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Get to Know Spätburgunder, a.k.a. German Pinot Noir

“German Pinot Noir is one of the most under-appreciated wine categories,” says Jenna Fields, the president of the German Wine Collection, a California-based importer.

Indeed, because the grape is often overshadowed by Riesling, people don’t realize that Germany is the third largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world, only trailing behind France and the U.S. Cultivation within Germany purportedly goes back about 1,100 years. Today, plantings account for about 11% of Germany’s total vineyard area, or about 12,000 hectares (almost 30,000 acres)—making it the most widely planted red grape in the country.

The German word for Pinot Noir is Spätburgunder, translating to “late” (spät), referring to the grape’s later ripening when compared to other Pinot clones, and Burgundy (Burgunder), the antiquated term for Pinot Noir. There are, in fact, many Pinot Noir clones grown within the country, with German clones developed at Geisenheim and Freiburg research institutes taking center stage in the country’s wine grape growing regions. The general consensus is German clones display more fruit and acidity and fewer tannins—but in my experience, this is highly dependent on the grower.

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There are also Burgundian clones, and some producers adamantly only use them for new plantings. “In an ideal world, I would use whole clusters for all my wines, but we have a problem with the [German] clones because the ratio of stems is larger than grapes,” says Alex Götze, co-owner of Wasenhaus winery in Baden. “This is why everything we plant new is sélection massale from France.”

All 13 German winemaking regions grow Spätburgunder, with each expressing unique characteristics. Important to note is that in Ahr there are many local varieties, as well as a unique mutation of the grape called Frühburgunder (early ripening Pinot Noir). Within this northerly region, a slate valley influenced by the warmth of its namesake river, brings a lot of warmth, creating a lusher, firmer structured style. The clonal selection also draws out a leathery quality to the wines. Keep an eye on producers like Meyer-Näkel, Jean Stodden and Deutzerhof for prime examples.

German pinot noir bottles
Photography by Tom Arena

Nahe boasts similar characteristics but is very diverse geologically speaking, with pockets of slate, sand, gravel and the valley rich in loam and clay. Although Spätburgunder lies in the shadow of Riesling here, Piri Naturel, run by the charismatic Christine Pieroth, is one producer whose Pinot Noir you shouldn’t sleep on. She makes an example from grapes grown on blueschist, which theoretically should have a similar effect on the wine as the soils of Ahr. But her Spätburgunder has a graceful structure. “Every year, I do more carbonic [maceration] because I like the results,” she explains. This process softens the tannins and gives more of a fruit appeal to the wine.

For those looking for more of that silkier mouthfeel with a fruit-focused profile, exam- ples from limestone, particularly wines from parts of Baden, are always a good option. Bernhard Huber is a classic example and a Spätburgunder pioneer whose Wildenstein GG boasts red shell-limestone soils.

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On the other hand, the aforementioned Wasenhaus wines also produce great examples from limestone, and so does new-to-the-area winery Makalié, which practices low-intervention winemaking. Both wineries also have vineyards in the volcanic soils of the Kaiserstuhl, which results in wines with a rustic edge but become more finessed after a few years of aging. This locale is also home to Salwey and Franz Keller wineries, whose Spätburgunders have drastically improved in quality over the last decade.

Putting the region of Württemberg on the map is Rainer Schnaitmann, whose Spätburgunder Fellbacher Lämmler GG comes from 50-year-old vines grown in gypsum soils near the city of Stuttgart.

Finally, the sandstone and gypsum soils of Franken give more savory and herbal notes respectively. The best representa- tive here is winery Rudolf Fürst, where third-generation vintner Sebastian Fürst brings his experience of Pinot Noir wine- making in Burgundy, training at renowned wineries Simon Bize & Fils and Domaine de l’Arlot.

Different vintages, too, provide diversity of style. Hitting the market currently are examples from the 2021 vintage, which reflect cooler growing condi- tions with a thread of vibrant acidity. “This is my favorite Pinot Noir vintage,” Pieroth says.

The 2020 vintage, hotter and drier, offers fruitier Pinots with more alcohol, while the 2019 vintage offers the best of both worlds. Hence, the individuality of Spätburgunder is unprecedented. And, when compared to the prices in Burgundy, it is fair to say that they offer a substantial bargain in terms of price- to-quality.

German Spätburgunder to Try

Franz Keller 2019 Eichberg Oberrotweil Pinot Noir

A classic expression of Pinot Noir, with the juicy cherry flavor that is beautifully expressed against velvety texture, vibrant structure and dense harmony of tannins. Mineral and spice accents add depth and charm, before the acidity comes in a second wave and leaves a mouthwatering impression on the finish. Drink now through 2035. 95 PointsAleks Zecevic

$76 Mr. D

Friedrich Becker 2017 Heydenreich Pinot Noir (Pfalz)

This combines elegance and muscle, showing density and vibrancy. Pure cherry, raspberry and earthy minerality form an intense mix on the palate. Its tannins and acidity form a firm, well-integrated structure that will give this a long lifespan. The long finish is marked by spice and herb, inviting you to explore more. 94 PointsA.Z.

$315 Thatcher’s Wine

Piri Naturel 2021 Pinot Noir (Nahe)

Stunning showing of Pinot Noir, this is vivacious, yet deep and complex. Velvety in texture, with ripe tannins and bright acidity creating a vivid structure, to support vibrant fruit flavors. It feels incredibly open and free, yet with enough muscle to hold this momentum for years to come. Drink now through 2032. 94 PointsA.Z.

$ Varies Wine-Searcher

Huber 2018 Pinot Noir Alte Reben

This is medium-bodied, displaying great harmony and depth. It is silky and vibrant, brimming with cassis and black cherry that are in perfect harmony with bright acidity and palate-coating tannins. Refined on the finish, with stylish spice notes. Best after 2025. 94 PointsA.Z.

$ Varies Wine-Searcher

Meyer-näkel 2021 Blue Slate Pinot Noir (Ahr)

A bright, succulent style, this Pinot is filled with black cherry, black currant, pepper and loam aromas and flavors. It has vibrant acidity that cuts through the medium body, bringing elegance and vibrance. The tannins are beautifully integrated and emerge only on the finish, but with time, they will melt into the wine. Best after 2025.94 PointsA.Z.


This article originally appeared in the April 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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