On this special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe is joined by German Master of Wine Konstantin Baum and Marie Cheslik, sommelier and founder of SlikWines in Chicago, for a conversation about German wine. What are some changes happening in the region? What’s next for German wine, especially with so many young winemakers taking over estates? And how are consumers in the U.S. reacting? They discuss impacts of climate changes across the country, wine tourism in Germany, and the rising quality and quantity of red wines, rosé, and Sekt. Tune in to learn more.
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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is a special episode of the “VinePair Podcast.” Today, we are chatting about what’s new and next in German wine with two very special guests. I’ll introduce them to you right now. The first is Konstantin Baum. He is a master of wine and runs the online retail company, Meinelese, as well as a booming YouTube channel. I’ve checked it out; lots of good stuff there. You can find it at Konstantin Baum, Master of Wine on YouTube. Konstantin, thanks so much for your time.
Konstantin Baum: Hi Zach, nice to hear from you again. I’m looking forward to this.
Z: Yeah, absolutely. And then our other guest is Marie Cheslik, who is the co-founder and sommelier at Slik Wines. Marie, thanks so much for joining us.
Marie Cheslik: Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to be here.
Z: Fantastic. Let’s start a little bit with some background on you, Marie. What is Slik Wines?
M: So Slik Wines was born during Covid. I worked a lot of restaurant jobs before I started Slik. So Slik was my way of making fun and approachable wine education that was also Covid-friendly. So we did a lot of virtual events to start, consultations, and general entertainment. And now the world is opening up, so we’re doing a lot more in-person stuff, hanging out with people, just getting people excited about wine. And much like what Konstantin does, using social media also as a leverage to get people excited and using mainly TikTok. So it’s very short-format videos to get people interested in all sorts of wine subjects and topics. It’s a lot of fun.
Z: Very cool. And Konstantin, can you tell me a little bit about what you’re doing right now?
K: Well, I do a bunch of different things. My mission overall is to make the world taste better. And for that, I basically make sure that there’s great wine available in my home market, but all over Europe, really. I want to get more people interested in wine. That’s basically why I started my YouTube channel, also during Covid times. And it kind of took off because I think there’s more and more interest also on that platform for wine. So it’s a lot of fun to interact with the people and talk to them and teach them a little bit about wine along the way.
Z: Awesome. We’ll start with this basic question, and Marie, I’m going to start with you on this one, too. We’re going to talk a lot about German wine, what’s going on in Germany now, what is trending, and what is on the come- up. But let’s start with this, what are some of your most cherished or favorite memories involving German wine, either specific bottles or just experiences you might have had so far?
M: The first thing that comes to mind was working at a place called Elske in the West Loop of Chicago. It was one Michelin star. And it was my first time being a wine buyer. I had a really great mentor who taught me a lot, and he was a bartender, so he did not really have any wine experience, but he was the GM and wine director. So he did all the buying and creative work behind that. He introduced me to a sparkling Elbling, so Sekt. It was a world I didn’t even know existed, let alone what a wonderful value it is and how surprising it can be. I think it kind of checks off all the boxes of fun and sparkling and dry. But there’s also so much more to it. And it’s a really exciting world. I think that’s what really got me into German wine, was that bottle. It was Hild, and the grape was Elbling, and Sekt was a sparkling German wine. It really just blew my mind of what German wines could be.
Z: Very cool. Konstantin, I feel like maybe asking you what got you interested in German wine might be a bit of a silly question. But that being said, if there’s anything in particular to kind of just give some background for people, what are some of the things about German wine that you find most compelling?
K: Well, I’m originally from a city called Bielefeld, which is in the north of Germany, and I didn’t grow up around vines. But when I moved down south, I got interested in the topic, also working in restaurants. I pretty very quickly found out that it’s a very interesting product, something that is very emotional. And I also realized over the years that I’m quite lucky to be born in this period of German winemaking. There’s so much going on right now. The quality is increasing so quickly, and there’s such a huge diversity of different styles, different wines. Every now and then, I stumble upon something that I’ve never tasted. And that’s something I think a lot of people should know. German wine is not just one style. It’s a lot of different styles, a lot of different regions, and a lot of different people making very exciting wines — and sometimes, making too many wines at once. But in a way, it makes the German wine world a wonderful place.
