The more geographically, or cartographically, inclined reader will immediately spot that Schweigen is not in France. In fact it is in Germany’s Pfalz region. So as I asked the other day in my introduction to this series of articles, what has Fritz Becker got to do with Eastern France? More perhaps than you might think, and it is an interesting story which goes back eight hundred years.
In the eleventh century the Benedictines chose Wissembourg as the location for one of their large monastic communities, and under Abbot Samuel began construction of one of the largest and finest churches in the region. There had been a church on the site since the seventh century, in the reign of the Merovingian King, Le Bon Roi Dagobert (as the song goes). Wissembourg soon grew to become one of the five biggest ecclesiastical landowners in Western Europe, and naturally the monks planted vineyards, lots of them.
In those days there was no Germany, eight centuries away from unification, and France was a small island of territory around Paris, several days ride away. As we know, over time, this particular bit of territory made its way from one overlord to the next until we reach the Second World War, where Wissembourg and her fine old buildings, dominated by this great abbey church, were right on the front line between France and Germany. The story I was told is that an enlightened local commander on the German side refused to fire into Wissembourg, but this act of restraint was not reciprocated by the allies. The fact is that Wissembourg stands, and Schweigen and much of the surrounding vineyard was levelled.
It took us an hour and a half to drive up to Wissembourg from Andlau, and it is just a four minute hop over the border to the Becker winery in Schweigen, but although that winery is firmly located in Germany, 85% of the Becker vineyards are in France, including their best sites which produce their Grand Cru Pinot Noirs.
Fritz junior (Kleine Fritz to his family), with whom we spent the morning, is the seventh generation of Friedrich Beckers to run this estate (there is a baby Fritz to take it to an eighth generation). He told us the story whilst we were out in the vines of how his own father remembered his father’s best wines before the war as coming from the hills over the border in France. The only problem, aside from the shell damage, was that these vines were now on the other side of the border, and whereas crossing the border had once been a day to day occurrence, the postwar Franco-German border was a hard one. Nevertheless, in the 1960s Fritz junior’s father bought back the vineyards confiscated from his father in 1945. Everyone thought he was crazy as by then the vines of a resurgent Schweigen-Rechtenbach were being planted on the flat plain, easy to work for the tractors and with much higher yields.
When you are out in these hillside vineyards, you can easily see why these sites produce such fine wines. There has apparently been Pinot Noir here since those eleventh century vines were planted. The Saint-Paul vineyard, set beside the last remaining of the four watch towers the monks built for defence, is a magnificent south facing slope which was originally planted with Pinot Noir in the 14th century, but was recovered and replanted by the Beckers in 2000. The Kammerberg, which provided wines for the senior monks, slopes dramatically right down towards the abbey itself. The vines here are old, and it was one of the sites Fritz senior repurchased in the Sixties.
The top photo shows the view down the slope of the Kammerberg towards the Abbey of Wissembourg. Bottom left is the Saint-Paul vineyard with the last remaining watchtower from the eleventh century just on the right of the picture. The stone marks the repurchase of the Kammerberg by the Beckers in 1967.
The soils up here are predominantly on poor limestone and the climate is very similar to that in the Côte d’Or. Pinot Noir had fallen out of fashion here, due to its low yields, but high yields were not what Fritz senior had wanted. He knew he could make the best Spätburgunder in Germany on these sites. And I think his son does.
A month ago Anne Krebiehl MW wrote an article in Decanter Magazine on German Spätburgunder. It was a very good article, but I was quite surprised to see no mention of Weingut Friedrich Becker. The Becker wines are indeed not all that well known in the UK, although Wine Barn import them, and they are occasionally seen in London’s exclusive Hedonism Wines. Yet German writer Stephan Reinhardt in his The Finest Wines of Germany (Aurum 2012 in the World of Fine Wine‘s Fine Wine Series) describes this estate as “one of the top producers of Spätburgunder in Germany”. He goes on to remind us that Becker’s top wines “regularly receive the highest scores in the German wine press”, and that each year between 2001 and 2009 a Becker wine was awarded Best Spätburgunder by Germany’s Gault Millau Wine Guide.
Weingut Becker is not all about Pinot Noir though, and before we tasted the reds we went through a series of white wines. Despite the fame the reds have achieved, the whites are also exciting propositions, all displaying freshness and finesse. The domaine has undertaken a reappraisal over the past decade. Oak has been dialed back on the reds, as has extraction, with grapes being picked at slightly lower oechsle levels to allow for greater acidity and freshness (Fritz junior’s father was one of the first to import barriques from France into Germany). This philosophy has filtered through to the white wines.
