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Good German Pinots: oxymoron or reality?

Good German Pinots: oxymoron or reality?

Rudi Graeter

Wurttemberg, with its capital Stuttgart, a wine town in its own right, is one of Germany’s lesser known wine regions, In fact, Wurttembergers love their wines so much that most of it is consumed at home.

I grew up in this wine country, where men would spend evenings in the pub, sipping two or three viertele (quarter liters) of the local reds with names like Spatburgunder (Pinot noir), Dornfelder and Lemberger. These wines were light and fruity, with just a touch of residual sugar. Burgundies or Bordeaux, the role models for so many New World winemakers, were not on the radar.

Years later, after having had the good fortune of tasting red Burgundies and California Pinots, the reds back home tasted shallow and insipid. My first encounter with “serious” German red wines was in Baden, across the Rhine from Alsace, during a visit in 2002. I wasn’t exactly bowled over. However, most of these Pinots had come from the difficult 2000 vintage.

Back in California, I found an intriguing ’99 Spatburgunder at DeeVine Wines in San Francisco, made by Hans-Jakob Kuhn of Rheingau Riesling renown. Then, in November 2002, Newsweek published a gushing article about German Pinots. Was there a paradigm shift in the making? Not according to Robert Parker, who writes in his most recent Wine Buyer’s Guide, “… the German Pinot noir (is) a grotesque and ghastly wine that tastes akin to a defective, sweet, faded, diluted red Burgundy from an incompetent producer. Need I say more?”

But wait. Suddenly I am noticing German Pinots on the wine lists of such an outstanding San Francisco restaurant as Slanted Door, and at the new Valhalla in Sausalito. Could it be possible to produce Pinot noir and other reds of substance and breed in some of Europe’s most northerly vineyards with their precarious weather? Might it be feasible to compensate for the shortcomings of the climate by planting vines on extremely steep hillsides in narrow valleys that trap the heat?

In the spring of 2003, I made arrangements to visit some of the best-known red wine producers of Germany the following summer. Ted, a fellow Californian and Pinot aficionado, made one his derisive comments about Spatburgunder when I told him about my plans. However, he liked the idea of traveling through the wine country and joined me.

Germany’s wine regions along the Rhine and its tributaries have a red wine tradition reaching back to the 13th century, when Burgundian monks founded monasteries there. This ancient tradition was disrupted with the French conquest of the Rhineland under Louis XIV in the late 1600s, which brought with it massive imports of French red wines. Most German growers could not compete, and switched to whites.

Reds lingered on in a few pockets. Their declining quality relegated them to the status of local curiosities. This began to change when winemakers who had worked in France and in New World wineries came on the scene in the early 1980s. They realized that they had the ingredients to make better reds, despite the vagaries of the northern climate.

Now came a period of furious experimentation. It started in Wurttemberg, the one region with an unbroken red wine tradition, where growers use a number of red varieties besides Pinot noir. Winemakers there were the first to experiment with barrique aging.

Sigfried Roll, cellarmaster of the princely estate of Furst zu Hohenlohe-Oehringen, was one of the pioneers who aged his Lembergers in barriques. A barrel tasting there showed that they have an uncanny resemblance to good Bordeaux.

“When we wanted to experiment with actual Bordeaux varieties,” Roll said, “we knew the wine bureaucrats would rip out the vines, so we planted them hidden behind our local varieties.”

The authorities eventually relented, and these experiments continue. A barrel tasting of the 2002 Bordeaux varietals was tantalizing.

Other producers near Stuttgart, like the estates of Werner Kuhnle, Karl Haidle, or Peter Wohrwag, produce excellent reds, sometimes blends of the delicate Pinot noir and more robust varieties like Lemberger or Dornfelder.

In the Rheingau of Riesling fame, reds are a rarity, except in the village of Assmannshausen, home of Walter Schug, one of California’s Pinot pioneers. Until the recent “red revolution” in Germany, most Pinots tended to resemble the image that Robert Parker conveys.

But change is in the air. The charge is led by August Kesseler, whose polished Pinots from his best vineyards belong to the top category of German reds. When we got to the estate, a distraught Kesseler excused himself. “I’ve got to drive up to the vineyard to check on my vines. Did you see the hail storm that just hit the village?” The heat wave in Europe had almost made us forget what vintners are up against in such northerly climes.

Our next destination was the Ahr, a small tributary of the Rhine. Most reds there are still insipid and guzzled by daytrippers from Bonn and Cologne. However, the world’s most northerly Pinot noir outpost, with its shockingly steep vineyards, is home to a handful of vintners who produce some of Germany’s best Pinots. The pioneer is Werner Nakel, a former teacher.

