Flatiron's Guide to German Wine, Part 3: Looking Forward
The Germans have been making wine for centuries, but there has never been a better time to jump in and discover the magic this country has to offer. The country has a historic combination of cool-climate terroir, generational know-how and a well-travelled, enthusiastic new crop of young talent at the helm of nearly every major weingut (winery).
After World War II, America’s association with German wines was less than stellar. Over the next few decades high quantities of lower priced wines were exported to our shores. But, there was always a contingency of American wine drinkers who knew better.
Now, a few generations later, that perception is a thing of the past. Hard work by German winemakers and marketers, American importers, sommeliers, retailers, critics and wine geeks have turned the tide. Curious American drinkers are exposed to the wonders of German wine more often than ever before
And they like what they see! For newer generations of wine drinkers, who value authenticity and ethically made wines, Germany is a veritable gold mine. Thousands of small family-run weinguts are focused on artisanal wines that speak of their time and place.
Sustainability, organic and biodynamic farming are finally becoming the norm as growers battle the ever fluctuating climate. And, it’s all accessible to even the most coin-conscious consumer.
Climate Change Means Plenty of Changes in Germany
Germany is one of the few countries that has seen some major benefits from climate change, with a nearly 20 year streak of fabulous vintages. But, it’s also brought a new set of challenges to the farmers and winemakers, turning many standard practices on their heads.
Until recently, a grower’s greatest challenge was usually capturing enough sun to ripen their grapes. Farmers planted along rivers for the reflection of the surface back onto vines, usually only on slopes with south or south-east exposition for maximum morning sun exposure. Canopies (the leaves on a vine) were cut back to allow for sunshine and airflow directly on grape clusters.
Now, sunburned grapes (which are exactly what they sound like) have become a problem. Whole grapes and even bunches shriveled up and died. The grapes that survived had incredible concentration (good for quality), and some berries developed extra phenolics (flavor and texture compounds in the grapes, also a plus). But, others had a touch of bitterness Some growers are learning to manage this effect by shading their grapes with more canopy that then was the norm.
Most German wine regions are historically very wet, with lots of natural rainfall throughout the summers and then long dry autumns, needed to achieve balanced ripeness. Vineyards were planted to mitigate the effects of too much water. Hillside plantings, often un-terraced and on pure rock, allowed for quick and easy drainage. The last several vintages have seen new rainfall patterns with drier summers and wetter falls, causing another set of problems.
First, summer draughts cause stress for the vines. They can reduce yields, make under-developed berries and, in very rare cases, even kill vines. High temperatures and bright sun exacerbate the situation. Some growers are now considering implementing irrigation in the summer for the first time ever.
Excess rain in the fall is even harder to solve. Rain during harvest leads to all sorts of issues: bloated and bursting or diluted berries, mold and mildew flare ups, and meticulous (read: expensive and labor intensive) sorting of healthy grapes. In 2019 this was a problem, especially in the Nahe, where producers like Dönnhoff had the largest force of pickers for one of the smallest harvests ever.
The quality in the end is outstanding. But it was difficult and expensive to get there, and not every grower has the luxury of working this way. A lot of fruit was lost and quality elsewhere was variable.
Organic versus conventional farming has been a hot topic for at least a decade, but the debate has heated up along with the temperatures. Conventional farming that is, farming that uses chemical inputs to control fertilization, pests, other vegetation, and maladies like mold, disease and fungus has only been in practice for about 100 years.
The majority of the world’s crops are now farmed this way and no doubt it has brought stability to agriculture. But, it has also had some negative effects. These range from unhealthy chemicals in our food supply, poisoning waterways, increased carbon emissions, monoculture susceptible to being wiped out by disease, loss of habitat and animal species, and an imbalance with nature.
Besides helping with many of those issues, proponents of organics believe their practices make for more resilient vines. Boosting a plant’s natural ability to fend for itself in the onslaught of novel weather conditions is one of organic’s greatest advantages. Regenerative farming is a new term, used to describe organic methods modified to reduce and reverse the effects of climate change. Not tilling between vines, for instance, allows the soil to capture enough carbon to make a difference, especially on a large scale.
Many German farmers implemented conventional practices as a means to increase efficiency and output, while lowering costs. But more importantly, this was a marginal climate, where vines needed every ounce of help they could get to grow healthy grapes. Many conventional techniques were the difference between a farmer surviving or closing up shop.
As climate change forces us all to reassess our relationships with the earth, it is especially true for farmers. German agriculture overall has seen a huge increase in farmland in conversion to organic farms (now over 10%) in just ten years! They now have the 10th highest amount of organic farmland in the world. The government has set a goal of helping convert 20% of land by 2030. This is just another reason to support German viticulture.
