When the Rhine hit the Taunus mountains it turned west, creating many sunny south-facing slopes on the north bank, the great vineyards of the Rheingau. Church ownership and then proximity to important cities meant the wines have been long famous, and while many have not lived up to their price, they can be extraordinary, full and racy, invigorating, and long lived. Most are now dry.
Germany has suffered something of an image crisis in recent decades when its fame for quality wines that at one time rivalled the first growths of Bordeaux in price was diluted by a sea of cheaper white wines from undistinguished vineyards, often made by undistinguished co-operatives. However, the high-quality wines were always there, made by conscientious and often brilliant winemakers from very specific sites of historical repute. There is a history of winemaking in Germany dating back to the 1st century BC and throughout the years of the Roman Empire when popular Rhenish wines were exported to Britain....
Germany has suffered something of an image crisis in recent decades when its fame for quality wines that at one time rivalled the first growths of Bordeaux in price was diluted by a sea of cheaper white wines from undistinguished vineyards, often made by undistinguished co-operatives. However, the high-quality wines were always there, made by conscientious and often brilliant winemakers from very specific sites of historical repute. There is a history of winemaking in Germany dating back to the 1st century BC and throughout the years of the Roman Empire when popular Rhenish wines were exported to Britain. Today, though there are still many mass produced wines, Germany has seen something of a revival, sometimes called the â€˜Riesling Renaissanceâ€™, and produces more great wines than ever in a wider range of styles, often drier and increasingly red. A new generation of winemakers has arisen who have learned new ideas, often having spent time overseas making wine. In this they have been aided by the warming effects of climate change, giving them consistently ripe grapes to work with, and an increasing pride in German wines within the country itself.
Germany possesses 13 wine-producing areas, called anbaugebiete. These are sub-divided into districts called bereich and within these bereichs are communes, clusters of neighbouring vineyards called grosslage, and named vineyard sites or einzellage that have proved themselves over the centuries to be the places where the elements of terroir all come together in an essential harmony. The majority of these anbaugebieten are in the south and south-west of the country and often along river valleys, with the most famous clustered along the Rhine and in the valleys of the rivers Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. It is in these latter two areas that Germanyâ€™s most prestigious einzellage reside and from whence come the most famous wines. The rivers have a moderating effect on temperatures, helping to keep them up when it is cold and lowering them a little when it is hot. Steep slopes and the soils found on them can have an effect on the ripening of the grapes by providing propitious aspects and by acting as storage heaters and reflectors of sunlight respectively.
The German wine regions enjoy a continental climate of cold winters and warm summers, with the additional benefit of long, warm autumns allowing grapes to mature fully in the more northerly latitudes. Soils vary greatly from region to region with the weathered slate of the best Mosel-Saar-Ruwer vineyards being the most famous.
German wine law, while perfectly logical on one level and created to protect the interests of growers, is not always clear and user-friendly for the consumer unfamiliar with it. While geographical and grape varieties are governed the distinguishing feature of German wine law is the central role that the sugar level of grapes at harvest plays, expressed in degrees Oechsle. It is the main factor in determining the classification of the wine. The riper the grapes the higher the degrees Oechsle and potentially the higher the classification no matter the location or reputation of the vineyard. Incidentally, this neednâ€™t always translate into sweetness in the finished wine as a must high in sugar may still be fermented to dryness.
The levels of classification, above the most basic Wein and Geschützte Geographische Angabe (equivalent of vin de table and vin de pays respectively) are as follows:
Geschützte Urspungsbezeichnung, previously Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) â€“ meaning Protected Designation of Origin.
Qualitätswein â€“ a chaptalized wine, one to which sugar has been added before fermentation to increase its alcoholic strength, from a named grape variety. The wine is tested for quality.
Kabinett â€“ naturally dry or off-dry (ie unchaptalised) with a distinctive character. Usually lightest of the quality levels but can still be very high-quality.
Spätlese â€“ Spät means late and lese means harvest. Sweeter and fuller-bodied than kabinett due to later harvesting or a particularly beneficial site leading to higher sugar levels, though the wines are sometimes fermented to dryness.
