J.b. becker

6 December 2017

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal. Previously: the round one, the people of the place, wines of mind + spirit, sparkling wines of mind + spirit, Gauls, the reason why.]

Let’s take a detour into riesling, undoubtably one of the world’s greatest white wine grapes (right up there with chenin).

(The origin of riesling’s name, by the way, unclear, with a couple of dueling stories. The one I’m using, via Jancis, is from a 1956 text claiming it comes from reissenrizan, a word with a cool history rooted in runic stone-carving: its oldest meaning is to split, which evolves into make an incision, carve, engrave, before finally wearing the dual senses of to tear and to write. Jancis says this could be a reference to the way the berries split between the fingers, citing a folk name for the grape chasselas. There are other stories—the German word Rissling, or ‘cutting’, or RusslingRus meaning “dark wood”—but as a rule for grape names I’ll go with the one that’s most concrete and likely to have been coined by people working in the vines.)

Drink a stubborn & intractable icon whose wines & work in the vines both speak to ancient tradition & go against the norms of an entire region? Sure! Here’s a picture of J.B. Becker eating a burger at the Nomad this spring (his wife runs the instagram):

j.b. becker

Hans-Joseph has an excellent pair of eyeglasses and works in the Rheingau, which as far as German wine regions go is kind of the Bordeaux to the Mosel’s Burgundy: i.e., instead of farmers and tiny hyper-classified steeply-sloped vineyard parcels (Burgundy/Mosel), it’s aristocratic families, big flat vineyards, châteaux (Bordeaux/Rheingau). It’s one big gentle south-facing slope of vines running down into the Rhine, except at two ends, where things crinkle up & get interesting. Guess where the producers and vineyards featured in this wine list come from?

‘Gau’ was a Frankish administrative unit, and is much more fun to read about in machine-translated German wikipedia (I’ve cleaned it up a little bit for you):

Comitatus referred to the district (comes) of a count (grafio), the so-called Gaugraften. They were also the chief judge and leader of an army covenant on behalf of the ruler. The Gau were assigned cent marks or hundreds, which were often managed by the zentgraves. In the central district court they acted as aldermen.”

All clear? Great! Me too.  Follow the etymology back far enough and Gau just means “area”. The river Rhein, like the Rhône, goes back to the Indo-European root for flow, which gives us the German verb rhinnen, the Latin rivus (river), and from there to everyone else. It’s one of those elemental words that everyone kind of has in common. The Celtic name of the river was Rhenos, the Roman Rhenus. It was worshipped by name as a father god. Actually, it’s still called “Father Rhein” today. It has…a certain amount of cultural importance in Germany. (See: poetry, song, racist songs, opera, painting, placenames, German Romanticism, everything)

For 600 years the Rheingau was surrounded by the fortifications of the Rheingauer Gebück, a strip of forest transformed into a living wall. Beeches, oaks, and hornbeams were planted & then their tops cut off and fallen branches intertwined & overgrown with brambles & blackberry bushes. Over time the scrub, 200 feet wide in places, became impenetrable, aside from a few fortified gates that allowed passage. It was not fully abandoned & cleared until a written order from the archbishop of Mainz in 1771. Now almost nothing survives.

Imagine the Rheingau, its goods ferried along the river of the Father God, hiding behind its dark fairy-tale ramparts of twisted wood & thorns…

As it happens, Hans-Josef’s village, Walluf, was the starting point of the Rheingauer Gebück at its far eastern end; it was known as Pforte des Rheingaus, the Gate of the Rheingau.

Like most producers, he’ll make a village wine, ‘Wallufer’, from plots, you guessed it, around the village; the ‘er’ is a suffix that just means, ‘from Walluf.’ He also produces wines from a few vineyards in the village: the Oberberg, the High Hill, and Walkenberg, the kneaded or wrinkled hill.

Since 1971, he’s been focussing on dry rieslings, neither the fashion in his region nor (at that time) with his buyers. Oh, right: ‘trocken’=dry, on the labels.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Rheingau, a  younger new figure, Eva Fricke, not from a winemaking family but instead come from the pragmatic north, has been making beautiful wine out of Lorch, the far western anchor of the forest wall, since 2006. (She worked for a couple years for Becker, actually. Also a bunch of other people, like Leitz, and even Castello di Verduno in Italy. Just saying: small world.) Schlossberg, maybe one of her most interesting vineyards, has a bunch of old vine material in it, some transplanted from a nursery like 50 years ago after a bad frost, included some Swiss clones, etc, schloss being a manor, chateau, palace, castle—but unfortified—etc. Berg, again, is just a hill. Fricke itself is a compressed ‘Frederick’, ric for power, fred for peace, which I’ve decided to render as the Orwellian-or-’50s nuclear Air Force slogan Peace through Power.

Becker, very fittingly for someone devoted to indigenous yeast fermentation & patient raising of his wines, is a vocational surname: The Baker.

= Area
 of Father River =
The Baker, Dry, “Gate to the Area of Father River” 2012
The Baker, Dry for the Cabinet, “Kneaded Hill” 1994
The Baker, Selected Harvest, “Kneaded Hill” 1971
Peace Through Power, “Manor Hill” 2012

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