The Wines of Germany 101

Taking a look at the where, what, whys and whens of Germany


Old world wine countries are challenging to describe. Simply put, too much is going on and too much has gone on there for brief summaries to be of much help when trying to learn about their wines, but you have to begin somewhere. Once I work my way through the top dozen or so wine producing countries in this simplified Wine 101 fashion I’ll begin to delve deeper into each country and the regions that make them special.

Today, as we explore Germany things are thrown a bit on their head. No other wine producing region is as loudly defined by a single variety as Germany is by Riesling. While we are most familiar with German Riesling, there is a whole world of wines under vine in Germany ranging from the familiar, they’re making a name for their stunning good Pinot Noir of late, to the unusual and under-appreciated. Dornfelder or Scheurebe anybody? Let’s take a look at what's going on with German wines today.

Geographical Overview

Every region is permanently defined first and foremost by its geography. The type of climate, soils, and location are fundamentally entwined with the types of wines a region is capable of producing. Germany is located at the heart of Europe and as such is quite insulated from the profound influence the Atlantic Ocean has to its west and the Mediterranean to its south. 
 
The vast majority of Germany’s vineyards do take what little advantage there is to be offered by the warming influence of the Atlantic and lie within about 150 miles of the western border the country shares with Belgium, Luxembourg and France. This concentration of vineyards leaves the vast majority of the country vineyard free, with the cold climate that is no surprise. Though it is surprising to think of how densely planted most other famous wine producing countries tend to be. Germany’s grand reputation is mostly due to the incredible production from the vineyards that line the steep hillsides along the Rhine and Mosel rivers, which incidentally are among the northernmost wine producing regions in the world. Bested only by vineyards in the UK,  British Columbia, and the eastern German region of Saxe and Saale-Untstrut.

Wine Regions

Certainly the most famous vineyards in Germany are those that follow the course of the Rhine, in order of decreasing acreage the Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Rheingau, and Mittlerhein.  The Rheinhessen and in particular the more southerly and warmer Pfalz are both home to a significant percentage of red vines in addition to the more familiar whites, accounting for roughly 30% and 40% of acreage under vine respectively, while the Rheingau and Mittelrhein have only about 15% of their vineyards planted to red varieties. 
 
Also in this corner of Germany, farther to the northwest, one finds two additional wine valleys. The Mosel, which is home to a disproportionate number of top quality sites considering it accounts for roughly 9% of Germany’s land under vine. It is here that Germany’s reputation for producing fine wines was established, almost exclusively with Riesling, though the aforementioned Scheurebe and varieties like Rieslaner also have their proponents. 
 
A little further to the northwest there is the Ahr river, home to a tiny proportion of Germany’s vineyards. The Ahr has the distinction of being Germany’s red wine region, even if there are fewer acres of red vines here than in other regions they account for some 85% of land under vines and produce some of the county’s top Spatburgunders AKA Pinot Noir.

To the East

To the east of the Rhine river there are major wine producing regions. Baden and the Wurttemberg are the third and fourth largest wine producing region in Germany, and Franken, further to the east, is the sixth, though possibly the best known of these three. The use of the Bocksbeutel (pictured), that flattened round wine bottle that you can’t lay down or stack has proven to be a bit of a marketing coup for the region.
 
 Here Sylvaner is king, as opposed the Riesling that rules the regions further to the west. Historically Baden and Wurttemberg have supplied a large portion of the bulk wine consumed in Germany.  Baden being home to the Pinot family of grapes, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, while Wurttemberg has produced lots of the fresh, easy drinking red wines from the red grape Trollinger, also known as Schiava in the Alto Adige. 
 
To the northeast of Germany, and formerly behind the Iron Curtain,  one finds Sachsen and Saale-Unstrut. Here one finds a truly northern climate and they tend to rely on varieties that reliable ripen in such conditions. Dry and elegant examples of Muller Thurgau and Pinot Blanc are the standout wines from these two small yet promising regions. 

History

The history of winemaking in Germany goes back to the invasions of the Romans, who brought with them the knowledge of winemaking and their wine drinking culture. In the first century BC winemaking was already established in Germany and prime vineyard sites had been established. Some of these same sites continue to produce highly regarded wine to this day. 
 
