Friday Focus; Pfalz, Germany

The second-largest wine region in Germany was once only known for mass-production, sweet whites, however today is one of the most exciting regions in the country with a strong focus on dry Riesling and, unusually for such a northern European region, red wines (30-40% of annual production today!). So what makes the Pfalz tick? What makes the wines unique?

Located due north of France’s eastern-most wine region, Alsace, and with a similar hilly topography, for centuries grapes have been grown on the east-facing slopes of the Haardt mountain range (a natural continuation of the Alsatian Vosges) as they run down to the Rhine river. In true German fashion, despite its huge size, the region is a neat rectangle 75km long by 25km wide, and is chock-a-block with tidy rows of vines. There are approximately 6 million vines in the Pfalz, worked by about 10,000 growers. About half of the grapes grown here are sold to one of 18 large-scale co-operatives, who produce all of the entry-level wines meant for immediate consumption. 30 years ago it was a very different story however; closer to 90% of grapes back then went to the big guys, who had a ‘formula’ for what the Pfalz (then known as Rheinpfalz) produced- think Blue Nun; off-dry to sickly-sweet, not a lot of varietal interest, softer acid profile. Because the growers were paid by the tonne and not for the quality of the individual grapes, the Pfalz was the epicentre of large-scale production in Germany, with land owners using every trick in the book to obtain as many grapes as possible; huge yields of fairly bland grapes, mechanical harvesting to keep costs down and a reliance on cold-climate, high-yield specialist varieties like Müller-Thurgau and Kerner. Today though, the Pfalz is one of the most exciting German regions, producing some of the country’s most interesting and high-quality wines.

Begun in the 1980’s, the “Flurbereinigung” (vineyard restructuring reforms) is responsible for the increase in quality over the last 30 years. It instilled the principle of ‘minimalism in the cellar, activism in the vines’ which many of the best producers today (and tomorrow’s best producers I’m sure!) live by- all the work is done in the vineyards in order to produce the best quality grapes possible in every vintage, which are then allowed to express their quality without overt influence from winemakers. After all- you can’t make good quality wine with bad grapes no matter what winemaking tricks you use! This resurgence of quality over quantity has proved that the region has an ideal terrior for growing world-class wines, which can also be seen by the similarly situated Alsatian region just to the south. The Haardt Mountains create an exceptional rain shadow which reduces the risk of grape bloating from too much water and also reduces risk of infection from fungal diseases. Whilst a very cool and northerly region, the due-east facing mountain slopes the vines are planted on receive the gentle morning and early afternoon sun, allowing the vines to warm quickly from cold overnight temperatures, which itself is responsible for the bracing acid in the wines!  The soils of the region are incredibly varied throughout this fairly large region, ranging from sandstone and volcanic soils in the famous vineyards north of Neustadt, basalt soil around Forst and calcareous soils in the north of the region. Each of these different soil types imbues a different character to the wines, especially noticeable in Riesling, which is known to express soil type more clearly than any other variety. Finally, the elevation of the mountain vineyards adds complexity to the grapes- the vineyards located on the lower end of the slopes are closer to the river, which moderates the cool overnight temperatures and gives fuller, rounder wines, whereas the higher slopes provide a much brisker environment and greener, zippier wines. All these factors come together to create unique vineyards and wines of incredible quality. Every year the region moves further and further away from the mass blends as it uncovers more unique vineyards with slightly new expressions of the wines they produce from the vines in their specific location. Pinot Noir (known here as Spätburgunder) has found a happy home in the Pfalz, creating some of the most interesting and unique expressions in all of Germany. About 12 % of all vines today are planted to this variety- that’s over 700,000 vines!

The irony is though that there is still a ‘hangover’ (excuse the pun) from 30 years ago- a huge amount of entry-level wine is still produced in this region by the large co-operatives. As mentioned above, about half of the production from these 6 million vines is still sold to the co-operatives, meaning the Pfalz region is in fact the largest producer of everyday Landwein and Deutscher Wein (the lowest quality classification of German wine- equivalent to Vin de Table in France) than any other region in Germany. That said, the enforced increase in quality over the last 30 years has seen a steady lifting of the bar across all wines; many of these entry-level wines are fantastic value for money.

Pfalz more than any other German wine region has taken to the relatively new quality concept of Grosses Gewächs, established in 2002. It translates to ‘Great Growths’ and indicates a superior vineyard shown to produce wines of outstanding quality and an individuality of style year after year- very similar to a French Premier or Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy or Champagne. This is perhaps due to the proximity of the region to France; Reims, the capital of the Champagne region lies only a few hours due west. This, in my opinion, has been one of the key reasons the Pfalz region has succeeded in the global market where other German regions have faltered. They have adapted to the common terms we wine drinkers use to establish and recognise the quality and style of a wine, rather than adhering to the confusing and convoluted German wine laws which have turned many drinkers off German wines because they just don’t know what they might get in regards to sweetness levels and quality. People (myself definitely included) know what they are getting when they buy a wine from the Pfalz- very important for the consumer, no matter what industry you are in!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager