Visiting German vineyards, part 3
Dönnhoff, Nahe

Our next visit was to one of German wine’s living legends: Helmut Dönnhoff, in the Nahe. Helmut began in 1971 with 4 hectares of vines, and now has 20 hectares, with holdings built up step by step. ‘It was a long way’, he recalls. Now he’s celebrated as one of Germany’s very best producers. ‘Most people in wine today make it for business’, he says. ‘I make it for me, myself’. I asked Helmut about the secret to his success. He compares it with music. ‘There are many wonderful scores, but only a few people can interpret them well. Or it is like a chef: people have the same ingredients but each chef brings another taste to them’. He claims that it is not difficult for him to understand what to do with the grapes his terroirs give him. ’For me it is an open book: it seems simple’.

Vines in the Hermannshole vineyard

A word about the Nahe. Altogether Germany has around 100 000 hectares of vines, and the Nahe contributes about 4000 of these, so it’s not a huge region. Only a quarter of the Nahe is planted to Riesling, and the Riesling bit is the middle Nahe where Dönnhoff is located. As well as Riesling, Helmut makes Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (together 20% of his production). These are grown on the more loamy soils, as they need more water in the summer. Both the Pinots ripen earlier than Riesling, and Riesling’s preference is for stonier soils with less loam.

‘This is not a region for more opulent wines: it is more for elegance’, says Helmut. As with many producers, he splits his production between the dry and fruity styles. ‘The fruity style has more ageing potential because the alcohol isn’t so high’, Helmut claims. ‘After 10 or 20 years you don’t taste the sugar as sweet’. He used to think that the dry styles didn’t age so well, but now he thinks that may be changing as people begin to make them from their best sites. ‘We used to use the best grapes for the fruity style, but in the last 10 years the fashion has shifted to dry wines. Now high class dry wines are being made. Global warming has meant that acidity is lower and the grapes are riper, so the quality of wines has improved’. Helmut reckons that 10 years ageing isn’t a problem for the dry wines, but that 20 years is probably too long. He cites figures showing that between 1988 and now, the average temperatures have increased by a degree, and flowering is a week or 10 days earlier.


2007 was a year for Spätlese, whereas 2008 is a year for Kabinett. ‘I want global warming to stop now’, he says. ‘It’s perfect; we are the winners at the moment’. He says he hasn’t had a bad vintage since 1988.

Winemaking is straightforward. Whole bunches go into the press within 3 hours of picking. The juice is then settled for 10–18 hours. ‘I don’t want the juice too clear, so I don’t settle too much’, he says. ‘Juice needs a little bit of solids. It depends on the year and the vineyard’. Helmut says that he always tastes the juice. ‘You can’t look in the book and say that it is the right way’. He says that in Australia and New Zealand they don’t like oxidation of the juice, and work with juice that it too clear, which makes it difficult to start fermentation easily. Fermentation then takes place in casks or stainless steel tanks For healthy grapes he’ll use a natural ferment but for botrytized grapes he’ll inoculate with cultured yeasts. It’s important that fermentation starts within three or four days of pressing, and if it doesn’t, he’ll inoculate. Fermentation temperature is 25–30 °C (Helmut thinks 18 °C is not a natural way to make wine). It is important that the casks are not too big so fermentation can start in time: 1000 litres is great, and 2000 litres is OK. Wines fermented in wooden casks typically spend 2–3 months in cask and then go to stainless steel. The wine spends 1 month on gross lees and 3 months on fine lees. In March the wines are filtered, and they are bottled a month or two later.


