Over a year ago I put my name down to give one of the monthly tastings at the North East Wine Tasting Society (NEWTS) and chose Germany as my theme. If you mention German wine to a random group of people you’ll likely get one of the following negative responses;
- “Never touch the stuff, I remember the 80s; cheap and tacky!”
- “The most incomprehensible wine labels in the world; can’t read them, can’t pronounce them, don’t buy them!”
- “Eugh, Riesling! Smells and tastes like sweetened engine run-off!”
The stereotypically negative responses are all the more painful if you are aware of Germany’s rich wine history stretching back over a thousand years. During the 18th and 19th centuries the top German wines were more sought after (and more expensive) than those from Bordeaux, but vine disease, economic depression and war all took their toll so that by the 1980s the German fine wine industry had collapsed and been replaced by an expanse of low quality grapes producing cheap, sugary offerings such as Liebfraumilch, Piesporter Michelsberg and Blue Nun. Although these do not feature further in this piece I urge you to read TheWineRambler post from earlier this year where this infamous trio go head to head in a blind taste-off!
The good news is that most of the best vineyard sites are still there creating some of the world’s greatest white wines and, if you’re lucky, you will find a like-minded soul who has had their Riesling epiphany – but what about taking the question further and asking about that most mythical of beasts, German Red wine?
Give the most hardened naysayers a few minutes to recover from fits of laughter and then collect the answers;
- “Did you mean to say red?”
- “I prefer tannin to sugar you know!”
- “There’s only so much thin, acidic wine I can drink”
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get “I hear they make the odd decent bottle of Pinot”, which is something I’ve touched upon in my 2008 post Better Spät’ than never, but that response will be limited to the more informed wine enthusiast, even though planting in Germany increased in the 1990s and 2000s so that now about 35% of the country’s 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of vineyards are devoted to red grapes.
To make my first ever tasting even more difficult I’d vowed that it wouldn’t just be a night of Riesling but would be a representative range from the world’s 8th largest wine producing nation covering the key styles, regions and grapes yet keeping within the constraints of a limited budget and 10 bottle maximum. My challenge, therefore, was to find wines that could stand up to the critical palettes (and stereotypes) of the massed ranks of the NEWTS (famed for their suspicion of whites and thin reds).
In sourcing the wines I was lucky that business trips to Germany last year meant I quickly had the core of the tasting ready but, by the beginning of April, and with only a few weeks to go, I still needed four or five to make up the numbers and provide a backup in case of any faulty bottles. What surprised me was exactly how involved it was to source these final bottles, confirming just how difficult it is to buy interesting German wine in the UK – especially if it’s not Riesling from the Mosel.
I was especially disappointed by my local Majestic store when I walked up to the large “Germany” sign in the corner only to find 5 Rieslings and the rest of the space taken up by bottles from Alsace, Austria and Hungary (the only time those areas were grouped with Germany was during both World Wars, so let’s not analyse that any further!).
Oddbins was not much better, but it did have the excuse of limited shelf-stock due to being in the process of going out of business, and even then it had the Villa Wolf 2009 Pinot Noir which was my last ever purchase from the Newcastle store before it finally shut its doors.
Wine Dancer.com was required to add a bit of sparkle to the evening with the Michael Schäfer Sekt, although his Lieblich Dornfelder sweet red didn’t make it into the starting line-up. Finally a local retailer, Dennhöfer Wines (hidden away in the wilds of Northumberland) came to the rescue providing a quality Pinot Noir and a refreshing Rosé.
So to the evening itself, and we started with an aperitif in the form the Cabinet Gold Trocken Sekt from Weingut Michael Shäfer in the lower Nahe. This been a family business since 1732 and Alfred and Karl-Heinz Shäfer operate a modern winery outside Dorsheim, although the original cellars in Burg Layen are still used for tastings. Like nearly 95% of Sekt this was made by the Méthode Charmat, where the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in pressurised steel tanks (autoclaves) as opposed to bottles, creating a fruitier style than those made in the traditional-method. Frenchman Eugène Charmat championed this on a commercial scale in 1907 with a move away from earlier, wooden tank techniques and the process is also known as Martinotti-Charmat Method or the Metodo Italiano, as it is a common technique for Prosecco production.
