It's no wonder that wine lovers who favor the wines of Germany often speak about them in a slightly defensive tone. Riesling based wines are hard to find at retailers; the last thirty years have lowered their reputation; Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers think they are too sweet to drink with food; and the difficulties of reading most German wine labels -- and appreciating the differences they delineate -- stand in the way.
But there are still delicious German wines worth seeking out. The clean complexity of a cool Rhein or Mosel has the whisper of romance that turns a pleasant sunny afternoon or candlelit dinner into a truly memorable occasion. Their flowery Riesling bouquet and low alcohol are immediately approachable, yet the better examples are always balanced by relatively high acidity for piercing freshness and a lingering finish. Approximately eighty percent of German wines are white, but their permutations of varietal, climate, and style make up a fascinating array. In addition, a new generation of wine enthusiasts have discovered that these refreshing wines make excellent partners to the spicy, slightly sweet and occasionally fiery influences of popular ethnic cuisines. With even limited access to their great variety and charm, no wine lover should miss out on the pleasures of delicious fine wines from Germany.
A note of caution: the German wine industry's two traditional challenges are its climate and its commitment to quality. Only a stubborn, almost quixotic dedication to the art of winemaking can persist against the difficult circumstances (steep vineyards, a cold and unstable climate, limited yields) that create the great German wines. Since the second World War, mass producers have devised ways to produce facsimiles of historic German wines that appeal to the least experienced wine drinker. Without snobbishness, it is only fair to consider these sweet, low acid "Blue Nun" style wines from lesser varietals a less serious category of beverage.
Wine has been loved and cultivated in Germany since Roman times, when writer Ausonious of Bordeaux first described beautiful hillside vineyards beside the Mosel River. Since the rise of the early Christian church, the vine has been intimately intertwined with religious and secular history, and cultivation in the Rhein, Neckar, Mosel, Saar and Ruwer Valleys is well documented. The great administrator Charlemagne supported winemaking directly by planting projects and also indirectly, by his support and encouragement of the monastic orders, who used wine for ceremonial and daily use. These orders emphasized personal devotion and service, and their labor has been critical to the planting and maintenance of the labor intensive, low yield German vineyards throughout the centuries. A number of monastic organizations are still present and active today, notably Schloss Johannisberg and the Cistercian abbey of Kloster Eberbach, known as the traditional center of the German wine industry.
The population of (present day) Germany expanded greatly between 1000 and 1500, and the area planted in vineyards extended even into inappropriate areas as forests on mountains and plains were cleared. The Catholic orders remained a major source of wine production throughout the Middle Ages. After about 1400, they were joined by the aristocracy, and then the emerging middle classes and regional and city councils. The practice of terracing became common, and the monastic orders even managed to plant hillsides in the remote valleys, until the total vineyard area covered four times its current size. The ports of Cologne and Frankfurt competed vigorously for the wine trade, as did Hamburg, and German wines were shipped to Scandinavia, England, Holland, Switzerland, southern Germany and central Europe.
By the late Middle Ages, a cooling in the climate, foreign wars and the constraints of a larger population caused a collapse in land and wine prices, and a consequent decline in vineyards. Marginal areas were abandoned for other uses. Trade with other European countries brought competition with stronger red and fortified wines, which became fashionable, and the lower lying lands returned to growing grain for bread and for brewing the newly popular beer, which was to displace wine as a daily beverage in the north. The decline in vineyards improved standards in some areas, where better varietals, including Riesling, Muscat, Traminer, Klevner (related to Pinot Blanc and Pinot Auxerrois), and Gutedel (Chasselas), as well as red varietals replaced the previously popular but bland Elbling, a possibly native vine which had been the choice of the Romans.
A less casual attitude toward winemaking meant increased regulation of production after the late 1600's. In the Mosel Valley, the Church extended its influence in the first laws prohibiting the sugaring of wines (1750) and requiring replacement of lower quality varietals by Riesling vines (late 1700's), as did church authorities in the Rheingau, who also commanded that the red vine Orl'ans, (probably Pinot Noir), be added to the vineyards. In the same period the custom of distinguishing particular vineyards for high quality wines first arose, as did early laws against wine adulteration. In the 17th and 18th centuries the custom of late harvest picking became common. In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, a number of medieval customs such as land tolls and tithes were abolished, which freed smaller land holders to make vineyard improvements. Almost 45% of Church-owned lands were assumed and re-assigned by 1803, creating a new class of peasant and bourgeois vineyard owners.
