When it comes to German wines, Riesling tops the list. And when it comes to premium Riesling, the Roter Hang (Red Slope) vineyards are unbeatable. This picturesque piece of land along the Rhein, situated between Nackenheim and Nierstein, is not only a geological marvel but also the birthplace of some of Germany’s finest wines. But what makes this place, and more importantly its wines, so unique?

Max Kaindl, 26. May 2024
Reading time about 6 minutes

Roter Hang:
A Journey Through the Riesling Paradise on the Rhein

The Soil as the Key to Success

To understand this, one must look at the soil composition. The slope gets its red color from the high content of red, mineral-rich clay slate, a 250-million-year-old rock from the Permian period. This layer of earth was exposed during the Middle Tertiary when the Upper Rhein Graben collapsed, forming the Mainz Basin. Stretching as a narrow strip, the clay slate soil extends five kilometers along the left bank of the Rhine, from Nackenheim in the north to the southern outskirts of Nierstein. Unlike the harder blue-gray Devonian slate found along the Middle Rhein and Moselle, this soft, rapidly weathering ancient rock has a completely different structure. Its diverse minerals are absorbed by the vines, giving the wines their unique character. The soil is also interspersed with red slate plates, which contain traces of early life. These so-called “track plates,” which can be admired at the Paleontological Museum in Nierstein, contain the oldest insect tracks in Europe.

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But it’s not just the soil that makes Riesling from the Roter Hang unique. The exceptional microclimate, shaped by the south and southeast-facing slopes and protection from the harsh winds of the Rhein, creates optimal conditions for grape cultivation. The vines bloom early here, and a long ripening period is virtually guaranteed. The wines are distinguished by their finesse and unmistakable red-spicy character, with occasional notes of red currant or red pepper. Unlike in the past, they are mostly produced dry nowadays.

Riesling is the undisputed king of the Roter Hang. While there is a notable presence of Blaufränkisch in the Grosses Gewächs (GG) sites, thanks to extensive plantings by St. Antony, Riesling holds a monopoly here today. In the past, the vines were interplanted with up to a third of Silvaner.

Despite their heyday, the wine-growing communities of Nierstein and Nackenheim lost some of their renown over the course of the 20th century. The reasons for this are varied and beyond the scope of this article. Thanks to initiatives like the “Wine from the Roter Hang” association, the vineyards are now being thrust back into the spotlight. It is the tireless efforts of renowned wineries such as Heyl zu Herrnsheim and, more recently, winemakers like H.O. and Carolin Spanier (Kühling-Gillot), Kai Schätzel, and Johannes Hasselbach (Gunderloch) that have revived Riesling between Nierstein and Nackenheim. This movement is further energized by the dedication of young, aspiring winemaking talents like Elisabeth Muth from Weingut Rappenhof and Moritz Kissinger, who recently acquired a parcel in the Orbel vineyard.

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Organic: The Future Path of the Red Slope

The Red Slope is not only a haven for wine enthusiasts but also an important symbol for the future of German viticulture. Why? Due to traditionally low rainfall and the conventional farming methods that prevailed here until recently, the slope is increasingly threatened by drought due to ongoing climate change. To counter this trend, some winemakers are now employing irrigation systems. Interestingly, I also observe a growing tendency towards organic and even biodynamic viticulture. For instance, introducing straw into the vineyards helps retain soil moisture. Additionally, sowing cover crops in the rows between the vines enriches the soil’s nutrient content. And these are just a few of the measures being implemented. There is a lot of activity on the Roter Hang.

During my last visit in early May, this transformation was clearly visible. The slope appeared vibrant and green. Kai Schätzel is certainly leading this movement. Observing his vineyard rows feels like stepping into a jungle. The once common red, parched soil deserts, destroyed by glyphosate, are fortunately now rare. On the Roter Hang, it is evident that winemakers are taking significant steps to combat climate change. This is an important and encouraging development.

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The Roter Hang has gained great fame through vineyards like Hipping, Pettenthal, and Rothenberg. Wines from Hipping have been served at the English royal court for decades. ecently, wines from the Keller estate appeared on wine lists to honor the Queen’s Coronation Jubilee and the birth of Prince George. The wines from Rothenberg, particularly those from Weingut Gunderloch, which were traditionally produced sweet to very sweet, gained significant renown in the 20th century. Today, Johannes Hasselbach continues this legacy with his very dry wines from the same vineyard.

But what makes these vineyards so special? What are the specific differences? Are they even discernible? Let’s delve into these and other questions.

The vineyard area on the Red Slope covers approximately 180 hectares. It includes the VDP-classified grand cru sites Rothenberg (14 hectares) and Fenchelberg (0.3 hectares) in the Nackenheim district, as well as the five core sites Ölberg (11.4 hectares), Zehnmorgen (1.2 hectares), Hipping (12.3 hectares), Pettenthal (20.7 hectares), and Brudersberg (1.2 hectares) in Nierstein. Additionally, there are the Orbel site (9 hectares) on the southern boundary of the Red Slope, as well as the Kranzberg (0.8 hectares) and Glöck (2.0 hectares) vineyards adjacent to Nierstein. The surrounding vineyards are primarily local wine sites, which I will not discuss in detail in this article.

