After years of being under-appreciated and misunderstood, this grape has finally developed cult status with the most ardent followers tattooing Riesling across their forearms.
After all its efforts to make Riesling cool, you’d think that Germany could just ride its wave. Alas, Riesling only represents 20 percent of the country’s production. So, the Germans set their sights on making a name for themselves with Pinot Noir as well. Known as Spätburgunder in Germany, it’s the only noble red grape that could historically ripen in Germany’s chilly climes and the warmer temperatures associated with climate change have made it even more reliable. Beyond this, better vineyard practices to achieve healthy grapes, lower yields, appropriate clones for Germany’s terroir and balanced use of oak have all contributed to improving quality.
Even so, a major obstacle to Spätburgunder ascension was convincing Germany’s own producers that their Pinot Noir was competitive. In 2011, the German Wine Institute agreed to participate in a blind tasting in London. Twenty German Pinot Noirs and 20 similarly priced Pinot Noirs from around the globe were ranked by a battalion of renowned journalists. The results? Seven out of the top 10 were German. While not definitive, it still boosted producers’ confidence and gave them something to talk about. Today, German Spätburgunder is finding a place on prominent wine lists internationally.
But is that it? Far from it! “We did a good job placing Riesling and Spätburgunder,” says Romana Echensperger, Master of Wine and a German wine educator. “Now it’s time to show the world what else we can do.”
In Germany, the other burgunders are also going like gangbusters. Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) are on the rise in terms of popularity and plantings. Made in all sorts of guises, from simple and straightforward to full and rich, with techniques like skin contact and oak aging adding complexity, there’s plenty to explore.
What excites me even more than the burgunder-wunder, though, is Germany’s sparkling wine. “This could be the next big thing,” agrees Echensperger. Besides being the highest per capita consumers of bubble, Germany is the third-largest producer of sparkling in the world, making a whopping 420 million bottles a year. It’s a confusing category, though, as much of it is made from a base wine of grapes coming from other countries and simply labelled “Sekt.” Think inexpensive tank method à la Henkell Trocken. While there is a place for this, it’s not truly representative of Germany.
What is representative, however, is the growing number of small producers making premium traditional method sparkling from their own homegrown grapes. In fact, every single producer I visited greeted me with an exhilarating glass of fizz. Many examples were, unsurprisingly, made from Riesling while others featured Champagne’s classic grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. For most of these estates, sparkling wine is a minor, albeit delicious, adjunct to their main production. However, there are a few brave producers who are hanging their hats solely on it.
My first stop was Raumland in Rheinhessen, which set the bar very high. Widely regarded as Germany’s top bubble producer, Raumland focuses exclusively on traditional method sparkling. Volker Raumland established his estate in 1990, and since 2002 his vineyards have been certified organic. He has also progressively lowered dosage levels and increased lees aging for some of his cuvées. As much as he loves delving into the technical aspects of sparking, like any self-respecting German, he enjoys drinking it even more. “A magnum is the perfect size for two people,” proclaims Raumland, “if your wife doesn’t drink.”
At the risk of sounding discouraging, this niche sector of high-quality sparkling wine will be an uphill battle. The problem is being sandwiched between two giants: Prosecco, on the one hand, is an affordable, everyday tank-method bubble, while Champagne, on the other, has the name to go along with the price. However, this doesn’t seem to have deterred the Germans. And I’m ready with glass in hand to support them.
Conversely, Germany has the market cornered for born-and-bred grapes. While they offer a strong point of difference, the hurdle is the poor reputation these grapes have acquired. Silvaner is a particularly sad tale. A reliable grape, it was the most planted variety in Germany in the 1960s, but has since been in steady decline. True, it doesn’t reach the heights of Riesling. However, it does have great potential. Its downfall is in part due to its reliability, which is what led to plantings in lesser sites. Furthermore, in the past, it was often made sweet but, unlike Riesling, it doesn’t have the racy acidity to balance the sugar. Finally, more recently, textbook winemaking practices like low-fermentation temperatures and aging in stainless steel have yielded clean but boring wines. “France doesn’t help us promote Silvaner,” adds Echensperger referring to mediocre examples that hail from Alsace’s fertile plains.
Krack Rosé Brut 2014, Pfalz ($25)
The three young Krack brothers established their own bubble-only label in 2015. The wines aren’t available outside Germany … yet. For the rosé brut, Pinot Noir is fermented in oak, aged on the lees for 18 months and given a modest 3g/l dosage. Juicy, characterful and exuberant, it’s all cranberry and raspberry.
Lingenfelder Freinsheimer Musikantenbuckel Scheurebe Trocken 2012, Pfalz ($20)
From the romantic-sounding Musikantenbuckel (“musician’s knoll”) vineyard, this “Shoy” bursts with gorgeous pink grapefruit, orange blossom and candied citrus peel. The palate is fresh, lively and dry with a subtle leesiness giving texture and weight.
Muller-Catoir Scheurebe Trocken 2015, Pfalz ($35)
Another Scheurebe totally worthy seeking out. Pretty, fruity and exotic but not saccharine at all, it is dry and minerally with a persistent blood orange, guava and white flower character.
