Henry Jeffreys tries Spätburgunder – Pinot Noir – from German wine region Mosel, and recommends the best supermarket and specialty wines
Germany makes wine from the most revered red grape in the world, but you won’t see the words ‘Pinot’ and ‘Noir’ on the label. Whilst every other country uses variations on the French, trust the Germans to have their own word: Spätburgunder, meaning late (ripening) Burgundian (they also have Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder, which are Pinots Blanc and Gris respectively.)
This idiosyncratic labelling is perhaps why few people realise that Germany is the world’s third biggest grower of Pinot Noir; one region, Baden, in the south west of the country, grows more Pinot than New Zealand. But these wines are also obscure because the Germans like drinking them so much that they are rarely exported.
From Baden in the south to Ayr in the north
Pinot Noir, sorry – Spätburgunder, has been planted for so long in Germany that it is thought of as a local variety. It originated in Burgundy, but probably came to Germany some time in the Middle Ages with Cistercian monks. From Baden in the south to Ayr in the north, Pinot Noir is grown all over the country. Even in the the Mosel valley – Germany’s coldest region, which is very much Riesling central – they grow Pinot Noir.
Anne Kriebel, a German Master of Wine, told me that Pinot Noir was once widely planted in the Mosel but was outlawed in 1937, though nobody is quite sure why: “Most people jump to the very easy explanation, “the Nazis outlawed it”, but it is incredibly difficult to find the substantiating paperwork”, Kriebel said. Riesling was very valuable at the time so perhaps it was just a way of maximising returns from the land, but it wasn’t banned anywhere else in Germany. Pinot Noir was only officially readmitted in 1987.
Wines overflowing with ripe fruit
The vine growers in the Mosel are now making up for lost time. Peter Lehnert of Lehnert-Veit estate has planted some of his best vineyards with Pinot Noir instead of Riesling. In the Mosel’s cool climate, only the steepest southern facing slopes that get the most sunlight will do for this often tricky grape. You might think therefore that the wines would be skinny, like an English red wine, but they are vibrant and ripe with an almost New Zealand intensity of fruit – perhaps not such a surprise, as Peter Lehnert has worked in New Zealand.
In warmer regions such as Baden, Pfalz and Ayr, the wines are richer, sometimes positively overflowing with ripe fruit. Reds from Germany used to be a bit of a joke but now a German Pinot Noir is generally a much safer bet than anything of equivalent price from Burgundy. “So far climate change has been good for us” Peter Lehnert explained. But improvements in German reds are not just down to global warming. Producers are (re) discovering the best sites for red grapes, learning how much oak to use and planting better quality clones (there are different types of Pinot Noir). Markus Molitor uses cuttings taken from Chambolle-Musigny in Burgundy, and I heard a rumour that one producer even pinched some cuttings from Domaine de la Romanee Conti, the world’s most expensive estate.
Schwarzriesling – black Riesling
Not everyone is so keen though. One of Germany’s biggest producers, Ernie Loosen, told me that “Pinot Noir in the Mosel is like Shiraz in Burgundy”. He grows just a tiny bit which he makes into a sparkling rosé.
Shiraz might be a bit outlandish, but producers are seriously thinking about how the climate might change. Jan Matthias Klein at Staffelter Hof is hedging his bets with Portuguese varieties, Maria Gomes and Ariento. “Maybe we’ll have to plant Cabernet in future”, Peter Lehnert joked.
That’s a long way off though. I tried a Merlot, a variety that ripens before Cabernet, from the Mosel which tasted more like you’d expect a German red to taste i.e. a bit green. But I had another that wasn’t made from Pinot Noir that really impressed me. Made by Louis Klein, it was a Pinot Meunier, the least feted of the Pinot family. Naturally the Germans don’t call it anything as simple as Pinot Meunier, no way Josef, it’s Schwarzriesling – black Riesling. Those crazy Germans!
Here are seven Spätburgunders to try:
Hans Baer Pinot Noir 2016 (Tesco £7)
Not quite sure how they do this for the money, lots of bright cherry fruit and a savoury finish. Simple, delicious and it has a picture of a bear riding a bicycle on the label. What more could you want?
Villa Wolf Pinot Noir 2015 (Oddbins £12.50)
Made by Ernie Loosen but in the warmer Pfalz region. There’s cedar notes on the nose and then a racy citric acidity with blood orange and raspberry fruit. Probably the best value Pinot on the high street.
Wageck Pfaffmann Bissersheim Spätburgunder trocken 2013 (Oddbins £13)
Gosh these German wine labels can be a bit of a mouthful, but when you get a wine this good for the money, I’m not complaining; really juicy and spicy – especially with goulash.
Gerd Stepp Pinot Noir "S" 2015 (M&S £15 )
Some dashed clever marketing here, putting Pinot Noir on the label. What’s in the bottle is pretty clever too, with really quite rich with raspberry fruit and a little walking-through-an-autumn wood earthiness on the finish.
Hans Lang Spätburgunder 2012 (Virgin Wines £15.99)
The Rheingau region is significantly warmer than the Mosel. This example is dense and concentrated with tobacco aromas on the finish.
Bernhard Huber Malterdinger Spätburgunder 2014 (Justerini & Brooks £17.50)
Baden in the south west of Germany specialises in Pinot Noir. You can see why when you taste the sheer ripeness of this wine; there’s a lovely balance between fruit, tannin and acidity.
August Kesseler Spätburgunder "N" 2012 (Justerini & Brooks £17.99)
Good German Pinots improve with age like Burgundy. This one has taken on some menthol aromas, a warming spiciness and the fruit is still as fresh as a daisy.
Lehnert-Veit Piesporter Falkenberg Spätburgunder trocken 2014 (Lea & Sandeman £33.50)
From the cool Mosel valley, it shows what can be done with the right vineyard. The fruit here is gorgeously bright and ripe, complimented by some perfectly judged spicy notes from oak ageing.