Germany Beyond Riesling: A Guide to Germany’s Other Grape Varieties
Many think that Germany and Riesling are one and the same, and it’s true that Riesling is Germany’s most-planted grape variety (accounting for about a quarter of the country’s grapevines, to be exact). And while it’s no secret that we are big Riesling fans, there’s so much more to German wine—especially in the last decade or so.
Nearly 100 grape varieties are grown in Germany, and vintners are increasingly experimenting with and embracing less-planted varieties. The country’s cool climate makes it naturally predisposed to white wines, but climate change has prompted red wines to become more of a focus as well—about a third of all German wines are red.
GRAPES TO KNOW
Germany’s most-planted red grape and third-most widely planted variety in general, Pinot Noir (known locally as Spätburgunder) isn’t exactly new to the country—it was probably first planted in the fourth century, though it was first documented in the 14th century. But for much of Germany’s history, the country was too cold to reliably ripen Pinot Noir, resulting in thin, acidic wines.
Rising temperatures (along with better clonal selection, farming, and winemaking techniques) have changed that, however, and Germany ranks third in terms of global Pinot Noir plantings (behind France and the U.S.). It can make some of Germany’s finest wines.
- The southern, warmer regions of Baden and Württemberg are hubs of Pinot Noir production.
- So is the northerly Ahr Valley, where the grape thrives on steep, slate-filled slopes.
- The Pfalz, Rheinhessen, and Rheingau are also important Pinot Noir regions.
- Because Pinot Noir is planted in all of Germany’s 13 wine regions, it’s made in an array of styles.
- There are also many philosophies around crafting German Pinot Noir; while the fashion in the ’90s was to use plenty of new oak, more vintners choose to age their Pinot Noirs in old French barriques, large German Fuders (large, neutral wooden vats that typically contain 1,000 liters—mainly used in the Mosel), or German Stückfasser (large, neutral wooden vats that typically contain 1,200 liters).
- German Pinot Noirs can range from fresh and fruit-forward to age-worthy and complex, and they certainly rank among the best Pinot Noirs in the world. Expect them to be dry, with red cherry fruit, hints of smoke and almond, some tannic grip, and high acidity.
Silvaner was first documented in Germany’s Franken region in 1659, and by the 1960s, it was the most important grape variety in the country. It was often used as a blending component in wines like Liebfraumilch, and when this style became less popular, so did Silvaner. Now, most of the best Silvaners come from their original German home: Franken.
- Sometimes still bottled in its flat, rotund, traditional bocksbeutel, Silvaner is most often produced in Franken. In these clay-limestone soils, winemakers can use Silvaner to produce the VDP’s top-end Grosses Gewächs wines.
- The Rheinhessen, however, claims the largest number of Silvaner vines, and the variety is produced in Baden as well.
- Silvaner is typically fairly neutral and medium- to full-bodied white wine, though on top sites it can become powerful and mineral-driven. Expect subtle floral, herbal, and apple-like aromas.
One of the oldest cultivated white grape varieties in Europe, Elbling dates back to ancient times and was planted across Germany for centuries. As Riesling and Silvaner became more popular in the early 1900s, vintners moved away from Elbling, but recently the grape has undergone a bit of a renaissance amongst Mosel producers.
- Elbling is almost exclusively grown on the Mosel’s steep slopes (as well as neighboring Luxembourg).
Known for their high acidity, these white wines tend to be very dry, light, and fresh, with crisp fruit flavors and aromas. Elbling may not be the most complex white wine, but it is certainly one of the most refreshing and delicious.
Known as Weissburgunder in Germany, Pinot Blanc is an ancient variety that is part of the wider Burgundian (“Pinot”) family of grapes. Though it accounts for just around five percent of the country’s vineyard acreage, its planting area has doubled within the past 10 years. Germany now has the highest number of Pinot Blanc plantings worldwide
- Pinot Blanc is often planted on sites that are too warm for Riesling, typically in Baden, the Pfalz, and Rheinhessen.
- Fairly neutral and easy-drinking, Pinot Blanc tends to be dry, with a medium body and subtle acidity. It’s light and fresh, with more acidity than Pinot Gris.
Likely introduced from across the border in nearby Alsace by Cistercian monks, Pinot Gris (called Grauburgunder in Germany) takes on many styles in Germany. The country is the world’s third-largest producer of the grape, which is actually a pink-skinned genetic mutation of Pinot Noir.
- Pinot Gris is popular in Baden, particularly in the region’s volcanic Kaiserstuhl area.
- The grape thrives on loess (a mix of windblown dust and sand), terraces, and in chalky, stony sites. Other popular regions for Pinot Gris include Rheinhessen, the Pfalz, and the Nahe.
- German Pinot Gris wines labeled as Grauburgunder are typically dry. If a Pinot Gris is labeled as Ruländer, it is likely off-dry or sweet, with concentrated fruit and floral aromas.
- The dry Pinot Gris wines of Germany can range from light and fresh to rich and oak-aged. Most of the time, these wines are more concentrated and flavorful than the Pinot Grigios of Italy, with notes of apple, pear, and nuts.
- Because of its pink skins, Pinot Gris also makes delicious orange wines.
Another ancient variety, Chardonnay has been officially permitted in Germany since 1991; it now accounts for around two percent of vineyard plantings and is gaining steam every year.
- Like the Burgundian varieties, Chardonnay is particularly important in Baden’s Kaiserstuhl region. It is also grown in Rheinhessen.
