You are currently viewing Masterclass with Cornelius Dönnhoff: exploring the estate through six distinct wines

Masterclass with Cornelius Dönnhoff: exploring the estate through six distinct wines

Although only average in size (4124ha under vine) the Nahe boasts some of Germany’s most complex, profound, and idiosyncratic wines. Often overlooked, the primarily south and southwest facing vineyards, stretching from Bingerbrück to Soonwald, are drenched in sun, lying in a transition zone between a continental and maritime climate. With vines in many of the regions most favourable sites, claiming monopole status over some, one producer is particularly emblematic of the Nahe’s unsung wonders. The Dönnhoff family first came to the region over 200 years ago, steadily establishing a modest estate. Since 1966, the famed Helmut Dönnhoff has made the wine, with 4th generation Cornelius now overseeing the families 28ha of vines, 25 of which are classified Erste Lage. Elliot Awin and the team at ABS Wine Agencies, importers of Dönnhoff, invited me to join them for a virtual Zoom discovery of the estate. Lead by Cornelius and accompanied by 6 wines, including a glimpse into 2019. We walked through the estate’s history and talked more about the challenges of producing laser-sharp, spicy, and intense wines vintage after vintage.

For many months now, the coronavirus pandemic has made international travel almost impossible. In spite of this, with spirits still high, Cornelius tells us he has enjoyed spending a little more time at home with his family and in the vineyard with the vines. Putting aside a disrupted schedule, the weather so far this year has been promising. Not quite as hot as either 2018 or 2019, nevertheless a warm spring and beginning of summer. Both of the aforementioned vintages presented new challenges in the Nahe, with many estates recording their earliest ever harvest in 2018. Things were no different at family-estate Donnhoff, where production is currently circa 250,000 bottles per year. Tasting a range of ABS’ current stock we discuss these challenges and take a brief tour of the estate’s holdings.

Nahe vineyards (Image credit Dönnhoff)

According to Helmut Dönnhoff, 2018 was a year of plenty, not only in terms of grape yield but in all edible fruits, acorns and more. Temperatures were unseasonably warm, with April smashing all average temperature records throughout western Germany. ‘2018 was a new experience in terms of heat‘ explains Cornelius, with canopy management proving most challenging. Weather forecasts in the region are accurate at most 3 days out, so decisions to pluck leaves are only suited to a precariously short period of time. More frequent erratic weather events are adding to the difficulty of these decisions. Ripeness is something I have discussed previously with Frédéric Panaiotis of Ruinart, where tasting and qualitative assessment forms a core component of their analysis. For Cornelius, 2018 reinforced the importance of working on instinct, even where objective analysis is counterintuitive, he ‘trusts his own tongue‘ a little more.

The 2018 Dry Riesling is the anything-but-basic, basic estate Riesling. Consisting of grapes from several vineyards in Oberhausen, in the middle Nahe, the wine is characteristically floral and physiologically ripe. In addition to vines from Kieselberg, Klamm, and Felsenberg, a 4-year-old block from the famed Hermannshöhle vineyard, considered too young and without the necessary structure to contribute to the vineyards own bottling, is also included. Perhaps most interesting about Dönnhoff is the homogenous winemaking, Cornelius explains that he holds almost all variables constant for all wines, varying expression between wines is solely terroir and ripeness. ‘If all the work is done in the winery then I may as well farm just one large single plot‘ he explains.

2016 was much cooler than 2018, summer was tricky with a lot of rain, a generally challenging growing season. David Schildknecht of Vinous describes the vintage as a ‘remarkable meteorological rollercoaster‘ a year in which the regions unique capacity for water retention and drainage, combined with the talent of producers like Dönnhoff, defined those who were able to achieve greatness. From mostly 25-45-year old vines, the 2016 Kahlenberg Riesling Trocken is a step up in seriousness, less aggressive acidity with more orange fruit opposed to yellow, ripe but still fresh. ‘This is a perfect age for vines, they remain vigorous but produce more concentrated flavour‘ explains Cornelius. The Kahlenberg vineyard, facing due south and meaning naked mountain (referencing the lack of tree coverage), is a little further down the Nahe. Here the soil, mostly gravelly loam, is vastly different from that of Oberhausen. It is one of the oldest vineyards in the region, first mentioned in 1499 and has served as a reference site for many generations. Interestingly, Cornelius’s father, Helmut, helped plant this vineyard whilst at school.

