A warm sunny climate and grapes that express purity of fruit translate to stellar wines worth adding to your repertoire.
We say “German wine,” and your thoughts may immediately think “sweet.” While the country does produce its fair share of unctuous offerings (even those bottles generally maintain balanced, palate-cleansing acidity though), the amount of dry German wines is steadily increasing. In the Pfalz – also referred to as the “Palatinate” from the Latin word palatium meaning “palace” – the majority of wines are produced in a trocken (dry) style. Food-friendly, varietally correct and infinitely interesting due to the various soil types, the region’s Rieslings, Pinot Noirs and other grapes will make you sit up and take notice. Drink them in.
1. The Pfalz is Germany’s second largest wine region.
With 23,000 hectares under vine, 3,000 winegrowers (two-thirds of them part-time) and plantings of Riesling second in the country only to its steep, slate-rich Mosel region, the Pfalz’s importance to the German wine industry can’t be overstated. Around one in three bottles of German wine originates in the Pfalz, and the switch from sweeter to drier styles has been ongoing, translating to more wines on shelves that are versatile food partners or patio sippers.
2. The region can feel more like southern Italy than Germany.
Due to its 2,000 hours of sunshine per year (which accounts for its abundance of kiwifruit as well as chestnut, almond and fig trees) the Pfalz can easily ripen grapes that struggle in cooler areas like the Mosel. To the west, the Haardt Mountains, a continuation of France’s Vosges Mountains, serve as a rainshadow, keeping it one of the country’s driest areas, with a climate that feels more like the Mediterranean than Germany. Yet it’s diurnal (day to night) temperature swings mean that wines’ acidity levels stay lively, so wines grown with white varietals have intense aromatics and a rich mouthfeel, while reds glean rich fruit notes and balanced tannins; yet whites and reds (and rosés!) maintain mouth-watering freshness. Though the 2003 vintage – one of the warmest ever in Europe – was a wake-up call that global warming is an absolute factor for winemakers, it’s actually helping in the Pfalz, at least for the time being. The 2015 vintage was good all around, and the 2016 is looking especially great for red varietals.
3. Various terroirs result in wines made in different styles.
Limestone and chalk are the most common soils in the Pfalz, followed by basalt, slate and red and yellow sandstone. Sandstone-based soils can add elegance, salinity and notes of stone fruits to white varietals including Riesling. On the other hand, limestone soil’s high content of calcium carbonate, a base, tempers acidity and renders it well integrated, especially in Riesling and Pinot Noir.
4. Riesling rules here.
The classic noble white varietal is the most planted grape (and overall volume is second only to the Mosel). But squash the notion that Riesling is always a sweet wine. In the Pfalz, it’s generally vinified in an easy-drinking, food-friendly trocken style that boasts finesse and has less austere, tooth enamel-stripping acidity than in the Mosel. Wines clearly show classic notes of stone fruits (apricot and peach), apple, pear and minerality, along with medium-bodied mouthfeel and zestiness. And that inherent acidity can act as a preservative, meaning that bottles can age and pick up interesting, savory and saline notes, and aromas of petrol (in a good way).
5. But other white varietals shine, too.
Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris (called Gräuburgunder here) and Pinot Blanc (referred to as Weissburgunder) also thrive. And if you aren’t a fan of oaky whites, you’re in luck, as most are vinified either in stainless steel or neutral oak, with no malolactic fermentation (the technique that gives richer whites including Chardonnay those toasty, butter notes). Sauvignon Blanc coming out of the Pfalz is particularly impressive right now, as it seems to be emerging in a style that mashes up New World fruitiness you’d find in California bottles with Old World elegance and minerality, like what you may see in Sancerre from France’s Loire Valley.
6. Pfalz Pinot Noir is particularly impressive.
Though traditionally white wines made up the majority of production in the Pfalz (and Germany in general) that is changing; today, 36% of German wines are red. Though it’s incredibly finicky and difficult to make well, Pinot Noir here is stellar, with a purity of fruit (think cherry and raspberry),varietal typicity (a hard-to-achieve balanced blend of fruit and earthiness), vibrant acidity and silky, approachable tannins. Again, global warming is giving the grape a little boost, pushing it to be just ripe enough but keeping its varietal correctness in check.
7. And don’t forget the bubbles.
Germans consume more sparkling wine than anyone else in the world, including the French. While most of it is made in the Charmat (tank) method, like Prosecco, the highest quality options are produced in the traditional method (just like Champagne, Cava, Crémant and Franciacorta). German sparkling wine is called Sekt, and can be made with a variety of grapes. Deutscher Sekt is made exclusively from German grapes, and those labeled Sekt b.A. are produced from grapes in one of the 12 quality regions – including the Pfalz. Harder to find in the States than the region’s still wines, they are definitely worth seeking out.
Here are some Pfalz wines to look for on store shelves and wine lists (FYI, “Weingut” on the label means “winery”):
2016 Weingut Von Winning Deidesheimer Paradiesgarten Riesling 1er Lage Trocken: Similar in style to a Sauvignon Blanc, this fresh, easy-drinking wine shows tropical notes of pineapple and guava, along with a tinge of minerality and a slightly spicy finish.
2014 Weingut Von Winning Pinot Noir I: Gorgeous purity of fruit and dried mushrooms give a hint of the grape’s signature earthiness. While it might not be quite as serious or as structured as others in the portfolio, it’s a great example of Pfalz Pinot Noir just the same.
2011 Friedrich Becker Estate Pinot Noir: Produced on limestone/chalk soils at a winery whose vineyards straddle the border between Germany and France, this offering hails from a winemaker crafting some of the country’s best Pinot Noir. It boasts floral aromas of violets and herbs, flavors of black cherries and blueberry, and velvety tannins.
2016 Friedrich Becker Pinot Blanc: An herbaceous and intense aroma of lime and tropical fruit is joined on the palate by mango and pineapple and a rich yet pristine mouth feel. This wine offers up more than its price tag would have you believe.
2012 Rebholz Okonomierat Riesling: The red sandstone soils on which the grapes for this wine are grown are among the best in Germany. Tart citrus and pear on the nose are joined by an austerity and minerality on the palate, and just the slightest hint of petrol and salinity on the finish.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.