Ever since its 19th century golden age, when wines from the historic vineyards of the Mosel and the Rhine regularly graced royal tables, fetching higher prices than Champagne and Bordeaux, Germany’s reputation as a wine-producing nation has been synonymous with the greatness of a single grape.
That grape, of course, is riesling. And thanks to a new generation of industry leaders, who have spent the past decade tirelessly preaching its gospel, German riesling has finally shed the misconceptions that once dogged it (namely, that it’s categorically sweet), inspiring an almost religious reverence among its devotees as one of the world’s most hauntingly complex and terroir-expressive wines.
One consequence of this “cult of riesling,” however, is that, for many, the grape has come to stand for German wine as a whole. Given its prominent place on wine lists and retail shelves, it would be easy to believe that Germany produced nothing else—but the truth is that riesling accounts for just 22 percent of Germany’s total vineyard area. While that still makes it the country’s most widely planted variety, it goes to show how much more Germany has to offer.
Fortunately, there has never been a better time to look beyond the riesling paradigm. From distinctive offerings such as scheurebe and silvaner to members of the “pinot” family like spätburgunder and grauburgunder (pinot noir and pinot gris, respectively), Germany is home to a magnificently diverse range of varieties, white and red alike, each worthy of exploration. Once viewed as a touch rustic or simple, these so-called “other” German grapes have been transformed of late by a new wave of winemaking talent—and the industry is finally taking notice.
“The skill of German winemakers is not limited to riesling,” explains German wine expert and importer Lyle Fass, who has long championed the nation’s lesser known varieties. “There are many world-class examples of other grapes in Germany that can compete with Grand Cru white burgundy or top Hermitage blanc.”
That might sound like high praise. But throughout its history, Germany has repeatedly proven its capacity for greatness. So why shouldn’t that track record extend to several grapes, rather than just one?
For now, these diverse expressions remain under the radar, but they won’t stay that way for long. Far from obscurities or B-list alternatives, they introduce a far more expansive paradigm for German wine, encompassing a kaleidoscopic spectrum of different textures and flavors, from crisp and refreshing to rich, full-bodied and powerful.
THE ESSENTIAL GRAPES TO KNOW
Spätburgunder: Germany has recently emerged as a source for exceptional reds, thanks in part to rising temperatures in the historically cool-climate regions. Enter spätburgunder, aka pinot noir; the renaissance this classic grape has experienced across the country (particularly in the traditional strongholds of Baden and the Ahr, with rising plantings in the Pfalz, Rheinhessen and Württemberg) signals one of Germany’s great modern success stories. Revered for their cool-climate elegance, vibrancy and finesse, many have outscored top red Burgundies in blind tastings, fueling a wave of global attention that shows no sign of abating. See: Hofgut Falkenstein (Mosel), Enderle & Moll (Baden), Fürst (Franken), Gutzler (Rheinhessen), Bernhard Huber (Baden), Künstler (Rheingau), Holger Koch (Baden), Andreas Durst (Pfalz)
Weissburgunder: Over the past decade or so, the “pinot varieties,” as they’re commonly called, have enjoyed a new wave of attention in Germany. Weissburgunder (more popularly known as pinot blanc) has proven remarkably well-adapted to German soil, produced in both a bright, fresh, apple-y style fermented in stainless steel and a creamier, more complex version, aged in oak in the manner of Burgundy. Currently the world’s leading producer of pinot blanc, Germany produces 30 percent of the global production. See: Koehler-Ruprecht (Pfalz), Bassermann-Jordan (Pfalz), Dönnhoff (Nahe), Van Volxem (Mosel), Von Winning (Pfalz), Freidrich Becker (Pfalz)
Grauburgunder: The intensely perfumed, pink-skinned pinot gris known as grauburgunder thrives in the Pfalz and Baden regions, where it assumes a leaner, racier and lower-alcohol profile than it exhibits across the Rhine in Alsace, making it a traditional partner with spring asparagus. With its classic notes of walnuts and mango, it’s also a perfect foil for seafood, pasta and soft ripe cheeses. Just don’t mistake it for bland pinot grigio. See: Bassermann-Jordan (Pfalz), Franz Keller (Baden), Wittmann (Rheinhessen)
Silvaner: In the vineyards of Franken, a small region in the north west of Bavaria, it’s silvaner, not riesling, that is cast in the starring role. Its key quality is its remarkable transparency—the ability to sublimate its own varietal character and transmit the nuances of the soil. The best silvaner is cultivated on south-facing slopes around Würzburg and presents a richness on the palate and often an earthy quality. Marked by pear and apple notes, with a notable minerality when young, the top single-vineyard examples are rich, age-worthy, tightly-coiled wines that turn a waxy gold with time in the cellar. See: Hans Wirsching (Franken), Horst Sauer (Franken), Winzer Sommerach (Franken), Schmitt’s Kinder (Franken), Keller (Rheinhessen)
Müller-Thurgau: Formerly dismissed as Germany’s basic “workhorse” grape, Müller-Thurgau was the most planted grape in Germany in the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s until a riesling resurgence took hold shortly before 2000. With a mild acidity, the varietal is capable of producing delightfully fresh everyday drinking wines and, as today’s modernized versions make clear, more powerful, structured versions, notable for their pronounced herbal character, floral aromas and succulent core of yellow fruit (think quince and plum). See: Schlossmühlenhof (Rheinhessen), Winzerhof Stahl (Franken), Fritz Müller (Rheinhessen), Enderle & Moll (Baden)
Scheurebe: Once described by wine importer Terry Theise as “riesling’s evil horny twin” for its undeniably hedonistic appeal, the highly aromatic scheurebe is capable of assuming the same multitude of guises as riesling, from bone-dry “trocken” wines to lusciously sweet late harvest expressions. If riesling is the most Apollonian of white grapes, scheurebe is its Dionysian counterpart, falling within a riper, more wildly tropical register, with flavors of lychee, tangerine, black currant and cardamom. See: Geil (Rheinhessen), Kruger-Rumpf (Nahe), Theo Minges (Pfalz), Pfeffingen (Pfalz), Brüder Dr. Becker (Rheinhessen)
Dornfelder: The prolific dornfelder is distinguished by its thick grape skin, making it far less finicky than Germany’s other prominent red grape—the delicate spätburgunder. It is known for yielding plush, velvety, dark-hued reds that sometimes absorb a bit of vanilla and spice from barrel aging. See: Schlossmühlenhof (Rheinhessen), von Buhl (Pfalz)