Germany’s Elegant Pinot

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in: Drinking

Readers who share the view of Miles Raymond in Alexander Payne’s 2004 road movie “Sideways” that Pinot Noir is haunting, brilliant, thrilling and subtle may want to add the words “Baden” and “Spätburgunder” to their lexicon. (They may also want to practice rhyming “Spät-” with “spate” — more accurate and more elegant than “spat.”)

Baden is Germany’s sunny southwestern corner, one half of the state of Baden-Württemberg directly across the Rhine from Alsace, with Switzerland to the south. The name “Baden” is used interchangeably with the term “Black Forest,” though the “noble woods” that Mark Twain referred to are only a part of Baden’s story. At least as important are its vineyards, planted in an almost unbroken swath in the foothills of the famous forests. Spätburgunder, literally “late Burgundy,” is the German name for Pinot Noir.

At the back end of 2011, an instructive taste-off was organized in London by wine journalist Tim Atkin MW (Master of Wine) and Hamish Anderson, sommelier and wine buyer for the Tate Museum’s restaurant group. The event pitted a selection of Pinot Noirs from around the world (Burgundy, California, Oregon, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Austria, Chile, Argentina and South Africa) against Germany’s finest. The panel was made up of wine journalists, sommeliers and Masters of Wine, including the Financial Times wine critic Jancis Robinson MW.

German Pinots Victorious

Wine casks in cellarTo anyone familiar with the new generation of German Pinot Noir, the results came as no surprise. Out of the top 10 wines in the final judgment, seven came from Germany. And two of these were from a grower in Baden, Hanspeter Ziereisen of Efringen-Kirchen. It was not only a double whammy for this young winery, but also a great advertisement for Baden Pinot Noir, which many concur now competes with the best in the world for elegance and complexity — at prices that compete favorably with Burgundy.

Ah, Burgundy. It’s the benchmark — explicit or implicit — for all aspirational growers of Baden Spätburgunder. Dijon is barely three hours to the west, putting the Côte d’Or within easy reach of Baden for exploratory visits and purchases. The two wine-growing regions are almost on the same latitude, with elements of both soil and climate in common. Baden wine makers practice yields that are on a par with those of conscientious Burgundy growers. They apply similar winemaking techniques and source many of their barriques from top Burgundy coopers. But where Burgundy has had centuries of practice with Pinot Noir, Baden’s prowess with Spätburgunder is relatively recent.

Top Baden vintner learned on the job

Take the Ziereisen family, for example. Hanspeter’s father, Hansjörg, established the farm, growing — as is typical in this southern Baden region — asparagus, potatoes, lettuces and fruit, including grapes. Until 20 years ago, they sold their grapes to the local cooperative; only in the early ’90s did Hanspeter decide to bottle his own wine. And where did he learn winemaking? “On the job!” he grins cheerfully. “I tasted a lot of wine, especially Burgundy.” From small beginnings with barely half a hectare of vines (around 1 acre), the domaine now has 16 hectares (40 acres). The style has also evolved, and the robust, highly extracted Pinots of earlier times have given way to today’s subtle, elegant, altogether more “Burgundian” renditions.

cobblestone courtyard by sue styleFritz Wassmer of Schlatt near Bad Krozingen is another winemaker whose taste buds have been schooled on fine Burgundy. (Tell-tale trophy bottles — empty — of La Tâche and Grands-Echezeaux sit on top of the fridge in his tasting room). Wassmer also runs a mixed farm (asparagus, strawberries and Christmas trees). He made the move into wine in 1998 and set about purchasing the best available vineyards in the neighborhood, many of them so steep they had been abandoned due to high labor costs. Wassmer’s ambition to make top-end wines focusing on the three Pinots (Noir, Blanc and Gris) was quickly realized. In 2011 his delicate, graceful, long-lasting Spätburgunder XXL picked up an International Trophy in the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Bernhard Huber in Malterdingen, near Freiburg, is regarded by award-winning German sommelier Jürgen Fendt (and plenty of others) as Baden’s best, with countless awards to his name and a 2002 article in Newsweek that described his silky Spätburgunder as “absolutely one of the top in the world.” He built his state-of-the-art winery in 1987. Of his seven Pinot Noirs, the lip-smacking, entry-level Spätburgunder and the Malterdinger (“comparable to a villages Burgundy”) both sell out promptly. At the top of the range are three Grosses Gewächs (Grand Cru) that hold their own against the likes of Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny. “I drink a lot of Burgundy,” admits Huber ruefully, “we’re not so far away — literally and figuratively.”

Another leading Baden producer is Jacob Duijn, a Dutch national and former sommelier who started in 2005 with less than a hectare of vines (“a hobby parcel”) around the village of Bühl, close to Baden-Baden. Over the years the holding has increased to 11 hectares and Duijn has moved from conventional agriculture to biodynamic growing. “We don’t bang on about biodynamics”, he says, “it’s our philosophy, it’s just what we do.”

He has scaled his operation down to 2.5 hectares and makes just two Spätburgunders and one rosé. All are raised in barriques, fashioned from oak from various forests in France. “I want the wood to just kiss the wine,” says Dujin.

Baden has come a long way in 20 years, and its new-wave Spätburgunders can now compete with the best in the world. In the endless quest for the Holy Grail of haunting, thrilling, subtle Pinot Noir, they’re worth watching out for.


Zester Daily contribuor Sue Style lives in Alsace, close to the border of Baden, Germany. She’s the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October, 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture.

Photos from top:

Fritz Wassmer Spätburgunder “M” bottle.

The cellar at Weingut Dujin.

The courtyard at Weingut Ziereisen.

 

Credits: Sue Style

 

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