Friday, November 5, 2010

Germany: Beyond the Mosel (Second in a three-part series by Kent Benson)

As the most productive of Germany’s thirteen wine regions, Pfalz (Palatinate in English) is the wine equivalent of America’s bread basket. Like virtually all of southern Germany, this is beautiful countryside – a patchwork of vineyards in the sprawling valley, bordered by the densely forested low mountains of the Pfalz Forest to the West and the Rhine River to the East.

In the small village of Hainfeld is the production facility of Weingut Lergenmüller. Established in 1538, the enterprise is now under the care of brothers Jürgen and Stefan Lergenmüller.

The brothers produce wines from a surprisingly wide array of grapes. Of course, there’s Riesling, Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and the popular German red, Dornfelder, but there’s also Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and even Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

There’s something for everyone. Styles include white, pink, and red, ranging from dry to very sweet. The Lergenmüllers are not afraid to experiment with unusual blends and styles, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon and Spätburgunder blend and even a white wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon!

While visiting, you can stay for lunch at their beautiful restaurant located at their sister winery, Sankt Annaberg. Just a short drive up the hillside, the view from the outdoor dining area provides a thrilling panorama of the vineyards in the valley below.

Leaving Pfalz, crossing the Rhine and traveling south around the northeastern tip of France, we enter the region of Baden, home of the famous city of Baden-Baden with its equally famous baths. As a wine region, Baden is physically the largest in Germany, spanning over 150 miles from top to bottom, mostly along the eastern bank of the Rhine.

Just a short drive southwest of Baden-Baden, nestled next to the village of Varnhalt, is the estate of Gut Nägelsförst. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the expansive Rhine Valley, it is the quintessential, picturesque vineyard. Founded by Cistercian monks in 1268, its vineyards date back to 1344.

Today the estate is run by Reinhard Strickler, a jolly, gregarious, Wizard of Oz-like character. Reinhard cares for over 90 acres of vines and produces a broad selection of fabulous wines. Grape varieties include Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Spätburgunder.

I admire the modern German winemaker’s adventurous spirit. They seem completely unafraid to break new ground with blends and styles. The Nägelsförst lineup includes a white wine made from Pinot Noir; a blend of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay; and both a rosé and a red of blended Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to still wines, Nägelsförst produces sparkling wines and dessert wines, including eiswein.

The single most unexpected and memorable wine of my entire trip was their blend of Pinot Noir with, of all things, Tempranillo! Yes, the same Tempranillo grown in the Rioja region of Spain. It was incredible. So much so that it was the only bottle I risked bringing home in my checked baggage.

The drive from the southern portion of Baden to the region of Württemberg to the northeast, is worth the price of airfare all by itself. Our route took us through portions of the Black Forest, which consisted of beautiful wooded hills and one quaint village after another. I was never so happy to be a passenger in a vehicle.

Württemberg, with about 50% of its grapes being red, is Germany’s largest red wine-producing region. Our destination was the village of Gündelbach and Weingut Sonnenhof.

With a grape growing tradition dating back to 1522, the Fischer family founded Sonnenhof in 1973. Today, the estate is run by Martin Fischer and his winemaker brother, Joachim.

Unlike most of the vineyards in the area, those of Weingut Sonnenhof are on very steep south and southwest facing slopes. There is no terracing so one slip and you may find yourself tumbling down the slope.

While Riesling is king here, many other varieties are cultivated. In addition to the usual suspects, they also produce light reds, such as Lemberger, Trollinger, and Regent, as well as Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah.

Weingut Sonnenhof is a member of a small group of vintners experimenting with small oak barrels. Typical in places like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and California, aging wine in small oak barrels is rare in Germany. Sonnenhof is applying the technique to their Chardonnay and Syrah with good effect.

German wineries have learned a lot from California about the value of wine tourism and visiting wineries in Germany is easier and more rewarding than ever. We’ll finish up our series next time with visits to wineries in Franken.

Article published on the Central Minnesota Style magazine by Kent Benson

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