Rothenberg – Exceptional. Valuable.

Rothenberg is the northernmost and one of the steepest sites on the Roter Hang, directly bordering the village of Nackenheim. The name Rothenberg likely derives from the “Rotliegend” (redish) soil, which is said to be the reddest here. This site was first documented in 1364 under the name “in dem Rode.”

Fenchelberg – Cool. Spicy. Elegant.

The Fenchelberg parcel, located between Rothenberg and Pettenthal, acts as a link between the two sites Natural springs here provide the vines with moisture year-round. Set back from the main flank of the Roter Hang, this vineyard is bordered by shade-providing trees and a band of reeds, creating a cooler environment.

Ölberg – Deep. Powerful. Fruity.

Situated above Nierstein, extending towards Schwabach, the soil consists of Rotliegend, an iron oxide-rich clay slate. The site ranges from 80 to 170 meters in elevation and includes steep sections with slopes between 65 and 120 percent. Despite the intense sunlight due to its southern exposure and steepness, the site is sometimes subject to stronger winds. The name “Ölberg” is likely derived from the oily consistency of the wines produced here.

Zehnmorgen – Exceptional. Chalky.

This extremely small site stretches from the flat Rhine shore to steeper slopes, basking in the morning sun. Despite being in the Red Slope, the soil here is unusually rich in clay with chunks of limestone. The Rhine reflects sunlight and brings cooling air. The name “Zehnmorgen” comes from the historical land measurement “ten acres.”

Hipping – Fine. Weathered.

The name of this vineyard has been known since 1753, though its origin remains unclear. The rock lies about a meter deep on the slope, while at the base, centuries of erosion have accumulated a five to eight-meter thick layer of fine red soil. Early daily warming (east-facing) and the soil’s excellent heat retention, combined with the proximity to the heat-retaining Rhine and protection from prevailing west winds, create an ideal microclimate. This makes the location perfect for precise, finely spicy wines.
Hipping has two faces: one facing east and another steeply oriented towards the southern midday sun. The soil here is finer weathered than in Pettenthal.

Pettenthal – Majestic. Steep. Hot.

Pettenthal is the steepest section of the Roter Hang and the most renowned and sought-after site in Nierstein. The soil is particularly barren and rocky. The slope makes a 180° half-curve around Brudersberg and is exposed to the sun all day. The name Pettenthal was recorded as a cadastral name in 1753 and likely derives from the toad migrations (Petten) observed in this area to the higher springs and swampy areas. An adjacent area is called “Stumpe Loch,” referring to a swamp hole.

Brudersberg – Warm. Spicy.

This unique, south-facing site on the Roter Hang covers one hectare and is sheltered from north winds in a small side valley. The soil is composed of red, iron-rich clay slate. The steep 70 percent slope and intense sunlight, enhanced by the light-reflecting Rhein, create ideal conditions for viticulture. The name originates from the family of the Haxthäuser Hof, whose four brothers divided the estate from 1804 to 1835.

Orbel – Robust. Full-bodied.

Located at the southwestern end of the Roter Hang vineyards, it is the farthest from the Rhein. This steep vineyard above the Nierstein district of Schwabsburg features slopes up to 60 percent. The south-facing orientation provides maximum sunlight, while the Rhine brings cooling air, acting as a natural climate regulator. The name “Orbel” was first mentioned in local chronicles in 1386. Over the centuries, the name “Orbel” evolved from the original “Ölbel” (a robust, burly fellow), referring to the robust, full-bodied wines typical of this site.

Kranzberg – Kirchberg.

Extending southwards towards the Rhine and Nierstein, adjacent to the Nierstein Bergkirche. The soils are mainly loess loam on limestone and sandy, clayey loam at the lower end. Although the site is mostly sloped, it is not steep. The climate is primarily influenced by direct sunlight, enhanced by the Rhine, which also brings cooling air. The site was first documented in 1418 as “off dem Crausberge,” and it is believed that the name refers to a person.

Glöck – Clos. Profound.

Located at the southern end of the Red Slope, he soil is mainly composed of light loess loam and sandy, clayey loam. The site has a moderate 30 percent slope and is completely enclosed by an old wall, making it a “clos” site. This wall serves as a windbreak and heat retainer, enhancing the microclimate. The site’s long history is closely linked to Nierstein and the church, making it one of the oldest vineyard sites in Germany, though the exact origin of the name Glöck remains unclear.

Rehbach – Großlage.
The name has been passed down since the 18th century, likely originating from the old name for the stream there, the “Rodebach,” referring to the intensely red-colored water of the stream after thunderstorms, which tinted the left bank of the Rhine up to Bingen. Today, the site is a “Großlage” (large site) and encompasses the individual sites Pettenthal, Brudersberg, and Hipping.

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The unique combination of terroir, history, and wine tradition makes the Red Slope a region worth discovering and appreciating.

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Pictures: © The Art of Riesling – Maximilian Kaindl

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