The Germans have consistently held the global top spot in guzzling bubbles (OIV, April 2020): the per capita consumption in 2021 was 3.2 litres of fizz (Statista Research Department, April 2022) which means more than four bottles or 32 flutes per adult of Champagne, Prosecco, Cava and other sparkling wines – and Sekt of course, the surprisingly pronounceable and simple term for German sparkling wine.
Two kinds of Sekt
But caveat emptor: the term Sekt covers everything from the simplest tank-fermented plonk to long-aged, bottle-fermented sparkling wines. It is the former that explains that world-beating consumption figure. Cracking open a bottle of Sekt is seen as a simple and affordable treat in Germany, where a 750ml bottle can be had for as little as €5. Enjoying a glass is the equivalent of eating a square of chocolate or a biscuit. Thus the vast majority of Sekt is made from pan-European wines rail-freighted to a few giant wineries that turn these simple base wines into easy-drinking fizz in giant tanks and market them under long-established brand names.
The real thing and how to recognise it
What we are after, however, is the real thing: bottle-fermented Sekt, i.e. made by the traditional method – either klassische or Traditionelle Flaschengärung (‘traditional bottle fermented’) in German.
According to the Association of German Sektkellereien, the proportion of traditional-method Sekt is just 1.7% of Germany’s total sparkling production (Verband Deutsche Sektkellereien, January 2022), so the terminology found on labels is key to recognising bottles. The word Flaschengärung is absolutely crucial since most of the wines tasted here would fit into higher categories that exist in German wine law but do not explicitly state this. Here is some useful terminology:
- Sekt b.A. (Sekt bestimmter Anbaugebiete) – Must be made from German grapes grown in one of Germany’s 13 wine regions but can be made by tank or bottle fermentation.
- Winzersekt – must be Sekt b.A, made from estate-grown grapes and bottle-fermented. It must state grape variety and vintage on the label (and at least 85% of grapes must be from the stated variety and vintage).
- Crémant – must be Sekt b.A., must be hand-harvested and whole-bunch pressed with a maximum yield of 100 litres of juice from 150kg of grapes, must be traditional method and aged at least nine months on the lees. Yes, the Germans have appropriated a French term here – but it is rarely used.
Because this is Germany, there is always an extra layer of regulation, in this case, self-imposed by the VDP, Germany’s association of elite estates, who introduced their first Sekt statute in 2018. All VDP Sekt conforms to the regulations for Winzersekt (‘sparkling wine’), but underlies more stringent yield restrictions. It can only be made from regionally defined grape varieties, hand-harvested and whole-bunch pressed with extra statutes on press fractions. It is ageing that defines the individual categories:
- VDP.Sekt – min. 15 months ageing on the lees
- VDP.Jahrgangssekt (with a stated vintage) – min. 24 months ageing on the lees
- VDP.Sekt Prestige – min. 36 months on the lees
Sekt success at home and abroad
While bottle-fermented Sekts are still a drop in the ocean of Germany’s gigantic output of fizz, fine Sekt has been a success story domestically and – increasingly – also abroad, even though the finest Sekts rarely travel outside Germany. Christoph Graf who is both chairman of the board of Sektmanufaktur Schloss VAUX in the Rheingau as well as chairman of the Verband Traditioneller Sektmacher, an association of bottle-fermenters, says, ‘The past five years have been a renaissance for all premium sparkling wines and Sekt from Germany. I see two reasons for this: consumers became much more knowledgeable when it came to sparkling wines from across the world. With this new expertise, different and unique styles and origins became much more interesting. This curiosity is good for the little niche of fine German Sekts.’
But he also notes that it was not only consumers’ expertise that grew. Sparkling wine producers also upped their game considerably. ‘I’m very optimistic for export markets,’ he adds.
The unique sparkler: German Rieslingsekt
The German Wine Institute reports that the regions of Baden, Pfalz and Mosel produced most Sekt b.A. in 2021, and while 23% were made from single varieties of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, a whopping 41% of Sekt b.A. were made from Riesling. Rieslingsekt is a real ‘unique selling point’ for Germany; it has a different flavour profile compared to sparkling wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Riesling’s high acidity and semi-aromatic profile result in very bright, fresh wines with alluring notes of citrus augmented by notions of stone fruit and apple fruitiness.
Those who are wary of Riesling’s petrol notes have nothing to fear from the Rieslingsekts in this selection. They are merely supercharged on citrus and fruit. The Pinot Noir-based Sekts are also totally worth looking out for – all from great names.