In the fourth segment of this series about the wines of Germany we learned about the principal grape varieties and three rare and nearly extinct varieties. In this entry we cover six varieties, four white varieties and two red, chosen not necessarily for their importance in terms of hectares/acres planted, rather for their historic importance or their potential to produce high-quality wines.
Like Pinot and Gouais Blanc, Savagnin is another very old variety. Historic and genetic data indicate that the same vine was cultivated by the Romans over 900 years ago in various parts of France. Until now, including using DNA testing, it has not been possible to identify the parents of Savagnin although there are various theories regarding its origin: it is a cross of Pinot and another unidentified variety; it is a cross of two unknown and probably extinct varieties; or it was domesticated from a wild vine. This last theory could be valid since the leaf of the Savagnin vine is similar in form to those of wild vines found in the Rhine River Valley. Also, the name Savagnin is a derivative of the French word sauvage (wild). Savagnin is also a parent of many other varieties. In German-speaking countries the grape is called Traminer. Over the course of the centuries and as in the case of Pinot, Savagnin has diversified into various clones although all share the same genetic fingerprint. The most important clones today are: Savagnin Blanc (Weisser Traminer), Savagnin Rose (Roter Traminer), and Gewürztraminer.
SAVAGNIN BLANC (WEISSER TRAMINER)
This clone of Savagnin is particularly important in the French region of Jura, where it is used to produce vin jaune (yellow wine), an oxidative style of wine aged in barrel under a foam of yeast. The yeast gives the wine a distinctive aroma and taste, similar to a dry Sherry although the wine is not fortified as in the case of Sherry. The famous Château Chalon is produced in this region and bottled in the 620 ml clavelin. Also produced are white wines in a non-oxidative style from the Savagnin grape, sometimes blended with Chardonnay. Both styles are typically full-bodied wines with a high concentration of extract and notable weight on the palate.
In Germany, the vine was first mentioned under the name Traminer in 1483 at Bebenhausen monastery near the city of Stuttgart: underm Weg itel gut gesund Frennsch und Traminer stoeck und ob dem weg die zweiteil Frennsch und Traminer stoeck und das driteil Aelbinen [under the path Frennsch and Traminer vines good and healthy and above the path two-thirds Frennsch and Traminer vines and one-third Aelbinen]. In her book Rebsorten in Württemberg: Herkunft, Einführung, Verbreitung und die Qualität der Weine vom Spätmittelalter bis ins 19. Jahrhundert [Grape Varieties in Wûrttemberg: Origin, Introduction, Distribution and the Quality of the Wines from the Late Middle Ages to the 19th Century], Dr. Christine Krämer suggests that since Frennsch and Weiss Frennschen are old synonyms of Savagnin Blanc in the Baden-Württemberg region, in this quote “Traminer” refers to Savagnin Rose.
In Austria’s Kremstal and the Südoststeiermark (the southwest part of Styria), the rare, yellow-berried mutation, Gelber Traminer, is found. The country in total has only 284 hectares (702 acres) of all the clones of Traminer combined. Traminer is one of the parents of the country’s flagship white grape variety, Grüner Veltliner.
Interestingly, Australia has 162 hectares (400 acres) of Savagnin vineyards, but by mistake! During the first years of the 21st century, several Australian wineries thought they had bought Albariño vine cuttings from Spain. But because of a labeling error in Spain, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) propagated and distributed Savagnin Blanc vines and not Albariño vines.
SAVAGNIN ROSE (ROTER TRAMINER)
Savagnin Rose, or Roter Traminer, is the pink-berried clone of Savagnin, the non-aromatic version of Gewürztraminer. Despite having pink berries, the wines tend to be closer in style to those of Savagnin Blanc than to Gewürztraminer. In France, there are 42 hectares (104 acres) planted, all in Alsace, under the name Klevener de Heiligenstein, a denomination within the AOP (protected appellation of origin) “Alsace.” This is the only geographic designation within the Alsace AOP. It is important to not confuse Klevener (in Alsace a synonym of Pinot Blanc) with Klevener de Heiligenstein (the wine produced with Savagnin Rose). In a recent email communication with Eberhard Abele of Wines of Germany, the official statistics include Roter Traminer together with Gewürztraminer. In 2018, the country had 1,057 hectares (2,612 acres) planted.
Mentioned for the first time in Germany in 1827 and later in Alsace in 1886, Gewürztraminer (in French, written without the diaeresis: Gewurztraminer) probably appeared first in the Rhine Valley. This clone produces pink-colored berries. The wines are typically deep yellow in color, sometimes with a hint of copper. The grapes can attain high levels of sugar, and during ripening acid levels can fall rapidly. The challenge is to harvest at the right moment to avoid a high-alcohol wine with low acidity. Because of this, this variety is not recommended for hot climates. Gewürztraminer wines are among the easiest to identify in a blind tasting: the notes of lychee and rose petals are unmistakable. In fact, the German word gewürz means “spicy” (not “piquant!”).
In the world, France has the lion’s share of Gewürztraminer plantings, with the majority being in Alsace, where it is considered one of the noble varieties.
In Germany, it is probable that the majority of the 1,057 hectares (2,612 acres) of Traminer are indeed Gewürztraminer. The regions of Baden, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz are home to the majority of plantings. It is said that a Traminer vineyard in the municipality of Rhodt unter Rietburg in the Pfalz is nearly 400 years old.
The variety is world traveler. Europe has the vast majority of Gewürztraminer vineyards, but the variety has also arrived in the Americas where it is found in California, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington; in various of Canada’s provinces; and in Argentina and Chile. It is also a popular variety in Australia and New Zealand, and there is some in South Africa. There are even some vineyards in Israel and Japan!
