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Rheingau is one of the smallest, and yet one of the most important, of Germany's 13 anbaugebeit wine regions. A 20-minute drive west of Frankfurt, it is located (as the name implies) on the Rhine river. The -gau suffix denotes that it was once a county of the Frankish Empire.

The classic Rheingau wine is a dry Riesling with pronounced acidity and aromas of citrus fruits and smoke-tinged minerality – typically a little more firmly structured than its equivalent from the Mosel. It is worth noting, however, that the region also produces some of Germany's very finest sweet, botrytised Rieslings, with flavours as exotic as apricot purée, honey and caramelised mandarin. Now atypical (yet still a fascinating part of the region's wine history), is the sweet Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) once widely produced in Assmannshausen until the late 20th century.

After flowing roughly northwards for 175 miles (280km), the Rhine turns suddenly westwards for 15 miles (25km) between Wiesbaden and Rudesheim. It is here, on the river's northern, south-facing banks, that 90 percent of Rheingau vineyards are located. The remaining 10 percent are divided into two sections: the flat land around Hochheim (along the Main river just before its confluence with the Rhine), and the perilously steep slopes between Assmannshausen and Lorch.

The Rhine is of vital importance to many German vineyards, the vast majority of which are located within just a few miles of it. Here in the Rheingau the river's benefits are at their most obvious; not only does it reflect sunlight onto the vineyards above, it also helps to moderate temperatures to a certain extent, providing a few extra frost-free weeks at either end of the growing season. The most visible benefit, however, are the gentle south-facing slopes the river has carved into the landscape here. Reflected light, moderated temperatures and a sunny south-facing aspect are precious assets for any vineyard in Germany's cool climate. The Rheingau's latitude of 50°N (it is bisected by the 50th parallel) puts it right at the northern edge of Europe's "wine belt".

In 2013, the Rheingau was home to almost 7,800 acres (3,155ha) of vines, accounting for just 3 percent of Germany's total vineyard area. To give some context to this, neighbouring Rheinhessen (Germany's most prolific wine region) has more than eight times that area under vine. Although small, Rheingau punches far above its weight in terms of quality, and its contribution to the global reputation of German wine is significant.

The majority – almost 80 percent – of vineyards here are planted to Riesling, followed by Pinot Noir in a distant second place with around 12 percent. This rule is turned around comprehensively and uniquely in Assmannshausen, whose steep, west-facing slate terraces have long been dominated by Pinot Noir. A few Rheingau producers have introduced non-traditional varieties into their portfolios (including Viognier and Orléans), presumably influenced by their proximity to the viticultural institute at Geisenheim.

Climatically, the Rheingau is cool and continental, with an annual average temperature of 50°F (10°C), 1,643 hours of sunshine per year and only 21 inches (536mm) of annual rainfall. Soil types and topography vary considerably from one end of the region to the other, from the low, rolling hills and calcareous soils around Hochheim in the east, to steep slate slopes of Assmannshausen in the west. In between these two extremes, the gentle, south-facing slopes that stretch from to Walluf to Rudesheim are made up variously of slate, quartzite, sandstone, gravel and loess.

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