Wines from the Pfalz: The Awaking of the German Giant
One of the largest and warmest winegrowing areas in Germany, the Palatinate (German: Pfalz) is usually recognized for its reds. But thanks to new management techniques that focus on controlled yields and a modern, carefully conducted vinification process, its Rieslings are showing impressive results.
The night fell a long time ago and the old cobblestone streets of Deidesheim are completely deserted. This town of just over 3,000 inhabitants, whose origins can be traced back to the Middle ages, is a place of special charm. it is also one of the busiest centers of the Palatinate region and its longstanding winemaking tradition. a town of gentle slopes, surrounded by vineyards and woods, an atmosphere of relaxation and plenty of good food and drinks.
in Deidesheim we are greeted by Klaus Küsters, PR officer of the Von Buhl winery. an enthusiastic and warm fellow who speaks very fast, like there was no tomorrow. We decide not to waste any time and visit the underground cellars of this company founded in 1849. Candlelight fills the corridors and soon we run into an impressive bottle of Riesling-based Sekt that sits on a barrel. The silence is complete. Whenever Klaus decides to give his tongue a break, a short one of course, you can even hear the sound of bubbles trying to escape the glasses.
We also uncork a few grosses gewächs or Grand Crus. The quality of these Rieslings is overwhelming. also outstanding is the quality of Spätburgunder of Pinot noir. in the late 19th century, the wines produced here were considered the most expensive in the world. “Dieses ungeheuer schmeckt mir ungeheuer” (“This monster tastes monstrously good”) Chancellor otto Von Bismarck is reported to have said as he drank one of the wines from the forster ungeheuer area.
But the numerous wars and occupations, and very especially the government’s restrictions on wine production and consumption during the more moralistic era, slowly and inexorably undermined the fame of these great germans. yields went through the roof and the richness and tipicity of its wines were hopelessly diluted and masked behind tons of residual sugar.
But today things are changing at full throttle.
Although controlled by Japanese capitals, Von Buhl does not forget its tradition and moves on with the times. it has invested in vineyard management, lowering yields per hectare in order to obtain wines of greater concentration. The winery has been fitted with modern equipment especially designed for high precision work: 225-liter french barrels, others for fermentation of 10,000 liters, and even small 1,200-liter stainless steel and oak vats reserved for the winery’s icon wines.
After the visit we head our way to the Deidesheimer Hof hotel, a beautiful and welcoming 18th century construction. But before getting some shuteye, we decide to grab a bite at its restaurant, the favorite of former chancellor Helmut Kohl and the place where he held countless meetings with public figures like the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía of Spain, all duly accompanied by Riesling and Pfälzer Saumagen (stuffed pig’s stomach). We chose to sit at Kohl’s table now under a huge portrait of the former german leader. as an anecdote, Klaus tells us that some years ago the chancellor planned to celebrate his birthday in the restaurant, but for health reasons he had to order the food to go.
The cold water of the ice bucket has stripped the bottles of Von Buhl of their labels, but their contents, just like the restaurant kitchen, is a box of surprises. only in the grosses gewächs category, the winery produces seven Rieslings from different vineyards, which once in the glass open up gracefully to show their own singular personalities. unforgettable: the strength and extreme minerality of Ungeheuer Forst 2007, the delicate and floral style of Jesuitengarten 2008 and the unsurpassable elegance of Kirchenstück 2008.
THE REDS ARE COMING
The Palatinate is Germany’s second largest winegrowing region, with approximately 23,500 planted hectares. it is a tongue-shaped area measuring 80 km in length by
7 in width that runs in a north-south direction. Towards the border with Rheinhessen, there are a larger number of Riesling vineyards, while in the south, closer to the french border, Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and even some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are more common. The nice temperature makes the Pfalz a recognized region for its whites (they account for 35% of production), but without doubt the shiniest star is the new generation of Rieslings.
