What You’re Still Getting Wrong About Trollinger

Swabian Trollinger mug
"Swabian milk" in a Vertiele mug; Photo Credit: Valerie Kathawala

Trollinger is on its death bed. It’s a goofball of German wine; more rosé than red, a toothless, wine-with-a-small “w” that is not only hard to define, but deserves equal parts pity and scorn. So say any number of winegrowers and drinkers prophesying the downfall of this once-important Swabian variety.

It has, in a sense, become nearly a national pastime to trash Trollinger. “But Trollinger will survive,” says Bernd Kreis, a respected sommelier, wine dealer, and winegrower, who also runs High Fidelity, a noted wine bar in Stuttgart, dismissing the dark prognoses. The variety certainly holds a future for Kreis in the southwestern German winegrowing region of Württemberg, as well as in Italy’s Südtirol-Alto Adige, where it is known as Vernatsch and Schiava. 

You Can Keep a Good Grape Down

But before that can happen, it’s essential to rectify the established practices that sullied Trollinger’s good name in the first place. 

While Trollinger enjoyed a long reign as the king of grapes in Württemberg, its importance diminished sharply once cultivation in labor-intensive steep sites lost its economic feasibility. Odd, given that it was an enduring cash cow among Württemberg wines, planted in the very best sites because only there could grapes from this capricious vine fully ripen. To critics, those vineyards would have been better used for Riesling and Spätburgunder in international formats. 

But Swabian winegrowers were not bothered by the fact that their translucent red wine brought in little more profit than a bottle of mineral water: big-berried Trollinger can produce huge quantities of grapes. Cooperatives, which dominate Swabian winegrowing even today, bought and processed its plentiful fruit, primarily into semi-sweet wines, with volume keeping the trade economically feasible over the long term.

So what happens when someone questions the region’s sacred cow? Kreis can tell you, from first-hand experience: Back in the late 1990s, he dared recommend to the Baden-Württemberg state parliament that Trollinger be banned from top sites and replaced with nobler varieties. Kreis was at that time already a sommelier of international repute, so his words carried weight. Or normally would have, anyway. 

His call for Trollinger to be tilled from top sites instead proved a litmus test of Swabian tolerance. The results were clear: Kreis was denounced as a “Trollinger murderer”; he received threats. The fight over Trollinger turned into a culture war, carried out with a level of drama similar to the demonstrations a few years ago surrounding Stuttgart 21 — the divisive reconstruction of Stuttgart’s central train station.

Publicist and Swabian-born winegrower Horst Hummel has written often about the relationship between Swabians and their favorite beverage: “Trollinger always tastes the same. That’s what Swabians love best about it. It was drunk exclusively by Swabs in Swabia, and also praised exclusively by Swabs in Swabia.”

The image of the Viertelesschlotzer, Swabian slang for an individual who enjoys his beloved tipple from a squat, quarter-liter glass mug with a handle, even became something of a symbol for the quirky Swabian mentality. Trollinger is also a piece of local culture; no other wine reflects the Swabian sensibility quite as well. Visit any Stammtisch, the locals’ only tables, and you’ll see well-practiced drinkers easily knocking back six Viertele of “Swabian milk” from those glasses. It’s all part of an evening’s efforts to bring a bit of cheer to a world full of skepticism and melancholy.

From Hessigheim to… Burgundy?

Alexander Eisele, a winegrower from Hessigheim im Neckartal, says his grandfather polished off at least a liter of Trollinger a day, and on the weekend celebrated his favorite “four-course menu”: a Swabian roast with onions alongside three “quarters” of the beverage — a fluid foodstuff and long an irreplaceable cultural good in the Trollinger Republic.

Alexander Eisere and the pride of Württemberg
Alexander Eisele and the pride of Württemberg, Photo Credit: Weingut Eisele

But at some point the relationship between the Swabians and their daily companion got out of whack. This starts with a hard truth: the old generation of Trollinger quaffers is dying out. Just as importantly, drinking habits changed with the advent of dark, oaky red wines from varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Lemberger. Since the time when Swabian winegrowers began orienting themselves toward international models, Eisele says, Trollinger’s role is “solely to be the scapegoat.” 

