What Does “Natural” Mean for German Wine?

Meet the German naturalist producers making classic styles of riesling—plus orange wine, pét-nat and more.

France may be the birthplace and cultural epicenter of the natural wine movement, but its neighbor to the east is drawing attention for the rapid acceleration of organic and biodynamic farming and a low-intervention approach in the cellar. To those who have been following Germany’s trajectory over the past few decades, this attention seems long overdue.

Among the world’s most environmentally conscious nations, Germany boasts a long history of organic farming. Today, the percentage of Germany’s vineyard area dedicated to organic farming is virtually identical to that of France, at 8 and 8.7 percent respectively, and the country’s 13 wine-growing regions possess the third highest number of Demeter-certified biodynamic wine estates in the world.

What’s more, Germany may also lay claim to one of the first natural wine groups. On November 26, 1910, almost a century before the term “natural wine” would gain currency, four regional German wine-grower’s associations united to form the Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer, a group of estates who sold their “natural wines” at auction. To be fair, the term “natural” meant something slightly different back then—essentially, a guarantee against chaptalization (i.e., adding sugar during the fermentation process to achieve higher alcohol content). But it only goes to show Germany’s longstanding obsession with authenticity and purity of expression.

By all accounts, it’s high time that we recognize Germany as a prime destination for natural wine. If it’s still a bit unexpected to think of the nation in this context, that’s largely due to a lingering misconception dating back to the decades after World War II—a period during which German wine came to be defined by a residually sweet style, which proved especially popular in the British and American markets. To this day, it’s responsible for the myth that all German wine is sweet.

This particular style of riesling was made possible by several post-war innovations in cellar technology. That included not only temperature-controlled fermentation, but more critically, the use of sulfur as a stabilizing agent to prevent the sugars left in the wine from re-fermenting. So as much as sommeliers and industry insiders continue to champion classic off-dry or “fruity” “Kabinett” and “Spätlese” bottlings, some might consider the style more “technological” in nature—the vinous equivalent of Germany’s world-famous reputation for precision engineering.

That shouldn’t suggest, however, that natural wine is somehow foreign to Germany. To the contrary, as Germany’s excellent dry winemaking traditions make clear, the country has proven extremely well-suited to a more “lo-fi” approach. In fact, with its signature cool-climate acidity and naturally low pH levels, German wine enjoys a distinct advantage over many dry whites from warmer climates, which sometimes lack the compounds necessary to preserve freshness and prevent oxidation.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a vibrant natural wine scene is currently thriving in Germany—even if that term is somewhat difficult to define.

As always, the question comes down to a question of degrees. And just like their counterparts in France and Italy, Germany is home to a range of different interpretations of “natural.” Some wineries that American drinkers might place firmly in the “natural” camp—for instance, the Pfalz region’s Koehler-Ruprecht, whose U.S. importer is none other than natural legend Louis/Dressner—actually hesitate to identify as such. “It’s so funny that in Germany we’re not really recognized as ‘natural,’ whereas internationally, we are definitely seen that way,” explains Koehler-Ruprecht winemaker Dominik Sona.

Sona draws a distinction between (in his words) “traditional” natural wineries, such as Koehler-Ruprecht—which work organically or biodynamically in the vineyard and keep intervention to an absolute minimum—and a small but vocal new wave that has been influenced by a more radical definition of natural wine. Bottling without sulfur and incorporating popular naturalist techniques, like extended skin contact, these producers choose to express their terroirs through a more experimental paradigm.

“Of course, the wines oxidate,” says Thorsten Melsheimer of the Mosel’s Weingut Melsheimer, one of the first German winemakers to experiment with unsulfured riesling. “That is part of the game. We are not looking for the same result we get when we use sulfites; I often describe [my wines] in terms of the aromas people know from Madeira or old Champagne.”

In addition to his skin-fermented “ORANGE” bottling, Melsheimer also produces a pét-nat, which, given its textbook cloudiness and funk, is aptly named “RURALE.” Both conceptually and aesthetically, wines like these—along with examples from similarly minded peers such as the Mosel’s Rita and Rudolf Trossen or Franken’s Stefan Vetter and 2Naturkinder—might surprise certain drinkers. But they represent the work of an important cohort of organic and biodynamic growers across Germany who are experimenting with an increasingly low-intervention approach. That group also includes brothers Daniel and Jonas Brand of the Plafz’s Weingut Brand, who not only produce a thrilling unsulfured pinot noir, but have attracted attention for their pair of pét-nat bottlings. According to their U.S. importer, Vom Boden, these two wines represent a uniquely German contribution to the genre: “It’s like those you already know and love from France, but racier, leaner and more bracing.”

No matter where on the “natural” spectrum they might land, this movement’s top wines continue to attract a captive audience—both in places like jaja and Nobelhart & Schmutzig, staples of Berlin’s blossoming natural wine scene, and in export markets like New York and San Francisco.

“I am very excited and happy to see the low-intervention and natural wine movements becoming more and more important in Germany, and represented by very serious and committed producers who are making world-class wines,” says Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier of Racines NY, one of Manhattan’s leading natural wine destinations, where she has featured many top producers. “We have worked with [the Mosel’s] Weiser-Künstler and Daniel Vollenweider for our by-the-glass pours, but also the Brand brothers and [the Baden region’s] Enderle & Moll, and I know I will continue working with Trossen in the future as well. Germany is a country that I consider superb for high-acid, nuanced wines with compelling vegetal or herbal hints, so these examples are great for pairing with veggies or umami-based dishes.”

It’s particularly meaningful, however, for wine professionals working within Germany today to be able to pour more and more natural German wines for their increasingly curious clientele.

According to Berlin-based sommelier Jan Hugel, for instance, it’s here, in the city’s bustling natural wine bars, that Germany’s new wave of “naturalists” is securing its long overdue place in the wider natural wine canon.

“We carry natural wines from all over the world, but I make sure that we always have German stuff on the list, because I want people to know it exists,” Hugel says. “It just makes sense to pour German natural wine in Germany.”