Germany: Ten Years After - 2004 Pinot Noir

After the extreme heat in 2003, 2004 was a cooler, more classic vintage that many consumers quickly wrote off as of little interest. Indeed, not all producers were up to the challenge, nor have all the wines aged as gracefully as I might have hoped, but ten years down the road the vintage speaks a clear message, with finesse rather than sumptuous depth playing first fiddle. While a majority of the Pinot Noirs already have their best days behind them, the finest show everything that we expect from this grape: purity, freshness and elegance. Further, while the average quality is much lower than in 2003, those who succeeded made lower-alcohol wines in a style that I personally prefer. 

Seldom has the dominance of Bernhard Huber in Baden and Friedrich Becker in the Pfalz been more apparent. Interestingly, the Pinot Noirs from Becker, which so clearly led the pack a decade ago, were definitively surpassed by those of Huber in our tasting this summer, perhaps due to the magnums from which the wines were served. A touch withdrawn at the time of their release, Huber's Pinots have nonetheless blossomed into the stars of the vintage. Sadly, Huber succumbed to cancer last year at just 57. Certainly no one has done more to make German Spätburgunder so respectable than Bernhard Huber. 

Even today, there are few other Pinot Noirs in the world that can give the best of Burgundy a run for their money. If fact, we placed two ringers in this year’s field, a 2004 Pommard Les Epenots (89) from Pierre Morey and a 2004 Chambertin Clos de Bèze (86) from Drouhin-Laroze. But, as in the World Cup match between France and Germany the night before our tasting that Germany won 1-0, neither of the French wines stood up to the competition, which consisted mostly of Grosses Gewächs (grand cru) bottlings or their predecessors. Granted, neither of those are iconic pinot producers in Burgundy, but we were more interested in seeing how the vintages compared.

Although German red wine was long considered an oxymoron, perceptions are beginning to change, especially as global warming makes regions like Baden and the southern Pfalz, where most of the Pinot Noir is found, more consistent in quality. In fact, about a third of all vineyards in the country are now planted with red varieties. Moreover, with 12,500 hectares of Spätburgunder, as it is known locally, Germany is one of the largest producers of Pinot Noir in the world. With importers, retailers and consumers continuing to seek new sources of Pinot Noir, attention is increasingly turning to Germany.

Baden is the third largest producing region in Germany, and the most popular on the domestic market, encompassing almost 16,000 hectares of vineyard, over a third of which are planted with Pinot Noir. It is also the country’s most southerly region and the only area classified as climate zone B by the European Union—on a par with Alsace, Burgundy, Champagne and the Loire Valley. The must weights here are thus higher than elsewhere and the wines tend to be fuller-bodied. The southern part of the Pfalz, just north of Alsace, is also at about the same latitude as Burgundy, but on the French side of the Rhine.

Bernhard Huber in his cellar

2004 Adeneuer Walporzheimer Gärkammer Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Ahr): Alluring aromas of wild strawberry, raspberry and Asian spices are complemented by subtle smoke and vanilla. Full-bodied but also zesty and precise in its fruit, with tangy red berry flavors showing very good focus and a touch of allspice. This suave, elegant Pinot Noir is a lovely expression of the vintage on the Ahr. Although not yet truly fading, this may have been even better a few years ago. 90.

2004 Friedrich Becker Pinot Noir (Pfalz): Smoky aromas of plum, spice cake, licorice and mint. Finely balanced in spite of its enormous concentration, with layers of wild berry fruit and spices and exquisite tannins providing structure. Conveys sublime depth, with bacon and clove elements spiking the finish. This was my favorite 2004 Pinot Noir ten years ago and still shows exquisite length. The other Pinots Noirs here bear site names, but Fritz Becker always calls his best Spätburgunder of the vintage merely Pinot Noir. To be fair, I would have liked to compare it to the Wildenstein in a magnum bottle. 92.

2004 Friedrich Becker Schweigener Sonnenberg Sankt Paul Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Pfalz): Rich aromas of blackberry, dried cherry, smoked bacon fat and fresh rose. Warm and lush on the palate, displaying sweet berry fruit and rich, velvety tannins. Delivers gentle spiciness, excellent balance, fine depth and impressive length, exactly as I had expected. Sankt Paul is a single vineyard within the larger Sonnenberg site. 92.

2004 Berhart Schweigener Sonnenberg Rädling Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Pfalz): Subtle aromas of blackberry, cherry brandy and fresh rose. Supple on the palate, with sweet berry flavors given structural support by the now mature tannins. Balanced and gently spicy if a touch thin on the finish. This was a lovely Pinot Noir in its youth, but was certainly better a few years ago. 88.

