On the way to the premiere class - Pinot Noirs from Germany

Up until recently, red wine from Germany was hardly known at all internationally. Let alone the fine Pinot Noirs. Yet between Ahr and Kaiserstuhl, large areas are planted with this type. A few avantgardists made it big. The best wines are amongst the finest products that Germany has to offer.

Can you be happy about climate change? That sounds a bit mean when you think of the problems it causes in some places. However, for German wine, the warmer weather has meant more good than bad until now. And this applies even more for the Pinot Noirs. "It is optimally adapted to the local conditions," explains Hansjörg Rebholz, winegrower from the Palatinate. Yet it is distributed in a very varied way across the growing areas.

Baden is the only German winegrowing area which belongs to the European Union winegrowing zone B which also includes the Bourgogne and the Loire a two-hour drive away. In the far South West of the Federal Republic, Pinot Noir is the leading grape variety, and the area is larger than that of New Zealand or Italy, at almost 5,900 hectares. The Kaiserstuhl with its volcanic soil is one of the best known locations. However, the grape variety is also very important in Ortenau, Tuniberg and in the Breisgau.
Photo: Steep slopes in the region Ahr
Photo: The village Altenahr
Photo: Growing area Marienthaler Trutzenburg
Photo: Winegrower Werner Näkel
Photo: Autumn in the region Ahr
Photo: Slopes with different grape varieties
Photo: Convent (Kloster) Marienthal
Photo: Wine cellar Convent (Kloster) Marienthal
Photo: Old keg in the Convent (Kloster) Marienthal
The growing situation is characterised by cooperatives, which produce 75% of the wine. Mergers such as the Badischer Winzerkeller in Breisach process the grapes in 160-million-litre tanks and are amongst the largest in Europe. However, smaller mergers such as the winegrowing cooperatives in Sasbach or Oberkirch in Ortenau are currently gaining points with remarkable quality. They find their role models in private winegrowers. Operations such as Heger in Ihringen and Huber from Malterdingen Salwey in Upper Rottweil were the forerunners and oriented themselves towards the Bourgogne.
Photo: Pruning of vines

Small, but at its finest

Neighbouring Württemberg with 70% red wine share is the only German winegrowing area, where reds are dominant. Top dog as part of everyday culture is the rather light Trollinger. Pinot Noir still has a share of 11%. However, many winegrowers are increasing their quality. The Rheingau has a similarly high Pinot Noir share (12.2%), but with reversed settings. 85% of the region is planted with white wine. Above all, at the Assmannshausen site and its slate slopes, there is first class terroir for pinot. Names such as Breuer, Kühn, Leitz and Weil stand for top wines.

The large winegrowing area Rhine-Hesse is the third largest growing area for Pinot Noir nationwide (1400 hectares). Yet on the regional ranking list, it is only in sixth place behind Dornfelder and Portugieser, which are easier to grow and have a higher yield. Rhine-Hesse has been seen as Germany's most dynamic region for some time now, and there are sufficient winegrowers who make very good wines out of the varieties, above all Klaus Keller. Junior manager Klaus Peter Keller learnt his trade in the Bourgogne, and his wines from the parental shell limestone slopes stand for applied knowledge.

In the white wine dominated region of the Palatinate, it does not look much different with 7% Pinot Noir. On the other hand, there are some pioneers here such as Knipser, Kuhn and Friedrich Becker. In the seventies, some of them moved away from the cooperatives which were powerful at the time, because they believed that their limestone and clay soil was good for more than that. The sun soaked region, where many winegrowers have a fig tree in the yard, has long concentrated on red wines. The top Pinot Noir products have a certain tradition, but have to prevail over Dornfelder, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and St. Laurent.

In almost all other growing areas, Pinot Noir only appears further down in the statistics and only plays a small role in terms of quantity. Thereby, individual winegrowers always stand out, such as Paul Fürst from Franconia. He has also been amongst the avant-garde since the 1980s and has made the Centgrafenberg basin with its weather-beaten Bunter sandstone soil into one of the best terroirs in Germany. Colleagues such as Markus Molitor from the Mosel decided on the grape variety later, but were soon presenting remarkable wines.The Ahr, one of the most northern winegrowing areas in the world and the most important region for high quality Pinot Noir, remains, although this small growing area does not even contribute half a percent to the German wine harvest.

