From central Stuttgart, the Neckar river cuts a sinuous track north, the conurbation of Germany’s motor city rapidly dissolving into undulating green pasture and woodland. It’s a reminder of this region’s agrarian roots before the arrival of Porsche and Mecedes-Benz.
Half an hour north, the horizon reveals dramatic stone parapets and dells hewn by tributaries of the Neckar and Rhine rivers. Among these is the Zaber, lending its name to one of Germany’s most fabled red grape-growing subregions, the Zabergäu.
Germany’s most south-western state, Baden-Württemberg, was cobbled together from two principalities after World War II. It’s bordered by France to the west, Lake Constance and Switzerland to the south, Bavaria to the east and Rhineland-Palatinate to the north. But Baden and Württemberg (or Swabia, as they are collectively coined by Germanic outsiders) retain independent personalities, exemplified by their autonomous wine designations.
Skirting the Rhine and Black Forest, Baden runs 400 kilometresalong the border with Alsace down to Basel. Recently, it has emerged as a pinot noir (spätburgunder or ‘late Burgundy’) power-house, producing bulk wines for German supermarkets as well as some distinguished rivals to the tiny premium-pinot enclave of the Ahr Valley to the north. Beyond this, Baden comprises a medley of white varietals that still dominate overall percentages, namely müller-thurgau, pinot gris (grauburgunder) and riesling.
Württemberg is more compact, its nearly 12,000 hectares of vineyards largely contained within 54 kilometres along the Neckar between Stuttgart and Heilbronn – a drawcard seducing increasing numbers of wine tourists each year. Along with the Ahr, this is Germany’s only predominantly red wine region, accounting for about 70 per cent of plantings.
Viticulture here dates back to the 8th century, when monks from Burgundy arrived with cuttings of pinot noir and schiava, a variety from Italy’s Tyrol region, now known domestically as trollinger. A high-yielding and late-ripening variety distinguished by its tumescent berries and fragile skins, trollinger has proved both a boon and blight: it’s the preferred domestic red of the majority of German wine drinkers, but often derided for that very reason. Usually endowed with a fragrant, cherry-candy nose, trollinger is frequently vinified with a few generous grams of residual sugar (often denoted as halbtrocken, or ‘half-dry’), resulting in a light-bodied, medium-alcohol, raspberry-hued wine at best faintly reminiscent of early-harvested pinot noir.
But this style remains stubbornly popular across Germany, not least in its heartland of Württemberg, which has the highest per capita wine consumption in the country, as well as the bulk of the world’s trollinger plantings. Most of the wine here is sold at the cellar door, and what isn’t sold inevitably ends up on discount supermarket shelves and in corner stores across the country, often priced well below $10.
“Traditionally it was trollinger straight after breakfast and that’s the way it’s always been,” says Christian Dautel, only half jesting, at his winery, Weingut Dautel (weingut-dautel.de).
Trollinger has been in his family for generations, grown on vines skirting the Zabergäu village of Bönningheim. However, on inheriting the business in 1979, Christian’s father, Ernst, removed Weingut Dautel from the local cooperative to pioneer an independent label focusing on contemporary viticultural and oenological practices, and premium wine.
“It wasn’t a popular move,” Christian says. “My father planted chardonnay, he blended wines inspired by his journeys to Italy and France, he matured his red wines in barrique and he vinified them dry. He was so radical, his wines couldn’t even be classified, and were sold as generic German table wines. He was driven not only to make good business, but good wine. Very good wine.”
In 1999, Weingut Dautel was admitted to Germany’s elite VDP leading estates and today, under Christian’s stewardship, the winery with its biodiverse, low-yielding, hand-harvested vineyards, remains the benchmark for Württemberg’s burgeoning premium reputation, one largely founded on riesling, pinot noir and Württemberg’s ‘secret weapon’ – lemberger.
Originating in present day Slovenia, near the town of Lemberg, in the Drava viticultural region, lemberger is a grape whose international potential has been impeded by its assortment of monikers. In Central Europe, where it is embraced as a totemic red of a number of nations, it goes by the name of frankovka in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It’s kékfrankos in Hungary (and is the headline act in egri bikavér cuvée, or Bull’s Blood) and blaufränkisch in Austria, where Burgenland’s fabled varietals are forging a reputation for their alluring nose, modest spice, generous and deeply concentrated red fruit and lingering tannin.
Lemberger – often dubbed ‘the pinot noir of the east’ – is said to have arrived in Württemberg about a century ago. It was brought by the Austrian-Hungarian Graf Neipperg family to Zabergäu, the small enclave of wine villages fortified by the Heuchelberg and Stromberg mountain ridges.
Graf Neipperg (graf-neipperg.de) continues its 800-year winemaking tradition under the flamboyant Count Karl Eugen von Neipperg at his family’s formal seat at Schwaigern, a handsome castle and oenological headquarters, which is open to visitors.
While the odd trollinger halbtrocken still haunts its wine list, Graf Neipperg’s line-up is emblematic of Württemberg’s oenological evolution with lemberger taking centrestage. Indeed, the majority of the label’s ultra-premium Grosses Gewächs red wines (the equivalent of Burgundy’s Grand Cru) are represented by Zabergäu lemberger, the remainder being pinot noir.
