We all know that Pinot Noir represents some kind of « Holy Grail » for a number of wine lovers, as well as for some producers. A look at rising prices also helps to tell the tale. And just take a look at the Hollywood movie Sideways and relate it to the direct impact that this movie had on sales of both pinot noir (positive) and merlot (negative). Another fact is that there are an increasing number of regions around the world producing excellent wines from this variety that make some Burgundies look much less interesting than their reputations or prices would have us believe (I did say « some », but not all of course).
Even if this notoriously tricky variety has its probable homeland in France and in Burgundy (but can we ever be sure of such things?), several other countries with climate areas that are neither too hot nor too cold, and neither too dry nor too damp, are producing sizeable quantities of often excellent wines from this fickle grape. After France, the second producer in the world of pinot noir is the USA and the third is Germany with currently around 12,000 hectares planted (the above statistics are only slightly out of date, and not in their proportions).
The statistics represented in the above chart include all vineyard areas devoted to this grape, both for the production of still and sparkling wines. And sparkling wines often use considerable amounts of base wines that come from Pinot Noir. We should not forget, for instance, that there are well over 14,000 hectares of pinot noir planted in Champagne, which amounts to almost half of the surface dedicated to this variety in France.
This article will focus on the current profile(s) of pinot noir in Germany and for still red wines exclusively, following a recent visit to some of the main producing areas in that country for that grape. It is sometime named Pinot Noir on labels and sometimes Spätburgunder. To cut a long story short, the best German Pinot Noirs are easily on a level with top Burgundies. As for prices, they seem to me to be much more reasonable in Germany than in Burgundy; This is probably due to market pressure. In any case there are far less excessively inflated prices in Germany than in Burgundy. The styles however can be more variable, with climatic and soil-type differences, as well as wine-making approaches all coming into play.
Climate and regions
The production regions for this grape in Germany are surprisingly variable, although they all qualify as cool and continental climate-wise. But the climate here always has an even more continental slant that that of Burgundy: hence winters tend to be colder and summers hotter. In the more northern regions, vineyard site becomes increasingly important and, in order to fully ripen Pinot Noir, the best exposed sites are used and these are usually also quite steep in order to maximize the sun’s rays. Whereas Beaune lies on latitude 47°N and Reims on 49.2°N, one can find German Pinot Noir almost anywhere between 48°N (Bade) and 51°N (Saxe). Indeed all German wine regions produce some Pinot Noir.
If one gets involved with links between soil type and grape variety, one will have to come to grips with the fact that Pinot Noir can be found on practically all types of soil in Germany, although this naturally has some degree of influence on the style through the hydric regimes, amongst other factors. Furthermore, having tasted wines from several regions, sometimes separately, sometimes together in mixed tastings, I did not find that there was always a clear regional identity to the styles of the wines that I tasted. Apart from the all-important climate and grape variety factors, this tends to confirm my opinion that grape growing and all its aspects, together with winemaking and all its aspects, have at least as much influence (and probably more) on the style of a particular wine than that of a specific site or soil type. After all, when wine producers insist on the role of the soil or site in this affair, they are simply defending what cannot be imitated by another producer, so this is can be seen as pure defensive marketing. I should emphasize that I am not saying here that the nature and structure of vineyard soils have no influence on the wines, simply that this is just one of many factors and almost certainly not the dominant one.
Vineyards in Baden
Before my recent tastings I admit to the occasional pre-conceived idea such as: Baden would produce the most powerful and ripe wines, and, in contrast, those from the Rheinhessen or the Ahr would be more austere with higher levels of acid. But such notions did not quite hold up to the reality of the tastings. What is certain is that there are some excellent Pinot Noirs being produced in many parts of Germany and that their styles are very much a reflection of the choices and techniques of each producer, including the plant material and the site used.
That Pinot Noir is fashionable is clearly shown by the rapid expansion of the vineyard area devoted to it in Germany, which has more than doubled over the past 30 years (see above chart). It may surprise some to learn that Germany produces more Pinot Noir/Spätburgunder than Australia and New Zealand combined! One can say that climate warming has played a part in this pattern, since it is far easier now than previously to get Pinot Noir to full ripeness in these cool climates. In the coldest parts of the country the site and its slope become increasingly important on account of its orientation towards the sun.
From the historical point of view, it was the monasteries that introduced this grape into Germany probably via Alsace, although coming originally from Burgundy, and through the influence of the Cistercian and Benedictine orders amongst others. Since medieval times, some historical producers have stuck to the production of Pinot Noir, although the variety was curiously banned in the Mosel back in the 1930s (it has happily returned since). This « historic » style was usually light and without the use of oak barrels, but the modern generation of producers is clearly more influenced by what one could call (and it is a simplification) the « Burgundian school » which implies much lower yields and the more or less systematic use of oak for maturing their wines. This period started in the late 1990s. As a result, we have seen our share of over-oaked and over-rich Pinot Noirs issued from late pickings, particularly in Baden, but this trend, like all fashions, now seems to be very much on the wane. Finding balance between fruit and power whilst also working on length and finesse of texture has taken a few years. Amongst the approaches that I noticed or heard of in this quest for elegance whilst maintaining structure are: earlier harvesting, to avoid any over-ripeness, partial whole-bunch vinification and less or no use of new oak, combined often with larger-sized barrels of 300 litres or more. Looking at vineyard policies, I also noted a clear wish to be far more selective in the choice of clones with a mixture of German and French clones, always chosen according to their suitability to each site from the vast catalogue that exists for this variety (there are literally hundreds of Pinot Noir clones, although not all are available in each country).
My tastings and the wines that I liked
Rather than producing extensive tasting notes, which can be rather fastidious (and I did taste quite a lot of wines on my trip), I have decided just to recommend producers from whom I tasted at least two good or excellent wines. A single wine from one small vineyard can be very hard to find in different markets, and so recommending just that wine tends to create some frustration. It should also be remembered that the vast majority of German Pinot Noirs are drunk in their home country, so finding some of them on export markets can be difficult. Prices are very variable, and, in some case, for the entry level wines of some of the producers in my selection, can even be under 10 euros per bottle (which is more than rare in Burgundy). On the other hand, the single vineyard wines from Bernhard Huber, Markus Molitor or Jean Stodden, for example, can go over 60 euros. But this still seems reasonable compared with current prices for top Burgundies! Yes, German Pinot Noir is often good value for lovers of this tricky and unique variety.
German regions that produce Pinot Noir with their surface areas and some recommended producers from each.
Baden : 5,550 hectares
Dr. Heger, Bernhard Huber, Franz Keller, Koch, Salwey, Claus Schneider, Ziereisen
Pfalz : 1,700 hectares
Hans Baer, Jülg, Knipser, Dr. Wehrheim, Zeter
Rheinhessen : 1,500 hectares
Braunewell, Keller, J. Neus, Thörle
Württenberg : 1,300 hectares
Aldinger, Dautel, Wachtsetter
Rheingau : 400 hectares
Chat Sauvage, August Eser, Flick, Kessler, Künstler, Hans Lang, Prinz
Ahr : 360 hectares
Adeneuer, Justen & Klein, Meyer-Näkel, Jean Stodden
Mosel : 300 hectares
Lehnert-Veit, Markus Molitor, Regnery
Nahe : 280 hectares
Diel, Dr. Ganz
Franken : 270 hectares
There you go! Try some of these wines. The styles can vary but, on the whole, they manage to combine freshness with intensity, as well as showing fairly intense fruit flavours without too much alcoholic weight, thus revealing what are to me the best aspects of this grape variety.