If you quiz people on what, if anything, they could tell you about Franken, I’d gather that you would get a lot of blank stares. Even among winelovers, I am fairly certain that most people would stop at bocksbeutel (the signature Franken bottle) and Silvaner (the most important grape variety grown). I would even go as far as stating that people would know more about the Nahe or even the Ahr, tiny as this last region may be. There are several possible explanations and at least some of them will be addressed in this post.
First things first, a quick introduction to Franken. With roughly 6 100 ha it is one of the bigger wineproducing regions in Germany. You would not believe it if you were driving through it, but all in all it is also a relatively flat region. No mountains of significance to protect it against the rain and snow, nor to prevent temperatures from wildly swinging up and down throughout the year. This continental climate has consequences for viticulture in the region. For instance, Riesling buds late and will therefore avoid spring frosts but will sometimes have difficulty attaining optimal ripeness in the crucial months of September and October. It is therefore accountable for roughly 5% of all plantings, but you will only find it in the top vineyards, sheltered from harsh weather conditions while assuring that it gets sufficient sunshine.
Silvaner is the one true grape in Franken. Yes, Muller-Thurgau may take up the largest proportion of the vineyards at around 34% but it is rarely capable of producing exciting wines. I find that the better wines are correct, but bland; they lack something distinctive that shows you what Muller-Thurgau stands for. Just like Riesling however, Silvaner is one of those grapes that possesses an openness that allows the terroir to shine through. It would be a tragedy if someone would judge the grape solely based on what you can find in the supermarket. I find that Silvaner of relatively low quality can be austere, too one-dimensional and slightly bitter in the finish.
At its origin Silvaner is most likely a Central European variety that can be traced back to Traminer and Österreichisch Weiss. The most important risk is frost, especially in the spring and although global warming can be seen as a mitigating factor, it’s also an add-on risk as extreme temperature swings are more common. The upside is that Silvaner can still achieve optimal ripeness in a cooler climate (in contrast with Riesling). This was of particular importance at the time when it was introduced in Franken in the seventeenth century as this coincided with the Little Ice Age. After the destruction and devastation of the Thirty Years War, it was important that winegrowers could rely on a variety that would not only manage to thrive in colder circumstances, but that was also productive enough to ensure a steady supply of wine.
A good Silvaner, which does not even have to be expensive and can cost as little as 8-10 euros, will display what I dubbed true minerality in my previous post. It is sharp and precise, opening up on fruit while retaining a wonderful freshness. In its youth the acidity may be a bit too high for some, but when it balances out after a couple of years of bottle rest it can stand up against some of the better Chablis wines in displaying terroir and minerality. Special mention should also go to Blauer Silvaner (pictured below), a relatively rare variety that relies more on fruit and concentration, even though it is still supported by razor-sharp acidity.
Franken is a difficult wine region. One of the main reasons for its lack of popularity is the bocksbeutel, the typical bottle. People connect it to cheap and bland Mateus wine, which does not exactly scream quality wine. The bottles also appear impractical; just try fitting them in a standard winebox!
These may be little issues, but marketing-wise they have slowed down the rise of Franken wine, certainly outside of Germany. I like the bottles. Yes, you have to carefully balance them in the cellar, but they are nice to serve and will intrigue people from the start. I find it a shame that more and more producers prefer Burgundy-style bottles for their top range, the Grosses Gewachs. Serving these in a bocksbeutel would preserve tradition and add value to the offering, at least for me.
Franken is a diverse region when it comes to terroir, which also makes it more difficult for people to figure out what exactly they would like. When coming from Frankfurt, you first pass through Mainviereck. Contrary to the majority of Franken the terroir here consists of red sandstone (offering good draining) atop of thick layers of clay (storage for water to get through extreme droughts). The climate here is warmer than the rest of Franken, making the region most suitable for red varieties, being Spätburgunder and Frühburgunder.
Going further east you end up in the heart of Frankenland, Maindreieck, responsible for roughly three/fourth of Franken’s wine production. Chalk’s the main terroir here, offering mineral wines with substance, depth and elegance. There are three distinct terroirs around Würzburg, being Stettener Stein, Würzburger Stein and Innere Leiste. Germany’s largest weingut, Juliusspital is located in Würzburg. The hospital was founded some 400 years ago and still functions as a hospital today. The vineyards were part of the endowment by Prince Julius Echter and have grown over time to 177ha via donations from wealthy patrons in the region. Close to a million bottles of wine per year, it is without a doubt the most significant winegrower in the region.
Finally we have Steigerwald, further to the Southeast. The climate here is warmer and dryer, resulting in richer wines for the most part. I don’t have much experience with the region’s winegrowers but the presence of gypsum in the soil can translate itself into racy, herbal wines. They are difficult to get a hold of outside of Germany, but from the few ones that I tried, Hans Wirsching is amongst the better producers and would be well worth your time.
Over the next posts, we will take a closer look at a couple of key growers, stay tuned!