Why Swabia Is Europe’s Next Great Wine Region

The regions of Baden and Württemberg—collectively referred to as "Swabia"—have long produced wines that defy what we’ve come to connote with "German wine," in large part because they are less distinctly German than they are a hybrid of various central European wine cultures. Jon Bonné on why they may be the next big thing.

After several promising cameo appearances, a modest one-liter bottle of ruby-colored trollinger, made by a young winemaker named Andi Knauss, had its débutante moment this summer. Tangy with red fruit and flourishing an iris-like floral side, it made a strong case amid the rosé tide to be New York’s new summer wine.

The Knauss could have been just another one of those quirky bottles that enjoys its moment and fades into the rear view. But this one had staying power: Beyond the wine’s obvious likeability, there was something totemic about it. What did it say about our current drinking habits that a liter of light red wine, one shade past rosé, hailing from southern Germany, could find such favor?

Interestingly, the wine’s origin was a fact generally left out of conversations, or else simply shorthanded: “Germany.” But I noticed that Knauss’ importer, a small firm called Selection Massale, preferred a more particular term: “Swabian,” which encompasses not only wines from Knauss’ home region of Württemberg, in southern Germany, but also the wines of neighboring Baden, Germany’s premier red winemaking region.

This linguistic twist turns out to have been rather savvy. There’s a bit of complicated geography surrounding the concept of Swabia. Today, that word refers administratively to a tiny slice of Bavaria. But over the centuries, its boundaries have encompassed varying chunks of Europe. During the middle ages, the Duchy of Swabia covered not only those portions of Germany but also parts of Alsace, Switzerland and even alpine Italy. (For that reason, Selection Massale calls its Trentino producer, Marco Zani, Swabian, which is a bit of a stretch but not totally inaccurate.)

Thus, historically, this part of southern Germany has been identified as Swabia, as much a land unto itself as one sewn into the fabric of the modern German republic. As southerners have elsewhere in the world, there is a well-cultivated sense of local pride. “Swabians feel Swabian more than they feel German,” says Michael Ramscar, a partner in Selection Massale who lives in Tübingen, a scenic university town on the Neckar River, in the heart of what he defines as Swabia.

It’s for precisely that reason, that we should adopt Swabia as a term of art. Because history is on its side, yes, but more importantly because it helps to advance a belated claim to identity, not terribly different from the Catalan pride felt in southern France.

These names and geographic details may be foreign to most now, but I’ll wager this: The rest of us will be talking about Swabia soon enough. True, German wine has struggled to maintain its fan base overseas. But the region’s wines are simply too good to overlook.

In addition to Knauss, I’ve been charmed by pinot noir from Burg Ravensburg, in the Kraichgau area south of Heidelberg, poured by the glass much of this year at Gjelina in Venice, one of LA’s most visible restaurants. Pinots from the quixotic duo of Enderle & Moll, who organically farm old parcels in Baden’s Ortenau, have acquired a particular currency among tragically hip Burghounds. Jochen Beurer, a former European BMX champion who farms plots of sandstone, gypsum and marl in Württemberg, has received high-profile attention for his rieslings, which offer the concentration of flavors found in the Pfalz but with an aspect that’s more fresh and alpine than rich and spicy—a very different side of the grape than elsewhere in Germany. (Beurer also makes a sauvignon blanc reminiscent of frothy, old-school Sancerre.)

All this is particularly surprising because Baden and Württemberg have long been Germany’s great afterthoughts, almost entirely omitted from the country’s lobbying to thirsty Americans.

In fact, the wines are everything we have come to think Germany is not. For one thing, white wine frequently takes a backbeat, and despite stars like Beurer, riesling is only a bit player. Baden’s top grape is spätburgunder (pinot noir); while in Württemberg it’s red trollinger, better known as schiava in the Italian region of Alto Adige (aka Südtirol), from which it almost certainly migrated north.