Unlike their cousins from the Mosel and Rheingau regions, Pfalz Rieslings are creamier and more full- bodied, though their acidity is powerful enough to lift the fruit and take it to incredible lengths in the palate. Also, depending on the particular mesoclimate and soil characteristics, they may showcase very complex and mineral notes but without the petroleum normally associated with this cultivar. The actual origin of these fossil aromas remains a mystery, but some producers suggest that they may come from overripe grapes. What they all agree on, though, is the need to avoid them.
Unfortunately, the Riesling hectarage barely surpasses 20% of the Pfalz vineyard.
Von Winning, also known as Dr. Deinhard (in recent years both houses split due to the latter’s tendency to produce large volumes), is located a few blocks away from Von Muhle and once shared with it the property and the mysterious underground cellars. The old house is currently undergoing extensive renovation and everything smells like new. just like its wines, especially its Rieslings that now feature greater concentration and, above all, a more balanced fruit-acidity relationship.
Von Winning’s first wines were released in 2008 and they already rank among Germany’s best. These elegant wines respect the fruit without overloading it with wood. “We do not want our Rieslings to smell like Chardonnay,” sentences Kurt Rathgeber, the house’s winemaker.
We adore Deidesheimer Kalkofen Riesling Qualitätswein Trocken Grosses Gewächs 2008, a wine grown on a plateau with less sun exposure. Classy, serious, dry, cold, and long. also Pinot Noir Qualitätswein Trocken 2008, a red fermented with the entire bunch that features lots of tipicity, juiciness, and aging potential. Perhaps the most interesting, or at least the most curious, is Deidesheimer Hirschblut 2007, a blend of Cabernet Cubin, Cabernet Dorsa and Pinot Noir. a very spicy, attractive and edgy wine that falls a bit short on the palate.
Cabernet Cubin and Cabernet Dorsa are typical varieties of this region, bred by crossing Cabernet Sauvignon with the native Lemberger. Cubin is fruitier and a favorite among producers, while Dorsa is more tannic and extremely spicy. Without question, this is a path that growers in the region should explore: to look for earlier reds with good ripening potential in these latitudes.
RIESLING, THE UNDISPUTED STAR
We jump into Klaus’s car for the short ride to the neighboring town of Gimmeldingen, just a few kilometers away. There we find A. Christmann, a wine house established in 1845 by cousins Ludwig Häusser and Johann Martin. in 1894, Eduard Christmann married Henriette Häusser, the founder’s great granddaughter. Today the winery is managed by Steffen Christmann, already the seventh generation of descendants, who spares no efforts to produce wines with great identity and consistent quality which, in some cases, are simply superlative.
Like many other producers in the region, he believes that global warming has had a positive effect on the german wine industry. Today the number of varieties grown has increased and it is now possible to harvest with better ripeness rates. “Six years ago, harvests began in October. Today we start in mid September,” he says.
Steffen is a nice, relaxed fellow but he follows every detail of the production process. The cellar is a true jewel. it has been equipped with the latest technology to process the fruit produced in the winery’s 20 hectares scattered across different vineyards. Managing more land would mean losing the family side of the business, something
he is not willing to give up. “Why make your life more complicated?” he says with a shy smile.
He then explains that differences between his wines not only come from agricultural and climatic factors, but also from the effects of the vintage. “The characteristics of the year determine the wine style produced. The region is not like California, South Africa or Chile, where vintages tend to be consistent year after year. In 2003, for example, we had 10 days with temperatures over 40oC. If the same situation repeated itself over time, vines would be unable to recover. It would wreak havoc,” he says.
These differences become immediately evident as we taste two Rieslings from Idig in Königsbach, a 4-hectare vineyard that lies on a gentle slope shaped like an amphitheater with a southeast exposure and basaltic, chalky soil. a very peculiar terroir, where vines have taken their time to grow due to the scarcity of organic matter. Only after 30 years the vines have been able to delve their roots at a depth of 4 or 5 meters and establish a friendlier relationship with their environment.
While Idig Riesling Grosses Gewächs Trocken 2008 appears fruity, solid and even a bit bold, 2007 is elegant and deep. A truly lovely wine that summarizes the enormous quality potential of Pfalz Rieslings. What else can we say? Nothing really. Even Klaus decides it is time to drop us at the train station and go pick up his kids from kindergarten.
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