Silvaner Trocken 2016 – This, and a Riesling, are the bulk wines of the domaine, if any wine can be so described here. The Beckers farm 18.5 hectares and produce around 100,000 bottles each year in around 40 different cuvées (plus large and small formats). Bottled in one litre format, this Silvaner has quite high acidity, but is fresh with a mineral bite and a touch of prickly CO2. It makes a good party or picnic wine.
Grüner Sylvaner Alte Reben 2016 – Note the French spelling of the grape variety here. At 11.5% this still shows more amplitude than the litre version. From old vines of around 30 years upwards, and naturally low yields, this sees two-to-three days skin contact before pressing. There is building complexity and this will keep.
Grauer Burgunder “Kalkmergel” 2016 – Pinot Gris has pink tinged berries, and this wine sees five days on skins, from which it derives a pinkish hue. It has a lovely nose and the palate is dry with both light red and stone fruits. It weighs in at 13% but Fritz said his aim is to slow down the sugar production and keep the acidity relatively high. So this is focused and fresh, unlike some of the richer Alsace and Pfalz Pinot Gris.
Weisser Burgunder “Kalkgestein” 2016 – This blends grapes from the limestone hills with those from sandstone on the plain, and it sees some oak, a mixture of large and small wood, but all old. It has a sort of Sauvignon Blanc gooseberry nose with just an exotic touch on the palate, but otherwise there’s real focus.
Chardonnay “Mineral” 2013 – This has a few years bottle age and is showing very well. It smells quite like Chablis, with perhaps a touch of Tasmania. Very, well, mineral with a nice dry mouthfeel and, again, that Becker focus on the palate. All new plantings on the estate now are either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. In this location it is not surprising that Chardonnay does so well. I think this needs more time, but it is impressive for a wine to be had at the cellar door for under €10.
We now come to the reds, the Spätburgunders for which the domaine is famous. Regular readers will have seen, in my last article on recent wines, that I drank a 2010 vintage of Becker’s entry level Spätburgunder a month ago. If we need to locate it in terms of quality, imagine a beautiful Bourgogne Rouge from a top Burgundian producer. At the domaine it will set you back €11.50 for the 2014, though even cellared at home for several years, my 2010 cost somewhat more from Hedonism. It was amazing, especially considering where it sits in the hierarchy, and it still had, perhaps, a little development in it.
Spätburgunder Trocken 2014 – is somewhat less developed, being four years younger. Less rich too, I think, a product of vintage variation, 2010 being warmer. This is a wine majoring on its fruit, though something just hinting at earth comes through. Even at this level is is worth keeping a while longer. Very nice.
Next up the ladder is the Spätburgunder “B”, which comes off limestone on both sides of the border, and the vines are older, up to around 35 to 40 years. I didn’t taste this, but it’s one of Fritz’s best value cuvées and I did buy some.
Spätburgunder Rechtenbacher 2013 – This is the sister (or brother) to the Schweigener Spätburgunder, which we can assume to be the village wines, so to speak. This cuvée comes from vines on red sandstone and it sees partial new oak. This is reflected in the tannins, but the wine is both svelte and precise and we are getting even more classy fruit underneath. There is potential to age, though my guess is that much of it doesn’t have that chance at just €20 a pop.
Spätburgunder Steinwingert 2013 – is described by Fritz as “more Burgundian”. I’m not wholly sure what he means but this has perhaps a greater breadth of (smoky raspberry) fruit without losing a degree of precision. It partners the Herrenwingert cuvée, and Fritz also refers to them as the Premiers Crus. [no photo]
Spätburgunder Kammerberg GG 2013 – This, along with the Saint-Paul are the top of the regular pile (there are occasional special bottlings). They are the Grands Crus, or Grosses Gewachs. Of course the German authorities won’t allow the use of the French cadastral lieu dit names, so they are supposed to be sold with a fantasy name. On the list they appear as “KB” and “SB”, though I’m not sure what is going on with the bottle pictured below.
This has incredibly refined fruit, deep cherries at first on the nose giving way to ripe but focused raspberry. A very concentrated mouthful, with a long way to go. €50 at the domaine, though checking the Wine Barn web site earlier today, it looks like they may still have one magnum of 2006 for £183. I would say it’s very likely worth it for someone in need of a great Christmas gift idea. About 3,000 to 4,000 bottles are produced of each of these wines, so they should be obtainable.
