Red Wines of Germany – A Closer Look

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes © Deutsches Weininstitut (DWI) Enlarge image Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (© Deutsches Weininstitut (DWI)) This is one of the world’s best-known grape varieties, with some 165,000 hectares planted worldwide. In Germany, however, its cultivation area covers only 270 hectares (Riesling: 21,000 hectares), more than half of them in the Palatinate. The grape is only slowly gaining a foothold in Germany.

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the very late-ripening varieties. Its grapes contain a lot of seeds, pigments and tannins, which give the wine its very dark color and make it suitable for barrel-aging and long-term storage.

Cabernet Sauvignon produces wines with a strong character, typically tasting of blackcurrants (cassis) and with a green pepper aroma. A special feature of this variety is the fact that the wine retains its distinctive taste and bouquet under a wide variety of climatic and soil conditions. Cabernet Sauvignon is a perfect accompaniment to roast beef or lamb served with dark sauces.

Dornfelder

Wine barrels © Deutsches Weininstitut (DWI) Enlarge image Wine barrels (© Deutsches Weininstitut (DWI)) Dornfelder is the most successful of the new German breeds of red wine varieties. It was created at the Weinsberg Viticulture School in Württemberg in the mid-1950s by crossing two grape varieties. The Dornfelder grape began to establish itself in the mid-1970s (before that, Dornfelder vineyards covered no more than 100 hectares). Today, 8,200 hectares are planted with the new red breed, more than 8 percent of Germany’s total vineyard area. The only red variety more frequently planted is the Spätburgunder or Pinot Noir. Dornfelder is one of the “classic” grape varieties cultivated in the Nahe, the Palatinate, Rhine-Hesse and Württemberg.

It is a robust, resistant variety that tends to produce high yields if it is left to grow freely. That is why many winegrowers prune off some of the grapes as they begin to ripen, to reduce the yield and thus help concentrate the active substances in the remaining grapes. The grape makes great demands on the soil and is not content with sandy or stony sites.

The grape is generally vinified to produce a dry, or sometimes off-dry, red wine. There are two different vinification styles. The first emphasizes the intensive fruity aromas such as sour cherries, blackberries and elderberries. The wine is brought to market young, the new vintage in some cases already being available “en primeur.”

Other winegrowers mature the Dornfelder in large or small wooden barrels (barriques), emphasizing more the tannins and structure of the wine and suppressing the fruity aromas. The wines are mostly rich, smooth and harmonious. The Dornfelder is easily recognizable by its very dark color.

Lemberger

A cellarmaster measures the Lemberger grapes' Oechsle degree with a refractometer. © picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb Enlarge image A cellarmaster measures the Lemberger grapes' Oechsle degree with a refractometer. (© picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb) For years, there has been a steady increase in the vineyard area planted with Lemberger. Officially classified under the name “Blauer Limberger,” this red grape variety also goes by the synonyms “Lemberger” and “Blaufränkisch.” The late-ripening Lemberger probably originated in vineyards on the lower stretches of the Danube River. In the 19th century a “wine improvement society” advocated replacing high-yielding varieties with high-quality grapes (such as Lemberger) in the Kingdom of Württemberg. Indeed, Lemberger wines from Württemberg were the favorite of the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Theodor Heuss, and it is said that the variety was equally popular with Bismarck and Napoleon.

By 2006, there were already over 1,650 hectares planted with Lemberger (compared with some 400-500 hectares between 1980 and 1985). It is cultivated almost exclusively in Württemberg, where it accounts for 13 percent of the total vineyard area. The Lemberger thrives in a warm climate and wind-sheltered sites, not least because bud-burst is early and it ripens late. The grape makes very high demands on site and medium demands on soil. It thrives particularly well in deep, fertile loess-loam soils, and yields are average in size. In very good sites, this Württemberg specialty brings forth excellent quality, comparable with world-class wines.

For wine connoisseurs, Lemberger is a “coat of many colors,” ranging from light and fruity wines to those that are rich in extract and tannin (of Spätlese and Auslese ripeness). Usually, the wines are extremely dark in color. The bouquet can range from rather quiet to powerful, reminiscent of blackberries, sweet or sour cherries, plums, red- or blackcurrants, gooseberries, elderberries, bananas and chocolate, as well as vegetal aromas, such as green beans or green peppers. Depending on vinification techniques, the wines have a fruity or a tannic accent and a long finish. Barrique-aging adds another dimension, reminiscent of Mediterranean warmth and charm. Sparkling wine, or Sekt, made from the Lemberger grape is a real specialty.

Merlot

A vintner checks the Merlot vines © picture-alliance/ ZB Enlarge image A vintner checks the Merlot vines (© picture-alliance/ ZB ) Cultivated in many winegrowing countries, this grape variety has recently made the Top Ten list of red wines in Germany, too. Merlot is one of the most widely planted red wine varieties worldwide. It was cultivated as early as the 18th century. The grape originated in France and its cultivation has only been allowed in Germany since 1997. Some 200 hectares are planted with Merlot in the Palatinate, and a further 140 hectares in Rhine-Hesse.

