The wines of Helmut Donnhoff have such power and complexity that their signature weightless feels seems nearly miraculous. One taste and you sense that magic. Donnhoff's wines are on par with the best of Germany in a very unique way - his sweet wines rival those of Prum and Egon Muller and the dry wines are mentioned in the same breath as luminaries such as Keller and Rebholz. Very few (any?) have this degree of versatility.
Approaching the estate in Oberhausen.
If the powerful, racy and amply fruited wines of the Nahe are considered among the best not only in Germany, but throughout the world, it is largely because of Helmut Donnhoff's efforts. Naturally, the influence of the state domain, who initially validated the region in the first half of the 20th century, should not be overlooked. Yet, unlike the Mosel and Rheingau, there are no stories about how the wines of the Nahe sold for three times the price of Latour or were found in the cellar records of British nobility. There are no aristocratic domains in the Nahe - up until the 1930s, most of the wine from the Nahe was sold in bulk.
If Emrich-Schonleber and Schafer-Frolich command a presence in the pantheon of Germany growers, it is at least partially because of the esteem that Donnhoff has established for the region and how high he has set the bar.
In spite of all of his fame, even today, Donnhoff carries himself with a certain reserve and even modesty. Herr Donnhoff was gracious and had a nervous energy to him that immediately set at ease whatever anxiousness I had about being in his presence.
As you observe him more closely, though, you discover a quiet intensity and a very developed sense of mastery. Behind all his reticence, it is easy to discern someone sincerely engaged in his craft. If his wines are good, it's because he's made a study of his terroirs. The wildly diverse and complex soils of the Nahe allow Helmut to work in an area that warrants a lifetime of exploration. It is said the the village of Niederhausen harbors twenty different soil types!
In fact, the Nahe region is almost perplexingly diverse in terms of both geology and quality. Slate, quartz, clay, loam, rotliegend and the various volcanic soils. Clay and loam produce fleshy fruity wines that are essential second class, while volcanic soils produce excellent wines that possess distinctive notes of raspberry and black currant. See below - under the "Buy Now Button" - for the Crush "Donnhoff Vineyard Cheat-Sheet!" I go through all the various sites giving the quick breakdown.
Surveying the great vineyards of the Upper Nahe. Terry Theise is center-left with Helmut Donnhoff directly to his right.
I was fortunate enough to taste a 1971 Brucke Auslese, Helmut's first vintage. The wine was very good but, more importantly, it highlighted how much the wines have progressed under Donnhoff's intense gaze. My guess would be that a 2001 Donnhoff Auslese will be mind blowing 37 years down the road and would easily edge out even the 1971!
If there's a style that he strives to create, it's based on harmony, transparency and "avoiding showy wines." His favorite means of highlighting terroir is the Spatlese pradikat. A Donnhoff Spatlese possesses a dynamic interplay of fruits, textures, minerals, and spice that it is easy to get lost in. True meditation wine. What really sucks you in is how it can be so complex and intense and yet, not one element is exaggerated. You're always searching for what else is going on.
Donnhoff was lucky enough to inherit an estate, founded in 1750, in the region's most prized Upper Nahe area. Donnhoff's jewel in the crown, the Niederhausen Hermannshohle, is the family's oldest site. In 1971, a young Helmut Donnhoff took over the estate inheriting 12.5ha. Over the years, he has expanded the estate to 20ha. Much of the land has either been purchased from shippers who once dominated the Nahe or the now-privatized state domain.
Donnhoff has discovered that many historically "lesser" vineyard sites are more and more ideal for the endangered category of Kabinett. The more global warming makes itself felt, the greater importance these vineyards hold in continuing this Pradikat level. His Oberhausen Liestenberg vineyard only receives sunlight until 9:30am and then, again in early evening in the late summer and early fall. Must weights are easily kept at bay in such a situation. Accordingly, Donnhoff has not only stopped selling off his lesser sites, but has also begun to purchase additional ones.
