Meet the French Red Wine That Germany Made Better

Thought it's made in France, Rotspon is bottled and sold in Germany, where many say that it tastes even better than the stuff back in Bordeaux.

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Apr 14 2016, 8:00pm

Foto mit freundlicher Genehmigung von H. F. von Melle

In 1806, Napoleon's army invaded the German city of Lübeck, raided its wine cellars, and made an unbelievable discovery: the bottles of French red stored there tasted even better than the Bordeaux from back home.

This was later confirmed by filling up casks of the wine in France and leaving them on both sides of the border. It's still a mystery, but experts say that the smooth, full-bodied palate probably came from being rolled around inside of oak barrels during ship rides, but also from northern Germany's cool, damp air.

Today, Rotspon—which literally translates to "red wood"—is still a delicious, local treasure. I recently brought a bottle home only to have it disappear a few days later, with my boyfriend and his friend calling it some of the best red wine they'd ever tasted. (Guys, thanks for sharing.)

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Photo courtesy of Von Melle.
rotspon_IMG_6198 Photo courtesy of Von Melle.

Rotspon is lesser known these days, but it's actually one of Europe's oldest wines, dating all the way back to the 13th century. Until the 1800s, it helped make Lübeck the biggest wine-trading destination for all of northern Europe, and also the capital of the Hanseatic League, a large confederation of merchant guilds and market towns.

"Lübeck was very powerful," explains Melf Koch, a sommelier who heads up the wine trader H.F. von Melle, which was founded in Lübeck in 1853. "Being a port city, wine got sold there or it was sent farther north. Traders always had to pay a fee, so Lübeck did good business from that."

The Hanseatic League eventually lost its clout to Sweden and Denmark, but Lübeck is still determined to keep the tradition of Rotspon alive today.

Von Melle, for example, sells five kinds of it, mostly fielding orders from Scandinavia and Germany. Sales are steady, and definitely higher since the trader's Lalande-de-Pomerol 2009 won a competition against French bottlers in Bordeaux a few years ago.

"[Rotspon] appeals to amateur wine drinkers, but also professionals," says Koch. "It has a charming, velvety taste that makes them they say, 'This is how a red wine should taste.'"

"People are finding out more about it," agrees sommelier Christiane Breede, who's based at the 400-year-old Lübeck trader Carl Tesdorpf. "Last week I sent a package to Shanghai. It does happen."

To be fair, the Rotspon that's available today on Lübeck wine merchant websites and in local shops is entirely different from what it was during days of yore. For economic reasons and laws concerning hygiene and quality control, the wine is now barrel-aged entirely in France. It's transported by truck before being bottled and stored in Lübeck. Rotspon's also now made from blends of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and the like, as opposed to straight-up Bordeaux.

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Photo courtesy of Von Melle.
rotspon_IMG_6336 Photo courtesy of Tesdorpf.

"It gets more mature in the bottle by time [in Lübeck] than anything," says Breede. "Mr. Tesdorpf flies down to southern France, has meetings, and discusses what is the best blend before transporting it here."

That's why several wine traders outside of Lübeck have started to produce their own wine and call it Rotspon. Considering that Lübeck—a small city with a population of about 200,000—is now a tourist destination known for its medieval architecture and seaside beach resorts, some consider it a problem. Tesdorpf and Von Melle are not just local businesses, but also institutions for hundreds of years now—the former is located in a historic building that's actually Germany's oldest wine shop and regularly provides tours along with its wine tastings.

That's why Lübeck's authorities have appealed to the European Union to stop other wine traders from putting Rotspon on their labels, hoping to get a "protected geographical indication" stamp so that it can only be bottled and sold from Lübeck. (Currently, only "Lübeck Rotspon," and not Rotspon itself, is protected.)

Austrian wine trader Jurtschitsch has been making a popular wine it calls Rotspon for more than two decades; they say that they own the legal rights for the name in their country only.

"We were searching for a name for the wine 20 years ago, and one of our senior bosses came up with it," says Bettina Fischer, a sales rep for Jurtschitsch. "We had some discussions [about the name] a few years ago, but I think in the meantime, everything is right and correct with it."

But for Lübeck traders, there can only really be one Rotspon.

"You cannot compare it to [how it was made] before," says Koch. "But it's about carrying on a local tradition."