Everyone needs to learn to share. Argentina, for example: for a long time their wines were all consumed domestically. When Chile’s reputation abroad first began growing, wines from the other side of the Andes remained a mystery. Austria’s situation was similar; not only did they consume their own wines, they imported plenty as well. In both cases, though, as winemakers got to know more about the wines from outside their borders, they felt an urge to show the world they could compete at the same level. Now it’s Germany’s turn.
Germany? Aren’t Germany’s wines already famous? Well, Riesling, sure. But like Austria, Germany’s never really convinced anyone about their red wines. That’s changing, and the grape to look out for is Spätburgunder. If you’re sick to death of learning new grape names, we could also call it what the rest of the world does: Pinot Noir.
This shouldn’t be a surprise; Pinot Noir has always taken to cooler climates. German winegrowers have been giving it renewed attention since the 1980s. Part of the progress may be attributable to global warming; sure, Pinot likes it cool, but it still needs to ripen. Longer growing seasons and a bit of extra warmth can ensure ripe fruit aromas and eliminate greenness. Vineyard techniques have also helped; the New Zealand art of canopy management (training and pruning the vine and leaves to control sun exposure and prevent rot) has taken hold. In the winery, the use of barriques (France’s smaller wine barrels) has been useful, if problematic. Worldwide, wherever red wine makers start using barriques, there’s a tendency to get carried away, letting the toast and smoke aromas of the barrels cover the fruits’ natural flavors instead of supporting them. It’s a hard balance to achieve and a work in progress for many German producers (and Austrian ones, for that matter).
Within the German context, it should be no surprise that Baden has led the way in red wine. Wedged between the Rhein and the Black Forest, it’s the country’s southernmost wine region, following the French border opposite Alsace and wrapping up between Pfalz and Württemberg (The latter is also producing some remarkable reds, especially from Lemberger.). Baden enjoys the relative warmth of its southern location, and at least some of the same protection against rainfall at harvest that the Vosges Mountains afford Alsace. Smaller producers are driving quality forward, with Burgundy as their model. Macerating the skins and must together and pumping the juice over the skins (to extract color, flavor, and tannins) may seem like old hat if you’re used to reading about Burgundy or elsewhere, but for years it was not the norm here.
Farther north, the Pfalz and Rheinhessen are both having some success with Pinot Noir, though among reds, the fruity Dornfelder is more heavily planted, especially in the latter. Historically, though, we have to go even farther north to get to “traditional” Pinot country. At the west end of the Rheingau, where the river turns north, the town of Assmannshausen claims to have grown Pinot Noir for centuries; some attribute its introduction to Charlemagne. Other areas of the Rheingau have been planting the grape in the past few decades as well.
Even farther north is what may be the biggest oddity among German reds: the Ahr River. Extending west off the Rhein between Bonn and Koblenz, the Ahr has been home to Pinot Noir since the late 1600s and makes up 50% of the region’s plantings. Steep slopes along the river are absolutely essential for ripening this far north, and rain is a serious problem. Despite – or perhaps because of – its older red wine tradition, the Ahr’s wines vary quite a bit in quality; whereas the small, up-and-coming winemakers of Baden and the Pfalz have to work hard to make their reputations, some of the Ahr’s producers skate by on their historicity and traditional markets within Germany.
Whether traditional or newfangled, German Pinot Noirs have a mixed reputation among wine drinkers, as a quick search of the blogosphere will reveal. Some proponents seem a little overeager to support all things German, or to prove that they’ve discovered the Next Big Thing. Many critics of the wines, however, seem to be looking for a style that’s simply inappropriate given the cool climate. Fans of big, soft Sonoma Coast or Russian River Valley Pinot Noir are not going to find much to like in these wines; but if you like lighter-bodied, red-fruit and earth-touched Pinots from Burgundy, Sancerre, or Menetou-Salon, these German wines are worth a look.
A final thought on that note. If German Rieslings have trouble ripening to 12° or 13° alcohol, then how is Pinot managing it? Simply put, they’re chaptalizing: adding sugar prior to or during fermentation, so that the yeast eats it up along with the grape sugars and gives the wine a bit more alcohol in the end. There’s no scandal here; it’s a very old technique, and as long as chaptalization is limited to a degree or two, the resulting wine can still be balanced. If you think you’d rather stick to “au naturel” Pinots from Burgundy, think again – where do you think the Germans got the idea? (And California? A lot of their Pinots have the opposite problem, and are acidified. So there.)
Some recommended wines (Some may be labeled as Spätburgunder, depending on the importer, etc.):
Dr. Heger Pinot Noir, Ihringer Winklerberg ‘Mimus’ 2004 medium-bodied, with a mix of almond, cherry, and smoke aromas ($60)
Becker Estate Pinot Noir ‘B’ 2006 a lighter style, with forest floor, cranberry, and raspberry notes ($20)
Rebholz Pinot Noir ‘vom Muschenschalk’ 2004 complex, with slatey mineral notes as well as cherry, raspberry, and almond aromas, as well as great length ($38)
Wasem Pinot Noir 2005 lots of plum and floral notes, and a silky mouthfeel ($25)
Hans Lang Pinot Noir 2004 medium-bodied, with lots of fruit and a smooth mouthfeel, but not as drying as most – Beaujolais-like ($20)
August Kesseler ‘Assmannshausen Höllenberg’ Pinot Noir 2004 very silky and complex; shows beautiful blackberry, raspberry, spice, and smoke aromas, plus an underlying minerality ($35)
Meyer Nakel Pinot Noir 2004 lots of cherry and mushroomy earth notes; medium-bodied, with good length ($27)
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