The Cabinet Gold Trocken was an unidentified blend, probably of Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Weißburgunder and Scheurebe varieties which are grown on the 15ha Shäfer estate. At 11% abv we expected it to be simple and sweet, so were pleasantly surprised by a satisfying fruity wine with some depth and dryness, compared to a good Cava by some in the room. It was described as “not really Trocken” and some thought the bubbles disappeared quite quickly, but even then it was pleasant enough to drink and was generally liked by the group, especially at £8.96 (from Wine Dancer in the UK).
We then moved onto the 2004 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett from Weingut Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, an estate with a history spanning more than 650 years since the von Kesselstatt dynasty migrated to the electorate of Trier in the 14th century – the first documented vineyard purchase dates from 1349.
Although based in Morscheid in the Mosel the Weingut has 36ha of vineyards spread evenly over the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer river valleys, 98% which is Riesling –it doesn’t come any more traditional than this with their range embracing the Prädikat system and tending towards the off-dry styles.
The Ockfener Bockstein vineyard is one of the Saar’s steepest south facing slopes stretching upwards from a height of 180m (590ft) to 320m (1,050ft), its Devonian slate soils protected by a forest at the top of the valley which acts as a natural irrigation system to reduce vine stress in dry weather.
2004 has been described as benchmark for a normal, classic German vintage, with high ripeness levels and lively acidity, prime for ageing. At 8.5% abv the 100% Riesling Kabinett had a wonderful honeyed nose, slightly floral with typical petro-chemical aspects. There was a richly textured, oily mouthfeel, slightly sweet with some apple and maybe a hint of noble rot. Although it could have done with a touch more acidity it was well balanced and well liked by the group, “it reminds you of how good German wines can be”. What raised more comment was the price, only £7.49 from the local Co-operative supermarket (although that was reduced from £9.99, but even then a ridiculously low price for such a good wine).
We stayed in the Saar for the next wine, the 2006 Alte Reben (old vines) Riesling from Weingut Van Volxem in Wiltingen, just downstream from Ockfen.
The estate is located on the site of a Jesuit monastery and owned by Roman Niewodniscanski, the half-Polish heir to the Bitberger brewing dynasty who purchased it in 1999 after four generations of Van Volxem family management. His 42ha of organic vineyards are also some of the steepest in the Saar (as is the man himself, standing nearly 7 feet tall) growing Riesling and a small amount of Weißburgunder. Grapes for the Estate Riesling come from 30 year old vines, mere babes compared to the 50-100 year old vines used for the premium labels – there’s even a small amount of ungrafted, 120 year old, pre-Phylloxera Riesling.
The story goes that Niewodniscanski bought some of the best terroir in the area using 19th century tax maps which showed the top vineyards, many of which had been forgotten about, and he claims to be guided by such wines as Henri Jayer Burgundies and those “made in Germany a century ago when our wines were worth three times as much as top red Bordeaux”. Unlike von Kesselstatt he’s given up on the Prädikat system, instead making low-yield wines from late-harvested grapes using natural yeasts and spontaneous fermentation through to relative dryness. The results are “harmonic dry” wines – ripe and low in acidity, never over 12.5% abv and completely different to the classic Mosel style with extended lees contact and oak barrel maturation.
2006 is known as the year of botrytis in the Mosel with an early harvest and a small crop, with better acidity levels and higher sugar readings than previous comparable vintages.
At 12% abv the 2006 Alte Reben we had (simply labelled as Saarweine GrossLagen) and had a slightly closed nose of lychees and honeyed raisins, but in the mouth was wonderfully complex; clean, dry with creamy apricots and stone-fruit bitterness. A popular wine with the group this came from local retailer Richard Granger at just over £14 a bottle.
A change of region, grape and style next, with the 2007 Illusion Eins by Weingut Meyer-Näkel from Dernau in the Ahr, the smallest of Germany’s 13 wine regions (Anbaugebiete). The original Meyer estate was founded in 1870 but it wasn’t until 1950, when winemaker Willibald Näkel married Paula Meyer, that the Meyer-Näkel name was created, quickly becoming a pioneer for a new breed of German dry red wines. Although trained as a teacher Willibald’s son Werner took over winemaking in 1983 and has developed the 15ha estate so that it now is probably one of the most famous Ahr producers and has an international reputation for award winning Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir).
The wine we tried was a Spätburgunder, but not a red one – instead it was a Weißherbst (white autumn) where single variety, Prädikat quality red grapes are gently pressed and fermented without skin contact. This creates a light, delicately coloured wine often described as a type of Rosé and popular in Germany, although the Illusion Eins had barely a hint of colour.
