But there’s a compelling array of German red wines to explore, too. Germany is the world’s third-largest Pinot Noir producer, behind only France and the United States.
Whether favorites like Pinot Noir or less-familiar varieties like Trollinger or Frühburgunder, German reds are so popular in their homeland that few have been exported. But with added production and acclaim, rare and compelling German red wines are increasingly accessible stateside.
Germany’s cool climate and northerly latitude may appear inhospitable for red wine production, but many of its best vineyards are found in pockets of warmth formed by topography or soil.
Red grape varieties thrive in these warmer mesoclimates created by stony soils that retain heat, as well as southern-facing slopes and proximity to bodies of water and amphitheaters formed from rocky outcrops. As average global temperatures increase, they also influence Germany’s red wine production.
Best regions: Baden, Ahr, Pfalz
Germany’s cool climate and diversity of soil types sporting an abundance of limestone and slate have facilitated plantings of Pinot Noir since the ninth century, which predates Riesling cultivation.
Pinot Noir, known as Spätburgunder in Germany, has been maligned historically as a pale, frail red wine. However, as Germany transitioned away from the high volume, industrialized winemaking of the 1970s and ’80s, a Spätburgunder revolution began.
Pioneering producers transforming modern Spätburgunder include Bernhard Huber, Dr. Heger and Franz Keller in Baden; J.J. Adeneuer and Meyer-Näkel in the Ahr; Rudolf Fürst in Franken; and Friedrich Becker and Hans-Jörg Rebholz in Pfalz.
An intense focus on terroir combined with precise selection of Pinot Noir clones and low yields made Spätburgunder bolder in fruit and tannins, yet finessed and racy with acidity. Early successes were sometimes burdened with heavier doses of oak.
Those pioneers, along with newer generations of winemakers like Konrad Salwey in Baden, Klaus Peter Keller in Rheinhessen, Markus Molitor in the Mosel and August Kesseler in Rheingau, have made Spätburgunder a benchmark for cool-climate Pinot Noir and a compelling alternative for Burgundy lovers.
“Pinot Noir, like Riesling, is an excellent ambassador for its terroir, expressing an array of soil types and terrain common throughout Germany,” says Alexander Pflüger, a winemaker in the Pfalz who focuses on Spätburgunder. Unlike previous generations of German winemakers who had little training in red winemaking, Pflüger and his colleagues learned to make Pinot Noir in Burgundy. They’ve traveled widely and studied to improve their technique.
For generations, Spätburgunder struggled to adopt a distinctive form. But Pflüger says that winemakers have now established a style, or rather, “the style found us.” Spätburgunder, especially in Pfalz, is bold in concentration, but without high-alcohol levels, he says. It presents an elegance, delicacy and precision distinct from any Pinot Noir in the world.
While most of Germany’s best winemakers will always be known as Riesling masters, “Pinot is the most elegant red grape in the world, just as Riesling is for white grapes,” says winemaker Philipp Wittman, one of Rheinhessen’s most legendary Riesling producers. “That’s motivation enough for a Riesling grower.”
Pinot Noir/Spätburgunder Producers to Look For
Franz Keller, Salwey (Baden)
Rudolf Fürst (Franken)
Oekonomierat Rebholz, Freidrich Becker, Philipp Kuhn, Pflüger (Pfalz)
Markus Molitor (Mosel)
August Kesseler (Rheingau)
Best region: Württemberg
In the United States Lemberger bears the misfortune of a mistaken association with the pungent cheese, Limburger. In Germany, Lemberger is a noble vine known to produce luscious, concentrated wines full of black plum and spice.
It’s one of the few red wines outside of Spätburgunder considered worthy of Grosses Gewächs, or grand cru classification, by the Verband deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), Germany’s consortium of quality wine producers.
Lemberger likely traces its roots to Graf Neipperg, the Württemberg wine estate still operated by the noble von Neipperg family that traces its lineage as far back as the Holy Roman Empire.
According to Matthias Koch, sales representative for Graf Neipperg, it was the von Neipperg counts who brought Lemberger to Germany from Austria during the 17th century. Their exceptionally low-yielding vines are still grown on the estate’s monopole vineyards first cleared in the 13th century.
The steep keuper (marl and limestone) slopes, Koch says, yield the “fiery, powerful red wines” that are the pride of the region.
Lemberger Producers To Look For
Wachstetter, Schnaitmann, Grafen Neipperg (Württemberg)
Best regions: Ahr, Franken, Rheinhessen
Like a captivating, fickle lover that you just can’t quit, Frühburgunder, a k a Pinot Noir Précoce, is “the diva of all Pinots,” says Frank Josten, managing director of Weingut H.J. Kreuzberg, one of the grape’s steadfast champions. Frühburgunder is a rare, early ripening mutation of Pinot Noir with a propensity for heartbreakingly low yields. By taste, it’s difficult to distinguish Frühburgunder from typical Pinot Noir. Its smaller, thicker-skinned berries and earlier ripening, however, can yield deeply colored, intensely aromatic wines that often possess a softer, slightly less acidic edge. Particularly in the Ahr, Frühburgunder distinguishes itself from Spätburgunder with a distinctly “velvety and filigreed” texture, says Josten. It offers enchanting dark, deep aromas of forest fruits, crushed bilberry (a European cousin of the blueberry) and bitter chocolate.
Frühburgunder Producers to Look For
Georg Mueller Stiftung (Rheingau)
Best region: Württemberg
According to the Oxford Companion of Wines, Trollinger is a “distinctly ordinary” grape. With its pale ruby color and delicate body, Trollinger, also known as Schiava or Vernatsch in Italy, may come off rather modest. But quality examples of these wines can be flirtatiously floral and boast zippy raspberry flavor, often with a pleasant pop of cotton candy.
Nancy Peach, a sales manager for German importer Rudi Wiest Selections, regards dry Trollinger as her preferred light-bodied red in cool months. Particularly in the hands of exceptional producers like Wachtstetter, Peach says Trollinger offers “remarkable persistence and flavor density, considering its modest color and mouth weight.”
Trollinger Producers to Look For
Wachtstetter, Knauss, Beurer, (Württemberg)
Other International Varieties
Cabernet Sauvignon has grown in Germany since the 17th century. Yet Cabernet and other international red grapes typically grown in far warmer climates than Germany, like Merlot, Syrah or Sangiovese, are still considered novelties.
Growing these grapes is a bold statement by winemakers against tradition and wine classifications that dictate what varieties merit quality designations. Yet these vibrant, cool-climate reds from producers like Markus Schneider, Philipp Kuhn and the Knipser brothers in the Pfalz, Wagner-Stempel or Thörle in Rheinhessen, and Ulrich Stein in the Mosel, are increasingly persuasive.
A focus of Markus Schneider’s career has been to bring international red varieties and untraditional blends to the forefront of German wines, no matter the opinion of organizations like the VDP. The red wines he produces, like his Holy Moly Syrah, often employ clever labels and represent a blend of New World bravado and Old World finesse.
Germany’s climate and northern latitude afford red grapes a long ripening season to reach peak maturity, not just sugar ripeness, according to Schneider. All the while, they maintain acidity and moderate alcohol levels.
“They have freshness but at the same time, a mature tannin structure, which guarantees the best aging conditions for the wines,” says Schneider.
International Variety Producers to Look For
Schneider, Knipser (Pfalz)