German indigenous grapes
A proud history, and some fantastic fruit
Wednesday 30 March 2022
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The noble grape of Germany is undoubtedly Riesling. By “noble grape” we mean to identify the grapes which produce the best quality wine — historically, Riesling was part of an exclusive club of six grapes cultivated worldwide as a noble variety.
So, what do we say about this noble Germanic grape? Riesling is a white grape, full of bright acid and unique aromas that, when made into an exceptional wine, can evolve over time into “petrol”, the scent that Riesling lovers can’t get enough of. In some parts of Germany where the soil is particularly interesting — say, Mosel with its slate, or Rheinhessen with its limestone — Riesling can become a wine with an intense sense of terroir, showing minerality and energy in abundance.
You may know Riesling as a sweet wine, and indeed this grape does produce some stunning sweet wines, but you will also find delicious dry Rieslings in your fave wine shop — perhaps even in this box.
Ancient Elbling was grown all over Germany’s wine regions in the middle ages. It’s a low-sugar white grape, meaning that its high acid content must be blended to create wine with higher levels of body or alcohol, but it’s perfect for making Mosel Sekt, a local sparkling wine.
In contrast, Gewurtztraminer is exceptionally aromatic and can produce ample sugars, creating wines that can smell like roses and taste like Turkish delight. Gewurtztraminer can be dry, off-dry or sweet (see the glossary page for proper German wine terms!) The other most likely place you’ll find this grape is in Alsace, France or in Australia or New Zealand.
Grauer Burgunder: the grape you may already have met as Pinot Gris, or even Pinot Grigio. A notable food-friendly wine and easily one of the most swiggable varieties on the planet, it’s mostly found in the Baden region of Germany. It’s also popular with winemakers who like to play with skin-contact winemaking, drawing unique flavours and textures from the skins of the grapes as well as the juice.
If you’ve ever been skiing in Switzerland or the French Alps, and enjoyed raclette and local white wine aprés-ski, the chances are you’ve had a sip or two of Gutedel, which elsewhere is more often known as Chasselas and Fendant. It’s, again, high in acid and can create elegant wines with full body and moreish aromas of citrus and foliage.
Grown mostly in Germany and the Alsace region of France, Silvaner is fantastic at being a grape — it grows fast and creates heavy yields. However it can be a little bland, which some winemakers take as a challenge to
see how much terroir they can reflect in its transparency, whereas others use it to bulk up their more interesting blends.
Elsewhere known as Pinot Blanc, Weißburgunder in Germany loves the chalky soils of Baden in the South. This grape makes wines with a lovely, silky body and peachy, floral flavours that prefers to be chilled and enjoyed in the sunshine.
Germany isn’t always about the white wine, though. Some regions in Germany produce exceptional Spätburgunder wines — elsewhere known as Pinot Noir. In combination with the unique soil types of German vineyards and the microclimates within each region, it’s possible to find intriguing, exciting versions of a grape you thought you’d pretty much mastered.
Hybrid grapes are made by crossing different grape varieties with separate desirable attributes to create a grape more perfectly suited for purpose. A supergrape, if you will. While this sounds like a super modern technological advancement, fruit and vegetable hybrids have been created for hundreds of years (just look at the humble neon orange carrot — it used to be purple.) In wine, hybrid grapes have been developed for at least 100 years, and in Germany there are many varieties of cross and hybrid grapes grown in vineyards that are now as familiar to us as ancient varietals.
Named after a Greco-Roman god, Bacchus is a complex fella, being crossed as: (Silvaner x Riesling) x Müller-Thurgau. Created in 1933 in the German winegrowing region of Palatinate, it’s a low-acid, high flavour grape that can produce fruity, floral notes like elderflower and apple.
Created in Switzerland in 1882, Muller-Thurgau (also known as Rivaner) is a cross between Riesling and an eating grape variety called Madeleine Royale. It’s grown worldwide thanks to its adaptability to different climates and soil types. Famously it is used to make bulk Liebfraumilch and Piesporter wines, but it’s finding its way into more interesting winemakers’ hands too.
In 1927, Huxelrebe was developed by crossing Gutedel (Chasselas) and Courtillier Musqué, itself a synthesised cultivation of varieties. Mostly found in Rheinhessen, Nahe and Palatinate, it produces high yields and ripens early — big benefits to winemakers. When ripe, it can give off an aroma of rhubarb.
Kerner can be a bit of a stunner if left in the right hands. Cultivated by crossing Trollinger and Riesling in the 20s, it gives definite hints at its noble Riesling heritage with apple, acidity and intensity, and has its own aromas of mango and grapefruit.
Chardonnay and Muller-Thurgau were crossed in Rheinhessen in 1929 to create Farberrebe, a high acid white grape that is increasingly used to make fresh, elegant wines with rich apple and fruit flavours.
Crossed between Muller-Thurgau and a grape called Siegerrebe, Ortega can gain high sugar levels, and is often used for making sweet wines with aromas and flavours of peach. Interestingly, it’s not sensitive to frost, which has made it a popular grape to grow in emerging winemaking regions like England and Wales.
Dornfelder has so many grape parents that it’d be confusing to note them here. Suffice to say this is a true cross of a cross of a cross, and was released for cultivation in 1979. Ever since, this dark-skinned varietal has been used to make deeply-coloured German red wine, with flavours of cherry and hedgerow fruits.
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