The energetic Gerko Freiherr zu Knyphausen showed up at the excellent restaurant Weinschänke Schloss Groenesteyn in Kiedrich in time to enjoy a main course. Occupied earlier in the evening, he nonetheless made time to sit for a lively discussion with two American journalists. Within minutes, one of Gerko’s wines had been plucked from the cellar, and we were tasting his 2008 barrel-aged Riesling Erbacher Marcobrunn Spätlese Trocken.

I liked this wine, Gerko’s first essay in this genre. The oak was evident but not obtrusive. Furthermore, the wine was tasty and nuanced, and the three of us finished the bottle with ease. To sum it up, the wine showed more as an oak-influenced white than a varietal Riesling, but I’d drink it again with relish.

I took away two things from that evening. First was the deep impression Gerko’s open-mindedness to winemaking experiments in a very traditional region left on me. Second was my deep desire to convince him that fermenting in oak would leave less of an oak imprint on his Rieslings. (He seemed to think this was a rather far-fetched idea, but it is absolutely true.)

Two days later, I visited the winery and tasted with Gerko and his new partners (since 2010), Wolfgang Frank and sparkling wine guru and head of marketing and sales, Heide Hennecken. It was a tasting full of surprises for all, as the line-up included several comparisons that, until then, had not been examined side-by-side. The biggest surprise for me, however, arrived via email yesterday. Wolfgang announced they fermented some Riesling in new oak this year, and the wood was, indeed, less dominant…and they liked the results!

Rheingau 2003 Riesling Herrlichkeit Sekt Brut
12.4% abv. 7.6 g/l residual sugar (RS). 7.6 g/l total acidity (TA).  Seven years on lees. Disgorged 2011. Spätlese quality. Not made every year; 2005 is the  next vintage. Aim is to make a mature style with great creaminess. Considering making a non-dosé bottling in the future.
Goal achieved: Riesling character sits in the background to the autolytic character. Baked golden apple and pineapple with a dusting of cinnamon. Slightly earthy. Pronounced acidity leaves a mouth-watering impression on the medium finish. Moderate minus body.

Rheingau 2009 Pinot Noir Sekt Brut
15.0% abv. 12.5 g/l RS. 4.6 g/l TA.  This sparkling red is an old tradition of the region, first made about 100 years ago. There is no dosage here; however, residual sugar did result from the natural finish of the second fermentation in bottle once the yeast succumbed to the pressure and alcohol. Their first vintage was 2009, and they produced only 200 bottles. They plan to produce this wine every year going forward and are considering gradually increasing production to 1,000 bottles per year. For the 2009, they simply chose a cuvée of Spätburgunder to sparkle. Going forward they plan make a specific cuvée. This juice sees no oak aging, as they do not want to impart bitterness.

Deep burgundy color with a varietal Pinot Noir nose, thanks in good part to an earthy pervasiveness. Mulberry and old leather dominate the palate. Though the attack is dry, there is an impression of sweetness from the generosity of the fruit. Delicately bubbly. Thoroughly drinkable. I never noticed the high alcohol!

Riesling 2011 Trocken
11.7% abv. 8.1 g/l RS. 7.1 g/l TA. This and the Feinherb below are “entry level” wines. They will both be named VDP.Gutswein in accordance with the new VDP naming system beginning with the 2012 vintage.
A delightful nose of watermelon, lemon drop and sage. Smooth mouthfeel imparted by the gentle sweetness layered onto the wine’s very light body. Crisp acidity feels well-integrated. Modest concentration and quick finish.

Riesling 2011 Feinherb
11.7% abv. 21.1 g/l RS. 8.1 g/l TA. Previously exported to the US as a “dry” wine though not labeled as Feinherb.
Simple nose of spring flowers and cantaloupe. Light body and easy-sipping, though the sweetness is distracting. The acidity props up the sugar well, but more concentration and more body would improve the wine’s equilibrium.

Riesling 2011 Rheingau Ortslage Kabinett
11.8% abv. 9.4 g/l RS. 7.2 g/l TA. Fruit mostly from Steinmorgen but all from Erbach. This is the beginning of the second quality level. This and their two other Ortslage wines will be labeled VDP.Ortswein beginning with the 2012 vintage.
More color than the first two still wines. Very spicy and earthy on the nose, reminiscent of Grauburgunder. Dry attack with marked acidity shows a lovely harmony with the medium-minus body. Fairly quick finish.

Riesling 2011 Baron K QbA
11.3% abv. 24.7 g/l RS. 7.7 g/l TA. Same style category as Loosen’s Dr. L and Schloss Wallhausen’s Two Princes.
Great purity with vivid minerality despite the “fruity” emphasis left by the RS. Much broader on the palate than the Ortslage Kabinett, as expected for its generosity of RS. Lively acidity keeps the structure in check.

Roter Riesling 2011
12.3% abv. 14.0 g/l RS. 7.7 g/l TA. According to the Knyphausen team, only 13 ha of this variety are grown in the world. This white variety, whose skin turns re, like Gewürztraminer, piques their curiosity as it is a bud mutation of Riesling. Geisenheim began a recultivation program in 1995 after finding some old vines. Cultivated similarly to Riesling but costs more. Knyphausen planted it in 2006, and 2009 was their maiden vintage. In 2011, Knyphausen made the first and only – to their knowledge – Roter Riesling BA in the world.
Deep yellow color. White pepper nose with mushroom undertones. Mirabelle, white peach and marjoram compete with strongly smoky notes.