This was yet another wonderful tasting, and there is no doubt that seeing the vines and having the terroir explained does wonders for one’s work in the tasting room here. There is no doubt that having worked to dial back the power and oak and freshen the acidity, Fritz Becker is at the top of his game.
Most of the wines here are intended to reflect the different terroirs. The 1971 German Wine Law stripped away these old Einzellagen and replaced them with large Grosslagen, often misleadingly named to sound like one of the famous sites. Here, the old 10 hectare Sonnenberg site was the name given to all of these hillside parcels, and Sonnenberg suddenly grew to 240 hectares. The Becker family are adamant that the old names are valid, making clearly differentiated wines. But as Fritz says, “we pay our land taxes to France but Germany tells us how we can and cannot label the wines”.
These are not “natural wines” as such, although Fritz works with nature. The use of herbicides and inorganic fertilizer was stopped thirty years ago, although we saw a nice big pile of horse manure in the vineyard. Winery manipulations are minimal too, although we had a discussion about sulphur. Fritz makes clean and focused wines and he prefers to use sulphur as he doesn’t like any volatility. He’s not convinced he can do without it, but what he does utilise is carefully monitored to use the minimum necessary.
I truly hope that as we are seeing German Pinot Noir become fashionable, and as wine lovers discover just how good it can be, that the wines of Fritz Becker junior take their rightful place near the top of the quality list. All of his wines come highly recommended. This is a top German estate, even if most of their finest wines are effectively French in origin.
Weingut Friedrich Becker is at Hauptstrasse 29, 76889 Schweigen, tel +49 (0)6 34 2 290. Visits by appointment via www.friedrichbecker.de
From top, clockwise: Fritz with Thorwi, mags; winery yard; out of the van atop the Kammerberg; Becker is a member of the prestigious Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter; guarding the fort; the original Fritz, allegedly.
We wanted to eat lunch and Fritz recommended we go to the restaurant at Jülg. Weingut Jülg is the other good producer in Schweigen (some of their wines are imported into the UK by Howard Ripley). We had a very cosy lunch in very traditional surroundings (for me, a Riesling spritzer in a big tumbler, with schnitzel and salad, and a slab of simple but tasty cheesecake. Decent coffee too). From the Becker winery head along Hauptstrasse and turn right at the church, and the Wienstub is on the left just before the main road back to France.
Do take a wander around Wissembourg too. The grand abbey isn’t the only old building in town, and it’s well worth a sniff around the greengrocers. Fifty per cent of the cars in the large car park were German.
Have the Beckers considered vinifying and bottling their French grapes west of the Rhine?
The thing is, Frank, they are German and proud of it. They are intensely frustrated by the way the wine laws stop them from expressing this centuries old terroir openly on the label. All they want to do is use a well established site name, as people do all over Europe. They have a perfectly good winery just minutes from these sites by tractor.
That said, if you are going to pay €55 for a bottle of wine, I think you will know what the two letters on the label stand for. It would not bother me, but I suspect that for the Beckers it’s about seven generations of ancestral pride.
I have only tasted their standard PN to date but enjoyed that.
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Decent coffee in Germany? Well that right there is something to marvel at! I really like this producer, even their lowly Muskateller, so this was a great read.
I buy expensive coffee sometimes, and often moan about coffee in France or Germany. As a result I am prone to cut some slack in both countries if coffee exceeds the usual watered or burnt effort. So I’m not saying it was a lovely Rwandan single origin brew, but it was enjoyable, and hot on a cold autumnal lunchtime.
But I’m so glad to meet someone else who likes these wines (and I agree, good at every level). The Brits, who think we know wine, know very little of this producer.
I am no coffee connoisseur myself but often on my summer holidays I have gone from Italy to France to Germany and the drops in the quality of coffee are just devastating when crossing the border. Of course Finland is not much better than Germany in that sense, although fortunately there are more and more good roasteries here.
Probably it is about distribution then, it is hard to see how some could dislike Becker’s wines. Still, the world of wine seems to be “growing” at such a fast pace that you can now everything one day and be clueless the next. I think I know quite a bit of wine but whenever I go to a hip new place 60-80 % of the winelist is Hebrew to me.
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For me, finding new stuff is the exciting bit. It’s ironic that when I was much younger I took comfort in the familiar, seeing something on a wine list I knew I liked. Now I always want to try something I’ve never had before, and as you say, the world of wine is growing so fast that this is often quite easy to do.
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