Would that I could have a bottle of every single wine variety. I bet I could learn a whole heap that way (not to mention have a whole heap of fun). But, alas, the money tree seems to be in its dormancy. So the title of this post is a bit mis-leading, as I won’t be physically tasting through these wines, but more putting together what I can gather from my readings about the style and structure typical to these varieties, as it pertains to German winemaking.
Afterwards, I want to take a walk through a few of the other notable wine producing regions of Germany and talk about what non-Riesling grapes thrive best there and why. Sound fun? Totally. Let’s go…
Non-Riesling Grapes to Know
Muller–Thurgau, also called Rivaner is a crossing created in Germany. In fact, it’s one of the earliest German crossings, according to my text. The Oxford Companion To Wine specifies that it was created in 1881 by a Dr. Muller who had been born in Thurgau, a Swiss canton in Germany. It’s a cross between Riesling and Madeleine Royal, intended to combine the high quality of Riesling with the ability to ripen early and produce high yields, like Sylvaner (below). And, indeed, it does do that latter, producing, as the Oxford states “prodigious quantities of extremely dull, flabby wine.” It was popularized in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s as a major ingredient in cheap white blends (Liebraumilch). Since that time, German plantings have nearly halved.
As a bit of a side bar, I recently heard an interview with a German winemaker (and have since read this same factoid in the Oxford), that in Italy’s Alto Adige (which shares some German history and, thus, wine), Muller-Thurgau can be a fairly decent wine. In fact, the Oxford goes so far as to call it “exciting.”
Dornfelder, another German crossing, is said to be the most popular German crossing. This one was created by an August Herold, though the grape takes its name from a 19th century founder of the Wurttemberg (below) viticultural school. The Oxford explains that this grape, which is the second most planted red wine grape in Germany (behind Spatburgunder), incorporates “every important red wine vine grown in Germany somewhere in its genealogy and happily seems to have inherited many more of their good points than their bad.”
It’s noted that Dornfelder in Germany come in two different styles—a fruity, easy-drinking red wine that incorporates a little RS and shows aromas of sour cherries and blackberries; and a more complex version produced from lower yielding vineyards that create wines with focused tannins, are often fermented and/or aged in oak, and have bottle aging potential.
Dornfelder is supposedly most successful in Rheinhessen and Pfalz, where plantings outnumber Spatburgunder.
Sylvaner, an early-budding vigorous variety whose plantings inside Germany has halved since the 1980s. It’s lower in acid and less aromatic than Riesling, successfully producing large volumes of inexpensive wines. However, it is noted that most of the country’s best come from Franken (below), where wines produced are more structured with medium body, medium to medium (+) acid, and “distinctive earthy” characteristics.
Grauburgunder is the country’s fourth most-planted white wine grape. It’s most successful in deep, heavy soils in order to “maximize the impressive level of extract of which it is capable,” (the Oxford), and has found a good home in the warmer region of Baden in particular, but also Rheinhessen and Pfalz. The German expression of this grape is described as spicy, full-bodied, with medium acid and notes of stone, tropical, and sometimes even dried fruits as well as honey. It is typically dry, but can be found made sweet and labeled Rulander.
Weissburgunder from Germany is simply described as a well-balanced wine with medium (+) acid, delicate citrus and stone fruit notes. Regions of note: Rheinhessen, Pfaltz and Baden.
Chardonnay, a grape that I didn’t know was a thing in Germany—and it wasn’t until the 1990s. Plantings are fairly low, but supposedly good expressions (that typically include oak aging) are coming out of warmer regions, such as southern Pfalz and Kaiserstuhl in Baden.
Other grapes of note: Portugieser, Schwarzriesling (Pinot Munier), Trollinger (Schiava) and Lemberger (Blaufrankisch).
Wurttemberg Regional Overview
According to germanwines.de, Wurttemberg is known as Germany’s premier red wine region. Indeed, just about 70% of all plantings are red wine grapes, the most famous being Trollinger. “This quaffable wine, rarely found outside of this region, is called the national drink of Württemberg and is drunk often and with pleasure accompanied by a snack,” they say.
With its southern location, Wurttemberg experiences warm summers and is home to “steep, drought-sensitive and demanding terraced slopes,” (the Oxford) the region is well-suited to red wine production. The Atlas notes that its climate is even “more continental than Baden, so sites have to be chosen with care.” Besides Trollinger, other grapes of note include Spatburgunder, Lemberger and Schwarzriesling. While most of these wines are the lighter, so-called “quaffable” kind, it’s noted in my text that fuller-bodied examples with riper fruit flavors and higher alcohols (often utilizing oak aging) are on the rise, particularly from Lemberger. (I’ve also heard this in other German-related podcasts and webinars.)
Though this post is the non-Riesling post, I will add a footnote here to say that Riesling accounts for over half of the white grapes planted, but makes up just about 18% of the region’s planted acreage.
The majority of production comes from the central co-op Moglingen, but a number of small estates are starting to become recognized for quality wines as well.
Franken Regional Overview
Franken kind of hangs out to the right there, doesn’t it—playing the part of a loner. Amusingly, my book describes the region as a “W-shaped course” that runs along the south-facing slopes of the river Main. (I guess it *sort of* looks like a ‘W.’)
Hanging out on the east over there, the climate is the most continental than any of Germany’s other wine regions. Thus, seasonal extremes are at a, well, extreme: warmer summers, harsher winters, and a short overall growing season. As is typical with these kinds of climactic conditions, spring frost is a major risk.
Further to its loner status, its heritage grape is Sylvaner. Here, unlike anywhere else in Germany where the grape is grown, Sylvaner produces robust and age-worthy wines with “minerally complex results.” (the Oxford) The early-budding, early-ripening grape is able to achieve full ripeness before the cruelty of cold autumns and harsh winters settle in. It is, however, more susceptible to spring frost due to those early buds. But, knowing that, and knowing what the grape is capable of if tended to correctly, growers consciously plant their vines on the south and south-east facing, chalky-soiled slopes overlooking the river Main. (i.e., the best vineyard sites).
FUN FACT: “The features for which Franken wine is best known are arguably neither its grapes nor its distinctive soils and wines, but the fact that nearly all of it is marketed in squat, flattened Bocksbeutel bottles at prices most German growers can only dream of, and most is consumed within the region itself.” (the Oxford)
Ahr Regional Overview
Ahr, named after the river that flows through it, is one of Germany’s smallest wine-producing regions. This is Spatburgunder land. The most westerly vineyards sit on steep slopes on either side of the river, sitting as high as 300 m above sea level. Here, heat-retaining soils further enable red wine production, namely slate, basalt, and the clay-rich grewywacke (a kind of dark sand stone, pronounced—”gray wacky”).
Spatburgunder makes up about 60% of total plantings, but other varieties of note include Portugieser, Fruhburgunder (an earlier-ripening Pinot Noir), and Riesling.
Back in the day, Spatburgunder was known for a soft, late-picked, medium-sweet flavor profile, but today it is fermented completely dry, fermented in oak, and maintains a solid tannic structure.
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