About German Wines
Germany has one of the most noble and historic wine cultures of all. As well as being home to one of the world’s greatest grape varieties, Riesling, and producing wines which have graced tables across the world for centuries, Germany has also given the wine world some of the leading pioneers in terms of winemakers, and producers, both today and over the last 2 centuries – in Germany, and in the far-flung corners of the New World, especially Australia. A swift bit of research into the origins of some of the most famous and respected wine names in Australia trace back to German immigrants with winemaking backgrounds.
Once, the 2nd biggest wine seller in the UK, at the height of its fame in the 70s, Germany, the ‘grande dame’ of wine-producing countries fell off its high perch in the 80s, and seemed to become doomed by its own success. Liebfraumilch was the best known wine in the UK, fuelled by both the brands, Blue Nun and Black Tower, and also the rapid rise of supermarket own brand wines.
Today, Germany dwindles at no 9 in terms of sales in the UK, with sales continuing to decline by 12% in the last year. It’s a sad reflection that it now only accounts for just over 2% of the total market, from its heyday. Despite all the efforts of the wine industry, wine retailers and wine writers, it seems impossible to switch the UK wine drinker back onto German wine – yet, this country produces simply some of the most divine, sublimely unique white wines in the world, which beg discovery by the wider wine drinking public.
Until the 1970s, Germany, alongside France, dominated the wine scene internationally, and no more so than in England, where it was popular, originally at court and in high society during the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Hock’ and ‘Mosel’ were the names that German wine was mainly known as. In the 20th century, German wines became very popular, as the trend for wine drinking grew, and by the 70s, Liebfraumilch, Hock and Mosel were some of the biggest sellers, as the UK public discovered these, sweet, fruity, easy-drinking wines, which were increasingly affordable. In many ways, this was Germany’s undoing; a country that produces some of the most exquisite, elegant, and stylish white wines in the world, was focussing its trade on the cheaper end of the market, and whilst Liebfraumilch became the leading ‘brand’ in the UK, with Blue Nun.
Today, the focus has to be on rebuilding the premium and high quality image of Germany, through the Riesling grape; one of the most versatile, complex and charismatic grape varieties in the world. Not an easy task, since the word Riesling is still associated with the cheap German rubbish of the 70s and 80s, but a task and a cause worth fighting for!
Germany And Its Wine History
Germany has been producing wine for centuries, and has a very proud history. Records trace wine growing back to Roman times, and many of the top estates, known internationally today, began as monasteries, where grapes were grown and wine was made. The world famous Schloss Johannisberg is one such example.
Much of Germany’s wine history is inextricably linked with the church, with the monasteries key in developing the vineyards and winemaking culture of the country, back in medieval times. By the 16th century, winemaking was very important in western Germany, with around 4 times as many vineyards as there are today, however, this diminished, as the culture for beer production took over.
The majority of Germany’s vineyards are based in the western part of the country, and viticulture first came to the Rheingau, arguably, the most famous and high quality producing region, during the era of the emperor Charlemagne in the years around 700 AD. During the 19th century, Napoleon took control of all the vineyards; his new laws including those of inheritance, meant that vineyards were divided and subdivided through ensuing generations, leading to many small holdings, and the rise and development of group cooperatives, however many top estates managed to hold onto their prized vineyards.
Given its northern location, red grapes are difficult to grow and ripen successfully, although red wine production is now growing, and over 60% of all wine produced is white. Germany’s main grape is the noble Riesling, a grape much loved by wine aficionados, but much reviled and misunderstood by many wine drinkers, who still associate it with the nasty, cheap, sugared-up wines of the 70s and 80s. The first records found show that the Riesling has been planted in Germany since the 16th century, originally in the Rheingau, and then moving to the Mosel. Records also track the discovery of ‘noble rot’, the mould that attacks the grapes, and produces intensely sweet, high quality dessert wines, back to the 18th century, at Schloss Johannisberg. In those days, wine estates had to receive permission to begin the vintage; in 1775, the courier sent with this permission to Schloss Johannisberg was 2 weeks late; during this time noble rot developed on the Riesling grapes, resulting in a unique, sweet wine, which became known as ‘spatlese’, meaning late harvest. Germany has been famous for these styles of wine ever since.