From a crazy perch on the south side of the Nahe River (Lemberg), one can see many of Donnhoff's most important vineyards. Niederhauser Hermannshohle to the right; Oberhauser Brucke bottom right, just above the river and the bridge. The sites of Schlossbockelheimer - Kupfergrupe and Felsenberg - are to the far left.
The 07 vintage is fantastic at Donnhoff. It was the same story in the Nahe as other regions of Germany; early flowering, cool summer that delayed an early harvest and the like. Click here for a full 07 vintage report. Most important, 07 allowed Donnhoff to work with ripe fruit, high acid levels and low botrytis. The summer rains contributed to not only high levels of what Donnhoff referred to as "fine" extract, but also allowed the vines to pull more from the soils and thus, highlight terroir nuances. It would be hard to imagine a vintage more suited to Donnhoff's style.
In the Kabinett-friendly 07 vintage, Donnhoff produced two outstanding Kabinetts and the best Estate QbA I've ever tasted from Donnhoff. The Kreuznacher Kahlenberg Kabinett showed some characteristics of the heavier soils in the rich mid-palate. It was also very mineral, tightly wound, and crystalline. The Oberhauser Liestenberg Kabinett, on the other hand, showed more of a glacial minerality and a touch more power and elegance.
There really is an embarrassment of riches with Donnhoff's 07 line-up. Picking out the stars is nearly impossible. Of course, the 2007 Hermannshohle Grosses Gewachs (the great dry Riesling) and Hermannshohle Spatlese combined the best of all the other vineyards and synthesized them into an almost unheard of level of elegance and complexity. Both were simply extraordinary. Helmut says that one of the magical qualities of the Hermannshohle vineyard is that it is successful in every vintage, while his other vineyards succeed to greater or lesser degrees each year.
The Schlossbockelheimer Kupfergrube Spatlese, born out of copper-rich volcanic soils, had lovely depth and was incredibly light on its feet. Helmut commented that he thought that Kupfergrube was particularly successful in 07. I couldn't omit the very lean, mineral, and slow to mature Turmchen Spatlese 07 with a good conscious. And, the Brucke Spatlese was its brawny, mineral self which it carried with a pleasing airiness.
Helmut commented that Krotenpfuhl, a vineyard that he purchased 4 years ago with Kahlenberg, was the biggest surprise in 07. The vineyard, whose name translates to turtle pond, has richer clay and gravel soils than Donnhoff's other vineyards with a high level of quartz and rotliegend (a special sandstone.) In its second vintage, Donnhoff was able to craft a very compelling wine from a vineyard that Helmut says, "doesn't look like much." While in 06 the wine was too earthy, in the 07 Krotenpfuhl Spatlese has an earthiness that is nicely measured and adds complexity to wine's rounded peach fruits, lime, and grapefruit zest. It was impressive stuff that will improve greatly with age.
In 2007, the Hermannshohle Auslese has a devastating purity with its glacial minerality leading to a long elegant finish. Donnhoff's legendary Brucke Eiswein certainly did not disappoint. The nose screamed subtle tropical fruits and spicy radish. The palate was racy and concentrated beyond belief. An 02 Eiswein was very impressive, but I won't tease you with the details because it's not available.
The 07 vintage at Donnhoff is likely his best since 01. The entire range may actually be stronger. The wines are flat-out exhilarating and deserve a place in everyone's cellar.
Click here to see all the Donnhoff we currently have in stock! The vineyard breakdown is offered below.
The Vineyards of Donnhoff: The Official Crush Breakdown
In the village of Niederhausen Donnhoff makes wines in...
