Two faces of German Sekt 

The Germans are world leaders when it comes to the consumption of sparkling wine.  They consume a remarkable 4.2 litres (that’s five and a half bottles) of fizz per capita per year, a fifth of all the wine that they drink (DWI statistics).  So that raises the question of what it is that they are drinking … and how much of it is home production.  Yes, there has been a growth in Cava and Prosecco, but actually most of it is ‘made in Germany’ in one sense or another.  

On my recent trip to Germany, I had the pleasure of visiting two companies dedicated to slaking this thirst for fine bubbles.  That is just about all that they have in common as one is a large concern with a significant slice of that big market, while the other is aiming at the premium sector.   The two of them could not have been a better contrast. In between them are the large number of quality wineries who have a Sekt on their list: they produce the fruit and the base wine and then they will often ship it out to a specialist to do the second fermentation for them in the bottle.  This is the important category of Winzersekt, quality wines made by wine makers from estate-grown fruit, whose primary business is usually still table wines.  

Bubbles for the masses

While is it not the market leader, Henkell & Co does produce 80m bottles a sparkling wine a year as part of a much wider portfolio of wine and spirits.  It has 12 brands of Sekt, a Champagne/Saumur house (the much-loved Alfred Gratien), Cava, Prosecco (Mionetto), aromatic wine-based drinks as well as still wine and spirit brands.  Of the 80m bottles, just 250,000 are bottle fermented, showing that what really matters is high volume, good value sparklers.  Henkell Trocken not only dominates the skyline of their wonderful Wiesbaden headquarters, but is the type of bottle which just about every German social occasion begins with: a perfectly made, light golden liquid with fine persistent bubbles, some honeyed fresh apple to peach fruit and a sweet touch if with balancing acidity. All this you are guaranteed for €5 a bottle or less.    It is little short of a technical and logistical miracle if on an industrial scale.  

So how is this done?  Janet and I had a fantastic tour of Henkell with Gernot Limbach, the best possible guide. Gernot has been the chief wine maker for the group and now heads up wine buying.  This might seem a strange move but the quality of the wine in the glass is ultimately dependent on the base wine and you want your best person supervising the buying of base wines – and someone who understands exactly what the Sekt-maker wants to work with.  

The cuvée for base wines for Henkell Trocken is a secret but includes a range of varieties which may well come from France, Spain and Italy. These wines are big brands where consumers expect to get exactly the same experience with every bottle. Thus, the challenge is to maintain quality and consistency starting with the sourcing of large volumes of wines made from healthy grapes at a very competitive price. For the really cheap fizz made by other companies which will be sold in a German discounter at €2.30, the tax component is €1.41 and therefore there is a very small amount for the wine itself.  By contrast Henkell Trocken has some headroom to create a quality product.  Sourcing and transporting wine is a first obvious point.  The logistics are challenging as there is a six month lead time to ensure that the wines have 2-3 months on the lees and that 50% of the bottles are ready to sold at Christmas.  

All this means a production site on a vast scale. The length of the buildings is 400m.  While the bottling line is noisy the storage hall is eerily silent with its seemingly endless rows of very large tanks.  Most impressive of all are the 1-million-litre tanks which give Henkell the capacity to achieve the through-put and the consistency it needs.  And of course, in between blending and maturing is the second fermentation room in which they have a large-scale yeast multiplication unit, a fast cross flow filtration plant and stacks of  pressurised tanks in which the second fermentation actually takes place.  All this capacity means that Henkell can produce the reliable, quality product which the German and some export markets love – and buy in millions of bottles.  

Bubbles for the lucky few

At the other end of the market – both in terms of scale and exclusivity – is Sektmanufactur Schloss Vaux, housed in a charming late-nineteenth century villa in Eltville in the heart of the Rheingau.  Here the target market is connoisseurs and high-end catering, bars and restaurants.  The production is 350,000 bottles a year. The economics are again quite challenging as a result of the volume of inexpensive Sekt consumed in Germany. When a good quality brand costs under €5 you have to work hard to get people to pay €12 for your basic sparkler and up €30 for a top cuvée.  Here the aim is for every bottle, even the entry-level Schloss Vaux, to spend two years on its lees, which means having 800,000 bottles at any one time at various stages of production.  

Schloss Vaux   Vaux  IMG_8084

As at Henkell, everything relies on the quality of the base wine.  Schloss Vaux has its own 7 hectare vineyard but is basically dependent on buying wines which have been made from high-quality, early picked Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir. The top bottlings specify location – Rheingauer Riesling Sekt or even a single vineyard.   These are excellent wines which ought to be better known.  Cuvée Vaux, €12, a blend of the two Pinots and 20% Riesling, is rounded, honeyed and toasty with a fine palate and an intriguing tea note.  Steinberger Riesling Brut, production of 13,000 bottles, €20, shows elegant, rich, concentrated fruit with a mineral layer and a long, dry finish.  Erbacher Marcobrunn Riesling 2010, a premier cru vineyard, runs to a miserly 2,026 bottles, €29, leads with pronounced honey and herbal notes and shows a touch of botrytis richness on the complex palate.  

The only disappointment here?  Our host, the very charming Nikolaus Graf von Plettenberg (‘I do love the English!’), has to break it to us that the top, single-vineyard, Pinot Noir is out of stock … That’s one of many reasons to return.  

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