Sachsen, Germany

Today we journey to one of the northern-most wine regions on earth, a little-known place which also happens to be the only official wine appellation in the former East German state known in German as Sachsen however you may know it by its translated name, Saxony. This is a cold, isolated wine region, one of the final stops before we reach Eastern Europe proper, which produces wines from a unique mix of little-known varieties. This afternoon we’ll learn the why and the how of viticulture and winemaking in Sachsen.


Sachsen is the eastern-most wine region in Germany, located about 100km due north of Prague, and about 150km due south of Berlin. The closest temperature-moderating large body of water is the ever chilly Baltic Sea, 350km to the north, meaning this is one of the most inland and therefore coldest wine regions on earth. Despite this, Sachsen has a surprisingly long history of wine growing which dates back several centuries, with the first record of viticulture in the region documented in 1161. It was also the first region in Germany to establish a viticultural training institute in 1811, and I’m pretty sure a lot of the research was into how to cope with the cold climate! The annual mean temperature is 10 degrees Celsius, with the average temperature in January a chilly -0.5o (winter temperatures can drop as low as -28o). In July during the growing season the temperature ‘jumps up’ to 18 degrees Celsius, however this is only really just above the minimum temperature required by the vine to grow leaves, shoots and eventually grapes.


Frost is the ever-present enemy in Sachsen. Pretty much every action taken in the vineyard, from row orientation, vine density, slope exposure, type of trellising used and of course which varieties are grown, all are related to the management of frost in its danger times of late spring and early autumn. So you will find in Sachsen, there is a certain similarity between vineyards; they pretty much all face south, are densely packed full of vines (to increase humidity), are trellised high off the ground (to avoid the ground fog layer in spring and autumn) and all have cold-climate specialist varieties planted (more on them later). But it’s not just frost that can mess up a vintage in Sachsen, because below 10 degrees Celsius, the vine shuts down and becomes dormant (which happens most evenings in Sachsen), so it is only for a few hours every day in the already short growing season where the grape vine is working to produce grapes. So how do they do it?


This appellation has another name which ties into how it can grow grapes in such a cold climate, right at the limit of survival for grapes. Locals call this region the Elbtal, after the all-important and Elbe River that runs through it. The river runs east-west, and acts as a mirror for the afternoon sun on the vineyards. These additional much-needed rays give the vine enough light to photosynthesise energy. The river also increases the average temperature in nearby vineyards by increasing humidity. The final piece of the puzzle is the varieties grown here. White grapes make up 85% of yearly harvest, as ripening reds- even in the most exposed vineyards- is a gamble. Often at the end of the season, red grapes are unripe with under-developed tannins and colour- in these vintages only a Rosé is produced. Müller-Thurgau rules the roost in Sachsen as a cold-climate specialist. One of its parents is Riesling, which gives it citrus notes, however this variety is most notable for its lack of flavour. Next most grown are Weissburgunder (a.k.a. Pinot Blanc) and Goldriesling, which is a local speciality not really grown anywhere else on earth, which has Muscat-like qualities, including its perfumed, grapey aroma. Like its parent varietal Riesling, the variety is quite high in acidity and refreshing on the palate. Next are Riesling and Grauburgunder (a.k.a. Pinot Gris), wrapping up the list of light, fresh, highly acidic white wines.


For now, there are still a few roadblocks that stand in the way of Sachsen becoming a world wine superpower. The first is the little known and hard to pronounce varieties, although as we’ve seen with the popularity recently of varieties like Assyrtiko, Grüner Veltliner and Albariño, this could be overcome by passionate growers and good marketing. One major difficulty is the organisation of the region. The majority of wine is made by either a large cooperative or the state-owned Schloss Wackerbarth, leaving little room for small grower/producers. This arrangement harks back to the Communist government of this region decades ago, where productivity was measured in the number of bottles produced rather than the price achieved per bottle or the quality of the vineyard.Today this is slowly shifting however; yields are dropping and more of the difficult-to-farm but high quality terraced vineyards are being re-planted, mainly due to the desire of Berlin locals to drink something made in-region.

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager