Evoe! German and Austrian Sekt Report


“Evoe!” is the ecstatic, inebriated cry of the Maenads, followers of Dionysus, as they dance and drink with abandon. It is also the name a German winemaker gave to his Sekt. I salute his spirit and wit, especially considering how these merry and seemingly ‘out of control’ women have been portrayed over centuries, striking either fear or excitement into male hearts and minds. For this report, this joyful exclamation and sense of purpose is apt. At long last, this once illustrious category of wine is in full revival mode. Much is happening in the world of Sekt, or sparkling wine, both in Germany and Austria.

Maenads by John Collier (1850-1934), Southwark Heritage Centre, London, UK, Creative Commons License.

The Term Sekt

The word Sekt simply means “sparkling wine” in German and thus covers any wine with bubbles, but this inaugural Sekt report focuses on wines fermented in bottle. As a mother-tongue German speaker who has lived abroad all her adult life, I rejoice that there is finally a German wine word that is easy to spell, remember and pronounce. However, my fellow Germans have struggled with the term. The history of Sekt, detailed later, means that the word was once commonly associated with the gallons of cheap, tank-fermented, slightly sweet bubbles made on a truly industrial scale in Germany’s (and to a lesser degree in Austria’s) Sektkellereien, or large Sekt producers. Today, Sekt has come full circle, as both Germany and Austria are seeing the first real flowering of traditional method Sekt.

21st Century Rehabilitation

Austria founded its Sektkomitee in 2013 and created a new legal framework for Sekt in 2016. Germany began legally defining terms like Winzersekt, i.e., Sekt made by a winegrower from estate-grown grapes, in the 1980s and linked this to bottle-fermentation. They later even defined the French term Crémant in German law, as the word Sekt was not seen as sufficiently classy for a bottle-fermented wine. Years had to pass before Sekt was no longer a dirty word. By the time the famous Reichsrat von Buhl estate in the Pfalz managed the huge scoop of hiring Champagne Bollinger’s former cellarmaster, Mathieu Kauffmann, in 2013 as their chief winemaker, German Sekt was already fizzing away below the surface. However, this hire and its well-orchestrated marketing campaign brought the idea of bottle-fermented, even fine, Sekt into fuller public consciousness. Finally, the time was ripe for good German Sekt. Thus, 2013 was a key year for Sekt in Austria and Germany. The intervening decade has been immense for fine Sekt in both countries.

Thinking Fizz

Making fine sparkling wine is about far more than taking base wine and fermenting it for a second time in bottle. High-level sparkling wine needs carefully selected sites and viticultural methods aimed at achieving different ripeness parameters than those required for still wine, including harvest dates. Pressing is a crucial process that requires both experience and expertise. In the past, Sekt was often a contingency product, a place for young vines or an odd parcel of grapes. Today, this is no longer the case. Over the past 15 years, understanding and embracing the culture of making base wine specifically for Sekt has been the single biggest change in both Austria and Germany that has made this revival possible. Culturally, these developments took place as so-called Grower Champagnes gained currency, sharing that same model of growing grapes and making traditional method wine in artisan fashion. As drinkers learned that great sparkling wine did not have to come from large brands, acceptance of the artisanal traditional method Sekt grew. When the German VDP published its Sekt statute in 2018, also adopting the term for its sparkling wines, the battle was won.

Notable Names and Grapes

By now, the former pioneers have been joined by newly emerged specialists. Ebner-Ebenauer, Jurtschitsch, Harkamp and Zuschmann-Schöffmann now join Malat, Bründlmayer and Loimer in Austria. In Germany, longtime specialists Raumland, Frank John, Barth and Bamberger are now accompanied by Griesel and Burkhardt-Schür. In both countries, artisanal production is still dwarfed by tank-fermented production, of course. The latest figures available from Germany date to 2021 and show that just 1.7% of the country’s vast annual Sekt production of between 260 and 280 million bottles were bottle-fermented, yet this small percentage accounts for around 4.5 million bottles of traditional method Sekt. There are no comparable figures for Austria.

This initial Sekt report shines a light on current releases. Fizz lovers will feel very much at home with Pinot Noir- and Chardonnay-based Sekts, which form the majority of this report. The top wines in this category can easily stand shoulder to shoulder with artisanal Champagnes. Price-wise, they cover a range that is comparable to good-value NV Champagnes. However, other grape varieties also come into focus. In Germany, that is Riesling, of course, a grape eminently suited for the bubble treatment but in a different aromatic register. For Austria, Zweigelt often yields stunning pink sparkling wines. I plan to explore these varietal specialities in greater detail in future reports. Some wines from more aromatic varieties, like Grüner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, were submitted, and they are less convincing than sparkling wines. But for now, here is a dive into the history of Sekt.

Sekt aging in Bründlmayer's cellars in Langenlois' J Kamptal.

