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Impressions from Wine Travels in Germany
By Jessica Dupuy
Jul 19, 2016
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Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of joining the German Wine Institute for a week in the angelic wine regions of the Pfalz and Baden.  Following weeks of rain throughout the southern part of the country, the clouds parted to reveal blue bird skies…and a veritable heat wave.  Temperatures hovered into the 90s during the heat of the day--which was a bit daunting considering the theme of our trip was to actively experience German vineyards and wine through outdoor exercise.  Our merry group of journalists included two Americans, a French Canadian, a Pole, a Norwegian, a Finn, and 2 Danes.  And if that sounds like the beginning to a bar joke, you wouldn’t be far off.  We were a merry group, indeed.  Considering the many discoveries that dawned upon me along the way, I realized there’s a lot going on in German wine.  Some of the more interesting topics I’ll cover more in depth in an upcoming column.  But here are seven take-aways I think most people should know about this iconic wine producing country:

1)  There's More to German Wine than the Mosel:  While the steep slate slopes of the Mosel region are revered for producing the country’s most revered Rieslings, there’s a lot more to discover in German wine.  Previous travels in the Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Nahe a few years ago cracked open the door to discovering wines made from Dornfelder, Lemburger, and Sylvaner.  This recent trip furthered that discovery with tastes of Rieslings and Pinot Noirs that rival the Mosel and Burgundy, respectively.  Quite frankly, these tasting experiences left me craving more of these less-than-famous wines.  However, it’s unlikely you’ll find many of them here in the States.  Which leads me to my second take-away….

2)  Some Good German Wine is Amazingly Cheap, But the Germans Keep Most of It for Themselves:  Germany cranks out relatively little wine compared to production behemoths such as France, Italy or Spain.  It’s also a major importer of wines from other countries, which means the price of most German wines is kept fairly low to keep them selling within the country.  While some producers are able to export wines, that’s often cost-prohibitive for smaller producers, not to mention the fact that most of them are able to sell off the entirety of their supply domestically each year.  That’s great news for Germany, but pretty sad news if you live in America and want excellent wine at the very low prices you paid while enjoying them in Germany.  The solution?  Shop while you’re there and stuff as much as you can in your bags on the way home.  Or (if your feeling daring with regard to Customs regulations) find a producer willing to ship you wines by the case.  In general, your price per bottle including the shipping cost will likely break down to about $28, which is a steal considering what you pay for good wines in the States. 

3)  Riesling Reigns, but Pinot Noir is a Powerful Prince:  While it’s generally known that Germany produces Pinot Noir, it’s not commonly known that it’s the world’s third largest producer of it.  While people scour the earth for a good deal on red Burgundy, you can find some amazing Pinot Noir of comparable quality for a fraction of the price.  And not only can German Pinot be comparable to Burgundian examples in quality, but also in style:  In terms of finesse and delicacy (Pinot’s cardinal virtues), German Pinot can make many examples from California or Oregon look downright oafish.

4)  Climate Change is Changing German Wine with Alarming Speed:  Producers all over the world of wine are reporting the effects of climate change.  In warmer regions, incrementally heightened heat is manageable enough, as it is really just a little more of a factor to which growers are already accustomed.  But in cooler regions, like the ones in Germany, the effects of warmer weather, wetter seasons, and new challenges with pests and violent storms have forced vineyard managers to scramble to keep up.  One of the results is a shift of emphasis from the classic, sweeter styles of Riesling to drier styles.  As temperatures have risen, grapes now ripen more easily, with lower acidity at harvest time--and consequently less need to leave un-fermented sugar in finished wines to achieve balanced flavors.  This is a trend that will likely alter how “classic German Riesling” is defined in coming years.

5)  Winemakers in Pfalz and Baden Care Less about Ripeness:  Climate change may be part of the reason winemakers are changing their tune on how they produce Reisling.  But in the Pfalz and Baden in particular, many winemakers are shifting their focus away from making wines for Pradikatswein classification in favor of making dry wines with VDP approval.  Many of them argue that it’s less about climate change and more about the changing preferences of German wine consumers. 

6)  Hike and Bike Through the Vineyards, But “Just Say No” to Segways:  Unlike the private vineyards you see when you drive around the roads of California and France, many of the vineyards in Germany are spread out along village hillsides with trails, small roads, and walkways for anyone to stroll.  Of course, it’s not an open invitation to frolic through the vineyards or tamper with the actual vines, but the chance to get “up close and personal” with the vineyards is possible in Germany on a self-guided hike, or on a guided tour on a bike or even a Segway.  Word to the wise, though, based on my recent experience with all three:  I’d advise against the Segway option.  Signing away your life to a vehicle that runs on your own body balance with no brakes is a bit of a risk.  Not everyone has trouble with it.  But if there had been video footage of my personal runaway Segway experience down a suburban hillside, you’d take my advice and keep your feet on the ground.

7)  All Meals Begin with Sekt and End with Schnapps:  When you’re dining out in Germany, do as the Germans do.  Start with a glass of sparkling wine (Sekt), then enjoy another German wine of your choice with your food, but be sure you finish the dining experience with a glass of Schnapps.  To be clear, I’m not talking about the vibrantly colored, syrupy sweet liqueur often used for late-night shots among college students.  True schnapps is a more generic term for clear brandy made from various fruits, ranging from pear and peach to lingonberry and mirrabellen.  While it is a bit of an acquired taste, these raw distillates are an expression of the different regional fruit grown in Germany, and a perfect way to end the evening.

I’ll have more detail on the current German wine scene in my next column, but hopefully this is enough to whet your appetite…and perhaps get you thinking of German wine country as a potential travel destination.