Wine at the 51st Parallel in Saale-Unstrut

Small house at the top of the Vitzenburger Schlossberg vineyard in Saale-Unstrut
Vitzenburger Schlossberg

Heading north from Franken, across the Thüringen Forest toward Berlin or the Baltic Sea, the view is conspicuously flat — except along the Unstrut, Saale, and Elbe rivers. Off the standard tourist routes, few visitors anticipate the hilly landscape, framed with old buildings and picturesque vineyard huts. Even fewer know that Freyburg, with its 4,500 inhabitants, is the birthplace and headquarters of Germany’s largest sparkling wine producer, known since 1895 as Rotkäppchen (“little red riding hood”) for its memorable red closures. 

Standing before the estate’s well-preserved, historical buildings, reminiscent of Reims and Épernay, one might have the impression that the little-known winegrowing region of Saale-Unstrut has followed a straight path to the here and now. Yet, one would be mistaken. While Rotkäppchen maneuvered its way through the Roaring Twenties, Great Depression, Nazi regime, Second World War, conversion into a nationalized company, and ultimately the rise and fall of the GDR to become one of the few East German companies to find post-Socialism success in the west, the rest of the region’s winegrowers were forced to navigate less well-trodden paths. Like Sachsen further east, Saale-Unstrut is a region with more than a millennium of tradition. However, that didn’t help much post-1990. Winegrowing around Naumburg and Roßbach, Freyburg and Weischütz, Bad Kösen, and Vitzeburg had largely ceased on its own even before the end of the GDR.

What Good is Tradition in Saale-Unstrut, Anyway?

The Saale-Unstrut wine-growing region takes its name from the two rivers on whose banks most of the area’s vineyards are located. The majority of those sites are located in the south of Saxony-Anhalt, with a few hectares in Thuringia and Brandenburg. The growing area runs along the 51st parallel north, making it the northernmost quality wine-growing region in Germany. The fact that viticulture is still possible here is due to the microclimate of the valleys. With around 500 mm of precipitation annually, the region receives even less than Franken, which is known for its dryness. The sun shines for about 1,600 hours on the nearly 800 hectares of vineyards. These conditions mean that the average harvest is only 50 hl/ha. On soils of shell limestone, red sandstone, loess loam, and gypsum, 75% of the grape varieties grown are white. 

“Until 2021, I didn’t get a single drop of wine from the Schlossberg. That was a tough pill to swallow.”

By the time I arrived in Vitzenburg with growers Konrad Budrus and Klaus Lüttmer, it was already dusk and had turned cold. The afternoon had been spent looking at all the vineyards they cultivate on the banks of the Unstrut. The last of these was the Schlossberg in Vitzenburg. 

The view from the Schlossberg stretches far across the landscape. This includes the forests of Nebra across the way, where in 1999 treasure hunters dug up archaeological artifacts that have since become famous: the roughly 3,600-year-old sky disk of Nebra, containing the oldest known depiction of astronomical phenomena. 

Viticulture has long played a role here as well. It’s been documented on the Saale and Unstrut since at least the 10th century. As is so often the case in Europe, it was nobility and in particular the Church that promoted winegrowing. In this case, the Cistercians, the order that also made viticulture the hallmark of Burgundy. They founded Cloister Santa Maria ad Portam, and beginning in 1137 focused so intently on winegrowing that by the later stages of the Middle Ages at least 5,000 hectares, and potentially double that, stood under vine. But by the start of the 20th century, that number had dropped to just 100 hectares and falling. Phylloxera was just one of the reasons for the decline. Once a treatment was found, winegrowing could have turned around. Instead came the Depression, the Second World War, and the founding of the GDR, the building of the Berlin Wall, and with it the Iron Curtain.

After the Wall

The castle of Baron zu Münchhausen, for example, to which the vineyard in Vitzenburg belongs, was nationalized during GDR times and turned into a psychiatric clinic. Its vineyards and the pavilion above it then slowly fell into disrepair. This pattern was repeated across broad swaths of Saale-Unstrut. 