As Hiram Simon of Winewise in Oakland, California, who imports seven Baden producers, puts it: “I think of Baden almost as a different country.”

For sure, it might feel like a different country if you think of Germany in terms of the Mosel’s steep, slate-filled slopes, or the languid banks of the Rheingau. On Baden’s western edge, the Kaiserstuhl hills almost literally mirror the broad slopes of Alsace just west, across the Rhein river. To the east, Baden is bounded by the great Schwarzwald, or Black Forest. This is Germany’s mild south, its banana belt, hence the appeal of those spa trips to Baden-Baden.

Württemberg, by contrast, is far colder, particularly up in the mountains—although climate change has pulled a full-throated ripeness out of what had been considered meager, acidic wines. Sandstone and limestone hills rise dramatically along the Neckar, hosting some of Germany’s highest-elevation vineyards. The marl soils often mirror those in France’s Jura — which could be considered Württemberg’s geological sibling, to the point that the mountain range east of the Black Forest is called the “Swabian Jura.”

As for the wines, they are less distinctly German than a lovely hybrid of various central European wine cultures. You will find exceptional pinot gris and pinot blanc, especially on the Kaiserstuhl. You will find splendid versions of gutedel, also known as chasselas and an important grape in Switzerland, in the Markgräflerland, precisely where Germany, France and Switzerland all collide near Basel. There is finessed, racy silvaner, a variety that manifests itself in a plumper style north in Franken. And yes, there is riesling, too, grown on limestone and sandstone and loess, rather than Mosel slate or the Nahe’s dense volcanic rock. All of these wines are fully dry, incidentally, which again diverges from that typical (and inaccurate) view of Germany.

And if it sounds like I’ve just ticked off an entire country’s worth of wine, that’s actually the point. Neither Baden nor Württemberg are minor regions, nor are they small. In sheer geographic reach, they far outstretch Germany’s other wine regions; Baden, for one, has twice as much vineyard land as the Mosel.

So why haven’t we been drinking these wines all along? It’s not that they haven’t been around; some of the best Baden and Württemberg producers have been available for years, but even the most famous have never found success on these shores. And it’s not because Baden-Württemberg (the two are fused together as one state) is a backwater. It’s Germany’s third most-populous state; the capital, Stuttgart, is Europe’s automotive capital.

Perhaps, then, the problem has been one of context. The wines tend to make more sense when you stop trying to place a German identity on them and consider them an indigenous pleasure unto themselves. Even Simon, who has sold German wine for decades, only really got to know the region’s wines because his wife, Astrid, also lives in Tübingen. (Downstairs from Ramscar, in fact. If the Swabian revolution catalyzes, we can trace it back to a single building in one university town.)

For that matter, Baden and Württemberg both have endured an inferiority complex with their wines, one that kept them in soft focus while the Mosel and Rheingau captured the attention. (Case in point: In Frank Schoonmaker’s authoritative book The Wines of Germany, he shunted both into a brief chapter on “lesser districts.”)

But Swabia is at last ready to benefit from the evolution of taste. Its wines fall suitably into today’s fashion. When in 1966, Schoonmaker compared Württemberg reds to those of Italy’s Tyrol, it was a throwaway line; today it’s a serious compliment.

It’s for precisely that reason, that we should adopt Swabia as a term of art. Because history is on its side, yes, but more importantly because it helps to advance a belated claim to identity, not terribly different from the Catalan pride felt in southern France. In fact, you can already see that pride among Württemberg’s emerging talents. It is not coincidental that Helmut Dolde also marks one of his spätburgunders as aged in Swäbische eiche (“Swabian oak”), or that Beurer cofounded a group called Junges Schwaben (“Young Swabians”).

At the same time, it’s probably a good thing that Swabian wine remains something of a work in progress. Germany’s famous regions struggle with the weight of tradition; in the Rheingau, for example, you might be stuck under the yoke of riesling (although no less a producer than Gunter Künstler is experimenting with sauvignon blanc). But why shouldn’t Beurer grow sauvignon blanc on limestone? Why shouldn’t Claus Schneider, a neighbor of Ziereisen, make exceptional pinot noir in addition to gutedel? Why not pinot gris from the Kaiserstuhl that runs laps around most Alsatian renditions?

