Pinot Noir from Germany is on an extraordinary upwards trajectory – but not many people know that. People always say: “Germany is a white wine country,” says Anne Krebiehl MW, who originally comes from the Black Forest area of southern Germany. People ask: “How can they ripen Pinot Noir?”
Known in Germany as Spatburgunder, Pinot Noir grows in each of Germany’s 13 wine regions and, says Krebiehl, dates back to the Middle Ages. Its inclusion in the viticultural landscape, introduced by 13th-century Cistercian monks, may even pre-date its cultivation in Burgundy.
However, interest in it has surged only in the past couple of decades, and there are “proper reasons” for this, according to Krebiehl. Her MW dissertation was on exactly this subject. She cites, in particular, climate change and careful selection of clones.
Germany’s plantings of Pinot Noir make it the world’s third largest grower of this grape after France and the US – though the French statistics are slightly skewed, given that it is also grown for Champagne production. Germany’s total of 11,769 hectares is more than Australia and New Zealand put together.
While the largest plantings are in Baden, the Pinots of the Pfalz are also garnering attention. It is the sunniest region in Germany, and the ultra-ripe Oliver Zeter Pinot Noir Reserve 2012 shows how opulent this grape can be in particularly warm vintages. This wine would not shy away from charred meat!
While we’ve recently been seeing some remarkable Rieslings from a hugely transformed Rheinhessen – the region formerly associated with Liebfraumilch – Pinot is also thriving. More northerly than Baden, this is a flatter region with no extremities. If you like something dry, savoury and earthy with a line of fruity acidity and some underlying cherry flavours, seek out Becker-Landgraf Spatburgunder 2013.
Is it possible to define a distinct style, instantly recognisable as German Pinot Noir? “Pinot Noir is Pinot Noir is Pinot Noir but here it has all those facets,” Krebiehl says, saying its unity in Germany is reflected in its diversity. It is grown across four degrees of latitude (48-51N), on steep slopes as well as flatter land, and on every soil type including marl, slate and granite, as well as the more typical limestone. But what is striking is they share a lovely acidity, show depth rather than power, and inhabit the savoury rather than fruity end of the spectrum.
German Pinots sit firmly in the Old World camp. Is German Pinot the best outside Burgundy? Is it the closest to Burgundy in styles? “You could say that but we don’t,” Krebiehl asserts. “It is not about making a copy-cat wine.” She believes German Pinot adds important nuances to the global Pinot story, describing Germany as “a happy hunting ground” for Pinot lovers. “People who drink fine Pinot Noir will understand these wines.”
What Germany can offer which eludes Burgundy, Krebiehl contends, is a consistency of quality, particularly given its stringent Grosses Gewachs (GG) classification system introduced by the Association of Fine Wine Growers. It is within this classification that the best wines reside (look for GG on the label), and relates not to site but to viticultural practices. Applicable only to wines made from Spatburgunder or Riesling, stringent quality requirements are in place. Yields cannot exceed 50 hectolitres per hectare, the grapes must be fully ripe, and they must be hand-picked through multiple pickings known as tries (as opposed to a single harvest).
From the southerly and warmest German wine region of Baden, Weingut Claus Schneider “CS” Weiler Schlipf Spatburgunder 2012 tingles with an acidic backbone which will surely give it excellent ageing potential. It is a truly elegant food wine with depth and length that finishes with a hint of strawberry and cherry. The “CS” wine is made from the very best sites on the Weiler Schlipf slope, and it should be noted that 2012 was a particularly generous year in terms of warmth and sunshine. It is a fantastic wine.
A second Baden wine, Durbacher WG Spatburgunder 2012, has similarly thrilling acidity and while it has a long cherry finish, it is a mellow, earthy savoury wine – and it is made at a cooperative.
Try the Weingut Bernhard Huber Spatburgunder Malterdingen Bienenberg Grosses Gewachs 2012 to get a sense of the heights to which this classification is reaching. Bernhard Huber, who died last year, left his local cooperative in 1987 and became a legend while remaining a humble man. Krebiehl says he re-wrote German red wine making, and knew each of his vines intimately. Ideally, this wine should be left for at least five years before being opened, but a glance reveals its density and marvellous structure. It is a beautiful, smoky wine with a long, long future.
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To be precise about 7 percent of the Palatinate wine region (Pfalz) consist of Pinot Noir vines. In the last years there has also been a trend for white-pressed Pinot Noir wines in the Palatinate, generally called “Blanc de Noir”!