Germany has thirteen regions, all closely associated with rivers. Eleven are in the old West Germany, two in the old German Democratic Republic.
German wines are poorly understood. A few key points should clear this up.
For years, oceans of sweet, poor quality white German wine were sold to generations of international drinkers, many of them labeled erroneously as Riesling, leading to reputation problems.
Germany sits at the northern reaches of European viticulture. Grapes here struggle to ripen. Growers use every trick in the book to promote ripening. One example is to plant vines on steep slopes overlooking rivers. The rivers concentrate the sun’s rays and focus them back onto the vines. The rivers also retain heat and radiate it up to the vines at night. Even so, as a general rule, German grapes at harvest produce juice, called grape “must, that tends to be lower in sugar and higher in acidity than grapes from warmer regions. Germany does pay attention to its thirteen regions, but the “must weight,” the potential alcohol in the grape juice, is the most important criterion for quality. For this reason, we look at the quality pyramid before we talk of any regions.
The bottom four levels of the pyramid represent forgettable wines, mostly white, not from Riesling but from Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, and other productive grapes. The fifth level, Qualitätswein (QbA), is of better quality but does not represent the best levels. This wine may be chaptalized, which means sweetening may be added (to the grape juice, not to the finished wine) so as to bring the alcohol level up to within accepted standards. In such a case, the wine must be fermented completely dry.
The next level up, Qualitätswein mit Prädikat, covers the top five rungs of the quality pyramid, applying primarily to Germany’s signature grape, Riesling. Chaptalization is not allowed. The lower levels of these five, Kabinett and Spätlese, may be either dry or sweet, Auslese is usually somewhat sweet, and the top two, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese are always sweet.
Spätlese means taken (harvested) late, a process which, barring autumn rains, lets the grapes ripen longer to get as sweet as possible. Auslese means taken out, referring to a process in which the best bunches of grapes are hand-picked for the wine. Multiple passes of the vineyard are often necessary for this and the two highest processes. For Beerenauslese, the best individual grape berries are selected. For Trockenbeerenauslese, the best grapes that have dried on the vine are selected. Eiswein (ice wine) is made from the frozen berries of the top two. The word “trocken” meaning dry in German, refers to the grapes, not the wine (which is extremely sweet, and highly concentrated in flavor).
All wines from cool climates tend to be high in acid, and Riesling as a variety is highly acidic. Sweetness compensates for this acidity. A Riesling Kabinett will usually taste dry, but it might have considerably more sugar that, say, a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or an Australian Clare Valley Riesling. If residual sugar is not high enough to compensate for the acidity, the grower may add unfermented grape juice, called Süssreserve, after fermentation. Acidity reduces the perception of sweetness. Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese have such concentrated sweet juice that the final result is invariably sweet. Riesling has the firm acidity to be able to handle such a sweetness level.
German Wine Grapes: White
- Aromatic Riesling is Germany’s benchmark grape. It is high in acid, and takes a full 130 days to ripen.
- Müller-Thurgau requires only 100 days to ripen, can be planted on more sites, and has higher yields. Its flavor is not distinctive like Riesling’s however. It is the main ingredient in cheap German white wine like Liebfraumilch.
- Silvaner is also fairly neutral, but does well in the chalky soils of Franconia and Rheinhessen, making earthy and rustic dry wines.
- Other white wines are produced from Kerner, Bacchus, Scheurebe, Gewürztraminer, Grauer Burgunder/ Ruländer (Pinot Gris), and Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc).
German Wine Grapes: Red
- Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir)
- Dornfelder, producing dark-colored, full-bodied, fruity and tannic wines
- Lemberger (Blaufränkisch)
- Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier)
The German Wine Regions
The best regions in Germany are those capable of ripening Riesling reliably, and even here the results are not consistent from year to year. The southern regions of Franken, Baden and Württemberg are warmer and less Riesling-oriented.
Germany’s number one producer, the Rheinhessen, two-thirds white, produces Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Dornfelder, Silvaner, Portugieser, Kerner, Spätburgunder, Grauburgunder, and Scheurebe. Reds led by Dornfelder (a German crossing created in the 1950s) are on the upswing here.
Pfalz (the Palatinate) leads with Riesling, followed by Dornfelder, Müller-Thurgau, Portugieser, Spätburgunder, Kerner, Grauburgunder, and Weißburgunder. Climate is mild and sunny for Germany. Pfalz generally competes with the Mosel for the title of greatest Riesling producer.
Baden leans toward red wines, with Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) accounting for a third of all plantings. The region is shielded by the Odenwald hills and the Black Forest on one side and the Vosges mountains on the other, giving it a warmer climate and more sun than any other German region.
Württemberg leads with a light bodied, fruity reds from Trollinger, with Riesling and the reds Lemberger (Blaufrankisch) and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir). It is Germany’s largest producer of red wine.
The Mosel region covers its namesake river and two of its tributaries, the Saar and the Ruwer. This is prime Riesling country, producing many world-class wines on south and southwestern facing hillside vineyards, many of which need to be terraced.
Franken (Franconia) produces a range of wines, but the white Silvaner has the highest production, followed by Müller-Thurgau. Reds are produced from Domina and Pinot Noir. Many of the better wines here are sold in squat bocksbeutel bottles.
The Nahe along the Nahe River and a number of its tributaries has a mild dry climate, and produces Riesling and other whites in its interior reaches, and Pinot Noir and other reds closer to its confluence with the Rhine at Bingen.
The Rheingau sits at a special point in the Rhine’s progress where the river flows eastward for a stretch, and hence the Rheingau faces south, resulting in some of the world’s finest Riesling. It is no coincidence that the German Center for Viticulture and Oenology is located here, in Geisenheim. Riesling accounts for seven out of eight vines here, Pinot Noir the remaining eighth.
Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen (Saxony), the only two regions from the old East Germany, produce a variety of whites, from other than Riesling, in extremely cool climates. Much of this wine is consumed locally.
The Ahr specializes in Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), grown on steep slopes above the winding Ahr river. The soil of slate, gravel, and volcanic rock absorbs warmth during the day and radiates it back to the grapes at night, somewhat mitigating this region’s northern latitude.
The Mittelrhein covers about 75 miles of breathtaking Rhine River scenery between Bingen and Bonn, including the famous Lorelei Rock and a number of castles. Riesling accounts for 70% of the grapes, for still and sparkling Sekt wines. Pinot Noir and Dornfelder are used for the reds. Slate soils characterize the vineyards, and the major river moderates the climate.
Hessische Bergstraße is the smallest of Germany’s 13 regions. Riesling accounts for just over half of production, with Pinot Noir next at 18 percent, and Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Müller-Thurgau, and Silvaner. Protected from the elements by rings of hills, this region is known for its mild climate and long growing season.