Is Schloss Vollrads the world’s oldest winery? Arguably so. Sure, they’ve found the leavings of winemaking operations in Armenian caves dating back sixty centuries; there are Mesopotamian developments even older. Egyptian texts attest that wine was popular among the New Kingdom upper crust and buried vessels have been found in the Abydos desert that indicate that the Pharaohs were sticklers for temperature control.
And dried leavings in the tomb of King Tut suggest that he was a red wine sort of man/god.
But these guys are all dust. Dusty, dead and irrelevant, capisci? Hell, if you can’t draw a current Wine Spectator point rating, you simply don’t count. I know, because I interviewed Shanken and he told me so.
Schloss Vollrads, however—the Rajah of Rheingau—has earned scores in virtually every issue of virtually every wine magazine that has ever covered the Weinbaugebiete, and most of its scores have been pretty damn respectable. And in 2012, the 800th consecutive vintage was released from this venerable estate (perched on the collective site of Honigberg between Johannisberg, Winkel, Mittelheim and Erbach), suggesting that some celebration is in order to accompany the bragging rights that the oldest continuing operating winery in the world has earned.
Holy Roman Reich, Batman…
So, shall we take a stroll down memory lane? Back to 1211, around the time that Genghis Khan was flipping stones and killing anything he found underneath—but before the Black Plague, before the Magna Carta, before the infamous Children’s Crusade (20,000 German kids set off to liberate Jerusalem; nearly all were sold into slavery instead… doh!), before iPhones, before Pretty Little Liars.
The Kingdom of Germany was then a part of the Holy Roman Empire; in fact, it was its center. In 1211, Otto IV was running the show—he was appointed Holy Roman Emperor in 1209 and deposed six years later.
Meanwhile, in a manor house over on the Rhine named after the Lords of Winkel (later Vollradus in Winkela (Knights of Vollrad), the Archbishop of Mainz was upgrading the estate’s formerly ill-tended, Roman-planted vineyards, and in 2011, the first documented sale of his new, improved wine to the Victor Monastery in Mainz is recorded.
Thus, an eight hundred year pedigree, nearly as long as The Mousetrap has played the West End.
Rules of Riesling
I can find no reference to the varietals that the Archbishop might have grown, but these days, Schloss Vollrads is obsessively, compulsively, dogmatically riesling, and has been for a long time. In 1814, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the bosche bard, the Mephistophelean meter maker stopped by the castle for a sip or two of Spätlese and vowed he’d sell his soul to the devil for a third.
The current spread is about two hundred acres, from which is drawn the gamut of German wine styles, Kabinett to Eiswein and a full bandwidth in between. As wine enthusiasts know, but neophytes may not, German wine is classified by levels of ripeness—sweetness levels at harvest (not necessarily when the wine is bottled). When all things Deutsch are equal, sweeter wines are generally considered more desirable because they tend to represent longer—read ‘better—growing seasons.
Schloss boss Dr. Rowald Hepp believes (with some justification) that riesling is the most sophisticated and elegant white grape variety grown on this, the third rock from the sun.
Before I comment on that assertion, however, a brief word on the use of the term ‘Doctor’ in Germany, because Germans are a bit funny about it, like they are about other things, despite being voted the least funny nation on earth in a recent global poll and Mark Twain’s classic observation, ‘A German joke is no laughing matter’. *
*Typical German joke: ‘Plants are said to grow very well if you speak kindly to them, which is why I sometimes go into the garden and insult the weeds.’ (Cymbal-crash)
Although the Germans are patently punctilious about the precepts of propriety, tacking ‘Dr.’ onto the name of a winemaker does not necessarily connote a doctoral degree; it can be bestowed as an honorific upon any individual with any advanced degree and occasionally, simply as a term of respect for success outside of University. Equally quaint is the protocol of addressing, say, Mr. Horst, should he actually earn two legitimate doctorates as Dr. Dr. Horst, and if he should earn three as Dr. Dr. Dr. Horst.
But Back To Vollrads…
According to Doc Hepp, the soil structure beneath Schloss vines has been recognized as singular from the 1st Century—six individual soil layers containing loess-loam, gravel, slate and quartzite make up the rich brown Rheingau earth.
He maintains, “Riesling is the grape that makes the most out of this sort of growing condition; it reflects its terroir—the minerality in the soil and the climate very well. The resulting wine shows the single most important quality of a world-class riesling: Balance.”
Dr. Hepp goes on the point out that most wine drinkers—and indeed, most wine writers—consider riesling ‘balance’ to be shrewd symmetry between acidity and residual sugar, which, of course, is vital. But Hepp suggests that to him, even more essential equity exists between riesling’s exclusive character—specific fruits and aromatics—and minerality from the soil along with balance between alcohol and extract.
When these three factors are in harmony, he states without equivocation, riesling is ‘the perfect wine grape.’
If You Were Stranded On A Desert Island With Only One Wine…
I stand with the Doc. Riesling is to me a varietal that offers all things to all people, except possibly third-stage alcoholics as the octane level tends to be somewhat low: Riesling and high APV really don’t get along.
Oh, and by the way? If I was stranded on a desert island with only one book? In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust: 4000 pages long, covering seven volumes. Should kill some time while the Professor builds a raft out of coconuts, spit and palm fronds.
And if I was stranded on a desert island with only one person, living or dead, who would it be? Definitely the living one.
And for the record, if I was stranded on a desert island with only one cast member from Pretty Little Liars?
Spencer, no question.
Schloss Vollrads Qualitätswein, 2011, around $18: Straw yellow with sour fruits—green apples, lime and grapefruit on the nose, and moderately full, dry body with juicy melon, peach and honeysuckle notes. A top-flight food wine with shellfish, ham or mild cheese.
Schloss Vollrads Kabinett, 2011, around $23: Lacy and delicate, the wine shows apricot and lime in the nose, an explosion of fruit on the palate along with pine, slate and a piquant spiciness.
Schloss Vollrads Spätlese Trocken, 2011, around $30: Emphatically assertive and precise, the wine has the depth of fruit of a full-on sweet Spätlese with all the associated white pepper, green apple, apricot aromas, mineral and smoke but wrapped in a more entrée-friendly package. In fact, it would be difficult to find a meal that it wouldn’t compliment. Part of a new generation of German wines, tending a bit more toward dryness.
Schloss Vollrads Spätlese, 2011, around $30: A gust of honey is settled by racy acids; pear, Golden Delicious apple, Key lime and passion fruit appear in the bouquet and carry through as flavors. Spätlese means ‘late harvest’, so the wine’s sugars are all natural—in fact, by German law, they must be. Long and lingering, the wine finishes with a bracing shot of damp stone—‘petrichor’ to wine writers with big vocabularies