As with most of the neighbouring nations, the first reference to wine in Germany dates back to the first century, around the town of Trier in the southwest of the country. Initially a simple case of Romans making wine for their own consumption, the practice quickly developed and spread to other regions. During the Middle Ages, Cistercian and Benedictine monks were particularly influential in developing quality-focused viticulture, and some of the properties established as monasteries back then, are amongst the nation’s most celebrated wine estates today. Various changes in law have led to many vine parcels being divided and hence vineyards across the country are noticeably small, but the most prestigious wineries still hold enough land to produce wine for both the domestic and export markets.
Germany’s cool, continental climate presents a number of challenges to the country’s winemakers. The unpredictable weather and cooler temperatures of this northern latitude mean that vineyard sites must be carefully selected and viticultural activity very closely managed. Most of Germany’s key winemaking sites occupy steep slopes with a south / southwestern aspect, and almost all are located in close proximity to one of the country’s river systems, this having the effect of moderating temperatures. Soils of limestone, clay and slate, depending on location, complete the country’s terroir.
Today, there are thirteen official wine regions in Germany of which Rheinhessen is the largest by area, and Mosel, perhaps the most prestigious. In all, the country cultivates 102,000 hectares of vineyard with more than one-hundred-and-thirty grape varieties represented. These range from obscure hybrids such as Albalonga, to well-known international varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (referred to here by the alias Spätburgunder). Riesling though, is the country’s signature grape, a variety synonymous with the steep vineyards that cling to the banks of the Moselle river, where it delivers elegant, crisp and fragrant wines of real character. Germany remains predominantly a white wine nation, however in response to an increase in domestic demand towards the end of the twentieth century, red wines now account for more than one third of the country’s production.
Whilst German wine has a mixed reputation around the world, this is largely on account of its association with the cheap, semi-sweet blends such as Liebfraumilch, which dominated production in the 1970s and 1980s. However, those in the know have long forgotten about this blot on the nation’s wine copybook, and instead choose to savour the distinctive, aromatically pure and refreshingly crisp taste of a Mosel Riesling or herald the country’s growing reputation for reds.
Franconia, or Franken, as it is also called, is home to some interesting white wines, many of which are made from Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau due to the region’s continental climate. Many of the top vineyards chart a W shaped path along the south facing slopes of the River Main and its tributaries. The early ripening Silvaner is also popular here.
Hessische Bergstraße is the smallest wine region in Germany and takes its name from an old Roman trade route that runs through a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and vineyards. Riesling and Pinot Noir are the most important grapes in this region, producing rich and fragrant wines with body and freshness.
The Pfalz, also referred to by its English name Palatinate, is the second-largest and one of the most important wine-producing regions in Germany. With 23,500 hectares of vineyards, only the Rheinhessen to the north produces more wine. Riesling is the undoubted star of the region and produces some exceptional wines.
The Rheingau might be one of Germany’s smallest regions but it is also one of the most important. The area, just across the river Main from Rheinhessen is home to some of the best Riesling wines outside of the Mosel Valley. The Rheingau Charter which monitors quality of Riesling and Spätburgunder ensure much lower yields than other German regions.
Saale-Unstrut is Germany’s most northern wine region. With around 650 hectares planted, often on steep south facing terraces, the area is known for its white wines from the Müller-Thurgau grape. In general it is difficult to produce Spätlese or Auslese style wines here, and although the temperatures are increasing, they tend to emerge only in the very best years. Pinot Blanc, Silvaner and Riesling are also prominent. There is also a small amount of the red skinned Dornfelder and Blauer Portugieser grown here.