Z: Excellent. And we’re going to dive into all of the things you touched on there over the course of this conversation. Keep that in mind, Konstantin. But I want to start with one question for you first and then kind of jump over to you, Marie, for something related. I think for most people listening to this podcast, the immediate connection they’re going to make with German wine is Riesling. And there’s a good reason for that. It’s the most planted variety in the country. It’s obviously the most famous. Some of the great wines of Germany, or many of the great wines in Germany are Rieslings. And I don’t want to spend a lot of time on Riesling in this conversation because as great as it is and enjoyable as it is, it is more well known. But I do want to say one thing and kind of get your opinion on it. Obviously there are parts of Germany that are particularly well known for their Riesling, the Mosel Valley being preeminent among those. But it’s grown in many parts of the wine growing regions within the country. And I’m wondering if you have some thoughts on places that might not be as readily known to your average wine drinker in the U.S. or abroad, but not in Germany, where you think there’s great Riesling, but it’s not necessarily the first place that comes to mind for people.
K: I actually live in one of those regions. I live in Baden, so in the southwest of Germany, close to the French border. From my house, I can actually see Alsace. But people normally associate Baden more with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, if at all. It’s not necessarily the region that is the best represented in the world. But exactly around my village, there’s quite a lot of Riesling being produced and it can be really, really good. It’s kind of the specialty of this part of Baden as we are a bit further up north, it’s a little bit colder than in the south of Baden. So Riesling actually grows really well, and the wines tend to be a little bit richer and a little bit more concentrated. They are usually dry. They can be just beautiful if picked at the right time and made in the right way, obviously. But there are some really, really outstanding Rieslings coming out of Baden.
Z: Fantastic. And Marie, I think you kind of hinted at this when you talked about your introduction to German wine. For you, moving past the world of Riesling, whether it’s Elbling or something else, what are a couple of varieties that you find most compelling in terms of things that are, again, maybe not as on the radar for the average wine drinker as German Riesling might be?
M: Sure. I think of some of the major regions, of course like Mosel. But you go over near Baden, actually, in a place called Wittenberg, they make great Riesling, too. It’s a little similar geographically, a little bit richer in style, but they make a lot of great light style red wines, too. You’ll find Trollinger and Blaufränkisch, which they call Lemberger, over there. And if you want to get really nerdy, they also even do a Pinot Meunier. So if you have any Champagne fans who like the Blanc de Noir and they want to try the same grape, but in a completely new way, it’s a really exciting place that grows a lot of lesser-known varietals. So I find that particular region to be exciting.
Z: Since we’ve moved into the topic of red wines, I think it’s important to note for those listening who aren’t familiar that actually the second most planted variety in Germany now is Spätburgunder, or as most of you probably know, Pinot Noir. And I think there’s a lot to say here, and I want to get a couple of different angles on this. But maybe you can start with this, Konstantin. Why is Pinot Noir or Spätburgunder so popular in Germany?
K: I think it comes down to history and culture. I think it is not necessarily the most preferred red wine style in Germany. So we in Germany actually drink quite a lot of wine from outside of Germany. Not all Germans are in love with Pinot, but we obviously have a great climate for Pinot Noir here. We are fairly close to Burgundy. Climatic conditions can be very similar, and we obviously have some spots that are quite a bit colder than that and that grow amazing Pinot Noir. So yeah, Pinot does grow here and it does really well here, and I think it’s still a little bit underappreciated in the wine world. I think it is also because people don’t get it everywhere. So the great wines tend to stay in Germany and we drink them ourselves, which obviously is nice for us, but is a bit of a shame for the rest of the wine world. There’s a bright future for German Pinot Noir and the developments in the climate, obviously, over the last few decades have also helped increase the quality of German red wines in general and German Pinot Noir in particular. It’s obviously unfortunate, climate change also has a negative impact on a lot of things, but it has helped us produce red wines at a high level on a consistent basis. So I think there’s much more to come of German Pinot Noir in the future.
Z: Just follow up on that point really quick, Konstantin. We’re seeing more plantings of Pinot Noir. As things are generally warmer and maybe the growing season is more conducive to producing even a light-bodied red like Pinot Noir, is it just that people are taking that opportunity, or has something else changed to also promote growth in Pinot Noir?
