When you think of German wines (assuming you do think of them) you might have a vague idea that they make Riesling, and that it might or might not have a skull-crushing amount of residual sugar. If you go to higher-end restaurants in hip urban centers, you’ll probably find wine stewards and sommeliers who like to keep a German wine or two up their sleeves, and you might have tried a Kerner or a Grüner Veltliner. Overall though, in the States, we’re relatively underexposed to the wines of Germany. Interestingly, so is Germany – there are regions that get a lot of exposure and have many diehard fans, and others whose production is so local that people 100 miles away have never tried their stuff.
So, I just went on a wine tasting tour of Baden-Württemberg and the Rheinhessen. This is not for the faint of heart or the liver-challenged; our group seriously tasted over 100 wines in the space of three days. Reds, whites, pinks, sparklers, dry wines, off-dry wines, wines so sweet and viscous they begged to be poured over ice cream…Rustic wines and incredibly sophisticated wines. Lean, austere wines and big loudmouth wines. And… well, yeah, a few Rieslings. Was it grueling? Yes. Was it a recipe for permanent heartburn and dangerous levels of inhibition? Yes, potentially. I spent most of the time with my head spinning, although I think that was mostly jetlag – but I am tireless in the pursuit of oenological smarts, so I took one for the team.
And here is what I discovered.
1) There is a lot more to Germany than Riesling.
2) German winemakers tend to favor organic farming though many don’t bother with certification. If organic products are a meaningful thing to you, this is a good region to explore – they might not advertise it, but it’s the common practice.
3) Vineyards are often worked totally by hand, not because it’s tradition or they just like it that way, but because they are terraced into hills so steep that there is no way machinery can get in there. Also: don’t fall. Just don’t.
4) Many winemakers in this region have a deep and abiding passion for oak. They are in very intimate relationships with their barrels. If you don’t like oaky wines, tread carefully when selecting a German one.
5) German wines, at least of the regions I visited, strike me as having tremendous aging potential (yes, including whites, though I wouldn’t bother doing it with Silvaner or Pinot Blanc). The 2015 season was apparently a miracle vintage and most of the wineries we visited were eager to show freshly bottled (or still in barrel) wines. With most of the reds I tasted and a significant majority of the whites, I found myself curious to know what 8-10 years might do to them. They display great structure and stability. Americans tend to think white wine should pretty much be aged in the car on the way home from the store. This is a mistake. Aged whites can be magnificent and these folks produce wines that are built to last.
6) The most frustrating wines I experienced were made by people determined to adapt French grapes to a climate that cannot do them justice. Many of the winemakers we spoke to are happy to admit that their region is too cold for a Merlot or a Cabernet Sauvignon to truly ripen. They are planting them anyway. And while I’m all for experimentation, I tasted very few warm-climate reds that weren’t painfully astringent with very bell-peppery flavors. I found myself wishing producers would embrace what they had to work with and put their energy into doing it as well as possible.
7)Despite the fact that there is a lot more to Germany than Riesling – these guys love their Riesling and everyone we visited had a few. And they were amazingly diverse.
Now, for your general edification, demystification, and translational goodness, the following is a primer on Important Terms To Know If You’re Gonna Try Some German Wine.
Gewurtztraminer: In the region we visited people seem to prefer rendering it as a sweet wine, in which form it has a heavy body and a pronounced lychee character. If that is your thing, you won’t be disappointed. I like really dry Gewurtztraminers, which tend to express rose petals and white pepper, and what I discovered on this trip is that for those you need to go to Alsace. Duly noted. These guys do their sweeter, heavier style with aplomb.
Grauburgunder: Known to you and me as Pinot Gris, this grape can be a rather amazing honey and cream scone affair in this region, though some also express pear, apple, hazelnut. The deal with Baden Grauburgunders, what makes them really different from American or Italian ones, is the same thing that makes California Chardonnays anathema to a lot of people: a torrid love affair with oak. In Pinot Gris oak turns out to be a good thing, resulting in really interesting notes of orange peel and nuts and strong florals.
