Germany’s winemaking scene is probably less well-known than its music scene, even though the history of winemaking in Germany spans two millennia. But just because it’s venerable doesn’t mean it isn’t hip. The present generation of German winemakers are reaching beyond the Rieslings for which they’re deservedly famous, and emphasizing a style that’s youthful, contemporary, and embraces a wide array of brisk, aromatic white varieties and spicy, fruit-forward reds.
Wine and music share many common elements, beyond the obvious (they are each composed of a number of individual “notes”). In both, there are accords and harmonies, structure and tension, color and tone, theme and variation. For that matter, finding a new wine is a little like finding a new band. We like what we like, we have our baseline preferences—but we crave novelty. That feeling you get when you find a song that unlocks a whole series of discoveries? Wine does that too. And it shares music’s uncanny ability to provoke emotional responses, or to align itself with specific memories.
On which note (see what I did there), we’d like to recommend some German wine and music pairings. As with all wine pairings, it’s really about what you happen to like, and there are no rules. But this can get you started.
Perfect with: Pop
Recommended listening: Aurora, Christine and the Queens, Janelle Monáe
Sekt is not a varietal but a broad umbrella term for German sparkling wine-it can theoretically be made from any grape (just as pop music is a huge umbrella term). Common grape varieties used to make Sekt include the usual French subjects (the Pinot or “Burgunder” family) as well as native grapes like Silvaner and Riesling. When it’s done right, Sekt is bubblier than Colbie Caillat, and as versatile and goes-with-anything as Rihanna. Sekt has long been a staple in Germany, where they’ll pop a bottle for everyday drinking and just about any occasion—beyond birthdays and celebrations—the same way throwing on pop radio is a fail-safe way to liven up a gathering. Now wine lovers outside of Germany are taking notice, and Sekt is emerging as a significant player in the world of sophisticated bubbles (look for the term “Winzersekt” on the label if you want the best stuff—and of course you want the best stuff).
Perfect with: Jazz
Recommended listening: Kamasi Washington, Sasha Berliner, Julius Rodriguez
One word: Obbligato. The thing without which the song is no longer the song. Essential in jazz, where repertory is the skeleton on which endless skin and flesh variants can be placed. And essential in Spätburgunder, AKA Pinot Noir, the grape with ten thousand faces. You might not think of Germany when you think of Pinot, but you should. It’s a thinker’s wine in many ways, but it also has the potential to be the life of the party. The grape is a wizard-grade shapeshifter and can always add another note to the riff. Think notes of cherry, wet leaves, nutmeg, plum, cedarwood, pencil shavings, black truffle, redcurrant, pepper, dark chocolate, gravel, blueberries and more. Difficult to cultivate yet perfectly poised when you get it right, this wine is all about tension. Wynton Marsalis famously said “in jazz, every moment is a crisis, and you bring all your skills to bear on that crisis.” German Pinot Noir is grown and produced in a crazy diversity of altitudes, soils and climates, and this grape takes in all of that and plays it back like an old school jazz ensemble, combining seemingly irreconcilable parts and making it seem like they couldn’t exist without each other.
Perfect with: Electronica
Recommended listening: Kraftwerk, Timo Maas, Ian Chang
German Riesling is something you can study and examine and experience for most of your life and never stop learning. The sine qua non of German wines has been in style for hundreds of years, and deservedly. Riesling has a wide variety of expressions that can be broadly grouped into “Trocken” or dry wines, “Kabinett” or off-dry wines and “Spätlese” or luscious, late-harvest wines, and even dessert-worthy wines, but modern German winemakers are offering more of the dry variety. Dry Riesling is an aromatic suckerpunch and your ideal companion for a variety of foods and… some Kraftwerk, perhaps? Something venerable and classic but also forward-thinking? Honestly, a good dry Riesling will go with most things; its whole point is epic versatility. Common notes in this dry white lean toward perfumery, mixing citrus rind and peaches, beeswax and ginger. Classical and “pretty,” but with a slightly industrial edge and definitely electric—it’s a study in tension. Just as Germany has been an epicenter of the world for electronica from when Kraftwerk first plugged in their synethesizers in the 1970s to the massive crowds at Parookaville this year, it’s been the proud home of this distinctive style.
