VDP Württemberg With Californian Guests: Highlights
In the south of Germany there is a large-ish state called Baden-Württemberg. As you can probably imagine, the state combines two historically distinct regions, Baden and Württemberg, into a single political unit. As far as wine is concerned – and as far as most of the people who live there are concerned – the two regions remain quite separate. The people of Baden are different than the Swabians of Württemberg, and vice versa.
The wines are quite different, too. Though I live in Baden, I have a strong personal and historical connection to Württemberg – but I don’t drink too many wines from there. And in all honesty, in spite of the fact that Württemberg is one of Germany’s biggest wine-producing regions by volume, most of the wine made there is also consumed there. This goes a long way to explaining the rather, shall we say, unassuming quality of the vast majority of the wines that one finds.
But when you travel around and through the region, it seems the conditions should be excellent for producing high-quality red and white wines. There are good soils, good weather and appropriate grape varieties. And so I was looking forward to getting the chance to really get to know some quality producers in Württemberg by traveling to Stuttgart to attend the vintage presentation of the VDP Württemberg – which counts just 18 estates as members. As an extra treat, there were invited guests from California presenting wines and there was a seminar comparing California wines with those from Württemberg co-conducted by Claudia Shug, a MW Student, Weinakademiker like myself, and part-owner of the family wine estate in California: Schug Family Corneros Estate. With the Württemberg portions of the seminar presented by Dietmar Maisenhölder, current co-GM of the VDP Württemberg – and another Weinakademiker – it promised to be interesting at the very least.
A Note About the VDP
The VDP (Verband deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, in English best described as the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates) is a voluntary association of many – but not all – of the top wine estates in Germany. It has been in existence since 1910, when it was founded as an association of producers of non-chaptalised (which is to say, wines that have not had sugar added to them before fermentation) wines destined for auction. Today the VDP counts 200 members from all 13 wine-producing regions of Germany, most of whom continue to be leaders of German winemaking.
Today there are 11 regional VDP Associations united under the national organisation. The VDP has invested considerable time and effort into simplifying the somewhat opaque wine-classification system used in Germany, without abandoning it completely. To understand what they do, I highly recommend my posts on the topics. You can read about the German Wine Classification here and the VDP’s take on the system here.
My visit last week was to the vintage presentation for the VDP Württemberg, which is one of the 11 regional VDP associations. There is a different regional association for Baden; federal and state politics be damned.
Total Area Under Vine: 11,359 hectares – 382 hectares from VDP Estates
Climate Zone: Zone A, which is the coolest of the climate zones.
Soils: predominantly Triassic, with major zones of each of Muschelkalk (shellbearing limestone) and Keuper (marl/limestone mix), loess, marl, sandstone
Major Grape Varieties: Riesling, Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauer Burgunder (Pinot Gris), Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir)
Minor Grape Varieties: Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Muskateller, Sauvignon blanc, Silvaner, Muskatrollinger, Samtrot, Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier), Trollinger (Schiava), Zweigelt and Merlot
Before the vintage presentation got going, there was a lovely opportunity to learn about Württemberg and California while tasting wines juxtaposing the two regions. There were four flights of two wines, always one each from California and Württemberg, each flight offering the same vintage. It was an interesting and informative session, but it must be said: comparing California to almost any wine region in Europe is a bit of a challenge. California has 244,000 hectares under vine, well over 4,500 estates and more than 100 different grape varieties. Climatically it is more varied than Württemberg, and the soils are so diverse as to be impossible to define in a limited fashion. It would be far more appropriate to compare California to an entire nation than to a relatively small region such as Württemberg. But that actually made the seminar a bit more exciting, too.
On to the wines!
Flight 1: Riesling 2012. Two surprisingly interesting Rieslings, though neither of them really blew me away. In all honesty, the German wine certainly needs a few more years in bottle – but I’m not sure the Californian could handle more than a couple more.
Riesling Grosses Gewächs Hunsperg®, Stiftsberg Heilbronn – Weingut Drautz-Able
Plenty of ripe lemon peel, cotton candy, ground stones and acacia blossom. Very dry, taut and mineral, though not a lot of ripe fruit on the palate. Slightly buttery, decent length and spicy, but not overly tart. €25.00
Riesling Anderson Valley Mendocino – Navarro Vineyards & Winery
Ripe yellow fruit – particularly apple – and fresh acidity. More fruit than the German wine – almost certainly at least partly due to the higher residual sugar. Slightly spritzy finish, and not as mineral or complex as the other wine. The palate is also less sweet than the nose would indicate, and the mouthfeel indicates a longer maceration on the skins. €28.30
Flight 2: German Weisser Burgunder and California Chardonnay, 2015. I felt the Chardonnay from Schug was a better wine, overall, than the Weissburgunder, but they were neither of them extremely expressive yet. Not a bad flight, but not amazing.
