- History - A history of German wine and winemaking
History of German Wine
Like much of Europe, Germany has been making wine since Roman times. Winemaking grew slowly, and in the Middle Ages it was the Church that continued viticulture and kept German winemaking alive. As production grew, Germany began to export wine to France, England and Scandanavia. After a setback in the Thirty Years War, production continued to increase into the nineteenth century.
By 1830 Germany had begun a system of quality control laws. The country had a hard time finding a balance that was at once comprehensive and simple, with some regions passing impractical laws dividing wine into 65 distinct levels of quality. Some regions, however, began classifying wine by ripeness at harvest, a system that is still used today. By the late nineteenth century, Germany was experimenting with its first dessert wines, made with late harvest or specially-selected grapes. In 1892 the country passed the first of its national wine laws.
The period between 1880 and 1945 was a difficult one for the German wine industry. Phyllloxera was especially devastating here in the 1880s, and two World Wars left German vineyards ruined, the labor supply decimated, and foreign countries averse to German exports. But private landowners and effective winemaking cooperatives kept the industry alive, and the last sixty years have seen it flourish. In the 1960s and 1970s exports favored the slightly sweet Liebfraumilch wines, but since then consumers have turned towards dryer varieties. Today, Germanys emphasis on high quality is paying dividends, and its wines are enjoyed around the world. Germany is unquestionably best known for its Riesling, which ranges from bone dry to ambrosial dessert wine.
- Overview - An overview of German wine today.
Overview of German Wine
Ask an average American what he thinks about German wine, and the odds are ten to one youll hear the words sweet and white in his answer. The sweetness myth is a common misconception with an easy explanation. During the 1960s and 1970s the majority of German wine to reach US shores was mediocre-quality, slightly sweet Liebfraumilch wine. There was so much of this wine on the shelves that Americans came to assume that all German wines were sweet. The thing about Liebfraumilch is that although it is produced in Germany, nobody in Germany ever drinks it. In fact, less than 1% of Germanys Liebfraumilch is consumed within German borders and most of that is drunk by tourists.
Although Germany is certainly known for its dessert wines, the reality is that most German wines are dry or only slightly off-dry, and generally of very high quality. Furthermore, the racy acidity of the Riesling grape makes low levels of residual sugar virtually undetectable on the palette.
The white wine myth is equally misguided, as almost a third of the grapes in Germany are black. Of those, a third are used to produce Germanys much-underrated Pinot Noir, here called Spätbrgunder. You dont hear about it very often, but a good Spätburgunder can rival the best French crus. And production is on the rise, with Spätburgunder gradually replacing some white varietals.
Germanys main variety, however, is and remains Riesling. Riesling accounts for 25% of German acres under vine, in addition to the 20% occupied by Müller-Thurgau, an artificially created hardier cousin of Riesling. The best German Riesling pairs aromas of cream and peaches with a perfectly piercing acidity, and can stand proudly alongside any white wine in the world.
Wine in the Land of Beer
Quality of German wine is unusually high for a counterintuitive reason the Germans drink more beer than wine. Since beer is the drink of choice for everyday occasions, consumption of average-quality table wine is very low. In fact, the percentage of German grapes made into table wine hovers around 5%. This means the other 95% of German grapes are used in the production of high-quality wines compare this to France, where table wine represents the bulk of production.
Unlike France, Germany must contend with a thoroughly continental climate. With no nearby ocean to mitigate weather, the main wine regions in the southwest of the country must contend with widely varying temperatures from year to year. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Germanys vines are planted along steep river banks. The river moderates climate where there is no ocean to do so, but tending vines on the steep banks is incredibly labor-intensive. This is another reason bulk wine is not common in Germany.
Germany today is engaged in an ongoing process of rethinking and revising its unusually complex wine laws. The German classification system measures the ripeness of the grapes instead of the suitability of the vineyard. While this system is useful in that it gives you a good idea of how sweet a given wine is going to be, it has the major drawback of ignoring terroir. Whatever the results of these legal revisions, Germany remains a very forward-looking winemaking country. Mechanization is the norm here, and huge stainless steel fermenting tanks and sophisticated temperature-controlled fermentation are common. With its dry whites, its emerging reds, and its lusciously sweet dessert wines, Germany is continuing a slow emergence onto the world scene as a producer of top-notch wines.
- Understanding German Wine Labels - A guide to reading a German wine label
Understanding German Wine Labels
German wine labels are notoriously difficult to make sense of, but once you get the hang of it they actually reveal as much or more about the wine than the labels of any other country.
The label breaks down wine into four broad categories. Tafelwein is table wine and may come from anywhere in Germany. Since beer is the everyday drink of choice, production of Tafelwein is low. The next category is Landwein, or regional wine. This category roughly parallels France’s vin de pays designation, but it is rarely used.
The next level of quality is Quailitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete, or quality wine from a specific geographic location. 85 percent of the grapes in wine of this category must be both from the region of origin and of the variety listed on the bottle. Germany’s 13 regions, or Anbaugebiete, are divided into two levels – a geographic district or Bereich and a cluster of vineyards – Grosslage – or a single vineyard – Einzellage.
At the highest level of quality is Qualitätswein mit Prädikat, or designation. In addition to the region and vineyard, a German wine label at this level also shows you an extra category called Prädikat, which indicates the ripeness of the grapes at the time they were picked. Generally speaking, the riper the grapes, the sweeter the wine. In order of increasing sugar concentration, the Prädikat categories are: Kabinett, Spåtlase, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Trockenbeerenauslese.