Although 2007 has been described as a classic Ahr vintage producing elegant wines unfortunately the group were quick to pick up on hints of oxidation and an excess of sulphur reduction. I quite enjoyed its tart, lemon biscuit aspect, but comments of a hollow middle and a short, dry finish showed I was in a minority here.
This was the first of the wines I’d bought in Germany last year from Weinhaus Fehser in Heidelberg at €15 (£13).
We shifted regions again and moved onto a more traditional Rosé next with the Villa Wolf 2009 Pinot Noir Rosé by Weingut J.L. Wolf of Wachenheim, Pfalz.
Founded in 1756 by Johann Wolf, the estate flourished in the 19th Century but mirrored the fall of the German wine industry in the 20th until 1996, when renowned Mosel winemaker Dr. Ernst Loosen took over the winemaking and halted the rot. The 16ha vineyards are predominantly Riesling with 10% of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Silvaner.
2009 was a great German vintage in the Pfalz, Germany’s largest Anbaugebiete, producing ripe wines. This showed through in the Villa Wolf Rosé which had a sweet, red berry nose with a little toffee and spiced cinanamon, while the flavour had some forest fruits and a creamy mid-palate. The wine was purchased from Northumberland based Dennhöfer Wines at £7.82 a bottle and comments from the room were favourable, with comparisons to a Provençal rosé, although I found the fruit a little confected and there was a noticeable harshness on the finish which detracted.
Our first red was a Schwarzriesling Spätlese Trocken by Wein & Sektgut Bernd Hummel of Malsch in northern Baden, Germany’s warmest wine region. This is the only German Anbaugebiete situated in the warmer E.U. wine growing zone B and stretches 125 miles from just above Heidelberg in the north down to Basel on the Swiss border.
Economist Bernd Hummel took over his father’s estate in the Kraichgau, south of Heidelberg, in 1984 after travelling the world, focussing on reduced yields and organic viticulture. He has 9ha of vineyards with 50% Spätburgunder and a mélange of other grapes including Weißburgunder, Schwarzriesling, Lemberger, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Auxerrois, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Mitos, Dornfelder and Regent! 70% of his production is red, typically with oak cask fermentation and 2 year barrel ageing before release.
We tasted mixed vintages (2005 and 2006) of Schwarzriesling, which literally means black Riesling but is actually Pinot Meunier (aka Müllerrebe) — not typically seen as a single varietal red. This was an interesting and well received wine with a smoky, cherry nose and a light but elegant flavour including cherry, caramel and a little tar. There was not a great deal of difference between the 2 vintages apart from the alcohol; with the 2005 coming in at 13.5% and the 2006 at 12.5% reflecting that years comparatively shorter harvest due to autumn rains.
This was another of my Heidelberg purchases from Weinhaus Fehser, this time for €12.10 (£10.50).
We stayed in North Baden for the 2008 Heidelberger Herrenberg Spätburgunder S from Weingut Hans Winter in the suburb of Rohrbach, inside the old town of Heidelberg where the family has lived since the middle ages. Although vineyard documentation only dates back to 1749 the Winters consider themselves the oldest winery in Heidelberg with 15th and 16th Century cellars – the ancient Heidelberger Herrenberg vineyard itself is said to date back to the year 766! Although managing 14ha of vineyard only 4ha goes to produce their own label wines, primarily white varieties such as Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Weißburgunder and Grauburgunder. For their red grapes traditional winemaking methods are used with fermentation on the skins and ageing in old oak casks or barrels.
At 14% abv the dry Spätburgunder had a touch more body and depth to the previous wine, showing a lovely fruity nose with a hint of spice. It had a good mouthfeel with juicy fruit at the front, a mid-palate of bitter cherry and a tannic finish with claims of beetroot from some in the room – a popular wine and the last of my Winehaus Fehser selection at €12.50(£10.99).
Baden had one more red to offer the tasting, although this time we moved much further south to the town of Vogtsburg-Bischoffingen and Weingut Johner, with their 2007 Estate Pinot Noir.
