Can German Pinot Noir become the world’s best?

Benedikt Baltes, a young Pinot Noir winemaker in Franconia, wants German Spätburgunder to find its own identity – and is using Riesling as his benchmark

Words by Anne Krebiehl MW

When you speak to German winemakers about Pinot Noir, aka Spätburgunder, it’s only a matter of time before they evoke Riesling. The two varieties are two sides of the same coin when it comes to the expression of place.

One young Pinot Noir winemaker in Franconia is using Riesling as his benchmark. He wants Spätburgunder to find its own, German, identity; looking at the way Riesling is made provides his inspiration.

A Pinot Noir vineyard in Klingenberg, Franken
A Pinot Noir vineyard in Klingenberg, Franken
Spätburgunder thrives on the iron-red, poor soils of Buntsandstein, or coloured sandstone

Benedikt Baltes is a tall, burly man with a booming voice and a habit of gesticulating with his (enormous) hands. He is a man of the land; his great-grandfather was a founding member of one of Germany’s oldest co-operatives in the Ahr valley, which is historic Pinot Noir country. In 2010, with an investor, Baltes bought an 11ha estate in Klingenberg, Franken. Here, in another historic Pinot spot, Spätburgunder thrives on the iron-red, poor soils of Buntsandstein, or coloured sandstone. Since then he has worked steadily to hone his style and thoughts. There is no received wisdom he hasn’t challenged.

His wines are the expression of an elegant, new Germany. A double magnum of 2010 Blanc de Noir, a Spätburgunder vinified as still, white wine, shimmers with precision, concentration and vivid freshness. It is waxy, salty; in a blind tasting I’d put it down as mature Chablis. So much for context.

“I have learned at least, at least, as much about Spätburgunder from our own work with very high-grade blanc de noirs and Riesling estates as I have from top Pinot estates,” he says.

German Pinot growers have mastered the production of high-calibre fruit, he says. “People still think that Spätburgunder wines must have a lot of tannin if you want power and ageability. But look at Riesling, look at really great blanc de noirs. There are such powerful Rieslings, even some that are opulent, which never saw fermentation on skins.”

I believe a lot of work is still to be done. What is our own clonal material? Can we be more regional? What can German Spätburgunder be?

“So is a Spätburgunder wine puny because it has too little skin contact? If you look at this blanc de noirs it lacks nothing in power, body or depth and it was simply pressed [i.e. it had no skin contact at all and was fermented as juice, like white wine].

“Then there is the concept of finesse. Spätburgunder has such a different tannin structure from other red varieties and thus the way of making the wine is more and more similar to making white wine: good acidity levels, fine extraction, reductive methods. That is what I have learned.”

“How do I get finesse and acidity during the growing season? How do I counteract power and create balance?” Baltes asks. “We [Germans] are still far too focused on power. But the power is in the grapes already.” Referring to tannin levels and alcoholic strength, Baltes says “we have the right picture in our minds, yet we still overdo it. I’ve never liked opulent, oily wines.”

Hence his is a different path which he shares with several of Germany’s new vanguard of Pinot Noir producers. They are shaping a new paradigm of Spätburgunder wine.

“German Riesling shows structure, show the type of soil it comes from; it has ageing potential. German Riesling can be a fine wine, with moderate alcohol. It has character.” Now, those at the forefront of German Pinot Noir production are working out what its identity is.

German Pinot Noir producer Benedikt Baltes
Benedikt Baltes believes German Pinot Noir can be "the most filigree" in the world
German Pinot Noir grapes

Up to now, Baltes says, German Pinot Noir producers followed the Burgundian model. That’s by no means a purely German phenomenon: anyone aspiring to quality Pinot Noir adopted these methods. “People planted French Pinot clones. They ordered barrels from French coopers. But I believe a lot of work is still to be done. What is our own clonal material? Can we be more regional? What can German Spätburgunder be? Why should it not be the most filigree, the most ageable, the most mineral, the most fine-boned – just as Riesling is in its own class?”

How does he achieve that? His steep, stony, terraced vineyards naturally restrain the vigour of the vines, as do other techniques such as farming biodynamically, and keeping the leaf canopy low so as to shade the grapes from the sun. He wants to have balance: first in the vineyard, then in the wine. “We don’t need full sunshine on the grapes. Why not harvest a compact bunch that comes with a bit more acid?”

Crazily enough, Baltes has started training his vines in the terraced Klingenberger Schlossberg into gobelets, free-standing bush vines that give more shade from the sun, and produce a smaller crop with smaller, more intensely-flavoured berries. He describes his style as “extremely reductive” – allowing as little oxygen as possible into the winemaking process, resulting in wines that are lean, elegant and fresh. He ferments with whole bunches, meaning fresh, green tannins come from the stalks. He uses mostly 300-litre German oak barrels made by a local cooper. “The barrel is merely an instrument of maturation. I want just a little bit of oxygen, but I do not need oak tannin, sweetness or more air. I just want the wine to develop very slowly over one and a half years and clarify itself, so I can bottle without filtration. I want to bottle when the wine still needs a little development.” His aim? “Urfreude”, or primal joy.