Palatinate – or in German, Pfalz – is Germany’s second largest wine region surpassed only by Rheinhessen. Almost 25.000 hectares is under vine. This is quite amazing considering that Pfalz is geographically rather small, stretching only about 75 km long and 15 km wide, between the Rhine river and the Haardt mountain range (a natural continuation of the Alsatian Vosges)
To the North of Pfalz is the Rheinhessen wine region and to the South is the French border and Alsace.
Pfalz is increasingly positioning itself among the wine regions in Germany that produce some of the finest Rieslings and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and the region has a great and long future ahead of it.
The rise of Pfalz
The cultivation of vines and winemaking came to Pfalz around the year 100. This can be seen rather clearly from the old Roman ruins near Wachenheim and Ungstein.
The phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century devasted the vineyards in Pfalz. Then when the region reemerged as a wine producing area of note, it was mostly focused on the production of rather uninteresting industrial sekt (the German word for carbonized sparkling wine) and white wines.
The rise of Pfalz began about 40 years ago. The introduction of modern winemaking technologies and improved practices in the vineyard and cellar has since transformed the region of Pfalz from bland and mass-produced wines to a producer of very serious wines that can take on the world.
Pfalz enjoys a sheltered location near the east of the Haardt mountains. Summers are generally warm and sunny and soils are diverse, offering both loam, chalk, clay, sandstone and sand. Add to this ever-improving winemaking passion and skill and you have a winning combination.
As a commendation to innovation, it is interesting to note that two of the leading four grape varieties in Pfalz are new crosses of older grapes varieties. The white Müller-Thurgau is a cross of Riesling and Madeleine Royale from the late 19th century, while the Dornfelder is a cross of Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe. We will revisit Dornfelder in a bit.
Riesling is the leading grape in Pfalz – followed by Dornfelder, Müller-Thurgau and Spätburgunder.
It is one of the warmest German wine regions. The dry summers bestow almost 2000 hours of sun cover and mild winters create an almost Mediterranean microclimate. Here it is actually warm enough to grow almonds as well as other warm weather plants that you would normally only find much further south of Pfalz.
Soils include sandstone, limestone, marl, loess-loam, granite and slate. The deeper laying soils have the ability to retain water, while the darker top soils and slate help to keep the vines warm and dry.
This is the perfect condition for Riesling to grow, which is the most widely grown white wine grape. Pfalz has 5,500 hectares under Riesling and it is the World’s no. 1 Riesling growing region.
The Northern and Southern districts – Mittelhaardt e Südliche Weinstrasse
Pfalz is divided into two districts, Mittelhaardt in the north and Südliche Weinstrasse in the south.
In the north Riesling dominates with more than half of the grapes grown in this subregion. Other important white grapes are Müller-Thurgau, Kerner and Gewurztraminer.
In the southern part of Pfalz – beyond the Riesling plantings – a number of Pinot varietals are grown, most notably Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder), Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) and the red Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder).
While some red varietals are grown in the north, it is the southern part of Pfalz that is beginning to position Pfalz as the number one red wine region in Germany. Almost 40% of vineyards are planted with red varietals. Among them, Dornfelder is the leading vined grape followed by Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir).
Germany is famed for its lovely Spätburgunders (Pinot Noir) – and despite Dornfelder being the most widely planted it receives very little world-wide attention. So, let us try to make up for that a bit here.
Dornfelder is not an indigenous grape to any part of the world but its origin is Germany. It came to life as a crossing of the grape varieties Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe by August Herold at the Weinsberg institute in 1955 and it was released for commercial cultivation in 1979.
Dornfelder became a prominent grape quite quickly in Germany. Its dark skins gave darker fruit flavours and when oaked, a more full-bodied wine. So now all of a sudden (!) Germany was able to produce heavier red wines, matching better the interest of international mass markets.
Other advantages of the Dornfelder grapes are that it is easier to grow than Spätburgunder – with Pinot Noirs’ notorious thin skins proving prone to fungus when wet, and burning when sunny – Dornfelder is also a high yielding grape. So, what’s not to like?
From here many industrial-type wine producers went overboard, producing bulk Dornfelder reds or utilizing Dornfelder to “spice” up other red wines in blends. This way, they could offer red wines at a good price point but in terms of wine drinking pleasure, the wines had very little to offer.
You can still find these wines but if you look just a little bit more carefully among the wines of smaller independent winemakers – in Pfalz and elsewhere in Germany – you will be able to find some excellent Dornfelders. These are made in both lighter styles – working perfectly with burgers and pizza – and full-bodied styles complimenting heartier foods.
Depending on style, great Dornfelders will display lots of red and black fruits: cherry, blackberry, blackcurrant and plum in combination with bright acidity and low tannins – also allowing you to enjoy the wines when still young. Tip! Remember to cool the wines slightly to 14-15 °C. This freshens up the fruit and gives the (low) tannins a nice little grip.
The near Mediterranean microclimate. Great reds. Great Riesling too.What are the most popular grape varieties in Pfalz?
Riesling, Dornfelder, Spätburgunder.What types of food works well with wines from Pfalz?
Riesling for eggs and white meats. Lighter style Dornfelders for burgers and pizza, full-bodied also for savoury foods. Spätburgunder is great for most food not from the sea, grilled salmon too.