Sometimes a country’s wines, or some of them, anyway, don’t make it beyond the country’s borders. Argentina, for a long time, was home to such enthusiastic wine drinkers that exporting seemed unnecessary to most wineries. Similarly, while German Riesling has been exported for a long time, the country’s sparkling wines rarely appeared on our shores; Germans are, per capita, the most enthusiastic drinkers of sparkling wines in the world, consuming on average almost five bottles per person each year. Nonetheless, in recent years a few importers have convinced their German and Austrian winery partners to part with a few bottles, and those who enjoy sparkling wines can now add “Sekt,” as Germanic, traditional method sparklers are known, to their options.
It’s good timing. While much German Sekt is uninspiring stuff, top producers have long sought to distanced themselves from the run-of-the-mill domestic bubbly market. The various quality tiers are pretty clearly defined and indicated on labels, and Germany’s VDP, which represents almost 200 of Germany’s top producers, elaborated designations for Sekt last year, putting a strong emphasis on clarity and terroir expression. The top categories to know are Sekt b.A. and Winzersekt. The lower categories, plain “Sekt” and “Deutscher Sekt,” are generally not of much interest; the former is typically made with imported grapes.
Sekt b.A. obviously plugs into existing German terms for still wines; a “Qualitätswein,” as a higher-quality wine is usually designated, is properly a “Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete” -- quality wine from a specified growing area: Q.b.A. So as with Q.b.A. still wines, 85% of the grapes in a Sekt b.A. must be from one of German’s thirteen official winegrowing areas. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is made with the traditional method; many are not. Look for the term “Traditionelle Flaschengärung” or “Klassische Flaschengärung” on the label.
Winzersekt is the top of the quality pyramid. All traditional method and estate-grown, the category allows non-vintage blends, vintage wines, and single vineyard wines. It also allows for varietally-designated examples. In every case the typical E.U. minimum of 85% applies -- 85% of the fruit must come from the given vintage, variety, or vineyard. While many producers are using Riesling for Sekt production, the so-called Champagne varieties are also common, and some producers are using Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Within the VDP, the new regulations require specified minimum lees aging (15 months, or 36 for vintage and single-vineyard expressions) and permit Erste Lage and Grosse Lage (premier cru and grand cru) labeling for sekts from vineyards designated as such.
One deterrent on Germany bubbly production has been a high 1.02 Euro per bottle tax; a high tax on sparkling wines dates back to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who instituted it to help build up the German navy. While the tax remains, it is now collected at the time of sale rather than the time of production, allowing wineries to manage the cash flow of a sparkling wine production program more readily.
While many producers are making Winzersekt in small quantities, a few are genuinely specializing in high-end bubbly. Volker Raumland found his eponymous winery in the Rheinhessen in 1990 and consistently leads the pack in domestic wine competitions. He works mostly with traditional Champagne grape varieties while also making some Riesling Sekt. Rudi Wiest, the German specialist importer, has been bringing a few Raumland cuvées to the U.S. for some time. Weingut Barth is a third-generation winery in the Rheingau that began focusing on sparkling wines about thirty years ago. Barth’s Schutzenhaus Riesling Brut Nature 2013 is one of the first Erste Lage Sekts released under the new VDP rules. The two represent somewhat contrasting examples, highlighting Sekt’s stylistic range. Whereas Raumland aims for a rounded, more autolytic style, Barth’s bubblies are generally more linear.
Premium German Sekt is unlikely to conquer the U.S. market, and as an industry they don’t seem particularly interested in doing so; the producers making wines in sufficient volume to really make a dent have other priorities elsewhere. The prices, too, are typically quite good for the high level of quality, but still close enough to those of Champagne that it will be hard to distract buyers purely by savings. Nevertheless, it’s great to see a range of the wines showing off a different side of German wine production. Much of the U.S. may still look at German wine as a sea of off-dry Riesling, but Sekt, alongside increasing amounts of dry Riesling, other white varieties such as Sylvaner and Pinot Gris, and even red wines from Pinot Noir, is showing the country is no one-trick pony.
Some Recommended Wines:
Raumland Marie-Luise Brut Blanc de Noir 2008: A blanc de noirs from 100% Pinot Noir, this is a round, spicy wine that exemplifies the house style.
Raumland Rosé: Also 100% Pinot Noir, with a similar round, ripe body and mousse. More fruit forward, with cranberry, wild strawberry and red cherry notes plus a touch of almond.
Barth Riesling Sekt Brut NV: Clean and direct, with a mix of tree fruit and citrus notes. Sees 100% malo and 24 months on the lees round out the more linear qualities of Riesling.
Barth Ultra Sekt 2011: Made from 100% Pinot Noir, this wine spends six years on the lees before disgorgement. Honey, acacia, baked pear, and brioche notes dominate; despite the developed nose, the wine is till energetic and lively.
Barth Schutzenhaus Riesling Brut Nature 2013: One of the first Erste Lage Sekts released under the new VDP protocols. Quite vinous, with citrus and ginger notes and a long finish. Spends 5 years on the lees.
Eva Fricke Pinot Noir Rosé Brut Nature 2016: Made with guidance from Volker Raumland from two vineyards purchased in 2006 which proved unsuited for red wine, but ideal for bubbles. Generous and fruity upfront, with wild strawberry and almond notes, but dry and light on the palate.
Dautel Pinot Sekt Brut Nature 2015: 100% Pinot Noir from a Württemberg producer who specializes in the grape. Rich but focused, with chalky mineral notes and a dry finish.
Schlossgut Diel Reserve Riesling Sekt Extra Brut 2012: Spends more than five years on the lees. Shows floral and tree fruit notes that reflect classic Riesling aromas in a smooth sparkling setting.
Schlossgut Diel Goldloch Riesling Sekt Brut Nature 2008: Flinty bubbly from a classic, Grosse Lage vineyard in the Nahe. Combines notes of apricot and peach with a hefty dose of brioche touches from five years on the lees. Elegant, with a long finish.