Hold the Spätburgunder, Pour the Dornfelder

An exotic German red grape finds roots in California
Jan 13, 2010

Move over Spätburgunder. Make room for Dornfelder?

Never heard of Dornfelder? Welcome to the crowd.  Until last week it was foreign, literally, to me.  If you know German wines, then perhaps you know of the grape. It's a dark-colored, firm, intense and spicy wine, just another one of those great surprises wine often offers us.

It has been fascinating to witness the rise of full-bodied red wines from Deutschland, forever thought to be too cool in climate to ripen black grapes.

In the past year, German vintners have poured me some delightful Spätburgunders (Pinot Noir in German). What surprised me most, perhaps, was the darkness of the colors and richness and intensity of the fruit flavors. I've had Spätburgunders and Pinot Neros from Northern Italy. But they usually were much lighter in color, body and depth. Not the new Spätburgunders and certainly not Dornfelder.

My first and only close encounter with Dornfelder came in a blind tasting last week, where a bottle was mixed in with a flight with some Pinot Noirs and other reds. I hadn't read our "dope" sheet, which tells us the vintage, grape and appellation, and that's just as well. The name would not have meant anything. Instead I tried to figure the wine out. It reminded me a bit of my first taste of a Lemberger in Washington 25 years ago.

It was very dark, almost black in color, with complex, almost clashing aromas of mulling spices, fruitcake, incense, marmalade, and zesty tart huckleberry and wild berry. MaryAnn Worobiec said it reminded her of Fernet-Branca, the Italian digestif made from herbs and spices with a grape base of distilled spirits.

Parts of it reminded us both of many wines but none in particular. We slowly gravitated toward a blend, but of what? Franc, Syrah and Barbera? Nothing added up.

But the wine tasted good, and the more we tried it the more we liked its depth, concentration, focus and complexity. Finally we surrendered to the dope sheet and discovered the Dornfelder identification. When you've never had a certain kind of wine, there are no reference points, so you play grape gumshoe, knowing that it's a big grape world out there, with some 5,000 different varieties available.

The 2007 Dornfelder comes from Ampelos ($35, 123 cases made), from Huber Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills. The Santa Barbara winery is better known for its Pinot Noir and Syrah, along with its Syrache, a Syrah-Grenache blend. Owners Peter and Rebecca Work have an innovative spirit. They described what they call their "Epsilon" Dornfelder as a wine that "knocked their socks off."

Dornfelder can barely be called a "red" wine, given it black-purple color. But the earthy must, black fruit, forest herbs and hints of blackberry jam, dark plum and spicy hints of clove give it an enticing range of flavors.

Dornfelder, according to Wikipedia, was created by August Herold at the grape breeding institute in Weinsberg in the Württemberg region in 1955. Herold crossed the grape varieties Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe, the latter which bears his name, to create Dornfelder.

As far as I know it's the only Dornfelder grown in California and, for the time being, it's the best Dornfelder I've ever tried.

Germany United States California Santa Barbara County Red Wines

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