Fizzical Interchange

When the term Sekt was first coined by a famous Berlin actor in 1825, it denoted his favorite drink, namely Champagne. At the time, there was not much German Sekt. Experiments had been made, but the first German Sekt house was not founded until 1826 in Esslingen, near Stuttgart, then in the Kingdom of Württemberg. Its founder, Georg Christian Kessler, had worked for none other than Barbe Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the famous Clicquot widow, in Reims. But this is not the only connection Germany has with Champagne. When Napoleon first occupied the German territories on the left bank of the Rhine from 1792 onwards, turning them into French départements in 1798, the Germans enthusiastically took up the French fashion for fizz. This fashion did not pass with Napoleon’s defeat in 1815; on the contrary, it had only just begun. A Franco-German interchange continued as it always had, regardless of borders and politics, featuring an unusually high number of Germans active in Champagne. One of the first was Florens-Louis Heidsieck, who founded his eponymous house in 1785. Veuve Clicquot not only employed Kessler, who became her business partner in 1815, but also a German cellarmaster, Anton Alois Müller, who is credited with inventing pupitres, or riddling racks. When Joseph Jacob Placide Bollinger came to Champagne in 1822, he got a job with Müller-Ruinart before founding his own house in 1829. In 1827, Gottlieb, Jacobus and Philipp Mumm founded Champagne Mumm. In 1838, William Deutz and Peter Geldermann founded Champagne Deutz. A young Joseph Krug left his hometown of Mainz, or Mayence, in 1824 to find employment in Paris and Champagne, initially working for Jacquesson before founding Champagne Krug in 1843. Austria had its own Sekt pioneer in Robert Alwin Schlumberger, a German from Stuttgart who worked for Ruinart Pére et Fils in Reims. Marrying the Viennese Sophie Kirchner in 1841, Alwin founded the Schlumberger Sekt house in 1842 in Vienna before settling in Bad Vöslau, Thermenregion, in 1843.

Germany’s Illustrious Sekt History

The success of the French region was not lost on the industrious Germans who made wines along the same northerly latitudes. The town of Koblenz, or Coblence, at the confluence of the rivers Mosel and Rhine, became somewhat of a center for Sekt production, especially via the Deinhard brand, which began making Sekt in 1843. Sekt was so fashionable that Christian Adalbert Kupferberg founded his Sektkellerei in 1850 in Mainz, and Adam Henkell started producing Sekt in Wiesbaden in 1856. These companies were immensely successful at home and abroad, selling their wines as ‘Sparkling Hock,’ ‘Sparkling Moselle’ and even ‘Champagne,’ as the name was not protected then. The Prussians, with characteristic punctiliousness, kept statistics. These enlightening figures show the industry's rapid growth: annual production totals state 250,000 bottles in 1840, 1.25 million bottles by 1850, 4 million by 1878, 6 million by 1886, 9 million by 1892 and almost 12 million bottles in 1900. These are impressive figures for the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, the term Sekt was firmly established in the German language.

Death and Taxes

Prussia’s military success boosted the above numbers. Once victorious in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871, they founded the second German Empire and annexed Lorraine, an excellent source of base wines. As the figures above show, the industry expanded exponentially. Such success had to be taxed, of course. Kaiser Wilhelm introduced his Sektsteuer, or Sekt tax, in 1902 and famously used it to finance his navy and military projects. Crucially, he also restricted the production of sparkling wine to Sektkellereien only, a ban not lifted in German law until 1971. The First World War put an end to this golden age of effervescence. Export markets collapsed, and the Versailles Treaty expressly forbade the use of the term Champagne for any German sparkling wine. Despite a short flowering during the Roaring Twenties, Sekt was revived only in postwar Germany but in a very different fashion. Established brands like Henkell, Kupferberg, Söhnlein and Deinhard all gradually moved from bottle - to tank fermentation in the 1960s and 1970s. Increasing European integration from the 1980s onwards meant that incrementally, producers used pan-European base wines, wherever they could be sourced cheapest, to make Sekt – which became shorthand for sweetish, fizzy plonk, still to be had for less than €5 in German supermarkets. Things never were as crass in Austria, where industrial German fizz is sold just as cheaply. The name Sekt had lost all its luster.

Slow Revival

To this day, Germans are some of the world’s most enthusiastic drinkers of sparkling wines, with per capita consumption exceeding 3 liters per annum, fueled by the ubiquitous availability of cheap, tank-fermented Sekt. While the German wine law of 1971 meant that all wine producers were allowed to make Sekt, it took a tax technicality in the mid-1980s to make artisanal Sekt production practicable. Some pioneers had started bottle-fermenting Sekts for private use in the 1970s, like the Roth family of Wilhelmshof in the Pfalz, whose initial experiment began with 52 bottles – one for every Sunday of the year. A handful of others, like Volker Raumland, built a whole business specializing in Sekt. In Austria, it was Gerhard Malat in the Kremstal who first made Sekt from his own grapes in 1976, but he also had to go to court to fight for the right of a winegrower to make Sekt. He won. These German and Austrian innovators were 40 years ahead of their time. At long last, the industry at large is catching up with them.

The vast majority of the Sekts in this report were tasted in London in late 2023 and early 2024. A few notable Sekt names are still missing, but I hope that these will join the ranks in the coming year.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

2022 Burgenland and Austria’s East – A Heaven for Unsung but Compelling Reds, Anne Krebiehl MW, February 2024

2022 Wachau and Lower Austria: An Overshadowed Vintage Worth Exploring, Anne Krebiehl MW, February 2024

2022 Rheingau, Pfalz and Mittelrhein: Before, During and After the Rain, Anne Krebiehl MW, December 2023

2022 Mosel-Saar-Ruwer: Old Vines and Steep Challenges, Anne Krebiehl MW, October 2023