Germany is one of the world’s great old-world wine nations. With German winemaking practices dating back to Roman times. Although, German wine may not be the first thing on your mind, when you think of Germany. Germany may be more synonymous with a big stein of pilsner in a beer hall.
However, Germany has much more to it than that. German wine is truly fantastic. Traditionally, German wine is associated with white wine, in particular Riesling. Yet, red wine production has begun to rise from the 1990s onwards. Red wine vineyards now make up around a third of all vineyards in Germany.
This article can act as an introduction to German wine. We will look into the history behind it, the regions, the styles and some of the top producers to look out for.
The History of German Wine
As mentioned, the Romans introduced wine to the historic region of Germany. The areas where Romans practiced this were to the west of the Rhine River. This is where much of German wine is still produced today. Roman Poet Ausonius even references the Mosel river and its wine. Ausonis wrote that the hills adjacent to the Mosel river were, “green with the grapes of Bacchus”.
In a trend that can be seen in other countries as well, monasteries and monks were left in charge of the vineyards. This has produced stunning results elsewhere. A Benedictine monk from Champagne, named Dom Pérignon comes to mind. Germany was much the same, until Napoleon got involved and secularised the vineyards.
It was around this time that German wine introduced the Prädikat system. This is the German classification system, which is still used today. This came about when the Schloss Johannisberg vineyard accidentally created a sweet wine, from rotten grapes, due to issues preventing harvest in prior vintages.
Despite sounding unappealing, these sweet wines from rotten grapes caught on. Vintners began creating this sweet wine intentionally. Dubbed ‘Spatlese’, which translates to ‘late harvest’, these wines were classified differently. This led to the Prädikat system used today.
Two major distinctions to be aware of are Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein. The former is wine from one of Germany’s 13 growing regions and is a common quality, typically available at most retailers. The latter are wines with distinction which have been approved by German wine authorities. I’m sure the German authorities would not be giving a seal of approval to wines which don’t deserve it.
German Wine Regions
There are 13 German wine regions. These are predominantly in the West of the country. In many of the same places the Romans began the tradition of German wine production. A full list of the German wine regions are below:
These regions are then divided into four categories. ‘Anbaugebiete’ which designates it as a major wine region. ‘Bereich’ being a district within a wine region. ‘Großlage’ are collections of vineyards within a Bereich. Then, ‘Einzellage’ which are simply single vineyards. All of the thirteen regions referenced above would be classified as Anbaugebiete. Of those thirteen, the three largest producers of German wine are the Rhienhessen, Palatinate and Mosel regions. These are the ones we’ll focus on.
Rhienhessen is the largest region in terms of producing Qualitätswein. It is also one of the most historic with documents mentioning vineyards in the region as far back as 742 AD. This is the oldest record of any German vineyard. Rhienhessen is predominantly known for producing white wine, (much like the rest of Germany). Due to its sheer size, (roughly 65,000 acres of vineyards), the terroir and climate is heavily diversified. Many claim that the best wine with Rhienhessen is to be found in the Bereiche of Nierstein. The increased minerality of the soil, due to the proximity of the Rhine, being the reason for this.
The second largest producer of German wine is the Palatinate region. This is often referred to as ‘Pfalz’. Pfalz being its German name. Pfalz produces around 60% white wine, to 40% red wine which is higher on average than the rest of Germany. It is located to the south of the Rheinhessen region, but still along the River Rhine. With the stunning Haardt mountain range to the south. This geographical location means that much wine from Pfalz will possess similarities to wine from the Alsace region in France.
Third in terms of production is the Mosel region. However, some argue it is the outright leader in terms of the quality of German wine. One staggering thing about the Mosel region, which takes its name from the homonymous river, is the sheer steepness of a lot of the vineyards. Many of the vineyards are set in the steep banks of the river Mosel. This has a great effect in terms of the quality of the German wine produced. However, it no doubt has an adverse effect on the knees of the vintners picking the grapes. If you ever find yourself drinking a Mosel wine, spare a thought for the hard-working vintners out on the steep hills. It is the steep gradients of the slopes which mean all the grapes need to be harvested by hand, as opposed to machine. This results in a high cost of production for the winemaker. This is why Mosel German wine can be a little more expensive.
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German Wine Styles
We know Germany is known for its white wine. However, red wine is also on the rise. Pinot Noir is actually the second most planted grape in the whole of Germany. Not only this, Germany is the third largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world, (second only to France and the US). Pinot Noir as a wine is often prone to widely differing results. Terroir can play a major role in the end product. As the terroir found in Germany is so distinct, from region to region, the style and taste of Pinot Noir throughout Germany also varies greatly. Pinot Noir across Germany will really have a distinctive regional flavour, so it’s best to start trying some! Note that German Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder as it is locally referred, will be light with good acidity and subtle tannins.
Another notable German wine of the red variety is Dornfelder. This grape has a relatively recent history. It was first created in 1956, by blending two other German grape varieties. The Heroldrebe and the Helfensteiner. Often found as a wine in its own right, or a blend with Pinot noir to bring some body, this grape is a deep red and produces rich wines with an almost floral character.
Next are the German white wines. First, with good reason, is Riesling. This has long dominated German wine production and looks set to continue to do so. Still, German vineyards dedicate 43% of their land to Riesling production. Riesling production is also largely confined to Germany. Many great wine nations have not devoted a lot of ground to producing it. Riesling tends to be sweet, which helps to counteract the amount of acidity. However, there are dry Riesling wines as well. If you can see the word ‘Trocken’ on the label then the Riesling will be a dry style. Germany also produces Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc white wines which are dry and fruity style white wines.
Sparkling German wine is also there to be drunk. Referred to in Germany as simply ‘Sekt’. Sekt began when German winemakers travelled to Champagne in the early 19th century. Indeed, German white wines were often light and acidic which lend themselves well to sparkling wine. ‘Riesling Sekt’ is the one to look out for. This is sparkling wine made from Riesling grapes. These possess a fruitiness that is very desirable. Undeniably, a great place to start with ‘Sekt’.
German Wine Producers in Focus
You know the history, the regions and the grapes. Therefore, the only thing left is to look at some of the top producers of German wine, so you have some names to look out for in your search.
Let’s begin with Weingut Feth. This is a beautiful scenic vineyard in the southern portion of the Rheinhessen wine region. Sheltered from any harsh weather conditions by the Taunus hills, Odenwald and Hunsück Mountains. They have a great focus on white wine with excellent Riesling and Chardonnay on offer, with even their own Riesling Sekt. Beyond this, they also cultivate wine on biodynamic principles. This is certainly one to look out for.
Another German wine producer to look out for is Weingut Riffel. Similarly, they’re located in the Rheinhessen region. They also possess a strong commitment to embrace biodynamic and organic farming principles. Located by the ancient town of Bingen set into the rolling river Nahe, this is yet again a beautiful setting creating beautiful wine. Riffel produces some great white wine, but it also has a number of great options for red wine as well. The Dornfelder in particular is a fantastic choice and very popular with our wine club members.
Next, in our focus on German wine producers is Weingut Scholtes. This historic vineyard has been in operation, from the Mosel region, for over 300 years. Scholtes also commits themselves to organic wine cultivation and we are certainly the ones to reap the benefits. This vineyard is located by the German village of Minheim along the banks of the Mosel river. Scholtes also has a real rich and diverse selection of wines to choose from. Delicious Pinot Noir, Riesling and even Cremant are all on offer.
It is plain to see that the world of German wine is long, storied and full of delicious wines to try. Make sure you consider German wine next time you’re looking to stock up on something particularly tasty.
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