Germany’s Best Pinot Noirs
Pinot Noir loves marginal climates. Which is to say, it loves warm sites in cool regions. This is the paradox behind the variety’s most poetic and captivating expressions. It’s also the reason behind the Pinot wave sweeping across Germany.
Yes, Pinot Noir thrives in cool, white wine-growing Germany, now the world’s third-largest producer after France and the United States. Baden alone has more Pinot Noir planted than either New Zealand or Australia.
“It’s incredible what happened in terms of quality over the past 20 years,” says Rudi Wiest, a veteran California-based importer of German wines.
Spätburgunder, as it’s called locally, has been cultivated in Germany for centuries, but by the 1980s, its true potential was almost forgotten in the quantity-above-quality frenzy that engulfed Germany following the passage of its 1971 wine laws.
It was left to a handful of stubborn and quality-obsessed winemakers to rehabilitate Pinot Noir and start one of Germany’s greatest success stories, a struggle that took conviction and courage.
As others, particularly the large local co-ops, made sweetish, flabby and thermo-vinified Pinots from high-yielding vines, Fritz Keller of Weingut Schwarzer Adler in Baden held firm. He consistently made skin-fermented, hand-punched and bone-dry Pinot Noirs that were served in the family’s Michelin-starred restaurant.
“I always stood for that elegant, dry style,” says Keller, who trained in Bordeaux and Burgundy.
The Pfalz’s Friedrich Becker was ridiculed by his fellow villagers when he replanted Pinot Noir and focused on quality.
Vintners who struck out on their own often learned by trial and error. Baden’s Bernhard Huber left the local cooperative to release his first Pinot Noirs in 1987.
“So much at that time was new,” he said just before his recent death. “Everything was a learning curve—green harvests, using small barrels or determining the right point of harvest.”
“Red winemaking was not taught in Germany at the time,” says Franken’s Sebastian Fürst, whose father, Paul, was among those pioneers. “My father reached out to other Pinot winemakers abroad and implemented their methods at home.”
“Our parents’ generation was the first to truly cooperate in order to raise the bar,” says Meike Näkel, of Weingut Meyer-Näkel in the Ahr. “They exchanged ideas and shared experiences, they set new standards and we children were sent to like-minded estates for our own apprenticeships. The cellar doors were no longer shut.”
“One of the keys to quality was yield reduction and a new way of working in the vineyard,” says Karl Eugen Erbgraf von Neipperg, owner of a wine estate in Württemberg.
This also called for different plant material. Von Neipperg and others keen on quality either planted French clones or massal selections of old, low-yielding German clones.
By the late 1990s, a shift had taken place in Germany, not least because the Spätburgunders of this determined avant-garde met with huge approval. Wine lovers paid top dollar for these elegant, food-friendly wines.
By 1999, new high-quality German clones had been released, and red winemaking was widely taught. It even became fashionable to drink German wine—Pinot Noir as much as Riesling. Pinot Noir acreage doubled from 1990–2010.
By then, an initial love affair with new oak was also over. Today, traditional large German fuders and small French barrels are used more for their effect on texture than flavor.
“Of course,” says Keller, “Germany has also been a beneficiary of climate change.”
Taken together, these circumstances have given birth to a generation of fine German Pinot Noirs, which truly express the potential of the soils and ancient vineyards.
Pictured: Bettina and Fritz Keller at Weingut Schwarzer Adler in Baden
Today, a second generation helms many of these estates, crafting Pinot Noirs that are better than ever before. They’re highly trained and have international experience, often with vintages in both hemispheres under their belt.
With this success, more energetic and enthusiastic youngsters are bent on making even better Pinot Noirs. Elegance, finesse, longevity, complexity, perfume and minerality are their shared aims.
Despite the vast acreage devoted to Pinot Noir, the fragmented grower base only exports limited quantities—most Spätburgunder is still enjoyed in Germany. Nonetheless, more and more producers are happy to share their intriguing wines with the world.
Many Pinots get better with age, and the best deserve cellaring.
“Even my basic estate Pinots from the 1990s stand up well today,” says Keller. “Today’s wines will age even better—they have an even finer tannin structure.”
Real Pinot nuts are already in the know.
“Quality is definitely on the rise—there already are some superstars,” says Adrien Falcon, wine director at New York City’s Bouley restaurant. “Germany clearly is a major country for Pinot production.”
He says diners are “surprised at first, but extremely satisfied,” once they try the wines.
So what is Spätburgunder like? While there’s a wide variety of styles—from evocative, translucent silk to structured, glossy velvet—most have a unique and compelling savoriness, something that goes beyond mere fruit and is akin to lovage and white pepper.
Yet, the wines’ individual characters are determined by climate, soil and winemaking choices.
“There is no such thing as typical German Pinot Noir,” says Fürst.
No wonder, since they’re grow on granite, slate, limestone, marl, sandstone, volcanic ash or basalt, schist, loess or various combinations of these.
“The difference in soils is the most interesting aspect,” says Wiest.
It’s in this diversity that true wine lovers will revel in the discovery of German Pinot Noir, now that they have come of age.
Top Producer: Meyer-Näkel. Sisters Meike and Dörte Näkel cultivate steep slate vineyards that bring forth profound Pinots with a smoky edge and elegant tannins.
The Dish: Braised meat with full-bodied Spätburgunders; Brie or Camembert with young, entry-level wines.
Also look for: Adeneuer, Deutzerhof, Kreuzberg, Stodden
Top Producer: Schwarzer Adler. Fritz Keller lauds the “fire” that volcanic soils give to his savory Pinots.
The Dish: Salmon or turbot in summer; truffled chicken or filet mignon in winter.
Also look for: Bercher, Bernhard Huber, Dr. Heger, Holger Koch, Salwey, Ziereisen
Top Producer: Paul Fürst. Paul’s son, Sebastian, strives for finesse, longevity and perfume. “Pinot should beguile with its scent,” he says. The family makes an ethereal, elegant style, full of Morello cherry notes.
The Dish: Squab, duck breast, saddle of venison.
Also look for: Am Stein, Castell, Knapp
Top Producer: Friedrich Becker. Son Fritz grows Pinots full of depth and elegance on limestone in an evocative, ageworthy style.
The Dish: Grilled beef.
Also look for: Christmann, Knipser, Rebholz
Top Producer: Graf Neipperg. He looks to emphasize his Pinot’s “filigreed fruit,” grown on Triassic marls. He prefers savoring his mature Pinots without food, “just so I can revel in their scent.”
The Dish: Pheasant or partridge.
Also look for: Dautel, Graf Adelmann, Haidle, Schnaitmann
OTHER TOP GERMAN PINOT NOIR PRODUCERS
MOSEL: Markus Molitor
RHEINGAU: August Kesseler, Chat Sauvage, JB Becker, PJ Kühn
RHEINHESSEN: Gutzler, Thörle, Wagner-Stempel
SACHSEN: Schloss Proschwitz
- 2Tough Times
- 3Viticultural Advances
- 4A Maturing Marketplace
- 5Dining with the Best German Pinot Noirs