The old German saying "What the farmer doesn't know he doesn't eat" was quoted to us by the philosophical member of staff at Jacques' Weindepot in Hannover. one of 250 branches of this German equivalent of Majestic in the UK. We hd asked if he had any 'ungewoehnliche Rebsorten' (unusual grape varieties) and after asking if we knew about Cabernet Franc, Syrah etc. this sole representative quoted this proverb in relation to his stock.
Could it be that German wine drinkers are even more conservative than the rest of us? It is understandable that those countries with their own production and traditions are less eclectic than those without but in fact Germany is a rather interesting place from the point of view of wine diversity. Described in Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to wine as "The most distinctive wine producer in Europe", there are actually quite a lot of treasures waiting to be discovered.
Quite a few of these are ancient such as Elbling and Rauschling, both progenies of the antique Gouais Blanc (parent of Chardonnay) and believed to have been planted since Roman times, Silvaner (a crossing of Traminer and something called Oesterreichisch Weiss) coming from the banks of the Danube in Austria in the mediaeval period, Blauer Silvaner (a red adaptation found in Wuerttemberg), Blauer Portugieser - still the most planted red grape in Germany - also originating in Austria, etc, but the far greater number come from a tradition of crossings and hybrids which stretches back at least to the beginning of the Eighteenth Century.
It was then that a wine merchant from the Rheinpfalz called Johann Seger Ruland first promoted what has become known at Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio or still in Germany Ruländer. This was a minor Burgundian variety probably known as Fromenteau which migrated to Switzerland and Germany. Ruland who was an apothecary and merchant found two vines of a kind previously unknown to him in an abandoned vineyard at a property he bought in Streicherstrasse in Speyer (Pfalz)from the Court Assessor Johann Heinrich Seuffert in 1709. In 1711 he made wine from them and found it "so suss und lieblich" (sweet and lovely) that he propagated the vines and sold a hundred bottles at between 8 and 10 Gulden each. With this began the diffusion of Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio/Ruländer, also called Speyerer or Vinum Bonum in Germany. There seems to be no existing portrait of this wonderful gentleman. This story seems to be unique in the world of wine, given that the discovery of a grape may be taced not only to a specific year but to an individual at a particular address whch no doubt exists to this day. Amazing given the current massive popularity of Pinot Grigio.
Since then, the Germans seem to have acquired a penchant for discovering or inventing new grape varieties, for the most part in order to assist the growing of grapes in their particular climate of course. The most familiar ones include those produced at the institutes of Geisenheim, Geilweilerhof, Weinsberg and elsewhere: Mueller-Thurgau, Kerner, Dornfelder, Bacchus, Seyval Blanc, Scheurebe, Schoenburger, Reichensteiner, Faber, Huxelrebe, Ortega, Ehrenfelser, Siegerrebe, Triomph d'Alsace, Optima, Regner, Findling, Wuerzer and many others which come in and out of fashion.
Between these two come several importations including Trollinger (Schiava), Lemberger (Blaufraenkisch), Spaetburgunder (Pinot Noir), Fruehburgunder (an early ripening clone of Pinot Noir), Weissburgunder (confusingly the German for Pinot Blanc and NOT Chardonnay!), various Muscats, Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier) and amazingly, only since 1991, Chardonnay and not until very recently indeed, Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact on this trip we were offered a bottle the very first German Cabernet Sauvignon at the huge (and ubiquitous) department store Kaufhof in Hannover.
So you would think Germans were spoiled for choice but it was not easy to root out the gems of diversity. Nonetheless we found a few interesting bottle on our recent travels in Nordrhein Westfalen (Koeln, Duesseldorf, Herford and Hannover).
In the first two cities there are branches of 'FUB' (Fegers und Berts) a long-established prizewinning winemerchant in Koeln, Duesseldorf and Siegburg. Here we learned that the "Gemischte Satz" wine of Vienna is a Field Blend of several different kinds of grapes which grow 'promiscuously' in the same vineyard and are picked at the same time with different degrees of ripeness. How had we overlooked this interesting phenomenon previously? Was this the traditional wine of the Heurigen enjoyed by Beethoven and Schubert? It certainly is an ancient style of winemaking. From two examples we chose the lighter and cheaper version against the advice of staff. The alternative at 14% seemed a bit excessive. We failed to find a Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier) here although they usually stock the Graf Neipperg version we had previously found at Leipzig Hauptbahnhof
and enjoyed but Kaufhof in Hannover had a version in a Bocksbeutel from Franken. Also at Kaufhof (Koeln) we found again a Franken Bocksbeutel of Domina, a crossing of Portugieser and Spaetburgunder. Here and at FUB in Duesseldorf we found some interesting wines by Schneider (Pfalz) which seems to be cutting edge to say the least. One, 'Black Print' was a red blend of six grapes: St. Laurent, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Mitos and Cabernet Dorsa. These last are new crossings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Blaufraenkisch and Cabernet and Dornfelder respectively.
Now we had spotted Cabernet Dorsa in purezza on the website of an outfit in Hannover and we were determined to bag a bottle between meetings. So much so that we failed to take the elementary precaution of calling ahead to check that they had it in stock - such was our enthusiasm. An E.35 taxi-ride later, we were back from the outskirts having found out that the enterprise was an internet operation only and no retail outlet existed. We asked the receptionist where we could find their wines retail and she kindly gave us her boss's Handy number. It was therefore not our fault that we disturbed him on holiday but he took the opportunity to lambast us and his receptionist and told us to buy his wine online. When pressed to recommend a good wineshop in town he said he didn't know any which sounded like sour grapes. When pressed further he told us to buy at the airport at which point we terminated the conversation, prescient as it turned out that Hannover Airport Duty Free is a good candidate for the Slotovino award for the world's worst Duty Free although to be fair we bought a 14.5% Dornfelder there as a gift for a colleague who can hack that level of alcohol.
Also on the interenet we had identified what looked like an extraordinarily good Italian specialist in Herford of all places, "In Vino" (Lockhauserstrasse 145) but had not been able to check it out having to leave town before their 11.00 opening hour. From their website they appear uncommonly refined and comprehensive, selling not only wine but food and other things as well. Even their premises appear to be some kind of architectural gem. Missing the Bonarda Oltrepo Pavese (a current obsession) we had spotted on their list, we spotted another version at 'Sapori' in Hannover (C'a del Bosco).
Of the wines drunk on the hoof in theatre bars and restaurants the Spaetburgunders disappointed but the Grauburgunder (another name for Pinot Gris/Ruländer) from Baden was really rather good as was a Dornfelder which went down rather too easily.
So quite a lot for the Bauer not to 'fress' - and you may have noticed, we have managed to write this over-long blog without mentioning the word Riesling.