Dornfelder grape variety & wine: everything you need to know

Dornfelder grape variety & wine: everything you need to know

The Dornfelder variety is the second most cultivated red wine variety in Germany after the Pinot Noir and is known primarily for its dark color. It was developed in the 1950s and is mainly used as a blending partner for light red wines. In the glass it shows intense color with fruity aromas of sour cherries, blackberries or plums, which can be accompanied by green bell pepper, elderberry and vanilla. Most wines are in the lower quality segment, as the Dornfelder can produce up to 120 hectoliters per hectare of vineyard, making it a darling of the wine industry. The few drops of medium to high quality are the result of consistent yield reduction.

In the meantime, the image of the thorn field has changed somewhat. There are top wines that are vinified single-varietal and are characterized by high quality. The “Excellence No. 6 Dornfelder Barrique” from Weinhaus Basten is a prime example of this and shows the potential of the vine. In this article we present some more facts about the Dornfelder grape and its wines.

New variety: history of the Dornfelder grape

While Pinot Noir has a centuries-old tradition, Dornfelder was not bred until 1955 by August Herold at the Staatliche Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt für Wein- und Obstbau in Weinsberg (Württemberg), making it the most successful new German variety among red wine varieties.

Dornfelder is a cross between the two grape varieties Helfensteiner (Frühburgunder × Trollinger) and Heroldrebe (Blauer Portugieser × Blaufränkisch). Both mother varieties also originate from the breeding of August Herold. The Dornfelder owes its name to the founder of the viticultural school, Immanuel Dornfeld.

The primary goal of the color-intensive variety was to be able to produce red wines with significantly higher color intensity. It should therefore be added to autochthonous varieties with weak color (cover wine), as consumers associated intense color with better quality. Since German wine law stipulates that single-varietal wines must consist of only 85% of the respective grape variety, winemakers can add up to 15% Dornfelder to their light red wines and thus significantly increase their color intensity.

The variety is also found outside Germany, but has no viticultural significance there.

Vineyards at sunset

Special features of the thorny field grape variety

The variety is not particularly demanding on the soil. Only sandy and stony substrates should be avoided. However, late frosts and severe winters pose a risk due to medium-early sprouting and poor wood maturity. For this reason, the choice of the right location is very important. The variety also has problems with drought and is generally considered susceptible to fungal diseases such as powdery mildew (peronospora). In general, however, it is considered to be robust and resistant.

It is insensitive to botrytis due to the thick skin of the berries.

As this is a variety with a very high grape yield, consistent yield reduction is required to achieve the highest possible wine quality.

Ampelographic characteristics

  • Shoot tips: open, strongly hairy
  • Leaves: large, dark green colored, five-lobed, coarsely toothed, with closed, overlapping stem bight.
  • Grape: large, dense berry, conical.
  • Berries: large, roundish, thick-skinned and black-blue color.
  • Yield: very high (up to 120 hl/ha).

Growing areas of the red grape variety

Dornfelder is grown almost exclusively in Germany. With a cultivated area of about 7,100 hectares (2021), it is the fifth most cultivated grape variety in terms of vineyard area. Among red wine varieties, it is in second place, just behind Pinot Noir. In other countries, it is practically unknown. There are small stocks in Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

The largest growing areas are Rheinhessen (approx. 3,200 hectares*) and the Palatinate (approx. 2,700 hectares*). However, the variety can be found in most regions of Germany.

*) Source: DWI Statistics 2022-2023

Blackberry meets sour cherry: aromas and flavors

Dornfelder is considered a strong red wine with dark fruit aromas. In the glass, it is certainly recognizable by its deep, dark color, which distinguishes it from typical German red wines. German winemakers usually grow the variety in two different styles.

In the most widespread variant, the dark fruit aromas of the red wine are clearly in the foreground. These wines, which are not intended for long aging, are often aged in neutral wood or in steel tanks. The nose here is mainly dark berries, sour cherries and also elderberry.

The second variant is rather rare. Winemakers here like to age the variety in small wooden barrels to give it a more harmonious character. In addition, the wood brings a certain complexity to the red wine. This is evident on the nose with hints of vanilla, cinnamon or even licorice.

The flavors of thorn field range from dry to sweet. It has a moderate acid skeleton and an alcohol content of up to 14.5% (well below 10% for the sweet variants).

Food combinations with Dornfelder wine

Thanks to its numerous styles, it can be combined with a wide variety of dishes. However, in this article I would like to focus on the dry quality wines.

Thanks to its enormous tannin content, it is made for meat dishes and cheeses that are not too fatty but rich in protein. It lacks the necessary acidity for dishes that are too fatty.

Dish on white ceramic plate with wine glasses
Dornfelder is an excellent accompaniment to a wide range of dishes.

For fruity representatives

  • Roasted or grilled meat dishes such as steak, chicken breast or pork tenderloin.
    Its fruity notes harmonize well with the strong spice of roasted or grilled meats.
  • Hearty goulash or stews like chili con carne or bean stew.
    The strong body and its acid skeleton bring structure to the stews.
  • Pasta dishes with tomato sauce or pesto.
    Its fruit complements the spicy components of tomato and herbs in the sauce.
  • Ratatouille or stews with vegetables.
    The strong tannins harmonize well with the rich, earthy notes of stewed vegetables.
  • Pizza with salty toppings such as ham or salami.
    The tannins and acid structure complement the saltiness of ham or salami.

For drops with barrique aging:

  • Strong meat dishes such as roast beef or game
    The smoky and toasted notes resulting from the barrel aging complement the flavor of the roast.
  • Steak or lamb chops (grilled)
    Its strong nature harmonizes well with the smoky flavor of grilled meat.
  • Game dishes such as wild boar or venison.
    It is strong enough to harmonize with intense game meats.
  • Hearty goulash or stews like bean stew or lentil soup.
    The smoky notes from the Ausbaus go particularly well with hearty stews.
  • Smoked meat, such as smoked ham or smoked sausage
    Its smoky notes complement the taste of smoked meat.
  • Aged cheese such as blue cheese or aged Gouda.
    The red wine is strong enough to keep up with the intense flavor from the cheese.

A darling of the wine industry

Unfortunately, the spread of the thorn field says nothing about its quality. Although the variety brings the potential for characterful drops, its robustness and high yields make it a favorite of the wine industry. Thus, most Dornfelder wines are found in the price segment around 3 euros and are of questionable quality. It’s a pity, because in my eyes the Dornfelder would have had the potential to be much more than a cheap industrial wine.

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