I’m going to spend a lot of time this summer talking about Riesling, because I’m going to spend a lot of time this summer drinking Riesling, because Riesling is my favorite single grape.

My second-favorite single grape is Pinot Noir, and today these two passions come together in a column about a single German wine maker, Von Schleinitz.

Von Schleinitz produces a wide array of Riesings, from the ultra-dry expressions currently favored by the German wine-buying public to a splendid Kabinett, (sparkling) Sekt and late-harvest “stickies” such as trockenbeerenauslesen.

If getting more people to appreciate Riesling is an uphill slog most of the time, getting them to try German Pinot Noir is scaling an overhanging cliff. Most American Pinot drinkers think of California first, Burgundy if we’re lucky, Oregon if they’re selective. When I mention “German Pinot,” there’s almost always a scrunched-nose smirk in response; when I offer a taste, there’s a big smile.

Von Schleinitz Pinot Noir ($21, SoPo) doesn’t taste like an overextracted, blazing, blingy Californian Pinot Noir, but neither does it taste like most Burgundy. It tastes thrillingly like itself.

The profile is immensely approachable – a winning combination of sour cherry, cinnamon toast and brick dust, with a touch of molasses (flavor, not texture) at the end. It’s not reedy like so much cheap and/or drunk-too-young Burgundy, but it’s compact, lively and skip-stepping nonetheless. It has that toothsome “umph” that people like in California Pinot, without the plodding, heavyweight sulk.

“It’s a unique style,” Thomas Haehn said. Thomas is Von Schleinitz wine maker Konrad Haehn’s brother, and handles the winery’s publicity.

“Konrad doesn’t like the presence of oak,” he said. “He likes minerality, the elegance of a pure wine. In that way, his Pinot is very much from a Riesling maker’s perspective. It’s like an unoaked Cote Challonaise, rather than a Cote de Nuits.”

Thomas’ Burgundy references are legit. Working in the 1990s in a small Nashville wine shop, he came under the tutelage of the Burgundy-crazed owner.

Thomas brought samples of Burgundy and other cool-climate Pinot Noir home to his brother in Germany and said, “This is the greatest red grape. If you’re a good wine maker, you need to know how to make wine with this grape.”

Such a comment would be ridiculous if Pinot weren’t meant to grow in the Mosel, but despite the fact that it was illegal to make red wines there until the late 1980s, it is: the cool climate, the day-night temperature differentials and the mineral-rich slate soil of the northern Mosel are perfect for this most temperamental of grapes.

Von Schleinitz’s microclimate helps too. One of the seven steepest wine-making areas in the world, it’s hemmed in tight by the river, and its incline provides maximum sunlight (a must when the air temperature is relatively low).

The area is also quite humid (winds that could help dry things out blow right over the narrow valley), which aids physiological ripening and elicits Pinot’s elusive richness. Konrad’s tough job is to separate these prime grapes from the botrytis-tainted ones. (Which, with skins removed, produce their fascinating Rose and Blanc de Noir).

Von Schleinitz is small-batch, artisanal wine, and the brothers have almost no money to spend on promotion and marketing. (Thomas’ marketing work is “a hobby”; his paying job is renovating houses). Their distribution is higgledy-piggledy, and based on personal connections. (Thomas knows the owners of Maine’s SoPo distribution company because all of them used to work together in Nashville.)

Von Schleinitz isn’t even currently available in New York or several other top markets. It’s grass-roots stuff.

Economies of scale dictate everything.

“It’s very different from California,” Thomas said, “where you design production based on what you think you’re going to sell. It’s not that easy in Germany. We’re an estate, and we do estate-based production.”

To even out cash flow in such an unreliable market, the Haehns have also started producing a lower-priced Riesling (and the crazily fun Dornfelder-based “Sweet Red” that was a huge hit at my Passover table) sold under the HIGHDef label, from wine they buy from a southern Mosel cooperative – both available for $11.

The HIGHDefs are incredible bargains, but I’d urge you to try the Kabinett 2008, one of my all-time favorite under-$20 wines.

It has very subtle tropical notes (pineapple, lychee) and apricot, fizzling into mandarin orange. Classic Mosel-slate aromas and flavors of wet wool and sports-ball-needle steel shore it up, and at the end you get a very clean (and again, classic Mosel) kerosene aspect (not, like, gas; it’s kerosene as cleanser).

A few Portland restaurants – including Fore Street, Pepperclub, the East Ender, Salt Exchange and Bar Lola – have Von Schleinitz on their lists, as do a handful elsewhere in Maine. Most area wine shops carry at least some of the wines.

Also, Rosemont Market (code-red full-disclosure alert: I work there) will hold a tasting of Von Schleinitz wines from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, with Rieslings and the Pinot.


Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]


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