Wish They Were Here

WineAlign critics are often on the move in the world’s wine regions. Wish They Were Here is a periodic feature to highlight the wines that we encounter on the road that are not being purchased by our Canadian liquor boards; in the hope that bringing them some attention might create some interest among buyers and consumers.

Germany’s Great Pinot Noirs
by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Since returning from a week in Germany last summer I have been telling anyone who will listen that Germany is making great pinot noirs. Most don’t believe me. “Spatburgunder?” they say, with exaggerated German pronunciation that spits out the ‘spate’.

“I tasted dozens of pinots I was scoring over 90,” I persist. “Great cool climate, terroir driven pinots. The best are not cheap but excellent quality. Germany is the third largest pinot producing country in the world.”  (After France and the USA).

“You’re kidding?” they respond, perhaps warming.

“Not at all, wines right up there with fine red Burgundy” I say. “Burgundy is only two hours by car from the Kaiserstuhl in Baden, and the vineyard sites are just as terroir driven and complex.”

“So why don’t we know about this, where are these wines?”

Well if the conversation has gone this far, and if the person in question doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get back to their syrah or cabernet I begin to try to explain all the reasons why Canadians don’t seem to care about – and have so many outdated misconceptions – about German wine. And why liquor boards don’t care because they say Canadians don’t care, even though it’s really because Canadians have never experienced the wines that the liquor boards, and the agents who feed them, don’t care to import. If you get my drift.

It really is up to Germany to begin to correct this problem, and my being in Germany as a guest of the German Wine Institute was a small step in that direction. But there is much more promotion they need to do, and they need to do everything possible to break down the label/language barrier and present one clear and simple anglo message for English-speaking markets – Germany makes great, dry, single vineyard pinots. And if anyone uses words like trocken, grosse gewachs or spatburgunder they should penalized two minutes for interference.

Germany is actually doing everything right nowadays, and in an upcoming article Treve Ring and I will be exploring the significant changes in philosophy, classification and labelling that are underway in Germany.

We were there largely to explore Germany’s burgeoning organic and biodynamic movement. But I tacked on two days in the Ahr Valley and Baden specifically to taste pinot, and at the new release tasting of the VDP in Mainz I spent the whole day tasting pinot from single vineyard sites. After a week I tasted most of the great pinots the country makes.

Say Ahr!

Ahr Valley

Ahr Valley

My first pinot encounter was soon after landing in Frankfurt. I took the high-speed train to Bonn where I was met by a most charming young woman named Julie Bertram, who was, at the time, the reigning German wine queen. That her family was a prominent producer of pinot noir in the nearby Ahr Valley was a bonus. As we wound down through the narrow valley she could name every site on the precipitous slopes above us, and she clearly understood the amazing nuances I would taste in the hours ahead.

“It is all about our slate soils in the Ahr” she explained, “and the tiny yields from these steep slopes”. Indeed. In wine after wine I discovered this mineral driven tension, which combined with northern acidity, a lifted currant-cherry fruit and a unique savoury, almost thyme-like note. And if the wines came from more loamy soils farther down the valley where the mighty Ahr River (spanning maybe ten metres) meets the Rhine, the pinots became softer, rounder and less nervy and less fragrant.

Largely ignored by the outside world as a serious wine region, but very popular as a scenic weekend getaway and hiking destination by the locals of Bonn and Dusseldorf, Ahr wine production is now passing into the hands of an energetic new generation (like Julie) who have travelled the world, who love pinot, and who know what a special little place they inhabit. They are painstakingly rebuilding terraces brick by brick, and rebuilding their consumer base one visitor at a time.

The Ahr was collectively rewarded when one of its leading properties – Weingut Mayer-Nakel – won the Decanter Pinot Noir Trophy in 2008. I visited this 18 hectare property and tasted through several fine, modern, somewhat more deeply coloured pinots from various sites. (A trickle from the 2010 vintage remains in Vintages in Ontario).

I was also surprised to taste very fine non-sparkling Blanc de Noir, a very popular Ahr speciality first made at this property way back in 1983. Later in my travels I would encounter other very good Ahr pinots from Weingut Kruezberg, Jean Stodden, Deutzerhof – Cossmann-Hehle, and Co-op Maychoss-Altenahr, the largest and one of the most highly regarded producers of this tiny region. The Ahr Valley is tiny – a mere 500 hectares in production, and almost all of it pinot noir. Which is so bizarre given it is Germany’s most northerly region.

But Baden is King

While on the other hand the prolific Baden region is the most southerly. Julie dropped me off at a rest stop on the Autobahn somewhere on the vast Rhine plain. She went off to Plalz for one of her 200/year official functions, and left me in the very capable hands of Ulricke Lenhardt, who looks after all things Canadian for the German Wine Institute. She lives in the pinot heartland of Baden; so we spent the next two hours tooling due south until the vaguely conical hill of an ancient volcano called Kaiserstuhl (the king’s throne) came into view.



The Ahr is dwarfed by Baden in terms of production, where there are about 8,000 hectares of pinot noir. At about 47 degrees of latitude, opposite Alsace across the Rhine, it sits in a sunny rain shadow that has no problem ripening pinot. The heat of the region coupled with the complex volcanic soils creates a power in the pinots that took me quite by surprise. While sampling vineyard sites with Guenter Zimmerman of the large and highly acclaimed co-op of Koenigsschauffausen (which we occasionally see in Ontario) I was bowled over the deep colour, ripe cherry fruit and fiery power of the wines. I thought California in some instances.

But it was a long and deep tasting with the intense and brilliant Konrad Selway that opened my eyes to the diversity and potential of the Kaiserstuhl. (One of his least expensive, less good wines made it to Ontario last year). We did some vat hopping with pinots from 2012 and 2011, before settling into bottled versions of the excellent 2010s then older vintages. They were every bit as nuanced, balanced and exacting as pinots any small family domain in Burgundy.

With less than 24 hours to spend in Kaisterstuhl, Ulricke took matters into her own hands and we sat down in her kitchen with a cavalcade to top drawer pinots from around the country. But Baden pinots formed the majority and one after another I was met with quite deeply coloured sturdy, savoury and again almost fiery pinots. I wish the following Baden pinots were here: Huber 2011 Malterdinger; Gleichenstein 2009 Oberrotweiler Eichberg; Dr Heger 2010 Winklerberg and Armin Goring 2008 Pinot Noir.  One mature example – Huber’s 2002 Malterdinger – was stunning.

Other Pinot Regions

After two days of intensive pinot tasting in Ahr and Baden, I travelled for five days studying organic and biodynamic wine in the Pfalz, Rheinhessen and Rheingau. Riesling of course dominated the tastings in these regions but pinot noir did surface with regularity and much of it was excellent. It’s a grape that fits biodynamic outlook very nicely, with the focus on low yield and building plant strength. Pinot noir is a bit of a weakling among vines, and it can use both bodybuilding and tender loving care that biodynamic winemakers provide.



But it was on the last day of the trip, at the hugely impressive new vintage tasting of the VDP that Germany’s pinot breadth and depth came together.  The VDP (Verband Deustcher Pradikatsweinguter) is a 200-member association of leading German wine estates, many now embracing organic principles. Each August the trade tasting of their new vintage wines in Wiesbaden is a highlight of the German wine calendar, and I must say it was the best organized tasting I have even attended (almost worthy of a how-to manual for the wine trade in Canada)

I spent five hours tasting through almost every pinot noir – plus several pinot gris and pinot blancs (a hugely impressive variety) from across Germany. I was surprised to find racy, mineral driven versions from the terraced slopes of Franken, especially those single site wines of Rudolph Furst. I encountered more pinots than expected from Rheingau – the Rhinelands’ premier riesling region – a couple of them impressed through their tension and elegance, especially from Weingut Kunstler and August Kesseler

Moving a bit south into Rheinhessen the pinots became a bit more tender and fruit driven with great examples from Weingut Gutzler, J. Neus and St. Antony. And farther south again the pinots of the Pfalz put on a bit more weight, although varying texturally based on the varying soils in the region nestled against the Haardt Mountains. I starred examples from Knipser, Gies-Duppel, Hansjorg Rebholz and Christmann

I had expected a fairly leisurely late summer saunter and review of Germany’s wine regions. What I actually encountered was a tour de force.  At its heart was this heightened sense-of-place and confidence missing in pinot production in three previous trips to Germany during the last two decades. I can’t wait to return, and for these wines to begin appearing in Canada.

Visit David Lawrason’s Critic page for all of his reviews.