The 2011 Schloßberg GG Lemberger wields a surprising punch at 14% alcohol, indicative of the heavily sheltered microclimate of the Zabergäu with its mineral soils, consistent, generous sunlight and south-facing vineyards. The wine shows a faint whiff of tobacco on the nose, a mid-palate erupting in stewed red forest fruits, and some paprika and white pepper spice, and finishes with well-measured, slightly dusty tannins. The 2013 reveals even more generous and beguiling berry fruit with over-ripe quince on the nose and a hint of amaretto on the finish, again with the ever-present hint of white pepper reminiscent of some of the more elegant syrah of the Côte-Rôtie.
“People may have strong feelings about blaufränkisch and kékfrankos, but Zabergäu lemberger is a versatile grape and its story is still evolving. It can be powerful and spicy or elegant and delicate,” says Axel Gerst, managing director of the Cleebronn Güglingen (cleebronner-weinshop.de) cooperative.
Its contemporary headquarters lie in the shadow of the Michaelsberg mountain, known as the ‘guardian of the Zabergäu’. Like fellow progressive co-op Weinkonvent Dürrenzimmern (weinkonvent-duerrenzimmern.de), Cleebronn Güglingen broke with tradition to follow pioneers like Dautel in the pursuit of quality with lemberger as its flag-bearer. Its 2014 Michaelsberg Reserve barrel selection is remarkable with a sour cherry and raspberry nose, luscious stewed rhubarb, supple tannins and a dusting of savoury spice.
“There is no denying lemberger has an identity crisis,” states Christian Dautel. “There is a strong feeling among many winemakers and marketing people here that Zabergäu lemberger should be renamed blaufränkisch, and to build a strong international reputation around this grape.
“But then our lemberger is not Austrian blaufränkisch; there are great differences,” he states. “The Zabergäu is about elegance and spice. Lemberger has such great potential to be a bridging wine. It has more guts and spine than pinot noir, but much more elegance and grace than syrah or cabernet. It can play to both tastes naturally. This versatility is its strength.”
The large majority of premium lemberger producers from the Zabergäu and broader Württemberg region (producers of note include Weingut Aldinger (weingut-aldinger.de), Weingut Wachtstetter (wachtstetter.de) and Schnaitmann (weingut-schnaitmann.de) have made a clear departure from Württemberg’s long ‘light, aromatic and saccharine’ hangover. They’re now fashioning bold, dry, serious wines with generous maceration time, formidable concentration and an appetite for new wood.
Although lemberger comes third behind trollinger and pinot meunier (schwarzriesling) as the most planted red variety in Württemberg, the variety has led the charge in the region’s reinvention as a premium designation with pinot noir close behind.
“But whereas pinot noir belongs to many, lemberger belongs to us… It’s our heart,” declares legendary Zabergäu winemaker, Wolfgang Alt of Weingut Wolfgang Alt (wolfgangalt-weingut.de).
Alt believes unapologetic beauty to be lemberger’s raison d’être, tethering his reputation to the claim by doing away with most of the other popular regional varietals. Instead, he focuses on crafting lemberger at his small winery and cellar door near the Graf Neipperg’s fortress in Brackenheim-Neipperg.
He produces just 10‒12,000 bottles per year harvested from three hectares, and his quixotic vision is vindicated by his extraordinary wines. While 2014 proved a challenging year, with frost and early rain, that year’s Lemberger Steingrube – macerated for 21 days, then fermented and conditioned in old 600-litre barrels for 20 months – is well-structured with sour cherry on the nose and a faint hint of thyme, lush ripe strawberry on the palate and supple tannins.
The 2015 is even more beguiling with the striking addition of yellow fruits up front (faint accents of mango and banana), a brilliant ruby colour and that ever-present savoury herbaceousness. A gentle hint of oxidation adds some complementary earthiness akin to ultra-fresh grenache.
Both the 2014 and ’15 Lemberger Brackenheimer, which underwent 20 months in barrique, are more concentrated and mineral, the 2015 revealing a peach-like nose that quickly rounds out to lush, black cherry with undertones of forest mulch and a faint almond bitterness on the finish. Truly elegant and inspired wines.
Alt bundles me into his endearingly antique utility to visit the serpentine pathways of his Brackenheimer terraces, from where he has harvested lemberger since 1985 and his ancestors long before that. This is truly astonishing country, where terraced vines are braided across mountainsides and the valley disappears into a dreamy thicket of deciduous forest.
But the tranquillity is soon shattered by the unrelenting sound of gunfire. “Don’t worry, they’re after boars not kangaroos,” Alt laughs, before getting down on his knees to inspect his vines.
“Lemberger is my love and passion. For me, it should be graceful and enchanting, not pompous like Bordeaux. We have good and reliable sun, which lemberger needs. But this is a cool climate – elegance is our strength. This is Germany,” he exclaims.
“People say Zabergäu lemberger has finally become modern, but not here,” he offers, as the gunfire reaches a fitting crescendo. “We always made great wines; we just drank them ourselves. But now we are ready to share them with others.”