The few vineyards that were replanted in the 1920s were almost exclusively hobby plots, and growers were obligated to deliver all of their grapes to the local nationalized cooperative, the so-called Volkseigene Betriebe of the GDR. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the socialist planned economy in East Germany, some winegrowers seized the opportunity to get their land back from the cooperatives and start growing grapes on their own: Udo Lützkendorf and Bernard Pawis, the first two Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) members from Saale-Unstrut, for example; André Gussek, who in the GDR was the long-time cellarmaster at Kloster Pforta and also the Pforta Monastery itself, which has been growing grapes since the 12th century and became a state winery after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Among the new spearheads of viticulture on the Saale and Unstrut was also Frank Böhme, founder of Böhme & Töchter. Each of these men called attention to this northernmost edge of German winegrowing. “But few outside the region really paid attention to it, nor are they really doing so now,” says Marika Sperk, one of two daughters at Böhme & Töchter, “because almost all of it is consumed here. Since we have only been allowed to grow our own grapes since the 1990s, we are still very young as a region.”

From Berlin to the Unstrut

Old records show that the Schlossberg in Vitzenburg was once regarded as one of the region’s finest sites. In 2011, Klaus Lüttmer, a Berlin-based video editor for broadcaster Deutsche Welle, discovered that the former owner of the vineyard was ready to sell. Because outsiders are only rarely offered the opportunity to purchase vineyards on the Saale-Unstrut, Lüttmer jumped at the chance, took over 1.5 hectares of the vineyard, and found a home for his (very small) estate in one of the castle’s ancillary buildings. As a winegrower who had to learn the craft primarily from books and trial-and-error, he made the mistake of planting his Riesling on the Schlossberg with the wrong rootstock — vastly underestimating just how dry the region really is.

Klaus Lüttmer, winegrower

Saale-Unstrut is Germany’s driest region. “Until 2021, I didn’t get a single drop of wine [from there]. That was a tough pill to swallow,” says Lüttmer. “A few years ago, I was able to pay for an irrigation system, and since then things have improved. Meeting Konrad [Budrus] has been a real highlight. Everything he touches grows like magic. And tastes magical as well. I hope a little of that will rub off on me.” 

Konrad Budrus, who founded Weingut Konni & Evi with his wife Eva in 2017, took over the other part of the Schlossberg two years ago, and now also tends Lüttmer’s Rieslings. For Lüttmer, Riesling was, more than anything, an experiment. He’s actually a fan of Pinot varieties, and planted his first Frühburgunder (aka Pinot Noir Précoce) on his Weischützer Nüssenberg in 2008. His Frühburgunder Frau Lüttmer and Herr Lüttmer have gained recognition in the Berlin wine scene in particular. The Vitzenburg drew Lüttmer and Budrus precisely because it offers a block of colored sandstone in a sea of shell limestone. And not just colored sandstone, but rather a vein of a unique gypsum-limestone mix, otherwise found only in Württemberg, such as at Weingut Aldinger: selenite or “gypsum flower.” This distinctive soil formation lends wines from the Schlossberg a distinctive minerality and acidic structure.

Winemaking as Calling

Klaus Lüttmer travels back and forth from Berlin, but Budrus is firmly rooted in the region. He grew up here, worked his neighbors’ vineyards in his youth, and decided early to pursue the path of winegrower. One senses Budrus’ calling in his wines, which he produces together with his wife. They reveal an energy and depth that the grower attributes to vine age on his terraced sites and his work in the vineyard. “We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the vinification, we make almost all of our wines in the same way,” he says. “We harvest the grapes, press them, give a bit of skin contact, and then the must heads into the barrel and we call it a day. The rest happens outside. When I think back to where we started in 2017, to how the vineyards and wines have developed, it’s incredible what’s happened there. What do you adjust, what do you do and — here’s the important part: what do you not do?”

Budrus’ wines reveal an energy and depth that he attributes to vine age on his terraced sites and his work in the vineyard.

The two growers quickly found their way into “controlled inaction” in the cellar and organic and biodynamic vineyard work: “I’ve become more and more relaxed with my winemaking,” says Budrus of his development, “Of course, you can’t work against oenological principles. You must work very conscientiously, especially when you’re working entirely without additions. Either the wine will go along with it, or not.”

