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The Forgotten Source: German Pinot Noir

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Dornfelder, a light-bodied red wine from Germany, that is a genetic cross of Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe, and is distantly related to Pinot Noir. Germany is not known for its red wines, as most casual wine drinkers associate German wines with the country's famous Rieslings. However, Germany has quietly developed a thriving red wine industry, especially for Pinot Noir, as documented by Will Lyons, in this piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

Lyons cited statistics from the German Wine Institute, which place the total acreage of Pinot Noir in Germany at approximately 29,049 acres. These figures make Germany the the third-largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world, trailing only France and the United States. Perhaps the reason that so many consumers are unable to associate Germany with red wine and Pinot Noir is that the country only had 4,544 acres of Pinot Noir in 1964, meaning that Germany has experienced a 539% increase in its Pinot Noir acreage in the last 48 years.  

Lyons acknowledges that the growth of Pinot Noir has been partially inspired by the influx of a new wave of winemakers, who have seen the success of Pinot Noir in other regions, such as New Zealand and arrived in Germany determined to replicate it. The other factor mentioned by Lyons is far more sobering, as he states that the German federal state institute, Dienstleistungszentrum Ländlicher Raum, has data showing that average temperatures in Germany have risen over the years, making the climate more hospitable to Pinot Noir.

The potential impact of climate change on the world's wine growing regions is significant. The wine blog, The Gray Report, recently published a piece that featured an interview with a leading climatologist, Dr. Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University, who consults wineries on climate change. Dr. Jones theorizes the effects of climate change in the United States will be such that Napa Valley will be "table grape region" by 2050, and cool climate grape growing areas for Pinot Noir will be found in northern climes, such as Washington's Puget Sound, and Idaho's Snake Valley. While Jones theory is by no means conclusive, it certainly corraborates the notion that climate change has been an integral component of Pinot Noir's rise in Germany.

Weingut Heitlinger Pinot NoirHowever scary climate change might be, and with all apologies to Al Gore, let's adopt a climate change denial perspective for a moment, and focus on the fact that German Pinot Noir is amazingly good! I was recently reminded of the potential of German Pinot Noir the other day, when I found a bottle of Weingut Heitlinger Pinot Noir at Burlington Wine Shop. As it had been a while since I'd had a German red wine, I opened it up with dinner that night, and am very happy to report that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was decidedly reminiscent of an Oregon Pinot Noir, with a very expressive nose of red fruits, especially crushed red raspberry. On the palate, the wine was feminine and delicate, with vibrant acidity, and flavors of sour cherry that were accented by a touch of earthiness. Best of all, at $15.99, it could easily hold its own when pitted against Oregon Pinot Noirs that would cost $5 to $10 more.

Will Lyons characterized German Pinot Noir as "difficult to generalize," adding that some German Pinot Noirs can be rich and full-bodied, with others can be lean and herbaceous. Given that Pinot Noir is grown in six wine regions across the country, and that different winemakers have different visions of the style of wine that they want to produce, this lack of uniformity is not surprising. However, consumers wanting to explore the varied styles of German Pinot Noir would do well to temper their optimism. While German red wine is gaining momentum, it's still not a category that is deemed worth of its own section by most retailers. If your wine shop has any German red wine, they are likely to be single bottles, stocked in the "Miscellaneous Reds" or "Adventurous Reds" section, regardless of whether the wine is Pinot Noir (or Spätburgunder as it is known in Germany), Dornfelder, Blauer Portugieser, Trollinger (a.k.a. Schiava or Vernatsch), Lemberger (Blaufränkisch), or another more obscure German red.

Weingut Heitlinger Pinot Noir at Burlington Wine ShopThe lack of readily available German reds doesn't mean they aren't worth trying. If anything, I would advise consumers to take advantage of any opportunity to try a German red. They aren't commonly stocked, but when a retailer does stock a German red, or any esoteric wine, it is generally an indication that it is a wine they are passionate about. For the moment, you may not have your pick of styles when it comes to German Pinot Noir, but whether you encounter a German Pinot Noir that is plush and full-bodied, or lean and elegant, it's a safe bet that you'll be getting a good wine. And assuming that climate change continues to lead to warmer temperatures in Germany, and the acreage of Pinot Noir continues to grow, it may not be long until there are many more Pinot Noirs on the shelves here in the U.S. Yet, until then, I'll be quite content to stumble across the occasional bottle of Dornfelder, or a fantastic Pinot Noir like the Weingut Heitlinger.

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