The map of Germany has been re-drawn many times over the centuries, and in the early 1800's the area was still a complicated series of duchies and principalities, each with its own system of customs laws. The creation of a General Customs Union (the Zollverein) among them changed the market to a free style that opened up an intense competition and further encouraged the production of better quality wines, a trend that was to increase with the creation of the German empire.
In the 19th century, both aristocratic and middle class vineyard owners created growers unions to deal with vinification, storage and distribution. State authorities established schools for teaching and research, with emphasis on wine improvement. At the same time, chemist Ludwig Gall suggested addition of sugar as a simple remedy for underripe grape juice. Another alternative, Sekt, the local sparkling wine, was also developed and became popular in the second half of the century. Fungal diseases became troublesome, and phylloxera arrived to plague German vineyards in 1881.
The twentieth century was as tumultuous for the German wine industry as the nineteenth. Of course both World Wars severely affected workers, production and distribution. World War I was followed by political occupation by France in the Rhein until 1929, and an unbalanced duty scheme favored French and even Luxembourgish wines to the local product. Meanwhile, the Wine Law of 1930 strengthened standards and regulations nationwide, creating the category of "natural" (as opposed to sweetened) wines, regulating blending and abolishing the planting of American-European hybrids.
Under the Nazi era, all private and collegial wine organizations were replaced by the Union of Viticulture, which squelched initiative and improvement efforts. After the end of the second World War, virtually unlimited competition by foreign wine imports brought heavy pressure on producers. In self-defense, the cooperative organizations returned. Some of these included the lowest quality vineyards, but the top quality growers also banded together, and eventually the recovery effort produced a second huge vineyard expansion and greatly augmented yields.
Improved pest control, clone selection and frost protection allowed a typical yield of 1.1 ton/acre in 1900 to expand to as much as 5.7 tons/acre in 1980, and exports boomed. In the 1950's, thousands of smaller historic designations were abolished under the vineyard reorganization and engineering plan known as the Flurbereinigung, and in 1971, German wine law was again reformed to bring it into compliance with European Union regulations (see Classification section for the current system). It was during this time that such blended bulk wine products as Liebfraumilch first became standardized and broadcast worldwide.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the industry maintains a difficult balance, with mass producers still shipping millions of gallons of low-priced wines abroad. At the same time, their high volume efforts are balanced by a zealous and dedicated core of fine vintners attempting to expand the reputation of German wines with painstakingly handcrafted products. Perhaps the best comment on the current situation is that most Germans emphatically reject the mass market wines and seek out the classic Rieslings as well as foreign-influenced dry (trocken) styles of wine for their own consumption.
Germany's finest vineyards are located on steep southern-oriented slopes overlooking the river valleys, particularly those of the Rhein, Neckar, Main, Nahe, Ahr and Mosel Rivers, where the presence of water and warm pockets created by meandering streams moderate the possibility of frost. Where practical, flatlands and gentle slopes are also planted in vineyard, though accommodation must be made regarding varietals and handling.
Germany's cool climate is its most difficult challenge. The basic problem (as well as the potential for greatness) of German winemaking is that climatic variations, which can be extreme from one slope to another, are registered with great sensitivity by the grapes, making both brilliance and disaster very real possibilities in every single vintage. There are usually not quite enough hours of sunshine to insure ripeness, making winemaking a perpetual gamble.
Soils vary tremendously from decomposed slate on the mountainsides to loam in the flatlands. Exposure, frost, cold winds and high altitude all affect the viability of various sites. The average vineyard holding in Germany is small (under two acres), and many of the most famous vineyards have dozens of owners with widely differing facilities, budgets and philosophies. With the steep hillsides and short growing season, grapes tend to ripen unevenly, and the crop may be thinned early in the season to help ensure good ripening of the remaining grapes. The finer vineyards must be manually harvested, often several times, but the skilled labor for such work is quite expensive, and mechanical methods are preferred in flat and foothill vineyards.
