The 32nd Day of Riesling

“Rieslings were the first wines I ever loved,” the wife said as she was pouring the wine into the glasses. There followed a story about bottles of terrible wines that she and her friends pretended to like at university until this one night, in the Rheingau, when she went to a tasting of Rieslings. Rieslings became for her the wine by which all others had to be measured. Whilst my path to Riesling love may have been different, I feel much the same, and we routinely buy Rieslings when we want a white wine for holiday dinners or special celebrations. I think for most people that is the highest compliment you can give.

If you’ve missed it, we didn’t just end the month of July, but the “31 Days of Riesling.” In a fit of generosity, we’ve decided to extend that by a day and offer you a 32nd day of Riesling. To end this summer’s celebration of Riesling in style, we’re going to profile an exceptional wine, Tonschiefer Dry Slate Riesling 2012 from Weingut Dönnhoff.

By Jacquesverlaeken (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jacquesverlaeken (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Weingut Dönnhoff is in the Nahe, and if you are not that familiar with German wine regions, you may not recognise the name. The region takes its name from the Nahe, a tributary of the Rhine. It may be one of the smaller German wine regions, but the range of soil types and the quality of those soils for wine-growing are exceptional. The Dönnhoff family grows vines on nine sites across 25 hectares of Erste Lage, or Grand Cru, vineyards.

Oberhäuser Leistenberg — Near Oberhausen, in a small side valley of the Nahe, and the oldest vineyard held by the family. The slopes are steep and the soils are decomposed grey slate.

Oberhäuser Brücke — Also near Oberhausen, and not just the smallest Dönnhoff vineyard, but the smallest vineyard in the Nahe region. It’s across from a bridge (hence the name, which means “bridge” in German), and a microclimate created by how close it is to the river. The soil is grey slate bedrock with a layer of loess loam.

Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg  – Near Schlossböckelheim and on a steep southern slope. The soil is a  weathered volcanic porphyry soil

Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle – Near Niederhausen, and often called the best site in the whole of the Nahe. The soil is a blackest grey slate mixed with extrusive igneous rock, porphyry, and limestone.

Norheimer Dellchen – Near Norheim, on steep cliffs that rise from the river banks and terraced with stone walls. The soil is mainly slate mixed with stony precipitate sedimentary rock.

Norheimer Kirscheck – Near Norheim, on a soil composed mainly of grey slate mixed with sandstone.

Kreuznacher Krötenpfuhl — Near Bad Kreuznach, on a loess loam soil with lots of small quartzite pebbles that warm up in the sun and hold the heat.

Kreuznacher Kahlenberg – Near Bad Kreuznach with a gravelly loam soil.

Roxheimer Höllenpfad  – Near Roxheim, on a steeply sloping vineyard in a small side valley on weathered red sandstone.

The Dönnhoff family came to the Nahe over two hundred years ago, and for many years their land was a mixed farm combining vines, food crops and livestock. Current owner Helmut Dönnhoff’s grandfather took the decision to specialise in viticulture. The vast majority of the Dönnhoff vines are Riesling (80%), along with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Helmut Dönnhoff told Dr. Christian G.E. Schiller that the family no longer irrigates any of their vineyards:

“We do not irrigate at all. We irrigated in the 1950s. My father and his colleagues did it for frost protection. 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.”

The vines are grown on low-to-the-ground wire frames and harvested by hand in successive passes. Helmut Dönnhoff runs the family business these days alongside his son, Cornelius.

For us, the standout quality of the Tonschiefer Dry Slate Riesling 2012 is its amazing balance. Lots of people comment on the wine’s minerality, a touch of slate, but Janet usually finds minerality in a wine too much and it becomes all she tastes. Not with this Riesling, though. There may be a hint of wet slate, but it’s so perfectly balanced that she barely detected it at all, nevermind finding it overwhelming. The wine has a good acidity, but for all that it still feels rich. It’s beautifully dry, but that is balanced by the surprising juiciness. That fruit is hard to pin down, but it’s a zesty citrus flavour leaning towards lime or maybe unripe green apple. There’s a slight honeyed sweetness in the finish, but there’s a mouthwatering aftertaste that leaves your juices running. We both loved it. It’s 12.5% abv and drinking until at least 2019.

There are a number of accounts of visits to the Weingut, and many of them make interesting reading, whether you are thinking of visiting or just thinking of buying a few bottles.  The Amateur Wino, Marie’s Blog, and Schiller-Wine are three to get you started, and they include lots of tasting notes. You might also find Englishman Alex Down’s account in his blog, The Riesling Revolutionary, of leaving his job as a lawyer in the City of London, to pursue a life in wine, a journey which led him to working for a month in the Dönnhoff vineyards. His experiences, in addition to being interesting generally, tell you a lot about the terroir and spirit of Weingut Dönnhoff.


Did you miss…

Did you miss our post on the wines of Alsace? It included tasting notes for Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Gran Cru Saering 2011, another excellent Riesling.


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