You say Pinot Noir, I say Spätburgunder

This is something I wrote for a now defunct website a couple of years ago. Thought it held up quite well so I’m republishing it.

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.

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, very much Riesling central, they grow Pinot Noir. 

Anne Krebiehl , 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. 

The vine growers in the Mosel (above) are now making up for lost time. Martin Lehnert at Lehnert-Veit 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 Martin 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 better than anything of equivalent price from Burgundy. “So far climate change has been good for us” Martin Lehner told me. 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.) Martin Molitor uses cuttings taken from 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. 

Not everyone is so keen though. One of Germany’s biggest producers, Ernie Loosen, told me “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 with me.

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!

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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1 Response to You say Pinot Noir, I say Spätburgunder

  1. Jyrgenn says:

    Some of those crazy Germans do indeed label their Spätburgunder as Pinot Noir. One example that comes to mind is Pflüger in Bad Dürkheim (see — really good ones, BTW), but there are others as well.

    The traditional German Spätburgunder style can come across a bit old-fashioned and not so refined, in particular the semi-dry ones. I can imagine some producers want their wines rather be associated with the French Pinot Noir styles; this does certainly make sense with Pflüger’s. That said, the traditional Spätburgunder style can have its charms, too, but it is rather different from French Pinot Noir. I do like both, in general, but to my regrets I am not able to verbalise what I have in mind. I am just an amateur in this, after all, and have to leave that to the pros. ;–)

    Oh, and don’t forget the Frühburgunder – “early burgundy”, aka Pinot Noir Précoce!

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