It's Easier to Drink Weissburgunder Than to Write a Headline For It
'Everything Happens for a Riesling' is a good pun. But there's more to German wine than that.
On the first night of my German wine trip, we actually slept in France. The village of Schweigen, site of the German Wine Gate and the southernmost point on the historic Deutsche Weinstrasse, had no vacancies that evening. So our group consisting of the Pfalz Wine Queen, a Danish journalist named Kasper, and me—stayed at a hotel across the border in Alsace. I shouldn’t be, but I’m always a bit surprised at how close the German wine-growing areas are to famous French regions such as Alsace and Champagne (the heart of which is just over three hours drive).
What’s also surprising is how the French grapes have taken hold in Germany, particularly in the Pfalz (the P is silent, btw). All the burgunders (aka pinots) are here: weissburgunder (aka pinot blanc); grauburgunder (aka pinot gris, aka pinot grigio); and of course spätburgunder (aka pinot noir, which we talked about in the last newsletter). Chardonnay is also, unsurprisingly, popping up more and more, too (Chardonnay had actually been illegal until the early 1990s).
I was especially taken by the pinot blanc that I tasted in the Pfalz. At dinner that first evening in Schweigen, at Weinstube Jülg, we drank beautiful weissburgunder from Jülg, Friedrich Becker, Bernhart, and while we ate delicious escargots for what seemed like a perfect pairing along the French-German border. “I think weissburgunder might be better for food,” confided Gerd Bernhart (quietly, as if careful not to offend riesling).
Like pinot noir, the quality of pinot blanc is on the rise in Pfalz and Rheinhessen. Some of the most memorable wines on my visit—even at the grand cru, Grosses Gewächs level—were from pinot blanc.
Weissburgunder may offer a new path into German wines for people, perhaps the committed chardonnay drinker, who may not appreciate riesling. “What’s charming about pinot blanc is it ages harmoniously, and it’s not polarizing,” says Franz Wehrheim of Dr. Wehrheim. Pinot blanc can be crisp, refreshing, and great value, but at the top end it can also be intense, deep, and full of minerality.
“Some soils, for us, are too heavy for riesling,” said Friederich Kessler of Weingut Münzberg, which has focused on the pinot grapes. The 2017 harvest marked the last time they produced a GG riesling. Münzberg does, however, produces a grand-cru weissburgunder, Schlangenpfiff, that is powerful, full-bodied, and worthy of long aging.
I’m still thinking about the Weingut Kranz’s excellent 2020 Kalmit GG Weissburgunder, and even more so about their 2014 Kalmit GG Weissburgunder, which had everything—rich, fruity, herbal, tropical, with notes of candlewax, strawberry, nectarine, Earl Grey tea, with lively acidity, and an incredible salty finish. It demonstrated pinot blanc’s amazing potential.
I happened to be in Germany during its spring asparagus season, Spargelzeit. Germans are crazy about their white asparagus during this time of year, and restaurant menus of full of asparagus dishes. In fact, part of my time was spent on the so-called Spargelstrasse and visiting an asparagus festival, all part of a forthcoming article I’m writing for a travel magazine.
Asparagus is notoriously one of the hardest foodstuffs to pair with wine. Over the years I’ve heard debates about silvaner or riesling or even Austrian grüner veltliner being the best pairing for asparagus. But I’m here to definitively tell you that the best pairing with white asparagus is actually weissburgunder.
As a final note, I realize that I have been slightly dismissive of sweet wines over the years in my German wine coverage. I want to be clear that I love certain wines with residual sugar, especially ones that have been aged for years. I’ve written love letters to those sorts of wines, in fact. Spätlese, auslese, and trockenbeerenauslese just happen to be—for me—special occasion wines, and not for every day. I also don’t really enjoy sugary sodas and fruity soft drinks. So if you like sweet wines, take my trocken bias with a grain of salt.
When we visited Fitz-Ritter in Bad Dürkheim, after tasting his lovely rieslings, Johann Fitz wouldn’t let us leave until we’d tasted his Dürkheimer Abtsfronhof Gewürztraminer Spätlese, a wine with around 50 grams of residual sugar. A few years ago, it had been recommended by Oprah Winfrey as one of her favorite wines. Fitz-Ritter had no advanced warning that Oprah would sprinkle her magic sales dust on his sweet gewürtztraminer, and only realized it after the winery suddenly was fielding a lot of phone calls from Americans, inquiring “Do you know where we can get some of that…Durk-something Gewurztra-something?” His American importer was, of course, thrilled.
Sometimes, it just takes Oprah—and a little residual sugar—to wash away that old American fear of the umlaut.