Knipser, Syrah Auslese trocken, 2003

Knipser, Syrah Auslese trocken, 2003

So we were drinking this German Syrah one night and - Wait, a German Syrah, you say? Yes, that is true - a Syrah from Germany, and a bloody marvellous one too.

It is not only me saying that, but also two wine and food bloggers who joined me for a night of German wine fun on Sunday. Eat like a girl and The Winesleuth came over to try some unusual German wines.

I still sometimes come across people who are surprised that Germany is producing red wines, and even more surprised when they find out that some are quite drinkable. That there is good German red, especially Pinot Noir, was no news to my visitors.

However, not that many people are aware that by now about a third of all wine produced in Germany is red. The most popular red varietals are Pinot Noir and Dornfelder, but you will also find Blauer Portugieser, Trollinger, Pinot Meunier and even some Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, among a range of others.
And then there is Syrah.

In 1994, a duo of winemaking brothers, Volker und Werner Knipser, started experimenting with Syrah. Based in the village of Laumersheim in Rhineland-Palatinate, the Knipsers had already gained some experience with the use of barrique barrels in the 80s, and I think it is fair to say that they can be considered to be at the top of their game in Germany. In 2009, they were awarded the title of winery of the year by the German wine guide Gault Millau (and promptly decided to boycott the wine guide, but that is another story).
Joined by Stefan, Werner Knipser's oldest son, the Knipser winery today grows an amazing range of varietals. There is Riesling, of course, but also Chardonnay, Grauburgunder, Weißburgunder, Gelber Orleans, Sauvignon Blanc, Sylvaner and Gewürztraminer. And then there are the reds: Spätburgunder, St. Laurent, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Dornfelder, Lemberger and Syrah. Last autumn the Wine Ramblers attended a wine tasting in Munich that featured several of the recent Knipser wines - have a look at our summary to get an idea what the Knipser boys are up to these days.

I could not say what exactly they were doing in 2003, but at least as far as the Syrah was concerned they did something right. If you have a close look at the label above, you can just about read that it says 'aus Versuchsanbau', indicating that this is an experimental growth. Don't let that scare you, this just relates to the infamous German wine law that, among other things, regulates which grapes can be grown - and Syrah is still seen as a bit of an experiment insofar as wineries have to document what they are doing. This Knipser Syrah was matured in French oak barrels for about 20 months and has nothing experimental to it.

The colour is a lovely, intense ruby red with violet. The picture makes it appear almost too dark, thanks to the flash, but it gives an idea of the intensity of the colour. (You can also see Eat like a girl tweeting in the background.)
The nose is also quite something. You can smell the toastiness and vanilla of the oak, but it integrates perfectly well with the intense fruit - dark berries and cherries, but also cocoa, green peppers, liquorice and earthy aromas.
On the tongue the Syrah keeps up the good fruit-work, adding a dimension of baked fruit. Lots of depth, smooth but with muscle - a big wine in the best sense, muscle combined with elegance. Also a really good finish with cherries, cocoa and oak aromas.
What more can I say apart from, surprise, that I really liked this wine? Obviously, for €30.90 you'd expect a really good wine, but even though this Syrah may not be the Spanish Inquisition, it is not quite what one might expect from a German red. Maybe I stop praising the wine now and give my two guests a chance to comment - after all, they are not biased Germans.

Ah, to hell with bias. This wine rocks.


Submitted by Alex Friday, 29/01/2010

I think I already commented on this post, but I guess it got lost? Anyways wanted to say that I enjoy reading your blog! keep on! Greets, Alex

Submitted by torsten Saturday, 30/01/2010

In reply to by Alex

Thank you Alex, that is very kind of you to say! And sorry for the trouble with the lost comment.

I just had a look at your blog and now I am suffering: the lovely food pictures are making me hungry and the blind tasting notes, especially the blind tasting notes made me eye the wine rack - and it is not even noon. Both the Rheingau and the Bordeaux selection look amazing!

Submitted by Alex Saturday, 30/01/2010

In reply to by torsten

Thanks! I know this problem myself: you should give the wine cellar key to someone else to keep I guess ;) ! Oskar Wilde was so right when he said: "I can resist everything except temptation!"
Btw, I think I forgot to click the save button the last time on your blog and that's why the comment didn't appear.. My bad!
Looking forward to reading more reviews on your blog!