Quite simply, this is perhaps the greatest site in the Nahe. Ranked as the top vineyard in the Prussian tax maps, this south-facing vineyard is perfectly exposed. The soils are varied and stony. The bottom section of the vineyard is mostly porphyry (a volcanic soil) and the top is more slate-dominated. The wines rival the best anywhere with power, length, and elegance that leave even seasoned wine drinkers speechless. In most vintages the Spatlese from this site is a cult wine, highly sought out by collectors - in 2007 this is likely to be even more intense than normal. The Grosses Gewachs (great dry wine) from this site is also an amazing wine and will certainly be one of the great dry Rieslings of this vintage.
In the village of Oberhauser Donnhoff makes wines in...
The soils here are sandy slate. Donnhoff likes to make Kabinetts here, because towards the end of the harvest the vineyard only receives sunlight until around 9 A.M. and then again, in the evening. Must weights are, accordingly, kept at bay. The wines are racy and elegant with a driving acid backbone. The 2007 Leistenberg Kabinett will probably prove to be one of the Kabinetts of the vintage.
This 2ha vineyard is a monopole of Donnhoff. The soils are also quite varied here with slate, sandstone, and porphyry predominating. There's also some loam. Wines from Brucke are decidedly mineral and tend to be powerhouses. At their best, they combine full-throttle intensity with a light as air sensation. This is the location for Donnhoff's Eiswein.
In the village of Kreuznach Donnhoff makes wines in...
Along with Kreuznacher Krotenpfuhl, Donnhoff acquired this site four years ago. 2007 marks the second release of wine from this vineyard. The soils are heavier than many of Donnhoff's other vineyard with greater amounts of loam and rotliegend-a red slate-sandstone. Kahlenberg's soils also have a high quartz content.
The first wine released from here was in 2006. This is likely the top site in Bad Kreuznach. The soils here are loamy with rotliegend. Donnhoff says that if you saw the site, you wouldn't think that it is capable of much. He, however, has a faith in this respected site. The wines tend be fleshier with more body and fruit than in Donnhoff's Upper Nahe sites (at Kreuznach, the Nahe rivers turns north, heading down to the Rheingau. This is usually considered the transition point from "Upper Nahe" to "Lower Nahe.") The fruit may tend more towards peach and ripe orange and there's also signature earthiness and maybe a little smokiness from the rotliegend.
In the village of Norheim Donnhoff makes wines in...
These vineyards are steep and terraced. The soils are a blend of porphyry and slate. In short, this has all the elements of a top site. Wines from this site often possess the classic black cassis characteristics of volcanic soils and have a real intensity, depth, and power. They also require some cellaring to show their best.
The name means "the cherry hedge." The porphyry soils here often do produce wines where the fruit can be detected. There is also a fair amount of slate in the soil. Donnhoff believes that this is his most underrated site. The wines are slow to evolve and less dramatic in their youth than say Brucke or Hermannshohle.
In the village of Schlossbockelheim Donnhoff makes wines in...
This is a very stony site. Many feel that it is underrated because the wines, for all their body, are often unshowy in their youth. Wines from Felsenberg often display persistent mineral and acid backbone. In their raw youth, they can also have a certain rustic austerity that fades with age. Donnhoff has recently begun to bottle the Turmchen subparcel separately. Turmchen is home to Donnhoff's oldest vine in Felsenberg. In 01 Turmchen was sent to auction; in 06 and 07 Turmchen was a regular release.
This vineyard was once a copper mine and was cleared and planted by the state domain using convict labor. The vineyard wasn't included in the 1901 Prussian Tax Map that was the source of vineyard classification. It is undisputedly a great site. Some would argue that it is the best site. Kupfergrube's main competitor for top billing is Niederhauser Hermannshohle. Compared to Hermannshohle, wines from Kupfergrube are definitely fuller and in truth, heavier. (The latter should not immediately be viewed as a negative.) The soils are crumbly porphyry and high copper content. The wine can have an intriguing earthy, mineral depth that brings to mind the copper mines. They also can be mouth-coating and spicy. Most importantly, at their best, there's vibrant acidity and elegance that makes the wine profound instead of fatiguing.