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German Pinot Noir (a.k.a., Spätburgunder) has been receiving attention from many quarters lately, some within the trade (Jancis Robinson, John Gilman, Tyler Coleman, Jon Bonné), and some in the mainstream (Forbes Magazine’s #1 trending wine topic for 2016). At a time when Burgundy prices have skyrocketed out of reach for many consumers and American Pinots seem to be following suit, Germany is suddenly looking like an untapped goldmine of well-made, well-priced, terroir-driven Pinot. What are the salient characteristics of German Pinot, versus its American and French analogs? To find out, we tasted six German Pinot Noirs at our last sales meeting, presented by German Portfolio Manager Evan Spingarn.
The old guard of #probowlers— industry vets who *maybe* haven’t tasted German Pinot Noirs in a while— voiced their skepticism, recalling bottles of “thin” and “astringent” German Pinot in days of yore. Their doubts were well-founded! As Tyler Coleman pointed out in his blog post last year (http://www.drvino.com/2015/03/16/spatburgunder-german-pinot-noir/): Beaune, whose Burgundies are hardly known for their voluptuous maturity, lies at 47 degrees north of the equator, while their German counterparts are at 48-51 degrees. As little as forty years ago, the impact this had on the wines was much more severe. But in this era when higher-toned reds are “on trend” and rising global temperatures are pushing the fine wine map of Europe ever northward, Germany’s position now reads as an advantage.
The most northern winery in our German Pinot Noir portfolio is Anthony Hammond, located in the Rheingau, and in our recent tasting it was easily distinguishable as such. His quintessential Rheingau Pinot Noir grows on slate soils and elevage takes place in large old barrels. Cool, fruity, modest in alcohol and quite pale in the glass, David Bowler characterized the wine as “savory,” while others found it “spicy” and “restrained.” It’s intended as a casual sipper, but the fact is, a single vineyard Pinot made biodynamically in small amounts with no chaptalization and priced at $15 or $16 retail offers a value almost extinct from the world’s more recognized Pinot growing areas.
Other #probowlers remembered the days in which “Spätburgunder” was synonymous with “oaky.” But among the six we tasted, oak seemed to be used more as a textural element than a flavoring one, when it was used at all. Generally agreed upon as the finest, most age-worthy wine in the lineup, the Rebholz Pinot Noir Spätlese Trocken “Tradition” 2011 came from limestone and saw time in a mix of French and Pfalz barrels, some new, some used. But the taste of new oak was nowhere in evidence; it possessed instead a pronounced mineral complexity and the smooth, rounded edges of a wine that has been through neutral oak elevage. Also from the Pfalz — and aged with no new oak at all — was another group favorite, Borell-Diehl’s Pinot Noir Trocken 2013. Fermented in steel and aged in big old oak foudres, this was a friendlier, fruitier iteration of Spätburgunder.
The stalwart of our German Pinot Noir portfolio, Friedrich Becker, lived up to its reputation. Also in the Pfalz, the Becker "Dry Estate” 2012’s ripe berry fruit upfront belied a surprisingly long, layered finish. If it seemed to some of us almost French in its elegance, that might be because 60-70% of the fruit technically comes from Alsace! The whole operation is in many ways a hybrid of French technique with German tradition. The energetic Fritz Becker (Jr.) gleefully experiments with French vs German clones of Pinot Noir and French vs German barrels—including numerous casks he picked up (used, bien sur) from Romanée-Conti and Comtes Lafon.
Having tasted its slate- and limestone-based iterations, we thought we knew Spatburgunder. But Evan had another trick up his sleeve, and pulled out two new additions to our portfolio from loess-covered VOLCANIC soils: Salwey. Out of the market for several years and brought to us by Rudi Wiest Selections, this is a very fine, very old (1720s), family-run estate in the Baden, Germany’s warmest and southernmost wine region that makes up half of the white-hot area known as Swabia. Salwey’s specialty is Pinot (including Noir, Blanc, and Gris), the finest of which are grown atop a high, sunny plateau called the Kaiserstuhl (“the King’s throne”).
The length of the Salwey Estate Dry 2012 was remarkable, and Evan cited extended contact with the lees as one possible explanation. Longer barrel aging sur lie coupled with a generally slower, more natural approach toward viticulture and viniculture at this estate has been Konrad Salwey’s signature since he took over in 2011. The Käsleberg 2012 was full-bodied and elegant, with gentle supporting acidity. For lack of any better reference point, it’s tempting to call these wines “Burgundian” with their barrique influence, rich textures and saline minerality, but the truth is that not only are they distinctly Germanic, they are distinctly reflective of the Southern Baden and its ancient volcanic terroir, which is unique in the world.