Karl Heinz Johner studied Oenology and Viticulture at Geisenheim before becoming winemaker at Lamberhurst Vineyard in Kent, where he experimented with sparkling wine production. He returned to Germany in 1985 to set up his own winery and continued to experiment, making concentrated, barrique aged wines so different to the norm that the they could only be sold as table wine. Since then Johner has avoided the traditional Prädikat system with all wines bottled with a screw-cap closure and no references to vineyard site, although the reserve wines are identified with „SJ” (Selektion Johner). He then felt the need to challenge himself further and set up Johner Estate in New Zealand where he now spends most of his time, leaving the running of Weingut Johner to his English-born son Patrick.
The 16.5ha estate grows similar amounts of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc along with some Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc on the terraced vineyards on the edge of the Kaiserstuhl plateau on the opposite bank of the Rhine from Colmar in the Alsace.
2007 was a very good vintage for Baden and this showed in the complexity and balance of the wine. It had a savoury, mushroom nose and a creamy texture with some redcurrant fruit and a clear burst of acidity throughout. The quality of this wine stood out and comments included “a classic Pinot” and “a delight to taste” – many admitted that they would not have considered it from Germany if tasted blind. This wine sparked an interesting discussion in the room, however, the price tag of £19.54 from Dennhöfer Wines was still a surprise to some even though it was served at a recent Ambassador’s dinner In Newcastle.
The final red of the night was a first for everyone in the room, the Chapeau vom Dalberg No. 19 2008 Acolon by Weingut & Sektkellerei Dalbergerhof Strauch in the Rheinhessen, our 6th and final Anbaugebiete of the night.
The winery is based in Osthofen on the river Seebach, a very short river that flows for only 9 km before emptying into the Rhine just downstream of Worms. There is very little information available on the producer other than it owns several stores across Germany which sell only Dalbergerhof wines, this bottle I’d got from the Weinhaus am Grindl in Hamburg for €20 (£18).
In case you haven’t figured it out Acolon is the grape variety, an early ripening cross of Blauer Lemberger (aka Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos) and Dornfelder created in 1971 and officially recognised in 2002. Although initially limited to 79ha of experimental sites it is becoming established as an option both in and out of Germany, with the variety used in Belgium (Château Bon Baron) and also authorised in England (New Hall Vineyards in Essex has about 2.8ha).
2008 was not a good vintage in the Rheinhessen but this organic wine still managed a ripe 14.5% abv. On the nose there was some sweet fruit, plum (guava was shouted across the room) and raspberry but also a hint of acetate making it a little medicinal. It was easy drinking with fine yet persistent chocolate tannins and syrup of figs in the flavour. A scathing “international fruit driven wine” was heard, although many enjoyed its simple pleasures.
And so to the final wine of the night, again from Rheinhessen but this time another switch in style to the late harvested 1999 Huxelrebe Beerenauslese by Weingut Schales of Flörsheim-Dalsheim. This is another family business going back 8 generations to 1783 and something of a sweet wine specialist, having seen a record 56 Eiswein harvests in their 228 year history.
Their 60ha of vineyards include Riesling, Grauburgunder, Müller-Thurgau, Weißburgunder and a mix of other varieties including the Huxelrebe, which is another grape creation, this time by the famous Dr Georg Scheu who crossed Gutedel (Chasselas) and Courtiller Musqué (Muscat Précoce de Saumur) in 1927. It was named after viticulturalist Fritz Huxel who was the first to cultivate it extensively and received varietal protection in 1969, being grown primarily in the Rheinhessen and used for sweet white wines that typically reach Auslese standards in average vintages – 1999 was such a vintage with September rains diluting acidity and quality.
The Beerenauslese had a mango nose and I enjoyed its tart tatin acidity, although some questioned its freshness and said it was “a bit flabby”. Overall though it was a decent sweet wine to finish the night on, especially with a price tag of only £11.99 for the 500ml bottle from another local supermarket, Robbs of Hexham, back in early 2010.
So there we have it, a whistle-stop tour with 10 wines from 6 Anbaugebiete, 5 grape varieties and 7 styles covering much of what Germany has to offer. The most impressive wine of the night by far was the K.H. Johner 2007 Pinot Noir, but even the simpler wines had many in the room questioning why they don’t drink more German wines. I think some prejudices were broken, although the biggest hurdle remains the lack of availability of all but a handful of Rieslings in the UK, something that won’t change until the average consumer starts to see beyond the sweet sugar water wines from last century.
Greybeard Originally published May 22nd, 2011 on Reign of Terroir