Pinot Noir, what do we know about it? It’s “the” cool climate red grape variety. Many would omit “cool climate” and claim it’s absolutely the finest red grape bar none. It ripens late and is very fickle, dependent on location (soils, microclimate etc) like no other major variety. Oh, and it comes from Burgundy where it makes its finest wines. In fact in the Côte d’Or, in Eastern France, it makes “Red Burgundy” because Pinot Noir from anywhere else is just not the same, is it!
Well, it isn’t, but that is no bad thing. If Pinot Noir did find its earliest fame in Burgundy it soon spread to other parts of both France and Europe (I’m not going to go beyond Europe here, this is an article not a book). When I say “soon” I might be exaggerating a little if, as Columella suggested, in his De Rustica, a variety bearing a strong resemblance to Pinot Noir was growing in Burgundy in the 1st Century CE. Its spread is credited largely, if anecdotally, to the Cistercian Order of monks who transported the variety as they set up new monastic institutions across Europe, although we must not discount the influence of their more wealthy brothers, the Benedictines.
It’s a little known fact that Burgundy, despite being synonymous with Pinot Noir, does not have the largest plantings of Pinot Noir in France. That honour goes to Champagne. Here, it is mostly made into sparkling wine of course, but still red wines are becoming much more common all over the region, from the Aube in the south where the variety excels, right up to the Montagne de Reims. It is here that I find my favourite still wines from the region, not from the village of Bouzy, once (sort of) famed for its reds, but from Raphael Bérêche at Craon de Ludes.
From Burgundy the variety spread mostly north and east, although Sancerre and the other regions in France’s Upper Loire Valley are becoming increasingly well known for the variety. We shall come to Alsace later. This spread to more marginal regions might surprise some as we know it is a variety sensitive to the cold. It’s all about micro-climates and climate change, and this is why we see Pinot Noir thriving in Switzerland (Graubünden), Austria, Czech Moravia, Northeast Italy (as Pinot Nero) and now in England. Some of these wines are genuinely world class, for example those of Daniel and Marta Gantenbein in the Graubünden village of Fläsch.
However, this article, as you probably guessed, is about Pinot Noir in Germany. Here it mostly goes by the name of Spätburgunder, although as we shall see, some prefer the French nomenclature (and some producers use both). This is not an article attempting to place German Pinot Noir in the same frame as Red Burgundy. Rather, it is an attempt to briefly highlight the diversity of Pinot Noir wines and styles available in Germany. This diversity is largely a result of geology, although we shall need to discuss clones and climate as well. Germany has the second highest plantings of the variety after France.
If Pinot Noir was first brought to Germany, as all the books suggest, by the dozen Cistercian monks who were sent from Clairvaux with Abbot Ruthard to found Kloster Eberbach on the Rhine in 1136 CE, then the variety has since spread in some form to all of the country’s wine regions (although the Benedictines were there thirty years earlier and what type of grape vines they brought is not recorded). The importance of this monastic spread of Pinot Noir (and indeed Riesling in Germany) could command a book to itself, and the centrality of wine culture in mainland Europe has been greatly enhanced by it. Vines like marginal land otherwise too poor for agriculture, even for that other great monastic export, sheep farming.
Before we look at each German region in brief it will be worthwhile digressing for a moment to discuss clones. Although each region has its own topographic, geological and climatic influences, the clonal debate crosses all boundaries. There are, to simplify things, two main types of Pinot Noir clone planted in Germany. We have the Burgundian clones (usually termed Dijon clones) and the clones developed in Germany (principally the Geisenheim clones).
German clones were developed initially to deal with some of the problems facing later ripening varieties in marginal (for Pinot Noir) climates, namely those caused by moisture (rot, mildew etc). The resulting clones often ended up emphasising fruit and can tend to produce wines which age quicker, producing some of the classic Pinot aromas we call “tertiary” after a remarkably short time. Such wines have been considered less serious by many top producers, but this generalisation can be a bit of a red herring.