When he took over the estate from his parents in 2014, Eisele pressed the wine in the (then) typical Swabian way: While most red wines ferment on the solids/mash, allowing color pigments and tannins to be liberated, with Trolliger the solids are warmed up. “After that, the must is dead. All that remains is the thin, light red wine that led Trollinger to its reputation,” as Horst Hummel has written. 

Eisele had doubts about that “terrible procedure” and developed a style of his own — a radical counterpoint to the candy-sweet, bastardized wine. While his parents pursued the patented Swabian maximizing approach, achieving 120 to 130 hectoliters per hectare, Eisele reduced yields to 70 kilograms to boost its profile. He raised the wine in used oak barrels from Burgundy. Soon his Trollinger was presenting a filigree structure, lively acidity, and velvety tannins, with the shell limestone soil adding a mineral note. 

A broad arc of vineyards lines the Neckar river at Hessigheim.
Hessigheim’s Trollinger vineyards; Photo Credit: Weingut Eisele

Between Hessigheim and Besigheim, the Neckar has dug deep into the shell limestone. Generations of winegrowers have been toiling in the terraced vineyards there since the Middle Ages. The Hessigheimer Felsengärten, which is known to locals as the “Swabian Dolomites,” is a “truly strong piece of cultural heritage,” Eisele says. The steep sites above the Neckar can only be worked on the back of tremendously difficult manual labor. For Eisele, who farms his vines organically, it’s a “truly tough job.” 

This is why Eisele struggles to deal with the way Trollinger is dismissed. People “just talk terribly about it.” But many sites have since grown too warm for Trollinger. With climate change proceeding unabated, the vines even suffer from occasional sunburn. In Hessigheim’s terraces, growing-season temperatures can exceed 50° C, and “Trollinger can’t do much of anything with that,” Eisele says. 

Given its porous skin, Trollinger is extremely susceptible to illnesses and pests. “Anything you don’t want, Trollinger always gets it first,” bemoans Kreis. Because it’s such a fast grower, vintners always have to deal with a lot of extra work. That’s why many Trollinger vines have already been ripped up and planted to other varieties. “My heart bleeds when old vines are torn out,” says Eisele.

The Hessigheimer sites have mutated into an open-air laboratory for international varieties, from Cabernet and Merlot to Syrah and even Tempranillo. Hectares of Trollinger have declined sharply; the historical high of 2,500 hectares now tops out at not quite 2,000, with all signs pointing to continued decline. Eisele knows many cooperative growers in his area who are giving up on Trollinger: The grind just isn’t worth it anymore, it would seem. His experience is different, as his Trollinger from old vines is “always the first wine to sell out.”

Eisele is one of a small, unruly group of vintners who have broken with convention in conservative Swabia and are sticking by Trollinger. Hessigheimer winegrowing pair Stefanie and Fabian Lassak are members, as are brothers Hansjörg and Matthias Aldinger in Fellbach, Björn and Tobias Heinrich in Heilbronn, Moritz Haidle and Jochen Beurer in Kernen, Max Kusterer in Esslingen, Leon Gold in Weinstadt, and Marcel Idler in Strümpfelbach.

Marcel Idler in his Trollinger vineyard.
Marcel Idler in his Trollinger vineyard; Photo Credit Weingut Idler

Idler pressed his first wine when he was 12 years old in a former cow barn, a type of “Schillerwein of Trollinger and Riesling,” explains the winegrower. He freely admits that he couldn’t even drink his debut wine — he was still too young. He bottled his first vintage in 2012, and in 2019 moved to a new estate on the edge of Strümpfelbach. 

Unlike many other vintners, he has no interest in ripping up his Trollinger vines: “It’s better to make it radically different,” says the winegrower of a generation that can approach Trollinger without baggage or preconceptions: “It’s not a sacred cow that you can’t touch.” He offers a refreshing and provocative attitude in the Remstal, a place long considered as closed-minded as a Pietist. Trollinger, Idler says, should combine structure and freshness with biting elegance. 

