From red wines to ethereal sparklers and crazy low-intervention cuvées, Germany is a crucible of experimentation at the moment. Four UK sommeliers travel to Berlin to get some tips from their on-trade peers on what’s hot right now
'Berlin is one of the cheapest cities in Germany – and the most fun!’ exclaims Johannes Schellhorn, stroking his long hipster beard. And he should know. He and his business partner, Willi Schloegl, set up their airy wine bar Freundschaft, or ‘Friendship’, last year. In just a matter of months, it has become a firm fixture with the coolest of the capital’s wine lovers.
New restaurants, wine bars and pop-ups are appearing all the time and, this being Berlin, opening hours are flexible. Schloegl and Schellhorn open ‘from six o’clock until when it’s over’. This usually means three o’clock at the earliest. Modern, vibrant and exciting – it’s a mirror of the wine scene, where there is an extraordinary amount of experimentation, and reinvention is rife across the country.
Take sekt (sparkling wine), for example. There is a growing number of exceptionally good sparklers coming out of the country now – Pascal Kunert, head sommelier at Cell restaurant, calls it a revolution – and they smash existing moulds to pieces. Often, they use the ‘pinot varieties’, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
Super somm Billy Wagner of the iconic Nobelhart und Schmutzig restaurant stocks a Pinot Blanc-based brut nature that is made by adding the current (fermenting) vintage to the wine of the previous year, to create a kind of solera-system sekt. Meanwhile, Michael Koehle, the hugely well respected sommelier from Herz und Niere, stocks a magnificent natural Pinot Noir/Blanc white with two-and-a-half years on lees. It’s a wine that has our visiting UK sommeliers scrambling for superlatives.
‘It’s probably the best German sparkling I’ve ever tasted,’ says Kelvin McCabe from Adam Handling Group. ‘It has a lovely linearity, a bright attack and enough weight to stop it from being spiky.’ The revival of Pinot varieties is not limited to whites, though. The UK sommeliers were reasonably familiar with the potential that Germany has with Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder. But they were astonished to discover just how much of it there is.
The country is the third-biggest grower of the grape in the world, making twice as much as New Zealand. The wines – aided a little by global warming, but mostly by better clonal selection – are a serious and usually better-priced alternative to Burgundy. Clearly, this is a style that has enormous potential.
With Dornfelder and Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) both on the up, a third of Germany’s vineyards are red grapes. But other white varieties, like Scheurebe and, particularly, Silvaner are growing in popularity, too. The local somms we spoke to were adamant that they shouldn’t be seen as ‘secondary’ grape varieties.
‘Silvaner is probably an even better interpreter of terroir than Riesling,’ says Jürgen Hammer, head of the German Wine & Sommelier School Berlin, ‘and, like Riesling, you can make wines in a wide range of styles.’
Germany’s wine energy isn’t just about new varieties, though. There’s a lot more low-intervention winemaking going on – if not fully natural, then certainly organic and biodynamic, sometimes with amphorae, old barrels and skin contact used. As for Riesling, Wagner sees it as being currently in two camps: ‘technical’ (clean, traditional) and ‘natural’ (more experimental). Crucially, he sees a place for both and thinks, in any case, that the two strands are merging. ‘A natural wine can be elegant, and a technical wine can be expressive,’ he explains. ‘We are the reference point for Riesling wines for the rest of the world. Serve it to people blind and let them see what they think!’
Your German odyssey begins here
Kelvin McCabe, Adam Handling Group
Roterfaden, Lemberger Endschleife 2016, Württemberg
Lemberger is another word for Blaufränkisch, and this is a brilliant version – a great reflection of the grape. It’s quite Pinot-like, with silky tannins, fl oral rose-petal notes and a funky edge.
Put those elements together and you have a lot of options for food matching, such as cheese, spring lamb or smoked pigeon. You could even chill it down for goats’ cheese.
Weigand, Der Held Silvaner 2016, Franken
Silvaner is underrated, and it was interesting to see the sommeliers here getting behind it. It’s as good as Riesling at reflecting terroir, and this wine had oiliness and spiciness, but in a dry style.
That spicy, peppery touch and oily texture means it would be great for earthy vegetables, spicy food or fragrant seafood.
Romain de Courcy, Gazelle
Julian Haart, Piesporter Kabinett Riesling Goldtröpfchen 2017, Mosel
We drank this in Freundschaft, the aforementioned cool new wine bar in Berlin, and it was just perfect for the setting.
Thirst-quenching and lower abv, it’s a wine that you would drink with your friends to have fun, perhaps in the place of beer.
Von Winning, Deidesheimer Kalkofen Riesling Großes Gewächs 2013, Pfalz
This Riesling is the counterpart to the Haart Kabinett. It’s a wine that you’d want to sit down and concentrate on, to discover.
It’s aged in oak, which is unusual, but it still has great freshness as well as depth. It really shows the versatility of the grape. It can do everything!
Eddie Walton, Two Lights
Enderle & Moll, Pinot Noir Liaison 2016, Baden
This was a beautiful interpretation of Pinot Noir – certainly better than most AC Bourgogne, and at a much cheaper price point. Food-wise, you can keep it classic when pairing – it would be good with guinea fowl or mallard with a beetroot purée. Or you could just drink it on its own.
Dr Heger Ihringer Winklerberg, Spätburgunder Weißherbst Auslese 2011, Baden
This Weißherbst was probably the wine of the trip for me – it was just so completely unexpected. A wine style I had never even heard of, yet it’s an official style with lots of rules and really well considered.
A sweet, rosé Pinot Noir, it was flavourful and complex, and it would be amazing with strawberries and balsamic.
Carole Bryon, Lady of the Grapes
Joh Jos Prüm, Bernkasteler Lay Riesling Auslese Halbtrocken 1988, Mosel
Germany’s star somm Billy Wagner brought this to dinner and it was a real treat. There’s complexity linked to the age, but for a 31-year-old wine it still had real freshness – you’d never guess the age.
Although it’s sweet, you wouldn’t detect it, so serve it with fruit rather than anything too sweet.
Schmitt, Müller Thurgau Natúr 2017, Rheinhessen
I really love orange wines, and there was a freshness and florality to this version that really appealed to me. It has flavours of iced tea, peaches and flowers – there is freshness but complexity too.
I would probably drink it as an aperitif, but it would also pair well with umami flavours.