Submitted by TheWinesleuth Sunday, 31/01/2010

What a delicious surprise that syrah was! I have to say Torsten, you should be called the German Winesleuth as you come up with some truly hidden gems! I would love to know more about German syrah, do you think that this was a one off or is it possible that Germany will now begin to produce and export Syrah? It would be a shame if it didn't become more widely known. Cheers! Denise

Submitted by torsten Monday, 01/02/2010

In reply to by TheWinesleuth

Syrah is still rare in Germany, no doubt, but this wine here is also certainly not a one off. Other wineries are exploring Syrah and just the other day I came across another Syrah from the same area of Germany. Some people seem to be a bit sceptic whether Germany should explore these more 'international' red wine grapes though, arguing that it was better to focus on the more typical 'German' varietals such as Lemberger. I think that as long as the wine tastes as good as this one it cannot possibly be wrong to produce such a wine in the Pfalz. And I am sure we will see more of it. The Wine Rambler will try to sleuth them out (no matter if that's a word or not).

Submitted by David Strange Monday, 01/02/2010

Just out of interest, have you tried other vintages of this wine. As we discussed in the comments of another post, 2003 was a crazy bonkers super hot vintage. As such, I think a grape like Syrah that can take heat well would do best in Germany in a vintage like this. The question is, how good would this wine be in a more classic, cooler vintage? If you've tried one I'd be fascinated to know how it performed.


Submitted by Julian Monday, 01/02/2010

In reply to by David Strange

David, now you've brought a ramble on yourself:

I haven't tried this particular wine from other vintages, nor can I claim to have anything approaching the tasting experience needed to judge quality and consistency over a strech of many vintages. And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that we've seen nothing yet when it comes to german red wines, and that Syrahs and Bordeaux blends are not only there to stay, but will steadily improve. There are four reasons for that:

We don't do scores at the Wine Rambler, for good reason, but we do follow scores. And since I've started following them four or five years ago, ratings given by the reliable german wine guides, journalists and knowledgeable bloggers (reliable meaning those not caught in some commercial loop and not tempted to score "patriotically") have gone up consistently, both for reds in general, and for warm-climate reds.

The second is alcohol levels. In the last few vintages (from 03 on), the better german reds, especially the Spätburgunders, have had high alcohol (over 13.5 %, up to 15%) pretty much across the board. That doesn't automatically make them better wines. On the contrary, it is a troublesome issue. It does mean, though, that ripeness-problems, at least where adequate vineyard sites and competent growers are concerned, are a thing of the past.

Not to forget, number three, that climate change is not only the future, it has been happening for some time. It has, in fact, already changed the scales of what a "hot year" and a "cool" or "classic" year means: Until the the 1980s - as I'm sure you know, being a Mosel afficionado - 2 or 3 vintages per decade were really non-vintages on the Mosel, i.e. it was all but impossible to get grapes to ripen sufficiently to produce, not great wine, but any drinkable wine at all. In the 1990s, this was no longer the case, and in the 2000s, freakishly hot has almost become the new "classic".

Last, but not least, as Torsten pointed out, it's only since a few short years ago that Cab, Merlot or Syrah can be legally grown in germany. Anything that has been achieved so far has therefore been done with very young vines. Go figure...

Very best,

Submitted by David Strange Tuesday, 02/02/2010

In reply to by Julian

Hello Julian,

Many thanks for your thoughts on German reds, most instructive.

I am sure the quality of German reds is going up all the time. Even with my more limited experience of them I have tasted more and better reds recently than even 5 or 10 years ago. However, two things slightly concern me about your post:

Firstly, 13.5% is fine, but I'd be a tad surprised and concerned if I purchased a German red that clocked in at 15%. Even from wines in the warmer regions of Germany I seek lightness, elegance and balance. I worry that this would be lacking in a 15% wine. To be honest, there are not many wines I enjoy which are 15%: Zinfandel yes, but please never Pinot.

Secondly, is it really the way forward to plant Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah in Germany? Certainly there will be some good examples made (like the one reported here), but surely these things can be done better in other countries? I can see there might be a market in Germany for 'home-grown international wines', but I'd rather get the actually international wines and enjoy my elegant harmonious German reds made from more traditional varieties. Am I just too old fashioned?


Submitted by torsten Tuesday, 02/02/2010

In reply to by David Strange


While I am sure Julian will also have something to say on this, I would like to add a few comments here.