The majority of Germany’s vineyards are based close to the 2 main rivers, the Rhine and the Mosel, with the highest quality wines, coming from the south-east facing slopes of the Rheingau, and the vertiginous slate soils of the Mosel. Until the 20th century production was very much focussed on quality, however as the popularity of German wines started to grow, and the cooperatives developed, the focussed moved to volume production, with high yields, and lower quality and concentration of flavours in the wine.
Wine production expanded to regions such as the Rheinpfalz, and Rheinhessen, with grapes such as Muller Thurgau and Silvaner increasingly used for volume. Red wine production has also developed rapidly, especially in recent years, with the focus on light, low tannin red grapes, such as the Dornfelder and the Spatburgunder, which are more suited to Germany’s cooler climate and don’t need the level of hot weather and sunshine that bigger, higher tannin black grapes do.
The majority of wines are labelled using the name of the region, and where relevant the wine estate. Some modern-thinking wineries are now using varietal labelling, although there is still a tough marketing job to do in the UK, to encourage wine drinkers back to Riesling. As well as the poor reputation that Germany now has with many wine drinkers in the UK, the complicated, Teutonic style of labelling has not helped, with many put off by the complicated, frequently gothic-scripted packaging.
However a quiet revolution is happening, as retail buyers and writers continue to extol the unique virtues and values of the Riesling grape, and slowly persuading wine lovers to try these glorious wines. Whilst volume continues to fall, from the heydays of Liebfraumilch, Hock and Mosel, high quality German wine sales, over £6 are now showing encouraging growth, with Riesling slowly beginning to reclaim its crown. The fact that the highly popular Australia is now producing and marketing top quality Rieslings from its cooler areas, such as Adelaide Hills, and Eden Valley will undoubtedly help in the rehabilitation of this magnificent grape variety in the UK.
Wine Regions in Germany
The wine regions of Germany are almost entirely in the west of the country, with only 2 minor regions, Saale-Unstrut and Saxony, located in the eastern side of the country. There are 13 defined regions, within this 39 districts (bereiche), 167 collective vineyards, and about 2700 individual vineyard sites.
The majority of the wines produced are white, floral and aromatic in style, and range from bone dry, yet fruity, to lusciously sweet, intense, nectar-like dessert wines. Germany struggles to ripen black grapes sufficiently, but there are increasingly good reds produced in the south of the country.
The Ahr is a small, but premium wine producing region, which is one of the most northern wine producing areas in Europe. Unusually, for its location, it is mainly a red wine producing area, making small quantities of red wine, mainly from the Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) grape.
The vineyards lie along the river Ahr, close to Bonn, and south of Cologne; given the location, maximum sun exposure is vital to the grapes, and the best vineyards face south east, and are planted on slate soils, which retain heat.
The wines are relatively light in colour and style, with a red berry fruit characteristic, low tannin, and relatively high acid levels, which keep their freshness and vivacity.
Baden, or Baden-Wurttemberg to give it its full title, is Germany’s most southern, sunniest and warmest, wine growing region, situated in the south west, not far from Alsace. The sub-region of Kaiserstuhl is the warmest within Baden, and the area is protected by the Black Forest to the east, and the Vosges mountains to the west.
Baden differs from many wine producing regions of Germany, in that it is not uniquely focussed on Riesling and Mullet Thurgau, although these grapes both have important roles to play. It is also relatively unique in that there are far fewer privately owned wine estates, with much of the land and production, controlled by several large and powerful cooperatives, which today account for over 80% of production.
Because of its more southern, warmer location, Baden’s white wines tend to be fuller, richer, and fleshier – the area produces some superb Gewurztraminer, influenced, by its neighbour Alsace, and is also well known for its steely, bone dry, yet aromatic and charismatic Pinot Blanc wines.
