“I don’t think we make wines that are everyone’s darlings. We make wines that are polarizing in many ways. They don’t represent pattern, cliché, or any other stereotype.” — Jochen Dreissigacker
Jochen Dreissigacker has the extraordinary privilege of calling first-class holdings in Geyersberg, Kirchspiel, and Morstein his own. While the latter vineyards were made famous for contemporary connoisseurs by his mentor, Klaus-Peter Keller, their legendary status stretches back centuries. Jochen’s wines offer a sharply focused lens onto Rheinhessen’s terroirs while also being singular statements of personality — deservedly mentioned in the same breath as those of Keller himself. They are the product of thoughtful, organic farming combined with patient, deliberate cellar work. The results are wines of depth and concentration, with scintillating tension among fruit, ripe acidity, and mineral structure, built to age. Their appeal to trocken devotees will be obvious. Their appeal at the table will be, too. Jochen’s exceptional awareness of the role of his wines as a “fourth element” in a fine meal means he crafts them to supply surprising counterpoint and complexity, rather than to be the main event.
When we think of the greatest vineyard sites for riesling, we envision the breathtaking slopes of the Mosel or the hand-worked terraces of the Rheingau. But in the best villages of Rheinhessen, the vines grow on gentle hillsides with shallow deposits of loess and loam overlying a bedrock of active limestone — reminiscent of the great terroirs of Burgundy and packed with history. In fact, the vineyards surrounding Bechtheim are the oldest known sites for growing wine in Rheinhessen. Historically, these plots were reserved exclusively for viticulture. As early as 1780, the Prince of Leiningen issued a decree that resulted in Germany’s very first demarcation of terroirs; this order threatened to punish anyone who planted grapevines outside the designated areas. It was a ground-breaking step on the path toward our modern concept of high-quality viticulture. Today, it is on these very sites that Jochen grows his vines.
Chronicles reveal that 1728 was an excellent year for wines. Perhaps even then, the generation that founded the winery now known as Dreissigacker was blessed with a good harvest because that was the year founding father Jacob Sauer, who not only farmed a wide range of crops, but also succeeded at cultivating a vineyard, laid the foundation for generations to come. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the vineyards took center stage, when Adolf Sauer III decided to export his wines to England. In 1952, the husband of Christa Sauer, Philipp Dreissigacker, took over the business. Forty years later, the focus narrowed solely to winegrowing when Frieder and Ute Dreissigacker took charge. They used conventional methods to cultivate an array of grape varieties as was common in Rheinhessen at the time. But when their son, Jochen, entered the business in 2001, he set his sights on the radical changes he knew were needed. Most crucially, he converted the now 40-hectare estate to employ labor-intensive, organic viticulture (certified since 2007). In 2018, the Dreissigackers completed a new winery, in the middle of the Bechtheim vineyards, something that had never been done in Rheinhessen before. The expansive, gravity-fed cellar allows natural conditions to prevail – from slow, gentle pressings to judicious skin contact for phenolic extraction to ambient ferments. It also offers something many riesling producers can only dream of: “We have space for up to two harvests,” Jochen notes, “enabling us to let our single-site rieslings remain on the fine lees for a minimum of 18 months.” He holds back his top Grosse Lage bottlings for three years after harvest.
Jochen’s parents will tell you he was not destined to become a vigneron. His older brother, Christian, was to inherit the family business while he was encouraged to pursue an accounting career. But he couldn’t ignore his desire to make wine. He apprenticed with various winemakers – most notably the now iconic Keller. When Christian bought a neighboring winery in 2006, it freed Jochen to come home and take the reins at his family estate “so we could both practice the professions we love,” Jochen notes.
Though he was only in his early 20s when he took full responsibility for the estate, he knew he had to move it in a different direction. “I’ve always had a big weakness for dry riesling. That was one of the reasons I entirely dedicated it to myself here. I didn’t look around at whether anyone likes it or not. I just did what I always wanted to do and I knew it was right for me.” He took the risk and lost 70% of his clients. He’s the first to point out that his wines aren’t “everybody’s darlings” and never conform to “pattern, cliché, or any other stereotype.”
Jochen, like his mentor, looks to the wines of Burgundy — “diverse, with a high potential for aging, and very exciting” — when considering his own. “I like wines with a strong and distinctive character that provide a certain depth,” he says. “In the beginning, I focused on riesling and pinot varieties, in recent years that focus has been extended further to include chardonnay.”
In all that he does, Jochen works with “the unique mineral composition of our vineyards, the local climate and microclimate, and harnesses my deep passion for winemaking. Ecology, sustainability, and the respectful use of existing resources has gradually changed the face of our vineyards. Imagination and pragmatism are my daily helpers in my search for the perfect wine.”
Vineyards and farming
Jochen sets the scene for his most important vineyards: “The south-facing Bechtheimer Geyersberg has warm, weathered, barren limestone soils as well as loess-loam soils in combination with a unique climate to give it its distinctive character. The grapes are small and therefore very mineral-rich. Our second very important single site is the Morstein in Westhofen. Limestone provides the basis for its unique minerality.”
Jochen is intent on enhancing the vitality, and thereby expressiveness, of his distinctive soils. His team sows green manure to boost the humus, allowing cover crops to loosen the soil with their roots, absorb all superfluous nitrogen and, in conjunction with microorganisms and other soil-dwelling life forms, constantly regulating the nutrient content of the soil. If necessary, weeds are removed mechanically, the area around the vines is hoed and, again, if needed, small quantities of organic fertilizer are added. All of these measures help to create balanced plant growth and strengthen the root systems, encouraging them to penetrate deeper into the mineral-rich layers, absorb nutrients, and better resist disease.
In addition to mindful farming, Jochen severely curtails his yields – sometimes to as low as 15 hl/ha! At the beginning of summer, his crew removes at least one-third of the grapes on each vine. As a result, the bunches that remain absorb additional nutrients, light, and air, ensuring optimal quality. 2020 marks the start of a new chapter, as Jochen introduces biodynamic practices to his farming.
Accompanying the importance of soil composition, climate, and farming techniques is the act of picking and pressing the grapes. Harvest timing is of critical importance to Jochen – “it’s how I bring my intuition and personality to the wines.” He and his crew make multiple pick passes, harvesting almost all sites by hand, handling them very carefully, as bruising the skins can cause oxidation or premature fermentation, both of which can be detrimental to the quality and result in loss of flavor.
In the cellar
Once the grapes arrive at the winery, most are briefly macerated to extract additional aromas and structure. “When you harvest excellent grapes, you want to transport every single flavor into the juice. You can’t do that with a quick pressing. We break the berries open gently with our feet. Then let them steep in their own juice. This also explains the intense color of our wines since the grapes are always mature.” The fruit is then pressed and left to ferment without further interference. The wines remain on their fine lees for up to 18 months. Jochen prefers to hold back releases of his single-site wines from Bechtheim and Westhofen until three years after harvest.