Hermannshöhle from above (Image credit Dönnhoff)

2019, the estates most recent release, was a growing similar not too dissimilar from 2018. Warm weather struck the Nahe a month earlier, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees in June and harvest arriving 4-6 weeks earlier than in 2018. ‘The biggest issue in 2019 was sunburn‘ Cornelius explains, a little too many leaves were plucked and a great deal more sorting was required in the winery. Almost double the size of the team employed to sort in 2018 was necessary for 2019. Despite this, the 2019 Dry Riesling is more classic in style than 2018, also more characteristic of the Nahe. The idea with this wine is to combine the two major soils which dominate the estate’s holdings, the volcanic soils of Felsenberg and the weathered slate of Kieselberg and Klamm. This assemblage of terroir gives drinkers a unique insight, not only into the character of the Nahe, but also to Donnhoff, it serves as a calling card, a statement.

Moving a little away from the river, Roxheimer Höllenpfad, translated to the Path to Hell, is a steeply sloping, south-facing vineyard in a small side valley in the middle Nahe. The soils here are limestone with veins of red sandstone and are bathed in the warm light of the evening sun. The suns reflection on the site’s distinct red soils likely contributed to its naming, that or the hellish pain of pickers working the land under the blistering morning sun.

The 2018 Riesling Höllenpfad Trocken is superb. Prominent concentrated spiced fruit and herbal aromas on the nose with a hint of tropical fruit and a strikingly clean, linear minerality on the palate. ‘This vineyard is relatively new for us‘ Cornelius explains, having only started working with it in the 2010 vintage after purchasing the plot in 2009. Dönnhoff bought the preexisting block with vines aged from 40-60 years. These sites, found in the Nahe’s side valleys are often some of the most exciting, particularly in warm vintages where they seem to perform extremely well.

Hermannshöhle vineyard (Image credit Dönnhoff)

Returning to Dönnhoff’s most recent vintage, this time a slightly riper rendition. The 2019 Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett is my pick of the bunch. As is Elliot, I’m a sucker for Kabinett. A precise and elegant nose, vast, engulfing array of citrus fruits, orange rind and melon. The palate is precise and defined with the quality of fruit evident in every sip. This is everything I look for in a wine and revealing of Dönnhoff’s excellence.

Oberhauser Leistenberg is another vineyard located in one of the Nahe’s charming side valleys, the 5.2ha south by southeast site consists of mainly grey shale and clayey loam. Its name is a double play on words with ‘Leisten’ meaning ‘achieve’ and ‘Lei’ being the regional word for slate. The site is protected from the elements by the Lemberg, the highest peak of the Nahe Valley. Its ideal exposition tends away from the herbaceous style of less sun-drenched sites. ‘Physiological ripeness is key to which wine will be made where‘ says Cornelius, the slightly herbaceous profile of some vineyards simply does not suit a riper style of Riesling. However, with its exposure to the morning sun drying out unwanted moisture, and brief exposure to the less powerful afternoon sun, Leistenberg is ideal for Kabinett.

Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle is one of the Nahe’s most spectacular vineyards, producing some of its most attractive wines. The site takes its name from a small mine located in the middle of the hillside. Sitting on the apex of the river Nahe, the 8ha south/southwest-facing site has perfect sun exposure. The soils are blackish-grey slate with volcanic eruptive rock, and whilst the site can be prone to erosion, Cornelius and his team make several passes in order to pick when all grapes are sufficiently ripe. The site is prone to fog, particularly early in the growing season and so botrytis is common, the amount in each vintage determines which style the grapes are destined for.

The 2014 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Spätlese is in great shape (as was the bottle of 2010 I sunk earlier this year) having lost a little bit of its baby fat. 2014 is a classic vintage, great acid structure and a delightful palate. A lick of fresh quince, lime and tropical sorbet. The palate is a touch nutty, subtle spices and a long, sapid finish. Many have argued that there are few wines in the world as complex as Dönnhoff’s expression of Hermannshöhle. We also briefly discussed Spätlese’s renaissance, in the past, they have arguably been too heavy, sticky and sweet. Now, many winemakers understand when the wines are too heavy people simply do not drink them, they’re unapproachable. For this reason, recent vintages have leaned toward a much more elegant, lighter and approachable rendition of ripe fruit from excellent sites. Cornelius is aware this is a preconception which may take some time to ‘educate out’

Dönnhoff masterclass with ABS

There is no doubt that Dönnhoff remains one of the world’s greatest estate, whilst still remaining accessible they produce some of the most complex, elegant and sophisticated expressions of Riesling the world over. Cornelius is an impressively astute winemaker, his pedigree is clear, his approach to winemaking, fruit-selection, and careful decisions around site-specific styles are thorough and informed. Whilst he embraces modernity, his style is obviously a commitment to the absolute expression of the Nahe’s superior single-vineyards. A pleasure to join peers on this journey through the estate, thanks to ABS for the invitation.

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