One or two winemakers are very much in favour of refined versions of these local clones, especially as they help give their wines a true regional identity. Some, like Hanspeter Ziereisen (Southern Baden) have moved back from favouring Dijon to German clones. Others, like Fritz Becker at Schweigen, have both planted, and may use “Pinot Noir” on their labels for the French clone wines and Spätburgunder for the German clones.
The most northerly region for wine in Germany is the Ahr Valley, a tributary of the Rhine about 30 miles south of Cologne (Köln), which rises in the Eifel Mountains. This has always been a red wine region, and although Pinot Noir only makes up just over 60% of the vines planted here, Ahr Spätburgunder is undoubtedly the German red wine people of my age will have come across first. The Ahr can grow red grapes because it is a steep sided narrow valley where the water reflects sunlight onto the heat-retaining terraces, or so we are told. That said, the truth is nuanced. Spätburgunder in fact thrives as much at the western end of the valley, which is wider and less steep-sided. Oh, and the variety was purportedly recorded here in the 9th Century, before the Cistercians came.
Nevertheless, the river produces, the books will tell you, classically structured wines which perhaps give us a portrait of Pinot Noir at its most mineral. Not everyone “gets” slate-grown Pinot (why should they?), but many would posit that this is as far in one direction (the other direction being fruity) as you can get with this variety.
What about some names? Mayer-Näkel was the first Ahr estate I came across and their wines range from earlier drinking to long lived. Stephan Reinhardt has called Werner Näkel (who has now been joined by daughters Dörte and Meike) “the Ahr Jayer” in view of the high prices and renown of his Spätburgunders. The other big name for me is Jean Stodden (now under fifth generation Alexander Stodden). However, the Crown Princess of the region must be Juilia Bertram. She’s married to Franken producer Benedikt Baltes, and both are considered rising stars of German wine. Sadly the wines are impossible to find. Of several other names I should mention the firm of JJ Adeneuer. The family has 500 years of winemaking behind them but a major style shift, towards greater purity, a mere eight years ago has dialled back the wood and thus allowed the slate-fresh mineral flavours to come through. Definitely back on track.
It’s a good point here to mention Frühburgunder. This is the grape often called Pinot Noir Précose in England. I much prefer the German “early (as opposed to late) Burgundian” as I grow some myself. Many winemakers are reviving it in Northern Germany, including Julia Bertram. You will also find that this earlier ripening variety lends itself well to natural winemaking methods. Frühburgunder is not strictly what we’re about here, but I’d definitely recommend grabbing a bottle of it from any fine producer of Spätburgunder.
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (now rather stupidly in my opinion all called “Mosel” since 2007, like they call Languedoc-Roussillon merely Languedoc nowadays) seems possibly the least likely place to expect to find Spätburgunder, yet for whatever reason we are seeing a lot more of it. Around 400 hectares today, which is around 25% more than Franken, where Spätburgunder has something of a modern reputation. The geology is, like the Ahr, slate, though of varied types. Red wine used to be more common in days gone by in the less favoured reaches of the Mosel, and some other red varieties do well too, even in more famous villages (as those who buy red wines from Rudolph and Rita Trossen will attest).
Over the years I have drunk some delicious and approachable Spätburgunder from the Maximin Grünhaus, at Mertesdorf on the Ruwer. For me this thrilling estate had a little dip a decade(ish) ago, but is now back in my personal top rank (a deliberately subjective classification). The reds here, although not of the quality of the Rieslings, certainly thrill with Ruwer tension, but not without deep luscious fruit as well.
But on the Mosel itself there is one estate which rather surprisingly has a Spätburgunder focus, and this is Weingut Daniel Tardowski. He’s even based at Dhron, pure Riesling territory. He has 3 hectares on the Dhroner Hofberg, whose wines English drinkers may know best via AJ Adam’s Rieslings from this site. But this is voraciously expensive wine, suggesting that Daniel got more than mere winemaking ideas from his beloved Burgundy when marketing his “Pinot Noix”. But at least he has proved that the Mosel can do Pinot Noir as well as anywhere. Oh, and a left field tip for drinkability: Schloss Lieser. But then I’m an avowed fan of Thomas Haag’s source for Pinot Noir, the Niederberg Helden, a steep south facing slope right next to the village.