Given the climate and the poor soils Germany contends with those vineyards have been producing roughly the same wines, white wines that may or may not ferment to dryness, for millennia. Combined with what seems to be an innate German desire for order,  you have some of the more complex and certainly longest lasting regulations governing a wine industry anywhere. Consider that Piesporter is home to a press dating from the fourth century AD one can see that the Germans have had ample time to distill all their efforts into layers of rules and regulations. This does make reading a German wine label a bit of a challenge, though we have an easy guide for that. Deciphering German wine labels 

Modern History

The German wine industry has undergone a remarkable renaissance since the end of World War Two. Rising from the ashes of that devastating conflict, the German wine industry has rebuilt itself several times since. The first incarnation peaked in the mid 1970s when Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and Black Tower were notable commercial successes. These wines, originally modest but attractive, gently sweet wine typical of what was consumed domestically, soon fell victim to their own popularity as they became debased with lower quality wines, turning into the rather insipid examples of German wine that many are familiar with.
 
It took roughly another two decades for the Germans to repair the damage these brands had done to their sweet wines. By the mid 1990s Germany was once being recognized for their remarkable wines, Rieslings in particular and the medium sweet ones at that. Global warming, which has robbed many of these wines of their delicacy, and a changing domestic palate that began to favor drier wines served as the impetus for the last significant change to the German wine scene: the rise of the dry wines and their accompanying classification schemes.
 
One other development worth noting is the very strong growth of organic and biodynamic farming within Germany. While these methods may be practised by a relatively small percentage of producers, it is a larger percentage than in many other wine producing regions, and these producers are often noteworthy and serving as inspiration for many others in the wine industry.

Organization

As previously mentioned, German wines are among the most clearly defined wines in the world, and yet they can be seem confusing. A brief run-down of the classes of wine you are most likely to encounter is in order. First off all German wine is broken down into three categories. Deutscher Wein at the bottom, a category you are unlikely to encounter. Then comes Landwein, a wine from a specific region. In general these are dry (trocken in German) or off-dry (halbtrocken). It is somewhat unlikely that you will encounter these wines but not impossible. Fortunately there is not much additional information you might need to decypher one of their labels.
 
That leaves the Qualitätsweine mit Prädikat, the highest level of wine quality that is also subject to additional designations. While space prevents me from going into too much detail regarding the additional levels of labellling that can help guide the consumer I would suggest looking the the guide to Deciphering German wine labels for a brief rundown of the basics terminolgy used to identify the potential sweetness levels of most German wines. This seems to be one of the areas which people find most confusing when it comes to German wines. 
 

Dry Wines

Since Germany is experiencing a bit of a dry wine revolution it is worth exploring some of the denominations that are used to identify these wines and what explicitly they promise. 
 
Selection Rheinhessen: refers to dry varietal wines from the Rheinhessen produced using traditional grape varieties. 
 
Rheinhessen Sylvaner RS: specifically reserved for Sylvaner from the Rheinhessen of the highest quality and fermented dry
 
DC Pfalz: a designation denoting dry Riesling, or any of the Pinot grapes along with Dornfelder produced from grapes grown in the Pfalz
 
Erstes Gewächs: literally ‘first growths’, this was a pioneering program used to identify wines from the Rheingau  that are produced from Riesling or Spatburgunder in a dry style with the added requirement that the grapes come from the best vineyards sites as determined by a regional classification.
 
Grosses Gewächs: Literally 'Great Growths' as a designation in all regions but the Rheingau to identify the highest quality dry wines produced from top vineyard sites  
 
Grosse Lage;: formerly known as Erstes Lage and referring to wines that come from the traditional grape varieties grown in the top sites in Germany as determined by the local governing authorities. Not necessarily dry and not to be confused with Erstes Gewachs.

White Grapes

There is no doubt that Riesling is the king of wine in Germany. Accounting for just under a quarter of all acreage under vine, and found in each of the 13 fine wine growing regions it’s established itself as the premier grape both domestically and internationally where German Riesling is accorded the same respect as White Burgundy in most wine circles. Truly one of the finest wines on earth. 
 
Until recently Germany consumed significantly more wine than they do today and that demand was generally for less expensive wines so it’s not surprising that the remaining varieties planted in Germany have generally been known more for their reliable yields rather than their fine quality. Muller Thurgau and Sylvaner have slowly moved beyond their bulk production roots as demand diminished and the vineyards were thinned leaving only the top site for these varieties. Today they help, along with expanding vineyards of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay, to satisfy Germany’s increasing thirst for crisp, dry white wines. 

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  • Snooth User: Zuiko
    Hand of Snooth
    540750 755

    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 201,427

    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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