Red wine is also important in this region, and accounts for close to 40% of production – the main grape is the Spatburgunder, which is well suited to the rich soils and climate, and produces fuller, fruitier and fleshier reds than in the more northern locations.
Franken is a relatively small wine producing region in the north west of Bavaria, where the vineyards, once again, are clustered close to the main river, in this case, the Main. It’s the most easternly located wine region in Germany.
Bavaria may be better known for its Beer fests and beer production, but the people of Bavaria have a proud tradition of winemaking, although much of the production is consumed domestically, and relatively little is exported.
The vast majority of wine production is white, and the top grape here is the Silvaner, which produces aromatic, yet steely wines, in this region, with its cold winters, and warm summers. Silvaner used to dominate production, but now accounts for under 40%, with Muller Thurgau, Bacchus, and Kerner.
Franken is the only area where wine in Germany is allowed to be bottled in the unique flagon style, dumpy bottles, called ‘Bocksbeutel’.
Hessische Bergstrasse is the smallest of the 13 wine regions of Germany, accounting for under 1% of total production, and very few of these wines are seen outside Germany. This area is a great tourist venue, close to the famous city of Heidelberg, and is actually very favourable for grape production, due to its high levels of sunshine, and warmer climate - however there are less than 500 ha of vines.
It is situated south of Frankfurt, to the west of the Rhine and the main Rhine wine regions. The majority of the wine is white, from the Riesling grape, with some reds from the Spatburgunder.
This is another very small wine region, whose wines are rarely seen outside their native area. It’s a narrow area of around 100km long, and lies between the famous Mosel valley and the Rheingau, running between Bonn, and the Rhine town of Bingen. Yet again, the best wines are grown on steep slopes of schist, slate and gravel, facing the south, but winemaking here is in the doldrums, and production is decreasing.
The majority of the wines are white, from the Riesling and the Muller Thurgau, with some red from the Spatburgunder, although the more northernly location makes the wines tend towards the light, and almost thin side in terms of style.
The Mosel produces some of the most sublime, unique, and complex wines in the world – and, to boot, is one of the most beautiful, scenic wine regions, in the world. The region used to be known as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and the vineyard areas are all along the Mosel river and its tributaries, the Saar and the Ruwer. It’s probably the most famous of Germany’s wine regions, and is the 3rd largest in terms of production.
The Mosel has the most dramatic scenery of any of Germany’s wine regions, with vineyards clinging to almost vertical slopes, which require far more manual labour than any other area, because it is such tricky terrain to farm and tend to. As one of the most northern wine areas, the climate is cool, and the vines are grown on dark slate soils, facing the south east – the slate pulls in and retains the heat and warmth from the day, and slowly releases it back, during the cold nights.
The region is divided into 3, logically named, Upper, Middle, and Lower Mosel. The most famous estates and vineyards lie in the middle section; the region begins at the French and Luxembourg border, and winds north towards Koblenz, with vineyards climbing ever higher up the steep slopes.
Riesling is king in the Mosel; the Saar wines are the most mineral and structured, coming from the coolest of the sub-regions, whilst the Ruwer are more delicate and aromatic, with the Mosel producing the classic, steely, perfumed, elegant and racy wines, for which they have become famous.
The Nahe is one of the smaller, less known wine regions, yet produces some superbly elegant, racy wines, somewhere between the styles of the Mosel and the Rhine. As with many of the wine areas, it’s named after the river which flows through it, the Nahe, a tributary of the Rhine; it’s nestled just south west of the Rheingau, to the east of the Mosel. Like the Mosel vineyards, the best vineyards, are on dark slate soil, and cling vertiginously to the steep slopes of the hills bordering the river.
In the heyday of German wine, Muller Thurgau and Silvaner were the main grapes grown, along with Riesling, however nowadays, the focus is totally on quality in this small area, and Riesling reigns supreme, with an increasing amount of red wine from Spatburgunder and Dornfelder also being grown.