Kerner: The lovechild of Riesling and Trollinger, Kerner is also known as Schiava and Vernaccia, depending on where you’re growing it. It makes rounded, dry white wines (they can have a tropical nose but they’re not generally sweet). Common notes are white peach, apple, grapefruit and mango. Light body, exceedingly quaffable.
Lemberger: This might emerge as Germany’s signature red, a regional classic the way Chenin Blanc is in South Africa or Grenache in the Rhone region. Genuinely local with a lot of character and, I think, aging potential. (It’s not totally unheard of in the states; many are growing it in the Yakima Valley of Washington State.) It can be quite tannic and quite acidic. Dominant notes are likely to be black cherry, pepper, currant, and spices.
Riesling: Needs its own dissertation, but in brief, the German wine you are likeliest to find in your supermarket, and depending on its region and vinification, can be dry, off-dry or sweet, and expresses, among other things, green apple, pear, apricot, chamomile, pineapple, linden, yellow plum, apricot and white peach.
Sauvignon Blanc: This is often a relentless fruit-bomb. The German ones I tasted expressed, in general, fruity noses but had a lot more leanness and minerality, and more interesting floral and herbaceous notes, hay and linden blossom in many cases. If the passionfruit-gooseberry character of, say, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc creeps you out, you might check out a couple of German ones.
Schwartzriesling: This is a grape you might know as Pinot Meunier, one of the three grapes found in French Champagnes, and you will find it in German sparkling wines too. Called “Miller’s” pinot for the glaucous, downy leaves that look as though they’ve been dusted with flour, it’s a good (sometimes great) varietal still red as well as a Champagne supporting character. Fruity but dry, and frequently on the oaky side. Traditionally, Pinot Meunier is not believed to have a lot of aging potential and people tend to drink it young. I tasted a few potential exceptions.
Spätburgunder German for Pinot noir. It’s a key red varietal in the Baden and Rheinhessen regions. Very structured, tannins firm to assertive. Dominant flavors are berries, nuts, toast, and wood.
Silvaner The acreage for this grape has declined a lot over the years so if you find this stuff, get it while you can. Silvaner is an unprepossessing “blank slate” white that has a light body and fairly neutral flavor, which makes it great for expressing the terroir of its site of origin. Dominant notes are lemon, grass, honey, melon and light white florals.
Trollinger: While you’re unlikely to encounter this wine in your local supermarket, it’s one of the most ubiquitous grapes in the Baden-Württemberg area. A large-berried, pale red, thin skinned grape, it’s crafted into reds, roses, no-skin-time basically-whites, and sparkling wine (a lighthearted sparkler called “Trollisecco” was an especially fun sip).
Weissburgunder: The German alias for Pinot Blanc. Common in these regions and is sometimes oaked. A personal favorite of mine, it expresses different notes in Germany than in California – less apple, more citrus, sometimes stone fruit. Pinot Blanc is generally not one for the cellar – drink it now.
German wine terminology may be unfamiliar to many, so a quick primer so you can actually glean information from labels:
•GG or Grosses Gewächs: indicates you are drinking a top-shelf dry wine.
•Kabinett: this actually means exactly what it sounds like, and indicates a reserve quality wine the vintner would… keep in his or her cabinet. Consider it shorthand for “really good and going to stay that way for a long time.”
•Sekt: Sparkling wine from one of Germany’s designated quality-wine regions. Can be made from any of a variety of grapes. Like Champagne it might be pale yellow, golden or pink, and it ranges in dryness. It is often made in the traditional Champagne method, and has a pretty high CO2 pressure so be careful when uncorking!
•Spätlese: Late harvest. In the US this generally means dessert wine. In Germany it might or might not. Many full bodied dry wines are late-harvest as well.
•Trocken: means “dry.” Since German grapes can often be rendered into off-dry or outright dessert wines, know that if it isn’t labeled “trocken” there might be considerable residual sugar. And that if you’re looking for an off dry wine you want something that is not labeled Trocken.
Wines from this lesser-known but fascinating region are often hard to find as they tend to keep it close to home, and many of my favorite wines came from small-production wineries that don’t export much. If you are interested in digging into some really interesting stuff, Wine-searcher.com is a good place to start.
Or be like me and get on a plane and try your very hardest to drink it all in three days.