Nakel is easy-going and unpretentious. We tasted an outstanding line-up of barrique-aged Pinots from the ’02 vintage, all showing fabulous fruit, balance and very impressive length. “Of course, the winemakers here chaptalize almost automatically, but so do the Burgundians,” he responded to Ted’s question about the sugar level that their Pinot fruit achieves.

Gerhard Stodden, a fellow Ahr Valley producer, is a passionate winemaker on the move up. His Pinots demonstrated the amazing differences that variation in soils can make. One sample was black as night, with fruit jumping out of the glass; another one was much lighter in color with a restrained bouquet, but still finishing with very good length. A Spatburgunder of Auslese quality level had amazing concentration and length.

Now it was off to the Pfalz. Hansjorg Rebholz spent hours with us, demonstrating how he achieves the astounding quality of his wines, red and white. He drove us to his vineyards and explained how different orientation, location, and soil impact the wines.

From there, we headed to the lair of Bernd Philippi, a bear of a man, who owns the venerable Koehler-Ruprecht estate in Kallstadt. Philippi is not a copycat winemaker. “I never, ever chaptalize my wines,” he says. This and his other idiosyncratic methods have ruffled a few feathers, but when he gets things right, the results are outstanding.

Philippi was adamant that we stop at the Knipser estate. It covers the gamut, from Pinot noir to Syrah. Its Pinots and Dornfelders were deeply colored, smooth, with great balance and length. Its Syrahs were lovely. “I can’t believe the nonsense that Robert Parker writes about the red wines we now produce in Germany,” lamented the younger of the Knipser brothers. He continued by saying, “I hope you are going to take a more balanced view.”

Baden is a large wine region located between the Black Forest and the Rhine, directly across from Alsace. Our first appointment was with Joachim Heger of Weingut. Urgent matters needed attending and he handed us over to Walter Bibo, his assistant, who since has become the CEO of Schloss Reinhartshausen/Rheingau, a German flagship estate.

In the cellar, Bibo explained the winemaking philosophy of the Heger estate. “We are keeping our yields way down and at harvest we make sure that only healthy, ripe grapes are getting back to the winery.” Then he added, “the estate is also experimenting with Pinot clones that we import directly from Burgundy.”

Heger Pinots are all about beautiful fruit, structure, elegance and depth, and Joachim Heger keeps pushing the envelope.

Our visit to the Salwey winery was arranged on short notice. Young Konrad Salwey grew up thinking, “I hate everything about the wine business and I’ll never have anything to do with it.” But in the fullness of time, the blood of a born winemaker asserted itself. After enology school, he joined the family estate. A barrel tasting left us with the impression that quality levels of its most recent Pinots are going beyond their earlier siblings. This estate is moving up into the top rank among German Pinot noir producers.

Finally, we headed for the Bernhard Huber estate. Huber was the star of Newsweek’s article on German Pinots. “At professional wine tastings in Paris, London and Copenhagen, Huber’s Spatburgunder–a silky, luxurious red made from the Pinot noir grape–has consistently scored top notches, beating much more famous (and pricier) French and Californian wines.” The article then quotes a wine professional: “‘Huber’s wine is absolutely one of the top in the world’, raves Francois Mauss, a Frenchman and the president of the Grand Jury Europeen … ‘If you’d asked me 20 years ago if the Germans could one day make a wine like this, I would have said never, never, never.'”

Once the international laughing stock for Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun wines, Germany is now gaining world attention for its wines. The Newsweek article continues: “Now, there’s hardly a competition where a bottle of Spatburgunder or Riesling, the country’s traditional white wine grape, doesn’t win an accolade; at the closely watched International Wine Challenge competition in London last month, German wines won more trophies than any other country, including France.”

In short, German reds, especially Pinots, are on the map. Comparing them with those of California is like comparing apples and oranges. They are less fruit-driven than California Pinots and resemble more the Burgundy style. Regional differences add interest to German Pinots. There are about a dozen estates that produce outstanding Pinots in good years. About three dozen more are nipping at their heels.

Will they be exported? Most German Pinots cost much less than their Burgundy counterparts. They may find a market among consumers who want a break from the fruit-driven style of New World Pinots. Some German Pinots are trickling into trendy Bay Area restaurants. Finding them in stores is another matter. To my knowledge, only DeeVine Wines in San Francisco carries several producers from the Rheingau. Spatburgunders are likely to remain a rarity, considering the small amounts actually produced.

Has Ted changed his mind about German Pinots after this trip? You bet he has. He adores them.

(Rudi Graeter is a wine educator who teaches wine appreciation classes at several Bay Area colleges.)

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