Auslese â€“ Translates as â€˜selected harvestâ€™. This level has higher sugar levels at harvest than spätleseâ€™ and may be made from selected bunches of particular ripeness that may have been affected by botrytis or noble rot (known in Germany as edelfaule).
Beerenauslese â€“ Beeren is berries in German so wines at this level are usually made from individually selected berries probably affected by edelfaule. They are luscious sweet wines.
Trocken beerenauslese â€“ Trocken translates as dry. This refers to the shrivelled nature of the berries, affected by botrytis until there is little juice remaining in the grape. They are only made in great vintages and have very high levels of sugar balanced by high acidity. They are mouth-coating, rich wines of great concentration, rare and expensive.
For a fuller description of Germany and its wines and wine regions please see our How To Buy German Wines page on our website.
German wine law
German wine legislation has done its best to make things complicated. Logical in their way, and designed to be democratically fair to winegrowers, the rules lack a common-sense awareness of what wine drinkers want to know. The four most important pieces of information on a German wine label are the name of the grower, the origin of the grape variety, the vineyard and an indication of whether the wine is dry or sweet. The recent move to simplify estate names and origin of the grapes and to remove Gothic script, which made names unreadable and hard to pronounce for linguistically challenged Brits, is welcome.
Germany has a continental climate and this far north it is close to the limit for ripening grapes. Consequently early-ripening varieties are the most successful with riesling chief among them. Though the latitude is not helpful, and rain can come throughout the growing season, the presence of the rivers and the shelter of the valleys ameliorate the effects of cold and heat when it comes. Autumns are often warm and long, providing the conditions for ripening and often allowing vines to hang on the vines well into the colder winter months to be made into sweeter styles.
German wine legislation has done its best to make things complicated. Logical in their way, and designed to be democratically fair to winegrowers, the rules lack a common-sense awareness of what wine drinkers want to know. The four most important pieces of information on a German wine label are the name of the grower, the origin of the grape variety, the vineyard and an indication of whether the wine is dry or sweet.
The recent move to simplify estate names and origin of the grapes and to remove Gothic script, which made names unreadable and hard to pronounce for linguistically challenged Brits, is welcome.
The German home market, which buys most German wine, prefers wines that are totally dry to go with food. A high percentage of the wine that most estates produce is therefore dry. The only grape variety for which this does not necessarily always work well is the one that makes Germanyâ€™s greatest wines: riesling. The natural balance of wine made from riesling is often made complete by the retention of natural sweetness. The bouquet is enhanced, the wines keep better, and the alcohol level (because not all the grape sugar is fermented out) is lower, which suits the style of the grape.
German wine laws classify the quality of a wine according to the degree of sugar the crushed grapes contain, but this is a pretty unhelpful guide. A wine may be called Spätlese (literally â€˜late-pickedâ€™ but in reality, not necessarily so) if the minimum must weight (also Oechsle) is about 80° (a potential alcohol of 10%). But Spätlese wines are often made from grapes with higher must weight than this, and can be fermented out dry to 10% alcohol, or left with some sweetness at 8.5%. Auslese (literally â€˜a selective pickingâ€™) has a minimum must weight of about 90° Oechsle with a potential alcohol of 12% if the wine is dry, although in this country we are more used to Auslese being sweet, and around 8% alcohol.
Remember, however, that a German wine with a sweetness of 4 or 5 (medium dry to medium sweet) will be delicious as an aperitif and with food, because the natural sweetness is always balanced by fruit acidity. Think of a perfect British-grown ripe Cox or Ribston apple.
Many other grapes are grown in Germany successfully, particularly in the warmer more southerly vineyards, and there are increasingly fine pinot noir wines from the Ahr valley, but they produce wines that can be equalled and usually bettered in other parts of the world. Riesling, of course, is successfully grown elsewhere, but nowhere does it produce such delicate, multifaceted results as it does in Germanyâ€™s great vineyards. Reds are increasingly made and some 40% of Germanyâ€™s total vineyard area is planted with red varieties.