Ger­man Pinot Noir

Al­though it is the world’s third-big­gest pro­ducer of the va­ri­ety, Ger­many may not spring to mind when choos­ing Pinot Noir. But Spät­bur­gun­ders now com­pete with the world’s best. Anne Kre­biehl MW charts its rise to the top

Decanter - - CONTENTS - Ger­man-born Anne Kre­biehl MW is a free­lance wine writer, ed­u­ca­tor and judge based in Lon­don

Ger­many’s Spät­bur­gun­ders are now com­ing to the fore. Anne Kre­biehl MW points us to 20 of the finest ex­am­ples

IT’s No loNgER news that ger­many pro­duces great Pinot Noir: spät­bur­gun­ders have won top De­canter awards and made head­lines in the process. Nor is it a sur­prise to find ger­man Pinot Noirs on well-cu­rated wine lists, as their in­her­ent fresh­ness and el­e­gance make them a ver­sa­tile and nat­u­ral choice.

Yet spät­bur­gun­der still con­fuses drinkers, and it’s not sur­pris­ing: ger­man Pinot Noir thrives across four de­grees of lat­i­tude, from 48°N in Baden to 51°N in sax­ony (to com­pare, Beaune in Bur­gundy is at 47.0°N, Reims at 49.2°N ); in all of ger­many’s 13 wine re­gions; and in ev­ery imag­in­able soil. Cou­ple that with in­di­vid­ual wine­mak­ing styles and you quickly re­alise that spät­bur­gun­der can­not be shoved into a neat lit­tle box.

Re­gion­al­ity is not a re­li­able key to style: Baden no longer just stands for rounded and juicy; the Ahr is no longer quite so broad and bold. Nor is there such a thing as a def­i­nite Rhein­hessen style or a dis­tinct Pfalz flavour. But Pinot lovers should per­se­vere, be­cause a dy­namic wine­mak­ing scene is ea­gerly up­ping its game across ger­many, de­liv­er­ing finely honed and hon­est styles.

Here, ge­ol­ogy seems to be a stronger marker than re­gional prove­nance, not­with­stand­ing dif­fer­ences in cli­mate. Pinot Noirs grown on lime­stone have that ex­pan­sive tex­ture and have a lot in com­mon across re­gions; so do smoky Pinots from slate, and spicy, flo­ral ex­pres­sions from sand­stone. This is what ger­many re­ally con­trib­utes to the world Pinot stakes: nu­anced styles from basalt and loess, sand­stone and gran­ite, slate and schist, lime­stone and ke­u­per (a kind of marl).

Even if they are di­verse, they all have a cer­tain savouri­ness and the el­e­gance that comes from a tem­per­ate cli­mate.

Re­cent resur­gence

To­day, ger­many grows more Pinot Noir than New Zealand and Australia com­bined: ex­actly 11,783ha (hectares) of it. While its pres­ence can be traced to monas­tic set­tle­ments of the early Mid­dle Ages, its pan-ger­man suc­cess is rel­a­tively re­cent. Plant­ings have dou­bled since 1990, which co­in­cides with spät­bur­gun­der’s tra­jec­tory from lo­calised spe­cial­ity to flag­ship va­ri­ety. Pock­ets of Ahr, Baden, Franken, Rhein­hessen and even the Mosel had a near­for­got­ten tra­di­tion of great spät­bur­gun­der. Wines from Ass­man­nshausen in the Rhein­gau were leg­endary.

It was a vi­sion­ary old-guard who took up the ba­ton of fine ger­man spät­bur­gun­der in the mid-1980s, wine­mak­ers who ei­ther knew what Pinot Noir had done in ger­many in the past or what it could do in Bur­gundy. They tried to reach sim­i­lar heights again and slowly forged a path of qual­ity. To­day, their chil­dren and other young­sters are at the helm, fine­tun­ing, re­cal­i­brat­ing and re­defin­ing what ger­man spät­bur­gun­der is.