Take a Lesson from Vernatsch

If one looks to Südtirol-Alto Adige, Vernatsch has undergone a similarly tragic story: No other variety has been exploited and denigrated by the wine industry like Vernatsch. It was trucked to neighboring countries, blended, and bottled into faceless caricatures of wine in liter bottles. 

Christian Platter is one of the winegrowers making an effort to rescue Vernatsch from disrepute. He runs the Waldgries estate near Bozen-Bolzano, in the heart of the St. Magdalena winegrowing region.  For his St. Magdalener Antheos, produced from the Vernatsch grape with a small amount of Lagrein, he dug up various rare variants of Vernatsch and began replanting them. 

His model was Vernatsch from the field blend his great-grandfather once pressed. His efforts have paid off: Antheos is more diverse and expressive than many other wines of that variety. Christian Plattner avoids the classic error of trimming the wines to the maximum. Elegance and freshness should always be in the forefront, he says, and Südtirol-Alto Adige must “take advantage of the opportunities of Alpine winegrowing.”

Swabian Poulsard

In Württemberg, vintners like Alexander Eisele, Marcel Idler, and Bernd Kreis all agree that Trollinger’s only chance is as a quality-oriented niche wine. “For that to work, you have to finally recognize its true worth,” Kreis argues. He sees Trollinger as a valuable indigenous specialty like Poulsard from France’s Jura region, or Humagne Rouge from Valais, Switzerland. As a low-to-no-sulfur dry red wine, the most Swabian of all grape varieties has a future. 

As a vins de soif — a refreshing red that offers drinking momentum without being too thin — its lightness, freshness, and animating fruit are advantages that fit optimally into the zeitgeist: “The young generation thinks it’s fire, for them Trollinger is a cool wine,” says Kreis.

Several Württemberg winegrowers have long exported their Trollinger to Scandinavia, the U.S., and Japan, where the wines are in high demand. “That is one potential area we have,” Eisele says. “We are still a Trollinger land. Who is supposed to be drinking all that Merlot and Cabernet that’s being planted all over the place?” he muses. He goes on to posit that holding on to Trollinger is a Swabian response to globalization of the wine world. 

The loss of Trollinger would, he says, represent “the loss of part of our identity.” Or will the locals soon be sitting at home at night with a glass of fat Syrah? “That doesn’t fit the Swabian mentality,” Eisele finds. “We have to work against that.” Nothing’s easy with Trollinger. But going without it isn’t an option either.

Five Trollinger to Try

2020 Trollinger Muschelkalk Silberkapsel, Weingut Alexander Eisele

Aromas of fresh rosemary, red cherry, almond, and tobacco. Taut, with a juicy acidity and bright citrus freshness. Fine-grained, grippy tannins, chalky mineral accents, unapologetically dry and direct. Were all Trollingers so, there would be no reason to argue! 

2022 Trollinger Strümpfelbach, Weingut Marcel Idler

Raised in wood and declared a Landwein. Herbal aromas, together with dark cherry, blueberry, and cherry stone. Juicy, earthy, with good momentum and energy on the palate, enduringly honest, with refreshing acidity and a firm tannic framework. The new generation of Trollinger.

2022 Trollinger Alte Reben, Weingut Leon Gold

Moderate cherry in color, with aromas of wild strawberry, red cherry and cherry stone, dried rosemary. Juicy palate, spicy with fine herbs and good tension, linear and uncompromisingly dry: a significant departure from the Trollinger stereotype.

2022 Trollinger Sine, Weingut Aldinger

For the Aldingers, Sine stands for a Trollinger that is bottled as naturally as possible, unfiltered and without the addition of yeasts or sulfites. Dark red, with notes of cherry, wild berries, and black tea. Enormous momentum, lovely, light-footed, and low in alcohol. Unadorned, puristic, and headstrong. Trollinger 2.0.

2022 Trollinger Alte Reben, Weingut Rainer Schnaitmann

From vines up to 45 years old grown on gypsum keuper. Raised in used 300-liter barrels, without sulfur or filtration. Radiant cherry hues, red currant, wild strawberry and cherry, fine wood spice, violet. Juicy and powerful, with lively acidity and a grippy tannic structure. Traditional, natural, yet stylishly elegant.

Translated by weinstory.de

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