15 Feb 2012

The Main vein (Franken, Germany - Day One)

Ask most Germans and they will agree that Frankfurt is a pretty boring, mostly functional/financial city, and serves as mostly a transportation hub to Europe and the world. So it was with no regret that I left after only one day in Frankfurt for Franconia, one of the most traditional regions in Germany. Thankfully the weather started to get a bit warmer, but still didn't get to zero degrees. Today it snowed again, which made this region look gorgeous with forests and vineyards covered in white. The Franken region in northern Bavaria sits on the banks of the Main River, which used to be much bigger several million years ago. As such there are large deposits of alluvial soils and limestone in different areas, and make the cultivation of grape vines on the mostly south-facing banks perfect for a range of varieties, including riesling, sylvaner, muller thurgau, spatburgunder, weisburgunder and more. The region is very large, and there are three major areas for viticulture; the Mainvierick (Main Square) in the west; the Maindreieck (Main Triangle) and the Steigerwald.

Escherndorfer Lump vineyards of Weingut Horst Sauer

Like many in the German wine industry, the family of Horst Sauer has been growing wine grapes for many generations, with their vineyards in Escherndorf part of the Maindreieck part of Franken. This area has long had a reputation for the quality of their riesling and silvaner, with the Escherndorfer vineyards having Grosses Lage status in the VDP system. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Horst decided to start making wine under his name from his own fruit, and has received much praise from his peers and critics alike. Most wineries in the Franken sell at least 75% of their production within Germany, and a large proportion of this direct to consumer. Horst Sauer wines are no different, with loyal customers calling constantly to find out when the new vintage will be released. The winery is built into the hill and uses gravity to minimise handling the fruit and juice, and the wines are fermented predominantly in stainless steel tanks. The limestone in the soil, famously found in Burgundy, adds an interesting and unique dimension to the riesling and silvaner varieties.

Weingut Horst Sauer
Before coming to Germany I’d rarely tasted silvaner, and don’t think I’d ever tasted muller thurgau, but of course I had heard of them through my studies. It was good to start with wines made from these varieties then, particularly as they are very important for the Franken region. The Muller Thurgau Kabinett Trocken 2010 was very clean fresh and palateable, but lacked in any real character, a consistent them with the variety. The silvaner wines tended to have the same melon and pear characters, but had a little bit more depth and finesse to them, possibly thanks to the minerality of the soil. I then compared the 2010 and 2011 vintages of the riesling wines. The pear and honeydew melon notes were very prominent in the 2011 wines, showing consistency of terroir influence, and had good soft freshness and rich viscosity. The 2010 wines by comparison showed more intense minerality, concentrated grapefruit and pineapple, and showed more savoury olive oil texture. The Grosses Gewachs 2010 Silvaner and Riesling were both exceptional, but I wasn’t such a fan of the sweet wines, which included the Scheurebe Spatlese 2011 and Silvaner Beerenauslese 2010, as they were a little clumsy and lacked finesse and acid balance.

Barrels of all shapes and sizes
Way down south-west about an hour from Wurzburg, is the Maindreieck area of the Franken, which as you could imagine has a distinctly different terroir, with different soil types and micro-climates. The area is famous for the quality of its red wines, dominated by spatburgunder, but also the rare and difficult frueburgunder (young burgundy). It is here that Rudolf Fuerst has carved out a reputation as one of the best producers of red wine in the country, but doesn’t seem to get the same attention as his contemporaries in Burgenland. The soil types here are richer and deeper than in other parts of the Franken, varying between red sandstones, marl and gypsum. This makes it ideal for cultivating the red varieties in such an extreme climate, and contributes to their depth and consistency. Rudolph destems his red fruit and leaves the berries to soak for at least a week under reductive conditions to gently capture the subtle aromas. The must then begins a gentle fermentation with pigeage and pump-overs to extract the subtle tannins, before gravity-fed racking and completion of fermentation in barriques. This non-oxidative gentle handling protects the delicate aromas and tannins, and ensures that they are in the best condition by the time they are bottled.

Centgrafensberg vineyards
I joined a lovely group of Irish trade visitors for a tasting with Rudolf, but joined them when they were moving onto the reds. We started with the Spatburgunder Tradition 2010, which had some nice spicy raspberry and red cherry notes on the nose, with very light delicate silky tannins and sweet fruit vibrancy. We then moved into the Grosses Gewachs wines, beginning with the 2008 Centgrafenberg. This vintage had a very concentrated red currant nose, great balance and elegance, and an earthy texture with some cumin and cinnamon complexity. The 2009 Schlossberg GG was a much more opulent rich wine, with darker berry notes, toasted nut complexity and a savoury finish. The Hunsruck 2009 showed more blackforest and chocolate elements, and had a grainy tannin texture. We also looked at the 2003 of the same wine, which had evolved in the bottle to show smokier toasty red currant fruit, with a dark nougat macadamia complexity on the palate. The Centgrafenberg Frueburgunder 2009 was different, presenting as quite stalky and brambly on the nose, but a little salty and warm on the palate.

Rudolf Fuerst red wines
The winery also produces some exceptional riesling wines, which I went back to after tasting the reds. The 2010 of this wine is quite spritzy and vibrant showing slight herbaceous notes, whereas the 2009 of the same wine is much softer and voluptuous, with the herbaceous characters evolving into ripe cucumber and capsicum. The 2005 vintage was showing bottle development of lovely rich kerosene, crushed hazelnut and walnut, volume and viscosity, lovely texture and length. Rudolph was nice enough to open a bottle of the 2001 Burgstadter Centgrafenberg Eiswein, which was amazingly rich and dense in colour and viscosity. There was a very creamy vanilla texture and flavour, combining with citrus to have a lemon custard character.

Weingut Fuerst Eiswein 2001
Wurzburg, the historic centre of the Franken region houses a number of old traditional wineries. On the south-facing hill is where the majority of vineyards are found, as well as a number of wineries, including Weingut am Stein. A very successful winery in the domestic market, they produce a number of varieties in several ranges. Wine tourism is an important business in a number of German wine regions, particularly as a large proportion of the wine is sold direct to consumers. As such Weingut am Stein has a world-class modern vinotek, as well as a well regarded restaurant. I visited without an appointment as they are open to the public, but happened to visit whilst they were hosting a large group of trade customers. They were nice enough to show me some of the wines, almost all of which are sealed under screwcap, and many of which use the traditional bocksbeutel.

Weingut am Stein vinotek
The Weingut am Stein wines are all very good representations of their variety and region, showing good purity, freshness and approachability. They aren’t exceptional quality, but the Franken region doesn’t produce a lot of outstanding wine. The Wurzburger Stein Silvaner 2010 had a slight spritz to it, a very bright fresh nose and palate, but was pretty simple. The Wurzburger GG Silvaner 2010 had a lot more mineral influence, good mid-palate breadth, some viscosity from residual sugar, but was quite warm at 13% alcohol. I found an interesting sesame seed character in the 2009 Wurzburger Innere Leiste GG Riesling, but it tended to overwhelm the fruit. The 2008 vintage of the Wurzburger Innere Leiste Spatburgunder had some pronounced dark fruit notes with some savoury spice, and a hint of chocolate. In general the wines were a little alcoholic and textural, lacking in finesse and freshness.

Weingut am Stein Weisburgunders
Click here to see more photos from Day One in Franken, Germany.

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