Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Surprising the World with their Pinot Noir: Johannes and Christoph Thoerle, Winzerhof Thoerle, Rheinhessen, Germany

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Johannes and Christoph Thoerle in Saulheim, Rheinhessen

Sponsored by the German Wine Institute (Deutsches Wein Institut), Tim Atkin organized a Pinot Noir “Germany Versus Rest of World” Tasting in London in October 2011, at which the German wines performed extremely well: 7 of the top 13 wines of the 40 Pinot Noirs from around the world were German Spaetburgunder wines.

This tasting has a good chance of becoming a miles post in the ongoing process of international recognition of Germany as a producer of premium red wines. I have written about the tasting: The Tim Atkin Pinot Noir Taste-Off of October 2011: Germany Versus the Rest of the World - German Red Wines Show Strong Performance.

The best ranked German Pinot Noir was the 2008 Winzerhof Thörle Spätburgunder Hölle; it was ranked #3 overall and #1 of the German Pinot Noirs.

I have known the Thoerle family and the Winzerhof Thoerle wines for some time. When I heard about the sensational success of the 2008 Winzerhof Thörle Spätburgunder Hölle in London, I was very excited. Being in Frankfurt am Main, just 40 minutes from Saulheim, where the Winzerhof Thoerle is located, I decided to pay the Thoerle family a visit. Christoph Thoerle took the lead in guiding me through the afternoon.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Johannes and Ute Thoerle during the Earlier Visit

The German Red Wine Revolution

There is a red wine revolution going on in Germany and the world increasingly starts to take note of it. Of course, given its location, the red wines of Germany tend to be not like the fruity red wines we know from warmer countries, but lean and more elegant, with a lot of finesse. 30 years ago, the share of red wine in total German wine output was not more than 10 percent; in the international wine scene, people would not talk about German red wine. But this is changing. Germany now produces red wines that can compete with the best of the world; the share of red wines in terms of production has increased to about 35 percent now in Germany and increasingly the international market takes note of what is happening in Germany.

Today, Germany is the third biggest producer of Pinot Noir (called Spaetburgunder in Germany), after France and the US, with more planted than Australia and New Zealand combined. However, despite being the world’s third largest producer of Pinot Noir, the country exports just over 1% of its production.

Spaetburgunder in Germany and Pinot Noir in the World

In Germany, the Pinot Noir is to red wine what the Riesling is to white wine: the cream of the crop. In the US, Pinot Noir shows great promise in Oregon and California. The reputation that gets Pinot Noir so much attention, however, is owed to the wines of the Bourgogne in France, where it has probably been cultivated since at least the 4th century (first documented, however, in the 14th century).

Regardless of where it’s grown, Pinot Noir is not typically a value wine. That is so because Pinot Noir is such a delicate grape that it is difficult and expensive to grow and make into the spectacular wine it can be. It is sensitive to climate and soil, Pinot Noir needs warmth (but not intense heat) to thrive and does well in chalky soils. As the German name implies, it ripens late (spät).

Tim Atkin’s London Tast-Off of October 2011

The wine tasting, chaired by Tim Atkin, took place in London on October 28, 2011. The tasting panel was comprised of journalists (Jancis Robinson MW, Stephen Brook, Matthew Jukes, Gabriel Savage, Anthony Rose, Stephan Reinhardt and Tim Atkin MW), sommeliers (Ronan Sayburn MS, Gearoid Devaney MS, Hamish Anderson, Xavier Rousset) and wine consultants (Peter McCombie MW and Christine Parkinson).

Tim Atkin on the final result: “Germany outscored New Zealand, Australia, Burgundy, Oregon, Austria and California combined. As I’ve said, there were some other wines that deserved to be in the final enclosure, at least in my view, but it wouldn’t have changed the overall result. Many of my favorite (non-shortlisted) wines were German, too. What does this say about German Pinot Noir? Well, it proves what Hamish and I thought when we tasted some top examples earlier this year. They really are world class. If only the Germans didn’t keep most of them to themselves.”