Weißburgunder Grosses Gewächs Gips Marienglas®, Untertürkheim – Weingut Aldinger
Lightly smoky, buttery, lemon cream. A bit savoury and with good depth, good acidity, nice breadth, elegance. Bit of apple, bit of beeswax. €29.90
Chardonnay Carneros – Schug Carneros Estate Winery
A bit of sweet corn, but good freshness and length. Nice breadth without being fat, nor is it woody. An interesting, peppery finish. Interestingly, more wood emerges after a bit of air, as well as the tropical fruit aspect. The wine is quite “Californian”, but in the most positive way. €29.90
Flight 3: Pinot Noir 2013. This flight offered two wines that were “Best of Show”, without question. Both Pinot Noirs were excellent, but the Californian blew me away. So much juice, yet spice, structure, freshness and depth! Amazing stuff – but with a high price. Schnaitmann’s Spätburgunder was truly excellent, too. Definitely worth seeking out.
Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs Lämmler, Fellbach – Weingut Rainer Schnaitmann
Good structure, a bit of smoke, mint, some spritziness, great acidity and fine tannin. Lovely red fruit: fresh and healthy. Somewhat herbaceous and with a very good finish. Appetising and very nice! €42.00
Pinot Noit Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley – Deovlet Wines
Juicy, fresh red fruit in the nose. A bit of clove and other Christmas spices, nice depth and ripe red fruit. Excellent length, with some graphite and a salty, smooth finish. Absolutely delicious and a lovely wine! €49.00
Flight 4: German Lemberger and California Zinfandel, 2012. The Lemberger was really lovely and a steal for the price. And the Zinfandel was surprising and very unusual, as well as being biodynamic. More like a Barbera on the palate. But what a price tag!
Lemberger Grosses Gewächs Hohenberg Glaukós, Pfaffenhofen – Weingut Wachtstetter
Plum, cherry and mulberry ripened to perfection. Some tobacco, savoury and smooth. Spicy and with fine acidity, good body and a lightly bitter finish. Hint of toast. There is some noticeable wood influence, and the profile is nearly like a good Spätburgunder – but with more body, power and smoothness. Very fine. €25.00
Zinfandel “Lemorel” Sonoma Coast – Radio Coteau
Juicy, minty and elegant. There is a hint of tannin and great acidity, a vertical mouthfeel. Some leather and the tiniest suggestion of smoke. Much more like a good Italian Barbera than a California Zinfandel! €58.00
The big stars here were the Lembergers and, incredibly, the Rieslings! The Lembergers impressed across the board, offering depth, spice, fruit and structure. The Rieslings had real weight on the palate, great fruit, above-average acidity (for the south of Germany) and excellent minerality. Better by far than anything I’ve had out of Baden, and often truly delicious despite their youth.
Six producers really stood out at the tasting. Here they are, with the wines that caught my attention.
Weingut Aldinger Fellbach – 30 hectares. Apparently they make an unsulphured Trollinger, which is something that I’d like to try. But here it was one of the Lembergers that blew me away. And this estate just celebrated their 525th anniversary.
2015 Lämmler Lemberger Grosses Gewächs: dense, fruity, structured and long. Great pepper and fine acidity.
Weingut Drautz-Able Heilbronn – 16 hectares. They offered an interesting Riesling Grosses Gewächs in the Masterclass (from Magnum, no less), but even better was the “secret” Extra Brut Sekt made with 55/45 Schwarzriesling/Spätburgunder that was on the lees for six years.
Cuvée MC blanc Extra Brut Gutssekt: this wine was one of the absolute highlights of the day for me, offering extraordinary complexity of ripe yellow fruit and candied peel, gorgeous mousse, excellent pressure, fine autolytic aromas, length and salinity.
Weingut Jürgen Ellwanger Winterbach – Besides an interesting Zweigelt that offered plenty of structure and fruit, this producer had the first (of several) Rieslings that really caught my attention.
2016 Altenberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs: smooth, fruity, mineral, big-boned and delicious.
Weingut Karl Haidle Kernen-Stetten – 25 hectares. Again a Riesling and two Lembergers.