Franken means, to many who know German wine, Silvaner. It means the great old estates like the Staatlicher Hofkeller Bürgspital and the Juliusspital, and the flagon-shaped Bocksbeutel. But Spätburgunder is very important to Franken in qualitative terms. Some commentators put them up with the finest in Germany. This despite the frosts which can decimate yields here in Bavaria.
No producer exemplifies Franken Pinot more than Weingut Rudolf Fürst. Sebastian Fürst, who will be forty this year, is now in charge of all red wine production and he has taken things to another level…actually, that level is three fine GG (Grosses Gewächs) vineyards. These are stylish wines but require keeping. There are other cuvées, thank goodness, with which to begin the journey. The geology which makes Franken Pinot stand apart is Buntsandstein, from the Lower Triassic era (known to geologists as Bunter in the UK). It is, obviously, a sandstone, so here we have yet another terroir from which to try our Pinot.
We mentioned Benedikt Baltes earlier. He’s been doing for Spätburgunder in Franken (Fürst aside) what his wife is doing for the variety in Ahr, breathing new life into it (and garnering all the publicity the variety might crave). Baltes is an inveterate experimenter, the kind of winemaker who pushes boundaries and thus finds true excellence via intuitive trial and (very little) error. His reds are whole bunch fermented in medium-sized and larger oak. If ever there was a producer tasting I’d like to be invited to, it would be Bertram-Baltes. Especially for a taste of Benedikt’s mythical Cabernet Franc alongside the Spätburgunders. He’s back in the Ahr now, just consulting in Franken, I understand, but some of you may be lucky enough to spot his Franken wines.
Rheinhessen is worth a brief stop. It’s not very well known for Spätburgunder, but Klaus Peter Keller makes some beautiful versions (of course he does), and they should not be ignored in the clamour for his white wines. His Pinot vines are direct grafts from top estates in Burgundy and Alsace, and the soils are mostly on limestone.
Klaus Peter has famously called Spätburgunder “Red Riesling” and it is clear he loves his red wine. As well as producing two GG Spätburgunders initially, he even grafted some very old Silvaner on Morstein to the variety. That’s a bit like grafting part of Romanée-Conti to Riesling. Of course for those of us less wealthy individuals there are other options, not least his “Spätburgunder S”, from young vines (well, around 25-y-o) planted in Morstein. It’s dark, spicy, smoky…and affordable at around £35/bottle.
Try also Bianca and Daniel Schmitt (Flörsheim) for the natural wine angle. Natur Spätburgunder sees four weeks on skins and then a year in 600-litre oak and is an astonishing wine, especially the bouquet.
Pfalz is also becoming a lot more interested in Pinot Noir, especially as climate change ramps up. As a region which looks a little like a northern extension to Alsace it might not be the first place you think of as warm, yet remember how sunny Alsace is (one of the regions of France with the most sunshine hours). The Haardt Mountains act as a rain shadow in the same way that their southern extension, the Vosges, do in France. The vineyards are largely on the lower slopes of the Haardt, facing east and receiving warmer winds from the Rhine plain.
The Pfalz has every geological rock formation under the sun, or so it seems, from the volcanic magma of the Forster Pechstein, through limestone, to the buntsandstein and muschelkalk of the other famous sites of the Mittelhaardt (including the villages of Deidesheim, Forst, Wachenheim and Bad Dürkheim).
Spätburgunder is a relatively new addition to the vineyards of the Pfalz. Almost unknown before the 1980s here, there are now around 1,700 hectares planted, and Pinot Noir at all (literally all) levels of quality are produced. This is therefore a good place to come for some good value German red wine, so long as you are wary of the most commercial quality versions.
