The Rheingau

During the week of September 7-11, 2015, we had the pleasure of living in a fertile region of central Germany called the “Rheingau.” The Rhine River (spelled “Rhein” in German) runs nearly 600 miles, from south to north, from Switzerland, northward through Germany and Holland, into the North Sea at Rotterdam. Along a 30 mile stretch in central Germany, the Rhine River turns westward. Along that section of the Rhine, along the north bank, you’ll discover the “Rheingau”, from Weisbaden in the east to Rudesheim in the west, with the Rhine River as the boundary to the south. This region of Germany, the Rheingau, is famous for making some of the finest white wines in the world.  This is also the exact region where St. Hildegard planted her second abbey in 1165, an abbey still praying and worshiping daily, and still growing and harvesting grapes to make wine annually.

The specialty of the Rheingau region is the Reisling, a crisp and fruity white wine. According to The Wine Atlas, “Superlatives become tiring in an account of the Rheingau. Yet, if the qualities of great white wines mean anything to you the peculiar sort of wine these growers make offers more to taste, consider and discuss than any other in the world. The wines which fetch the high prices, and by which the vineyards are ultimately judged, are always the late-picked, sweet and intense ones which demand to be drunk with conscious attention, and on their own rather than with food. There are better wines for any meal in other parts of Germany–and far better in Burgundy. The Rheingau’s raison d’etre must be understood. It is wine for wine’s sake. And it does without exaggeration, give rise to such scents and flavours that only superlatives will do.”

Wine has been made in the Rheingau for two thousand years, since the time of the Romans. At the Wine Musuem in Rudesheim, Germany, we saw a Roman iron sickle for harvesting grapes, found in the Rheingau, in the modern day German city of Rudesheim am Rhein. The Rheingau is a cool and moist region in central Germany, with gentle slopes north from the Rhine River, opening the vineyards to the warm afternoon sun, with good drainage downhill, a perfect climate and setting for excellence in wine-making.

In the early medieval period, Christians also began growing grapes and making wine, especially for Communion. Monks make excellent “Kellermeisters” (masters of wine-making). Why? Monks have a commitment to excellence, doing all they do for the glory of God. Benedictine monks also make a lifelong vow of stability, a commitment to community and place, a key to excellence in wine-making. Cultivating a vineyard requires faithful, patient manual labor over decades. Monks also make excellent wine-makers because they’ve had the stable manual labor work force needed to tend a vineyard. Growing grapes to make wine requires hours and hours of daily manual labor, week after week, through a year of growth to bring grapes to a good harvest. The Rheingau has had some of the best known monasteries in all of Germany for growing wine, including St. Hildegard’s Benedictine Abbey, which was begun in 1165 when Hildegard was 67 years of age. 29 years earlier, Kloster Eberbach was founded, a Cistercian abbey located in the Rheingau, just a few miles uphill from Hattenheim. Kloster Eberbach stands as one of the greatest monastic vineyards in all of Europe from the medieval period. According to The Wine Atlas, “The boundaries of Hattenheim stretch straight back into the hills to include the most illustrious of all the vineyards of the German state: the high ridge of the Steinberg, walled like the Clos de Vougeot with a Cistercian wall. Below in a wooded hollow stands the old monastery which might fairly be called the headquarters of German wine, Kloster Eberbach. The place, the astonishing wine and the implications of the continuous industry and devotion to the one idea of beauty going back many centuries make any comment seem trivial.” Kloster Eberbach, founded in 1136 by Benedictine/Cistercian monks from Burgundy, France, was also planted as a vineyard with Burgundian rootstock and Burgundian wine-making expertise. The word “Kabinett” or cabinet, referring to a high-quality German wine, originates from Kloster Eberbach, from the abbey’s Cabinetkeller or cellar.

On September 7, 2015, we enjoyed a stroll along a path known as the “Rheingauer Riesling Way” (marked by a golden or green goblet) through the Rheingau, featured in the photo gallery above, leaving from St. Hildegard Abbey above Eibingen and Rudesheim, heading northeastward through Windeck, up through the forest over to Marienthal. We walked along roads named after wine varietals, including “Silvanerweg” and “Rieslingweg”. In Marienthal, we enjoyed a mid-afternoon outdoor worship service at a Franciscan Abbey, attended by 150 fellow worshipers. Then we walked south, downhill, towards the Rhine River, through Johannisberg Reisling vineyards, into Geisenheim, and then back westward to St. Hildegard Abbey, a Rheingau vineyard circuit of about 6 miles. Close to harvest time, in September, grape growers often wrap the edge of their vineyards with a blue cloth to keep deer and birds from feasting on the crop. We saw older vineyards next to newly planted vineyards. It takes five years after planting a new vineyard before you get your first crop of grapes. Each of the smaller vineyard areas within the Rheingau region are named. We walked through Klosterberg, Monchs pfad, Johannisberg, Mauerchen, Kirchen pfad, and Klosterlay vineyards in the Rheingau. Yes, if you’ve ever had a Johannisberg Reisling white wine, it was either grown in a Johannisberg vineyard in the Rheingau, or named after this famous wine-making area. Along the way through the Rheingau, we enjoyed sampling the ripening fruit, including white and black grapes to make white and red wines, soon to be harvested to produce yet another fine year of wines. Our walk carried us back to St. Hildegard Abbey in time for evening service of Vespers, where we once again drank in the fresh and crisp beauty of the sisters singing the Psalms in the evening.