Germany: Brief Introduction and Focus On … Red Wine!
By Panos Kakaviatos for Wine Chronicles
Do not expect an encyclopaedic entry here. You can find plenty of great books on German wines, written by people who have far more expertise than I do. Nevertheless, I will be adding experiences from Germany as this website/blog develops, because I recognize and appreciate the excellent quality one can find in wines from Germany – even from reds. I recall working for the Associated Press in Frankfurt back in 2004, and every Wednesday an outdoor food market near the train station proved perfect for lunch, which sometimes included a bit of quaffing Dornfelder. Dornfelder is the second most grown red wine grape variety in Germany, and it can be adequate enough but too often monolithic. Germany however does have some excellent Pinot Noir as well as its more famous white wines.
In any case, few people seem to know that over 100 years ago, German wine was sought by connoisseurs just as much as high end Bordeaux. Prices for some of the top whites from Germany matched and even surpassed first growth Bordeaux for example.
What (still) sticks (for lack of a better word) in peoples’ memories, however, is a Liebfraumilch image of sweetish white.
As friend and wine author Stephen Brook has written: “In the minds of the general public, German wine became associated not with its glorious Rieslings, its stern Sylvaners, its robust Pinot Blancs and its exquisite sweet wines but with sugar water.”
Even today some people focus more on Germany’s late harvest Beeren- and Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein styles, and they can be indeed fantastic.
For me what is most interesting is that an increasing number of connoisseurs and educated consumer more recently have been taking advantage of very good prices for some of the best dry whites money can buy: made in Germany.
Take for example a recent tweet from legendary wine writer Hugh Johnson on 29 May 2014: “My nose in a glass of Donnhoff Nahe Riesling. How can anyone prefer the hedge/ditch smells of Sauvignon to this rosy garden perfume?”
I fondly recall a special tasting back in on 25 September 2010 in Berlin. Wine and food enthusiast Martin Zwick had gathered many tasters, including professional wine merchants, journalists, bloggers and well-known German winemaker Hans Oliver Spanier. The occasion was the ‘Berlin Riesling Cup’ when we tasted 29 grand cru Rieslings from the 2009 vintage (plus one ringer). At that time, some wines in the tasting were very rare and not yet tasted by the professional press. Martin picked the wines and German winemaker Klaus Peter Keller of the famous Keller winery chose which would be put into 15 flights of two wines.
The 2009 vintage proved very successful for German whites from quality producers. The key, according to both Keller and Spanier, was to have picked later in 2009.
In the Palatinate region (Pfalz), pickings tended to come a bit too early, they said – although exceptions exist. We also found at the tasting that many wines from the Rheingau seemed a bit flabby compared to other regions. The best wines seemed to come from Rheinhessen, Mosel and Nahe, when winemakers waited through November to pick. Spanier explained that later picking for Riesling as cold weather set in was good for ‘conserving’ its mineral aspects. He also noted that on a general level – not among most of the wines at this tasting – 2009 had some excessive yields. But among the top, “10 to 15 wines” he said, are “probably the best ever done”… with “minerality, ripeness and balance.” Mr. Keller agreed, calling his G Max in 2009 “the best” he has ever made.
I have visited both Weingut Dönnhoff and Keller. Both offer superlative examples of great German dry white wine. Here A LINK to stories from my visits to Keller and Wittmann, another excellent Riesling producer.
Here a LINK to the Berlin tasting.
German reds, too
Now, as more people become acquainted with the high quality of dry German Riesling, some German regions also can produce very high quality red wines, notably from the Pinot Noir grape. Back in 2004, I sampled several high quality red German wines. Although not all were great shakes – and many too expensive – I grew to understand that one can find excellent red wine in Germany. Climate change, at least in the mid term, seems to be good news for Pinot Noir in Germany.
Visit to Weingut Huber: Exclusive to Wine-Chronicles
Walking along the limestone over clay vineyards of the Wildenstein, one cannot help but notice a rocky surface and rather steep slope. Cistercian monks first planted Pinot Noir in the area, remarked Bernhard Huber, owner of the 2-hectare vineyard and arguably the best German red wine money can buy.
Records dating back to 1285 indicate Pinot Noir plantings dubbed “Malterdinger” after the village in Baden-Württemberg, where the 26 hectares of vines that Huber owns are located.
Although the vineyard has been in his family for several generations, Bernhard and his wife Barbara first began estate bottling, when they took control in 1987 from his father. Before that, grapes and wine were sold to a local cooperative. Over the years, they purchased more vineyards leading to their current 26-hectare tally with vines, 30 hectares in total – and 65% is planted with Pinot Noir.
Since 2004 he started “Reserve” wines bottled from vineyards individually. Before that, his top wine was a mix of vineyard sites.