I am a known sceptic if it comes to high alcohol wines. I almost feel 12.5% is the limit for white and 13.5% for red, although I appreciate that there are excellent Rieslings, for example, that come in the 13+ range - especially the bone dry great growths. So if being sceptic with regards to high alcohol level is old fashioned, I would be old fashioned too.

Luckily, German reds with 14% or more are rare. This Syrah is among the strongest German reds we have reviewed on the Wine Rambler - nothing more than 13.5%. So no reason to panic just yet! However, we have come across a few whites that are very strong: Julian, for instance, a while ago tasted a German 14.5% Pinot Blanc - to quote: 'Now Bercher needs to do something about alcohol levels, and they have a killer.' On Sunday, I took it even further and opened a Pinot Blanc that clocked in at 15%. And guess what, it came from the Mosel - Markus Molitor. To my surprise, it was actually drinkable, smooth and well balanced for 15%.

My point is that if it works I have no problem with this, as a wine for special occasions. I would make a similar argument for planting international grapes in Germany: if this produces good wines at reasonable price levels, why not? Of course it would be a shame if Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon would take over the German vineyards and make what makes Germany special disappear. Luckily, I do not think we do even need to consider worrying about it yet.

At the moment I just enjoy having more variety, being surprised every so often and learn how certain varietals could be interpreted in Germany.

So you will find more on this on the Wine Rambler, but not at the expense of the good old classics, from Riesling to Pinot Noir!

Submitted by Julian Tuesday, 02/02/2010

In reply to by David Strange

Hi David,

of course you're right to be concerned. I am too, and I was not making my point clearly enough: When I referred to rising alcohol levels, I didn't mean that that in itself is a sign of a rise in quality. On the contrary, 15% in a Pinot Noir are (to put it less politely than you have) unacceptable. What I meant is that whatever problems german reds may have, ripeness is no longer one of them, since that is what you probably implied when wondering if german Syrahs can be as good in 'normal' years.
Are "international" red grapes the way forward in german reds? First of all, I don't so much see Pinot Noir being replaced by Syrah & Co., I think the "victims" would rather be traditional lighter reds like Portugieser, Trollinger and so on, and white grapes, as this is where the long-term shift is going. There certainly won't be a german Hermitage or a german Margaux in our lifetime, but I can see good and interesting Cru Bourgeois quality on the horizon. If this happens without throwing Pinot under the bus (which, again, I don't see happening), who's complaining?

Best, Julian

Submitted by David Strange Tuesday, 02/02/2010

In reply to by Julian

Hi again Julian and Torsten,

Many thanks for your (as usual) measured, balanced and informative responses.

Certainly I would be happy to see some Muller-Thurgau vineyards (and other vineyards planted with unfortunate crosses, there are a lot of them out there) being re-planted with more interesting vines, even international varietals. I Suppose it is possible that if people see international grape names they recognise on German labels this might draw even more people into trying German wine. That'd be a good thing!

As long as Riesling and Pinot Noir survive, which I am sure they will, I'll be happy.


Submitted by torsten Tuesday, 02/02/2010

In reply to by David Strange

Now I see Julian has beaten me to it! I strongly agree with everything my co-Rambler has said about the topic - and not only because he lives much closer to where it is all happening.

To answer your question: no, I have not tried another vintage of this Syrah. I would assume that the weather played a role in the wine being so well developed, but I cannot compare it to the other vintages. I do hear good things about Syrah from the Pfalz from 2007 though - will keep my eyes open and hope to report back, or perhaps even share one with you at some point!


Submitted by David Strange Tuesday, 02/02/2010

In reply to by torsten

Hello again Torsten,

I've enjoyed your enlightened posts on interesting wines so much it would be a distinct pleasure to meet you and share some wines. We must arrange it at some point.


Submitted by torsten Thursday, 04/02/2010

I have just been told by a German wine merchant that Knipser's 2007 Syrah will become available in autumn this year. I will make sure to get at least one bottle so that I can report back. This will be interesting!

Submitted by Alex Thursday, 04/02/2010

In reply to by torsten

I was following your vivid discussion and wanted to add something. I believe that the relative rise of some international varieties in Germany isn't a reason for worries. In fact they're a big opportunity in some market segments for obtaining interesting red wine cuvées which blend International varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot with local varieties such as Portugieser, St. Laurent or others. Schneider estate or Rings estate from Pfalz have shown some nice examples. Those same estates though have shown that their goal isn't only to blend in international varieties, but also to make appealing wines from single local varieities such as Portugieser that appear in a rarely before seen style.
Greets, Alex