There’s more to German wine than riesling

By Eric Asimov

Plunging into German riesling is like a great high dive into a pool of dazzling wines — graceful, complex and utterly delicious.

Some people gladly leap over the edge. Others hang back, mistakenly believing that all rieslings are sweet or shrinking from the supposedly indecipherable nomenclature of German wine labels.

Regardless of where they stand, most consumers share the perception that riesling represents the entirety of German wine.

But a whole other Germany exists, of myriad reds, rosés and whites that make clear that riesling is only part of that nation’s wine story. These wines offer many of the joys that attract riesling lovers. Best of all, they also are often great values.

Yet, astoundingly, these wines are practically unknown in the United States except to a tiny band of importers who seek them out and a small group of aficionados who adore them.

Count me among them. Inspired by a delicious German pinot blanc I found for a recent 20 Under $20 column, I shopped at Manhattan wine stores and came up with 12 superb bottles that demonstrate the appeal of German wines beyond riesling.

Some of these wines might seem familiar, like pinot noir, although they may seem surprising to find in Germany, where the grape is often called spätburgunder.

Red wine in Germany? Pinot noir has been there since only the 13th century, when it was first planted along the Rhine by Cistercian monks, who performed the same good deed in Burgundy.

Pinot noir frequently struggled to ripen in the cool German climate. It was often lean and pale, not unattractive but without much depth or complexity. But climate change, while a menace to humanity, has enhanced German pinot noir, as have improved farming methods and know-how.

Many other grapes are making delightful wines in Germany. They include pinot blanc, known as weissburgunder in German; blaufränkisch, which in Germany is generally called lemberger; silvaner, often rendered sylvaner; and trollinger, better known in Italian as schiava.

You’ll also find wholly obscure grapes like elbling and blauer portugieser, which have no aliases of note.

“Riesling is still the bench mark in Germany, the way Burgundy or Bordeaux is in France,” said Stephen Bitterolf, whose import company, Vom Boden, specializes in German wines, rieslings and beyond. “But I think what is happening is the realization that all of this other stuff has a deeper value that should be brought to the attention of the greater public.”

It wasn’t that long ago that a great wine homogenization seemed to be occurring around the world. Countries like Italy and Spain, rich with traditional wines, seemed to reject their indigenous grape varieties in favor of internationally known grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay.

In the last 20 years or so, these countries and many others — even the United States — have rediscovered the diversity of their grapes and wines, the breadth of which now seems to be cherished worldwide.

Germany, though, lagged behind. Riesling was always on an elevated plane, but other grapes, for the most part, were given the back of the market’s hand. Bitterolf calls it a “vicious circle of cheap wines.”

“You planted the grapes in the worst area, farmed them badly, then you say, ‘These are terrible wines,’” he said.

There were exceptions, of course. Grape growers like Stefan Vetter sought out old vineyards of silvaner, for example, nursed them back to health and then proved how good the wines could be.

Bitterolf also cited younger wine consumers in Germany, who were more open to exploration, who embraced the notion that these grapes, once consigned to the cheapest shelves, could make excellent wines.

Germany, too, has not been untouched by the world’s embrace of natural wines. One of the great achievements of that movement has been the resurrection of indigenous grapes and local customs that had long been cast aside.

Some of the bottles I found fit squarely in the natural-wine category. They may not have been filtered or clarified, but they are absolutely delicious.

Along with a new cast of grapes, looking at Germany’s diversity also requires a new look at its wine geography beyond the quintet of prime riesling regions: Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz, Nahe and Rheinhessen.

The wines I’ve chosen come from places like Ahr, a river valley that stretches southeast from Bonn, and Baden and Württemberg in the southwest, along with some of the more familiar regions.

Some of these producers don’t use the names of the appellations on their labels, preferring the generic term Landwein, just as many excellent producers use Vin de France in France or Vino di Tavola in Italy. In some cases it indicates nonconformity or a disdain for the hidebound bureaucracies that decide what’s an acceptable representation of a particular appellation.

One important thing to point out: These dozen bottles all come from small family producers. They will not be easy to find. If you have access to good wine shops, however, you may find many other German bottles beyond riesling.

Don’t hesitate to try them out. My choices are not at all intended to be seen as the best bottles. They are simply 12 excellent examples of German wines other than riesling.

Here they are, in order from least to most expensive.

Fürst Mosel Elbling Trocken 2018 $13.96 1 liter

The Mosel is best known for its delicate, lacy rieslings, but this wine is made of elbling, an ancient grape that may have come to Germany with the Romans. It’s planted in the southernmost part of the Mosel Valley, near the Luxembourg border, which Anne Krebiehl, in her excellent book “The Wines of Germany,” calls “the relatively unknown Obermosel.” This Fürst family, not to be confused with the excellent producer Rudolf Fürst in the Franken region, has been making wine there since the 13th century. This bottle is fresh and gentle, yet vibrant and textured, refreshing and a great deal. (Willie Glückstern Selections/Bowler Wine, New York)

Jochen Beurer Württemberg Trollinger Trocken 2019 $21.99

Trollinger generally makes a light red wine that goes down easy. But this is no simply thirst-quencher, even if it is eminently glug-worthy. Although light and graceful, it still has plenty of spicy red fruit flavor with an underlying note of refreshing, stony bitterness that sends you back for another sip. It’s not Italian (some identify trollinger more with Italy than Germany), and it’s not what’s typically thought of as German, but perhaps it’s very much Württemberg, the area in southwestern Germany where this wine was produced. (Vom Boden, Brooklyn, New York)