Although the price tag is (very) steep for people not familiar with quality German Pinot (over 100 euros per bottle), the Wildenstein 2011, coming from just over 2 hectares of vines, exuded vivid perfumed violet and lead pencil – a very elegant yet concentrated wine that beguiles winelovers. It was easily the best German Pinot Noir I have ever tasted and I want to put it into a blind tasting of top Burgundies and see how it does.
Huber purchased 10-15 Pinot Noir clones from Jean Luc Pascal in Puligny and he has planted them in various years since 1987. His father had first planted Pinot Noir clones more common in Germany so that the vineyard includes about 30 different clones of the famous grape.
My visit to the vineyard began at 11 am and lasted until nearly 5 pm: the welcome incredibly generous, including lunch at the one-star Michelin Merkles Restaurant in the charming little town of Endingen with some 5,000 inhabitants. It was strikingly similar to a typical Alsatian village.
In spite of a recent battle with cancer, Bernhard took his time with me, to show me as well his various vineyards, including the aforementioned Wildenstein. Another fabulous vineyard he owns is his monopole Schlossberg – the best vines, along the steepest slopes of that appellation that surround the castle.
He also pointed out a €20,000 investment in a hail net to block hail where it tends to fall. In 2013 alone, he experienced €12,000 worth of grapes eaten by birds – and hit by hail.
“So the net takes care of two problems,” he said.
Wine Chronicles is about stories. And one interesting story about this domain: it exports 25 per cent of its red wines, with 10 per cent exclusively to Japan. Yes, lots of German red wine sold in Japan. How did that happen? Over five years ago, the Hubers hired a Japanese student who did an internship. He later married a Chinese girl and they speak German with one another. Since the internship, the former student has helped the domain find importers for the Japanese market.
I also met Julien Huber who works for the domain and is currently studying oenology.
Baden Spätburgunder 2011: Made from yields of about 60 to 65 hectolitres per hectare for this intro wine, from 3- to 12-old vines. The malolactic is done in older 225 litre barrels. Has ripe and light cherry notes, a touch of warmth, as 2011 was a warmer than average year. Fine tannic structure. Concentration coming from a flowering that was cool leading to some shattering and small, concentrated berries – so a less than average sized crop.
Malterdinger Spätburgunder 2011: Lower yields at 50-55 hectolitres per hectare, made from older vines between 12-25 years old. Unfiltered. A different clone used which explains a noticeably lighter colour – and a rather tart style. Is it just a bit wound up? 13.5 alcohol. The back label was in Japanese – so a bottle meant for the Japanese market.
Alte Reben Spätburgunder 2011: A noticeable step above this old vine Pinot Noir, made from 25- to 60-year old vines. It clocks in at about 13% alcohol, with 35 to 38 hectolitres per hectare. It is aged 9 to 10 months in new oak then racked into one-year old barrels. There is a touch of sweetness from the new oak but mostly harmonious. It has an elegant cherry fruit expression with some creamy elements. The palate conveys tannin and structure, but a smooth velvet like aspect. I noticed a different cork, and Huber explained that he spends about €1.30 per cork, not including vat tax and he buys corks from different producers to limit risk of TCA taint. I love the red label of this wine as well – it is a cool looking label that he has used since 1990. I bought three bottles of this Pinot Noir for €27 per bottle.
Bienenberg Spätburgunder “R” GG 2011: A €40 bottle that exhibits racy elegance. The GG stands for great growth or grand cru. Tobacco and mature fruit, plum spice on the nose lead to graphite and stewed cherry on the palate. Same winemaking as with the Old Vines wine, but slightly lower yields at 30 hectolitres per hectare from 6 prime parcels in the Bienenberg vineyard. As much as I liked the attack and the mid palate, the wine seems to have a bit of a tannic wall on finish… Give it time!
Sommerhalde Spätburgunder “R” GG 2011: Another great growth, also from five parcels but the main one is facing the Black Forest, so a cooler terroir – probably good in a warmish vintage like 2011. I preferred this to the previous wine and it sells for the same price. Really smooth expression of ripe black cherry and a real creaminess here enveloping serious tannic backbone for a longer haul.
Schlossberg Spätburgunder “R” GG 2011: Nothing to do with the first Alsace Grand Cru of the same name, this wine costs €55 bottle and comes from the very best slopes of the Schlossberg which all belong to Huber, who bought his plots in 1995. Made from whole clusters up to 90 per cent (previous wines tasted were fermented between 15 and 50 per cent whole cluster). There is plenty of power and tannic bite, which needs time to calm down. It is rich on the palate, concentration, but I could get just a hint of stem-derived flavour. Give this one time.
