A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See tasting notes in A British assault on fine German Pinots.
'I'm a refugee', declared a particularly well-dressed attendee at a wine tasting in London last month, adding as he swirled a glassful of crimson liquid, 'and like all refugees I'm traumatised. Is this the same as burgundy, I wonder?'
He may have a somewhat insensitive way of describing his flight from increasingly expensive red burgundy, but this wine enthusiast is not alone in feeling alienated, And he is no cheapskate. The last time we met had been at a dinner at which he had provided a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1971 Romanée-St-Vivant. But, like so many wine lovers devoted to France's infinite variations on the theme of Pinot Noir, recent Côte d'Or price rises have stuck in his throat and here he was at an event designed to showcase answers to red burgundy from … Germany.
Two of Britain's more active importers of German wines, ABS and Howard Ripley, the latter also a long-standing importer of top-quality burgundy, had got together to show the current Pinot Noir offerings of 11 German wine producers, including some of the country's most admired such as Jean Stodden of the Ahr Valley and Fürst of Franken. Sebastian Thomas, who runs Howard Ripley, explained that he had been seeing a steady increase in interest in German Pinot Noir so thought it would be a good idea to hold a tasting devoted to it. He invited ABS to co-host the event as another prime UK importer of the style. A good 60% of the 100 tasters sniffing away under the high Robert Adam ceilings of Chandos House were private customers.
Another of them chimed in round the spittoon that was then hogged by me and the 'refugee' to remind us of another UK wine importer's attempt to provide better-value alternatives to red burgundy. AB Vintners, also a long-standing UK burgundy-importing specialist, now regularly goes fishing for affordable Pinot Noir in Oregon, America's prime territory for the grape. John Arnold of AB Vintners sees Oregon as 'an option for clients who want to drink delicious, high-quality Pinot (and Chardonnay or Riesling) in the £20–£60 bracket, without the faff of Burgundy, including all that allocation malarkey. If punters want 24 bottles of a top Oregon cuvée, they can buy it. And people can drink these Pinots with joy, without worrying about secondary market values, or whether they'll ever be able to replace the wine.'
Not just for financial reasons but out of genuine interest, I have been following the evolution of German Pinot Noir keenly, and was thrilled by the quality on show at the recent ABS/Ripley tasting. The over-oaked, over-extracted, overripe phase is well and truly behind most Pinot practitioners in Germany. And there could be no more delicious proof of climate change than the Pinots of Carl von Schubert at the famous old monastic site of Maximin Grünhaus in the Ruwer tributary of the Mosel in northern Germany, once considered far too cool to ripen Pinot.
Here Carl von Schubert was inspired by mistaking a German Pinot Noir, called Spätburgunder in German, for a Chambolle-Musigny when served it blind. He accordingly planted almost a hectare of his most revered vineyard the Abstberg with a mix of French and German clones of Pinot in 2006 and is now making commercial quantities of a particularly fine single-vineyard wine, whose name changed from Spätburgunder to the more Burgundian Pinot Noir with the 2015 vintage. Ripley is quoting a retail, VAT-inclusive price of £32.60 a bottle. Humble village wines from reputable addresses in Burgundy can be difficult to find at this price.
Also at about this price is the Spätburgunder 'S' of another world-famous Riesling grower, Klaus Peter Keller of the Rheinhessen. Having interned at Armand Rousseau and Hubert Lignier in Burgundy, he pursues the same perfectionism in his reds as in his whites. His top Pinot, named after his son Felix, went for €690 a bottle in the famous German wine auction last September, but the 2013 vintage of 'S', based mainly on 25-year-old vines in his famous Morstein vineyard (pictured above, with the Kellers' silver labrador Pinot), is a steal at the equivalent of £29 a bottle, including VAT. It will therefore probably have disappeared from the Howard Ripley website by the time you read this but at the time of writing the 2014 and 2015 vintages from this master winemaker were also listed, at £35 a bottle.
German wine regions with multiple producers of good Pinot Noir are Pfalz and Baden in the south east of the country, where summers can sometimes be too hot to reliably yield refreshing white wines from such light-skinned relatives of Pinot as Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc or Weissburgunder, and Pinot Gris or Grauburgunder. At the recent tasting I was particularly struck by the value offered by two producers in the Pfalz village of Schweigen-Rechtenbach, where a good proportion of their vineyards are over the French border in Alsace.
Young winemaker Johannes Jülg of the Jülg family winery interned at Domaine des Lambrays in Morey-St-Denis and also worked for Klaus Peter Keller, so one would expect him to understand the need for finesse rather than power in a Pinot. His 2012 Spätburgunder 'R' seemed great value at £20.60 a bottle while the subtly nuanced 2012 Pinot Noir, so-named to acknowledge the French clones on which it is based, may even be worth its price tag of £37.40. The 2013 Jülg Pinot Noir is also £37.40 and much more youthful but looks worth waiting for.
The neighbouring Bernhart family are offering a wide range of Pinots, mainly grown near Wissembourg in the north of Alsace, including one bargain, their basic Spätburgunder 2015 at just £12.60. Fresher and more interesting than many a New World Pinot costing more, it is nevertheless clearly a varietal rather than a terroir expression. Much more complex is their Sonnenberg Spätburgunder 'RG' 2014, which costs as much as £44.40. Burgundy purists might find it a little too rich for their tastes, but they would have to admire how well the tannins are managed.
The finest German Pinot of all in this tasting came from a long-standing source of fine Pinot – sorry, Spätburgunder. The Fürst family of Bürgstadt in Franken's Hundsrück Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs 2014 is priced at £114.25, which it probably deserves. But their regular Bürgstadter Spätburgunder 2014 is great value at £33 a bottle. German reds are arguably fresher and more refined from the 2014 vintage than those from the ripe 2015 vintage.
My favourite Baden Pinot Noir was the ebullient Hanspeter Ziereisen's fully mature Jaspis 2009 bottling, winkled out of his cellar by Sebastian Thomas and now on offer at £59 a bottle. But according to my Oregon informant, it was only £30 last Christmas. Buy German Pinot Noir now before it follows burgundy into the unaffordable stratosphere.
SOME ALTERNATIVES TO RED BURGUNDY AND GERMAN PINOT NOIR
Domaine des Muses
Ten Minutes by Tractor
Tongue in Groove
Au Bon Climat
Domaine de la Côte
Domaine Roy & Fils
Evening Land, Seven Springs
The Eyrie Vineyard