As part of a long delayed visit to several wine estates in Rheinhessen and the Nahe in the early spring of 2022, I found myself at Felsenberg twice. The site was impressive despite a spell of cool, cloudy and damp weather. In some ways Felsenberg seems a counterpoint to Hermannshöhle, only about thee kilometers away as the crow files. The latter is as complex geologically and topographically as Felsenberg is homogeneous, with parcels as morcelated as Felsenberg’s are neatly arrayed. Back stateside, thinking that a Felsenberg tasting would be interesting, I assembled several examples from three vintners and four recent vintages. (Sadly, no recent Felsenberg bottling of Dr. Crusius or Gut Hermannsberg could be found.) A few notes on the site and tasting notes for the available wines follow…
Between Schlossbökelheim and Oberhausen the Nahe River flows almost perfectly northwest-southeast, essentially unbent for more than one kilometer. A mountain fills the river’s left bank here, part outcrop of immense volcanic rocks, part cliff, part crumbling rock in the process of natural disintegration, and part steep hillside, soil already, built from the rock as it weathers. This landscape is the Felsenberg, now best known as one of the Nahe’s most distinctive vineyards. Two millennia ago, there may already have been some vineyard here, but the surface known now as the Felsenberg was exploited mostly for its strategic value. From its high point near the confluence of the Entenbach and the Nahe, a full kilometer of the valley is visible to the naked eye. To take advantage of the lookout, a castle was built here ca. 850, when the village was known as Becchilenheim. The castle survived nine centuries until it was destroyed by a retreating French army ca. 1688, codicil to a war whereby Louis XIV had tried to contain the spread of Protestant faiths near French borders. By the nineteenth century, and following several name swaps and combinations, the bit that remained of the castle (Schloss) was appended to a mutation of the site’s ninth century name to form Schlossböckelheim. And since the Felsenberg name applies to multiple sites in German-speaking Europe, Schlossböckelheim must prefix it to avoid geographical confusion.
The Felsenberg tag has always applied uniquely to the Nahe’s southwest-facing flank. Now it applies mostly to a long strip of land upslope of the river’s edge, above a stand of riparian trees and brush, and above the rail line and local paved road laid at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. About 25 meters above the water’s surface, soil very suitable for grapes vines covers the ground surface before climbing the hillside for another 70 meters. It is rocky soil throughout, and the rocks are of volcanic origin, originally basalt, then joined with feldspar and minerals to make porphyry and melaphyr that seems tinted brown, or black, or even red. My colleague Stuart Pigott says the “correct scientific name” for this material is Andesite. The topsoil is quite loose, well aerated and easily penetrated by vine roots. Between about 130 and 200 meters above sea level, the slope of the land hovers between 50 and 60 degrees. Above the 200-meter contour, this genuine soil gives way to a belt of crumbling rock that is actually new soil in the making; that is, volcanic porphyry much less firm than granite that very gradually disintegrates and moves downhill to replenish what erosion regularly removes from the soil zone.
Vines in the soil belt are mostly planted in relatively short in-line rows, each row usually a bit more than a meter from its neighbors but intervine spacing a bit tighter. Here and there along the kilometer length of the vineyard, a small rectangle of soil is cultivated above the upper edge of the soil belt, elsewhere rows are oriented diagonally across the slope; sometimes cross-slope walls buttress terraces. At the vineyard’s southeast end, Felsenberg abuts Kupfergrübe, an even steeper site whose terraces are held in place with heroic walls, but Kupfergrübe is built of the same Melaphyr/Andesite. Much of Kupfergrübe was a working copper mine (hence the name) in the 19th century and the first years of the 20th. Now it is famous for wines that showcase flint that is almost smoky.
No doubt that Felsenberg is a warm site. Warm because the 300m summit of the hill blocks cold north winds, which might otherwise reduce ambient temperatures at the end of the growing season. And because the dark red-black-brown soils absorb heat and re-radiate it at night. Plus the angle of the slope has an important impact on temperatures at 49 N latitude. And finally because the site’s south and southwest orientation maximizes afternoon exposure to the sun. Now, with ubiqutous warming temperatures ubiquitous almost everywhere wine grapes are grow, already warm sites are often picked earlier than they once were; the name of the modern game is to grow wines that that are robust and flavorful without crossing lines that make them heavy. See tasting notes below.
Felsenberg GG 2018 (Schäfer-Fröhlich)
A racy, exotic expression of Riesling. Almost explosive on the nose. Think quince and yellow fruits in a cocktail laced with dry vermouth. At and beyond mid-palate there is more texture than flavor: green apple peel and flinty minerality. Simultaneously intense and concentrated. An exciting and quite charming wine, and a personal favorite in this tasting. 13°
Felsenberg GG 2018 (Dönnhoff)
Intense wine with an impression of macerated herbs, white pepper, arugula and capsicum. Borders on mouth puckering. Strongly fruity attack; then cocktail-like, with Peychaud’s bitters, white vermouth, and summer savory (=sarriette [Fr] or Bohnenkraut [De]). Gives way after mid-palate to minerality, becoming grippy. The finish is long and vibrant.
Felsenberg GG 2017 (Schäfer-Fröhlich)
On the nose, white licorice, salt-water taffy, citrus peel and fresh green peas. On the front palate, there are leafy green herbs, pear and green apple. Finishes with some lemon peel and bitter herbs. By no means understated, this vintage seems finer and more precise than the 2018, above.
Felsenberg GG 2020 (Dönnhoff)
Young and vibrant. Fresh cut green herbs like tarragon and members of the mint family. Lemon verbena. The lemon side of citrus plus some pink grapefruit, but the wine is round too, and savory, with a saline impression that buffers the citrus attractively. Seems coiled at first; then uncoils to reveal minerality and some mid-palate creaminess. Plausibly, a young version of the 2018, above.
Felsenberg Riesling 2015 (K. H. Schneider)
A bright and highly perfumed nose that turns very lively as the wine opens, with an almost electric combination of green leafy herbs, lemon verbena, and gremolata without garlic. Just a touch of roundness at mid-palate. Edgy throughout with hints of white pepper, bitter melon, and salt. 12.5°. Schneider is not a VDP member, hence no GG in the wine nomenclature. (Thanks to Justin Christoph of Crystalline Selections for making this wine available stateside.)