Germany has the market cornered for born-and-bred grapes.
Weingut Salwey Oberrotweiler Henkenberg Weissburgunder 2013, Baden ($25)
The volcanic soils of the Kaiserstuhl slopes give a powerful, smoky and structured expression of Pinot Blanc with an intriguing iodine underpinning. Oak aging lends some toast to peach and honey notes with plenty of acid to keep everything in balance.
Weingut Thörle Saulheimer Probstey Silvaner Trocken 2015, Rheinhessen ($20)
Quince and herbs, with noticeable yet well-integrated oak and an appetizing bitterness. It shows the potential of Silvaner and what it is capable of in caring hands.
Lingenfelder Onyx Grosskarlbacher Burgweg Dornfelder Spatlese 2011, Pfalz ($35)
Pitch purple colour and a charming mouthful of mulled spice, forward exuberant plum, dark berries and sweet vanilla with soft ripe tannins. Clearly crafted by a producer who respects Dornfelder.
Weingut Bernhard Huber Alte Reben Chardonnay 2014, Baden ($30)
Alte reben means “old vines” and these ones are grown in a limestone soil. Captivating flinty, nutty nose with a hint of toast. The fruit is lean and linear but there is lots of energy and concentration on the palate.
Grafen Neipperg Neipperger Schlossberg GG Spätburgunder 2012, Württemberg ($35)
Fragrant red cherry, pleasant herbal tobacco and dried spice suggest a classy Pinot Noir. Well-integrated oak adds some structure and toastiness but does not overwhelm the fruit.
In Germany, Franken is the Silvaner “sweet” spot, and here it is enjoying a renaissance. The extreme continental climate makes Riesling less suitable while Silvaner thrives. The gypsum-rich limestone soil creates an intriguing, smoky nuttiness and creamy texture. Additionally, more adventurous winemaking, including cold soaking, skin contact, wild fermentation and aging in oak, has resulted in fascinating wines. Within Germany, Silvaner has been promoted as “spargel wine” but its food-pairing options go well beyond just asparagus.
Silvaner’s dependability has also made it a popular candidate for crossings. Germany has bred many new grapes with the intention of producing economically viable varieties that will reliably ripen in its cool climate. While many were initially successful in this regard, few demonstrated superior quality. Müller-Thurgau (not borne of Silvaner) and Bacchus are just a couple of examples. Unfortunately, over-cropping and the inevitable sweet style have led to their decline.
Scheurebe (pronounced SHOY-ray-beh) provides an exception to the rule. Created in 1916 by Georg Scheu, it is a crossing of Riesling (for its excellent genes) with Bukettraube (a crossing of Silvaner and Trollinger). Originally called S. 88, it was later baptized “Scheurebe” in Scheu’s honour. It’s made in the same range of styles as Riesling and actually suits sweetness. With notes of passionfruit and citrus, dry versions even have some similarities with Sauvignon Blanc. Yet Scheurebe possesses juicy rather than raspy acidity and has ample body to go along with its aromas. The comparison with Sauvignon Blanc is particularly significant as plantings of this latter variety are on the rise in Germany while there were none 40 years ago. Within Germany, Sauvignon Blanc is considered an exotic grape but some growers, like Rainer Lingenfelder in Pfalz, ask, “Why plant Sauvignon Blanc? We should have something from our home.”
I’ll admit that, along with the sparklings, Scheurebe was my biggest coup de coeur. I casually mentioned my wine crush to Lingenfelder when I arrived at his estate. Later, during the tasting, he ended up pouring three Scheurebes for me blind. While diverse, all reinforced my sentiments.
A champion of these underdog grapes, he also introduced me Morio Muscat, yet another crossing, and also poured one of the best Dornfelders I’ve ever tasted. The latter is an easy-to-grow, forgiving grape, which was bred in the 1950s as an alternative to Spätburgunder in order to offer wine with a dark colour. “It’s never very good and it’s usually not that bad either,” jokes Steffen Schindler of the German Wine Institute. After a low point in the 1990s, it is making a comeback and growing in plantings by 80 percent. A firm supporter, Lingenfelder proclaims, “It’s a very charming grape for a cool climate, with nice colour and tannin.”
And Germany hasn’t stopped creating new grapes. Today’s needs are different, though. Developing fungal-resistant varieties is a priority, not just in Germany. The 1989 crossing of Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau with Chambourcin, with the results called Regent, is growing at 326 percent for this very reason. I tried a more recent experiment, currently called VB. Cal. 6-04, which counts Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a fungal-resistant partner as parents. If successful, hopefully it will be bestowed with a more romantic moniker.
The excitement and enthusiasm is palpable in Germany. Without discounting established producers, much of this energy stems from a new generation of winemakers. The young Christopher Köhr at Josef Köhr speaks on their behalf, “We have been lucky to have travelled abroad, come back with new ideas and positively influence the quality and philosophies of our companies.” This, coupled with an intelligent, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, makes Germany a wine region to watch.