June 11, 2012

The Wines & Wine Regions of Germany

While most people are familiar with the most popular wines; Riesling, Liebfraumilch and Gewürztraminer, wine aficionados are aware the wine regions of Germany actually produce 25 varietals, 9 reds and 16 whites.

If I were to cover all of them, this page would go on forever. Therefore, I'll cover the most well known of German whites and reds, some which you might find surprising. German wineis light, lively and fruity and differs from wines of other countries thanks to Germany's unique climatic and geological conditions. With the exception of Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen in the east, the wine-growing regions are concentrated in the south and southwestern part of country. These regions are among the most northerly wine regions in the world and straddle the border between the humid gulf stream climate of the west and the dry continental climate of the east.

The long growing season and moderate summer temperatures bring forth filigree wines that are relatively low in alcohol. The diversity of German wine stems from the many soil types and grape varieties, there is no "uniform" type or style of German wine and this diversity is reflected in Germany's wine-growing regions.

The Wine Regions of Germany

The Ahr is one of Germany's northernmost wine regions. It is also one of the smallest, with vineyards extending only 15 miles along the Ahr River as it flows toward the Rhine just south of Bonn. From Altenahr, in the west, to the spa Bad Neuenahr, the vines are perched on steep, terraced cliffs of volcanic slate. In the broad eastern end of the valley, the slopes are gentler and the soils are rich in loess. Four out of five bottles of Ahr wine are red, velvety to fiery Spätburgunder and light, charming Portugieser predominate, with plantings of Dornfelder on the rise. Lively, fresh Riesling and Müller-Thurgau are the white wines produced here.

Beginning just below Bonn and extending about 60 miles south along the banks of the Rhine, the Mittelrhein is a beautiful region of steep, terraced vineyards and some of the wine world's most splendid scenery — medieval castles and ruins clinging to rocky peaks, sites of ancient legends where Siegfried, Hagen and the Loreley seem to spring to life. Nearly three-fourths of the vineyards are planted with the noble Riesling grape. The clayish slate soil yields lively wines with a pronounced acidity. In years when the wines are particularly austere, they are sold to the producers of Sekt , Germany's sparkling wine, where high acidity is an asset.

The Mosel River is the sinuous spine of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, changing direction so often as it flows northeast toward the Rhine that it meanders nearly 150 miles, to cover about half that distance as the crow flies. Together with its two small tributaries, the Saar and the Ruwer, the Mosel composes one geographical entity. Although each river's vineyard area produces a wine with its own distinctive personality, the three share a family resemblance: a fragrance reminiscent of spring blossoms, a pale color, light body and a refreshing, fruity acidity. To add to their charm, they often have the slightest hint of effervescence. Most display their finest charms in youth; the late- and selectively-harvested wines merit aging. Along the serpentine route of the Mosel, the river banks rise so sharply that the vineyards carpeting these slopes are among the steepest in the world, with some planted at an astounding 70-degree gradient. On these precipitous inclines, nearly all labor must be done by hand. That includes tying each vine to its own eight-foot wooden stake, and carrying up the slate soil that has washed down with the winter rains.

The Rheingau is one of the most distinguished wine regions of the world. Moving from east to west, the fairly flat, dimpled landscape evolves into progressively steep slopes. It is a quietly beautiful region, rich in tradition. Early on, its medieval ecclesiastical and aristocratic wine-growers were associated with the noble Riesling grape and, in the 18th century, were credited for recognizing the value of harvesting the crop at various stages of ripeness, from which the Prädikate, or special attributes that denote wines of superior quality, evolved. Queen Victoria's enthusiasm for Hochheim's wines contributed to their popularity in England, where they, and ultimately, Rhine wines in general, were referred to as Hock. The world-renowned oenological research and teaching institutes in Geisenheim have contributed significantly to the extraordinarily high level of technical competence in the German wine industry today. Two grape varieties predominate: the Riesling and the Spätburgunder. The former yields elegant wines with a refined and sometimes spicy fragrance; a fruity, pronounced acidity; and a rich flavor. The Spätburgunder wines are velvety and medium, to full-bodied, with a bouquet and taste often compared with blackberries.

Germany's largest wine region, Rheinhessen, lies in a valley of gentle rolling hills. While vines are virtually a monoculture in the Rheingau or along the Mosel, they are but one of many crops that share the fertile soils of this region's vast farmlands. Steep vineyard sites are confined to small areas near Bingen and south of Mainz along the Rhein Terrasse. Varied soils and the favorable climate make it possible to grow many grape varieties, old and new. In fact, many of Germany's aromatic, early-ripening new crossings were bred in Rheinhessen by Professor Georg Scheu, after whom the Scheurebe grape is named (pronounced "shoy"). The region boasts the world's largest acreage planted with the ancient variety Silvaner and is the birthplace of Liebfraumilch, the soft, mellow white wine originally made from grapes grown in vineyards surrounding the Liebfrauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, in Worms. Rheinhessen wines are often characterized as being soft, fragrant, medium-bodied and mild in acidity, pleasant, easy-to-drink wines. There are also wines of great class and elegance, with a depth and complexity second to none.

