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The New Germany: Dry Rieslings, Good Pinot Noirs
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 8, 2011
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My recent trip to Germany, specifically two regions, Baden and the Pfalz, was a revelation for me.  Admittedly, I had not traveled to Germany in a while, and I was pleasantly surprised by two trends taking place:

• Germans are making and drinking mainly dry Rieslings nowadays; about 85 percent of its Rieslings are now dry

• Pinot Noirs, known in Germany as Spätburgunders, are better than ever in certain regions, such as Baden.

Germany’s first attempt at producing trocken  (dry) and halbtrocken   (semi-dry) Rieslings a couple of decades ago was generally not successful.  Many of these early attempts resulted in wines that seemed to be denuded of flavor, character, and structure.  I am happy to report that the dry Rieslings being produced today are far superior to the dry versions made then. 

Riesling, of course, has always been Germany’s greatest wine variety.  No other country comes close to producing so many outstanding sweet Rieslings.  But as much as I can appreciate the quality of these wines, I seldom drink them.  I have always loved dry Rieslings, and have in the past turned to certain producers in Alsace, Austria, and Western Australia for these wines.  But now, really good dry Rieslings are readily available in Germany, great news for all Riesling lovers.

Although the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and the Rheingau are the most established regions in Germany for Riesling, the Pfalz is the “happening” area for some of Germany’s best dry Rieslings.  In the Pfalz, Germany’s second-largest wine region--the neighboring Rheinhessen to its west is the largest--Riesling reigns supreme.  The Pfalz, in fact, has the largest area growing Riesling vines in the world.  Its average year-round temperature, 51.8° F., is ideal for the cool-climate Riesling variety, as is the high number of sunny days during the growing season. 

Much of the best Riesling grows in the cooler, northern half of the Pfalz; 38 percent of the varieties growing in the slightly warmer, southern part of the Pfalz are red, making this area the largest red wine region in Germany.  In addition to Pinot Noir, Dornfelder -- a local variety created in 1955 by crossing two other native German varieties--and Blauer Portugieser, a native Austrian variety, thrive in the southern Pfalz.

The best way to appreciate the beautiful Pfalz region is to travel the 50-mile German Wine Road, which winds its way through some 144 winegrowing communities, between the village of Bockenheim to Schweigen, on the border with Alsace.  This is one of the great wine trails in the world.

The highlight of my visit to the Pfalz was a stop at the esteemed Dr. Burklin-Wolf winery, which was founded in 1597.  The largest privately-owned wine estate in Germany, Burklin-Wolf is biodynamically farmed, with all of its wines made from grapes coming from its own vineyards.  Dry Riesling is its specialty.  Burklin-Wolf ‘s vineyards are low-yielding and grapes are hand-harvested.  Although Burklin-Wolf’s 2010 Rieslings are now available, the vintage to seek out here is its superior 2008s.

Baden, a huge region (240 miles, from north to south) in southwest Germany, is Germany’s warmest wine region and its third-largest in wine production.  It is Germany’s only wine region that falls in the EU climate zone B; the rest of the country’s wine regions are all in the coolest zone A.  The Kaiserstuhl, a volcanic area in Baden located between the Black Forest and the Vosges Mountains, receives more sunshine than any other region in Germany, and is a major-wine producing zone.

Baden was my biggest surprise of the trip.  The Pfalz’s reputation preceded my visit.  I did not expect to find so many quality wines in Baden, especially its Spätburgunders (Pinot Noirs).  Even though Germany as a whole is renowned as a white wine-producing country, 44 percent of Baden’s wines are red, primarily Pinot Noir.  

Baden’s northern section produces some dry Rieslings, but its Weissburgunders (Pinot  Blancs) and Grauburgunders (Pinot Gris) are more important.  Its Pinot Noirs are delicate and a bit too light-bodied.  An excellent wine estate in northern Baden is Weingut Dr. Heger. Joachim Heger, the grandson of the founder, has been winemaker here since 1981.  I was impressed with Heger’s 2010 Riesling Kabinett; it was a lovely, dry wine, with lively acidity.

Weingut Heitlinger is leasing one of Germany’s oldest wine estates, Burg Ravensburg (over 750 years old).  The Rieslings coming from Ravensburg are especially fine; I was really bowled over by its Grand Cru 2010 Husarenkappe, made from 45 year-old vines, with long skin contact during fermentation.  Its finish was extremely lengthy. Husarenkappe was clearly one of the best dry Rieslings I tasted during the entire week.

It is the warmer, southern part of Baden, however, that is now making outstanding Pinot Noirs, the best I’ve ever tasted from Germany.  They are comparable in quality to many wines from France’s Côte de Beaune, and at a lower cost.  The warmer climate in Europe during this past decade. I suspect, might play a role  in creating such fine, characterful Pinot Noirs.

No winery impressed me more on this visit than Weingut Bernhard Huber (now being imported into the U.S. by T. Edwards).  Huber is making the best sparkling wine I have tasted in Germany, a completely dry, zero-dosage sekt made from old-vine Pinot Noir that is perfectly balanced.  I tasted Pinot Noirs from the Huber Estate from the 2010 vintage going back to 1990.  The 1990, 1991, and 1997 were Pinot Noir blends; all of the others were 100 percent Pinot Noir.  Huber’s 2002 Pinot Noir is superb, with lots of lively acidity.  I urge you to seek out Weingut Huber’s Pinot Noirs.

The wonderful part about visiting a wine region is that it forever creates an indelible impression in your mind about the wines.  I left Germany with a far higher impression of its wines, especially its dry Rieslings and its vastly improved Pinot Noirs, than I had prior to my visit.