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.
The wines of the Rheinhessen are improving each year and now represent some of Germany’s most interesting wines. Riesling is the star candidate, but there is a growing wave of high quality Pinot Noir growers making themselves heard.