Dornfelder, The True German Red Grape
Dornfelder is still a relatively young grape variety that was first bred in 1956. Expert German breeders were looking for a reliable red grape to withstand the country’s cold climate. After years of experimentation, Dornfelder emerged as the most successful new German grape varietal among red wine varieties.
Dornfelder is a cross between the grape varieties Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe, which are also crosses of older grape varieties. The Helfensteiner’s parents are Frühburgunder and Blauer Trollinger, while the Heraldrebe’s parents are Blauer Portugieser and Lemberger.
It was created in Württemberg by August Herold at the State Teaching and Research Institute for Viticulture and Fruit Growing in Weinsberg in the early 1950s. Dornfelder was named after Imanuel Dornfeld, the founder of the local viticulture school. Only a few winemakers dared to plant the new variety. Initially, the inky Dornfelder was used as a blending grape for its color. However, eventually, wine lovers and winemakers discovered Dornfelder’s positive traits. As a result, by the mid-1970s, many winegrowers planted their land with the new variety. The demand for Dornfelder wines grew and continues to grow to this day.
According to the German Wine Institute, Dornfelder covers approximately 8% of Germany’s vineyards. Dornfelder is the second most planted red grape varietal only after Pinot Noir. Dornfelder might not be as old as Pinot Noir, and may lacks its pedigree, elegance and complexity. But still, the young grape has earned a place in the market for producing inexpensive, uncomplicated wines for everyday enjoyment.
Dornfelder wines are dark, with purple or ruby red hues. On the nose there are aromas of fruit, including sour cherries, blackberries, and elderberries, along with subtle spiciness. On the palate, Dornfelder has smooth, barely noticeable tannins and medium-high acidity. Some examples are aged in oak and therefore have brown spice aromas. But the majority are bottled without oak-aging.
Dornfelder can produce fine wine, but it’s often used to make everyday wines that can vary in sweetness, from notably sweet to bone dry.
Like other medium-bodied red wines is best enjoyed with lean red meat, grilled white meat, roasted poultry, and semi-hard cheese. Dornfelder can be enjoyable on its own as well, especially if served chilled. Never overly complicated, Dornfelder will never steal the spotlight at the table, but instead is a reliable partner.
Dornfelder is still almost entirely grown in Germany. With a cultivation area of about 8,000 hectares, it ranks fourth behind Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, and Pinot Noir and second amongst red wine varieties.
This grape variety has not spread much outside of Germany. There are around 20 hectares in Switzerland and small areas in England and the colder regions of the USA.
Fun Facts about Dornfelder
- Dornfelder is highly pigmented, with thick black skins, and brings significant color and acidity to the glass, as well as exceptional yields to the vineyard.
- Dornfelder was originally used as a key blending grape to amplify color compounds in Germany’s paler red wines, but it is now frequently used as a stand-alone variety.
- Dornfelder’s dual appeal to the last-minute picnic packer and German red wine connoisseur is understandable, running the wine gamut from light-bodied, fruit-filled, and immensely approachable to showcasing a serious side with a medium body while leaning heavily into oak-induced influences.
Want to read more about Dornfelder? Try reading these books!
- Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson 2012
- Wine. Years. People. Events. Massandra Wine Collection 2010
- The World Atlas of Wine: 8th Edition. Johnson, H & Robinson, J. 2019