Better known to most wine people as the Rheinpfalz, which was its official designation until 1992, this is the second largest wine producing region of Germany, and the most southern of the areas lying along the majestic Rhine river. South of the Rheinhessen, and running down to the border with Alsace, it enjoys a warmer climate than other more northern Rhine regions. Nestled in the shadows of the Haardt mountains, which translate on the French border to the Vosges, it is a very picturesque region, and a great tourist attraction; vineyard locations are varied and run from the high hills, down to the plains closer to the river, but generally the vineyards are much further away from the river than in most German wine producing regions.
The wines are richer, spicier, and in many respects, not dissimilar to their Alsace neighbours. Riesling is less prevalent here, accounting for less than 25% of total plantings, although at the top level, the wines are sublime, benefitting from the longer ripening period and higher levels of sunshine and warmth. This region produces an increasing amount of dry ‘trocken’ wines, and has kept more in step with current wine drinking trends than other regions – some great, spicy, dry whites are being made from the Pinot Blanc, and also Silvaner and a little Gewurztraminer.
This is an area also know for red wines, still light, fresh, and fruity, and with high acidity, and low tannin levels, but richer and fuller than German reds produced further north. The main grapes are Spatburgunder, Dornfelder and Portugieser.
Undoubtedly the king of the German wine regions, and where the most iconic Rieslings are made. The Rheingau is renowned for its high quality white wines, where Riesling reigns supreme, and is made in a variety of styles, from ‘trocken’, to the most lusciously intense and sweet ‘beerenauslese’ and ‘icewein’.
Despite its formidable reputation, the Rheingau only accounts for around 3% of total German wine production, which intensifies its status as a the most premium wine region in Germany. Nestled in a bend of the river Rhine, as it turns eastwards, the vineyards enjoy the warmth of the direct southern-facing locations. This area houses some of the most prestigious estates in Germany including Schloss Johannisberg and Schloss Vollrads.
Riesling reigns supreme here, and the wines are generally fuller and richer than Mosel Rieslings, although still retaining, in the dry wines, a unique, searing freshness and minerality. It was in the Rheingau that ‘botrytis’ or ‘noble rot’ was first discovered back in the 18th century, leading to the production of arguably the most sublime and complex dessert wines in the world, competing only with Sauternes! The rolling mists from the river roll in and provide the perfect conditions for the development of noble rot, which leads to the shrivelling of the grapes, concentrating the sugars, and providing the wherewithal to produce small quantities of intensely rich, yet, balanced dessert wines.
The largest wine producing region in Germany, responsible, both the vast production of Liebfraumilch and Hock, which flooded our shelves in the 70s and 80s. it lies south of the Rheingau, north of the Pfalz, and produces wines that are ripe, full, at their best, structured and rounded, and at their worst, thin, sweet and sugary.
This is the home of the major German wine brands, and still produces a high quantity of wine, although the focus is now increasingly on high quality wine production , rather than volume.
The main grape grown in this region, which is centred on the town of Bingen, is Muller Thurgau, with Riesling and Scheurebe as supporting acts. There is an increasing amount of red wine produced from Spatburgunder and Dornfelder.
Lying way north, and the most northern and eastern wine producing region of Germany, this is a small region, which is climatically challenged in terms of wine production. It has a long history of wine production, dating back well over 1000 years, but as one of the most northern wine producing areas in the world, it struggles to get ripeness in the grapes. Muller Thurgau is the main grape grown here.
Wurtemmberg is little known, yet the 4th largest wine producing region in Germany; the most southern, lying just north of Stuttgart, heading down towards the Alps, and the only German wine region to produce more red wine than red, given its southern location.
The main grape here is the Trollinger, and all the red grape varieties, invariably produce lighter, low tannin, juicy reds. In terms of whites, the Riesling is the main grape variety, followed by the Muller Thurgau.
German Wine Classification
German wine laws are strict, and clearly defined. Labelling is often difficult to understand but here are the simple rules and delineations:
Tafelwein – The bottom end of the ladder, and best avoided – wine made from anywhere in Germany, and mainly the cheapest on the market.
Landwein – a similar grading to the French ‘vin de pays’.
Qualitatswein (QBA) – the next level up, and some good quality wine in this category, but also responsible for the vast amounts of cheap and nasty Liebfraumilch and Hock.