It is a blessing for consumers that German vintners usually indicate varietals on the label, because this is one of the best and easiest indications of what to expect from the wine in the bottle. If a varietal is shown, it must make up at least 85% of the contents.
Of Germany's dozens of varietals, the great majority are white. The finest is Riesling, by far the most typical among distinguished wines. This variety is exquisitely sensitive to soil and climate characteristics, and many connoisseurs feel it makes the world's greatest white wines. All the Rhein growing areas are dominated by Riesling - elegant, long-lived, and fuller-bodied in Baden, and known for a smoky character in the Rheinhessen.
Unfortunately Riesling is not an easy varietal to grow. It has a relatively long growing season, and many German vineyards areas are subject to early and late frosts. To cope with this danger, a number of hybrids were developed, notably M'ller-Thurgau, which recent genetic research has determined to be a cross between Riesling and Gutedel, (rather than Riesling and Silvaner as was formerly believed). Developed in the nineteenth century, it produces less memorable wines with some Riesling flavor qualities, but is much more prolific and dependable. In the 1990's M'ller-Thurgau accounted for 45% of German vineyard plantings, mostly for the mass market export wines.
Among all German wine regions, 85% of vineyards are planted with Riesling and its hybrids. In addition to M'ller-Thurgau, these hybrids also include Rieslaner, a relatively demanding grape with potential for strong Riesling character, and Scheurebe, which can be used for both dry and sweet wines. Both of these are crosses between Riesling and Silvaner. With attentive vinification, Scheurebe can make high quality wines with pleasant grapefruit and red currant aromas, especially in the Rheinpfalz.
Acreage for the historic Silvaner varietal has been dwindling in recent years. This minimally aromatic white grape makes an outstanding dry wine in Franken - soft, earthy, and full-bodied, with fresh apple and citrus flavors and a fresh finish. It is not usually vinified sweeter than Auslese, and shows some similarity to a good Chablis when grown on limestone soils. Silvaner is also a specialty of Rheinhessen, where it makes a light, soft varietal and is also blended into bulk wines.
The rich, spicy Traminer (Gew'rztraminer) expresses its floweriness best in Baden and Pfalz, where a good degree of acid modifies its exuberance. German Grauburgunder (Rul'nder or Pinot Gris) makes both sweet and dry wines. The dry version has a honeyed, spicy fruit, earthy aroma, and is best in the southern Rhein around Baden and Pfalz, where it is sometimes oak-aged. Sweet versions are less aromatic but still have full, rich flavors. Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) makes dry, structured wines in Germany, with melon and pear aromas. It is also sometimes given oak aging in Baden and Pfalz, where the modern dry style is very successful. Other whites include Kerner, Huxelrebe, Chardonnay, Muskateller (Muscat), Elbling, Ehrenfelser, Faberrebe, Gutedel, Siegerrebe, Bacchus, and Ortega.
Germany has been a white wine country for hundreds of years, and does not grow many red grapes. Traditionally these few reds were treated almost like the white varietals, and the wines tended to be slightly sweet and very light in color, but recently the German public has begun to demand dry red dinner wines more in the French style. The most successful are made from Sp'tburgunder (Pinot Noir), particularly those from Rheingau, Pfalz, and Baden. Some versions are still sweet and jammy, but the better ones are made from Sp'tlese or Auslese in a Burgundian style with oak aging and higher extraction and tannin levels. These wines are very fashionable and can be high-priced; some are really fine, but many vintners are still working out the style. Other red grapes include Portugieser, Trollinger, Dornfelder, Schwarzriesling (M'llerrebe/Meunier), and Lemberger (Blaufr'nkischer).
In the struggle to produce healthy grapes in a marginal growing environment, German wine regulations have become among the world's most rigorous, and German wine labels the most specific and informative. The Wine Law of 1971 brought German regulations into line with other European countries, and attempted to clarify a complicated history by abolishing many historic designations, with mixed results. Today German vineyards are classified into various categories, the largest of which are the wine growing regions (Anbaugebiete) (see Areas): Ahr, Mittelrhein, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Franken, Hessische Bergstrasse, Rheinpfalz, Wurttemberg, Baden, Sachsberg, and Saale-Unstrut.