Seek, Taste, Decide

Young VDP vintner Matthias Hey, whose parents acquired a portion of the steep and historic Naumburger Steinmeister site in 2001, is cut from very different cloth. While Budrus gained a clear idea of biodynamic cultivation and the natural wine mindset thanks to a stay in Austria’s Burgenland with Gernot and Heike Heinrich, Hey saw his return as a blank slate eager to be inscribed: “I stood here in front of my tanks and barrels and realized I knew nothing. Studying winemaking at Geisenheim, I had learned a lot about wine, but not how to make wine. Looking back, a classic apprenticeship at two or three estates might have been better.” Hey slowly felt his way forward, wandering further and further away from what he had experienced during his studies. The program pushes nearly immutable ideas about technique and approach during the process of creating a wine. Hey, who had come to study without any experience at all, found this intimidating: “I’m still carrying that baggage around even today,” he says. And yet, little by little, he has found his own distinctive signature, “which, and this is the important part for me, isn’t anything close to finished yet.” His passion is first and foremost for Riesling, which roots here in Triassic layers of shell limestone, colored sandstone, and Röt, a gray and red clay marl. 

Matthias Hey, winegrower. Photo Credit Konrad Stöhr

For him, it begins with the “weißer Hey,” a fresh, juicy blend of Riesling, Weißburgunder, and Silvaner with 11% a.b.v. (typically his first bottle to sell out), and ranges up to the gracefully classic “Riesling Großes Gewächs” from the Steinmeister site, which he raised using extended skin contact, plenty of sediment, and time on the full lees in French oak. The barrel samples show how much fun Hey has in the continuing development of his wines — particularly in terms of extended maceration for the white wines and zeroing in on what he considers the right length of fermentation for his red wines, Zweigelt and Spätburgunder.

Slow and Steady Development

Saale-Unstrut is a white wine region, but red varieties, especially Spätburgunder, still have plenty of room to grow. It’s something that not just Hey, but also Sandro and Marika Sperk of Weingut Böhme & Töchter are well aware of. The two estates are closely connected, both are members in Breitengrad 51 (Longitude 51), which takes as its goal conveying the high quality winegrowing in Saale-Unstrut to a broader public, and more recently the VDP as well. 

The estate that the Sperks took from Marika’s father was working with Portugieser, Kerner, and Bacchus, but also grew Riesling, Weißburgunder, as well as Spätburgunder and Chardonnay. The business is in its second generation and word is getting out. Although Sandro and Marika are young parents who have had to forswear most weekend events, many people still trek to the remote estate in Gleina. Forty percent of the couple’s sales are ex-cellar, the rest goes to retailers and gastronomy. But the trend is clear. “We’ve got the soils here for Pinot family varieties, and if we’re talking about the steep sites on the Freyburgen Schweigenberg, then we have perfect conditions with the chalky, fossil-rich soils with solid shell limestone. We are willing to take that to the extremes, but of course you can’t get there overnight.” Nevertheless, Weißburgunder and Chardonnay in particular show an uncompromising combination of cool climate freshness and vibrant minerality. The Spätburgunder demonstrates a lingering tendency toward the powerful, something that can be explained in both cases in part through the membership in Breitengrad 51.

Weingut Böhme & Töchter, Photo Credit Annika Nagel

Founded more than ten years ago by some of the region’s finest conventional vintners, the association aims to show that high-quality viticulture is possible north of the classic demarcation line, the 50th degree latitude. The eight estates that today belong to the group are also working to ensure that the wine region continues its journey toward a recognizable profile and ever better quality.

There are several problems with this in an age of climate crisis: The best wines produced under the Breitengrad 51 label are oriented toward the classic German concept that quality wines should achieve 95 degrees Oechsle, i.e., must be bottled as dry Auslese wines. For a Spätburgunder from the Freyburger Schweigenberg, however, that translates into 14.5 % a.b.v. 

Both Hey and the Sperks are certain that at some point this will change, even as they continue to work toward making expressive wines with a clear terroir typicity. Inherent to this is the idea that growers will use the major climatic benefit of the northerly region for the same purpose that Kloss & Foerster (aka Rotkäppchen) identified back in 1856: sparkling wines. The three recently decided to found a separate sekt winery external to their own estates to give an extra boost to sekt production along the pair of rivers in the region.

Sekt Rules

And they’re not alone. One vintner that flies well under the radar — because he has yet to sell a single bottle — is Jakob Kulosa. He is also a steep-site winegrower, focused on plantings of Silvaner and old-vine Gutedel that he discovered around Naumburg, Freyburg, and Weischütz. As a trained historian, he knows that Elbling was also once at home here and is planning on bringing the ancient variety back in stages. He is currently still working his day job in the same place he began in 2018: at Weingut Herzer in Roßbach. He received an apprenticeship there after completing various internships in the Pfalz and then returned to Saale-Unstrut. “I don’t come from this area directly, but Erfurt is not that far away.  But when I first started getting interested in wine, I had no idea that Saale-Unstrut even existed as a wine region.”

