The German wine industry has only itself to blame for the suspicion with which many consumers view its wines. A greedy method in the past 20 years or so has noticed huge plantings of mediocre grape varieties on undistinguished sites, over-production, and sugary-sweet wines with little appeal for accurate wine-lovers. This can be a fantastic tragedy for Germany's many, many fine wine-makers. They have stuck to their guns to develop the Riesling grape on challenging, steeply sloping websites, creating wines which are the best examples of their kind in the globe.
Like the Northern French vineyards, this is a cool-climate region exactly where websites need to be selected meticulously: preferably on south-facing hillside slopes.
Within the southerly regions of Pfalz and Baden the climate is much less of an issue, but within the great northern wine areas around the Mosel Valley and also the Rhine, incredibly steep slopes are the only way to ensure every vine gets enough sunshine to ripen the grapes.
There is fairly light rainfall, so the expanding season is fairly lengthy, and where circumstances are right, Botrytis can produce wonderful dessert wines. Production is centred about fantastic rivers like the Rhine and Mosel where the soil tends to be predominantly slate on mineral-rich earth.
The white wines of Germany are its glory. There are a wide number of grapes planted, many of them laboratory-developed hybrids and Riesling crosses like Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Rieslaner, developed not so much with quality in mind, but simply to ripen to high sugar levels. To know why the German wine business rushed towards these varieties, see the German classification method beneath.
Riesling (shown left) stands on its personal because the king of German white wine grapes, but other high quality varieties include: Scheurebe, Ruländer, Silvaner, Gewürztraminer and Weissburgunder.
Red wines are produced from: Spätburgunder, Dornfelder, Portugieser and Trollinger.
The Weissburgunder will be the grape known as Pinot Blanc in France, the Spätburgunder is the Pinot Noir.
The present strict and comprehensive wine laws go back to 1971. Because then, the official High quality status assigned to a wine depends completely on how much sugar was in the grapes at the time of harvest. The theory was that only the extremely very best sited vineyards would produce really ripe grapes. The unforeseen consequence however, was that the finest, but also unreliable varieties such as Riesling were abandoned in favour of much less distinguished varieties. These had been scientifically designed to guarantee high sugar levels and therefore, in name at least, an official stamp of quality.
The end of the 1980's and 1990's has noticed something of a grass-roots revolution amongst quality-conscious estates, who've formed alliances with like-minded producers and established their own quality charters for their wines. To a particular extent the German wine trade continues to be in some turmoil, with various moves - towards dry wines, red wines, barrel fermented wines - looking for to find new markets and new directions.
Beginning in the bottom, official ripeness/quality levels are
Tafelwein - tablewine, the grapes for which needn't even be German.
Landwein - roughly the equivalent of France's Vin de Pays. Usually not of high quality.
Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) - the first level regarded as “quality” wine by the EU. Grapes must come from demarcated regions, that will seem on the label. This really is Germany's fundamental, everyday wine. The ubiquitous Liebfraumilch is an instance of a QbA wine.
Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) - “Quality wine with distinction” will be the literal translation. Within the QmP category there are 6 levels, every demanding greater sugar levels for qualification. They are:
- Kabinett - dry/off-dry and low in alcohol
- Spätlese - literally “late-picked”. Fuller and riper, usually off-dry
- Auslese - may have some noble rot, and generally medium-sweet
- Beerenauslese - “selected berries” noble-rot grapes. Sweet and luscious
- Trockenbeerenauslese - totally noble-rotted grapes. Usually sweet.
- Eiswein - super-sweet; grapes harvested while frozen.
The Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (M-S-R) A collection of vineyard areas on the river Mosel and its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer. The Mosel rises in France (as the Moselle) and flows via Luxembourg prior to reaching Germany. From some of the nicely recognized villages of this area like Piesport, Bernkastel and Erden come sublime Riesling wines. These wines are never “big” powerhouse wines: they're invariably low alcohol, intensely flavoured wines that balance slatey, mineral qualities with honeyed sweetness and rapier-like acidity.
The Rheingau This ancient and aristocratic region has numerous famous wine villages such as Hochheim, Eltville and Johannisberg. Sited along the north bank from the Rhine, its steep, south-facing slopes produce superb Rieslings having a little much more weight than these of M-S-R, but just as long-lived and perfectly balanced. The village of Assmannshausen is among the few centres for Red wine production in Germany.
Rheinhessen A large area south of the river Rhine, wines from the region vary in quality, but the best from villages like Nierstein and Nackenheim are explosively fruity and as good as any in Germany.
Nahe The best sites from the Nahe are once more on steeply sloping hillsides. Bad Kreutznach is among the very best villages creating really intense, mineral-flavoured Rieslings, although you will find also lots of rather dull Nahe wines made from inferior grapes like Müller-Thurgau. This region is pronounced “Nah-hay”
Pfalz Warm conditions mean simpler ripening of grapes. A lot of the production will be the highly commercial stuff that does Germany's reputation for fine wines few favours. It's also an region exactly where extremely interesting experimental wines are produced, including oak-aged wines (unheard of in Germany), Pinots Noirs as well as other Burgundy varieties. There are fantastic classic Rieslings too, along with a lot of top quality sweet wine.
Dry white wines One of the problems that even the finest German wine-makers have faced in recent years is that off-dry and semi-sweet wines are just out of favour with most consumers. The globe is looking for wine to drink with food by and large, and that indicates dry whites and reds. Due to this, numerous German producers are cutting-back their production of conventional designs to create trocken or halbtrocken wines (dry or semi-dry). These wines are much more like the wines of Alsace, in that they are fermented out fully to possess greater alcohol and reduce sugar. Note that these wines will still qualify to be sold at QmP levels of Kabinett, Spätlese, etc. But within the trocken context this is no longer an indication of sweetness, much more an indication of how full-bodied and alcoholic the wine will be. Personally, I have found few trocken wines below Auslese level that have had adequate fruit to become truly balanced.
A small and individual choice of German producers would include: von Schubert, Dr Loosen, Von Kesselstatt, Künstler, Deinhard, Dönnhoff, Weil and Gunderloch.