K: I think it’s both. The opportunities are now there to plant Pinot Noir even in the Mosel, for example, which is not a red winemaking region. But it produces some really, really great Pinot Noir as well. And in the future there will be more Pinot Noir coming out of the Mosel for sure. In the other regions, it just has helped increase the quality of produce. Wines that are a bit darker, a bit riper, a bit richer, obviously appeals to many people. So I think the demand is also increasing. At the same time, there’s a clear quality evolution in German winemaking overall. People are traveling more. Young winemakers like myself, I studied in Geisenheim, or UC Davis basically compared to the United States. They have learned how to make better red wine at the university, but have also traveled to Burgundy and to California, to Australia, wherever, and have brought that experience back home. That has really helped us improve our quality quite rapidly. Now, there is more demand because the quality is just also there.
Z: Very cool. Marie, we’re talking about Pinot Noir. We talked a little bit about Trollinger, Lemberger, etc. It seems to me that this style of red wine, light to medium bodied with some combination of a bright fruit tone with earthy or spicy notes, is really quite popular with a lot of wine drinkers. Are people game to try these wines when you present them to them? Or is there some barrier, whether it’s an unfamiliar variety or a disbelief that there is great red wine coming out of Germany? How do your guests, the people you interact with, respond to these kinds of wines?
M: I find that the people I interact with are very open-minded for the most part. I have worked in very traditional restaurants, and maybe I would give you a different answer then. But the way I see it right now and from the people I talked to today, they are so open-minded about trying something new and exploring. I mean, I think this thrives in the food world. People want to try new restaurants or new regions, and not just like a Chinese restaurant, but a very specific one, like Szechuan food. People are getting more precise about the kinds of foods they enjoy. And I find that parallel with wine all the time being like, “You’ve had a wine from Germany, maybe, but now let’s get even more in-depth. Have you had a wine from this region or have you had a light style wine from this region?” Or, you can draw a parallel, like if you like Beaujolais, you should try this. And having the, not only wine knowledge for that, but also the tact for the conversation of who are you talking to and what do they value? And tapping into that, I find that I really easily can have these conversations and people are very open-minded about it, which I find so much fun.
Z: Very cool. Are people excited by the opportunity to try something new? I mean, I’ve certainly experienced that, but I’m always kind of curious whether my own love of trying new stuff is specific or more universal.
M: Sure. Well, it’s interesting. I think about it, too. The last restaurant I worked in before Covid was a Scandinavian-inspired restaurant. And so creating a wine list for that, well, they don’t really grow wine in Scandinavia. Well, not yet. Maybe they will.
Z: They’re starting to.
M: Right. The world will get warmer and maybe we’ll see more Scandinavian wine. But that means you can have more creative freedom of what you do. People would come in, not really also knowing what to expect. You live in Chicago. And yes, there are some Scandinavian immigrants and European immigrants. But in general, people don’t know what to expect. So with the wine list, you can have a lot of fun with it. You still try to be like, well, I should still do cooler-climate wines, things with acid, things that are food friendly, certainly. So Germany comes to mind. One of the main questions I ask people at a table in that situation is, “Do you want something classic, or do you want to go adventurous?” And I would say 85 percent of the time, people are going adventurous. That’s a little hard to say if that was how I certainly worded things or how I presented myself or their situation. They’re in a restaurant that maybe they’re open but unfamiliar with the food. It’s not necessarily like going to a delicious classic French restaurant where you kind of know what to expect. You’re going to see the same dishes. You know you want a big fabulous bottle of Burgundy or whatever. So the people I interact with and see are very open-minded and it’s so much fun. I really enjoy it.
Z: Okay. I want to shift gears just a little bit here. Konstantin, can you talk to me about Sekt? Maybe not a technical definition, but just kind of grounding people in it and maybe in particular the changes that are happening within the category now and have been happening for the last few years?
