A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also our tasting notes on 81 Spätburgunders (and 15 Lembergers) and this guide to our considerable coverage of Germany's 2015 vintage.
Which countries grow most Pinot Noir, the red burgundy grape? Not surprisingly, France wins gold in this particular championship, her total vastly boosted by the amount of Pinot Noir grown in Champagne. And thanks to the 2004 film Sideways, American demand for the grape has soared so that the US takes silver.
But the bronze medal for growing Pinot Noir nowadays goes to Germany. Just one German region, Baden in the south west, grows about as much Pinot Noir as the world’s fourth most important Pinot grower, New Zealand.
Partly thanks to increasingly warm summers, and partly because of German consumers’ increasing partiality for red wine, Germany’s total area of Pinot Noir vines almost doubled in the 20 years to 2006. This total, encompassing a great mix of different clones and varied soils, has since remained fairly stable at about a third of all German vineyards.
Such is German enthusiasm for their Spätburgunder, as Pinot Noir is known there, that we don’t see enormous quantities on export markets, but I seize every opportunity I can to taste them because it seems to me that the average quality has risen enormously over the last five to 10 years. And, while Spätburgunders from renowned producers are rarely cheap, burgundy prices are now almost ludicrously high, so alternatives to red burgundy have become increasingly attractive.
Only a handful of German producers seem to be modelling their wines on great red burgundy (with Klaus Peter Keller of Rheinhessen perhaps the most obvious and the most ambitious example), but that is not meant as a criticism. Each of the German regions with a substantial Pinot reputation has developed its own style, with many of them particularly attractive, especially for impatient drinkers.
Like so many wines, German Pinot went through a phase of being over-oaked and over-extracted, a grave error with a grape as delicate as Pinot Noir. But now more and more winemakers seem to be producing well-balanced, unforced examples that can be enjoyed younger than red burgundy even though the best of them can age rather beautifully in bottle.
At the usual Monday night garden party for tasters at the recent showing of Grosse Gewächse, the latest vintage of the top dry wines from VDP members (Germany’s elite band of wine producers), only one wine ran out. The eight allocated bottles of Bernhard Huber’s 2010 Spätburgunders were emptied at speed and sat reproachfully on the table for the rest of the evening.
Huber of Baden has been one of the most admired Pinot Noir practitioners in Germany and, after the usual dalliance with overdone alcohol, turned out vintage after vintage of refined, ageworthy examples, picking relatively early. Alas Bernhard Huber is with us no more and his son Julian, understandably, seems to be putting his stamp on recent vintages. His four Grosses Gewächs 2015s tasted at the recent launch in Wiesbaden seemed to be taking the Huber habit of high acid to what may be a dangerous extreme – but time may well prove me wrong.
The Baden style of Spätburgunder, grown in relatively hot, dry summers, can admittedly be a little sweet, so some freshness is needed to compensate.
One accomplished Baden producer of Pinot Noir, Ziereisen, is not a member of the VDP, but his excellent, well-balanced wines are imported into the UK by Howard Ripley, a specialist in burgundy and German wine, as are the Baden wines of Shelter, including a fine 2014 Spätburgunder. Also in Baden, Enderle & Moll have developed a cult following.
A more established master of German Pinot is Paul Fürst of Weingut Rudolf Fürst in Franken. In cooler years he also manages to make unusually fine examples of the early-ripening Pinot known as Frühburgunder. I found the 2015 Franken Pinots shown at the VDP Grosses Gewächs tasting to be agreeably subtle overall, and to have rather more juice and fruit than their counterparts from the Pfalz.
The 2015 growing season in Germany was unusually hot and dry so that acid levels could sometimes be dangerously low (perhaps that is what inspired the almost-tart 2015 Huber style), and too many of the Pfalz examples tasted as though they could do with a bit more juice.
I enjoyed some of the fresh-but-not-tart Spätburgunders from the slightly cooler climes of both the Rheingau and Rheinhessen, however.
The region that commands a premium for its speciality, Spätburgunder, is the Ahr, a small region well to the north with distinctive slate and basalt soils that seem to imbue some of the wines with a sort of warm graininess. If price is any indication, producers such as J J Adeneuer, Meyer-Näkel and Jean Stodden are seen as Pinot gods in Germany, but relative rarity probably plays a part too.
We don’t see many wines of any description from Württemberg around Stuttgart on export markets (although The WineBarn imports the superior wines of Aldinger into the UK and offers them at £13 to £39 a bottle). I for one would like to see more of Württemberg’s distinctive herbal, savoury Spätburgunder abroad since it is produced in fair quantity and seems to have been getting better and better.
Justerini & Brooks, the traditional British wine merchant that takes fine German wine most seriously, is offering the latest Grosse Gewächse (mostly 2015 reds and 2016 whites) en primeur. Fürst Pinots, for example, can be £260 to £410 for six bottles in bond but less expensive examples can be found by the single bottle on British shelves.
For some time M&S have offered Palataia Pinot Noir from the Pfalz made by their ex wine buyer Gerd Stepp at just over £10 a bottle. The 2015 was particularly good although they have now moved on to the 2016, from a leaner vintage. Best buy at the moment from M&S is the superior bottling Stepp S 2015 at £15 from vineyards in the Mittelhaardt, the kernel of the Pfalz.
Another keenly priced Pfalz Pinot is Villa Wolf from Dr Loosen, which retails at around £10 in the likes of Oddbins. Not the driest example, this is a wine to drink young.
The Winery in Maida Vale, a great source of modern German wine in the UK, and the independent small retail chain Lea & Sandeman, have a pair of Braunewell’s Pinots from Rheinhessen for about £14 and £17 respectively. The more expensive one is particularly fine.
The Mosel was traditionally regarded as too cool to ripen red wine grapes but this has been changing. The likes of F J Regnery are proving that even this German wine region can be Pinot territory.
FAVOURITE GROSSE GEWÄCHS PINOT NOIRS
Meyer-Näkel, Walporzheimer Kräuterberg 2015
Meyer-Näkel, Dernauer Pfarrwingert 2015
Jean Stodden, Recher Herrenberg 2015
Rudolf Fürst, Bürgstadter Centgrafenberg 2015
Rudolf Fürst, Klingenberger Schlossberg 2015
Knipser, Laumersheimer Kirschgarten 2013
Dr Wehrheim, Birkweiler Kastanienbusch Köppel 2014
Joachim Flick, Wickerer Nonnberg Fuchshol 2015
August Kesseler, Assmannshäuser Höllenberg 2015
Franz Künstler, Assmannshäuser Höllenberg 2015
Keller, Westhofener Morstein 2014
J Neus, Ingelheimer Horn 2015
Wachtstetter, Pfaffenhofener Hohenberg Glaukós 2015
Stockists on wine-searcher.com. Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com.