There are some stal­warts like Hajo Becker in Wal­luf, whose grand­fa­ther planted the first spät­bur­gun­der vines of the east­ern Rhein­gau in 1904 and whose first vin­tage was 1962, among the few who pur­sued qual­ity and dry­ness through­out, never fall­ing vic­tim to fash­ion. ‘I have never owned a bar­rique,’ he states and qui­etly con­tin­ues mak­ing be­guil­ing, bone-dry Pinot Noirs. Franz Keller at the

Sch­warzer Adler in Baden’s Kais­er­stuhl also stuck res­o­lutely to dry­ness and el­e­gance.

But a whole new gen­er­a­tion also dis­cov­ered Pinot Noir’s po­ten­tial and started a much wider qual­ity rev­o­lu­tion. Hans-Peter Ziereisen in Baden’s Mark­gräfler­land de­cided to con­vert his fam­ily es­tate from mixed farm­ing to viti­cul­ture in 1991. Un­til then, Ziereisen cheer­fully ad­mits, he only drank beer. ‘In the very be­gin­ning, just sort­ing fruit was a huge step up in qual­ity; learn­ing to han­dle wood was an­other,’ he re­mem­bers. ‘Suc­ces­sively, the qual­ity in­creases be­came smaller and smaller. To­day it’s all about fine-tun­ing.’

Also in Baden, Martin Wass­mer, who stopped sell­ing his grapes and started mak­ing his own Pinot Noir in 1997, ex­plains that it took time for a wider qual­ity paradigm to emerge: ‘It’s easy to have lots of fruit in Pinot, but then you lose out on power. Like­wise, it’s easy to achieve power and sacrifice fruit. Com­bin­ing the two is the art: achiev­ing full fruit with ex­pres­sion, length and fi­nesse.’

Fresh think­ing

In­deed, the first wave of in­ter­na­tion­ally suc­cess­ful Spät­bur­gun­ders tried to con­vince with power and flirted a lit­tle too much with oak. Ziereisen is onto some­thing when he says that he and other Ger­man Pinot mak­ers are free­ing them­selves from an ob­sti­nate idea of what Pinot Noir should be and are ap­proach­ing it with in­tu­ition in­stead.

Rainer Sch­nait­mann in Würt­tem­berg, who founded his es­tate in 1997 when he stopped sell­ing grapes to the co-op, was hailed as the Pinot wun­derkind of the early 2000s. ‘But I sus­pected even then that this style of Spät­bur­gun­der was not nec­es­sar­ily the fu­ture,’ he con­fesses. ‘We had low yields, good bar­rels and made clear-cut wines with se­ri­ous struc­ture, dif­fer­ent from what the Ger­mans pre­vi­ously knew.

‘But we re­alised we did not want to make big­ger, more pow­er­ful wines,’ he says. ‘We wanted to re­turn to the idea of Spät­bur­gun­der as a kind of red Ries­ling: there has to be fresh­ness; the cool­ness of the cli­mate has to be ev­i­dent.’ He shows his ob­ses­sive na­ture as he con­stantly and re­lent­lessly chal­lenges and ques­tions ev­ery­thing. ‘Fresh­ness, juici­ness, but also power and longevity are what I aim for. And 20 vin­tages is noth­ing,’ he ex­claims. ‘That is the rea­son why I keep ex­per­i­ment­ing. I want to do things bet­ter.’

Alexan­der Stod­den grew up in one of Ger­many’s pi­o­neer­ing Pinot Noir es­tates in the Ahr. He worked along­side his father from 2001 and took over in 2006: ‘It’s no longer about do­ing a green har­vest or canopy man­age­ment – that’s all stan­dard now,’ ex­plains Stod­den. ‘What has changed is the cal­i­bra­tion of the tim­ing of these measures, aligned to the con­di­tions of ev­ery new vin­tage. Tim­ing of the op­ti­mum moment is ev­ery­thing, as is ab­so­lute

‘We wanted to re­turn to the idea of Spät­bur­gun­der as a kind of red Ries­ling’ Rainer Sch­nait­mann (be­low)

hon­esty when it comes to low yields. That also means tak­ing a loss in cer­tain years.’