The Ahr winds its way through greywacke, shale, loessic loam and dolostone. Valleys sheltered from the wind and rain, dark stony soils that reflect the heat, and the balancing effect of the river course ensure a significantly better climate than in the surrounding area. At every bend of the river there is a small heat basin. Companies such as Meyer Näkel, J. J. Adeneuer, Deutzerhof and Jean Stodden are amongst the absolute best with their complex mineral wines.
Photo: The village Oderbergen

With knowledge to a miracle

Wine was drunk on the Rhine and its tributaries even 2500 years ago. Celtic weapons traders probably imported it from Greece. Then the Romans brought winegrowing to the provinces on what was the edge of their empire at the time. They dug the first vine terraces in the loess of the Kaiserstuhl and made the Mosel into one of the largest growing areas north of the Alps.

In 884, Charles the Fat, a grandson of Charlemagne, allegedly planted the first Pinot Noir vines in the ice age weathered soil, in the King's vineyard in Bodman on Lake Constance. Cistercian monks brought the varieties from Burgundy to the monasteries in Salem and Affental until the 14th century. In the period that followed, they took over the winegrowing areas up the Rhine towards the Ahr.

After difficult conditions over several hundred years, it was zero hour for Pinot Noir after the 2nd World War. Nationwide, many winegrowers recultivated their fallow slopes with mass bearer varieties and abundant agricultural chemistry. The result was primarily a high yield with lots of sugar. A mistake that was fatally cast in stone by law in a reform from 1971. In addition, valuable site names were expanded to areas which were sometimes miles away.

It was at this qualitative low point when one of the awakening experiences occurred, which changed German wine forever. At the beginning of the 1980s, the learned secondary school teacher Werner Näkel decided to take over his parents’ vineyard in Dernau on the Ahr and enjoyed a trip to Henri Jayer from Vosne-Romanée in the Bourgogne. Näkel was "completely amazed" when it came to the quality and the different working methods, he remembers today. He bought barriques and clones, started with pruning, green harvest, harvested phenolic ripened grapes. Yield reduction was practically unknown in Germany at the time.

J. J. Adeneuer, Deutzerhof and Jean Stodden travelled to Burgundy one after the other, and made their own progress. Longer grape juice life times, aging in small barrels, in short the modern measures for quality winegrowing were established. Preferably in shell limestone soil, Pinot Noirs with their minerality give monumental wines in the best case. The improved knowledge of the winegrowers was the key to the success, which is sometimes called the "red wine miracle".
Photo: Wine cellar in the region Ahr

Changed cultivation, changed climate

In 1980, around 3.8% of the winegrowing area was assigned to Pinot Noir. Today, at 11,800 hectares, it is around every eighth vine in Germany, and the trend is growing. Pinot Noir has overtaken high-yield varieties such as Dornfelder and Portugieser, and is behind Riesling and close behind Müller-Thurgau, which stock has been decreasing for years.

Internationally, there are only two places where there is more Pinot Noir: The USA (21,000 ha) and the motherland of Pinot, France (31,000 ha.) This puts Germany in 3rd place in the world ranking list. However, the thin-skinned berries are susceptible to diseases. They take poor weather conditions extremely badly, and these are not such a rarity in Germany. Or at least they were not.

Up until 1987, there were at least 30% very poor years. "Since then, the grapes have always ripened completely," explains Prof. Schultz at a climate conference for German winegrowers. In the last forty years, the temperature has risen by around 1.4 degrees, which ultimately tipped the balance. On the other hand, the winegrowers are battling with the known side effects such as high alcohol contents. "A Pinot Noir is actually not allowed to have more than 13%," says Monika Christmann, Professor for Oenology. However, the usual measures of less leaf mass to the reduction of sugar in grape juice should be sufficient for now.

