There are actually only two true white Burgundy varieties (more precisely: Pinot varieties) in Germany: Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, which are nothing more than colour mutations of Pinot Noir. This also makes them largely identical to the red Schwarzriesling and Samtrot, which also mutated from Pinot Noir in this sequence. In fact, however, we also count Chardonnay and Auxerrois as Burgundy varieties. Both are natural crosses between Pinot and Heunisch (Gouais Blanc, by the way, also one of the 3 parents of Riesling), so at least they are related.
All varieties are classified as non-aromatic or "neutral" grape varieties, which is a little misleading, as the wines are not distinctly aromatic or fruity, but they do have their own characteristic, non-neutral expression. Nevertheless, their aromatic restraint is probably the most important reason why Burgundy varieties are often treated in the cellar, for example with biological acid reduction, particularly long lees ageing and ageing in more or less large or new wooden barrels, in order to influence their taste in a targeted way, which was largely frowned upon in Germany for more aromatic varieties, especially Riesling, until recently and is only slowly being rediscovered.
Grauburgunder is the white Burgundy grape in Germany with the largest area under cultivation. It takes its name from the grey-blue and/or red colouring that the berries take on as they ripen. The fact that the wines from this grape are usually white is simply due to the fact that, like most white wines, they are fermented without contact with the skins. Recently, however, onion-skin to salmon-coloured versions have increasingly been found.
The range of wines produced from Pinot Gris is astonishingly wide. In the past, when the variety was still widely called Ruländer in Germany, its susceptibility to botrytis was used to produce soft, plump-sweet, sometimes even heavy wines, as can still be found today, especially in Alsace. In Germany, this variety is now largely extinct, with the exception of noble sweet wines. Starting with the Pinot Grigio boom in the 1980s and 1990s, people in Germany have also begun to make wine that is largely free of botrytis and, above all, dry. At the same time, at least the better wineries avoided imitating the often decidedly neutral style of Pinot Grigio that flooded the German market at the time.
Pinot Gris is only neutral if it is produced from too high yields and material harvested too early. The variety needs a certain maturity and substance to play to its strengths. Slender Pinot Gris can make a stimulating, drinkable beverage, but only the later harvested, riper varieties have the characteristic aromas of pistachios, ripe pome fruit as well as yellow melons and crumbly stone fruit again and again. It takes some tact to avoid over-ripeness and too low acidity, but still exploit the possibilities of the variety. However, its lush aromas often keep Pinot Gris on track, even at high maturity, when Pinot Blanc already threatens to tip over into the exhausting and ponderous. Longer lees ageing, contact with the skins and skilful ageing in wood help to give even the more powerful varieties the necessary structure so that they do not go off the rails. Recently, more and more producers have also succeeded in producing elegant, lower-alcohol Pinot Gris that nevertheless have depth and character.
The ancestral home of the Pinot Gris is Baden. More first-class representatives of the variety come from here than from all other German wine-growing regions put together. In the Palatinate, Pinot Blanc quite clearly takes precedence, but in Württemberg, in Rheinhessen and to some extent also on the Nahe, increasingly interesting wines are being produced. Franconia also has a certain tradition in the vinification of high-class Pinot Gris, although the variety plays only a small role here in terms of volume. The Rheingau has at least one top-ranking producer of Pinot Gris.
It is still not entirely clear whether Pinot Blanc mutated from Pinot Gris or vice versa. In any case, the relationship is so close that one would hardly expect any differences in taste. In fact, the difference is hardly noticeable in everyday wines. It only seems to be the case that Pinot Blanc tends to be more enjoyable even in the light basic variety with its fresh citrus and apple fruitiness, because Pinot Gris in the same weight class sometimes turns out all too neutral. The differences become clearer with higher-quality wines. Both varieties then often show a distinct nutty character, only with Pinot Blanc it is more hazelnut instead of the pistachio typical of Pinot Gris. The fruitiness is also usually different, because the White Burgundy has more citrus tones in addition to the two common stone fruit aromas, while the grey version adds warmer aroma components.
The spectrum of good Pinot Blancs ranges from taut, cool, juicy and mineral examples that are not too far removed from a not-too-fruity Riesling, to emphatically nutty, rather detached types that make excellent food companions, to lush barrique wines with caramel and buttery aromas. Longer maceration periods, spontaneous fermentation and careful ageing in wood are creating an increasingly multifaceted Pinot Blanc landscape in Germany today, which is increasingly shaking its reputation as a rather boring variety suitable for the masses without outstanding characteristics.
