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Hold the Spätburgunder, Pour the Dornfelder

An exotic German red grape finds roots in California
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 13, 2010 3:05pm ET

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.

Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  January 14, 2010 1:35am ET
Given the small number of cases made, I'll probably never get a chance to taste it. But your description makes me think I would enjoy it. What was the alcohol percentage for this wine?
Tom Dolezal
Houston TX —  January 14, 2010 9:55am ET
Thanks James, for the write-up on this wine. One of my local tasting groups does an annual "weird worldwide wines" evening and this would make a great addition. I also see it's available via the winery's website.
David Dain Smith
Ozark Mountains and San Francisco —  January 14, 2010 11:25am ET
Thanks for the note Mr. Laube. There is a small amount of Dornfelder planted in Missouri also, but it is too young to produce at this time. A few other German vinifera are being planted there as well.

Cheers,

Dain
Barclay Burns
Chicago, IL —  January 14, 2010 1:17pm ET
I've had Dornfelder on occasion whle visiting family in Germany. It always kind of reminded me of Beaujolais (its darker color notwithstanding). Not at all like your description of the Ampelos offering.
Tom Carney
Barrington, IL —  January 14, 2010 3:06pm ET
James,
It's great to hear such positive remarks about Dornfelder. The importer I work for here in Chicago sold over ten thousand cases of off-dry German Dornfelders last year. It can be a great stepping stone to more serious red wines.
Brian Buzzini
NorCal —  January 14, 2010 3:12pm ET
I have a bottle of 2003 Huber Cellars Estate Dornfelder.....though haven't tried it yet, have heard it is unique and wonderful.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 14, 2010 4:11pm ET
Tom, that's rather amazing, and encouraging. Brian, awaiting your TN...
Worrell Couto
New York, NY —  January 15, 2010 1:46pm ET
I've heard rumors of quite a bit of Dornfelder being grown in the Central Valley of Californis, and also in Washington State where it is being used as a blending wine mostly for color and some spicy fruityness.

My first encounter with the US grown version was in 2002 in the Sacramento Delta with a grape grower who had accidently imported it from upstate NY. It was quite good as described. The grower said that he had a lot of interest about it from the Big Boy Wineries (you know who I mean) because of its high yield with fantastic color. I can only imagine that it has really taken off 8 years later.

As expected the German versions are much lighter in color and flavor, but for Germany it still is a great wine for color blending.
Michael Kazmierczak
Ithaca, NY —  January 20, 2010 3:10pm ET
In the Finger Lakes of NY, Fulkerson produces a Dornfelder in the beaujolais style (per their website.) They also sell the juice for all of the home wine makers.
Peter Work
Lompoc CA —  January 27, 2010 3:44am ET
Dave Reuther: We only acquired two ton of Dornfelder and made 123 cases - but we still have some left. The alcohol is 14.5%.

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