Every cloud has a silver lining

(Originally published July 2007)

Everyone likes to talk about global warming and how this contributes to higher alcohol and overripe fruit in wines traditionally not plagued by these problems. Hanes is down with that. But that doesn’t mean there are no upsides. The big running joke right now is to invest in English countryside vineyards and get ready to release your $100+ Cabernet Sauvignon in 10-15 years. But there’s some more realistic scenarios too. To wit, the potential for richer and perhaps more interesting red wines from Germany. Could the Pfalz be the new Chambolle-Musigny of the mid-21st century? Hmmm.

Red wines from Germany (i.e., “Rotwein”) usually aren’t popular outside of Deutschland because they are perceived as too high in acid and light in fruit. They don’t often get confused with Australian Shiraz. While they remain popular with wine appreciators who like high acid, terroir-driven wines, these folks are not large enough in numbers to get a lot exported to the United States. But the point here is that this may change along with climate change. Of course, the wines may in general become more popular but not for the wine geeks who loved them in the pre-global warming age. More money for German winemakers and importers of these wines, fewer wines to luv for the wine geek set. The usual fair tradeoff.

One thing that may make German red wines popular is that one of the most popular and successful red wine grapes grown there is Spätburgunder. That is, in translation, the ever popular Pinot Noir. Current versions are definitely high in acidity, light in body and probably have too many herbaceous qualities for the casual drinker to really enjoy (the same goes for Pinot Noir from Alsace, France which should also benefit from global warming in terms of broader market acceptance, Alsace possessing similar terrain to much of Germany — if not to some a part of Germany (don’t go there)). As Pinot Noir reacts perceptibly to its environment, even a few degrees of warmth throughout the growing season could have a dramatic effect on the concentration of the final wines. Add in a little oak barrique aging and you have a winner! That said, prices are not going to be like $15 a bottle so don’t expect a sea of value Pinot from Germany.

After Pinot Noir the situation gets a bit hazier as you’re dealing with mostly native grapes which are unfamiliar to many American customers. But there’s some precedent established, as wines such as Zweigelt from Austria, Malbec from Argentina or Albariño from Spain aren’t grown in large quantities here in the U.S. but have a fair degree of market acceptance now. So, you might be able to slowly build a market for alternative German red wines if priced and marketed in a cautious, savvy manner. And, uhh, if they taste good.

Dornfelder is a grape that has been grown in increasing quantities in Germany, having been bred there in 1956 especially for local growing. The idea was to create a grape that would ripen better in the cool German climates then the existing choices at hand. So, they crossed the ever popular Heroldrebe grape with the equally irresistible Helfensteiner grape to create Dornfelder. Dornfelder is on the sweet side, kind of plummy, and achieves a fuller body that most other German red wines. There’s maybe a half dozen different German Dornfelders sold in the United States and a few intrepid souls who are domestically growing it. But, Hanes said it first, Dornfelder will be the summer barbeque hit of 2012!

Blauer Portugieser is German for a Portuguese grape that eventually spread to Austria and Germany. It seems not a lot is being done with this grape in Germany today, it hovers around 4-5% of total vineyard acreage. While it usually makes for a light-bodied and more delicate wine, this grape too may become more popular with conditions which allow better ripening. For grape growers, the best thing about Blauer Portugieser is its vigor and ability to grow and thrive under adverse conditions. So, duh, warmer weather should make the wines a bit richer as well as make a lot more of it. Not sure it will ever be more than just a simple table wine, though. But we all need everyday drinkers. Especially those who drink everyday. A fair amount of Blauer Portugieser is made into rosé wines.

After these three you find small amounts of Trollinger, Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger, Limberger), Schwarzriesling (aka Samtrot) and Sankt Laurent. That is, you find them in Germany, not in the United States. Maybe one day. Hanes can’t say he sees much (any) around and those he has tried were pretty much brought back from Germany by hand. But can you really blame the Germans for keeping all the Schwarzriesling for themselves?

With warmer climates and the dictates of the international marketplace for wine, a question ineluctably rises around the planting of non-indigenous grapes in Germany, many of which are considered “international varieties.” So far it appears that experiments have been limited to Cabernet Sauvignon. But as things change and young, bold winemakers want to stride onto the international stage it shouldn’t surprise to see Syrah, Cabernet Franc or Merlot get planted. Whether this will be additional planting or come at the expense of already established varieties is yet to be seen.

As of this point in time the Pfalz and Rheinhessen remain the best regions for red wine production, especially when it comes to Spätburgunder. After that, you could count Baden and Württemberg as the regions most likely to make inroads with red wine production. Nahe is kind of a wildcard, red wine might eventually take off there. The other, more northerly regions, well, that depends on the true extent of global warming over the decades to come. Hanes can only predict so much.