German Sekt: The Next Big Thing

For centuries, German vintners have made fantastic Riesling. Spätburgunder has been excellent for 25 years now. So, what’s next? Sekt has the potential to be the next big thing for German wine, but it still has a long road to travel.

Germany’s Sparkling Wine History

“There is, in fact, not a single wine establishment in all Champagne which is not under the control, more or less, of a native of Germany,” wrote Robert Tomes in The Champagne Country, published in 1867.

Mumm, Krug, Bollinger, and other German names that still play in Champagne reveal the long-held connections between the two neighboring countries when it comes to sparkling wine. Georg Kessler of Württemberg started his career in the sparkling wine business at Veuve Clicquot. In 1826, he founded the first sparkling wine house in Germany and was later involved in the industrialization of production. Trade and the exchange of knowledge drove the development of Germany’s sparkling wine industry. Young German men went to Champagne to learn production methods from the French, then imitated them back home.

Beginning in 1850, the production of sparkling wine in Germany rose steeply, climbing to 1.5 million bottles that year, then 4 million in 1873, and 8 million in 1895. From 1903 to 1913, it was in no year under 10 million bottles. But not everyone was drinking Champagne. The choice of Champagne or Sekt reflected social class, with Sekt the cheaper alternative. Around 1900, the cost of Champagne was three, four, or even five times the cost of German Sekt. From the beginning, there was competition and constant comparison between the two.

The reputation of German Sekt as a cheap alternative wasn’t inaccurate. As sparkling winemakers met with success, others started following their lead, intent on making sparkling wine fast, which resulted in a drastic deterioration in quality. For a long time, German sparkling wine was just a cheap imitation of Champagne.

Near the end of the 19th century, a handful of producers recognized that one way out of their misery was the development of a brand. Sparkling wine producer Otto Henkell gained important insights on a tour through the US in 1892, where he saw how much easier and more lucrative it is to sell a single branded item. As a blended product, sparkling wine is a prime candidate for branding, and the idea took off. New laws that protected wineries from imitation helped to increase quality and awareness among consumers. This was the beginning of the success of many big Sekt brands like Henkell, Kupferberg, and Rotkäppchen.

The concept of mechanizing sparkling wine production would soon play a key role as well. As far back the mid-1800s, producers were experimenting with carrying out secondary fermentation in large vessels. In 1856, containers with a 3200-liter capacity were used for the first time, tentatively, in Champagne. But due to the pressure of competition and the limitations of the early technology, the idea was quickly rejected. It wasn’t until 1930, with the invention of filters under pressure, that these ideas reemerged. In 1936, the tank fermentation method was reborn in both Germany and France. With increasing competition and growing demand from all industrialized countries after World War II, the process was refined rapidly. Today, sparkling wine production has been fully automated, and it is possible to produce fairly good quality at a favorable price level.

Sekt Production Today

Germany is a world champion in sparkling wine consumption. We drink 310 million liters of sparkling wine per year and produce 260 million liters. Mass-produced Sekt dominates. The bulk of production comes from big brands like Henkell or Rotkäppchen, who make sparkling wine with the tank method. The base wine doesn’t need to be German; instead, it can be a blend from all over Europe.

However, some producers have loftier goals. Two percent of Sekt production is "premium" Sekt, priced from 15 to 30 Euro. (Sekt that is more than 30 Euro is considered "super premium.") Many examples of premium Sekt are Winzersekt (defined below), made using the traditional method. Wineries like Raumland and youngsters like the Krack brothers are brave enough to focus on sparkling wine only. Former Bollinger cellar master Mathieu Kauffmann has moved to the Pfalz and is now responsible for the prestigious Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl, where he hopes to show the world the potential of sparkling Riesling through his precise Sekt. Growers who know by heart how to make great Riesling and Pinot Noir are ready to learn new things. Within the VDP are lively discussions about the potential to add German Sekt to the classification system. There have been meetings and tastings to evaluate guidelines and think about opportunities and challenges of single-vineyard Sekt. The seed for German Sekt as the next big thing has been planted.

Photo by Stephan Gawlik for Sekthaus Raumland

Key Terms & Wine Law

The word “Sekt” originates, indirectly, from Shakespeare. As the story goes, in 1825, well-known actor Ludwig Devrient was at Berlin wine bar Lutter und Wegner. In that era’s German translations of Shakespeare, the playwright’s sack, or sherry, was translated as Sect, the German term for sweet Spanish wine. Devrient quoted Henry IV, where Falstaff demands, "Bringe er mit Sect, Schurke!" (“Give me a cup of sack, rogue!”) Since his usual drink was Champagne, the waiter served him accordingly. “Sekt” soon became a popular name for sparkling wine. In 1925, when “Champagne” could no longer be used for German wines, it became the official designation.

Sekt production follows the EU's broad regulations for sparkling wine, including its standards for sweetness levels. If labeled Deutscher Sekt (“German sparkling wine"), the wine must come entirely from Germany. Blending regulations are consistent across still and sparkling wines: grapes can be sourced from multiple regions, but when this is the case, the wine cannot be labeled with a region.