After all, a sense of being different lies very much at the heart of Swabia’s identity over the centuries. And any of these wines, like Andi Knauss’ champion trollinger, stands to help to rewrite our notions of what German wine can be.

Seven Swabian Wines to Try

The sheer diversity of Baden and Württemberg—i.e. Swabia—can make it difficult to get a quick sense of what the regions can produce. But this selection is a good start. Also keep an eye out for Jochen Beurer’s excellent riesling, and for producers like Claus Schneider, Burg Ravensburg, Schnaitmann, Salwey and the dramatically named Winzergenossenschaft Königschaffhausen. And while Andi Knauss’ trollinger has gotten plenty of attention, look for his rieslings, both the G (“gutswein,” or a basic estate wine) and R (reserve).

2013 Ziereisen Viviser Baden Gutedel | $15 
The Ziereisens, minimalists in their cellar work, have great historical cred: their wine cellar not far from Basel, Switzerland, dates to the 8th century. This is chasselas—although it comes across like grüner veltliner channeled through Alsace—balancing plush pear-like fruit and a spicy, lentil-like quality. Importer: Savio Soares Selections [Buy]

2013 Enderle & Moll Liaison Baden Pinot Noir | $36
There’s a kinship here with that modish, über-light style of naturalist Burgundy. In fact, you might think of the Liaison as channeling Jurassic poulsard, with its conifer and spice-cookie aromas, and sharply tangy fruit flavors. Importer: Vom Boden [Buy]

2014 Heitlinger Gentle Hills Auxerrois | $20
Claus Burmeister’s winery in Östringen-Tiefenbach has become one of Baden’s best known, and its skill with this obscure grape (usually found in Alsace) is an indication of the quality here. Its sister winery, Burg Ravensburg, turns out pinot noir that dramatically outperforms, like the 2013 Baden Pinot Noir ($19). This is another aspect to the Swabian ascent: It’s the rare place you can still locate affordable, honestly made pinot. Importer: Winewise [Buy]

2013 Dr. Heger Ihringer Winklerberg Weissburgunder Erste Lage | $35
The talk with Dr. Heger is always about pinot noir, but this pinot blanc from one of the old volcanic sites on the Kaiserstuhl slopes—big and expressive, full of that rich almond-like aspect the grape can offer, and yet with a cutting acidity—is worthy of attention as well. Also look out for the more affordable 2014 Weinhaus Heger Pinot Blanc ($20). Importer: Schatzi Wines [Buy]

2014 Holger Koch Kaiserstuhl Baden Spätburgunder | $22
Koch’s work began recently, in 1999, but he has been nearly fanatical about planting with the best mass-selection vines. From an old parcel of German vine selections, this is as compelling a pinot noir as you’d find at the village level in Burgundy—precisely flavored, pure and plummy, and bringing in a quietly fierce spice on the finish. It’s only outsized by Koch’s Bickensohler Herrenstück ($26), which shows a grace and fleshiness reminiscent of the style of—wait for it—Henri Jayer. Importer: Selection Massale 

2013 Bercher Burkheimer Baden Weissburgunder | $17
The 10th generation of Berchers is still making wine in Burkheim, in the Kaiserstuhl, and this pinot blanc balances plump fruit with a dramatic white pepper spiciness. Importer: Winewise [Buy]

2014  Dolde Weisser Jura Württemberg Silvaner | $23
Helmut Dolde is proof that the old reputation of the Swabian mountains—thin, acidic wine—is no more. From one of the highest vineyards in Germany, this has the green side silvaner always should (think pine and fava beans) but a wonderful ripeness, almost a stickiness, to the fruit. Importer: Selection Massale [coming soon]