Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine. It’s also Germany’s best-kept secret. After years of lingering in the doldrums, a German fizz revolution is in full swing and finally making its way to the U.S.
So what is Sekt, and what does it taste like? To get the lowdown, let’s take in some numbers, history, labeling and Germany’s exciting signature style, Rieslingsekt.
Sekt by the numbers
The Germans have form when it comes to drinking sparkling wine. No other nation guzzles as much bubbly. In 2017, residents consumed 400 million bottles of sparkling wine, which includes Champagne, Cava and Prosecco. In the same year, the country produced 368.8 million bottles of Sekt, most of which stayed in Germany.
For the longest time this was justified. Most Sekt was, and still is, simple base wine that’s sourced across Europe and made sparkling in Germany. It’s produced in vast tanks and industrial quantities, and sports very affordable pricing. In the past decade, however, the German Sekt landscape has changed fundamentally due to an increasing number of small estates going to great effort to craft fine Sekt.
The history of Sekt
Few outside the country know German Sekt’s illustrious past. In the early 19th century, many Germans traveled to Champagne to learn the technique of making sparkling wine. Some stayed to found famous houses like Krug, Piper-Heidsieck, Bollinger and Mumm. Others brought these sparkling wine techniques back to Germany to produce a new style of sparkling wine, which soon became known as Sekt.
This made a lot of sense. Germany provides great conditions for growing light-bodied, high-acid wines that are ideal as a base for sparkling wine. However, while the Champenois had the foresight to protect the area, name and quality of their wine, the Germans did not.
Looking to quickly rebuild after two devastating world wars, German producers explored ways to industrialize Sekt production. They turned to tank fermentation, rather than in-bottle fermentation, which enabled them to turn vast quantities of base wine into sparkling wine. Quality was less important than cost at the time, which remained the case for most of the 20th century.
Today, German Sekt has returned to its former glory. Winemakers select the finest wines from vineyards best suited to sparkling wines, with the aim of creating uniquely refreshing, aromatic Sekt. This is especially true for the category of Winzersekt, an estate-grown Sekt. Here’s what you need to know.
What to look for on a Sekt label
● Must be made from German base wine.
● Can be made in tank (minimum 90 days on yeast, 30 of those with continuous mixing).
● Can be made with traditional bottle fermentation (minimum 9 months on lees).
Deutscher Sekt b.A.
● As above but with a minimum of 85% of the grapes sourced from one of Germany’s 13 wine regions.
● Must be made by traditional bottle fermentation, with a minimum of 9 months on lees. Most winemakers far exceed that length.
● Uses 100% estate-grown fruit.
● Label must state grape variety and vintage
Rieslingsekt, Germany’s hidden gem
While most of the world’s traditional-method sparkling wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Germany specialises in Sekt made from Riesling. Its inherent freshness and lightness make Riesling eminently suitable as a sparkling wine base.
What sets German Riesling apart are its rich aromatic compounds (called monoterpenes), found in the grapes’ flesh and skin, which make the resulting sparkling wines particularly fruity and perfumed.
How does Rieslingsekt differ from Sekt made from less aromatic grapes?
“Riesling is unique,” says Mathieu Kauffmann, cellar master at Reichsrat von Buhl in the Pfalz, and former chef de cave for Champagne Bollinger. “That interplay of acid and fruit in the mouth is so arresting, so sexy. You don’t find that fresh, tingling finish elsewhere. I think the potential for Rieslingsekt is huge.”
Joachim Ratzenberger, winemaker at his namesake estate in the Mittelrhein region, puts it differently. “Rieslingsekt always is very lively and sprightly,” he says. “It lives off its fine aromatics. It’s always invigorating, reviving and fun.”
Germany’s climate and growing methods make it possible to produce sparkling wines with no or very low dosage, which is the addition of sugar after disgorgement. It governs whether a wine will be extra brut, brut, extra dry, dry or demi-sec.
Many Winzersekte are brut nature, meaning they have no added sweetness. Rieslingsekt, however, has a special trick up its sleeve. Instead of a dosage made with sugar, some winemakers use mature, aged Riesling Spätlese or Auslese, which are sweet wines, for this purpose. This adds an extra dimension of aroma, fruit and “Riesling-ness.”
New VDP Sekt Statute
Picking up on this sparkling trend, the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), an elite association of German wine estates, has published its own strict Sekt statute. It prescribes certain grape varieties for certain regions and mandates hand harvesting, fractioned whole-bunch pressing and traditional bottle fermentation.
There are three tiers in the VDP’s quality pyramid. VDP.Ortssekt (village Sekt) and VDP.Gutssekt (estate Sekt) require a minimum of 15 months on lees, while VDP.Lagensekt, from classified, single vineyards, has a minimum of 36 months on lees.
It takes a long time to make fine Sekt. Many stay on their lees in bottle for three years or more. It’s exciting to think what is already slumbering in many cellars, ready to be released in the coming years. We shall talk a lot more about Sekt, baby.
Recommended Sekt to Try
Von Buhl 2015 Riesling Brut Sekt Sparkling (Pfalz); $45, 94 points. Delicate biscuit and brioche accent concentrated yellow apple and pear in this dazzling Riesling sekt. Made in the traditional method, its petillance is fine and persistent, filling the palate with a rich but yielding mousse. Racy lime and lemon acidity guides a piercing finish. The finish is exceptionally long, lingering with a silken honeyed cling. Rudi Wiest Selections. Editors Choice.
Maximin Grünhäuser 2014 Sekt Brut Riesling (Mosel); $38, 93 points. Enticing whiffs of brioche, biscuit, lemon and lime introduce this lovely brut-style sparkling. It’s bracingly fresh yet bursting with juicy tangerine and yellow peach flavors. Filigreed in structure and with pin-point, persistent petillance, it’s a convincing argument for Champagne lovers to drink more sekt, especially considering its price. Loosen Bros. USA. Editors’ Choice.
Robert Weil 2015 Brut Riesling (Rheingau); $46, 93 points. This is a consistent favorite among the increasing number of fine traditional-method sekt available stateside. Laser-edged and deeply mineral, it’s enriched by hints of caramel, nut and brioche. Flavors of lime, lemon and tangerine are bold and piercing yet cushioned by a mousse that’s fine and delicate. The finish is long and subtly honeyed. Loosen Bros. USA. Editors’ Choice.
Dr. Loosen NV Sekt Extra Dry Sparkling (Mosel); $25, 90 points. Zesty green apple and crisp stone fruits are electrified by spine tingling acidity in this invigorating sekt. It’s fresh and primary in style, with just a hint of cookie crumbs that linger on the midpalate. Tiny, vigorous bubbles dissipate elegantly on the finish. Loosen Bros. USA.