Sekt b.A. or Qualitätsschaumwein b.A.: Grapes for these wines are sourced from a specific region, noted on the label. If at least 85% of the wine comes from a specific appellation, vintage, or grape variety, this can be included on the label as well. These wines go through quality control testing.

Winzersekt: This is a sparkling wine of a single vintage and grape variety produced by a winery or cooperative (i.e., using only grapes grown by the producer) in the traditional method. Vintage, grape variety, and producer must be noted on the label. Typically, these are very high quality wines.

Perlwein: This is a sparkling wine with one to two-and-a-half atmospheres of pressure. Carbon dioxide may be produced through fermentation and/or added. If the grapes are from a single region, it may be labeled as Qualitätsperlwein b.A.

Grape Varieties

There are, of course, Sekt producers making great fizz from the classical Champagne varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. The latter grape has always been widespread in Germany, but it was often used to make light red wines, and growers are glad that Sekt offers a different possibility for the already existing plantings. However, Pinot sparkling is not rare in the world.

Riesling Sekt, however, is unique, and the grape variety, with its refreshing acid, shows great potential for sparkling wine production. It is still an emerging category, though a very exciting one. Many growers are concerned about petrol notes in Riesling Sekt, and their concern is not unfounded. I have tasted examples with cloying kerosene notes overlaying the refined yeast aromas. Mathieu Kauffmann believes this is more a problem of too-severe pressing.

According to the German Wine Institute, around 50% of premium sparkling wine is made from Riesling, around 30% is made from Pinot varieties, and the rest is made with other varieties. Aromatic grapes like Scheurebe, Muskatelle, Mukattrollinger, Gewürztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc fill an interesting niche market. However, the wide range of varieties being used make it difficult to establish a clear image of the category of German Sekt.

The Opportunities

Earlier this year, I participated in a Sekt tasting organized by the German Wine Institute for sparkling wine expert Tom Stevenson. Tasting 290 Sekt allowed me to evaluate the status of Sekt production today. Quality has improved immensely in the past decade, and producers are experimenting with everything from grape varieties to extended lees aging.  I’m convinced that German Sekt is a raw diamond just waiting to be polished.

The following are the categories of Sekt that sommeliers should understand, notable for their quality and/or the innovation within the style that they reflect.

Echoing Champagne

Outstanding examples of Sekt are made using the grapes and styles of Champagne. Sekthaus Raumland is one of the best producers, and Volker Raumland is a principal authority for Sekt. He was one of the first vintners to focus on sparkling wine production only. His 2009 IX Triumvirat Sekt Brut (37 Euro retail) is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier aged for six years on the lees. It has lovely toast aromas and a perfumed palate. Other examples like the 2010 Blanc de Blancs from Weingut Huber in Baden (25 Euro) and the 2010 Weingut Aldinger Brut Nature out of Württemberg (50 Euro) exemplify that oak aging base wine is being mastered by German producers.

Spotlight on Riesling

I am most excited about the sparkling wines being made from Riesling, as they are unique in the wine world. Mathieu Kauffmann is also convinced about the quality and marketing potential of these wines. For him, Riesling stands alongside Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as a grape variety that shows the right balance between ripeness and acidity, even at the traditional early harvest for base wines. He noted, “While you must touch Pinot Noir with velvet gloves, just to get no color, Riesling with its pH of 3.0 is as uncomplicated as Chardonnay in the production.”

Within the category of Riesling Sekt, there are a variety of convincing styles. One is the crowd-pleasing style that fits with German consumer expectations: not too dry, fruity, not too much acidity, a delicate and frothy mousse. There are many good examples of Winzersekt in this category. Most of these are aged on the lees for 15 to 18 months, long enough to produce a sophisticated wine without overpowering the fruit with autolytic notes. Mid-priced (about 10 to 20 Euro), these are a great entry point to Sekt, a perfect style to pour by the glass in restaurants and bars.

There are also examples of Riesling Sekt inspired by Champagne. Germany’s cool climate provides winemakers with the opportunity to emulate the lean structure mastered in Champagne, achieved through the combination of ripeness and low potential alcohol. Excellent examples come from the Krack brothers of Sekthaus Krack in the Pfalz, who carry on the tradition started by their father, and Niko Brandner of Sekthaus Griesel in Hessische Bergstrasse. (Both producers focus only on sparkling wine.) These wines are driven by a lean structure and the fine perfume of autolytic notes from extended lees aging, combined with delicate Riesling aromatics. Look for the 2013 Sekthaus Krack Riesling Brut (12.90 Euro) and the 2013 Griesel & Compagnie Riesling Prestige Extra Brut (20.50 Euro).