2004 Deutzerhof Mayschosser Mönchberg Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Ahr): Smoky aromas of sweet black cherry, chocolate and nutmeg, plus a hint of vanilla. The rich, velvety blackberry fruit is distinctly luscious, but is held in check by the wine's robust tannic structure. Still rather austere, this wine may in fact hold up for another few years. 90.

2004 Fürst Burgstädter Centgrafenberg Hunsrück Spätburgunder “R” (Franken): Deep garnet. Alluring scents of strawberry, raspberry, cinnamon and frankincense, with strong floral overtones. Exotically sweet red fruit flavors are given a firm edge by pomegranate and blood orange notes, with herbal spices and rose adding complexity. Very Burgundian in character, the long finish echoes with spice notes. 91.

2004 Bernhard Huber Bombacher Sommerhalde Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs “R” (Baden): Deep, bright ruby. Subtle bouquet of black raspberry, wild cherry, Indian spices and rose. Intense dark berry flavors are joined by floral pastille and vanilla nuances as the wine builds on the palate. Finely grained tannins add shape to the long, smoky finish, which also harbors notes of mocha and cola nut. Cool in style and extremely elegant, this Pinot Noir has yet to finish its course. 93.

2004 Bernhard Huber Malterdinger Bienenberg Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Baden): Refined aromas of black cherry, bacon fat and licorice. Full-bodied, rich and still youthfully juicy, with firm underlying structure. Finely balanced for such a concentrated wine, finishing subtle, spicy and long. Still a touch closed. 91.

2004 Bernhard Huber Spätburgunder Wildenstein “R” (Baden): Seductive aromas of sloe, wild plum, smoke and herbs. The palate offers a silky texture and elegant lift, with black cherry and raspberry flavors displaying astonishing clarity and vivacity. Closes smooth, very long and surprisingly young, with superb focus, enormous depth and sweet tannins that add grip. The Wildenstein is a site within the Bienenberg grand cru that is now classified separately. Tasted from a magnum. 94.

2004 Franz Keller Spätburgunder Selection A (Baden): Fading aromas of redcurrant and licorice, with a peppery nuance. Rich and spicy, albeit with rather undifferentiated plum and mulch flavors. Finishes with ripe tannins and lingering sweetness, but is noticeably past its prime. 88.

2004 Knipser Laumersheimer Im Grossen Garten Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Pfalz): Aromas of black cherry, nutmeg and woodsmoke. The herbal blackberry fruit is still luscious, but the tannins have become slightly hard and austere. There is sweetness on the back of the palate, but this Pinot Noir has lost much of its youthful charm. 87.

2004 Knipser Laumersheimer Kirschgarten Mergelweg Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Pfalz): Decadent aromas of black cherry, nutmeg and iodine. The herbal blackberry fruit sports a rough texture due to the drying tannins. Quite austere and a far cry from the Pinot Noir I remember. 85

2004 Knipser Laumersheimer Kirschgarten Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Pfalz): Smoky aromas of blackcurrant, hazelnut, mocha, bacon fat and rose hip. The palate boasts bright, lush berry fruit, sweet spicy tannins and nice balance. Classically structured, with lovely depth and excellent length, this was originally one of my favorite Pinot Noirs of the vintage. It is still very good, but I had expected it to fare even better. 91.

2004 Krone Assmannshäuser Spätburgunder Auslese Juwel ** (Rheingau): Subdued aromas of ripe plum, hazelnut and woodsmoke. Velvety in texture, but the sweet blackberry fruit is dominated by herbaceous tannins. The finish remains austere. 87.

2004 Meyer-Näkel Dernauer Pfarrwingert Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Ahr): Full mature aromas of dark berries are complemented by cinnamon  and allspice. Fleshy and smooth, with a bitter chocolate flavor framed by mature tannins, this Pinot Noir gains sweetness on the finish but was certainly better a few years ago. 87.

2004 Meyer-Näkel Walporzheimer Kräuterberg Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Ahr): Mature aromas of black cherry, woodsmoke and hazelnut. A ripe raspberry flavor is accentuated by lively spiciness and supported by supple tannins. A slightly disjointed sweet/herbal quality mars the finish. This appears to be fading, and was certainly better a few years ago. 89.

