In late 2010, having been in Germany for three days already, I boarded a bus in the Rheingau for a trip downriver, towards the confluence with the Mosel, along with a number of MWs and MW students.
However not long after setting out we stopped just outside a little village in the Mittelrhein, walked up a short driveway and then to the vineyard on the crest of a hill. This was my introduction to German viticulture and the experience was shocking.
This is Pinot Noir – a variety that has been in Germany for some considerable time it seems. And yet it has only been a relatively recent revolution that has seen Pinot Noir take its place at the head of the German wine scene.
Later that week I got to taste a few Spatburgunders at the annual Grosses Gewaches tasting – but this was a dazzling experience. The room was filled with winemakers from all over Germany, not just the Rheingau, and there were well over a hundred stands, all of which had at least four or five wines available to taste. Yes, many of those wines were Riesling, the variety Germany is most famous for, but there were dozens of red wines on offer, and not just from Pinot, but other varieties too. So – a confusing afternoon (compounded with having less than two hours before our bus to the airport was due to leave.)
This week a few very lucky people got to taste some of Germany’s finest Spatburgunders, but more impressive than that we were able to learn all about the German Pinot Noir revolution from a talented MW, London based Anne Krebiehl MW.
This Auckland tasting was hosted by Jane Skilton MW, from the NZSWS, but the wines were provided by the VDP, the organisation of quality German producers, so many thanks to those people for shipping these wines across to New Zealand. None of these are available in New Zealand, and while there are a couple of German Spatburgunders on sale here, it is very difficult to get a sense of the scale of what is produced. This was an outstanding workshop in that regard.
As Krebiehl explained, there is more Pinot Noir grown in Germany than Australia and New Zealand combined (and a lot is used here in sparkling wine production.) A single region, Baden, has almost as many hectares under Pinot than New Zealand has. And Pinot is planted in all the main wine regions, from the Mosel in the west, all the way over to Sachsen on the eastern boundary of the country. And the latitude spread is fairly large as well, over 4 degrees, so she believes it is very hard to generalise about German Pinot styles and regions for that matter.
The couple of Spatburgunders that I have tasted in the years since my trip to Geisenheim were both from the Ahr and this is still one of the leading regions for the variety, however we tasted excellent wines from other regions with which I am more familiar via their Rieslings.
It is truly refreshing to come across a wine expert who calls a spade a spade. Anne was not only open with her preferences, she was also critical of the tendency of some (a small minority) of producers who over extract or who are too heavy handed on the oak. As she sees it (and as confirmed by my tastings in Germany, as well as this one) the hallmark of German Spatburgunder is acidity. If the wines do not show that freshness, then they are just another Pinot, they could almost be from anywhere.
The other thing that may be difficult for some New Zealand wine buffs to get their head around is that these wines do not show huge depth of colour. Hopefully we are starting to get over this – but the massive dark purple hues, most commonly associated with Central Otago Pinots and/or cold soaking prior to primary fermentation are becoming less common. People need to close their eyes when they drink Pinot – the appearance is not, as one very famous Kiwi winemaker lectured me one day, the first major feature we should focus on when coming to this variety.
For me, that aspect is the aromatics, and these German wines are so precise and fine that they totally sing in terms of aroma and bouquet. And in terms of weight, while Pinot is a naturally lighter bodied red than other varieties, there is plenty of grip and concentration here. These are elegant, but serious reds, with a group of dedicated, crafty winemakers behind them, and our winemakers need to wake up and smell the Spatburgunders.
Gutzler Westhofener Spatburgunder Trocken 2015 VDP Ortsweing 13% (Rheinhessen)
A fabulous entry point, cherry liqueur and vanilla notes, a whiff of smoke, but bright, crisp and fresh, and there is also some restraint, suggesting good cellaring potential lighter in body and tannins than some of the wines to come, this was one of my favourites nonetheless for that purity and fruity immediacy.
Schlossgut Diel Caroline – Blauer Spatburgunder 2015 VDP Gutswein 13% (Nahe)
Ms Krebiehl opined that this wine may have some Brett influence, certainly it was one of the more developed wines on show, with a cooked, vegetal character on the nose, very dry tannins, sharp acidity and yet at same time real sweetness in the mouth. Apparently from an organic producer, in a marginal growing area, this wine is ambitious, but not quite there yet.
Siegrist Schlemenstuck Pinot Noir Trocken 2013 VDP Gutswein 13% (Pfalz)
This wine reminded me most of the Pinots Noir we see a lot here in Aotearoa – darker colour, intense, confected nose, cooked berry, liqueur like, with noticeable oak influence, slight green bean character on the finish. Dense, firm and concentrated, Krebiehl put this solid structure down to the loess soils in which it is grown.
J J Adeneuer No. 1 Spatburgunder Trocken 2014 VDP Gutswein 13.5% (Ahr)
One of the standout wines in the tasting, the nose here just reeks of ripe strawberries, with an attractive herbal or savoury undertone. This is a pretty, delicate, juicy, upfront style, some juicy fruit in the mid palate and lovely grainy tannins, from a cooler vintage, I thought it was damned fine now, but apparently this should keep well to boot.
Blankenhorn Schliengener Olacker Spatburgunder Trocken 2015 VDP Erste Lage 13% (Baden)
Another in the crisp and fine style, here perhaps more confected fruit, macerated cherries, a smoky secondary element. The influence of some new oak shows through on the palate, which is creamy and warm, 2015 was apparently a warmer year and this wine is weightier as a result. Very attractive as a young wine, but needs time.
Geheimrat von Mumm Assmannshauser Hollenberg Spatburgunder trocken GG 2013 13.5% VDP Grosse Lage (Rheingau)
“From probably the most iconic Pinot Noir vineyard in Germany,” warned Krebiehl, and certainly as a Great Growth, there was a step up here in concentration and complexity. Deeper in colour, a more savoury, game meat nose, exotic dark fruit, although much of it still locked up and subdued. The palate was creamy and spicy, though I thought a slight green edge detracted a little, so I was perhaps not as enthusiastic as others.
Kunstler Assmannshausen Hollenberg Spatburgunder GG 2015 13.0% VDP Grosse Lage (Rheingau)
Kunstler make some of Germany’s most famous Rieslings (I have only ever tasted the one…) but impressive to see that they have also become one of the leaders of the New Wave Pinot Noir.
More dark fruit here, this time plum or pastille, intense primary characters supported by smoky, sappy secondary tones. Lovely savoury oak on the palate, but overall the impression is very refined, a deft touch, this is a tight, structured, elegant wine with many years ahead of it. My favourite of this remarkable tasting.
Bernhard Huber Malterdingen Alte Reben Spatburgunder 2015 13.0% VDP Ortswein (Baden)
Another bright, youthful looking wine, raspberry, redcurrant fruit, real sweetness here and immediate fruit appeal, but that is nicely counterbalanced by a leafy, savoury note. Gorgeous fruit in the mouth, finished by racy acidity, a beautiful, pristine wine and a great honour to the late Bernard Huber, the “godfather” of German Pinot Noir.
Schmitt’s Kinder Randersacker Sonnenstuhl Spatburgunder 2014 13.5% VDP Grosse Lage (Franken)
A sweeter and richer wine, this shows more syruppy and evolved fruit characters, there is even a hint of chocolate or mocha in the mouth. Plump and curranty, and yet the acidity would really fool you in a blind tasting, this wine seems relatively unevolved and needs lots more time.
The last three wines were grouped in a flight because they all show some influence or other of stems in the ferment.
Rudolf Furst Centgrafenberg Spatburgunder GG 2015 13.5% VDP Grosse Lage (Franken)
The nose is currently shut down now, maybe a hint of woodsmoke or caramel, for me the pleasure was all on the palate, which was savoury and wild, yet racy and fresh all at the same time. The tannins here are excellent, really grainy and fine, the fruit solid all the way to the finish, so starting to show some secondary development, but this is a sleeper, needing years and years to show its best. A standout.
Kreuzberg Silberberg GG Spatburgunder Trocken 2015 13.0% VDP Grosse Lage (Ahr)
Anne thought that the wine in her glass (seemingly in mine too?) was out of condition (“wet mop” she called it) not sure what has affected it, but for me it was difficult to discern anything at all above the oxidation.
The colour appears very youthful, bright purple (perhaps a pH issue?), but the nose is over developed nose, meaty / dusty, in the mouth the wine seems heavy, not extractive, but clunky and solid, rather than racy. There is also a very strange malty character, is there some connection to the 5 days cold soak, or has this just had a bad journey? Hard to say.
Aldinger Gips Marienglas Spatburgunder GG 2015 12.5% VDP Grosse Lage (Wurttemberg)
One of the more complex wines on show, very savoury and smoky, gamey characters that would not be out of place in a certain well known Pinot Noir region of France. But I had trouble with the nose here – my first impression was of spearmint toothpaste and as I went back to it (and back to it, and back to it) I could not shake that aroma. So while this wine has great texture and richness (“toothsome” might be appropriate here), there is also a distinct green edge here which some critics have a problem with. Apparently the winemaker deliberately picks early – and that greenness melds with the wine over time – but will aromatically very classy, not one of my faves.