Hessische Bergstrasse
The tiny region Hessische Bergstrasse takes its name from an old Roman trade route known as the strata montana, or mountain road. It is a pretty landscape of vines and orchards scattered on hilly slopes, famous for its colorful and fragrant springtime blossoms, the earliest in Germany. Riesling and Müller-Thurgau account for two-thirds of the area under vine. The wines tend to be fragrant and rich, with more body and an acidity and finesse similar to those of the Rheingau.

Franken lies some 40 miles east of the Rhine, in Bavaria, with most of its vineyards planted on the hilly slopes lining the Main River and its tributaries. Würzburg is home of the famed vineyard Stein, which gave rise to the generic term Steinwein, formerly used to denote all Franken wines. Fuller-bodied, less aromatic, often drier, firmer and earthier, Franconian wines are generally the most masculine of Germany's wines. Part of Franken's wines singular personality is due to the climate: cold winters, high annual rainfall, early frosts, long warm autumns are rare. As a result, the late-ripening Riesling plays a minor role. Müller-Thurgau (also called Rivaner), Silvaner and new crossings, such as Bacchus and Kerner, are the most important white varieties. Red wine grapes thrive in the western portion of the region between Aschaffenburg and Miltenberg.The finest Franken wines are traditionally bottled in a Bocksbeutel, a squat green or brown flagon with a round body, which lends considerable recognition value to the region's wines.

Bordered by Rheinhessen on the north and France on the south and west, the Pfalz's vineyards sweep across this remarkably pretty, peaceful land for nearly 50 miles. It is Germany's second largest wine region in acreage, but often has the largest crop of all. The word Pfalz is a derivation of the Latin word palatium, meaning palace. The English equivalent, Palatinate, is sometimes used to refer to the Pfalz. Modern technology and viticultural training have made their mark here in the past four decades. Yet for the visitor driving through the sea of vines along the German Wine Road, the scene is still pastoral with the tree-covered Haardt mountain range, castle ruins, fruit trees, and old walled villages of half-timbered houses. The Pfalz is second only to the Mosel in acreage planted with the noble Riesling grape. Here, it yields wines of substance and finesse with a less austere acidity than their Mosel counterparts. Pleasant, mild white wines rich in bouquet and full of body are produced from Müller-Thurgau, Kerner, Silvaner and Scheurebe grapes, while smooth, fruity red wine is made from the Portugieser grape. In response to the growing demand for red wine, there are many new plantings of Dornfelder.

Baden is the southernmost of Germany's wine regions. It is primarily a long, slim strip of vineyards nestled between the hills of the Black Forest and the Rhine River, extending some 240 miles from north to south. Comprised of nine districts, Baden has many soil types and grape varieties. Nearly half of the vineyards are planted with Burgunder (Pinot) varieties: Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), yielding velvety to fiery red wine and refreshing Weissherbst (rosé), ranging in style from dry to slightly sweet; Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), a dry, food-compatible wine, or marketed under the synonym Ruländer to denote a richer, fuller-bodied (and sweeter) style; and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), food friendly variety with attractive floral aromas. Spicy Gewürztraminer and the noble Riesling are specialties of the Ortenau district near Baden-Baden, where they are known as Clevner and Klingelberger, respectively. Light, mild Gutedel (synonymous with the Chasselas of France and Fendant of Switzerland) is a specialty of the Markgräflerland district between Freiburg and the Swiss border.

Apart from the urban centers of Stuttgart and Heilbronn, Württemberg is a rural, hilly countryside with vineyards and orchards scattered amidst forests and fields. Most of the terraced vineyards of the past have been reorganized to improve efficiency. However, a number still exist, notably the so-called "cliff gardens" near the Neckar's scenic loops between Besigheim and Mundelsheim. With more than half of its vineyards planted with red wine varieties, Württemberg ranks as Germany's premier red wine region. The main variety is Trollinger, seldom found outside of this region, followed by Schwarzriesling, also known as Müllerrebe or Pinot Meunier, and Lemberger. An additional 2,270 acres are planted with Spätburgunder, Dornfelder and Portugieser. Much of the wine is light, fruity and easy to enjoy; but deep-colored, rich, full-bodied red wine with great class is also produced here. Riesling is an important variety in Württemberg, accounting for nearly a quarter of the vineyard area, followed by Kerner and Müller-Thurgau. Kerner, a crossing of Trollinger and Riesling, was bred at the region's oenological research and teaching institute in Weinsberg. In general, the wines are hearty and full-bodied, with a vigorous acidity.

