This post is a profile of the Geyersberg vineyard in Bechtheim, and Bechtheim-domiciled Weingut Dreissigacker, which I visited in May 2017.
Bechtheimer Geyersberg (Rheinhessen)
Bechtheim is a tidy, compact town of 1800 persons in the southeast corner of Rheinhessen, about 13 kilometers northeast of Westhofen (see “Westhofener Morstein, Aulerde, Kirchspiel and Bruennenhaeuschen” in Riesling Rediscovered, pp. 223-25.) It sits astride the Riederbach, a very small and indirect tributary of the Rhine, in a wide, slope-shouldered and east-west oriented valley that is hospitable to many crops. Wine grapes have been grown here for centuries, along with field crops of many kinds, though there is evidence that cognizant administrators tried to confine wine grapes to less fertile sites, and to encourage the planting of higher quality and less productive varieties, as early as the late 18th Century. Today there are about 650 hectares of grapes in Bechtheim, distributed across a horseshoe of vineyards that almost surrounds the town, but is open at the shoe’s west end.
Geyersberg anchors the horseshoe’s northeast corner. It is Bechtheim’s highest elevation vineyard, rising to about 180 meters above sea level, or about 40 meters above the town. Most of Geyersberg’s eighty planted hectares face more or less due south, but since some vine rows wrap around a convex hill, the vineyard’s shoulders face a bit southwest and southeast. The slope looks modest from a distance, and in fact averages only about twenty percent, but Geyersberg is a healthy climb from town, rewarding workers and hikers with postcard views of the roofs below, and of the Pfarrkirche St. Lambert, whose oldest stones were laid in the 11th Century. The dark topsoil in Geyersberg is a fertile mix of loam, loess, sand and clay well strewn with broken limestone; this surmounts a deep but porous base of limestone bedrock that has been partially crushed in the course of geologic time. Geyersberg doesn’t really look rocky to most casual observers, especially when it is compared to vineyards like Frauenberg (in nearby Nieder-Flörsheim) where broken stone is so ubiquitous that some of it must be moved to make room for vines at all, but compared to adjacent vineyards in Bechtheim, Geyersberg is relatively rocky. Most vine rows are laid out across the slope but run approximately north-south, and the most common vine spacing, at least since Flurbereinigung, has been 2.0 meters between rows, with 1.0 or 0.8 meters between the vines in each row. The top of the vineyard is flatter than its mid-slope, and is more deeply covered with loess; sometimes this part of the vineyard can be a bit too cool and windblown to permit complete ripening. So it is instead a wide swath across its south-facing and partially wind-protected mid-slope that is generally considered to be Geyersberg’s “filet.” Here the subsoil is poorer than the loess found in higher precincts, giving small berries and excellent concentration. Weingut Dreissigacker, domiciled in Bechtheim (see below), is the single largest proprietor in Geyersberg, owning a bit less than one third of the total surface and much of the “filet.” When local winemakers generalize about Geyersberg and adjacent vineyards, the special stamp of Geyersberg is dense structure, minerality and a signature “smokiness;” it is not unusual for Geyersberg Rieslings to be reticent until they have been in bottle for two or even three years.
In May 2017, I tasted two vintages each of Dreissigacker Rieslings from the vineyard immediately west of Geyersberg, called Rosengarten (2014 and 2013), and a vineyard west of Rosengarten called Hasensprung (2011 and 2014). Both sites are lower and warmer than Geyersberg, and loamier overall, and the four wines showed roughly as one would expect. The Rosengartens were brighter and more angular than the Hasensprungs, accented with citrus peel and summer herbs. The Hasensprungs were a bit more fruit-driven and the 2011 aromatically evolved, mimicking sweetness and botrytis without either being present, a reflection of that vintage’s extreme warmth in a site that already tends to run warmer that its neighbors to the east. A six-year vertical of Geyersberg (2015-2010) followed, demonstrating the compelling structure which this site, of all those in Bechtheim, imprints on Rieslings. Across all six vintages, textural properties dominated the wines, which are variously flinty, stony and sometimes smoky. Fruit appears only in the background, and mostly as fruit peel rather than flesh or juice, and as fruits we associate with low-sugar like apples, or with so-called red passion fruit, which can seem as savory as it does sweet; sometimes the sour-savory fruit seemed wrapped in herbs. Warmer vintages like 2012 and 2015 were rounder, of course, but, still flinty and angular. My personal favorites were the 2010, a special cocktail of fruit peel with 9.5 g/L of acid, and the amazing 2013, a brilliant combination of herbs and texture, exuberant and almost explosive on the palate with athletic backbone, an amazingly long finish and a kaleidoscope of textures.
