The Germans are producers of white wine. As the natural home of the Riesling grape, viticulture in Germany is linked almost exclusively to the production of high-quality dry whites but also some of the best sweet wines made in the world. Up until recently, white wine production made up more than 80% of Germany’s total production. Only in Württemberg, where local red varietals Lemberger (Blaufränkisch), Trollinger and Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier) have always experienced popularity, have white-red ratios remained fairly constant.
Germany’s taste-buds have changed and the demand for high-quality red wine has increased. Germany itself is an important marketplace for Italian and Spanish red wines – a certain discount supermarket chain did have something to do with that – it’s introduction of relatively good Spanish and Tuscan wines at under 3€ a bottle definitely did something to fuel Germany’s growing love of the red stuff. The wineries in Germany themselves saw an opportunity however – whilst they might never be able to create such reasonable wines (and certainly not out of Tempranillo, Carignan and Sangiovese), they could create wines which, whilst being vastly different, could offer the German consumers high-quality, local produce.
It’s important to mention though that some production regions have been producing high-quality red wine for many decades already. The vintners of the Ahr Valley, south of West Germany’s ex-capital city Bonn have been making classic Pinot Noir for the best part of 100 years. Baden in Germany’s Southernmost and sunniest corner has also been home to all of the Pinot varietals for a very long time with the red Pinot Noir making up a consistently-high proportion of area under vine for a few decades already – Pinot Noir is not new here.
The quality of Pinot Noir is new though. Pioneered by a few in Baden, the Pfalz, Württemberg and the Ahr Valley, the handling of wines with Barrique, limited vineyard yields and the introduction of Bourgogne-style classification has lead to Germany’s wineries being the birthplaces of some of the world’s best Pinot Noir and that’s not subjective – everyone is saying it.
The importance of Barrique
The Deutsches Barrique Forum, founded in 1991 was an institution to protect the new-found practise of aging (particularly) red wine in methods only really found before in France – little oak barrels (Barrique). Attacked at first by traditionalist wineries and governing bodies, the German Barrique Forum now has a few dozen members and definitely assisted in such ‘modern’ wines becoming both acceptable and popular.
Nevertheless, not all German Pinot Noir is produced in this way – most is true to the old-style ways – rather sour, thin reds produced en-masse pressed and fermented to satisfy local demand and, even worse, the lower shelves of the supermarkets. Most producers make Pinot Noir or Spätburgunder as an ‘also-grown’ line – whilst such wines are interesting and do portray a fair amount about local winemaking, they’re rarely anything to write home about and certainly don’t have any international appeal.
However, the handful of producers who make proper Pinot Noir are really good at what they do. Whilst some produce this varietal solely, many produce several different wines. On this blog before I’ve mentioned Baden and Ahr as being the home of the best Pinot Noir, I’ve also mentioned the countless blind-tastings where German wines have emerged victorious over stiff competition from wines made in Oregon, Marlborough and even Burgundy – if you wish to find out more, click here.
This time though, I want to paint a bolder picture of German Pinot Noir. I rarely see competition as a true indicator of quality. What I’m trying to say is that certain wines made in Germany of Pinot Noir are worthy of recognition in their own right – they don’t need to be compared with Premier and Grand Cru wines from the Bourgogne to be creditable.
I’ve been drinking German Pinot Noir for a number of years now. Having holidayed in Baden several times, the ability to simply visit a winery and try everything they have on offer is too tempting to leave out of the daily program. In Baden’s Ortenaukreis (South of the city of Baden-Baden and close to Strasbourg), I tried many dozens of wines from local producers. Their whites were mild and sunny, the reds disappointing, off-balance and sour. There was always an exception though – the wines with the word ‘Barrique’ on the bottle. Whereas the sour cassis-driven berry-body of the sharp Pinot Noir nearly always came through, in a handful of wines, this was worked in so well with the Barrique that this ‘unripe’ red wine tasted complete and satisfactory.
A pattern emerged. Whilst I’m a big fan of the Winzergenossenschaft (communal-growing winemaking) thing that Germany’s grape-growers do, the better wines nearly always came from proper wineries that owned their own plants and maintained the vines themselves – the same is true in Burgundy, in fact the entire Burgundy classification is based on this very fact.
Whilst not all German wineries are members of the VDP, wines where particular vineyards are named on the bottles do tend to be a touch better than general ‘Rotweine’. The first-growth wines of the VDP are the better wines although Ortsweine, Gutsweine and unclassified vineyards from certain producers also account for some fantastic red.
Single-vineyard wine is however fairly rare and the wineries opt rather for the Bordeaux-style methods of choosing what they consider to be the best fruit rather than only fruit from one particular vineyard. Of course, in classified Großes Gewächs wine, this is not the case.