Stod­den ad­dresses an­other cen­tral point: ‘We are no longer Oech­sle fetishists,’ he states, re­fer­ring to the Ger­man must-weight scale that measures grape ripeness and po­ten­tial al­co­hol. Guid­ing growth so that grapes ripen with­out clock­ing up too much grape sugar is the chief aim now; a sig­nif­i­cant shift when ev­ery pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion was taught to value Oech­sle above all – un­der­stand­able in these northerly, of­ten in­clement climes.

Stod­den is un­der no il­lu­sion: ‘Over­ripe Spät­bur­gun­der is bor­ing, has no ten­sion or com­plex­ity. I want ripeness at 92°Oe rather than at 105°Oe,’ he ex­plains, ef­fec­tively aim­ing for ripeness at 13% al­co­hol rather than 14.5% – which can eas­ily hap­pen in Ahr. In the past, says Stod­den, the best vine­yards were usu­ally har­vested last, but to­day this no longer holds true: ‘If ev­ery­thing else is there in abun­dance, no­body will miss 1% of al­co­hol.’

Del­i­cate treat­ment

Ad­dress­ing cli­mate change is a top con­cern. Global warm­ing, a de­ci­sive fac­tor in Spät­bur­gun­der’s ini­tial suc­cess, now also poses a chal­lenge. It is no longer dif­fi­cult to ripen Pinot Noir in Ger­many. It is, af­ter all, a va­ri­ety that loves a sunny spot in an oth­er­wise tem­per­ate-to-cool cli­mate, and Ger­many has an abun­dance of such sites.

In Ger­many’s warm­est re­gion, Baden, wine­mak­ers are fully aware of this. Hol­ger Koch in the Kais­er­stuhl dis­trict says: ‘There is real dy­namism to­day. We un­der­stand soil and canopy man­age­ment far bet­ter and can achieve nat­u­rally lower yields and slower, even ripen­ing. It’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent bal­ance. This is what we’ve been work­ing on over the past years to achieve a cer­tain cool­ness and clar­ity, to make wines with re­straint but real sub­stance.’ He also un­der­lines the pu­rity of his fruit by us­ing 500-litre rather than 225-litre bar­rels. This is a com­mon theme. Ex­per­i­ments with whole-bunch fer­men­ta­tion are rife, and it’s seen as a non-wood way of bring­ing struc­ture and firm­ness to a wine.

Long hang-times are no longer fash­ion­able. Kon­rad Sal­wey, also in the Kais­er­stuhl, says he is ‘look­ing for wines that are ap­petis­ing, not big’, and is di­alling back ev­ery­thing that weighs his Pinot Noir down. ‘I try and cap­ture fresh­ness and bite,’ he says.

An even younger gen­er­a­tion, en­riched by in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, is in no doubt

that Spät­bur­gun­der’s fullest po­ten­tial still lies ahead. They also know where Ger­many’s strengths lie. Chris­tian Dau­tel re­turned to his fam­ily es­tate in Würt­tem­berg in 2010 af­ter stints in Aus­tria, Australia, France, Ore­gon and South Africa. He took full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the al­ready qual­ity-fo­cused es­tate in 2013.

‘Ev­ery year, you try and do things a lit­tle bet­ter, to ad­vance a lit­tle more,’ he says. ‘It was dur­ing my time abroad that I re­alised what ad­van­tages we have here in Ger­many, right on our doorstep: cli­mate al­lows us to make el­e­gant, fil­i­gree wines. Pinot Noir should be fine and lithe, bal­anced, but also have power and den­sity.’ To achieve this he uses less new wood and now es­chews bar­riques in favour of 300-litre and larger bar­rels. ‘I’m even think­ing of not us­ing any new wood at all,’ he muses.

Youth­ful vi­tal­ity

Dau­tel’s con­tem­po­rary, Jo­hannes Jülg of the epony­mous es­tate in the south­ern Pfalz, agrees: ‘It takes Finger­spitzenge­fühl (in­stinct) when it comes to the use of oak.’ Jülg trained with some of the top Ger­man es­tates, Stod­den among them, as well as in Bur­gundy, be­fore re­turn­ing to his fam­ily es­tate in 2010: ‘I want Pinot from my lime­stone that is pre­cise, fine, sub­tle and vi­brant. I want in­ner den­sity and tex­ture made firm and taut by acid­ity; that’s the kind of long-lived Pinot that fas­ci­nates me.’ The wine from his first vin­tage, 2010 – still dew-fresh in 2017 – is tes­ta­ment to his words.