Merlot ripens relatively early and exhibits a good must weight. The quite dark wines have an aroma reminiscent of plums and a soft, smooth taste, which explains their broad appeal to wine-lovers. Sometimes vinification is done using a single grape variety, sometimes cuvées are aged with other red varieties in oak barrels (barriques). The barrel-aged wines are a good accompaniment to hearty dishes, while a simple Merlot is suited to lighter dishes or can just be drunk on its own.

Schwarzriesling

Wine © Colourbox Enlarge image (© Colourbox) Although the name literally means “black Riesling,” this variety is in no way related to the Riesling, with which it has only the late ripening and the grape form in common. It originated in Burgundy. In Germany, it is frequently referred to by its synonym, Müllerrebe. This name makes reference to the covering of hairs on the under-surface of the leaves and to the shoot tips, which look as if they have been dusted with flour. In France, it is known as Pinot Meunier.

In Germany, cultivation of the Schwarzriesling is largely confined to Württemberg. Nevertheless, it accounts for over 2 percent of Germany’s total vineyard area. Since the 1980s, its cultivation area has grown from 1,000 to over 2,400 hectares. The Schwarzriesling is less demanding than the Spätburgunder in terms of site and soil. The less complex variety thrives on rich loess-loam soils. As bud-burst is late, it is not particularly susceptible to May frosts.

Schwarzriesling wines are ruby-red to brick-red in color, have a fruity aroma similar to that of the Spätburgunder, but with a more finely structured body. They are vinified to produce dry as well as sweet fruity wines.

Spätburgunder

Spätburgunder © Deutsches Weininstitut Enlarge image Spätburgunder (© Deutsches Weininstitut) The Spätburgunder or Pinot Noir is to red wine what the Riesling is to white wine: the cream of the crop. The Spätburgunder or Pinot Noir grape belongs to the Burgunder family. It is probably one of the earliest varieties that were developed from wild vines in western Central Europe. It arrived at Lake Constance around the year 900. In the 13th century, it was planted in the Rheingau.

In Germany, some 11,800 hectares are planted with Spätburgunder, which means that it accounts for more than 10 percent of the total vineyard area. Most vines of this variety are in Baden (nearly 5,900 hectares) and the Palatinate (nearly 1,600 hectares). Other principal cultivation areas of the Spätburgunder include Rhine-Hesse and Württemberg, the Rheingau and the Ahr. In ten of these areas, it is one of the “classic” grape varieties.

This noble and very old variety requires considerable care and makes great demands on climate and soil. It thrives best in so-called Riesling sites, i.e. the best sites. If the conditions for growth are good, it approaches top form, rewarding the cultivator’s efforts with the finest red wines in the world. The grape is mainly vinified to produce a dry red wine, sometimes possessing a hint of residual sweetness, too. Occasionally, rosé wines or sparkling wine are also produced from the Spätburgunder. If the grapes are pressed immediately after harvesting, the light-colored juice can be used to make a “Blanc de Noirs,” a white wine made from dark grapes. Many producers also barrel-age superior qualities.

Spätburgunder wines have a full-bodied, velvety taste and a fruity aroma with traces of almond. A typical Spätburgunder has a slightly sweetish bouquet reminiscent of red fruits, from strawberries to cherries to blackberries or blackcurrants. The barrique wines also have hints of vanilla and cinnamon.

Today, the modern Spätburgunder, with its deep red color, high tannin content, low acidity and often short storage times in small oak barrels, is increasingly gaining ground. Spätburgunder red wines are ideal for the cooler months. They are best drunk at temperatures of 16 to 18 degrees.

Trollinger

Harvesting the Trollinger grapes near Stuttgart © picture-alliance/ dpa - Bildfunk Enlarge image Harvesting the Trollinger grapes near Stuttgart (© picture-alliance/ dpa - Bildfunk ) This variety originated in South Tyrol or the neighboring Trentino, though it goes there by the name of Vernatsch. The Romans brought it over the Alps, first to the Bergstrasse and the Palatinate. It later arrived in Württemberg, where the Trollinger is today the most widely planted red wine variety, ahead of the Schwarzriesling and Lemberger. Trollinger wines are scarcely to be found at vineyards outside Württemberg. There are climatic reasons for their concentration in one of Germany’s most southerly winegrowing regions, the grape requiring a long vegetation period to ripen. In addition, the wines have become the “Swabian national drink.”

The Trollinger is mostly vinified to produce fresh, robust, down-to-earth wines. A hint of residual sweetness gives the harmonious everyday wines an additional sweetish taste. Superior-quality wines are rare. The light, racy wines have no need for long-term storage; they are ready to drink in the year after their harvest. In the glass, they are mostly light red in color, in good years sometimes ruby-red as well.

It goes without saying that a wine drunk by many on an almost daily basis is wholesome and easily digestible. 

 

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