Qualitatwein mit Pradikat (QMP) – the highest quality level, and a qualification which was set up in the Rheingau region. These have several layers within the QMP status, depending on levels of ripeness of grapes and stylesof the wines. From the lightest, and driest upwards, they run – Kabinett – fully ripened grapes, fruity wines with a dry, yet fruity edge.
Spatlese – late picked grapes, yielding richer, fuller, slightly sweeter wines.
Auslese – made from selected bunches of late picked grapes, with added concentration of sweetness and honeyed richness.
Beerenauslese – expensive wines, produced from berries, affected by noble rot, which have been handpicked.
Trockenbeerenauslese – very rare and exclusive wines, made from individually picked grapes, which has shrivelled on the vine, and are intensely concentrated.
Eiswein – very unique wines, highly expensive and made from grapes, which are picked in midwinter, have frozen on the vines, and are highly concentrated in sugar and acidity.
Trocken – this is a term used for German wines, which have been fermented out to a drier style of wine.
German Grapes, Wine Styles And Food Matches
German wines, and Riesling in particular, are some of the most versatile and perfect for food matches, yet are still frequently misunderstood by wine drinkers. Riesling wines, arguably match more food types and styles than any other in the world. Germany is almost unique in that it uses very few international grape varieties and focusses on its own, indigenous grapes, although some of these, such as the Spatburgunder and the Pinot Blanc are related to French varieties.
Loved by wine aficionados, misunderstood by millions of others! This is a sublime grape, fragrant, aromatic, and complex, with aromas varying from honeysuckle and meadow flowers, through to searingly fresh lime juice, petrol, and flint! This grape produces dry and sweet wines, the latter intense, honeyed, unctuous, and gloriously sweet, yet with a trademark kick of citrus acidity. The high quality drier and traditional styles have a unique freshness, and a kick of fresh lime compliments the floral character.
These wines are some of the longest-lived in the world, due to their natural acidity and make up. As they age, the wines become richer, fuller, and more aromatic and pungent, but always manage to keep the kick of acidity that gives them their unique zesty freshness.
What does it go with?
The list is endless! As a relatively low alcohol wine, at around 12%, it’s a delicious aperitif, and then, when food kicks in, it’s probably the most food-friendly grape in the world.
The drier styles work well with shellfish, grilled white fish, salmon, and salads with a hint of spice. It’s one of the few grapes to work well with oily and smoked fish – be that smoked salmon, mackerel or other – the wines match the powerful, smokey flavours, and the acidity is a good natural foil.
Riesling is one of the very best choices when it comes to Asian food, be that Thai, Chinese or Indian, since, once again, it is one of the relatively few wines to have the character, natural sweetness, yet fresh acidity to cope with heat and spices.
As you move up the sweetness scale, Riesling also works brilliantly with fish, chicken and veal cooked in creamy sauces; soft cheeses, and pates. The rich, luscious auslese wines are a dream with fruit based desserts, and also blue cheese.
German Spatburgunder And Dornfelder
These black grapes produce lightish, low tannin reds, with lots of primary red fruit flavours. They can be highly acid and thin – at their best, they produce deliciously refreshing, vibrant, light coloured red wine, which are great on their own, or with lighter styles of food. There is a violet and cherry fragrance to many of these, with a ripe, berry fruit and herbaceous edge.
What does it go with?
Lovely on their own, and slightly chilled, these are not red wines for hefty dishes, but will compliment smoked hams, gammon, and most charcuterie. Also great with pork dishes, cheeses, and mildly spiced Chinese and Indian food.
German Silvaner And Muller Thurgau
The majority of German white grape varieties mirror the Riesling in the styles of wine they produce, although none has the Riesling’s majestic complexity and raciness. These wines are soft, fruity, easy drinking and work with similar styles of food.
German Pinot Blanc
Another aromatic grape variety, that is often fermented dry in the southern parts of Germany, and has similarly aromatic qualities and food pairing potential as other German white grapes, but with an added bone dry, almost steely quality.