On the lower end of the quality scale, each wine region is divided into broad regional groupings called Bereich, and within the Bereich, into Grosslagen, smaller village/regional groups that theoretically possess common attributes. In the smallest, highest potential category are Einzellagen, or single vineyards, designated on the wine label by village and vineyard, for example, Erdener Pr'lat, which comes from the village of Erden and the Pr'lat vineyard.
Unfortunately it can be easy to confuse the label of an Einzellage with an inferior Grosslage because the Grosslage nomenclature often takes the name of a famous village in the same area. Regulators have realized this system is too variable, and the Ursprunglage designation (already seen on some labels) will eventually replace the old Grosslage category. Like Grosslagen, Ursprunglagen are wines made from collective regional vineyards, but they will be required to exhibit a unifying style and characteristics, and thus give consumers a more meaningful way to identify wines.
Unlike the great French estates, most German vineyards are not officially classified for their historical quality (though there is growing momentum to do so). Instead, on the principal that a naturally sweet grape indicates ripeness (and thus potential for high quality wines), the wines themselves are examined at each vintage by government-supervised laboratories and ranked according to their must weights. In theory, wines are required to be faithful to their heritage and traceable from vine to consumer, though in reality many wines are judged leniently. Beyond the government specifications, the concerned consumer needs to learn the better producers and vineyards. The wines are categorized into the following categories:
Landwein - basic wine product, subject to few regulations
Tafelwein - standard quality (the least ripe); may originate from any country, usually blended. (Deutscher Tafelwein must originate in Germany)
Qualit'tswein - equivalent to France's Appellation Contr'l'e for EU standards. These wines make up 95% percent of recent harvests, so the designation is not so exclusive as it appears. They are analyzed by government-sanctioned laboratories for technical flaws and regional accuracy, and given control (AP) numbers that appear on the label; these indicate the year the wine was examined and the number of wines accepted in that year by this producer. These are their sub-categories:
QBA (Qualit'tswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete) - "Quality wine from a specific region." Traditionally these have been less distinguished wines, but in the current trend toward dryer table wines, some winemakers may chose this category for the freedom of experimentation it allows them (with oak aging for example). Sugar (chaptalization) may be added to must in this category.
QMP (Qualit'tswein mit Pr'dikat) - These are slightly more distinguished "certified" wines. On this scale, the wine must is increasingly sweet, but the finished wines may be much less so. Particularly within the Sp'tlese (late harvest) and Auslese (specially chosen) categories, a high level of acid - typical in German wines - may balance a certain level of residual sugar, resulting in a balanced dry or semi-dry effect. No additional sugar may be added to this category. The QMP or "Predicate" (Pr'dikat) wines are sub-divided into the following categories:
Kabinett - ripe grapes Sp'tlese - late harvest grapes Auslese - "chosen" bunches of late harvest grapes
Kabinett, Sp'tlese and Auslese can be drunk as aperitif or afternoon wines but are usually best drunk with meals. The following sweeter predicate categories are drunk alone, or with (sometimes as) dessert:
Beerenauslese - "chosen berries" of late harvest grapes. Often includes grapes affected by botrytis, the "noble rot" which shrinks berries, concentrates flavors and gives the characteristic "golden" flavor.
Trockenbeerenauslese - always made from dry, botrytized grapes and intensely sweet, usually very long-lived.
Eiswein - made from unbotrytized grapes left on the vines so late in the season that they freeze. They are picked only at temperatures of 18 degrees F. (-8C.) or lower, when the water in the grapes is frozen solid. The ice is left behind when they are pressed, making for incredibly concentrated, long-lived sweet wines.
Within an individual estate, the Pr'dikat system is a good quality indicator, and higher must weights (measured in degrees Oechsle) usually indicate higher potential for the traditional style Riesling wines. Technically speaking, any vineyard is free to produce wines of any quality, but better producers have higher standards all around, and good German winemakers often present their wines in a lower category to make a better impression. The same wine may become a really fine Sp'tlese or just an adequate Auslese, for example. So it is in the consumer's interest to become acquainted with the names of good vintages and producers as well as their vineyards, none of which the system rates. Both fine and indifferent producers produce many different lots of wine.
