J. & J. Ratzenberger Bacharacher Riesling Sekt Brut Sparkling Wine 2013
Winegrower: Jochen Ratzenberger
Region: Mittelrhein, Germany
Grape: Riesling 100%
For those of you who regularly follow Cellar Direct you will probably recognize today’s superb wine, and for those of you who are new we’d like to introduce you to one of our perennial favourite producers – J. & J. Ratzenberger from Germany’s Mittelrhein. Jochen Ratzenberger, the manager of the estate, produces wines with beautiful aromatics, elegance, length, and structure. Vinified in the manner of Champagne, today’s offer, Ratzenberger’s Bacharacher Riesling Sekt Brut 2013 is a delicious, steely, age-worthy wine that combines delicacy and complexity, along with a refreshing and refined finish that lingers on the palate. This Sekt offers something for every wine lover; it’s extremely limited, it’s on Michelin-starred wine lists but can’t be found in Canada; it’s the product of natural, meticulous winegrowing and cellar work, and it offers great value. Most importantly, it answers the age-old question that torments all Champagne lovers: “How can I enjoy the precision and finesse of handmade Champagne without breaking the bank?” Well, today’s wine answers that question in spades. And at $37 it seriously over-delivers on quality-to-price to comparable Champagnes, which easily sell for $60 to $70 and more.
No German wine region portrays the vision of romantic viticulture more powerfully than the Mittelrhein (middle Rhine). The vineyards cling to their steep cliffs atop picturesque terraces, medieval castles and ruins. Wines grown here possess the powerful sense of place and minerality characteristic of the world’s greatest Rieslings. Weingut Ratzenberger is located in the tiny village of Steeg just west of Bacharach, which itself is located on the west shore of the Rhine. Their eight hectares of vineyards sit in a beautiful, narrow valley. The spectacular, extremely steep 50° to 70° south facing terraced vineyards of slate and shale rise above the beautiful, Hansel-and–Gretel fantasy town of Bacharach. The Rhine protects these vineyards from strong winds and helps to regulate temperatures. The Rieslings of the Mittelrhein typically have great extraction and structure, yet are marked by outstanding acidity, which makes them excellent candidates for dry and sparkling wines.
Ratzenberger’s vineyard holdings include such top-rated sites as Kloster Fürstenthal, Posten and Wolfshöhle (Bacharach), as well as in the St. Jost site in Steeg. Over three-quarters of the area is planted with Riesling vines of which a significant portion are over 50 years old. Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Rivaner are also planted.
The Ratzenberger family has owned and managed their estate since 1957, but the vineyards have a recorded winegrowing history dating back 400 years. Jochen Ratzenberger now owns the estate, the third generation of his family to do so. Jochen produces wine of uncompromising quality including today’s excellent Sekt. His wines offer fine aromatics, elegance, length, and structure.
Vineyard work is entirely by hand and in many areas necessitates a system of guide wires to prevent the workers from tumbling down the perilously steep slopes. There is a little sand cover over the slate and growth in between the vines is sparse. One wonders how anything, including the vines, which are mostly over 50 years old, can grow here. Yields are low, what little fertilizer that’s applied is organic, and pheromones are used in lieu of insecticides to attract beneficial insects and chase away the nasty ones.
The estate’s beautiful, extensive vaulted stone cellars were built in the mid 1800’s and provide a perfect, naturally cool place to age the wines. Fermentation occurs spontaneously in old 500 litre wood barrels. The wines are aged in stainless steel and their Sekt, which is one of the Germany’s finest sparkling wines, is made in the traditional Champagne method and is easily their equal. No additives and little or no sulphur are used, and the wines are not cold stabilized.
The Ratzenberger Estate is a member of the Verban Deutscher Pradikatzweinguter (VDP). This organization is a bastion of high quality in today’s globalized world. Members of the VDP oppose anything that is artificial and nondescript and represents the highest achievement in German winemaking. There are about 4,000 winemakers in Germany but only 200 are members of the VDP.
People do not usually make claims about quality and terroir when it comes to German Sekt. Most Sekt doesn’t deserve it. Virtually all Sekt is cheap, quaffable, forgettable fizzy water. It’s probably the least regulated of all European wines. There are no rules regarding what grapes may be used, where they come from or how the bubbles are created. It has to have at least 10% alcohol and that’s it. However, there are some winegrowers that produce Sekt that is on par with Champagne. Ratzenberger is one of them.
Over 98% of Sekt is made using the Charmat or tank method to create bubbles – the same as is used to make Prosecco. This is a mass production process that carbonates the base wine by adding commercial yeasts and sugars to cause a secondary fermentation in large, sealed, steel tanks. The wine is then bottled and shipped to market. Virtually all Sekt contains grapes from other countries, most notably France, Italy and Spain, but also from Eastern Europe, and these can be from most any white variety with some pinot noir thrown in if it can be bought cheap enough, and virtually all are non-vintage.
Bacharacher Riesling Sekt Brut 2013 is nothing like that. We’ve all had times when we’ve put our nose to a glass of wine and in an instant sensed the exceptional. Welcome to Ratzenberger’s Sekt! Farming is organic, yields are low and only Riesling is used. After the first fermentation occurs spontaneously the wine is then bottled and undergoes its second fermentation, again with natural yeasts. It’s aged on its lees for at least 30 months in the estate’s beautiful, naturally cool, vaulted stone cellars. No additives, including sulphur, are used. The wines naturally high acidity acts as the preservative. This is a vintage Sekt that is steely and age-worthy. It combines delicacy and complexity with a long, refreshing and refined finish and is excellent as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to sushi, tempura and caviar.