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Wines of Eastern Germany Hard work for a strong return

The World Germany

20 years ago the Wall fell. Some wine growers of Saale-Unstrut and of Saxony, who started from nothing, set their vineyards under the spotlights again.
Well done !

In the West of Germany, one could doubt quality could return in these vineyards in the North-Easternmost region of the country: Saale-Unstrut and Saxony. Too recent viticultural tradition? The Saale-Unstrut vineyard is thousand years old and the one of Saxony will celebrate its 850 during the great 2011 jubilee. Poor terroir? Even if the harsh climate occasionaly destructs 20 to 90% of the harvest (1997, 2009), most of the time hot and sunny summers balance the rigor of the winter. The vine feels well on the frequently terraced steep hills facing South, with chalky or sandstone soils in the Unstrut and Saale valleys, or granit in the Elbe area.

Like men,
wines had to resemble

The obstacle was during 40 years the ex-GDR, that of course, used to produce wine... Yes... But “in this socialist system, all men had to look alike, the wines also!” Thomas Herrlich, wine grower in Meissen (Saxony), regrets. The state co-ops imposed the varietals, the style of the wine that was often marked by woodiness. “No terroirs!” Thomas goes on. Each of the 5 to 6,000 wine growers of that period, “from Pirna to Diesbar Seuβlitz, close to Dresde, over some 40km, brought their grapes to the state-owned cooperative that made one and only wine per varietal! They had very few technique and experience.” Peter Bohn, Marketing Manager of the Domain Schloss Proschwitz (Saxony), summarizes. The wines were sold to top gastronomy or to international hotels. “We also consumed wine... but illegaly!” Thomas Herrlich laughs.

Fairy tales... and relentless work

The dictatorship did not break Thomas' passion. Since the great-grandfather Vincenz Richter, each wine grower until him was called his name. Thomas studies beverage chemistry in Dresde and goes on “nach der Wende” (after the watershed) as we say more generally here to evoke the fall of the Wall. He calls his domain Vincenz Richter and relaunches the family restaurant (since 1873) of the same name. “I started with 500 litres. It was exhilarating, there were no laws. The wine was sold without marketing. Now we produce 120,000 litres on 9 hectares... but the administration is heavy!”

Thomas Herrlich et son terroir en terrasses à granite/syénite de Kapitelberg,
exposé plein sud et dominant l’Elbe.

Not so far away in the small village of Zadel, another fairy tale takes place: the Prince Georg zur Lippe, whose family had been deported to the West, bought back the family domain after the fall of the Wall, then the château in 1997: €10 million invested during the last ten years... and hard work! The château hosts events and also works as a guest house. An old ruined farm of Zadel has been restored to first shelter the cellar, then the offices, a guest house and finally a gastronomic restaurant. The firm -all activities included- now employs 65 persons.

Andre Gussek et son fils Thomas. Du temps de la RDA, en Sachsen-Anhalt, la densité était de 3.000 pieds à l’hectare, 4.000 aujourd’hui, ce qui, avec la météo, explique les rendements plus faibles : « 50 - 60 hl/ha (ndlr : jusqu’à 90), alors qu’on est plutôt à 100 en Allemagne »

In Naumburg that is famous for its cathedral, Andre Gussek, after his beverage technology engineer diploma in East-Berlin, becomes in the 80s the cellar master of the Volkseigenesgut Weinberg (Vineyard of the People's Property). In 1986, he is allowed to cultivate 360 vine stocks. This is the start of his business “nach der Wende” and he works hard until 2001: the morning for himself, the afternoon and evening for the cooperative. Willing to learn, he stays for a time in Burgundy. Today the domain has 8 hectares of differentiated terroirs: Dachsberg (shell-limestone and clay) and its 80-year-old Sylvaner vines, then Sonneck, Steinmeister and Göttersitz.

Many varietals dominated by whites

Today the Saale-Unstrut vineyard covers 705 hectares. In the Sachsen-Anhalt area, 185 hectares are exploited by independant wine growers -half of them having an additional activity-, 46 hectares by the Landesweingut Kloster Pforta (State), 242 hectares by farms which also have orchards, and 142 hectares by wine producers. 80% of the wines produced with 30 varietals are dry; but you will also find semi-dry, mellow and sweet wines. The whites cover 73% of the surface areas. Among them, the Müller-Thurgau (25%) is the king, german varietal par excellence that gives aromatic and nervy wines thanks to controlled yields. Then comes the Weiβburgunder (Pinot blanc) (17%) which ampleness -longer and frequent maturation in barrels- surprizes somebody used to Alsacian Pinots blancs, the Sylvaner (11%) or the Riesling (10%).

Comme souvent en Allemagne, les vignerons tiennent aussi un restaurant.
Celui des Pawis à Zscheiplitz (Saale-Unstrut), est une ancienne ferme domaniale restaurée.

The other main white varietals are the Kerner, hybrid of Trollinger and Riesling -less noble and richer in sugar than the Riesling-, the Grauburgunder (Pinot gris), the Traminer (Gewurtztraminer), the Bacchus, a cross between a Sylvaner-Riesling, a Müller-Thürgau and a Gutedel (Chasselas). In red (27% of the surface areas) the Dornfelder (26%), a German varietal that gives wines with a nearly black colour, with a fruity taste, to drink young -unless they are matured in barrels after a reasonable yield-, and the Portugieser (24%) dominate. The latter is native of Austria despite its name. It is common in Germany and gives a supple and light wine that has been for a long time the only red wine in GDR. Then we have the Spätburgunder (Pinot noir) (16%), the Blauer Zweigelt, too bland if the yield is too high, and the Lemberger, that produces pale and light wines. The best domains are Andre Gussek's ones, Landesweingut Kloster Pforta and those of two members of the Verband der Deutschen Prädikat (VDP) that gathers 200 quality wine producers: Bernard Pawis and Uwe Lützkendorf.

