Returning Historic Varieties to Germany’s Vineyards
by Matthias Neske
This is a story for the wine romantics among us who dream of bygone varieties, who hunker down to listen to the old stone terraces telling stories of yesteryear, of those with a weak spot for growers and wines committed to character. It is in this world of nostalgia and nerds that this story is set.
Enter Ulrich "Uli" Martin, a viticulturist from Gundheim in Rheinhessen. "Such a reliable companion!" he says. "Honest, direct, and amiable. You sense it immediately." This high praise, however, is not aimed at his best friend, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, at a grape variety, and specifically: the historic Fränkischer Burgunder. Martin has worked with plants all his life. And he talks of them with a familiarity most of us reserve for our dearest companions. While the acquaintance between this man and this centuries-old variety is quite recent, the two are already fast friends.
"Historic grape variety" is neither a technical term nor a legal definition, but a practical notion. It refers to a time when a mind-numbing range of wine grape varieties were grown in Germany. In 1875, for example, the Blankenhorn vine nursery in Baden’s Kaiserstuhl offered more than 400 different varieties.
Sixty years later, the Reichsrebsortiment (a decree from 1935, which aimed at a planned, profitable viticulture) recommended the cultivation of only 11 white and eight red varieties throughout Germany, and pushed a philosophy that prioritized yield over quality. This assortment formed the basis of the grapevine legislation of the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II. How could such a loss of biodiversity have occurred in such a short time?
As is so often the case, there is no single reason, rather an interplay of elements. Diseases had the strongest influence. In 1845, powdery mildew was discovered in Europe, and in 1878 downy mildew. 1878 was also the year in which phylloxera was first detected in Germany in Annaberg, a former wine-growing site near Bonn. The result was infections of the vine stocks, followed by large-scale clearing of entire areas and the introduction of American rootstocks and grafted vines.
The second important influence relates to cultivation. Until well into the 19th century, the field blend (Mischsatz) dominated German viticulture. The species-rich composition of the vineyard was a kind of insurance for a reliable harvest. However, new scientific findings shook up this approach. After all, a field blend in which everything is harvested at the same time is not optimized in terms of the needs of individual varieties.
Johann Philipp Bronner established a model vine nursery in 1825 in Wiesloch, in the Pfalz, where he tested pruning methods and varieties. Based on his findings, he recommended planting single-variety vineyards. Meanwhile, Sebastian Englerth in Randersacker, Franken, propagated Silvaner vines in his vineyard using massale selection and achieved higher yields. Around 1876, Gustav Adolf Froelich from Edenkoben in the Palatinate began to vegetatively propagate particularly high-yielding Silvaner vines — the first clonal selection. Finally, in 1882, Hermann Müller crossed Riesling and a grape variety assumed to be Silvaner (today we know it was Madeleine Royale). This gave him a new, precocious and high-yielding variety that would later become one of the key chapters of the German wine story: Müller-Thurgau.
All these elements led to an increasing concentration on individual grape varieties, either on those that, like Riesling, were considered to be of particularly high quality, or on those that promised the highest possible yield. The state authorities supported this approach; after all, it was a matter of fame and money. Thus the unprofitable Mischsatz vineyards disappeared from the German wine landscape, together with the numerous grape varieties within.
Of the 242 varieties Jung discovered in the three years of the project, 89 were considered extinct.
Why Weißburgunder (a.k.a. Pinot Blanc), for example, was preserved and promoted, while Grünfränkisch was not, cannot really be conclusively explained. Martin is convinced that in many cases it was simply a matter of coincidence. Later, perhaps too late, suspicion grew that this approach might have lost something not easily returned: diversity.
Returning what once seemed lost
And so, in 2007, the biologist, ampelographer, and vine detective Andreas Jung was commissioned by the German government to search for old grape varieties that were no longer cultivated.
What he found was an unimagined cornucopia. Of the 242 varieties Jung discovered in the three years of the project, 89 were considered extinct. Some of these varieties could be traced to deep Eastern Europe, others had been at home in medieval France. Some were still alive in remote old field blends, others Jung found in hedges and bushes. The "Fränkische" varieties, which refer to Charlemagne's Francia, were considered particularly valuable in historical documents dating as far back as the 8th century.
However, not all of these 89 historic varieties inherently have ancient origins. Recent genetic research suggests that a number may also be the offspring of natural crossings between partners which for the most part remain unsolved mysteries. Obviously there is more work to be done.
Hartmut Scheuring: The magic of the hidden
Hartmut Scheuring has little of his Alter Satz to offer, and the few bottles he has are highly sought after. "No wonder," he laughs, "my plot is only 450 square meters. But at least there's a hut in the vineyard, where you can have a picnic, enjoy the wine, and admire the view." Scheuring is not a trained vintner, but a remedial teacher. And a true wine enthusiast. His vineyard in the Steinbacher Nonnenberg looks a bit like what you would expect from a site for historic grape varieties.
Once upon a time, the south-facing slopes of the entire Main valley between Schweinfurt and Bamberg were covered with vines. Today there are some larger plantings between Zeil and Steinbach, and the rest is comprised of tiny vine islands. Some of the areas are overgrown with bushes, and some are dry grasslands.
Scheuring farms his small vineyard organically. In addition to Silvaner, Heunisch, and Elbling, he also grows a few red varieties on the Nonnenberg, including the Blauer Kölner and the Blauer Tokajer, two grape varieties that came from southeastern Europe centuries ago. Andreas Jung thinks their origins might rather be in the northern Caucasus or even northwest China. But none of the local winegrowers and vine researchers have yet ventured to China to seek out the remnants in hidden hedges.
The Historische Rebsorten project and its consequences
Back to Jung and his research project. As sensational as his research work was, the in-house report was never published.
However, when Jung talked about the findings with viticulturalist Martin, it became clear that this research must be saved. So Martin took some cuttings from the researcher, propagated them in his vine nursery, and started a project called Historische Rebsorten to make his work more publicly known, especially among winemakers.
One of these re-discovered grapes is Fränkischer Burgunder, which Jung found in a century-old, abandoned vineyard in Saxony-Anhalt. The once highly esteemed variety was neglected, Martin believes, "through sheer ignorance." Fränkischer Burgunder, together with two dozen other varieties previously considered extinct, is once again available for commercial cultivation. Some wineries have already begun experimenting with the old varieties and the first vintages are gradually making their way onto the market. Excitingly, these cultivars can be tasted for the first time in pure varietal form.
Stefan Sander: History out of curiosity
One of these wineries is Weingut Sander. Stefan Sander runs his estate in Mettenheim, Rheinhessen, just a few kilometers from Martin's vineyard. Because Sander's grandfather converted the entire operation to organic viticulture back in the 1950s (a term that didn't even exist back then), the Sander winery is considered one of the ultimate pioneers in this respect in Germany. However, the reason Stefan Sander planted Grünfränkisch for the first time in 2016 and the first vines of Fränkischer Burgunder a year later is quite different.
"Curiosity," says Sander, "very simple personal curiosity. I wanted to know what something tastes like that people have grown here, where I now have Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc." In the case of Fränkischer Burgunder, it was definitely a leap into the deep end. "I had never drunk a wine from this grape variety before, it simply didn't exist." After initially planting only a few vines, he will plant another 1,400 new vines this year. Why? "Because it's incredibly exciting. I've never seen a red grape variety in Germany that ripens so late, deep into October, and then produces spicy, peppery wines."
Jonas Dostert: Re-model on the Mosel
Elbling is not a historical grape variety in the strictest sense because it never disappeared. But it has suffered from the focus on Riesling and new crossings. Once one of Germany’s most widely cultivated varieties, there are now, according to official statistics, a mere 475 hectares remaining — most of it in the Obermosel region along the border with Luxembourg.
This is no coincidence. When Clemens Wenzeslaus, the last prince-bishop of Trier, decreed in 1787 that only Riesling should be planted on the Mosel, the Obermosel was in a confederation with Luxembourg and was therefore exempt from the regulation.