K: Yeah, I think Sekt is not necessarily as widely known as it should be. Sekt is our sparkling wine, so our equivalent to the sparkling wines that you know and it comes in very different or various different shapes. But it’s usually quite refreshing and vibrant with a high level of acidity and not so much yeasty flavors. But obviously we have looked at that category as Germans quite a bit over the last few years, and there are quite a lot of new developments. The VDP, the premium wineries in Germany, have just released a new regulation for sparkling wines. They’re really focusing on that category right now. And those ones tend to be the Rieslings. So that’s based on the premier grape variety or they are based on the Burgundy grape varieties or the Kerner grape varieties, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and also Chardonnay. Those are basically the main stylistic expressions. The Riesling Sekts tend to be a little bit more aromatic and obviously have more acidity in general. The ones made from the Pinots and Chardonnay are rounder and richer in flavor. And they’re more and more producers nowadays that really leave their Sekts quite a long time on the yeasts in order to get more of this brioche correct character into their wines and make them more complex. And there are some really, really exciting Sekts around nowadays, and they still come at a really low price. I mean, we all know that sparkling wines can be very, very expensive. Even the premium examples of German Sekt tend to be really affordable, and they bring quite a lot of bang for the buck.
Z: Very cool. And I’m wondering, too, in that category, are you seeing mostly traditional-method production, as in bottle fermentation? Or are you seeing other forms of producing sparkling wine? My understanding is that Sekt as a category is pretty broad and allows for several different production methods.
K: Yeah, exactly. When we talk about the premium end of the market, they tend to be a traditional method. In the wines that I was just talking about, the VDP ones, for example, they are traditional method and they have to be aged for a long time on the lees. I think at least 15 months, and the super-high-end wines are on the lees for several years. But the majority of those wines, the Germans Sekts, are tank method and they are really, really affordable. They’re really quite cheap. So there’s a huge range of different quality levels and different stylistic expressions.
Z: Very cool. I wanted to also ask something in this vein, and then this can transition us into maybe a different topic as well. Konstantin, you mentioned that one of the things that’s changed in Germany or that’s happening in Germany in the wine world right now, is that a lot of the younger producers are studying abroad or working abroad and then bringing some of that knowledge back, or at least there’s an interchange. A thing that you said to me in a conversation off air was that one thing that also seems to be different in Germany right now is that it’s kind of cool to be a winemaker again. I’m wondering if you could talk about wine culture in Germany right now and specifically the culture in the wine regions and maybe expand on that. Because I found that fascinating.
K: I think this is very beneficial for the industry right now, that wine becomes a lifestyle product that is looked at as cool, and that even appeals to a younger generation. There was a time when younger people didn’t drink wine at all, where the next generation didn’t want to take over the winery because it’s such hard work. And there was a period when you couldn’t really make money with wine in Germany. There are steep slopes in some regions, and they are really hard to work on. So it is a tough job. And nowadays, people see the artisanal aspect of winemaking and they also see this artistic aspect. So the winemakers aren’t quite rock stars, but they are looked at as people that live an amazing life. And I think it is true, being able to work in nature and produce a product that you can enjoy and that you can put into your cellar and drink with your grandchildren or children eventually. That’s quite an amazing thing. And I hope that this trend continues. The young generation that we see today is also different in a way, because back in the days, people were very much focused on their hometown and didn’t really look outside of it. That obviously stifles innovation and doesn’t really broaden the horizon. And nowadays, it’s pretty much common that young winemakers spend a year or half a year outside of Germany and spend several harvests working somewhere around the world. And while they do that, they obviously see quite a lot of things that they can use at home in order to improve the quality and maybe look at the way their fathers or forefathers have done the job differently. And that’s great. There are also more women coming into wine. It was fairly uncommon, probably all around the world, but also in Germany, that women were running wineries. And now there are more and more. There are some really excellent producers who make amazing wine. And that obviously helps just to improve the stylistic expressions in the market and obviously also attract more female consumers into wine. That’s a great trend, too.
Z: For sure. Following up on that with another thing that is trendy. It’s now silly to call it trendy because it’s been trendy for so long. But we’re recording this in late June, so it’s definitely rosé season everywhere, if it ever isn’t rosé season. We’re starting to see, just as there’s increased production of red wine in Germany, we’re seeing more and more rosé come out of Germany as well. I would love your thoughts on that, Marie. Are you seeing people interested in exploration in the rosé category in the same way that they might be in other wine categories? Or do people just want the same rosés that they’ve been drinking for years?
