Open Your Eyes to German Red Wines
“Spat” means “late” in German. In (that crazy) German noun compounding, Spat + Burgunder = “late-ripener from Burgundy”. That, in turn, means Pinot Noir. Chances are good you’ve never seen a bottle of Spatburgunder, much less tasted one, but hopefully that soon changes. Today over one-third of German wine is red, and Spatburgunder is the leading black grape. There’s so much that Germany ranks third in global plantings after France and the US.
Given Germany’s winegrowing regions are not only continental but also sit at high latitudes, this variety often struggles there. (For comparative purposes, Reims in Champagne sits at 49°. Germany’s Pinot Noir vineyards sit between 48-51°.) However, climate change, improved clones and better vineyard management have revolutionized the quality of still Spätburgunder over the last two decades.
While quality and quantity are on the rise, overall Spätburgunder pricing is dropping. This seems mostly due to more brands entering the US market. Just a few years ago, Spätburgunders routinely cost $45 or more. (It’s only fair to remember that Pinot Noir is never “cheap”, and most German producers have small operations with high labor costs. Moreover, some Spätburgunders are produced in tinier lots than highly desirable Burgundies.) While that’s not out of line compared to higher-end Pinots from elsewhere, it can seem like a lot of money for a newbie to Spätburgunder or a younger or pricetag-sensitive consumer. Good news: a few of my most recent selections hover in the mid-$20s and none cost more than $40.
So here’s the rub, as I alluded to before: German Spätburgunders may take some searching to find. Largely a white wine producing country, Germans are thirsty for their own reds (and import lots of others’, too.) Producers often don’t need to ship their wines elsewhere, but those determined to show the world their red gems do, albeit in small quantities.
Before you start hunting for these elusive liquids, you likely want to know what to expect. Perhaps unsurprisingly, generalizations are tough. It is possible to roughly divide these wines into two camps: one is more woodsy and earthy in style and the other is more fruit-driven and polished. The first genre seems more typical of other European Pinots. The second more resembles the New World. Many wines in the latter group long have been generously extracted and finished with a big dollop of new oak. This is changing gradually though, and these wines tend to be trimmer and wear less “make-up” with each passing vintage.
These halves, however, only represent winemaking choices. Behind these choices lie terroir (which encompasses more than soil). There’s a good bit of limestone and clay (Burgundy’s top choices for Pinot Noir), but there’s also slate, sandstone, schist, loess and volcanic soils. Each contributes different flavors and textures to their crops.
One clear difference across all the styles is the wines’ colors. They tend to show auburn and brown tones more quickly than Pinots from almost anywhere else in the world. This doesn’t make them taste any less lovely, but it may surprise the uninitiated more accustomed to hulky Russian River bottlings or even lighter-styled Oregon wines.
It’s hard to choose a top region, though the Ahr and Pfalz most often come out as my personal favorites. Still, excellent producers hail from the Rheinghau, Baden (which has the most Pinot Noir plantings), Rheinhessen and Franken, as well as others.
Whatever the origin of the Spätburgunders you find, go ahead and pick some up. Every Pinot Noir journey is unique, and Germany’s present many compelling paths. See picks and notes below.
Pflüger Dürkheimer 2012 Pinot Noir 13% (Pfalz) SRP $27
Moderately deep and mulberry-colored at the core - which dances with starbright reflections, this wine is resoundingly earthy and packed with Old World flavor and texture. Its fresh blueberry and Morello cherry core is surrounded by smooth yet structuring tannins and feisty acidity. Dry from start to finish with nicely intense complexity, this bottling is quite Burgundian. Drink 2015-18.
92, 4 glasses
Kühling-Gillot 2010 Spätburgunder Trocken 13.5% (Rheinhessen) SRP $35
This wine is so svelte it just glides across the palate. Its fairly generous glycerol polishes-up any pretense of chewy tannins. Between its caressing texture and rich forest fruits, this juicy wine packs in the flavor ounce for ounce right through its exceedingly long finish. Though dynamic and gulpable now, this should definitely shine as it takes on bottle age, another five to seven years at least.
94, 4.5 glasses
Fürst 2012 Spätburgunder Tradition 13% (Franken) $35
Pale in red plum skin color, this wine’s nose reminds me of a nice Côte de Beaune, maybe a Monthélie or an Auxey-Duresses, from a fine year. Crunchy red fruits mix with bramble, aligning nicely with this wine’s vibrant, mouth-watering quality. That vigorous acidity is not demanding yet firmly places it in the “food wine” category. This drinks well from 2015 through 2019, possibly longer. Lots of fun if the prce is a touch steep for what’s delivered in the bottle.
9 ,3.5 glasses
Meyer-Nakel 2013 Pinot Noir Estate ?% (Ahr) $33
This is one of those wines that pains me because the bottle empties way too quickly. It’s limpid, deep burgundy core turns into ripe strawberries, blueberry pie filling and clove on the palate. Dressed to kill, this wine has undenial, immediate appeal, but it’s not falling off a cliff any time soon. It should drink well for another four or five years.
94, 4.5 glasses
Ziereisen 2012 Blauer Spätburgunder Tschuppen 12.5% (Baden) $24
This wine shows best with a little TLC. It’s unquestionably funky when first opened – the kind of funk that sits on the fence between intriguing and ick. Toss it into a decanter or maybe a have a glass, then drink the rest the second day. Its light body and alcohol also pair well with a nice chill, which help to calm that barnyard quality. Otherwise, it tastes like an exotic mix of hung meat, ash and blueberries mix with a core of black cherries. Its structure is sophisticated and seamless, with the wine’s lilting acidity pulling its flavors into a long finish. Excellent value! 91, 3.5 glasses
August Kesseler 2012 Pinot Noir 13% (Pfalz) $24
Dark mulberry at the core, this wine has an orange-streaked, amber rim. It is juicy and succulent, tasting of mulberries and super-ripe black cherries. Its tannins are so creamy and soft that they basically require the mouthwatering acidity to do the structural balancing. Yet, the wine is so perfectly medium-bodied that there is little heavylifting to do, especially at only 13% alcohol. This wine’s finish lingers on, showing that there are multiple layers yet to unfold on the palate. However, the wine is much too tempting today for most Pinot lovers to deny themselves the pleasure of sipping ASAP. Luckily, at this bargain price, one certainly can buy a few extra bottles for another day. Drink: 2015-18.
93, 4 glasses