2016 Pulvermächer Riesling Groses Gewächs: had excellent fruit and an herby touch that I hadn’t experienced much elsewhere, with plenty of bones and some great minerality.
Of the two impressive Lembergers, the first was more to my taste – and more approachable; the second was bigger and tighter.
2015 Mönchberg Berge Lemberger Grosses Gewächs: plenty of density, good, ripe tannins, great structure and lovely dark fruit, with a long finish and a saline tail.
2015 Mönchberg Gehrnhalde Lemberger Grosses Gewächs had tighter structure, closed and powdery tannin and was very long – but nowhere near ready to drink. Give it at least five years before trying it again.
Weingut Rainer Schnaitmann Fellbach – I am a big fan of Rainer and his work. There was plenty of interesting stuff here, like his unsulphured Trollinger. The wines are tight across the board, very firm in general, offering tannins that are exactly what I want: firm, refined and ripe. Don’t miss what I wrote about his Spätburgunder from the Masterclass.
2015 Götzenberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs: taut, citric, dense, mineral and long – as well as being quite tasty.
2015 Lämmler Lemberger Grosses Gewächs: buttery, fruity, with great tannin and lovely length; a real pleasure. And these age brilliantly. I recently brought the 2011 vintage of this wine into a masterclass for students from UC Davis – it was the hit of the tasting.
Weingut Wachtstetter Pfaffenhofen – It was the “simpler” Rieslings – and a big Lemberger – that stole the show here.
2016 Pfaffenhofen “Anna” Riesling Trocken Ortswein: juicy, fruity, moderately firm and delicious, with acidity that didn’t scrape the enamel from your teeth. Right on its heels was the
2015 Pfaffenhofener Hohenberg Riesling Trocken Erste Lage had sweeter fruit – almost confectionary-like, with good length and lots of body
2015 Hohenberg “Glaukós” Lemberger Grosses Gewächs had fine pepper and red fruit, was a bit more restrained than other Lembergers at the tasting, but was replete with lovely tannin and good acidity. After having a glimpse of the 2012 in the Masterclass, I can see the direction this wine is going, and I’d be thrilled to have it again in a few years.
Germany can be a difficult import market, despite its buying power and significance as a wine-importing nation. The diversity of New World wines in particular are rather poorly represented by importers, and it really isn’t for lack of interest or effort on the part of the importers. It is, more often than not, a question of value for money; the German consumer, even – or perhaps particularly – when it comes to those prepared to spend far more money on a bottle of wine than the average customer, is extremely sensitive to value for money. So when a high-quality bottling from a relatively unknown (in Germany) producer from overseas becomes available, an immediate comparison is made to known producers of similar quality from Europe or from other overseas nations. Imports from within the EU are invariably cheaper than those from abroad, and so only New World countries where the overall costs of production are far lower than in Europe are competitive when it comes to similar quality. The USA, New Zealand – even Australia all suffer from this disparity. And when one considers the epic diversity of styles, grapes and quality levels currently found in California, there was far too little available at the vintage presentation that was truly interesting, sadly. Nevertheless, there were a few standouts.
Here are some of the wines and their importers:
Apell Weine: one wine really pumped things up: 2013 Apell Weine “Dreamers and Doers” by Zotovich Syrah. This was really a massive, dense and impressive wine. But definitely worth noticing…just not a typical Syrah as I understand them. It was closer to the style of blockbuster Shiraz one knows from Australia. Of course it was a bit jammy, but it still managed to be balanced. High-octane stuff.
Bernard-Massard: Wente Charles Wetmore Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2014: minty, tight, elegant fruit and great, fine tannin. With lovely acidity, good cassis and blackberry, and a long, refined finish. Lovely stuff!
Boisset Collection: this importer offered a show-stealer, and it was one of the best wines I tried all day: the biodynamic 2014 Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir from DeLoach Vineyards. It was amazingly concentrated and fresh, with sumptuous, healthy red fruit. Long, balanced and with gorgeous, fine, ripe tannin, here was a wine of exceptional quality. Only 36 bottles available in Germany.
Schug Carneros Estate Winery: incredibly, it was neither Chardonnay nor Pinot Noir (which was very good) that really caught me here. It was the 2010 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Heritage Reserve”, with its finesse, elegance, good tannin and fine fruit – which was also moving into tertiary territory. A lovely, expressive, lightfooted wine offering a nearly European experience – but with the fruit quality and precision one expects from the West Coast.