M: The thing about German rosé is for the general consumer, I would say that most people assume rosé is that light pink color and that zippy acidity thing, the pretty primary fruit flavors, maybe not the most complex thing. There are other wineries who certainly create a more complex rosé, but I think people really want the pink drink, the chargeable patio pounder, and go-to-the-beach sort of thing. And I think that when it comes to German wine, there’s plenty of that. There are a lot of great producers who make a dry rosé very much in that style. So I think it would be a really easy crossover. “Hey, you like pink drinks. Great. I’ve got an awesome one from Germany and the price is right and it’s going to scratch the itch. Maybe it’s a grape you’ve never heard of.” But it’s not only trust. To me, it’s a very obvious answer. You’re going to like this. You’d be a fool not to like this. It’s delicious. It goes with everything. It’s food-friendly, has the cool-climate, lip-smacking, acidic goodness that people are looking for. I feel like it’s a no-brainer in my head.
Z: Very cool. Konstantin, is rosé popular in Germany?
K: Well, it definitely is. It’s growing quite quickly over here. I wouldn’t necessarily say that there are lots of producers here who really focus on rosé as a quality drink, even though there are some really good rosés coming out of Germany. But there’s not a long history in rosé winemaking to the highest standards. I think it goes along with the trend towards more red wine production, and it often is a byproduct of the red wine production in Germany. Obviously, there are some rosés that are made specifically or where the grapes are harvested specifically for that wine. In Germany, oftentimes it’s more of a rosé that can be super bright, fruity. And some of them can be really complex and enjoyable for sure.
Z: Excellent. OK. I want to kind of get to a few last things before we wrap things up here. Marie, we’ve talked a lot about some different styles and varieties. Is there anything else coming out of Germany that you are particularly excited about or that you have your eye on? It could be a region, could be a style, could be an individual variety, whatever. But something else that you think our listeners should keep their eyes peeled for.
M: At the beginning, I talked about Württemberg. I’m certainly a big fan of approachable, easy-drinking. But I think it’s also important to go on the other side of things, which is that some of these really stunning, complex wines, particularly the Sekts from Peter Lauer that sit on lees for 20 to 30 years before release, are really incredible. Some of the reserve stuff. The MSRP is $120, 100 bucks maybe. The amount of time that it’s just spent there and the labor that goes into it is just such an incredible value to me, where a lot of Champagnes do a similar amount of labor or even sometimes less labor and charge more for it. I just feel like if you want something nice, you want to try something different outside the Champagne world, those Peter Lauers are one of the most stunning wines I’ve had in a while. And that stuff really gets me excited, too. So, I’m a lady of both worlds. I need McDonald’s, and I need Champagne. It’s all good stuff in my head, you know?
Z: Very cool. Konstantin, for people who might be intrigued by the notion of visiting Germany and maybe visiting some of these wine regions, I know you live there. It’s not as if you are a tourist yourself, but you have a wealth of experience — as opposed to my one week in Germany, which was great, to be fair. For people who are interested in visiting, what is winery visiting culture like? Is it relatively easy for people to make appointments to go taste in these places? Or is it relatively tricky to set that up?
K: First of all, it’s quite easy to cover quite a lot of ground in Germany because most of the winemaking production is in the southwest of Germany. So you don’t really have to travel that far in order to see almost everything from Germany, which is a nice thing. And there is a wine tourism culture. There are so-called weinstrasse all around Germany. So they are basically wine routes where you travel through different villages and past lots of wineries and lots of vineyards. That does definitely exist. Some wineries have restaurants, a place where you can actually drink the wine and eat regional, local cuisine. More and more wineries nowadays also have really nice tasting rooms. So that was something that was missing for a while, and that does exist now. So you get quite a lot of places where you can just pull up and go and taste, and other wineries where you have to make an appointment. But most winery doors in Germany are actually open. There are a few places where it’s a bit more difficult to get in, but most of them are open. And if you make appointments, you will certainly be able to taste lots of amazing wines and talk to the winemakers themselves and really discover German wines for real.
Z: Fantastic. Well, Marie and Konstantin, thank you so much for your time, both of you. I really appreciate this chat and getting to learn more about what’s going on in Germany now and looking ahead to the future. So again, thank you both so much for your time.
M: Appreciate it.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.