2008 Vintage Report
"Just as with 2007, flowering time was early, but it was one week later in 2008 than 2007. This is still one week earlier than average, which is in the first two weeks of June. We had a normal German summer: it was not cool, but not so hot either, with some sun and some rain. The temperature data show that it was actually quite a warm year when compared to the average. Everything happened a week or two earlier than average in the vines, and ripeness was advanced by a week. Then in September we had very cool nights, and it was a cool month overall, which slowed ripening. By the middle of September we were back to normal in terms of the vegetative cycle, although ripeness, sugar levels and acidity were all high. Most people picked too early with too hard acidity. Picking on sugar levels only, people could have started at the beginning of October, like a normal year, but the acidity at this stage was too high and the grapes too green. If you tasted the grapes then, they weren’t properly ripe. We had thought that the harvest would be at the end of September and had asked the Polish workers to come then. So we had 25 workers here and no work for them in the first two weeks of October.  It was very stressful. We kept going out tasting grapes and although the sugars were fine we couldn’t pick. Then from mid-October they started tasting better and better, so we started picking. Pinot Blanc was picked 10–15 October, and on 20 October we started picking Riesling. There were no problems with botrytis and the weather was stable during harvest with very healthy grapes. At the beginning of November we had rain, but we had picked everything by the end of the first week of November. Everything had been harvested in 2–5 weeks.  The grapes were healthy so we didn’t need to do much selection. It wasn’t a good year for Auslese, but we have lots of high class Auslese from previous years, so in 2008 we were looking for high-class Spätlese and below. We left some grapes for Eiswein and had some good conditions for picking it: –11 °C on 31 December and –18 °C on 7 January. "

‘We are looking for the talents of each vineyard’, says Helmut. ‘For example, Kupfergrube is too ripe for Kabinett, but the acidity is too hard for dry wines. Brücke is a special microclimate near the river whose talent is not for Kabinett and dry wines but for Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Eiswen. It has a high temperature differential between day and night, and it is a problematic vineyard in a cold year. It is the last vineyard to be picked.’

‘Riesling has two talents’, he continues. ‘I like it very young. It is wonderful to drink these wines young and fresh on a warm day. But don’t drink it all in the first two summers after the harvest. After 3 or 4 years the wine goes to sleep, and then after 6 or 7 it comes back. So I like it in the first two or three years and then after 10’.

We looked at some vineyards. It was a gorgeously still, warm May evening. First stop was the Niederhauser Hermannshöle (above), an 8 hectare slatey-soiled vineyard of which Helmut has 2 hectares. From the vineyard the village of Oberhäus, where Helmut is based, is visible, as is the Leistenberg vineyard in the far distance.

The second stop was in the Felsenberg vineyard, which has volcanic soils, described as porphyry. The first bit of this vineyard we viewed was a special section called Felsentürmchen (above), and the second bit had a different exposition and steeper slopes (below).



Dönnhoff Riesling Trocken 2008 Nahe
From the Felsenberg vineyard with its volcanic soils. Beautifully expressive, elegant, aromatic Riesling. Dry with lots of minerality and fresh lemony fruit. Fine and expressive with good acidity. 11.5% alcohol, rrp £12.95). 90/100

Dönnhoff Pinot Blanc Trocken 2008 Nahe
Full yellow colour. Fresh, taut, herby nose with citrussy fruit. The palate is crisp and mineral ic with lovely freshness and a creamy edge to the herby, lemony fruit. Lovely. 90/100 (£14.40)

Dönnhoff Pinot Blanc Trocken 2007 Nahe
Taut, herby, creamy, minerally and precise with lovely intensity and freshness. Very bright. 89/100

Dönnhoff Pinot Gris Trocken 2008 Nahe
Mineralic nose with some grapey notes. The palate shows lovely broad grapey notes with a hint of smokiness and nice minerality. Long, minerally finish. 89/100 (£14.95)

Dönnhoff Tonscheifer Riesling Trocken 2008
From soft slate soils in the Leistenberg vineyard, 11.5% alcohol. Beautifully aromatic nose with hints of honey, minerals and lemon. The palate is beautifully bright showing expressive melon and citrus fruit. Really expressive with good acidity.  92/100 (£16)

Dönnhoff Riesling QbA 2008 Nahe
B eautifully expressive and vivid with explosive lemony fruit. Sweet, appley, intense lemony palate with high acidity. Off-dry. 89/100

Dönnhoff  Krötenpfuhl Riesling Kabinett 2008 Nahe
Lovely depth here: taut, honeyed, appley with citrus depth. Really focused with some sweet melony notes. Finishes fresh and mineral. Beautiful concentration. 91/100

Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett 2008 Nahe
8.5% alcohol. Refined, creamy, limey nose is fresh and minerally. The palate is beautifully elegant with minerally freshness. Beautifully limey notes with rich texture and great balance. This site has a southeast exposure – in the 1970s and 80s this wasn’t a top vineyard, but global warming has changed this. Morning sun dries the vineyard and then in the afternoon it isn’t too hot. 93/100 (£16)

Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett 2007 Nahe
Precise, limey and a bit spicy with lovely focus and some richness. Limey, minerally, intense and off-dry. Lovely stuff. 92/100

Dönnhoff Felsenberg Riesling Trocken 2008 Nahe
Very fresh and minerally with some honey and lemon notes. Persistent, crisp and fruity. Quite pithy with a dry finish. Lovely minerally style. 91/100

Dönnhoff Felsentsürmchen Riesling Spätlese 2007 Nahe
Lovely rich, sweet, intense limey Riesling with great precision, depth and limey complexity. Vibrant and alive with great depth. Lovely length and complexity. 92/100

Dönnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Riesling Spätlese 2008 Nahe
A wonderfully pure, intense, fresh wine. Linear and minerally with great purity, superb acidity and real focus. Sweet yet light and precise. Brilliant. 94/100

Dönnhoff Scloßböckelheimer Kupfergrube Riesling Spätlese 2008 Nahe
Volcanic soils, 8.5% alcohol. Lovely lemony, melony nose is pure and aromatic. The palate is concentrated and intense with lovely bold lemony fruit. Sweet and pure. Wonderful wine that’s beautifully expressive. 95/100

Dönnhoff Oberhauser Brücke Riesling Spätlese 2008 Nahe
A 1 hectare monopole, with slate and loam soils. 8.5% alcohol. Amazingly fresh, taut and limey. Super-fresh with explosive acidity countering the sweetness brilliantly. Quite elegant with lovely minerality and a long finish. Beautiful purity here. 94/100 (£29)

Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöle Riesling Spätlese 2008 Nahe
Slate soils. Fresh, minerally nose. Very fresh, intense limey palate with high acidity. Intense and limey with real freshness.  Youthful and fresh with potential for the future. 93/100

Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöle Riesling Trocken Grosses Gewachs 2007 Nahe
Wonderfully precise and mineralic with lovely intensity of taut lime, pear and grapefruit characters. Very refined and intense with lovely complexity. 93/100

Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöle Riesling Auslese 2006 Nahe
Rich and intense, with sweet lemony fruit and melony, apricotty depth. Rich but fresh, with lovely bold flavours and great precision. 92/100

Dönnhoff Delchen Riesling  Trocken Grosses Gewachs 2007 Nahe
Brooding lime, apple and honey nose is quite sweet with a mineral character. The palate is explosively rich and pure with beautifully focused lime and mineral complexity. Very pure and intense with lovely lemony finish. Quite dry. A brilliant effort. 94/100 (£35)

Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Auslese Goldkapsule 2004 Nahe
7.5% alcohol. Wonderfully intense sweet melony, minerally nose. The palate is concentrated with amazing depth of lemony, minerally flavours. Explosive. Intense and broad with great depth and complexity. 96/100

Dönnhoff Schloßbockelheimer Felsenberg Riesling Beerenauslese 2007 Nahe
8.5% alcohol. Beautifully pure melon fruit nose with some apricot and honey notes. The palate is viscous but pure with amazingly linear fruit. Viscous, very sweet, super pure and ethereal. This had some botrytis but not much, and Helmut describes it as dry, fine botrytis. 95/100

Now for two Eisweins. ‘It’s very important to have a top vineyard to make Eiswein’, says Helmut. ‘From a bad vineyard you concentrate the bad flavours’. Everything is concentrated by freezing: both sugar and acidity. The grapes are protected from the birds by a perforated plastic sheeting. For picking, temperatures must be at highest –7 °C, but can’t be below –16 °C or you won’t get anything during pressing.

Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Eiswein 2002 Nahe
7.5% alcohol. Yellow gold colour. Flavours of rich, honeyed crystalline fruit. Melony. Superconcentrated palate with viscous peach, apple and spice notes. Supersweet, but has high acidity. Amazing concentration and depth. 14 g/l acidity, 400 g/l sugar. 95/100 (£108 per half bottle)

Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Eiswein 2008 Nahe (tank sample)
Still cloudy. Immensely sweet, intense and fruity. Incredibly bold and complex with great purity. Wonderful. 14.5 g/l acidity,420 g/l sugar. 


Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Leitz, Rheingau
Part 3: Dönnhoff, Nahe
Part 4: Gunderloch, Rheinhessen
Part 5: Paul Furst, Franken
Part 6: Dr Loosen, Mosel

Wines tasted as 05/09  
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