Elbling, with its rather neutral aromas and fresh acidity, served successfully for many years as a base for sparkling wine for the large Trier wineries. Starting in the 1980s, however, sparkling wine producers sought and found even more affordable base wines in Spain. The Obermosel and thus also the Elbling had to find a new identity.
"My father was the first generation here to market his wines himself," says Jonas Dostert, a young winemaker from the Obermosel who has been making a splash with single-varietal Elblings. His wines are razor sharp and racy. They radiate an energetic character akin to glistening Chablis or punchy Aligoté. How did Jonas come up with this interpretation? "For me, the question was, what is the profile of the region? Elbling, yes, but in what way? I wanted to know, is there a spearhead, a point of reference? But I didn't really find anything in the region."
Elbling as a means of self-empowerment
Like Sander, who had to discover and plant an old, but in this form completely new grape variety, Dostert had to discover, plant, and rally around Elbling. Even the elaborate manual harvest of the thin-skinned variety, spontaneous fermentation, and use of wooden barrels for ageing were unusual in a region of sparkling wine suppliers.
"Elbling is helping us to realize a self-empowerment in the Obermosel, to create a profile we can be proud of."
However, Dostert has noticed advantages to his approach. "The fact that the flagships are missing means that you can act a bit more freely," he notes. "I don't have to match a stereotype in my head, I can devote myself fully to the wine itself." In the meantime, he has discovered that the traditional disadvantage of Elbling, the great variations in maturity depending on weather conditions, help to "bring out the real character of the vintage." Meanwhile, he is experimenting with old varieties of Elbling that are genetically identical to one another, but quite different in phenotype. "I believe that Elbling is helping us to realize a kind of self-empowerment here in the Obermosel, to create an independent profile that one can be proud of."
How now, historic varieties?
The list of varieties approved by the German Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food includes (as of January 2022) no fewer than 303 names. About 60% of these are new varieties, 20% international varieties (yes, even those like Mourvèdre or Nero d'Avola), and the rest are distributed among established and rediscovered native varieties. From Adelfränkisch to Weißer Räuschling, some 30 historic grape varieties can be legally grown again, and mentioned on the label.
However, this new diversity is not yet reflected in the vineyard. According to official 2020 statistics, the ten most widely cultivated grape varieties occupy a total of 77.1% of the vineyard area in Germany; there are only a few hectares of many among the 303 approved varieties.
But for fans of the old varieties and for the vintners who grow them, this is a step in the right direction. Uli Martin even dreams that varieties such as Fränkischer Burgunder will "someday, when we're both no longer alive," regain the renown of times past. Whether that will ever be the case remains to be seen. But there will definitely be more examples in the next few years, albeit in small quantities. And in the search for new/old tastes, it will definitely pay to keep one’s eyes open.
TastING the Past
2020 Der Trockene Franke, Alter Satz, Hartmut Scheuring
Medium lemon with a pinkish Gewürztraminer hue. Quiet on the nose, walnut, dried herbs, no primary fruit character. Autumnal impressions, with ripe pear, viscosity, some orange zest. All in all, a slow-burner, with the wisdom of age.
2020 Alter Satz Vinum Franconium Purpureum, Anja Stritzinger
Pale ruby, delightfully light. On the nose quite distinctive with elements of raspberry lollipop, hibiscus, tomato leaf, and kitchen herbs. On the palate pronounced acidity with snappy berries, pomegranate, hibiscus tea, some medicinal nuances. Light-footed and light-hearted. Somehow I feel reminded of an old herbal cabinet, with a wave from Hildegard von Bingen.
2019 Fränkischer Burgunder, Historische Rebsorten, Ulrich Martin, Michael Gutzler
A reductive start with hints of coconut. Present tannins and an equally nice acidity on the palate. Plenty of tart freshness, not at all ponderous or too hot. I sense hedges on mountain slopes, blackthorn, sour cherry, the siblings in spirit are Mondeuse, Chatus, maybe even Saperavi. Needs and deserves time.