Stein Mosel Rosé Trocken 2019 $21.99

Ulrich Stein’s wines are among the most interesting and idiosyncratic I’ve seen from the Mosel region. I love them. This is made from pinot noir, along with some of the few cabernet sauvignon and merlot vines in the region. It’s typical of Stein’s sense of intuition and experimentation to blend these grapes, which have no historical basis together, to make a rosé. This is light enough to drink poolside in the hot sun, yet full of flavor and character. (Vom Boden)

Kraemer Franken Silvaner 2017 $21.99

I love silvaner, a perennially underrated grape. It can make straightforward, delightfully refreshing wines that are perfect for a warm-weather lunch. Beyond that, dedicated producers are exploring its potential. Stephan Kraemer is one of those producers, as is Stefan Vetter (see below). This bottle, however is Kraemer’s entry-level wine, made simply of organically grown silvaner, fermented in steel tanks and not filtered or clarified. It’s subtle and delicious. (A Fatboy Selection/Super Glou, Brooklyn, New York)

2Naturkinder Kleine Heimat Landwein 2017 $24.96

As you might guess from the name of the winery, 2Naturkinder (meaning two children of nature), this is a natural wine, farmed organically and made without additives. Kleine Heimat is also made with the silvaner grape, although in a different style than the Kraemer. The husband-and-wife proprietors, Michael Völker and Melanie Drese, allow the juice of these grapes to ferment with the skins for a week as if it were a red wine, deriving a bit of color and structure. In other words, it’s an orange wine, with a slightly amber cast and a bare hint of tannin. It’s richer and rounder than the Kraemer, lively, refreshing and pure. (Jenny & François Selections, New York)

Holger Koch Spätburgunder Kaiserstuhl 2018 $25.99

Spätburgunder is the German word for pinot noir. You’ll see both the German and the French term used on German pinot noirs, depending on the producer’s preference. Holger and Gabriele Koch make exquisite wines in the Baden region. This spätburgunder is sheer, graceful and juicy, with stony, earthy red berry flavors that are both lip-smacking and thought-provoking. (Super Glou)

Julia Bertram Ahr Spätburgunder Handwerk 2017 $27.96

Here’s another interpretation of pinot noir, from the Ahr, a narrow valley that extends northwest from Koblenz toward Bonn. Spätburgunder is the grape of choice there. This one, the entry-level bottle from Julia Bertram, a young producer born into a winemaking family, is earthy, floral and a touch tart, yet lively and refreshing. Try it lightly chilled. (Schatzi Wines, Milan, New York)

Roterfaden Landwein Lemberger Trocken 2017 $29.99

Germany and Austria may share a language, but they divide on what to call one particular grape. In general, Austria uses blaufränkisch, which if not familiar in the United States has at least become known. Germany generally opts for the more obscure lemberger. Either way, if farmed with care and vinified with a light touch, it makes a lovely wine. Roterfaden, in the northern part of the Württemberg appellation, near Stuttgart, makes small amounts of wine, essentially by hand. This one is bursting with fresh cherry flavors that keep you returning to the glass. (Vom Boden)

Schäfer-Fröhlich Nahe Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir Trocken 2019 $31

This is white wine made of pinot noir. How do you make white wine from a red grape, a blanc de noir? The color-causing pigments are contained in the skins. You make red wine by allowing the juice to macerate for days with the skin. If you cut the maceration short after a little while, you’ve got rosé. No maceration, and the wine is white. That’s how Champagne is made when using the red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier. This wine has the faint whiff and flavor of flowers and red berries, yet it has the texture of a white wine. It’s vivacious and refreshing. Schäfer-Fröhlich, by the way, is one of the Nahe region’s foremost riesling producers. (The German Wine Collection, Carlsbad, California)

Dr. Heger Baden Ihringer Winklerberg Spätburgunder 2014 $34.99

This bottle offers a chance to try a spätburgunder with a little bit of age, from the 2014 vintage. I found it earthy and floral, and just beginning to display some of the forest underbrush flavors associated with Burgundies reaching maturity. It’s nuanced, balanced and delicious. This wine is made from a small plot of vines on a steep, terraced portion of Winklerberg, one of the historic vineyards in the Baden region. (Schatzi Wines)

Enderle & Moll Baden Pinot Noir Liaison 2018 $36.99

In a sense, Sven Enderle and Florian Moll helped put Baden pinot noir on the map. No, they weren’t the first producers to make pinot noir there, but they were among the first to capture the attention of the English-speaking world. This wine couldn’t be more different from other pinot noirs in this roundup. It’s bigger, fuller, riper and richer. Yet it’s still juicy, focused and complex. (Vom Boden)

Stefan Vetter Rosenrain Sylvaner 2016 $79.95

This wine is not for the faint of heart. The pale amber color and a faint whiff of caramel at first suggest that the wine might be oxidized. But it’s absolutely not. The stony, saline flavor is gorgeously savory, and the wine has a tightly coiled core worthy of an excellent young white Burgundy. The producer, Stefan Vetter, who uses the alternate spelling “sylvaner” on his labels, is devoted to small plots of old silvaner vines in the Franken region, often rehabilitating the vineyards himself. Rosenrain is one such place, where old vines are planted on a mixture of limestone and red sandstone soils. Sure, it’s expensive. But it’s silvaner like few others. (Vom Boden)

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