Winegrower Jakob Kulosa

Times have changed. That same year he began at Herzer, he also got to know Budrus, who worked at Herzer while building up his own estate on the side. Kulosa is following a similar path, bottling his wines at Budrus’ estate until he found his own cellar in Naumburg. His approach in the vineyards is very similar: farming organically, taking advantage of old terraces and vines to bring in small, but highly concentrated yields that, where possible, can be raised without additions. As a sparkling winemaker, his plan is to vinify his base wines for precisely one year so that he can initiate secondary fermentation using must from the next vintage. This means that for the bottle fermentation, he needs to add nothing external. As you’d suspect, his sparkling wine can then be labeled brut nature.

A Vintage of 70 Liters 

Someday people may look back and see 2017 and 2018 as the time of a second upheaval in Saale-Unstrut. Konni & Evi, Marika and Sandro, and Jakob Kulosa all began working in those years, as did yet another young grower who leased his first hectares of vines in that period. 

Carl Friedrich Walther began in 2017 with just 0.3 hectares. Today he has 0.9 hectares, which while not many, would perhaps be just enough if they weren’t growing so far north. In good years, the latitude provides freshness and low alcohol levels. In years like 2021, it delivered -28° Celsius. “After that frost I harvested precisely 70 liters of Riesling. Spätburgunder and Silvaner were completely gone. For 2,000 m2 I needed at least a week to train the new shoots after the frost in spring. And because I’d been working with a gentle pruning method, the full scope of the time investment that went into that made for a bitter pill to swallow.” Walther has to take a deep breath before his unshakable optimism returns. The freeze had completely taken down his vineyard, the Kaatschener Dachsberg.

Klaus Lüttmer had to rework every single vine on his part of the Weischützer Nüssenberg that year as well. “It was a tough blow especially if you’re already down from 2,000 bottles to 500 due to drought. And then a frost year means you’re suddenly at just 150 bottles of Frühburgunder. Three years in a row of that can completely crush your spirit if you’re the primary owner.” If Walther hadn’t had the strong support of his family, 2021 probably would have been the end. Fortunately, 2022 brought very good yields, at very good quality levels. You can taste it in Walther’s barrels. 

2022 was a stroke of luck for a region where viticulture, here in the midst of climate crisis, continues to push the envelope of viability.

Both wineries have a lot in common, although the growers only met for the first time a few weeks ago. They went to the same school in Laucha, where neither enjoyed conventional instruction and each selected winegrowing as an elective. Both have opted for organic viticulture and gentle pruning, although Budrus leans somewhat more toward biodynamics. Both are also notable fans of Silvaner, producing multiple expressions. 

For Walther, who worked for several years with Sachsen legend Klaus Zimmerling, his preference plays out in his Silvaner “Sœur,” with just 68 °Oechsle, hissing across the palate with cool freshness. Its brother —”Frère”— is given 15 days of maceration. The natural Silvaner KD – pur – (for Kaastener Dachsberg) achieved 76 ° Oechsle, with occasional battonage and a mere 15 mg of added sulfur. The premium version is called Silvaner KD – pur – kleines Holz (small barrel). For Konni & Evi, it’s Landwein Silvaner, Blauer Silvaner, Silvaner von den Terrassen, whose green, yellow, red, and blue Silvaner, from nearly 100 year-old vines, grow in a field blend with Gutedel. These wines radiate energy, and a range of earthy aromatics marked significantly by the extended lees contact.

Evolution, Not Revolution

2022 was the best autumn in many years for growers in Saale-Unstrut. A stroke of luck for a region where viticulture, here in the midst of climate crisis, continues to push the envelope of viability more now than ever before. The big name in the region, Rotkäppchen, has long since extricated itself from those challenges by sourcing the base wines for its inexpensive sparklers primarily in Spain or Italy. Winegrowers like those cited here, however, are ready to face the challenges with grit and grace. The beauty of the Saale and Unstrut valleys, historic towns, and old vineyards are their homeland. The mix of excellent terroir and in many cases old vines and varieties are the basis for mineral-driven, crystal-clear wines of character. If the caprices of nature do not set back the winegrowers too often, the future holds a thrilling and new world of possibilities.

Translated from the German by

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