The vineyards that line the steep hillsides along the Rhine and Mosel rivers in Germany make some of the world’s finest, and longest-living white wines. Let’s take a quick look into the history, geography and grape varieties that make Germany one of the most interesting wine countries to discover.
When talking about Old World wine regions, Germany is not among the first that pop into mind. France, Italy, Spain, the usual suspects come first. Germany doesn’t make an appearance until all warm climate regions have been thought of and then it might come before or after Austria. However Germany has a long and noteworthy history in wine making, and in its beginnings, very similar to that of France.
The Romans were the first to recognise that the steep slopes overlooking the river Mosel and its tributaries were the ideal terroir for planting vines. In a poem dating back to 370AD Roman poet Ausonius writes about the green hills planted with grapes of Bacchus and the lovely waters of the “Mosella” flowing silently beneath. During the Middle Ages, Cistercian and Benedictine monks were very influential in the development and production of quality wine in many German wine regions, much in the same way they were in Burgundy and the rest of France. However, it began to decline in the 17th century largely because of the ricing in popularity of beer especially in the north of the country.
The late 18th Century saw the development of high quality sweet, “late harvest” wines. These wines, called Spatlese wines were made from Riesling grapes affected by Botrytis (noble rot) and by the early 19th century were selling for prices above those of first-growth Bordeaux! The 20th century with its two World Wars and post war austerity saw another big decline in the production of quality German wines. Winemakers focused on producing large quantities of sweet, blended wines made from inferior quality grapes something that left a negative mark on their reputation.
In an effort to better control the quality of the wines, the German Wine Classification System was introduced in 1971. It introduced a hierarchy known as the Pradikat scale which accessed the ripeness of the grapes based on their sugar levels at harvest. But it will take roughly another three decades for German winemakers to repair the damage they had done.
The last significant change to the German wine scene is the rise of the trocken (dry) wines. Almost two thirds of all German wine, not just white, is now made dry. These wines have nothing in common with the insipid, tart whites and reds of the 1980s. All thanks to Germany’s determined new generation of vine growers and climate change that has brought warmer summers and riper grapes.
Geography and Climate
At around 50 ̊ north latitude Germany possesses some of the most northern vineyards in the world. The climate is cool, with mild summers and cold winters. The River Rhine and its tributaries are the lifeblood of German viticulture. The flowing water reflects sunlight back onto the vineyards, warming the vines, helping them to ripen their grapes. Vineyards are perched on extremely steep, south facing slopes. Nothing else can grow there. If it wasn’t for the vines there would have been forest or just bare mountains.
No other wine producing region is as profoundly defined by a grape variety as Germany is by Riesling. German Rieslings have a worldwide reputation for quality, complexity and the ability to age for a long time. Nevertheless, there is a whole world of wines in Germany ranging from the familiar Pinot Noir, called Spatburgunder here, to the most unusual such a Scheurebe (white) and Dornfelder (red).Müller-Thurgau, is the second most planted grape in the country and gives lightly floral and fresh wines perfect from everyday drinking. These wines pair beautifully with vegetable dishes like roasted asparagus and fresh salads. Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc – called Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder respectively – can also be found throughout Germany. Some can be bold and aromatic with white peach and lemon zest and are great with roasted pork and some are lighter and refreshing and perfect with soft, somewhat “stinky” cheeses. Sylvaner gives crisp, juicy and food friendly light-bodied white wines that can be enjoyed as an aperitif or with fresh seafood and grilled fish. Scheurebe is primarily grown in the Rheinhessen and is a hybrid of Riesling and an unknown wild grape. It is an aromatic grape and gives wines with notes of black currant and grapefruit
Apart from its very popular white wines, Germany has been producing increasingly respectable reds. Spatburgunder – Pinot Noir – is the leading red grape. Germany is the third-largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world and gives us noteworthy spicy, refreshing and food friendly red wines. Try them with a roast pork tenderloin or even grilled salmon. Trollinger with its light body and strawberry flavours is perfect with cheese and charcuterie. Dormfelder is floral and tannic and is excellent with barbecues and sausages.
Germany has thirteen different wine regions. Most of them are found in the southwestern part of the country alongside the river Rhine and its tributaries. Some of the best known are the Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz and, Rheinhessen.
The Mosel is by far the most famous. And with good reason. A great number of Germany’s outstanding vineyards and wineries are found here, on the steep, almost vertical, slopes along the narrow river valley. An extreme terroir where grapes must be harvested by hand. Riesling is king here giving exceptional wines with high acidity, rich flavours of stone fruits and honey when young turning into petrol with age. Due to their high acidity, Mosel Rieslings pair great with high-acid dishes or fried foods like sushi, salads, pork schnitzel, and shrimp tempura.
After Mosel, the Rheingau is Germany’s other heavy hitter. Not because of its size, it is actually smaller than the Mosel but because of its reputation of making some of the country’s best sweet wines. Dry Rieslings from the Rheingau have more power and concentration of fruit than those of the Mosel with a distinct ripe peach character and fuller bodies. They are great drunk as aperitifs or with roast chicken, pork tenderloin and meaty salads.
Rheinhessen is the largest of all German wine regions. All varieties can be found here at various levels of quality but the best wines are to be found at the terraced vineyards of the Rheinterrasse near the village of Nierstein.
The Pfalz is the driest of the German wine regions. It can be seen as a continuation of the vineyards of Alsace as it sits just in its north and enjoys a similar warm, sunny climate. This extra sunshine results in a fuller-bodied style of white wines – Rieslings as well as Silvaners – compared to those of other German regions. Some nice reds can be found here too.
Is my Riesling dry or sweet?
When it comes to German wines this is one of the most frequently asked questions and a source of considerable stress for novice wine lovers. The truth is that because of their history, many still believe that most German whites are on the sweeter side. But this is not true anymore as more and more winemakers prefer to make dry wines. The best way to answer the question is to look at each bottle’s wine label. However, another problem arises now. German wine labels are quite difficult to decipher with all those 25 letter words and umlauts! But there’s a ton of useful information on them and the only thing we have to do is know what each of these words mean.
Kabinett wines are usually dry, light and fresh.
Spätlese wines are made from grapes that have been left on the vine a little longer to get a bit riper and get more sugar. These wines are richer and likely sweeter than Kabinetts.
Auslese wines are made from even riper grapes and are bolder and sweeter. They age very well and pair beautifully with cheese.
Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines are made from overripe, late-harvest grapes attacked by botrytis or ‘noble rot’. They are dessert wines, lusciously sweet with honey and dried apricot aromas.
Trocken means dry. Even if you see the word Spätlese on the label together with the word Trocken the wine is dry.
Halbtrocken means off-dry
A final tip: The lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine will be because not all the sugar has been converted to alcohol through fermentation.