Perfect with: Hip Hop
Recommended listening: Noname, Tierra Whack, Blackalicious
If you find a Riesling labeled “Kabinett,” “Spätlese,” or “Auslese,” you’re looking at what probably has to be called The OG (Original German, obviously). People who aren’t familiar with Riesling often avoid it because they have an idea it will be “sweet.” In this case that’s 100% true and by the way, it isn’t a flaw. Spätlese Riesling has serious staying power (you can age it for years, even decades). It’s complex and harmonious with a profoundly honeyed nose and characteristics that tend to demand dramatic descriptors (its acidity is keen or piercing or “electric,” its aromatics “heady” or “seductive”). Strong minerality and sometimes a savory salinity are also present. The power player of German wines is a viscous, molten-gold beverage with a big, big personality and impressive structure. Pair it with music that’s equally about flaunting your riches, like Kanye West’s “Run This Town”: “I’m beasting off the Riseling … You trippin’ when you ain’t sippin’, have a refill.”
Perfect with: Folk
Recommended listening: I’m With Her, Haley Heynderickx, Justin Townes Earle
If you’re looking for the wine equivalent of a Sufjan Stevens track, you might find it in Silvaner, an understated yet somehow extremely satisfying little will-o-the-wisp. It has a light, down-to-earth quality and a storied tradition. Silvaner and folk both value simplicity but will stay with you long after the final chord is struck or sip is taken. It’s fresh and green and brisk, and it tends to invite comparisons that are not to fruits and flowers at all, but to cloudscapes and weather and Sunday mornings in spring. Crystalline, with a vein of intriguing bitterness at its core, an almost colorless “Nature’s first green is gold” kind of tone, Silvaner is a paean to the beauty of simplicity.
Perfect with: R&B
Recommended listening: Seratones, Frank Ocean, Kali Uchis
A wine grape born of the crossing of Riesling and an obscure grape called Madeleine Royale, Müller-Thurgau is a super vigorous vine. When handled with care, though, lovely things can come from it. From the Riesling side, it brings a bouquet of lavish flowers and peaches, and it can be a shy, sometimes wispy wine. But when made well, it’s a fresh, flowery, softly aromatic white wine that’s close to colorless, and behind that clarity and softness there can be a surprising complexity—perfect for the neo-soul and R&B of pioneering crossover acts like Kali Uchis, who draw on the best of a storied tradition and make it feel completely new. Nowhere else does the physical and spiritual collide so wonderfully as R&B, making it the perfect music for Müller-Thurgau.
Perfect with: Indie Rock
Recommended listening: The National, Vampire Weekend, Courtney Barnett
The grape also known as Blaufrankisch is blue with a dusty bloom, and high-yielding (if it were a band it would be putting out an album every year). It thrives in warmer sites, and creates medium-bodied wines with a fairly high tannin level (German Lemberger is by and large less tannic than Austrian Blaufrankisch) and, often, a serious spicy kick. Black peppercorn, allspice, clove and cinnamon can all be expressed, along with black cherry, blackberry or boysenberry, and cocoa. Occasionally floral notes like wild violets will also jump out. It’s dark, a little brooding, but essentially put together and harmony-forward, with an individualist streak and a certain melancholy sexiness. In short, it paves its own path like the best indie rockers, never content to rest on its laurels.
Perfect with: ’80s pop
Recommended listening: The Bangles, a-ha, Modern English
The German iteration of Pinot Gris, called Grauburgunder, is surprisingly complex. They are often well-structured and finely balanced, edgy with citrus notes (lime, grapefruit, lemon and tangerine can all be present), tropical fruit (especially pineapple) and a delightful hit of something like fennel pollen. German Pinot Gris can also express spice notes that don’t tend to come up in Italian or American Pinot Gris (sometimes it’s something a bit exotic and sharp, like saffron), and a trailing salinity on the finish. It’s a refined character with just a little bit of a weird side, enough to make it a charming dinner companion. And like the best ’80s pop with catchy choruses and polished production, it’s a classic that should never go away—those first notes will always bring an instant, recognizable joy.
Perfect with: Country
Recommended listening: The Highwomen, Kacey Musgraves, Yola
Pinot Blanc may taste familiar, but it more than makes up for that in versatility—this is a wine that just seems to go with everything. The single-word description of this wine is “round.” It has decent acidity, but the impression isn’t of acids-it has a gentleness in the mouth that can come as a welcome change of pace from Pinot Gris. It can have a somewhat subdued bouquet, but a deeply pleasant one, full of apple and pear notes. In Germany (where it’s called Weissburgunder) it is sometimes barrel-aged, which also adds some layers, including toast, cream or vanilla characteristics. It’s a delicate wine in general, and an excellent pairing for any situation where you don’t know what to pour, especially when the sun is shining and you can kick back. It’s the country music of wines, making every setting more casual and relaxing, and you can always find one that suits your own tastes.
There’s so much to discover when it comes to both German wines and music, and there’s plenty of time to expand your palate. Pour a glass, sit back and relax with some new favorite artists.