The Wines of Germany 101

A Snooth Article Classic


Red Grapes

Pinot Noir accounts for the lion’s share of Germany’s fine red wines. With about 11,000 hectares or about 11% of the vineyards in Germany devoted to wine grapes it’s the most common red variety in the country. Germany’s plantings make it the third largest supply of Pinot Noir in the world. A surprising fact for a country that is almost exclusively associated with white wines. 
The remaining red grapes, the likes of Dornfelder, Portugieser, and Trollinger have generally been used to produce the light, fresh red wines that are typically consumed young throughout Europe. Due to the climate it is doubtful that Germany will soon be home to the late ripening varieties that typically produce the big, age worthy wines that collectors covet but as far as bright and zesty reds, with the emerging success at the high end of  Pinot Noir, Germany has a surprisingly robust red wine industry. To a large extent this reflects the domestic demand as it moved away from sweeter white wines in search of red table wines. 

Who: Riesling

Because Germany’s producers bottle so many wines, from different vineyards and at different sweetness levels it’s really challenging to compile a list of the best wines to try to learn about the region. The easiest path to take is to compile a list of the top affordable producers and then try and pick out their best or most distinctive wines. While that does help one gain an understanding of the producers, it’s the wine styles that one must understand first. To that end I would suggest that you first try a range of Spatlese level wines. These tend to be fairly rich and noticeably sweet. They age spectacularly well and are a great jumping off point for the world of Riesling, which after all continues to be Germany's flagship wine. Below I list a top ten producers, of sorts, and on the following pages I offer suggestions of wines from their portfolios to sample. 
J.J. Prum
Willi Schaefer
Dr. Loosen
Fritz Haag
J.J. Christoffel
Josef Leitz

Riesling Spatlese

Spatlese tends to be a noticeably sweet wine, though the denomination refers only to the minimum sugar level in the grapes at harvest, not the actual sweetness of the finished wines. In fact you can have a wine that is Spatlese Trocken, or fermented dry, though that is rare. As global warming and improved vineyard practices have resulted in riper vintages, the richness and sweetness of most Spatlese wines have inched up the scale. Still, for me these are the archetypal wines of Germany and where any discussion of their wines should start. Below is a selection of some of the best examples of Riesling Spatlese. I particularly like comparing the wines from Wehner Sonnenuhr, a remarkable site that is generally recognized as one of the country’s best. By selecting wines from different producers in the same vintage you can begin to identify each’s style. 

Riesling Kabinett

Kabinett can be less sweet than Spatlese, or at least they have traditionally been so. A lighter, more elegant and delicate style of wine, it has long been my favorite of Germany’s Rieslings. As the wines get sweeter they tend to trade some transparency and minerality for fruit whereas Kabinetts with their gentle sweetness are all about their vineyard sources.

Riesling Auslese

With Auslese you begin to get into dessert level sweetness. While that is not the rule, remembering that the designation refers only to the sugar levels of the grapes at harvest and not the finished wines, it is at least the trend. Particularly Auslese in half bottles, which are almost always quite sweet, though they still can be paired with savory dishes. Foie Gras for example is a natural partner to the sweet yet acidic Auslese. 

Riesling Trocken and Halbtrocken

Trocken, the dry wines of Germany, are all the rage today. In truth they are often a bit alcoholic and monolithic in their youth for my palate. There are exciting examples being produced but they are both expensive and really benefit from extended cellaring. Halbtrocken, or half dry wines are more to my palate. With enough sugar to lend the wines some fruity roundness, and to cover the often cutting acids of Riesling, they tend to bring together the best of the sweeter and dry style of wines in one package. 
Halb Trocken

Spatburgunder AKA Pinot Noir

Germany’s Pinot Noirs are finally joining the world’s finest in the global marketplace. With their cooler climate, long hours of summer sunshine, and excellent soils they stand apart from most Pinot Noirs, though there are certain similarities to the wines of New Zealand and Oregon. Wine production is challenging in Germany. Yields are low and work in the vineyard often difficult so it’s no surprise that these wines tend to seem a little pricy, and in fact often are, but they are still fun to try and at their best they are eye openingly good. Supply is spotty at best here in the states though if you’re on the hunt to try a few I would choose from this list of producers. 
Enderle & Moll
Friedrich Becker
Henrik Möbitz
Karl H. Johner
Bernhard Huber
Friedrich Becker
Weingut Keller
August Kesseler
Jean Stodden

Everything Else

Well not quite everything but a few wines worthy of attention even if they are outliers. Scheurebe produces exoticly perfumed and tropically fruity wines that can be absolutely intoxicating. On the other end of the spectrum Sylvaner tends to be round, focused, and savory with simple juicy fruit and real transparency on the palate. They represent opposite ends of the wine spectrum and help to illustrate how broad a range of wines Germany can produce

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  • Snooth User: Zuiko
    Hand of Snooth
    540750 839

    Nice article there GDP. What is amazing about Germany is that there are so many producers and so many great wines. Unknown producers (to US consumers) can make as great a wine as the famous producers. Exploring the wine country to find these gems is a real thrill. Finding a great wine outside of the classic Mosel and Rheingau areas is quite common and rewarding. There have been some great wines produced from the co-ops (Winzergenossenschaft & Winzerverein) as well. My favorite German producer? Frank Schiffmann, Brauneberg. But there are about 20 others that would be a close second.

    Nov 18, 2013 at 4:59 PM

  • Seems a little strange that you didn't list Frits Ritter, since their kabinet is one of the top selling German wines in the US, Also, Vereinigte Hospitien is one of the oldest, and in my opinion finest, vineyards in Germany. Their Scharzhofberger Auslese is, again in my opinion, in a class of it's own and easily the equal of any of the producers you have listed.

    Nov 18, 2013 at 5:33 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Zuiko, Thank you for the kind words. There are indeed many great producers in Germany, far too many to list in such a short overview.

    American Storm, Perhaps in my follow up articles on Germany 201 we'll dive deeper and cover some of the producers I've missed on this first pass.

    Nov 18, 2013 at 6:24 PM

  • The Pinot Noir wines from the Ahr valley are generally from the Fruhburgunder rather than the Spatburgunder. This is an earlier ripening version more suited to the cooler climate.

    Stephen Freeland

    Nov 22, 2013 at 5:23 AM

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