Riesling 2010 Trocken Erbacher Steinmorgen Erstes Gewächs
11.5% abv. 8.7 g/l RS. 9.0 g/l TA. The flagship Premier Cru, this is the only Erste Lage they name as a Grosses Gewächs. This and their other Premier Crus will be labeled VDP.Erste Lage beginning with the 2012 vintage.
The enormous, imposing acidity and searingly dry character found here create a highly structured, almost rigid palate. Stone fruits, tangerine peel and slate abound. Long finish.

Riesling 2010 Auslese Edition Royal Blue
13.1% abv. 11.8 g/l RS. 10.9 g/l TA. 33.6 g/l dry extract. An extraordinary, slightly and delightfully freakish wine from the soaringly acidic 2010 vintage. Knyphausen did not want to deacidify and finds the wines of many who did to be “lesser” wines. The label’s color mimics that of the coat of the Grand Master of the Order of St. George worn in a painting of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Fruit from Erbacher Michelmark. Only 310 L produced.
The extraordinary scents of botrytis, especially quince jam, honey and sweet spice, dominate the nose and orient the mind to a sweeter wine. The palate, however, surprises. It is tight and massively acidic despite its impressive breadth and full body. A zesty dryness is accompanied by a divinely fine and slatey, mineral character. The entirety of this wine creeps into every crevice of the mouth and lingers for a very long while. Revisit in 7-8 years.

Riesling 2011 Auslese Edition Constitutional Green
13.9% abv. 4.4 g/l RS. 6.6 g/l TA. Team Knyphausen feels the alcohol shouldn’t be this high, but the wine is balanced. Introspection appreciated, but I think they’re being overly critical of this lovely wine. A thoughtfully crafted wine composed of 44% tank and 54% old barrel fermentation (500 L) topped-off with 2% TBA from the same vintage and vineyard. None made in 2010; 2011 is first vintage. Fruit from Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen.
Another exceptional bottling where every aroma is amplified. Anise, Chinese five spice, fresh lychee and graphite meld together. Evident sweetness and clear extract braced by invigorating acidity. Solid finish.

Riesling 2011 Wisselbrunnen Grosse Lage
12.8% abv. 23.3 g/l RS. 6.9 g/l TA. Will release after March 2013. Forty-two percent of this wine was fermented in fourth use, 500 L barrels to “kick up” the fruitiness of the wine. The rest was vinified in stainless steel. This is auslese quality fruit.
Generously sweet and mouth-coating palate with potent extract. Honeydew melon, soft-stemmed herbs and white pepper offer a nice aromatic diversity. As wished by management, the minerality sits in the background.

Riesling 2010 Auslese Edition Imperial Yellow
1.03% abv. 21.7 g/l RS. 11.8 g/l TA. 35.0 g/l dry extract. Vinified in second use, 300 L oak from Mercier. 300 bottles and 60 magnums made.
Profound yellow color. Smells like young white Burgundy vinified in new oak. Oak dominates the palate, too, with an uncanny assembly of Chardonnay-esque fruit flavors. The structure, however, is resolutely Riesling-like. Exceedingly long finish.

Riesling 2010 Auslese Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen 375ml
10.8% abv. 76.5 g/l RS. 11.0 g/l TA. 32.5 g/l dry extract. Gerko called this “a wine to drink in 10-15 years.” Fermented in stainless steel during a 3-4 week period.
Peach, watermelon Jolly Rancher, amaro-like herbs. Fresh cheese and tapioca undertones. Boisterous acidity balances the medium-plus body composed of generous sugar and extract. Lingering finish.

Roter Riesling 2011 Beerenauslese
11.4% abv. 125.6 g/l RS. 8.0 g/l TA. First and only Roter Riesling BA in the world known to Team Knyphausen. From the Erbacher Hohenrain vineyard. Following in the tradition of the ‘11s, excellent sweet wines were made in 2011 as they were in 1911 and 1811.
Flan and crème caramel on the nose. Strawberry flavors join on the palate. Seemingly moderate acidity given the unctuous sweetness.

Riesling 2011 Trockenbeerenauslese Erbacher Michelmark
6.5% abv. 349.9 g/l RS. 8.7 g/l TA.
This wine tastes like golden raisins and apricots drenched in honey and baked in phyllo pastry. It is truly the nectar of the vines spiked with ginger and spices. Massively concentrated with what feels like fairly wimpy acidity (it must be quite high but isn’t perceived as such) feebly supporting gobs of viscosity. Not sure this has the structure to age well though it’s delightfully exotic now.

Riesling 2010 Trockenbeerenauslese Erbacher Michelmark
8.5% abv. 247.3 g/l RS. 15.8 g/l TA. 59.8 g/l dry extract. This wine is an astonishing labor of love. Fifteen people selected grapes for three days – in the vineyards and in the winery – for sixteen hours a day (8 am to 12 am)!
Starting off with mushroom and earthy notes, this vintage may not be as squeaky clean as the 2011, but it clearly has the acidic backbone, harmony and multi-dimensional aromas to suit a long and well-lived life. Focused on peach, apricot and flint, this is Riesling by definition.

Team Knyphausen makes more than 30 wines and tends to seven main vineyards. Despite this generous and lengthy tasting, we simply couldn’t taste everything. Founded in 1141, this may be the one of the oldest estates in the Rheingau, but Gerko and his team are far from tradition-bound.  New vineyards are being planted, and like the barrel-aged Riesling and Pinot Noir Sekt, new wines are being produced. I’m particularly curious about their Gemischter Satz idea (using Roter Traminer, Gelber Orleans, Weisser Heunisch, Silvaner, Weisser Elbling and Roter Riesling), and I hope some of it will eventually reach US shores. If not, I’ll be knocking at their doorstep soon after it’s commercialized.