Not that the banal wines are dying out. Many producers still have a penchant for residual sweetness, which rarely suits Pinot Blanc. Wines from early harvested grapes thus quickly become very banal, lemony-limonadic commonplace drinks for people who don't actually like wine - as apparently do many tasters of the well-known wine competitions who are only too happy to award such wines with gold medals. But even the higher-quality Pinot Blancs are rarely well-suited to sugar, especially when the wines have been aged in wood. Everything rarely fits together. Weissburgunder is also only suitable to a limited extent for noble sweet wines, as it lacks the aromatic appeal of Grauburgunder in this class and therefore tends to be a little one-sided.
When it comes to Pinot Blanc, Baden is undoubtedly a heavyweight, but there is no question of dominance in this case. The Southern Palatinate is far too strong for that, and its best examples often compete with the region's top Rieslings for the top spots. However, the characters could hardly be more different: while in Baden, especially in the Kaiserstuhl, Tuniberg, Breisgau and Markgräflerland, a calm, detached, fine-nutty, Burgundy-oriented style is favoured, the Palatinate wines are usually much more fruity and acidic, lively and racy. Of course, there are also certain overlaps - and the fat, buttery, alcohol-rich wood variant can be found everywhere anyway. It is essential to keep an eye on the development in Rheinhessen and Württemberg again, where the number of remarkable White Burgundies is growing steadily; moreover, the Mittelhaard is beginning to compete with the southern Palatinate. Not quite as exciting is the development in most other areas, but good wine from the variety can actually be found everywhere - even on the Mosel, at least where one can control oneself when it comes to sugar.
Today, Chardonnay is so popular all over the world that inevitably a counter-movement had to emerge that rejects it completely. "Anything but Chardonnay" is the rallying cry of this movement, which sees itself as a wine avant-garde. Used as a synonym for turning away from mass taste in general, it may well have had a meaningful effect at one time, but taken literally, it is quite stupid. And there is nothing avant-garde about stupidity. Even and especially the German Riesling freak likes to cultivate his prejudices, as he usually considers himself the more enlightened wine connoisseur. In reality, Chardonnay is far removed from the soft, buttery, nutty-roasty drink for would-be wine connoisseurs that it is considered to be in some circles. In fact, as long as you don't overdo it with maturity and cellar interventions, the variety comes across as much more restrained and quite a bit classier than any other Burgundy variety. Chardonnay initially has a rather cool character, is more acidic than, for example, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris, has significantly more planty components in the aroma, but less fruit and nowhere near its clearly nutty basic character. Where Chardonnay in our latitudes is emphatically fruity, something is usually wrong; the roasted aromas, on the other hand, come from the wood, the nuts from the long lees ageing (well, and of course also from the wood) and the butter from the biological acid reduction.
But the all-too-neutral character at first glance belies the true abilities of Chardonnay, the best examples of which display a depth, complexity and noblesse that hardly any other white wine variety can ever achieve. Volume is foreign to it by nature, but it conveys the events of its origin and its creation particularly mercilessly. First-class Chardonnay therefore requires a master in the vineyard and cellar who is no less careful with it than with Pinot Noir, which has a reputation for being a diva. There is something deeply enchanting about great Chardonnay, because the initially calm and rather neutral impression changes layer by layer, sip by sip, and reveals unexpected depths.
So anyone who produces Chardonnay must know what they are doing. It is considerably easier to make satisfying wine from Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris. But more and more German producers are daring to experiment - and since there are more and more excellently trained winemakers, they are succeeding more and more often. Little by little, Chardonnay is therefore also showing in Germany why it is considered one of the noblest varieties of all.
Since the fruity variety is not an alternative for first-class Chardonnay, Baden is again clearly ahead here, where the proximity to France promoted a more Burgundian style of wine much earlier than elsewhere. But the "elsewhere" is catching up. Wherever suitable soils and ambitious winemakers meet, good to excellent Chardonnays have been appearing more and more lately. So it's no wonder that Rheinhessen, thanks to its dynamic young winemakers and its often chalky soils, has a whole range of remarkable wines to offer. In the Palatinate, good Chardonnay has been around for a long time, but something is moving here, too, as well as in Württemberg, where the general development of quality in recent years has progressed as rapidly as in few other regions. Even the Rheingau has one or two ambitious Chardonnay producers.
The Auxerrois is always a little overshadowed by its siblings. Aromatically, the variety is somewhere between Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc: relatively cool on the one hand, but nuttier than Chardonnay on the other. Since it is usually encountered in a somewhat lighter, more drinkable version, it is hardly distinguishable from Pinot Blanc when blind. Carefully made examples can make excellent, versatile food companions and many of them are also extremely good value for money. Producers of really high-class Auxerrois are still rare in Germany, but they do exist.