Posted on | May 2, 2012
Written by | Ed McCarthy
Germany has had a difficult time changing its wine image. Most wine drinkers—including myself, until I made a recent visit—regarded Germany as the home of fine Rieslngs, but believed that the great ones were sweet.
As for Pinot Noirs, the thinking among critics has always been: forget about Germany; stick to Burgundy in France.
Things definitely have changed in Germany in recent years. Many of the changes involve Riesling and Pinot Noir.
Germany is now producing more dry Rieslings than ever, and they are exceptional. What has happened to Pinot Noir (aka Spätburgunder) is even more surprising. I recall that this variety used to be an afterthought (“Oh, yes, our country has some Spätburgunder, but it’s not very good,” was a common theme among German producers in the past). Now, Pinot Noir is the third most-planted variety in Germany (11.5%; up from about 3%) after Riesling and Müller-Thurgau, and it will shortly overtake Müller-Thurgau, which is waning.
Germany makes many other wines besides Riesling and Pinot Noir. A majority of Germany’s wines are white (63%), because in this country’s cool climate white varieties thrive; red varieties typically need lots of warmth during the growing season (except Pinot Noir). The other German white wines you can find, in order of production, include Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Rülander (aka Pinot Gris; Grauburgunder), Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Kerner, Scheurebe and Gewürztraminer.
Ironically, several white German varieties, including Müller-Thurgau, Kerner and Silvaner, are becoming more popular in Italy’s northern, mountainous Alto-Adige region, where these varieties apparently make more substantial wines. And Gewürztraminer for a long time has really shined primarily in France’s Alsace region—not in Germany.
Riesling definitely is king of Germany’s wines. It is the most-planted variety (22%)—a reality unique to Germany in all the world of wine.
Among the red varieties, besides Pinot Noir (Germany’s only noble red variety), you can find Dornfelder (a new crossing that makes dark-colored, fruity, tannic, rather full-bodied wines) and very small quantities of Blauer Portugieser, Trollinger and Lemberger.
Focus on the Pfalz
My recent visit to Germany included a quick stop in Rheinhessen but concentrated on two regions, the Pfalz and Baden, because these regions have been experiencing especially great improvement in their wines. The Pfalz and Baden also happen to be Germany’s warmest growing regions.
The great traditional regions for Riesling in Germany have been the Mosel, the Nahe and the Rheingau. Two other regions, Rheinhessen and the Pfalz, are not great traditional Riesling regions but today they are both making lots of dry Riesling. As Germany’s largest wine-producing regions, Rheinhessen and the Pfalz used to be regarded as a good source for inexpensive wines, such as Liebfraumilch. Although both regions still produce plenty of the fruity, easy-drinking, sweet Liebfraumilch, both the Pfalz and Rheinhessen, especially the Pfalz, are now making some of Germany’s best dry Rieslings, and, at moderate prices. In fact, the Pfalz now has the largest area for growing Riesling vines in the world.
Germany has joined the international trend towards making dryer wines in a big way. I was surprised to learn that up to 85 percent of Germany’s Rieslings are now dry. And the Pfalz is leading the way—along with Rheinhessen, to a lesser extent.
When Germany attempted to make dry Rieslings (trocken) and semi-dry Rieslings (halbtrocken) a couple of decades ago, it was not particularly successful. The wines were lean and acidic; they had little structure and flavor. But German producers have learned, and Germany’s dry Rieslings are now very good. The global warming effect, starting in Europe with the 1997 vintage, has undoubtedly helped to ripen the grapes and make them more flavorful. Germany continues to make outstanding sweet Rieslings, of course—the best in the world. But the market for these wines remains rarified and small.
Austria, Alsace and Western Australia made inroads into the German Riesling market with their dry Rieslings. But Germany is catching up in the dry Riesling arena, much to the delight of sommeliers. Riesling, the ideal food wine, continues to be a big favorite with the world’s sommeliers.
The Pfalz is a large region with two quite different climates. Almost 40 percent of the wine in the warmer southern part is red, mainly Pinot Noir, Dornfelder and Blauer Portugieser (a native Austrian variety). Many of Germany’s best dry Riesling grapes grow in the cooler, northern part of the Pfalz.
While in the Pfalz, I visited the estate of Dr. Burklin-Wolf. Founded in 1597, Burklin-Wolf is the largest privately-owned wine estate in Germany, and is now biodynamically farmed. All of Burklin-Wolf’s wines are made from grapes coming from its own vineyards. Its vineyards are low-yielding and its grapes are hand-harvested. In short, they’re doing everything right. Dr. Burklin-Wolf’s 2010 Estate Riesling has a suggested retail price of $20; one step up, their 2008 Wachenheimer Rechbachel Riesling is SRP about $45 (2008 is an excellent vintage for Pfalz Riesling).
Baden: Getting Warmer
I was especially excited to visit Baden because I had not visited it extensively before. Baden is a huge region (240 miles from north to south) in southwest Germany. It is also Germany’s third-largest wine-producing region, after Rheinhessen and the Pfalz. Baden’s Kaiserstuhl, a volcanic area between the Black Forest and the Vosges Mountains, is Germany’s warmest wine area. It is a major wine-producing zone, receiving more sunshine than any other place in the country.
A relatively huge 44% of Baden’s wines are red, primarily Pinot Noir. Baden’s cooler northern section produces mainly whites—some dry Rieslings but more Weissburgunders (Pinot Blancs) and Grauburgunders (Pinot Gris). Baden’s Weingut Heitlinger is making some impressive dry Rieslings from the Burg Ravensburg estate—which is over 750 years old. Heitlinger’s 2010 Husarenkappe, a Grand Cru dry Riesling made from 45-year-old vines, is especially impressive. The grapes were fermented after long skin contact. The wine has a lot of heft, great flavor and an extremely long finish.
The warmer southern part of Baden is now making exceptional Pinot Noirs—the best that I have ever tasted from Germany. They can compare well with the lighter-styled Burgundies from France’s Côte de Beaune, but at a lower cost. In addition to improved winemaking, I am certain that the warmer climate in Germany during the past 15 years has had a favorable influence in shaping these delightful, flavorful Pinot Noirs.
Weingut Bernhard Huber—now being imported into the U.S. by T. Edward—was the most impressive winery in Baden. His lineup of Pinot Noirs is amazing. I tasted Huber’s Pinot Noirs from the 2010 vintage back to 1990. I wish his 2002 were available in the U.S. It was superb, still singing with 10 years of age. Weingut Huber’s Pinot Noirs are wines to seek out. He also makes the best sparkling wine (sekt) that I have ever tasted from Germany—zero-dosage, made from old-vine 100% Pinot Noir; it is perfectly balanced. But it’s not yet available in the U.S., as far as I know. (Note to T. Edward: bring it in!)
If you love dry Rieslings, as I do, and flavorful, elegant, moderately-priced Pinot Noirs, please add Germany to your list. You are in for a surprising treat.