2004 Markus Molitor Brauneberger Klostergarten Spätburgunder *** (Mosel): Shy aromas of smoked plum, cassis, spicecake and licorice. Nicely balanced and richly concentrated, showing layers of mature berry fruit and herbal spices, but a touch of unabsorbed carbon dioxide diminishes the pleasure. Still ripely tannic, this Pinot Noir is now beginning to fade. 88.

2004 Markus Molitor Graacher Himmelreich Spätburgunder *** (Mosel): Deep, brilliant ruby. Sumptuous aromas of smoked plum, spicecake and licorice. Subtly balanced in spite of its rich concentration and superb depth, offering layers of wild berry fruit and spices. The long, ripe finish is spiked by a clove element. Who would ever have thought that a Pinot Noir like this could be produced on the Mosel? 90.

Weingut Oekonomierat Rebholz

2004 Rebholz Siebeldinger Im Sonnenschein Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs “R” (Pfalz): Wild aromas of black cherry, violet, vanilla bean and gunflint. The palate boasts juicy but precise berry flavors and considerable elegance. Nicely refined if compact in structure, this distinguished Pinot Noir finishes with slightly smoky tannins and excellent peppery persistence. 91.

2004 Rebholz Spätburgunder vom Muschelkalk “R” (Pfalz): Aromas of blackcurrant and roasted hazelnut, with a hint of yogurt. The juicy berry fruit is beginning to mature, taking on a sweet note. This Pinot Noir finishes with good spicy length and tannins that are still somewhat edgy. 88.

2004 Salwey Oberrotweiler Kirchberg Spätburgunder “RS” (Baden): Smoky aromas of blackcurrant, bacon fat and clove. Delivers a sweet impression and a velvety texture to its raspberry fruit, but this Pinot Noir is nonetheless wearing thin. I was disappointed because it had been one of my favorites ten years ago. 87.

2004 Salwey Oberrrotweiler Kirchberg Spätburgunder “RS” (Baden): Deep, saturated ruby. Mature aromas of blackcurrant, hazelnut and vanilla. Alluringly rich on the attack, with succulent blackberry fruit framed on the back by slightly herbaceous tannins. This appears to be beginning to dry out on the back of the palate. Still shows good depth and classical structure, ending on a persistently spicy note, but this was probably better a few years ago. 90.

2004 Schnaitmann Spätburgunder Simonroth “R” (Württemberg): Bright ruby. Rich aromas of ripe plum, sweet black cherry and nutmeg, plus a hint of vanilla. The sumptuous blackberry fruit is lusciously velvety, accentuating the wine's sweet tannins. The supple finish makes for pleasant drinking. Don’t wait any longer for this Pinot Noir. 90.

2004 Staatsweingut Assmannshäuser Höllenberg Spätburgunder Auslese Mauerwein (Rheingau): Smoky aromas of dried blackcurrant, smoked bacon and clove. Sweet, almost jammy fruit, with massive alcohol (15%) and herbal acidity that are out of sync with each other. This is not only old-fashioned but just plain old. 82.

2004 Jean Stodden Ahrweiler Rosenthal Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Ahr): Smoky aromas of raspberry, bacon fat, nutmeg and walnuts. Rich and on the verge of being jammy, showing both a velvety texture and slightly herbaceous tannins. Today this is my favorite producer from the Ahr, where 2004 was actually a successful vintage, but I had marked this wine higher in its youth. 89.

2004 Jean Stodden Spätburgunder Alte Reben (Ahr): Fading aromas of raspberry, black cherry and bitter chocolate. Juicy and still penetrating, offering flavors of wild herbs, tar and cocoa. Deep and with a decadent sweetness, the fruit is drying out and revealing the wine’s austere tannins. The Old-Vines bottling is generally Stodden’s best Pinot Noir, but this, like the Rosenthal, has seen better days. 87.

2004 Von Gleichenstein Oberrotweiler Eichberg Spätburgunder Barrique (Baden): Bright garnet. Complex wild berry aromas are complemented by notes of star anise, sweet tobacco and mace. Still rather monolithic, with tangy acidity adding crispness to the sappy raspberry and smoky cherry flavors. This Pinot Noir finishes lively and clean, with impressive lingering spicy persistence. 91.

2004 Dr. Wehrheim Birkweiler Kastanienbusch Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs (Pfalz): Dark garnet. The mature aromas and flavors of raspberry, woodsmoke and clove are reminiscent of Rioja. Austere but still elegant, with a nervy grip provided by its somewhat herbaceous tannins. Good spicy depth makes this a pleasure to drink, but it was probably better a few years ago. 88.

Photo Credits: Weingut Huber, Weingut Oekonomierat Rebholz

--Joel Payne