German Producers Changing Things Up
Traditions, especially in viticulture, run strong throughout many German wine regions. This is a country that recognized and took advantage of quality benchmarks before many others, including planting on south facing slopes to increase ripeness, banking on Riesling, arguably the world's best grape, and picking at various levels of ripeness for a dynamic range of styles, including berries infected with botrytis.
Today, alongside those traditionalists, is a curious bunch of winemakers looking to break the mold, ready to take on new challenges, and making wines like nowhere else in the world. Many of these producers are part of the natural wine scene, those who eschew all chemical interventions in winemaking. Some have studied abroad in places like Burgundy and Napa, bringing back techniques they can apply to their home vineyards. All of them are helping to paint a new picture of Germany and helping us all recognize that we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential.
Known for: A thinking man’s Silvaner. These are wines that can make your head explode.
Saying Stefan Vetter is known for a thinking man’s Silvaner assumes you, the reader, know what Silvaner is, and you will be totally forgiven if you don’t. It’s the star grape of Franken, another nearly unknown to most people outside of Germany, but it is a region in Bavaria that built its fortunes on their beloved grape, Silvaner.
He didn’t make wines until 12 years ago when he saw a plot of old terraced vines for sale. He was drawn to the history and traditions of the ancient region and wanted to elevate the perception of Silvaner above its current status. He’s slowly added more parcels and plots to his holdings, all are farmed organically and biodynamically. In the cellar very little is done except a touch of SO2 at bottling.
The resulting wines contain a sense of mystery. Silvaner is often described as non-aromatic and neutral. Stefan’s versions practically shout their soil differences over a loudspeaker while still retaining millefeuille layers of subtly. They are low in alcohol, yet concentrated and weighty, with vibrant acidity and subliminal notes of herbs, citrus and earth.
He might have been attracted to the idea of Franken’s wines of the past, but they ended up the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Region: Franken, a region further east of the Pfalz and Rheinhessen in Bavaria. Summers are warm and dry, but winters are very cold, soils are mixed but mostly sandstone, shale and limestone. The main grapes planted are Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau
Known for: Fun but poised Pet-Nat’s, orange wines, the best Dornfelder in the world.
Founded in 1891, the Brand winery has been producing wine in the Pfalz for five generations. However, the Brand brothers are electrifying their little town and this once forgotten region. And they are doing so with huge smiles and a raucous joy in their role as stewards for the land.
Their vineyards are located on limestone-rich soils around the village of Bockenheim, in the northern part of the region, along the border of Rheinhessen. Daniel and Jonas' father, Jürgen, always farmed their vines responsibly, but when his children took over, they immediately transitioned to organic viticulture, gaining certification in 2017.
It’s a rather curious blend of youthful exuberance, a surplus of energy and an unflappable belief in the future of viticulture in their vineyards, tempered by a maturity that is surprising given their ripe ages of 26 and 30. The Brothers Brand also utilize biodynamic treatments, always experimenting to discover which practices work best in their vines. All of their wines are made with little, if any, added sulfites.
Region: Pfalz, the second largest growing region where polyculture is still sometimes practiced. It is drier and sunnier than most regions in Germany with extremely varied soil types.
Known for: Elbling, it’s an ultra-light laser beam of a wine, dry, dry, dry, with lemon-skin citrus and finesse.
Matthias Hild' life's work is to reclaim some of Europe’s oldest Elbling vines, not Riesling. And far from being one of Germany's most expressive white wines, it’s one of its most stunning values. Elbling is an ancient grape. The Romans brought it to Germany thousands of years ago. It used to be all over Germany, but now it’s very rare.
He farms very old Elbling (70ish years) on ancient terraces that he painstakingly preserves. They are located in the Upper Mosel, where the limestone geology resembles Champagne or Sancerre more than it does the slate of the Mosel’s classic Riesling villages. Most of Germany's Elbling is gone and most of the terraces are abandoned, but Matthias persists. We’re so grateful he’s preserving this traditional jewel of a wine.
Region: The Mosel, but at the western end up to the border with Luxembourg. The soils are limestone rather than slate and perfect for Elbling.
Known for: TINY quantities of Weissburgunder and Spätburgunder from limestone soils and made in a very Burgundian fashion.
Germany makes the best Riesling in the world, a universally accepted truth. But as Eric Asimov discusses here, there’s more to Germany than the big R. Loads of other grapes excel across the country. Some, like Pinot Noir, you may be more familiar with than others: for instance, Weissburgunder.
Weissburgunder is just the German word for Pinot Blanc, a grape that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the shadow of its more popular siblings: Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris(gio). But after tasting through some aged bottles in winemakers' personal cellars, we are starting to think it's actually a conspiracy. They're just keeping the best wines for themselves.
None of these great examples ever seemed to cross the Atlantic, until Stephen Bitterolf—the star importer of Keller, Lauer, Haart and more—brought us the Wasenhaus wines last year and our minds were blown.
The domaine, run by two friends (one of whom is the vineyard manager of Burgundy's Domaine de Montille) is tiny, at just 1.5 hectares of land. When output is this small, it’s hard to buy the wine, and it took many visits over many vintages before Stephen was able to secure a small allocation. A couple of vintages later and everyone else has figured out our conspiracy hunch. The Wasenhaus wines now sell out before they even hit the docks.
Region: Baden, a warm corner of Germany where grapes can ripen just fine on limestone, shale, loess, volcanic and loam soils. In fact, many of their vines are on north-facing slopes to keep ripeness under control.
Known for: Very good Pinot Noir including a line up of single vineyards
Enderle & Moll (E&M) makes some of the most lip-smacking, sought-after Pinot Noirs in Germany these days.
E&M may seem like an unlikely duo to be described as a "cult" by Jancis Robinson, or as Germany's top producer of Spätburgunder by plenty of others. They're just a couple of guys in Baden with a small parcel of land and a tiny cellar where they make wines. Of course, fans of Burgundy will recognize the image, as plenty of culty Pinot Noirs have emerged from similar circumstances there (including Dujac, in whose used barrels E&M ages their wines).
Of course, E&M has all the not-so-secret ingredients for great Pinot Noir. The vines are old and are planted in a marginal terroir where the vines have to struggle. They are farmed biodynamically. Wine-making is old-fashioned and hands off. Everything is done with balance and finesse in mind: extractions are light, oak is neutral. Despite that, the wines possess that quiet power you expect from great Burgundy.
But don't expect Burgundy. We are in Baden, Germany's great Pinot Noir region, not France's. The soils are mostly sandstone rather than limestone. The wines taste different. But they do have that "thing" that all lovers of Pinot Noir crave, that "earthy" gorgeousness that is so hard to pin down with words.
Region: Baden, warm enough to ripen Pinot Noir with sandstone soils.
Known for: Quirky and delicious natural wines like no other.
The husband and wife team behind 2Naturkinder are sneakily responsible for some of the most interesting and heartfelt natural wine we know, in one of the most surprising locales—Franconia, in the heart of Bavaria.
For many of us, there’s a particular bottle of wine that sparks a passion for natural wines. For Melanie and Michael, native Franconians whose careers brought them to London and New York, it was a natural skin-contact bottle from the Loire that captivated them.
Michael grew up amongst his family’s vines, but their wine was nothing like this, with its vibrant energy. With this bottle, and many that followed, this young couple embarked on a journey that would bring them back to Franconia and into the thick of producing honest, natural wine.
Michael has a particular interest in the bats that live in and around the vines. Biodiversity is a huge priority for the couple, but bats in particular provide something very useful—guano, sourced from a local conservatory. Because the estate eschews chemicals of any kind, natural fertilizer like this is worth its weight in gold, especially in tricky vintages.
Since arriving back in Germany, they gradually converted their vines to organic farming, with an emphasis on a healthy ecosystem; to achieve this goal they plant cover crops and allow a herd of sheep to graze in the vineyard. None of the wines see sulfur at any point, nor any chemical manipulation. They cite Alice Feiring’s mandate, “A natural wine is made with the intent of nothing added or taken away” as inspiration.
Region: Franken, a region east of the Pfalz and Rheinhessen in Bavaria. Summers are warm and dry but winters are very cold, soils are mixed but mostly sandstone, shale and limestone. The main grapes planted (and made by 2Naturkinder) are Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau
Andi produces the newest wines to hit the American shores from Germany and encompasses everything we love about “New German Wine”. Friends Michael and Melanie of 2Naturkinder introduced him to his American importer, Jenny & Francois, just in time for the publication of this blog.
He hails from Iphöfen (pronounced like iphone) Franken and farms 60+ year old Silvaner, on the Kronsberg slope. Andi’s ambition and enthusiasm quickly convinced his father to convert their vines to organics, which they did in 2018. They prize their east, west and north facing vineyards as they allow for lower alcohol and more subtly, rarely do wines deviate from 12% abv.
2019 is Andi’s second vintage which he fermented in large neutral barrels with no fining, filtration or sulphur additions. We’ve only got to experience the one bottle, but it was fantastic, edgy with a chenin texture, meaning both broad and sharp at the same time with a light spritz from captured CO2. Completely chuggable, clean and a very exciting addition to our German wine section.
Flatiron's Guide to German Wine
We set out to write this Flatiron Guide to German Wines to explain not just why the wine geeks go so nutty for all things Deutsch, and not just why German wines are among the best wines for the super-casual wine drinker. And not even why we are so deeply in love with them, ourselves.
No, we set out to explain why a German wine is the bottle you should take home tonight. You.
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