A number of winemakers trained at Germany's famous Geisenheim Institute, bringing their skills back to South Africa with them.More recently, South Africa has been the place for German winemakers to gain experience of a hot southern harvest. Kim Maxwell visited Germany recently, finding more to the wine scene than simply Riesling, the Mosel and the Rheingau.
Also, she explored further afield and found some innovative producers with links – however tenuous – to South Africa.Historically, South Africa's vinous traditions have a lot to do with Germany's, although many would deem this a negative factor considering that our respective climatic conditions, soils and best-suited varieties are very different. Some experienced South African winemakers have spent academic time at Geisenheim, cutting their teeth on Riesling and Sylvaner production.
Many still retain strong ties with the German wine community today. Among them are Danie de Wet of De Wetshof, Nicky Krone of Twee Jonge Gezellen, Braam van Velden of Overgaauw and Stephen de Wet of Excelsior.
Interestingly, the tables have now turned and some German producers have sought South Africa out as a place to gain unique winemaking perspectives and skills. The producers mentioned below all have ties to this country, so they'll be happy to host wine-inclined visitors who make appointments. Reflecting the changing face of German wine, these modern producers are expanding their regional and stylistic diversity, and either honing traditions or taking a contemporary approach with their wines.
To follow is a geographic meander through five of the 13 Qualitätswein regions, which can be hurried over a week, or visited more leisurely over two. Fly into Düsseldorf to jumpstart a two-hour drive south to the tiny Ahr, and then follow the dramatic loops of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer where Riesling reigns. The Rheingau and Rheinhessen continue along the banks of the Rhine. The landscape then twists and turns through the Pfalz until it hugs Germany's border with Alsace.
If you think Germany is only about white wine, a visit to the northerly Ahr region is a must. Dating back to the 8th Century, no more than 600 hectares is under vine, yet red varieties dominate 85% of plantings, and Germany's most widely planted red, Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), takes precedence. The 35 private producers are spread along steep slate cliffs or hilly valleys along the banks of the Ahr river.
Werner Näkel of Weingut Mayer-Näkel in Dernau, is one of Germany's top Pinot producers. Yet he's been a regular visitor to Stellenbosch since the 1995 vintage when he started producing Zwalu, a wine with a bushman name for 'new beginnings'. Around 20 000 bottles of this premium South African Cabernet/Merlot blend are produced in partnership with Neil Ellis, and they sell well in Germany.
Näkel may utilise what Stellenbosch offers in the form of less capricious red varieties, but he feels the Ahr's geography is particularly suited to Pinot Noir production. "The Ahr is a northerly region, but our micro-climate is very specific. We can't plant on top of hills because it's too cold. This cool climate of the Ahr is good for Pinot, but it's warm enough for ripeness too. There's no other region in the world where Pinot is on slate with volcanic soil. Most are on lime or chalk," he says.
Näkel's low-yielding Ahr Pinot Noir is in high demand, a recent vintage of flagship Meyer-Näkel S, QbA Trocken, fetching DM160 (R800) per bottle on auction. The 2000 (DM48, R240 ex-cellar) offers spicy, musky aromas and sour plum flavours. The rarer vineyard-selection Walporzheimer Kraüterberg, QbA Trocken 1999 version, shows black cherry, chocolate, and perhaps unappealing greenness. Nevertheless buyers keep queuing (this also sells only on auction), as practically all Meyer-Näkel 2000 Pinot Noir is pre-sold before release. Pinotphiles should try Meyer-Näkel's Frühburgunder, QbA Trocken. Aside from being cheaper, this Pinot Noir mutation produces a lighter, more feminine wine.
The zigzagging, river-hugging roads of the hilly Mosel-Saar-Ruwer are as synonymous with German wine as BMWs are with autobahns. Weingut Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt is situated at the Trier end, and boasting 650 years of history and a 14 000 – 20 000 case production; it's one of the Mosel's older and larger producers. Annegret and Gerhard Reh-Gartner are no strangers to South Africa. She's well-known, having participated in the Michael Fridjhon WINE Experience and the SAA winelist selections in 2000. The couple took over the running of Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt in 1978. At considerable expense, they streamlined their slate vineyards (reducing their 55 hectares to 42 of only prime sites) and converted the majestic Schlossgut Marienlay castle into a stainless steel-enhanced cellar where only Riesling is produced. "We now have the most important vineyards in the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer. We can buy in extra grapes cheaper than if we own them, and it prevents having excess wine that we can't sell," Reh-Gartner clarifies.
Von Kesselstatt's Rieslings are produced in a steel gravity-flow system, an arrangement she says is designed "to add air gently, a little like decanting". They recently switched to using native yeasts during fermentation, a move aimed at enhancing site-specific character – a current German trend. Their Riesling Spätlese 1999 from the Saar's Scharzhofberger vineyard offers grapefruit with soft nectar flavours, while 1993 shows stronger pebbles interwoven with honey (both wines are available in SA). Josephshöfer 2000 Kabinett Trocken (sourced from five hectares in the Mosel), shows sweeter spices, mineral leanness and peardrops. "Because a Kabinett is free of botrytis, it shows the slate soil terroir effectively," notes Reh-Gartner. A tasting of about 10 other variations, some sweeter, some older, or from differing areas, shows purity, transparency and lightness on all, despite bottle age.
The Rheingau is the legendary 36km Rhine riverside stretch known for Geisenheim's viticultural institutes, Riesling and Schloss Johannisberg (with its vineyard on the 50th parallel). Rüdesheim village fades from view as Petra Ehrhard directs an old Mercedes up a bumpy, precariously narrow road. She cheerily insists on drinking Sekt above their vines set at 45° angles. A dramatic view unfolds of the Rhine meeting the Nahe river, interlocking the Nahe, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Mittelrhein regions. Like other growers', Weingut Carl Ehrhard's seven hectares of Riesling and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is planted on these south-facing slate and quartz banks, where slopes, river and heat form a unique microclimate. The cellar gives away the age (150 years) of this family-run winery, but Carl and Petra have given its image a contemporary facelift since taking over in 1998.
