Updated: Sep 4, 2020
I've been contemplating over this post for a while as I knew once I started this article that it could turn into quite a lengthy piece... trying to sum up all things great about German wine and the world it comes from. I mean, my ambition behind why I started wine tours in Germany was to show wine lovers from all over the world (even Germans) how amazing the world of German wine can be.
Like any topic - you need to first respect the past to understand the present.
Where its all began - The German wine story
Germany has a history of winemaking that dates back to 100 B.C. When ancient Romans, who conquered the region, began producing wines on local soil to quench the thirst of its thirsty soldiers (part of soldiers pay was 3 litres of wine a day). It was the Romans, who already recognised the potential of some of Mosel's best sites like the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen (translates to little droplets of gold)
During the Middle Ages, monks upheld the tradition of making wine and cultivated the vineyards that are famous to this day. Historical properties like the Cistercian Monastery Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau have a viticultural history dating back to about 1200 AD.
The well kept Monestary of Kloster Eberbach first established in 1136
The domain walls of the famous Grand Cru Steinberg vineyards from Klosetr Eberbach
Although almost forgotten today, Germany and France were once revered as the two greatest wine producing countries in the world. German wines fetched top prices at auction for their noble sweet (edelsüß) wines, alongside the classified growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy. These wines were treasured and collected by nobility, hence the derivation of the word noble sweet.
In 1845, Queen Victoria of England visited the Rheingau, where she discovered her love for German Riesling and coined the term “Hock”, which is synonymous with German Riesling in Britain today. It originally referred to Riesling from the wine village of Hochheim.
So why did German wines kinda get forgotten about?
Germany’s wine reputation lost its luster in the 1960s and 70s, when large quantities of sweet blended wines were created for export, among them the infamous Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun.
While Germany continued to make and drink high quality wines (most Germans have never heard of either brand), sweet non-descript wines became synonymous with German wines internationally.
German Wines Today
On the steep slate and shale banks along the Mosel, the pristine, castle-crowned vineyards of the Rheingau or the rolling hills of Rheinhessen, Germany produces some of the world’s best, yet mostly underrated wines. One of the reasons it can be still so hard to find German wine in your local wine shop overseas is that only about 1/3 of German wine production is exported, as Germans consume most of it locally. Thanks to a "Riesling Renaissance" in the recent years there are an increasing number of high quality German wines now flowing across the globe which I discovered on a recent trip to Australia.
As I do get the question... "is German wine only sweet...?" the focus of German wine today is mainly on dry (Trocken) styles of wine, which make up nearly 70% of production. However the sweeter side of life when it comes to German wine shouldn't be avoided. As mentioned there is a painstaking art and years of proud experience in creating some amazingly balanced, complex and delectable late harvest wines especially from Riesling.
Another suprise to my guests and best kept secret is Germany also produces some extraordinary Sekt (sparkling wine - Méthode Champenoise) . Correspondingly, Germans are the world’s largest consumers of sparkling wine per capita and it is customary to have a glass of bubbly any day of the week to kick off a small gathering, or minor special occasion .. is breakfast a special occasion?
Another more recent force in the German wine world is the discovery of love with the great Pinot varietals of the world, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. While the later, its a little known fact that Germany is the world’s 3rd largest producer of Pinot Noir and has a history of adapting the same high quality production methods that are also found in Burgundy, France. Today, Germany is being recognised as the new frontier for exceptional Pinot Noir. Many German Pinots can rival Burgundy, but sans the price tag!
So whats unique about German wine?
Short answer... family owned, smaller scale viticulture that is all about respect for the vineyard with a tendency towards quality over quantity. The result is fantastic, characteristics wines of unbeatable value.
The steep vineyards of the Mittel-Rhein valley overlooking the village of Bacharach
Residing about as far north as grapes can be cultivated (49-51˚ N). German wine makers have mastered their challenging climate to produce wines of distinct quality. Although climate change is changing things, whats was once a game of chasing full ripening in the early 2000 with harsher conditions meant that Germany’s vineyards are usually found on slopes facing southward to assure the longest exposure to the sun. This is why many of the great vineyards sites are often found in river valleys, such as the Rhine and Mosel, because of the water’s ability to moderate night temperatures and reflect the warmth of the sun.
These are the steepest vineyards in the world found in the lower Mosel
Germany provides the ideal landscape for producing finicky but prized noble grape varietals, such as Riesling and Pinot Noir. There is no other country in the world where you can spend $20-30 on a bottle that can easily be aged for 20+ years.
Wine is made in the vineyards.
This is a key belief of many of the "Winzer" that wine making starts in the vineyards. It is the unique terroir (microclimate, geography, geology, even naturally occurring yeasts of a small area) and traditional ecological production methods, which gives a a wine its unique fingerprint and flavour profile.
Germany has 13 defined wine regions that all have something special to contribute to the German wine landscape. In the Mosel its all about very steep slate slopes on the banks of the winding river. In the Rheingau its the Taunus Quartz of the Tanus mountains which create a warmer protected microclimate combined with ancient loam loss sediments from the Rhein. In Rheinhessen the largest of the wine region you can find a bit of everything in its 1000 rolling hills although a key element here is lime stone and chalk deposits left behind from and ancient sea and in some parts very warm, dry temperatures.
Germany has one of the longest ripening windows for grapes in the world, which allows nature to impart a perfect sugar and acid ratio, providing for optimum balance and harmony, along with age worthiness. German Riesling grapes contain especially high levels of natural acidity and sugar, which act as a natural preservative and allow the wines to age gracefully, rewarding those who are patient enough to hide a few bottles in the Keller.
A remarkable characteristic of German viticulture is the care and attention to detail that goes into the production of its wines. German vintners are extremely adept at blending centuries-old experience with the latest in modern viticulture and are exacting in their methods: They harvest the grapes for their best wines by hand, use “green” or sustainable production techniques, embrace stainless steel tanks for sharp, fresh aromas and crips wines. For premium white wines left for a longer fermentation seasoned, often regional larger traditional aged oak barrels are used. When it comes to red wines I find that is oak is used in a more finessed and balanced way with produces of some of Germany's best Pinot Noir adopting the finest French oak barriques.