Feel the Bern: Debunking German wine clichés, part III

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

02 January 2020

How much do we know of modern German wine? In this five-part series Chris Losh visits the winemakers that are reshaping the country’s landscape, and debunks some worn-out clichés in the process


Germany is a cool-climate wine producing country

Before my inbox is bombarded by furious German winemakers, I’d first of all like to point out that OF COURSE Germany is a cool-climate wine producing country. On the Winkler Index, it comes between Marlborough and Canada’s Okanagan Valley, and not that far behind Eastbourne in Sussex. But – and here’s the kicker – it’s getting decidedly warmer.

At the time of this journalist’s visit in June, temperatures were so swelteringly high that the lead story on the TV news concerned the local zoo having to rub suncream into its tapir to prevent the hapless animal from getting sunstroke. Literally every winemaker I spoke to had examples of climate change.

Germany’s wineries are growing reds now because they can

In Baden (the warmest region) Patrick Johner of Weingut Karl H Johner told me that they are able to acidify ‘in exceptional years’, before wryly adding: ‘But every year since 2003 we have applied for an “exception”.’ Last year saw 15 days over 40°C. Clearly these changes have revolutionised the possibilities for red wine production – doubtless one of the reasons (along with the world’s great Pinot love-in) that plantings of Spätburgunder have soared. Put simply, Germany’s wineries are growing reds now because they can.

The cheapest are a good alternative to Bourgogne rouge, while the best can be breathtaking. Expensive, but justifiably so. Higher temperatures may go some way to explaining the rising popularity of Pinots Gris and Blanc as well. But how is the rising mercury affecting the elegant, acid-driven Riesling? ‘Riesling needs 100 days for ripeness,’ says Konstantin Guntrum of the eponymous winery in Rheinhessen. ‘We would much rather have 28°C than 38°C.’ All of which might make you wonder how beneficial centuries of established planting wisdom might be in the new reality.

The last tough vintage I had was 1984. If anyone’s benefited from global warming, it’s us!

Ernie Loosen

Germany’s vineyard strategy was described to me by one winemaker as being about ‘rivers and slopes’. Rivers because they reflect the light during the day, increasing solar radiation, while also gathering cool air at night – for acidity-enhancing diurnal differences. Slopes because they gather the sun’s rays more effectively. Loosen – who has some exceptional vineyards clinging to the steep slopes of the Mosel – reckons that a vineyard on a slope gets two to three times the sun exposure. In other words, plantings have been designed to make the most of what sun there is. But is this a good thing? Should we be concerned that rising temperatures will change the character of Riesling?

Loosen has no time for such conjecture. ‘My father had three good, three mediocre and four undrinkable vintages in every 10-year period,’ he says dismissively. ‘The last tough vintage I had was 1984. If anyone’s benefited from global warming, it’s us!’ To make his point, Loosen cites 1980, a vintage with 6% potential alcohol and 20g/litre of acidity. ‘I’m glad we don’t have those wines any more,’ he says with monumental understatement. ‘Those bottles are just about drinkable now, but it’s not a viable business to wait for 40 years.’

We might have one year in 10 that’s a bit too warm, but in the last 20 years we’ve not had one bad vintage. It’s a lot more stable

Helmut Dönnhoff

In the Nahe, Helmut Dönnhoff is another who’s seen it all, in a winemaking career that’s spanned almost 50 years. He believes that average temperatures are one degree higher than 30 years ago. And like Ernie Loosen, he sees it as a bonus. ‘We might have one year in 10 that’s a bit too warm,’ he says, ‘but in the last 20 years we’ve not had one bad vintage. It’s a lot more stable.’ More sun tends to equal ‘higher yields’ but neither Loosen nor Dönnhoff see that as a problem. ‘With Pinot Noir, if you have high yields, the quality goes down,’ says the latter. ‘But with Riesling you can have high yields and good quality. When the yields get too low, you get too much power.’ While climate change has been a good thing for Germany’s winemakers it has meant a more or less 180° shift in mentality – and nowhere is this more clearly seen than at Gunderloch on a hot south-east facing terrace above the Rhine.

‘This area used to be one of the few areas in Germany that could ripen grapes easily,’ says winemaker Johannes Hasselbach. ‘Now we have to put that in the bin and think again. ‘In earlier times it was about maximising energy. Now we have to work to reduce vigour and slow things down, otherwise we will be harvesting Rieslings at 14% alcohol.’ It’s something that the younger generation – some of whom have gained experience in the New World – have less of a problem with than their parents, for whom old habits can die hard. ‘I want to wait [to start the harvest],’ says Dönnhoff, ‘that’s how it was for the first half of my life. But my son Cornelius looks more to acidity than sugar level to decide when to start the harvest. Sugar we have now… that’s what’s changed.’

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