Body: Medium to full
Dry / Sweet: Dry (some German varietals are off-dry or medium-dry)
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Generally drink within three years of release, but the best wines have good aging ability.
Kerner (ker-nair) is unusual in that it is a high potential cross-bred grape variety that has been very successful amongst wine growers in its native Germany, and yet most wine enthusiasts have never heard of it. For reasons that will be explained, its potential has really only been revealed in one small area, and it’s not in Germany.
Kerner (named after the German poet Justinus Kerner) was developed in the Württemberg region of Germany in 1929 by crossing Riesling with the red variety Trollinger (also known as Schiava Grossa and Vernatsch), but was not released for cultivation until 1969. Although bred from a white and a red grape, Kerner is very much a white grape (its berries are light green in color) and it displays distinct Riesling-like characteristics.
It was developed to meet the needs of German wine makers who wanted a quality grape that was easy to grow in cool climate conditions and it meets these requirements admirably. It is tolerant to cold, disease resistant, not fussy about soil types and produces high yields. In addition, it buds late and therefore generally misses the damage caused by spring frosts. After its introduction in Germany it proved extremely popular across the country’s wine growing regions. At its peak around 1990 Kerner accounted for almost 8% of all vines grown in Germany. Since then its acreage has halved, but it still has a very sizeable presence.
The reason for its popularity in Germany has more to do with its workhorse ability to produce high yields than its quality potential. Consequently, most Kerner production goes into lower quality blends such as nondescript Hock, generic Niersteiner and Piesporter and especially Liebfraumilch, which must consist of at least 70% Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling or Silvaner. Nonetheless, some very good quality varietals are made, including QmP wines (Germany’s highest wine category) at different Prädikat levels, including Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese, but these mainly off-dry to medium-sweet wines are in short supply and rarely leave the country.
To discover the finest expressions of Kerner you have to look to Northern Italy’s Alto Adige region and more particularly to the valley of the Isarco river. This area of Italy, also known as the Südtirol, was part of Austria up to the end of the First World War and German is an official language here along with Italian. The Austrian and Swiss influence can be seen in the German names of the towns and the wines. In this cool region, and on excellent sites, Kerner achieves its potential and produces wonderful dry aromatic wines that are amongst the best white wines of Italy.
The profile of these wines is very similar to Riesling but they are fuller in body and can have a luscious texture. Like Riesling they are also unoaked. You can expect aromas of alpine flowers, honeysuckle, herbs and orchard fruits followed by flavors of apple, pear, apricot, citrus and stone fruits, which are accompanied by an earthy minerality. The body is substantial with good acidity that delivers a refreshing finish. These wines can be high in alcohol (up to 14.5%), but not noticeably so as they are well crafted and beautifully balanced. They demonstrate just how good Kerner can be when grown on favorable sites with good yield management and winemaking techniques.
Given Kerner’s ability to produce high quality wine it is surprising that very little is grown outside of Germany and northern Italy. This is most likely due to the basic wines it usually makes and to the fact that it is a cross-bred grape variety, which generally have a poor reputation.
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