The Rheingau "Geheimrat J" celebrates its 40th birthday. As Germany's first premium wine brand, Riesling paved the way for dry wines from 1984. Wegeler Managing Director Richard Grosche explains where its future is heading.
"For me, Geheimrat J is the quintessence of dry Rheingau Riesling," enthuses Richard Grosche, Managing Director of Weingüter Wegeler in Oestrich-Winkel, about his company's flagship wine. As one of the few German branded wines in the top segment, "Geheimrat J" is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year: it was first presented in 1984, and this was the occasion for a tasting of all the vintages ever produced, which took place in Wiesbaden at the end of January 2024.
The winery had invited guests to the "Ente" restaurant in the Hotel Nassauer Hof, the successor to the once famous "Ente vom Lehel". In the early 1980s, chef Hans-Peter Wodarz served his haute cuisine there. There were hardly a handful of restaurants in this category in Germany at the time. The dry white wines on the menu in the few "gourmet temples" came from France; German Riesling wines served here were residual or noble sweet.
This only changed with the "Geheimrat J", which estate owner Rolf Wegeler and his cellar master Norbert Holderrieth conceived in 1983 and presented a year later in the "Ente vom Lehel". The two took as their model the "Baron de L", a Sauvignon Blanc from the renowned Loire appellation Pouilly-Fumé, which has been produced in very good vintages from the best vineyard parcels of the de Ladoucette winegrowing family since 1972.
Like the "Baron de L", the "Geheimrat J" is also a single-vineyard cuvée: it combines grapes from 16 Rheingau vineyards that are classified as "Große Lagen". To become a branded wine, it needed a memorable name. Inspired by the Loire model, Rolf Wegeler named it after his grandfather, Privy Councillor Julius Wegeler. He had been managing director of the Deinhard sparkling wine and winery on the Moselle and president of the German Winegrowers' Association and had founded the Wegeler winery in the Rheingau in 1882.
"The first label was designed by an employee of the winery back then," says Rolf Wegeler. For the anniversary celebrations, the décor was carefully but recognisably modernised with the help of a design agency. "Even a gemstone needs to be polished sometimes," comments Richard Grosche on the revision. Where the label previously featured a coat of arms, there is now a bronze coin with the head of Julius Wegeler, his title and name as well as the dates of his life. This is intended to link the wine even more closely to its godfather.
Below and above the lettering "Geheimrat J", 16 stylised diamonds symbolise the individual vineyards from which the grapes can originate, supplemented by the inscription "16 great terroirs". As a branded wine, "Geheimrat J" is characterised by a distinctive style, the most important elements of which, according to Richard Grosche, are "elegance, finesse and minerality". The winery achieves this recognisable typicity by varying the proportions of the 16 "Große Lage" vineyards from year to year - depending on the weather conditions.
Wegeler owns a total of 45 hectares of vineyards in the Rheingau, often several hectares in many of the "Große Lage" vineyards. Only a portion of the grapes are ever vinified as Großes Gewächs (GG). "The backbone of Geheimrat J will always be the Geisenheimer Rothenberg," explains Richard Grosche. The south-facing steep slope consists of slate, Taunus quartzite and iron oxide. The winery has many different plots here, so that vintage differences can be equalised. "We select the parcels with perfect ripeness, but without over-ripeness," says Grosche.
Then the "art of the cuvée" begins, as Grosche puts it: "Geheimrat J" is composed from the best barrels - similar to the Grands Crus in Bordeaux. "Every barrel is different for every wine; single barrel bottlings are very rare. Of course, a soloist can shine, but the greatest harmony comes from the interplay," explains Grosche. "In this respect, almost every wine is a cuvée."
According to Grosche, the idea behind "Geheimrat J" is simple: "We want to produce the best wine of the vintage." But it should not be "a show wine". The "Geheimrat J" matures in the cellar for three years before it goes on sale. The latest 2021 vintage has now been given the new label for the first time. In the first decade of its existence, "Geheimrat J" was sold exclusively to top gastronomy, but for the past ten years it has also been available from specialist retailers and from the winery.
"Until a few years ago, all vintages of Geheimrat J were constantly available. This overwhelmed many customers, specialist retailers and restaurateurs," reports Richard Grosche. As a result, only three vintages are now available from the winery at any one time - at different stages of maturity, each five years apart: "young, slightly matured and in an initial enjoyment phase", explains Grosche. The 2021, 2016 and 2011 vintages are currently available; next year it will be 2022, 2017 and 2012. "Retailers and restaurateurs often don't have the storage capacity to age wines, so the winery has to do it," explains Grosche.
The 36 vintages of "Geheimrat J" that were presented at the Wiesbaden tasting demonstrated an impressive ability to mature: the premiere vintage of 1983 was not the oldest in terms of sensory characteristics, the wines from the 1990s and 2000s clearly showed their personality, and in the wines that had matured for three to four decades, notes of dried apricots and caramel were joined by remarkable aromas such as chestnuts and sea buckthorn. The characteristic straightforwardness and minerality always remain the defining characteristics.
Richard Grosche sees the "Geheimrat J" in competition with "the top Riesling GGs in Germany". Wine connoisseurs have learnt that a single Große Lage offers them security when choosing a wine. "However, the Geheimrat J is independent. Single-vineyard wines such as the Grosse Gewächse are the interpretation of a terroir. Geheimrat J is simply the 'Best of Rheingau'." Since 1983, it has become a compass for many other German wines.
"Geheimrat J is now a global brand," emphasises Grosche. "You can't build a strong brand in Germany alone, it's about global visibility." German connoisseurs tend to only recognise the quality of a wine from their own country when it is successful abroad. "A great German wine is often only taken seriously when it is on the menu in a top foreign restaurant. And wine fans are delighted when they realise that the wine they drank in Singapore for 300 euros is available at home in Hamburg for 120 euros."
The "Geheimrat J" currently costs less than 40 euros. "It's probably worth twice that," says Richard Grosche with a wink. Between 15,000 and 20,000 bottles are produced each year, and the export share is growing. "I'm glad that the brand has never been watered down," says Grosche - and he wants to keep it that way at in the future: "We don't want to follow fashions, we want to stay true to the style - and go full throttle."