In Würt­tem­berg, Matthias Aldinger, who crafts fra­grant Spät­bur­gun­der with his brother Hans-Jörg, echoes this: ‘The most im­por­tant thing is the time of har­vest,’ he says, and draws a par­al­lel to cook­ing: ‘Pinot Noir has to be al dente: over­cook­ing spaghetti ir­re­triev­ably ruins a dish. El­e­gance is enor­mously im­por­tant in Spät­bur­gun­der. New wood should stay in the back­ground, while ad­di­tion of whole bunches gives struc­ture.’

To­day’s young­sters want to find their own way. Jo­hannes and Christoph Sch­nei­der of Weingut Claus Sch­nei­der in Weil am Rhein, in Baden’s far south­west on the Ger­man-Swiss bor­der, em­body this ques­tion­ing spirit: ‘Even though we’ve grown up on the es­tate, even though our fam­ily has been mak­ing wine here since the 15th cen­tury, we are still find­ing the best way of do­ing things: be that plant­ing ma­te­rial, vine spac­ing or train­ing. We ex­per­i­ment with both whole-bunch and co-fer­men­ta­tion of white grapes. We aim for real un­der­stand­ing, but we know we want to ex­press our site, the Weiler Sch­lipf.’

Ju­lian Hu­ber in Baden, son of Bern­hard Hu­ber, one of Ger­many’s true Spät­bur­gun­der vi­sion­ar­ies who passed away far too early in 2014, tries to con­tinue in his father’s vein. He has the long-term view of some­one who grew up along­side young vines. ‘The vine­yards my father re­planted in the 1990s are only now reach­ing their prime,’ he says. ‘Each year the fruit gets bet­ter. My father knew that he was plant­ing for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.’

A lot of Hu­ber’s en­ergy thus goes into iden­ti­fy­ing the best clonal ma­te­rial. ‘We’ve been se­lect­ing ma­te­rial our­selves for a long

‘Pinot Noir has to be al dente: over­cook­ing spaghetti ir­re­triev­ably ruins a dish’ Matthias Aldinger

time and now have ac­cess to mixed-berried clones which have in­cred­i­ble aro­matic depth and play­ful­ness, fresh­ness and trans­parency.’

His aims re­flect the wider Ger­man qual­ity ethos of choos­ing root­stocks and scions that are per­fectly suited to each in­di­vid­ual site: many have a mix of French and Ger­man clones. Ger­many’s own qual­ity clones re­leased at the turn of the mil­len­nium are now start­ing to ma­ture. Many also make their own mas­sal se­lec­tions, prop­a­gat­ing from their own ex­ist­ing plants in order to pre­serve the best old-vine ma­te­rial.

Bright fu­ture

In terms of qual­ity Pinot Noir, Ger­many has made huge strides in a short time – de­spite the fact that a lot of the area un­der vine is still ded­i­cated to in­sipid, thermo-vini­fied co­op­er­a­tive pro­duc­tion (which thank­fully stays in Ger­many). In the hands of count­less thought­ful, in­de­pen­dent wine­mak­ers from south to north – from Baden, Würt­tem­berg, Franken, Pfalz, Rhein­hessen, Rhein­gau and Ahr, and fur­ther north and across to Sach­sen – Spät­bur­gun­der thrives. There is even a small and fas­ci­nat­ing re­vival in the Ries­ling heart­land of the Mosel.

The stylis­tic spec­trum across the coun­try is wide and the es­tates that look be­yond a strictly lo­cal mar­ket do not have to fear in­ter­na­tional com­par­i­son – on the con­trary, there is no doubt at all that Ger­many is now a fully fledged world-class player.

Above: Chris­tian Dau­tel in the fam­ily’s bar­rel cel­lar, where he opts to use casks of 300-litre ca­pac­ity and larger

Above: Hol­ger Koch’s vine­yards over­look­ing Bick­en­sohl in Baden

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