Weingut Dreissigacker, 67595 Bechtheim
Parts of the estate known today as Dreissigacker carried the name of the Sauer family for most of the last three centuries; one Jacob Sauer was recorded as its proprietor in 1728. The Dreissigacker name was not applied until after a Dreissigacker acquired the estate by marriage in 1952. For most of its early history, it was of course more a family farm than a wine estate, growing a variety of field crops and vegetables, and raising a bit of livestock. But the Sauers had begun to get serious about wine at the top of the 20th Century, and this path was further traversed by Frieder and Ute Dreissigacker, the current vigneron’s parents, when they took the reins in 1991, divesting other forms of agriculture entirely. However, it was only when Jochen Dreissigacker (b. 1981) entered the family business in 2001, having found that his first career in accounting did not suit his orientation or personality, that today’s Dreissigacker estate began to take shape. Determined, in his own words, “to take something good and make it truly excellent, and to elevate pleasant wines to an inspiring experience,” Jochen first reinvented himself. He apprenticed with neighbors, notably the now legendary Klaus Peter Keller, and absorbed what wisdom he could from Klaus Peter’s father, who had been among the first visionaries in Rheinhessen to privilege quality over quantity. Jochen also spent time at the St. Lamprecht winery at Neustadt, and did formal studies at the Staatliche Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt fuer Wein- und Obstbau at Weinsberg, across the Rhine in Baden-Württemberg. On the ground in Bechtheim, the first giant step was to transition the family’s vineyards from conventional to sustainable and then to certified organic farming, while simultaneously making drastic reductions to average yields. The elimination of herbicides was a key element in the plan, since a healthy cover crop was needed to compete with the vines for water and nutrition in Bechtheim’s relatively fertile topsoils, and green compost derived from herbs and legumes, tilled every other year into alternate vine rows, was a fully adequate approach to vine nutrition. Opportunistically, Jochen also traded mediocre vineyard parcels, which had often been planted to Dornfelder or Müller-Thurgau, for stands of old-vine Riesling; in 2006 eight hectares in Geyersberg and neighboring Rosengarten came to Dreissigacker from Bechtheim neighbor Weingut Dr. Koehler in a single transaction. Overall, between 2001 and 2017 the estate grew from ca. 12 hectares to about 38, while production increased only a bit, thanks to dramatically lower yields. The Dr. Koehler name and winery persist, now owned and managed by Jochen’s brother Christian, and reportedly work closely together.
The Dreissigacker approach to organic farming involves much more than the basics, however. Jochen is an uncommonly close observer of his vines and of year-on-year variations in temperature, moisture and plant phenology. In most years the early summer green harvest removes all but ten clusters per vine, and whatever leaves have emerged on the top side of the horizontal cordons; Jochen wants these leaves out of the way before the clusters gain weight and begin to hang downwards. Less chance of botrytis that way, he observes, and he wants his fruit as clean as possible. At the same time, he wants to hedge his vines no more than twice during each growing season, and never to top them, so that the canopy protects but does not compete with the grapes. But “every year is different,” he repeats over and over, requiring one or another modification to default protocols. “A lot of my business is gut feeling,” he admits happily. When individual vines must be replaced, or parts of a vineyard replanted, the standard practice is to take cuttings from individual healthy, small-berried and shy-bearing vines nearby, or in other parts of Rheinhessen, or even in the Mosel, and to have these cuttings custom-grafted by a nursery; this approach enables him to avoid standard clonal selections almost entirely. Dreissigacker vines are also entirely dry-farmed; the clay-rich loams retain plenty of water naturally. Realizing now that all Dreissigacker Lagenweine (of which Geyersberg is the flagship) are now made almost exclusively from vines more than 25 years old, and in the case of old-vine parcels acquired through swaps with neighbors, from vines Jochen has now husbanded for more than ten years, giving the wines the deep flavors, concentration and density he associates with “true excellent” wines, Jochen is now inclined to pick earlier than he used to, so that even warm vintages, with age, can present with less creaminess and more edge. “If a [really warm vintage like] 2011 were to come again, I would pick it earlier,” he said.
The Riesling portfolio here (about 60% of total production) builds on two basic wines, an Organic Trocken made from a combination of purchased fruit and estate grapes, and an Estate Trocken that relies primarily on fruit from Heilig-Kreutz, a giant site of more than 200 hectares on the south side of the L 409 road. Some Dreissigacker parcels in Heilig-Kreutz have been part of the estate since it belonged to the Sauers. There is also a Bechtheimer Riesling blended from parcels in Stein (the southeast corner of the “horseshoe”) and younger vines elsewhere. The top wines are single site bottlings from the oldest parcels in Hasensprung, Rosengarten and Geyersberg (see above) and, since 2010, small lots of single site Rieslings from estate parcels in three Westhofen vineyards, namely Aulerde, Morstein and Kirchspiel. The estate also gives serious attention to Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay; there is also a bit of Pinot Noir and St. Laurent.
At the end of most harvest seasons, Dreissigacker has about 180 fermentation lots of Riesling to work with. Lots suitable for the Lagenweine are culled first, though not without tasting pre-blends twice, the second time two weeks after the first, to be sure the wines have the staying power the house wishes to see in its single-site wines. The Bechtheimer Riesling is next in line, followed by the two basic wines, those too are careful blends with a purity, shape and balance that is unusual for their price points. The house style is relentlessly dry across the board, with many wines finishing with less than a single gram of sugar (against total acidity of 6-7 g/L in a warm vintage and 7-8 g/L in a cool one) and alcohol around 13°. To compensate for the lesser structure and concentration achieved in lots used for the core of the basic wines, up to 70 hours of pre-fermentation skin contact is sometimes permitted, and with clusters left intact, though partial foot treading is sometimes practiced before fermentations begin. (Jochen finds he is “not a friend of destemming;” foot-treading is gentler, he finds, and releases fewer unwanted phenolics.) Skin-contact declines to around 48 hours for lots destined for single site wines. Fermentations kick off spontaneously, but (to ensure dryness) neutral champagne yeast may be added to lots that visibly lag around the fermentation’s midpoint. The new wines remain on the full lees for up to ten months before everything is blended and bottled. All Rieslings, basic wines included, then spend another year in bottle before release. Although a few of these wines can still be challenging on release, especially to palates accustomed, even in dry wines, to residual sugar in the range of 5 to 7 g/L, they are wines of impressive precision and unfailing excitement, loaded with tension and texture. Dreissigacker is Bechtheim’s leading producer, and no less important to the ongoing Wonnegau renaissance than its eminent neighbors in Westhofen, Dalsheim, Flörsheim and Hohen-Sülzen.