A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dornfelder - Rheinhessen, Germany and Finger Lakes, NY, USA

On the grand stage of wine, Dornfelder is a relative newcomer.  We know this because we know exactly when it came into being and exactly what its parents were.  Unlike most vines that are propagated today, Dornfelder was created in a lab and is not the result of chance coupled with selective cloning. It's still considered a vinifera grape, as its parents and all of its ancestors are vinifera grapes, which is actually more important than whether it was created in nature or in a lab.  Technically speaking, all of the vinifera grapes that are made into wine are crossings, it's just that most of them happened in nature rather than in a lab setting. 

As mentioned in my posts on Scheurebe and Kerner, German wine production areas are located in marginal climate zones and they have some difficulty getting grapes to ripen fully in many areas of the country.  To combat that problem, the Germans created several research institutes whose aim was to develop new grapes through crossings and hybridization that would be better suited to some of the more extreme climactic conditions in some areas of Germany (there's a similar situation in New York at Cornell University).  The process isn't simple and it can take several decades for a new crossing to go through the testing and approval process prior to release.  Dornfelder, for instance, was created in 1956 by crossing Helfensteiner (itself a cross between Frühburgunder, a small-berried mutation of Pinot Noir, and Trollinger, also known as Schiava) and Heroldrebe (a cross between Portugieser and Lemberger), but it wasn't approved for cultivation until 1979.  It is said that Dornfelder has some DNA trace of every red wine grape grown in Germany due to its breeding history.  Dr. August Herold was its creator and, unfortunately for Herold, he lent his own name to another of his creations, Heroldrebe, which has never really taken off (there are about 200 ha under vine in Germany).  Dornfelder was named for August Ludwig Dornfeld who was one of the key figures in establishing the viticultural school in Weinsberg, Germany, where Dornfelder was created.

In its short existence, Dornfelder has really taken hold of the German wine world.  It is currently second in vineyard area for red grapes, behind only Pinot Noir (here called Spätburgunder).  It's a hardy grape, resistant to many vineyard diseases and it is capable of extremely high yields, but the main reason for its popularity in the vineyards of Germany is its deep coloring.  Up until 1971, German wine makers were allowed to add juice from outside of Germany to give their red wines some extra color.  Many of the red grapes grown in Germany are either naturally low in pigment or cannot get ripe enough in the German climate in order to provide deep coloration for the wines.  Once the law was rewritten to ban this practice, Dornfelder became very important as it is capable of producing deep color and achieving higher ripeness levels than Portugieser or Schiava.  It also doesn't hurt that the juice from the grapes is capable of making pretty decent wine, a claim that very few of the crossings or hybrids produced in the German research institutes (or anywhere else for that matter) can make.

I was able to try two different Dornfelder wines, one from its native Germany and one from the Finger Lakes region of New York.  The first wine I tried was a 2007 Georg Albrecht Schneider Dornfelder from the Rheinhessen region of Germany.  I paid about $10 for this wine at Curtis Liquors.  In the glass, the wine was a dense, opaque ruby-purple color.  The nose was pretty simple with spicy sour cherry and juicy red fruit.  On the palate, the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity and soft tannins.  Juicy is a word that keeps popping in my review, as the palate was characterized by juicy red fruit with cherry and some blackberry flavors.  This was pretty much all fruit which, it turns out, is one of the hallmarks of wines made from Dornfelder.  It's not a grape that's going to knock you out with incredible depth or complexity, but it is going to give you a nice, fruity drink.  Think Beaujolais with a bit more richness and you'll be on the right track.  There are producers who are seriously cutting down their yields and aging these wines in oak barrels in an attempt to make a more serious style of wine, but I've not been able to try any of them and frankly, I'm not sure if it's really that necessary.  The world is full of painfully serious wines and sometimes you just want something soft and fruity.

The next wine I tried was from Fulkerson Winery on Seneca Lake in New York State.  It was their 2008 Dornfelder bottling and I picked it up at the winery for $12.  The market this as a Beaujolais style wine, but I'm not sure what the production method for it is.  I suspect part of it is done with carbonic maceration, but I wouldn't swear to it.  They are also one of only two producers growing Dornfelder and are the only producer to produce a varietal bottling (according to their website).  The Finger Lakes has such great success with Riesling that I was very curious to see if that would translate to success with a German red as well.  In the glass, the wine had medium saturation with a ruby core fading to a lavender rim.  It was pretty light as far as Dornfelder usually goes.  The nose was shy with some red cherry and a kind of bubble gum aroma .  On the palate, the wine was light to medium bodied with acidity on the higher side of medium, which is pretty surprising as Dornfelder is typically known for its low acidity.  At this point, I'm starting to seriously wonder about the ripeness level of the grapes being used for this wine as the color doesn't seem fully developed, the palate was a little thin and the acidity really seemed out of whack.  There was some red cherry fruit here and a bit of spicy plum but it also had kind of a tinny, metallic taste.  It's a hard wine to recommend, which is a shame, because I feel like the grape itself may have some potential in this region.  Fulkerson is not exactly at the forefront of quality wine production in the Finger Lakes, so their effort is certainly not indicative of what the grape can potentially do there.  I'd definitely like to see someone else in the region give it a shot, though, as it's an enjoyable wine that can be made in a difficult climate.

For anyone interested, I recently wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Cork Report that dealt specifically with grape selection in that region.  You can check it out here.


irisira said...

I haven't tried Dornfelder yet, should add it to my list. I've found the German grapes do quite well at the NY vineyards.

TNWT said...

Interesting blog article, ~ thanks. I found a new Dornfelder wine at WindSong Winery near Columbia, VA. I went to this winery for their Cab Franc/Norton blend, but came out with several bottles of Dornfelder. There seems to be a couple California vineyards experimenting with Dornfelder also (Mokelumne & Huber).

TNWT said...

Making a general search I also found Dornfelder wines are available from Stargazer Winery in PA and a blend (DeChaunac/Dornfelder) is available from Retting Winery in IN.