Germany’s Sekt State of Mind
By Sebastian Bordthäuser
Sekt embodies free spirit, hedonism, even — in its blatant disregard for rules — punk. The limitless maximization of lust for life and the unadulterated joy of the sensual assume the spotlight, while ethics and morals are asked to exit stage left. Whether it's to christen a ship, toast a victory, or celebrate a birthday in the office (back when we did things like this), bubbles embrace the sparkling side of everyday life. A flash of glam on an otherwise wretched Tuesday afternoon. Sekt is bound to nothing and to no one, neither to food nor occasion. And that’s why it works whenever and wherever: be it meal or mood or simply because a bottle happens to be chilled.
This exuberant love, this idiosyncratic, inherently German emotional condition can, naturally, be condensed into a single German word: Sektlaune. A sparkling state of mind.
Sektlaune is more than just a simplistic avowal to all things Sekt or a latent thirst trailing you like a shadow. Sektlaune chronicles our wondrous transformation toward a certain lightness, uncoupled from the rational engineering spirit of our earthly existence, placing us somewhere between John Travolta and Brazilian street carnival, all in a sparkling bliss. Quintessentially German, Sektlaune, of course, follows its own internal rules and enforces strict distinctions from its closely related yet appropriately named kin.
There’s something morally tasteless about the plodding Bierernst (a character we might call the beer buzz), steeped as he is in alcoholic bottle sweat, his feet firmly grounded in hoppy facts. His opposite is a Schnapsidee, a sudden, booze-fueled flight of fancy, inherently a bit too crazy, with dubious escapades anchored in a high-octane temperament.
Sektlaune. A sparkling state of mind.
Try celebrating a birthday at the office with a bottle of spirits or a case of beer and you'll be greeted with a polite but firm request for a chat with the HR director. But open a bottle of bubbles in honor of that birthday? Tuesday at noon? No problem! It’s a break in the rules that neither beer, nor booze, nor even wine can sustain. Only. With. Sekt!
A Bubbling Mess
Sektlaune’s sparkling personality does, however, have a dark side; historically she has tended to see herself as little more than a cheap thrill. A survival tactic to make it in a market that is “price sensitive” (or “miserly,” as we used to call it), at best. As a result, there is enormous demand for the cheapest of sparkling wines, the lion's share of what actually hits the glass in Germany. Meaning that although Sekt is knocked back like there’s no tomorrow, whatever the occasion, its reputation is unchangingly rock-bottom.
The mousse, held to be the central quality sparkle of a sparkling wine, can make its way into the bottle in a wide variety of ways. German Sekt allows for three different methods of production: traditional bottle fermentation (Method Champenoise), transfer method, and tank fermentation (aka Charmat). Traditional bottle fermentation is identical to Method Champenoise and represents only the smallest portion of Sekts produced. The transfer method does involve a second fermentation in bottle, but no disgorgement occurs afterward: it instead takes place in large pressure tanks in which the Sekt is blended, given a dosage and then bottled. It may legally be sold as “bottle fermented” since the second fermentation does indeed happen in the bottle. But it is still not the same as traditional bottle fermentation (Methode Champenoise). Because: semantics. The Charmat or tank method involves second fermentation in tanks roughly the size of Luxembourg, allowing for the production of enormous volumes. This method represents the majority of all sparkling wines worldwide, and thus also a majority of Sekts that are produced.
The three methods, however, differ in more than just approach. There are also legally mandated minimum production durations, time on the lees and the type of carbon dioxide that may be applied during the tank method. Origin is not necessarily anchored in the German Sparkling Wine Act as a quality criterion. And so it is perfectly legal to market a Sekt as German even when the base wines come from other European countries, as long as the second fermentation occurred in Germany.
WINZERSEKT IS DEAD — LONG LIVE WINZERSEKT
Winzersekt, the vintner’s answer to branded bubbles once the monopoly had been upended, is subject to the strictest of production requirements from origin to fermentation to variety to vintage.
Unfortunately, what promised to be a fireworks display of Sekt’s sparkling future was more often than not a dud. Sekt was either relegated to the sidelines and made from the excess grapes that didn’t make it into the still wines, or a prestige object that prided itself on maximum ripeness and a nearly Baroque resplendence. Neither is conducive to Sektlaune.
To understand why this came to be, simply turn your eyes to the kitchen. Cooking and baking may take place in one sphere, but each respects its own rules and laws. That’s wine and Sekt in a nutshell. Still wine is harvested based on must weight, while the grapes for sparkling wine are harvested based on acid levels. Winzersekt unfortunately offered neither a qualitative nor quantitative alternative to the brands of the large producers. And thus Champagne had little competition in securing the prestige market and claiming the enduring bubble throne.
In the harsh light of day, this makes it sound like we're stranded in a grim Sekt dystopia. Fear not! The facts on the ground confirm that no longer an understudy, Sekt is emerging from the wings to own the stage. And her public adores her.
A growing number of vintners are challenging their preconceptions, and incorporating organic cultivation, timely harvests, spontaneous fermentation, and reduced dosage. Many controversial still wine philosophies, including minimal intervention and a complete absence of sulfur, are easy to implement and lead to truly novel results. As vintners continue to play to their strengths, the conversation has long since moved past bubbles as the firestarter and into enduring expressions of origin and vintage.
Which brings us to the place where all German wine roads lead: Riesling.
"A grand wine lives from the puzzle pieces of acidity, creaminess, concentration, and grip, which when taken together are ultimately responsible for the shape and feel of a wine in the mouth,” says Mathieu Kauffmann, founding partner at Sektgut Christmann & Kauffman in Gimmeldingen, Pfalz. “Riesling beautifully interprets terroir to give you a great sparkling wine with a clear character of origin.” He pauses, then adds with superb Alsatian understatement: “It's just that simple.”
And so, should you find yourself stuck in a dreary Tuesday, pop a cork of Winzersekt and embrace the shift from workday malaise to weekend euphoria. It’s just that simple.
Give in to the power of Sektlaune.
Sekts to seek out
Translated from the German by Weinstory.de