Silvaner, sometimes written “Sylvaner,” is another very old variety, first mentioned in 1665 under the name “Östareiche Rebe” (Austrian vine) upon its introduction at Ebrach Abbey in Germany by Abbot Alberich Degen. Because of the reference to Austria, one could infer that the vine originated in Austria. DNA testing has confirmed Silvaner’s two parents are Savagnin and Österreich Weiss. Savagnin was mentioned for the first time in Austria in 1349, and Österreich Weiss was cultivated principally in the eastern part of Austria around the city of Vienna, so it is probable that Silvaner was born in Austria before being taken to Germany and later to Alsace. In fact, even today in the German region of Franken it is common to use the synonym “Österreichisch” (Austrian) when referring to Silvaner. However, the variety is not very popular in its place of birth, and the entire country has only 38 hectares (94 acres) of Silvaner planted. Germany sports the highest number of hectares/acres planted, 4,744 hectares (11,723 acres), principally in the Franken and Rheinhessen regions. France has about 1,300 hectares (3,212 acres) planted, all in the Alsace region.
Although Rheinhessen has the largest vineyard area of the variety, Franken is best known for its high-quality Silvaner wines. In 2009, the region celebrated 350 years of Silvaner. The Würzburger Stein vineyard is particularly well known for its dry, full-bodied Silvaner wines with a mineral character, sometimes even earthy notes. It is very typical to find Franken wines bottled in the typical Bocksbeutel, the bottle in the shape of a flattened ellipsoid. With less natural acidity than Riesling, Silvaner wines can accompany a wide variety of dishes, and in Germany it is the preferred partner with white asparagus. Lighter Silvaner wines pair well with shellfish dishes, quiche, and pastas with cream-based sauces. Wines with more body and earthy notes pair well with typical dishes like choucroute, sausages, pork, and game-based dishes, particularly those prepared with mushrooms.
About 350 more hectares (865 acres) of Scheurebe are planted in Germany than Traminer, but in general it is less known. The variety was created by Dr. Georg Scheu in 1916 in Alzey, a research center in Rheinhessen. For many years, the variety was thought to be a cross of Riesling and Silvaner, but recently it has been established that Scheurebe is actually a cross of Riesling and Bukettraube, the latter a cross of Silvaner and Schiava Grossa. Scheurebe is capable of producing high-quality, intense and refreshing wines, typically with notes of black currant and grapefruit.
Kerner is currently Germany’s sixth most planted variety, and the most widely planted of the modern German crosses. It is a cross of Riesling and Schiava Grossa, bred by August Herold in 1929 at the Weinsberg research center in Baden-Württemberg. Herold named the grape in honor of Justinius Kerner, a medical doctor and composer of drinking songs who recommended his patients drink a glass of wine a day as the best natural medicine.
The vine is less fussy than Riesling in terms of soil and site and yields higher than Riesling. The grapes develop higher levels of acidity and sugar than Müller-Thurgau, and if effectively managed in the vineyard can produce very good quality wines although not of the level of the best Rieslings. In 2018, Germany reported 2,463 hectares (6,086 acres) of Kerner. There are small plantings in Canada, England, Italy, and Switzerland. Surprisingly, Japan has more than 350 hectares (865 acres) of Kerner.
The Germans have been enthusiastic grape breeders since the 19th century. Dornfelder is the most successful of the red varieties, another cross created by August Herold, bred in 1956. Dornfelder’s complex parentage demonstrates the seriousness of German researchers: it is a cross of Helfensteiner (Pinot Noir Précoce x Schiava Grossa) x Heroldrebe (Blauer Portuguieser x Blaufränkisch). In turn, Dornfelder is a parent of several other varieties. The variety is popular among grape growers for its productivity, and the grapes have a thick skin with a high concentration of pigments producing deeply colored wines with good body and acidity. It is currently the second most important red variety in Germany with 7,581 hectares (18,733 acres). There are small plantings in other countries including Switzerland, the Czech Republic, England, Brazil, Japan, and in California and Pennsylvania in the United States.
Blaufränkisch belongs to the group of grapes that were called “Fränkisch” during the Middle Ages, a group considered higher quality. The “Heunisch” group was considered to be of inferior quality, for example Heunisch Weiss (Gouais Blanc). Interestingly, Heunisch Weiss is one of the parents of Blaufränkisch, the other being Blauer Zimmettraube, a variety no longer cultivated. Genetic and historic data suggest the variety was born in the historic region of Styria in what is modern day Slovenia. This makes sense since the vine is cultivated in various countries in the region. Hungary, where it is known as Kékfrankos, has more than 8,000 hectares (19,786 acres) planted. In Austria, it is the second most planted red variety with 3,009 hectares (7,435 acres), behind its offspring, Zweigelt. It is also an important variety in Bulgaria, where it is called Gamé; in Romania, where it is called Burgund Mare; in the Czech Republic, where it is called Frankovka; and in Croatia, where it is called Borgonja. Germany, where it is called Lemberger (sometimes Limberger), currently has 1,912 hectares (4,725 acres). It is particularly popular in the Württemberg region around the city of Stuttgart. The variety is capable of producing dark, full-bodied, well-structured and deeply flavored wines with aromas of black fruits and spices. High natural acid levels assure fresh wines. The grape has an affinity for oak, and barrel-aged examples have a great capacity for maturing several years in bottle. This all means for fans of Cabernet Sauvignon, Blaufränkisch is a must-try wine.
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