime zest. In the mouth gorgeously bright green apple, honey, and wet stone flavors crackle with electric acidity, and also have a light saline character that is utterly mouthwatering. Stunning, nay, phenomenal. Lightly sweet. 8.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $53. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Neiderhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel, Nahe, Germany
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet leaves, honey, and perfectly ripe peaches. This is one of the most mouthwatering wines I’ve ever put in my mouth. Gorgeously bright green apple and ripe peach flavors simply explode with phenomenal acidity backed by a light salinity that makes this wine almost impossible not to swallow. Remarkable, long, and clean. Moderate to very sweet. 8% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $50 per 375ml. click to buy.
2012 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Eiswein, Nahe, Germany
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of candied green apple and honey. On the palate, mouthwatering green apple, apricot, and honey flavors are backed by incredible acidity that in turn is backed with a slight salinity. Thanks to the incredibly high acidity, the wine comes of as slightly less sweet than an auslese even though it has substantially higher sugars. Nice silky texture, but lighter than you’d expect for an icewine. Moderately sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $180 per 375ml. click to buy.
2009 Dönnhoff Neiderhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling TBA, Nahe, Germany
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of incredible perfumed apricots, raw honeycomb, ripe peaches, and candied orange peel. In the mouth, the wine is thick and viscous on the palate with incredible flavors of ripe peaches, apricots, honey, and an incredible deep wet stone minerality. The finish is minutes long, and mouthwatering thanks to stunning acidity. Incredibly balanced, this wine is effortless to drink. Phenomenal. Score: around 10. Cost: $300 per 375ml. click to buy.
Images courtesy of Weingut Dönnhoff.