Wildenstein Spätburgunder “R” GG 2011: This was certainly a “wow” moment. Much like tasting Hill of Grace amongst other Barossa Valley reds. This did not have the intensity or evident tannic whoosh of the preceding wine but was far more elegant: like perfumed violets and lead. I told Huber that this simply stood out way above the preceding wines. And then I learned how much it cost: €120 for end consumers. Well the price is a bit high, but the wine clearly proves that one can have superb red wine made in Germany.
Wines over lunch: older vintages
Huber generously invited me to lunch, along the way making some restaurant recommendations for the Baden region. I mentioned Schwarzer Adler and he confirmed it as a mecca for excellent deals on a wide variety of great wines, particularly Bordeaux. You can read fellow wine blogger Christian Schiller’s recent account of his visit there in this LINK.
Huber recommended Bergfriedel in Bühlertal and the famous Schloss Neuweier near Baden-Baden. Our meal at Merkles in Endlingen. Nestled in the charming village of some 5,000 people, the restaurant earned its well-deserved Michelin star in 2011.
As delicious as they were, the sweetbreads were served in a reduced sauce that was just a bit heavy for the pair of Wildenstein Spätburgunder “R” GG 2010 and 2009s. I preferred the 2010 as more elegant and fresher (and more interesting) than the very good 2009. Both had concentration, each clocking in at 13.5% alcohol.
Huber told me that he sells his wine in the UK via Justerini and Brooks, which has an excellent page on Bernhard Huber. That page notes that Huber was named as “one of the most important wine producers in Germany of the past 20 years.”
Over the course of the lunch, we enjoy a lovely 1996 Pinot Noir Reserve (this was before Huber differentiated among vineyards), which exuded cranberry and dry fruit expressions and hints of fading violet. An intriguingly elegant wine. “For me, 1996 was a great year,” Huber remarked. “I am very happy with its evolution, even though I have had better bottles than this one.” Coming from a half bottle, the 1994 lacked was not quite as elegant as the 1996 but conveyed fine concentration and sap.
Another notable pairing over lunch was the Schlossberg GG 2008, which has fine acidity, richness and tannin. German critic Stuart Pigott had called this the “best German red” in an article that had been published in the famous German daily the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Huber remarked. We also enjoyed an elegant and pure 2002 vintage.
After lunch, I then tasted more wine with Bernhard’s son Julien, who told me of his work from 2010-2011 at Domaine Doudet Naudin in Savigny-Les-Beaune.
We tried a Bienenberg 2006, which was good enough. It was a very hard vintage with terrible weather and “we needed to pick at the least worst moment to harvest,” Julien remarked. Tasting wine from a very difficult vintage can reveal a domain’s commitment to quality. Even if the nose was a touch green, it exuded cool red fruit, too. The palate was a bit thin, but correct.
Then came the Hecklinger Schlossberg “R” 2005, which was much better than the 2006. Coming from warmer soils and a better vintage, it conveyed riper fruit.
A surprise came when Julien opened the 1990, which had been re-corked in 2007. He repeated a phrase from his dad: “We wish we had the knowledge of today with the grapes of 1990.” Back in that vintage, the family had not yet acquired Schlossberg so it was mainly composed of vines from the Bienenberg vineyard. It gave off a creamy nose with mentholated cool fruit: a fine balance between acidity and richness and very smooth on the palate even if it lacks perhaps the precision of later vintages. I almost preferred the 2005.
Is this not amusing, to visit a German winemaker and end with white wines, which are truly not the main show? I found that the oak treatment was a bit heavy sometimes and ended up liking most a certain bubbly: not inexpensive mind you, but very well made.
Malterdinger Auxerrois 2013: This was just fine. It was just bottled. Stainless steel fermented. Conveys fresh melon and white peach aromas and flavours with not too much depth: an excellent garden party wine that costs €12.50.
For the same price, the Bienenberg Grauer Burgunder (Pinot Gris) GG – a prestige appellation indeed – is clean enough but I still get Pinot Gris stickiness. Subjective alert: I generally am not a Pinot Gris fan and this costs €25…
The Schlossberg Chardonnay “R” 2011, for the same price, is a bit too oaky for me. The yellow colour was a tell-tale sign, after having undergone malolactic in new oak and aged up to 14 months in new oak. Why? Anyway, it would fit the profile for some fans of Chardonnay I suppose. There is enough freshness to make it interesting but I wonder if it would have been more balanced for my taste had it not been aged in 100% new oak or not undergone malo in new oak.
We ended things on a high note. I really liked the Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature 2008 sparkler. Aged a minimum of 3 years in bottle before disgorgement (this one saw 3.5 years), it has freshness and verve and richness. No fermentation in new oak and 2008 had lots of acidity… The residual sugar is not very high. A really good Chardonnay-based sparkler that is worth the €27 per bottle price tag.
All in all a magnificent visit to what is indeed a legendary German domain. Any serious and passionate wine lover who is visiting the Baden region in Germany or Alsace, France should contact the domain and schedule a visit and tasting.