Two classic names in the village of Laumersheim are, first, Knipser, who, through Georg Heinrich Knipser and his sons, was one of the first estates to focus on Spätburgunder here, and the sons won Germany’s first red wine competition, the Deutscher Rotweinpreis, with one in 1987. The second is Philipp Kuhn, who makes a range of reds up to GG level. There really are too many producers to cover, but Ökonomierat Rebholz is one estate I’d like to mention. I’m a fan of all of their wines. The estate is at Siebeldingen, in the Southern Pfalz. Hansjörg’s Spätburgunders are elegant and restrained.
However, contrary to advice, I am yet again going to speak of favourites. In this case it is not so much a single winemaker, but a village, Schweigen-Rechtenbach. This village sits right on the border with Northern Alsace, and boasts three producers of note: Weingut Friedrich Becker, Weingut Jülg and Weingut Bernhart. Naturally there isn’t space to elaborate too much on the three of them, so try their wines. Actually, visit if you can…and as I have suggested before, take lunch at the Weinstübe Jülg in the village.
Many of the producers in Schweigen actually farm vineyards within France, on the south-facing slopes above the abbey of Wissembourg. This lovely Benedictine Abbey nevertheless gives no hint that it was once one of the five or six richest ecclesiastical landowners in Western Europe. It’s vineyards were special. Most of them sit within France, but rather than an Alsace Grand Cru designation, they come under German wine law for their German owners, who are forbidden to use the individual vineyard names. They therefore have to resort to the cryptic single letter method, or occasionally breaking the law to push the point. The famous Kammerberg vineyard, which provided the wine for the senior clerics in the medieval period, has been made with a stick-on label obscuring most of the word “Kammerberg” on the 2012 vintage, so that you know what it is. The law is an ass, as they say.
The Pinot Noir/Spätburgunder debate reaches its apogee here in some respects and this cross border winemaking is so fascinating that I will provide a link to my article following a 2017 visit to the village, principally to Fritz Becker, here. I’m a big fan of Jülg and Kleine Fritz (Becker), and there’s no doubt that they make some of my favourite Pinot Noir wines. Becker’s top wines, made in tiny quantity, are sensational. Fritz cites Mussigny as his inspiration. The next level down is pretty amazing too. But a visit is recommended in order to taste the full range of red and white wines.
That more or less leaves Baden, maybe the region younger drinkers might look to for fine German Pinot Noir. It’s a long and thin region which from north to south stretches from the Badische Bergstrasse south of Darmstadt to the Markgräflerland touching Basel and the Swiss border. Within this region are so many producers of worth, and that’s without even mentioning Baden’s eastern neighbour, Württemberg. It may be just a footnote but you might recall I very recently drank a Pinot Noir (thus labelled) from Weingut Roterfaden, the small estate founded by Olympia Samara and Hannes Hoffmann on a crescent slope on the River Enz, at Roßwag. The Muschelkalk and the steep orientation of the vines allows them to fashion marvellous “glouglou” Pinot (and Lemberger) which proves that natural wine Pinot Noir has a very big future in Germany.
Perhaps we really get our Spätburgunder juices going in Baden when we reach Freiburg-im-Breisgau, the attractive if sleepy town which sits to the east of the volcanic plug, rising out of the Rhine plain, known as the Kaiserstuhl. South of the Stuhl’s vulcanism the vines sit on west-facing slopes protected by the Black Forest, where limestones from the Jurassic and Triassic periods underpin the vineyards, along with loess, sandstone and even granite.
If the Vosges mountains form the western boundary, the Black Forest forms the eastern boundary, of the Upper Rhine Rift Valley, created around 30 million years ago, before the river chose this route towards the sea. Whereas Alsace, sitting in the eastern lee of the Vosges, produces mostly white wine, this part of Baden excels with red, and the red variety of choice is Spätburgunder.
