At German wine tastings, the tall, handsome figure of Werner Schönleber, with his chiselled features, shock of white hair and well-cut tailoring, has long stood out. But for Schönleber himself the most thrilling, and genuinely surprising, phenomenon of the past decade or so has been the slow realisation that his wines, both dry and sweet, virtually unknown in the early 1990s, have come to be recognised as some of the finest in his home region, the Nahe, south-west of Frankfurt.
The Schönlebers were originally Swabian sheep farmers who came to the Nahe in search of grazing. Like many of their neighbours they grew a few vines, but as a wine region the Nahe has never had the international fame of the Mosel with names as revered as Egon Müller and J J Prüm, nor the long (somewhat squandered) history of the Rheingau with its grand, aristocratic Schlosses. In fact, give or take an Anheuser or two and the now unrecognisable and privatised state winery, the Nahe didn’t have much of an identity in the last century. It was recognised as an individual wine region only in 1930, and even recently much of its wine was blended into anonymous liquids sold simply as Rhine wine.
But thanks to the determination and extraordinary hard work of, in particular, Helmut Dönnhoff of Oberhausen, who physically recuperated long-abandoned vineyards on slopes too steep for most modern wine producers, top Nahe wines are now recognised as every bit the equal of the best wines from any other German wine region. I recently clambered through most of Dönnhoff’s top vineyards with him and found the slope of the Dellchen vineyard overlooking the river Nahe, the little local railway and the village of Norheim, for instance, almost impossible to climb. How on earth he converted it from abandoned scrub, with pickaxe and saw, I just cannot imagine.
But the Nahe valley in Dönnhoff territory, from Schlossbockelheim downstream to Norheim, looks very obviously top quality wine country, with its steep slopes and propitious reflection of sunlight from the narrow river. The Schönlebers are based in Monzingen, about 10 miles further upstream, where the valley is much broader and the south-facing slopes less dramatically steep. In fact, it is only because the valley here is wide enough to allow warm air in that grapes will ripen in this, the westernmost wine village of the Nahe. But it’s perhaps no accident that Schönleber and Dönnhoff operate on more or less the same latitude as Germany’s other most obvious concentration of winemaking talent, the far south-west corner of the Rheinhessen around Flörsheim-Dalsheim, where Klaus-Peter Keller and Philipp Wittmann have been weaving similar magic – with a glorious combination of ripeness and freshness.
There doesn’t seem to be a single magic geographical ingredient in the Schönlebers’ success. (I refer to them in the plural, since Werner was joined by his son Frank in 2005, after stints on various German estates and with Mitchell Wines in the Australian Riesling hotspot of the Clare Valley. Werner’s wife Hanne is also part of the team.) I asked Frank, at an extraordinary recent event he’d organised to celebrate his father’s 60th birthday and the success of his wines, to outline for me any changes that had been made to their practices in vineyard and cellar over the years. He was absolutely stumped, volunteering only that every year they try to understand each little parcel of vines that much better.
The only really dramatic incident in the Schönleber family’s wine history was their acquisition in the early 1990s (and subsequent painstaking recuperation) of some really choice portions of Monzingen’s two most famous vineyards, the Halenberg and the tongue-twisting Frülingsplätzchen. The family had initially been offered these in the early 1960s but, fortunately, Werner’s father and other family members couldn’t agree on the wisdom of the purchase. If they had done, they would have been saddled with the succession of disastrous vintages that plagued the German wine industry that decade. Instead, they were just in time to take advantage of the late-20th-century effects of global warming on fully ripening Germany’s Riesling vines.
Their chief challenge in these two vineyards is erosion. The clay soil below the friable red sandstone-like slate of the Frülingsplätzchen can get so damp that Werner claims to be able to hear water down below. Certainly there’s a bare patch of about 12ft at the top of one block of the Frülingsplätzchen where the vine rows have slipped down the hill. The Schönlebers own about a 10th of the 65ha that qualify as Frülingsplätzchen – when only 25 deserve to, according to Frank. Halenberg is more precisely delimited, less varied and steeper. The Schönlebers have 5.8ha of the 8.5ha total, most of it a layer of heat-reflecting grey slate on top of a conglomerate base so hard it can be difficult to drive posts into it. Erosion is a problem here too.
Much of the produce of vines at the top and bottom of the Halenberg slope goes into the Schönlebers’ Mineral trocken bottling, which has to be one of German wine’s great bargains. Since 2008 (with the exception of the difficult-to-ripen 2010 vintage), the produce of a cobbled plot at the top of the Halenberg has ripened sufficiently that the Schönlebers have been bottling it separately as Auf der Lay, or AdL, and selling it at auction in magnums only for sky-high prices.
As we neared the close of the celebrations in the winery, which had been stylishly modernised in 2010, we had already tasted 24 dry Rieslings that were excellent on any level. We still had in prospect a chocolate dessert and then, rather incongruously, the seven sweet wines of which Werner is most proud. Typically, at the very end, Werner said virtually nothing about his achievements but went round the table asking each of us dozen wine writers, sommeliers and specialist wine merchants what had pleased or surprised us most – carefully noting down our every word. He looked genuinely perplexed and moved that all his hard work had paid off.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com