Winzerhof Thoerle

Winzerhof Thoerle is a family owned and operated winery in Rheinhessen in the town of Saulheim, with Johannes Thoerle in the driver seat, when it comes to wine making and brother Christoph, who is still studying, getting ready to take the lead in the marketing and sale side. Parents Rudolf and Ute continue to be very much involved, father Rudolph in the wine cellar and mother Ute in sales and marketing. Johannes joined the winery a few years ago after an apprenticeship, inter alia, with star winemaker Wittmann. The family owns 15 hectares in the Hoelle, Schlossberg and Probstey vineyards in the Saulheim wine region, where the Thoerles grow mainly Riesling, Silvaner and Burgundy grapes.

Pictures: Winzerhof Thoerle in Saulheim

An Up and Coming Winemaker

I visited Winzerhof Thoerle last year and wrote a posting about Winzerhof Thoerle under the title: The Wines of Up and Coming Winzerhof Thoerle, Rheinhessen. Indeed, Winzerhof Thoerle is a rapidly rising winemaker. Take, as an example, the Gault Millau WeinGuide Deutschland, Germany’s leading wine guide. In the 2011 guide, they were awarded the third grape; in the year before, they had received the second grape. 4 years earlier they had not even been mentioned in the Gault Millau WeinGuide Deutschland. In an extremely short period of time, Winzerhof Thoerle went from nowhere to 3 grapes.

In the Wine Cellar with Christoph and Father Rudolph

We started the afternoon in the impressive wine cellar, where father Rudolph was working. “We have old “Stueckfaesser” and “Halbstueckfaesser” as well as 90 barrique barrels” said Christoph. I noticed a high level of humidity in the cellar. “The wine cellar is quite humid all year around” said Rudolph. Apart from the Gutsweine, all Winzerhof Thoerle wines are spontaneously fermented.

Pictures: In the Wine Cellar with Christoph and Father Rudolph

Talking about the Vineyards and the 2008 Winzerhof Thörle Spätburgunder Hölle with Johannes and Christoph

Then, Christoph and I walked to the other side of the property from where you can see the Thoerle vineyards. On the way there, we bumped into Johannes.

We looked at the vineyards from a distance. “Most people think that the vineyards of Saulheim are flat and dull. This is wrong. Between our vineyards there is a Hoehenunterschied of up to 100 meters and we also have different soil types.” said Johannes.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Johannes and Christoph Thoerle

I then asked him about the star performance at the Tim Atkins tasting: “I wanted to make a Pinot Noir that expresses the climating conditions of Germany – not a thick, juicy wine, but an elegant, Burgundian cool climate Pinot Noir” said Johannes. “The grapes come from the “Hoelle” a vineyard parcel we bought a few years ago. The vineyard was planted 35 years ago. “Christoph added.

Christoph: “The grapes were harvested a sugar content of 95 to 98 Oechsle. We tried to let the grapes not become overly ripe.”

Tasting with Christoph and Mother Ute

We then moved to the historical inn, the “Altes Kelterhaus”. It is a cosy setting. Here, we tasted a few wines, including the 2009 Winzerhof Thörle Spätburgunder Hölle , which is the successor wine of the Pinot Noir that was ranked #3 overall and was ranked #1 of the German Pinot Noirs at the Tim Atkin tasting.

Pictures: Tasting with Christoph and Mother Ute

The overwhelming majority of the Winzerhof Thoerle wine portfolio is dry, with both red and white wines on the wine list. Like other winemakers, Winzerhof Thoerle has introduced its own wine classification, with different approaches for dry and sweet wines. It follows the new VDP system. Basically, all dry wines are labeled as QbA (Qualitaetswein besonderer Anbaugebiete) wines. The level of quality is then expressed by the terroir principle; the narrower the specification, the higher the quality of the wine is. There are 3 quality levels for dry wines:

Lagenweine – the best wines from one of the three vineyards of Thoerle: Hoelle, Schlossberg and Probstley, with the winemaker, village, vineyard and grape variety indicated on the label.

Ortsweine - the quality level below Lagenwein, with the winemaker, village and the grape variety indicated on the label; there is no vineyard indicated.

Gutsweine – the quality level below Ortsweine, with only the winemaker and the grape variety indicated on the label; this would also include the so-called Literwein, the reasonably priced wine for daily consumption, the kind of house wine.

For sweet wines, the traditional wine classification of Kabinet, Spaetlese and Auslese is followed, and of course, also for the noble sweet wines.

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