Also within the category of Riesling Sekt are producers exploring the terroir differences between the Rheingau and the Mosel, suggesting the potential of single-vineyard sparkling. Producers are still working to understand how sites and soils, combined with winemaking decisions, may result in distinct wines. This is promising for Kauffmann, who has in the cellar a sparkling wine from the famous vineyard Forster Pechstein, which he wants to release after four or five years of lees aging. Even within the Mosel, Riesling Sekt from the warmer Terrassenmosel tends to have riper, more exotic fruit expression and flinty slate aromatics, while examples from the Middle Mosel are often driven by floral and citrus flavors, with more pungent acidity. Consider the differences yourself with the 2009 Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein Riesling Brut Schieferterrassen from the Terrassenmosel (21 Euro) and the Middle Mosel’s 2008 Weingut Markus Molitor Riesling Sekt Zero Dosage (34 Euro).

Unique Grape Varieties

German Sekt is being made from every grape imaginable. Aromatic varieties can be compelling, and elegant Silvaner styles are a real surprise. However, these wines play only a marginal role. The 2015 Graf Adelmann Muskateller Sekt Trocken, made in the traditional method, is the most convincing example I’ve encountered of Sekt made with an aromatic grape variety.

The Challenges

Most premium Sekt is made by vintners as an additional product to add to their portfolios, typically with no more than 10,000 bottles produced. In general, premium Sekt production is a service business, wherein vintners deliver their base wine to a Sekt producer, who makes the finished wine. This isn’t inherently problematic, but most vintners simply don’t know how to make a base wine that can be used to produce a great sparkling wine.

The tasting demonstrated not just the potential of Sekt but also the problems. It seems that winemakers are not yet confident with the preparation of Sekt. Issues include high alcohol (81 of the 290 had over 12.5%), high levels of phenolics, botrytis flavors, underripe grapes, excess yeast and yeast nutrients in the tirage, spraying residues in the base wine, and unbalanced acidity.

An exaggerated, cloying smell of old bread crumbs was notable in several of the wines. There are several possible explanations for this. One is bad nitrogen management. Producers should carefully manage cover crops, avoid botrytis (which limits the nitrogen supply), and use nitrogen-saving cultured yeasts for the first fermentation. Yeast could also be the culprit. It is tempting to use too much yeast and yeast nutrients in the tirage for a “safe” fermentation, but this typically results in very broad, dull wines.

Bitterness and high levels of phenolics are problematic as well, indicating botrytis, which resolves phenolics into the base wine. Additionally, techniques like whole-bunch pressing and the separation of press fractions such as cuvée and taille haven’t been universally adopted; without them, rough CO2 development is common.

Producers are still figuring out sulfur, too. “German vintners love to sulfur,” said Wolfgang Pfeifer, Sekt specialist at Geisenheim University, laconically. “They sulfur the base wine like still wine,” explained Kauffmann. This can result in a piercing sulfur note in the nose and an abrasive mouthfeel. Sulfur is highly effective with lower pH levels, and the high CO2 pressure means re-fermentation of the dosage is unlikely, so sulfur should be used more fastidiously. One approach might be to use a more oxidative handling to accustom the wine to oxygen, potentially reducing the need for a higher level of sulfur.

The lack of self-confidence in the sparkling wine production is also evident with the exaggerated lees aging of some super-premium Sekt. There were good examples, but for many in the tasting, years of lees aging didn’t enhance the taste. If the base wine is bitter and unbalanced, aging won’t help. This idea of exaggerated lees aging is comparable with the “more is better” mindset of the 1990s, when German growers started to use new barrique barrels for their Pinot Noir. We know it takes more courage to do less, but the necessary confidence seems to be lacking here.

Concerning dosage levels, a sweeter style is very popular among German consumers. Of the presented Sekt, around 10% had over 15 grams per liter of sugar. Around 25% of the samples were adjusted with more than 10 grams per liter of dosage. This high level of dosage can be perfectly balanced and a useful stylistic device. However, some examples showed that sugar was used as makeup to balance bitterness and very unripe acidity, resulting in an obnoxious sweet-sour taste.

To make great sparkling wines in the future, winegrowers must think more about production techniques. The leading universities should take on the topic, too. As Niko Brandner of Sekthaus Griesel explained, “I was taught only rudimentary, basic knowledge about Sekt production. I had to learn everything myself. This topic is far from adequately dealt with in German universities.”

Beyond winemaking, marketing must also be improved. The price point of Sekt is a challenge, especially in a price-sensitive market like Germany. Like many other sparkling wines, German Sekt is trapped between Champagne on one end and Prosecco on the other. Sekt from big producers can be found in supermarkets for 5.80 Euro or cheaper, but these aren’t high-quality examples. While many consumers recognize the value of quality in still wines, they haven’t extended the concept to sparkling wine. Marketing boards, producers, and professionals in the industry should invest more in consumer education. Better label design, packaging, and brand building would help further the appeal of Sekt as well.

Looking Ahead

Germany has a long history of sparkling wine and enormous potential for authentic, distinctive, first-class Sekt. With winemakers increasingly concerned with the quality of their Sekt and Riesling poised to become the hallmark for German Sekt, the future looks bright. For Sekt to fulfill its potential, however, winemakers must continue focusing on quality, German wine universities must improve their education around sparkling wine production, and marketing and branding must be refined. But the foundation is solid. Here we go!