Since 1994, yields from German vineyards have been limited except at the most basic Tafel and Landwein levels. For QBA wines and above, the maximum permitted yield is an average of harvests in the same vineyard area for the last ten years. The label designation Gutsabf'llung, "estate bottled," indicates wine cultivated, harvested, vinified and bottled by the producer whose name appears on the label. In addition, its winemaker must have specialized training in oenology, and the vineyard supplying the grapes must have been cultivated for at least three years by the producer. Erzeugerabf'llung is a somewhat less stringent designation meaning "producer bottled." The category may not be used by the mass market bottlers unless they own the vineyards which produced the wine, but it can include blended wines from members of local cooperatives. Since these may not all be of the same standard, Erzeugerabf'llung wines are more variable in quality than those labelled Gutsabf'llung.
Starting in September, 2000, two new designations for dry wines, Classic and Selection, have been introduced to dispel consumer confusion with dry wines produced from traditionally sweet categories (e.g., Sp'tlese and Auslese).
The "Classic" label certifies "harmoniously dry" table wines from a single region, made exclusively from the region's traditional varietal. Labels are required to indicate region, vintage, producer and varietal, but no additional style description (such as trocken, halbtrocken, etc) beyond "Classic" is allowed. In addition, Classic wines must have alcohol levels of at least 12 percent by volume.
A "Selection" wine is a single vineyard wine. Also made from a traditional varietal of the region, it must be dry unless made from Riesling, which is subjected to a specific formula allowing acidity up to a maximum of 12g/liter. Selection labels must indicate vineyard site and region, vintage, producer and varietal without supplementary description beyond "Selection." Grapes must be manually harvested. Selection wines are subject to additional independent evaluation and must have at least 12.2 percent alcohol.
In response to increased demand among the finest producers for a standard to distinguish their wines, German's Rheingau region inaugurated the "Erstes Gew'chs" quality designation in the summer of 2000, with the first wines (the 1999 vintage) released in September of that year. Similar to the Grand Cru designation among French wines, the Erstes Gew'chs classification is projected to eventually include only 2-3 percent of the Rheingau's total production.
The category indicates exceptional vineyards of Riesling or Sp'tburgunder (Pinot Noir), with yields limited to 50 hectoliters per hectare (534 gallons per acre). Grapes must be harvested by hand and are inspected according to rigorous standards. To date over 75 growers have registered for the designation, and about one-third of Rheingau vineyards have been approved for Erstes Gew'chs classification.
The resulting wines must then pass evaluation by an independent board. Those which succeed in winning Erstes Gew'chs certification are sold at a minimum price of DM 25 (approximately $12 US) and must be held until at least September 1 of the year following the harvest. They are recognized by the Erstes Gew'chs symbol and insignia of three double Romanesque arches. It is recommended but not required that they be marketed in the distinctive Rheingau blue flute bottles.
The best known private group of German producers is the VDP (Verband Deutscher Pr'dikats- und Qualit'tsweing'ter e. V.) which first formed in 1897 in Rheingau. It is made up of Germany's most prestigious wine estates and dedicated to wine quality. Members' wines are monitored and their operations strictly delimited with the ultimate goal of creating the best natural (unsugared) wines. The group requires standards above the German government requirements in viticulture and enology, with at least 70 percent of vineyard areas to be planted in traditional varieties (not hybrids). Members display the VDP "Eagle" logo on their bottles, pledge to regulate their yields very strictly and follow "green" environmental vineyard standards. These stringent standards tend to keep membership numbers low, but status of the organization (and meeting its challenge) high.
In 1984, over thirty Rheingau wine producers formed the prestigious CHARTA, dedicated to concentrated, off-dry (halbtrocken) Rieslings accredited through blind tastings. In 1999 CHARTA and the Rheingau chapter of VDP joined forces under the name VDP-Rheingau, and now represent 50 of the region's leading wine estates, about one-third of the total. The organization stresses top quality dry Rieslings, and was a powerful force behind the new Erstes Gew'chs regulations.