Bernard Pawis : « Après un diplôme d’ingénieur viticole à Radeburg, je travaillais à la cave
de la coopérative d’Etat… et faisais du vin chez moi ! Mes parents étaient vignerons amateurs
avec 0,5 hectares et tenaient un café-restaurant. J’ai repris et agrandi le domaine (11 hectares), fait construire une cave… puis une autre plus grande. »

The Saxon vineyard stretches out alongside the Elbe river, over 432 hectares of which 160 are exploited by the wine co-op (2,000 private wine growers), 91 by the Schloss Wackerbarth (State), 87 hectares by the Schloss Proschwitz and the rest by 20 independants.
48 varietals are cultivated of which 80 % of whites. We mainly have the Müller-Thurgau (18%), the Riesling (15%) and the Weiβburgunder (12%), followed by the Grauburgunder (9%), the Spätburgunder (8%), the Traminer and the Kerner (6%), then by the Dornfelder (5%).
Those who distinguish themselves are Vincenz Richter (Thomas Herrlich), Schloss Wackerbarth, Klaus Seifert, as well as to members of the VDP: Schloss Proschwitz and Klaus Zimmerling (the only one in Eastern Germany who takes part in organic viticulture).

Thomas and Heike Herrlich, and their son Anton, with the traditional Saxon wine bottle:
“I do not drink woody wines. Riesling has to be served chilled.”

Superiority of the whites

When tasted, the red wines often lack in substance whence, maturing in barrels that is often too marked. “With 1,700 hours of sun per year, an average temperature of 9,3°C and yields of 60 hl/ha, we do not get enough alcohol, structure nor fruit.” Jörg Fiedler, Sales Assistant at Schloss Proschwitz, admits. Thomas Herrlich left only 8% of his surface area in Spätburgunder: “20 hl/ha is the ideal yield to make good red wines”, and this is not viable of course. Thus it is better to choose the red wine in the good vintages: 2003, 2005 for Sachsen-Anhalt, 2003 and 2006 for Saxony. For the whites, the best domains -if they do not bring to much woodiness in their wines and control the provision of yeast (natural yeasts are barely exclusively used)- now rival the wines of Western Germany or Alsace.

Les vignes du Schloss Proschwitz et la cathédrale de Meissen sur la route des vins de l’Elbe, inaugurée en 1992.

The best wines are sold locally and more and more in all Germany: private customers, restaurants, cellars, very few in superstores or hypermarkets. For the Schloss Proschwitz, all the wine merchants (40% of the sales) have been to the domain. Your turn to taste: Prosit!

Frédéric Ville
This was the work that had to be done everywhere after the fall of the Wall... © Schloss Proschwitz Present office and guest house of the domain Schloss Proschwitz.

Tasting notes (marks out of 20)

Weingut Vincenz Richter Meiβner Kapitelberg :

Riesling QmP1 Spätlese2 2008. Nice bouquet with notes of butter.
Slightly beady, nice acidity, nearly round. 15,5. €12

Riesling QmP Auslese3 2003. Golden colour, notes of farm butter,
keeps a bit of pearling, nice acidity, lot of fatness. 15,5. €18,50

Traminer QmP Spätlese 2007. Very aromatic,
notes of acacia, ample. 16,5. €12,50

Schloss Proschwitz
Müller-Thurgau QbA4 Dry 2009. Nose of citrus and acacia.
Nice acidity, well-balanced. 16. €9,50

Grauburgunder QmP Kabinett Dry 2009. Nose of brioche.
Beady. Nice acidity, racy. 14. €11,50

Spätburgunder QbA 2007. Deep ruby-red colour.
A bit too woody, heady, nose of red fruits (redcurrant).
Lacks a bit of substance. 13. €22
Andre Gussek
Weiβburgunder QmP Spätlese 2007. Superb peaty,
smoked, woody nose. Ample and peaty on the palate. 15,5. €17

Göttersitz Grauburgunder QmP Spätlese 2008.
Pale yellow slightly cloudy. Nose of brioche. Lacks ampleness. 12. €18

Cuvée LA 2008 (Spätburgunder and Blauer Zweigelt, 5% Portugieser). Vermilion red, heady, well-balanced, a bit to woody,
slightly lacks substance despite the 30-40 hl/ha. 13. €19

Bernard Pawis
Dornfelder “Reni” QbA trocken 2008. Nice dark colour. Woody nose
with black fruits (elder). Quite fruity but a bit to woody. 12,5. €17,80

Weiβburgunder QmP Spätlese Edelacker Grosses Gewächs5 2008.
Nose with woody notes, brioche and pineapple.
A bit too woody and yeasty on the palate. To decant. 12. €19,80

Müller-Thurgau QbA 2009 Dry. Nose with notes of brioche and grapefruit. Racy, nervy and beady. 15. €8
1 - Qualitätswein mit Prädikat: Quality wine classed in 6 categories of maturation (from de less to the most matured):
Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.
2 - Late harvest.
3 - Coming from bunches of grape selected and harvested late, that can give sweet or dry wines like here.
4 - Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete: quality wine from a delimited region. Chaptalization is allowed.
Ordinary wines but that are sometimes selected for more freedom.
5 - Edelacker: noble field; Grosses Gewächs: Grand Cru (VDP classification).