- German Chardonnay is as variable as global Chardonnay is, though it does always tend to have excellent acidity due to the country’s cool climate. It can be medium-bodied and fruit-forward or robust and oak-aged.
- As it does around the world, Chardonnay also makes excellent sparkling wines.
Known as Blaufränkisch in Austria and Kékfrankos in Hungary, Lemberger has seen an uptick in popularity among German producers in recent years as red wine production has become more common. It was planted in Germany in the 1900s as part of a “wine improvement” program advocating to replace uninteresting, high-yielding grapes with higher-quality ones like Lemberger.
- Because this grape thrives in a slightly warmer environment, most of Germany’s Lemberger vines are planted in Württemberg, though some are planted in Baden as well.
- Some winemakers choose to make Lemberger in a fresh, juicy, fruit-forward style; others decide to craft more powerful Lemberger wines, with concentrated fruit and noticeable tannic grip. Blackberry, cherry, plum, and herbal notes are all common.
A WORD ON CROSSINGS
Viticultural research and science have been integral parts of Germany’s wine history and culture, and along with that, so have grapevine crossings. These are essentially the result of two different Vitis vinifera grape varieties being bred together, usually with the goal of making a new grape variety that will carry the best attributes of each “parent” grape.
While this research began in the 1800s—researchers were trying to develop hardier grape varieties that would better survive Germany’s cold climate—it’s become increasingly important amidst the global impacts of climate change. Valued for their adaptability and ease to plant in changing climates, German crossings are taking root around the world, including in the U.S. These varieties also find value as more winemakers work to practice organic viticulture, as they are more disease resistant and require less spraying in the vineyard.
FOUR GERMAN CROSSINGS TO KNOW
This red grape has only been part of the German wine scene since 1955, when it was created at a Württemberg’s grape breeding institute (it is a crossing of two other crossings, Helfsteiner and Heroldrebe). Though it was initially bred to add color to the country’s then-pale reds, it’s now much more popular to vinify Dornfelder on its own.
- Regions: The Pfalz and Rheinhessen are the most important centers of Dornfelder production
- Styles: Deep red in color, Dornfelder tends to be juicy and fruit-forward, with plenty of acidity. Oak-aged versions can be richer and fuller-bodied.
The second-most planted grape in Germany, Müller-Thurgau was created in 1882 at the Geisenheim Wine Institute as a cross of Riesling and Madeleine Royale, but it really gained steam when German growers pivoted to quantity in winemaking in the mid-1900s. High-yielding and super adaptable to climate and soil, it was used plentifully in blends (like the ubiquitous Liebfraumilch), but amidst Germany’s return to quality, more vintners are making quality, single-variety Müller-Thurgau.
- Regions: Most of Müller-Thurgau’s vines are in Rheinhessen, with significant plantings in Baden as well.
- Styles: Müller-Thurgau tends to be light and fresh, but with less searing acidity than many of Germany’s other wines. Expect this grape to be straightforward and enjoyable.
A crossing of Riesling and Bukettrebe (until 2012 thought to be Silvaner), Scheurebe was created by Georg Scheu in 1916. Though it was first bred in the Rheinhessen, it quickly became a favorite across the country when it was released to the public in the middle of the 20th century.
- Regions: Most of Scheurebe’s plantings are still in the Rheinhessen, though it’s also grown in the Pfalz, Nahe, and Franken.
- Styles: Initially bred to be an aromatic variety, Scheurebe is known for its pronounced, fruity aromas. It has fresh acidity and is often made as a lusciously sweet wine, though dry versions are becoming more common.
Created in 1921 in Franken, Rieslaner is a crossing of Riesling and Silvaner (which is, ironically, what many people thought Scheurebe was for many decades). Though the late-ripening variety can be a bit difficult in the vineyard, it makes racy, fruity wines.
- Regions: Today, Rieslaner is mostly planted in Franken and the Pfalz, where it is often affected by botrytis (noble rot).
- Styles: Many of the best Rieslaners are off-dry to sweet, with concentrated fruit and bright acidity.
Amidst the rosé fervor, Germany has emerged as a real source of flavorful, vibrant, minerally rosé wines. German rosé tends to be made from Pinot Noir and crafted in the focused, high-acid style that the country’s Rieslings have become known for.
SEKT: GERMAN FOR SPARKLING WINE
Germany’s sparkling wine industry has undergone quite a few changes over the years, from a quality foundation in the 19th century (many early German sparkling winemakers actually studied in Champagne), to a long period of mass production in the 20th century, to a really interesting, high-quality movement today. Sekt is essentially just the German name for sparkling wine.
- What to Look For
- Winzersekt is Germany’s highest quality classification for Sekt wines, guaranteeing that the sparkling wine has been grown on a single German estate and vinified using the traditional method (in the bottle, like Champagne).
- Deutscher Sekt must be made from grapes grown in Germany, but it can be made using either the tank or traditional method.
- Sekt is the basic style of sparkling wine in Germany, and it can be made using grapes, juice, or wine that is imported from anywhere.
- Grape Varieties/Styles
- Yes, we’re focusing on non-Riesling wines here, but we would be remiss not to mention the many excellent Riesling Sekts out there. With the grape’s characteristic acidity, these wines are often aromatic, laser-focused, and super refreshing.
- As they are in Champagne, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are also popular choices for making complex and delicious Sekts.