The Ehrhard's based themselves in Devon Valley for a year in 1995. A German investor commissioned Carl to investigate opportunities in South Africa and other New World regions, and although no projects resulted, the Ehrhard's loved the country and made some good friends. Appropriately, they have consolidated their global experiences on their wine label, which bears a compass design. As much of their wine is made for the German domestic market – which demands drier rather than dessert styles – the Ehrhard's produce only Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese styles of Riesling. The other 10% of their production results in a palatable Pinot Noir.
Bright orange, green and blue denotes styles on their easy-to-read labels. The entry level orange-label Rüdesheimer Riesling QbA Trocken 2000 offers dry, spritzy freshness with pineapple elements. The green-label denotes Spätlese; the Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck vineyard in a Riesling Spätlese Trocken 2000 shows sweet, crisp pineapple, mineral and peardrops. Another green-label 2000 is Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland Spätlese Trocken. With stronger mineral element, it reveals Riesling's diverse – yet related – flavours emanating from various sites, but the styles are all modern and fresh.
Next up is the Rheinhessen region – Weingut Keller in Flörsheim-Dalsheim. It's a village near Worms in the southeast, after the Rhine meanders south at Mainz. This may be the mass-production Liebfraumilch region, but small producers like Weingut Keller are pushing the quality end. Klaus-Peter Keller, 27, has a soft spot for South Africa after spending time at his uncle Achim von Arnim's Cabrière Estate in 1992. He doesn't have his uncle's flamboyance, but they share a passion for Pinot Noir. After spending time in Burgundy, Keller has adopted some canopy management, suckering techniques and yield reductions (as low as 25hl/ha) learnt there. Introducing small new oak barriques is another Burgundian spin-off. It obviously helped, as the winery's flagship Spätburgunder Felix took third place after Burgundian Premier and Grand Crus in a 1997 competition. The Spätburgunder Felix Reserve 1998 offers gorgeous blackcurrant and prune concentration and ripe, mouthfilling structure. Small parcels of 25-year-old vines are whole-bunch fermented, the cap is plunged, and only natural yeasts are used for this wine.
The winery also produces sublime Rieslings. In fact dad, Klaus, put Rheinhessen Riesling on the map. It's probably why their flagship Riesling fetches a steep DM125 (R630).
The Pfalz may be one of the largest producing regions, offering traditional varieties like Müller-Thurgau and Sylvaner, and showing its neighbour Alsace's stylistic influence in Pinot Gris and Riesling. Yet it's increasingly known for innovation, where experimental winemaking and warmer temperatures sees even Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon creeping in. Stefan Dorst is adding flair at Weingut Friedrich Becker in Schweigen-Rechtenbach, near Landau. South Africans may know him as the winemaker at Laibach in Stellenbosch.
The narrow Pfalz undulates from the edge of the Rheinhessen near Worms in the north, and at this southern tip, only a few kilometres separate Weingut Becker's 15 hectares from the Alsace village of Wissenberg. Weingut Becker is a 100 000-bottle production family-owned cellar. They joined forces with four small producers touting similar philosophies 10 years ago, and all now consolidate marketing efforts as 'The Five Friends'. Pinot Noir may comprise less than 5% of Pfalz production, but Dorst's extensive Spätburgunder tasting reveals some fine wines. 'The Friends' are united in producing only dry wines without süssreserve additions, and in keeping yields low with a viticulturally-driven approach. Although new oak barriques were introduced during the 1980s, German control boards were suspicious of new oak then, barring those wines from being classified as Spätlese. "We had to write 'Tafelwein' on the Frederich Becker label, which is the lowest wine category in Germany. The law changed and it's now allowed, but we continue to use 'Tafelwein' as they're our best wines," explains Dorst laughingly.
The Five Friends' joint Spätburgunder blend, V Amici, is sourced from each producer's best barrel. 1997 was the first collective vintage; the wine shows blackcurrants, prune, and soft tannins. At 13,5% natural alcohol and with oak evident, it doesn't seem typically German. Dorst is no stranger to international styles, consulting to a tiny Spanish boutique winery, and making regular visits to Laibach.
Perhaps he is representative of the modern, young German wine producer – some are improving on traditional techniques, others drawing on their experience in different locales, or experimenting with techniques and varieties. If so, Germany's wine future seems exciting.
KEY TO GERMAN WINE
Süssreserve – sterilised grape juice used as a sweetening agent and to correct the balance in a wine.
Chaptalization – where alcohol strength is increased by adding sugar, before or during fermentation.
Tafelwein – generally the lowest grade of German wine. If 75% of grapes come from one Tafelwein region or sub-region, it may be indicated on the label.
Trocken – dry still wine; maximum of 4g per litre residual sugar.
QbA – Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete is wine from one of 13 regions. They may be chaptalized to increase alcohol, and sweetened with süssreserve. Styles tend to be more commercial, although many top producers also make QbA wines.
QmP – Qualitätswein mit Prädikat wines are usually a quality indication as these are 'predicated by ripeness' of the grapes. The styles – from Kabinett to Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeernauslese – are determined by the must weight of grapes as they increase in ripeness. QmP wines may not be chaptalized, but süssreserve may be added if sweeter styles are desired.
German wine importers in South Africa:Vinimark Trading, Stellenbosch. Tel 021-883-8043; Reciprocal Wine Trading, Germiston. Tel 011-455-4920; A&F Vintners, Durban. Tel 031-312-1688.