A further consequence of climate change are extreme weather conditions that are rough even in Germany. In 2011, a hard May frost in the Palatinate, Rhine-Hesse, Franconia and Württemberg led to sensitive harvest shortfalls. “Now, the vinegar fly is bothering us," complains Patrick Johner from Badean Bischoffingen. The newly immigrated pest also causes harvest losses. "This means that red wine will be more expensive this year."
Photo: Vineyards

New horizons for unknown wine

With the warmer weather, it is worth cultivating abandoned areas again, such as the "Berlacher Steillage" in the Badean Eschbach valley, but also sites outside of the classic growing areas. The Kirmann vineyard in the Harz has already been successful in competitions such as the German Pinot Noir Prize. Pinot Noir already grows from Lower Saxony via Brandenburg to Lusatia, where limestone cliffs, alluvial soil or shingle hills form climatic islands. The growing border is moving towards the Baltic Sea coast. The states of Brandenburg and Schleswig Holstein have already issued table wine ordinances; Denmark has founded a winegrowing association.

The value has also significantly increased. Even around the millennium, you could hardly find any Pinot Noirs in the food retail trade for more than ten Mark (€5). Today, connoisseurs can help themselves in any of the better supermarkets. Yet on the colourful import market, German wine drinkers are very changeable. A study by the Deutsches Weininstitut (DWI) [German Wine Institute] in 2013, showed that four out of five found that "what is nice about wine" is the diversity. The main sales channels in Germany are the ever present discount supermarkets, which makes Aldi the biggest wine trader in the nation. The Badean vineyard Franz Keller placed a Pinot Noir there, and is pleased with the good business. At €6, the price was exorbitant for the circumstances.

The premium Pinot Noirs are particularly sought after, which are often bought directly by regular customers and do not even come onto the market. As you may expect, the winegrowers live well from it. 83% have expanded their growing areas in the last 15 years. Two thirds of them are also enjoying higher demand, Anne Krebiehl (MW) found out in her dissertation “The Future of Premium German Pinot Noir” at the Institute of Masters of Wine in London. Equally since the Millennium, this has been accompanied by an enormously positive press response.
Photo: The city Baden next to Lake Constance
Photo: The mountain range Kaiserstuhl
Photo: Picnic at the Kaiserstuhl
Photo: Kaiserstuhl terrace
Photo: Volcanic rock at Kaiserstuhl
Photo: The city of Heidelberg
Photo: Cellar
Photo: The village Oderbergen

“Duitsland (Germany) is hot“

This was not always the case internationally. "German Pinot Noir is a grotesque, gruesome wine, which tastes like the defective [...] Pinot Noir of an incapable winegrower," cursed Robert Parker in 2002. It is not certain to what extent he was involved in the topic at the time. In 2013, his representative for Germany, David Schildknecht, said that he had "almost criminally neglected" German Pinot Noir until then.

In competition with other Pinot Noir countries, even the term "Spätburgunder", with its many consonants and the umlaut is a problem. The typical German label nonsense does not help. The expression "Pinot Noir" on the label is allowed, but only a small minority use it. Yet there have been successes. The Benelux countries and Scandinavia are good customers, and the USA and England are at least interested.

The attention of international journalists is worth its weight in gold, even if the readers keep saying that the wines are difficult and expensive to find, if at all. Many winegrowers are a little unwilling when it comes to foreign business. But appreciative words such as "rising star", "Pinot paradise" and "Germany's red revolution" are regularly used. First and foremost, Jancis Robinson often praises the "sleeping giant".

Several Decanter Wine Awards and medals have already gone to Germany in the "Mondial du Pinot Noir" [Pinot Noir world championships]. A comparison of twenty German and international Pinot Noir's in London ended with seven German Pinot Noirs in the top ten. Exclusively Asian jurors at the "Pinot Noir Challenge" in Hongkong, initiated by the DWI, chose eight German Pinot Noirs amongst the top ten.

The German Pinot Noirs are also continually compared with wines from the Bourgogne. And although the wine growers there are not thrilled about another competitor in their field, they have appreciative words. "I have tried some German Pinot Noirs and some of them were really very good," said no less than Aubert de Villaine from Romanée-Conti. "What is great about Pinot is that it is married to the Bourgogne, but it can also sleep in other beds."

Matthias Stelzig