It’s time for another brief digression. We have skirted Alsace to the north (Pfalz) and to the east (Baden). If these regions make lovely Pinot Noir, then why doesn’t Alsace? Well, it does. The old myth, that “Pinot d’Alsace” is at best a pale Rosé, is outdated. Even when such an assertion had some truth to it there were some standout Alsace Pinot Noirs. Muré makes one still, from the Vorbourg Grand Cru (“V”, using the old single initial trick again). In fact the Clos St-Landelin within that site has always produced remarkable Pinot Noir. Today there are many more fine producers, too many to mention (and when it comes to Alsace I am firmly banned from ever mentioning favourites again). It should be said, however, that some of the very best Alsace Pinot Noir comes from the vineyards of the region’s fine natural wine makers. If you read my blog regularly you will probably have a good idea of who they are.
So back to Baden. A list of producers would be good. Bernard Huber (Malterdingen), Franz Keller (Vogtsburg-Oberbergen), Weingut Bercher (Burkheim), Dr Heger (Ihringen) and Salwey(Oberrotweil) are all classic names from this central section of the Baden vineyards. Newer estates should begin with Enderle & Moll (distinctly natural wines of very high quality from Münchweier), and Shelter Winery (Kenzingen). A great place to try the wines of Central Baden is Franz Keller’s Schwarzer Adler restaurants.
Further south, indeed at Baden’s southernmost tip, are the vineyards of Hanspeter Ziereisen, which occupy that part of Baden known as the Markgräflerland, around the village of Efringen-Kirchen. There are other producers of note here, including the two domaines of the Waßmer brothers (Fritz and Martin, at Bad Krotzingen) and Weingut Wasenhaus at Staufen. There is also Jürgen von der Mark at Bad Bellingen, whose wines I would dearly love to try but haven’t yet. However, Ziereisen is perhaps the godlike figure here.
He came up in my Chasselas/Gutedel article. Whilst he makes the finest Gutedel in the world, Jaspis 10 Hoch 4 Alte Reben, he is best known for an exemplary range of Spätburgunders, primarily off Jurassic limestone infiltrated with Jaspis (Jasper in English). This terroir, just north of Basel, is blessed in the extreme. Protected by forest and warmed by the wind which blows through the Belfort Gap, the vines, some more than sixty years old, thrive without chemical inputs.
One of Hanspeter’s cheaper Spätburgunders, Tschuppen, is a wine I never pass by if available. Whether you go Tschuppen, Talrain, Rhini or Jaspis (two versions, one very old vines), then you can’t go wrong. Rhini is from a well protected site on limestone. The Jaspis Alte Reben is a barrel selection showcasing the finest Pinot Noir of the vintage. These wines, unlike Tschuppen, need ageing. In recent years Hanspeter has dialled back the new wood. He’s also changed clones. The Dijon clones he planted in the early 2000s were too prone to rot, and he now prefers German and Swiss clones (yes, Swiss). Quality is, in my opinion, phenomenal.
This is really as good a place to leave German Pinot Noir…or Spätburgunder, whatever you will. I hope that what I have illustrated here first of all is that this variety can grow and thrive on a variety of soils and on each there are examples which are more than well worth seeking out, both for your education but also for new experiences. Perhaps only the most fixated Burgophile would now sneer at these wines. I’m emphatically not attempting to make overall quality comparisons because for me wine is about exploration and new experiences. I’m not a wine snob who has to drink “only the best”.
For sure, many of the wines mentioned are no cheaper than fine Burgundy in any case. As with wines like Ziereisen’s top Gutedel, there are people who won’t pay Burgundy prices for German Pinot Noir. That’s fine. But even if you go back to Burgundy, it would be nice to think that you could drink some of these and be glad of a different experience without the need to resort to comparing quality.
There’s quite a bit of German red wine in many of my tasting reviews, but the following link, to “The Great German Pinot Noir Tasting” (held in London in March 2018) has a fine array on show. Follow the link here.about:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.UploadSelect ImageInsert from URL