At one extreme, the Kabinett is nearly bone dry. At the other end, Trockenbeerenauslese, or “selected dried berries” are picked late in the season after they become fully infected with noble rot. The skin has cracked and the water has partially evaporated, leaving behind more concentrated. Wine from these berries is golden and honeyed, high in alcohol and lusciously sweet. In some years a frost or rot kills off the late crop and no TBA can be made – the high price in other years compensates winemakers for the risk of leaving fruit on the vine so late into the autumn.
German wine labeling has its ups and downs. If you know what to look for, a German wine label will actually give you a good idea of what the wine tastes like. But even though it can be very useful to the savvy customer, German labeling prevents wineries from projecting a unified image built around a flagship wine. When a winery produces Kabinett, Spåtlase, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Trockenbeeternausles for each variety of grape it grows it can easily produce 12 or more wines. Furthermore, the quality system ignores terroir and the quality of a vineyard’s soil.
In addition to the Prädikat system, Germany has now implemented the Charta system. In order for a wine to be classified as a Charta wine, several conditions must be met. The wine must be dry, of a sweetness that would normally lead to a classification of Kabinett or Spätlase. The grapes must be 100 percent from the bottling estate, and they must also be 100 percent Riesling. The grapes must be picked by hand by tries, the minimum alcohol content is 12 percent, and the maximum cases produced per acre is set low at 220. Additionally, a wine must undergo extensive testing and tasting to earn its Charta status. And finally, Charta wines are not permitted to use a Prädikat designation on a label. What all this comes down to is that any wine labeled Charta will be an excellent dry Riesling. If you see the Charta signature double arch on a white label, you know you’re in for a memorable wine experience.
Although not as long as the Loire region in France, Baden is by far Germany’s longest, extending from central southern Germany all the way south to the Swiss border. Baden was Germany’s leading wine region throughout the nineteenth century, but slowly declined into anonymity. Today Baden produces a few excellent estate wines that include some of Germany’s very best reds, but these are mostly unknown outside the region. The bulk of production, however, is carried out by the Zentralkellerei Kaiserstuhler Winzergenossenchaften, or Central Winery of Baden. The ZBW now accounts for 90% of the regions outputs and virtually all exports, but it is on the bland side and belies the excellent wines produced in Baden’s best small vineyards.
Baden’s climate is unusually sunny and warm for Germany, thanks largely to the sheltering Black Forest and Odenwald Mountains.
The land here is more level than in most German wine regions, and most vineyards are found on very slight slopes. Frost, however, can be a problem in low-lying areas, and some vines are planted high on hillsides to escape this threat.
Although Baden is more a collection of scattered vineyards than a unified region, there is a natural division into two parts. The section south of the town of Baden lies directly opposite the Alsace region just over the French border and shares Alsace’s terrain. Müller-Thurau is the dominant grape here, but it is often blended with Silvaner and Riesling to make light wines for local consumption. As in much of Germany, however, Spätburgunder is on the rise. The warm temperatures here not only help Spätburgunder to ripen fully, they also lead to an unusually high alcohol content in Baden wine. Baden’s northern region is cooler and rich in granite. Especially in the area around the old city of Heidelberg, the region produces some excellent Riesling with good acidity. The soil in the region is generally rich and fertile and includes gravel, limestone, clay, marl, loam, granite and loess.
The Mosel is Germany’s westernmost wine region, following the Mosel River east from the French border. Vineyards are planted along such steep riverbanks that it seems incredible that anyone would farm there – but the Romans were doing it sixteen centuries ago. Mineral deposits along the 150-mile stretch of the Mosel give the wine here a distinct slate note called Schieferton. This minerality perfectly offsets the fresh fruit flavors in Mosel Rieslings.
Mosel can be divided into five regions – the Saar, Upper Mosel, the Ruwer, the Middle Mosel, and the Lower Mosel. The Saar is the westernmost of these vineyards, and it contains the village of Ockfen. Ockfen is known for the quality of its Rieslings, and its soil is so rich with slate that it forms a bluish dust on the fingers.
Moving east, the Upper Mosel region is very similar in terrain and climate to the Saar region. However, there is little private winemaking here, as one large cooperative does most of the growing here. The sparkling Sekt from this region is well known. Next along the river is the Ruwer. Here, the vineyards get slightly more shelter and the soil is lighter in slate and heavier in red humus. For these reasons, wines from the Ruwer are a little riper and more fruity than their cousins from the west.
Warm with moderate rainfall. The steep valley sides warm rapidly, providing an ideal environment for high acidity grapes.
The Mosel River loops and wends its way toward France, almost never traveling in a straight line. Vineyards are planted along the banks, ranging from relatively level to incredibly steep. Some of the vineyards are planted on slopes as steep as 70 degrees.
The soil here includes limestone, slate, marl, and gravel. In general Riesling comes from sites rich in slate. The Riesling grape is often called “racy,” referring to its high acidity. The Riesling’s intense acidity is relieved by the balance of residual sugar that intensifies flavor characteristics without seeming overly sweet. Mosel is cooler than the wine regions in the Rhine, producing fresh wines even years so warm that the Rhine wines suffer.
Franken lies north of Würternberg, away from the tempering influence of the Rhine, and a full halfway to Germany’s eastern border. This far from the Rhine and this far east, the climate is very continental, and winters can be biting cold. Franken is one of the coldest wine regions in Europe. Its vineyards lie along the Main River and are devoted mostly to lesser white grapes. Silvaner is usually used as a blending grape, but here it is treated as a more noble varietal and makes its own distinctive wine. Wine here is often sold in traditional flask-shaped bottles, or Bocksbuetel. There is a distinct dry earthiness to the wine here, with the best bottles achieving smoky complexity.