Sachsen is Germany's easternmost and smallest wine-growing region. Its recorded viticultural history dates from 1161 and parallels that of other wine regions, where the Church and the aristocracy were the primary medieval property owners and responsible for the development of the vineyards. In addition to viticulture, their legacy includes a wealth of art and architectural gems throughout the region. Most of the vineyards are between Dresden and Diesbar-Seusslitz, the northern end of the Saxon Wine Road. A few vineyards are being restored on the southern outskirts of Dresden and further south, in Pillnitz and Pirna, the gateway to Saxon's Switzerland. Many of the small parcels are planted on steep, labor-intensive stone terraces. The proximity of the Elbe River helps temper the climate, but given this northerly location and growing conditions similar to those of Saale-Unstrut, it is not surprising that the early-ripening Müller-Thurgau predominates. Here, too, the wines are marketed as varietals and nearly always vinified dry.


Vines have been cultivated since AD 998 on the hillsides lining the Saale and Unstrut rivers which lend their name to the small, but growing, Saale-Unstrut region. It is among the northernmost of Europe's traditional wine regions. Due to this, and the cooler climate, the weather is more variable than in the regions to the west. As such, many of the vines are planted on labor-intensive stone terraces that help temper the climate. Yields are low and Spätlese or Auslese can be produced only in exceptionally warm years. The wines are labelled as varietals and, with the exception of extremely rare dessert wines, all wines are vinified dry and have a refreshing acidity.

A List of German Wines (cus folks love lists)
  • Riesling
  • Müller-Thurgau
  • Silvaner, Kerner
  • Bacchus, Scheurebe
  • Grauer Burgunder
  • Weißer Burgunder
  • Faberrebe, Huxelrebe
  • Gutedel, Morio-Muskat
  • Ortega
  •  Elbling
  •  Gewürztraminer
  • Chardonnay
  • Spätburgunder, 
  • Portugieser,
  • Dornfelder, 
  • Trollinger, 
  • Schwarzriesling 
  • Lemberger, 
  • Dunkelfelder, 
  • Heroldrebe, 
  • Domina
The Grapes
Of all the grapes of Germany, the most noble is the Riesling, a variety that can do well even in stony soil and can subsist on a minimum of moisture. It is also frost-resistant and a very dependable bearer of high quality grapes which have an acidity level that gives the wine a racy freshness and contributes to its long life. To reach its full potential, Riesling needs extra days of sun; ripening is very late, usually not until the latter half of October. Riesling produces elegant wines of rich character with an incomparable fragrance and taste, often reminiscent of peaches, or when young, apples. In 1996, the vineyard area planted with Riesling exceeded that of Müller-Thurgau, thus making it Germany's premier grape variety in terms of area.

The Müller-Thurgau, or Rivaner, is the second most widely planted grape in Germany and accounts for about a fifth of the total vineyard area. It is named after Professor Müller of Thurgau, Switzerland, who created it in 1882, by crossing Riesling and Gutedel — not, as previously assumed, Riesling and Silvaner. It yields about 30% more than Riesling and ripens earlier, usually in the latter part of September. While it requires less sun and makes few demands of the climate, it does need more rain than Riesling, as well as soil with good drainage. Its wines are generally light, with a flowery bouquet and less acidity than Riesling. Müller-Thurgau often carries a hint of Muscat in its flavor. The wines are best consumed while fresh and young. Dry versions are increasingly marketed under the synonym Rivaner.

Roter Traminer, and its better-known synonym, Gewürztraminer, or "spicy (aromatic) Traminer," is an old, traditional variety prized for the high quality of its wine. While it is frost-resistant, it does need warm vineyard sites and soil with good drainage. It begins to ripen about the end of September. Yields are quite variable (due to weather conditions) and as such, it is cultivated as a specialty rather than for its profitability. Gewürztraminer wines have a distinctive, pronounced bouquet and flavor, often compared with lychees or roses. Sweeter. It is a traditional grape of the Pfalz, but is also grown in Baden, where it is known as Clevner, and in Rheinhessen.

Bred in the Pfalz and given the Latin name for Dionysos, the Greek God of Wine, Bacchus is a crossing of (Silvaner x Riesling) x Müller-Thurgau. It is a large yielder that, with sufficient ripeness, can produce fruity wines with a distinctive, aromatic bouquet and a light Muscat tone. Bacchus is grown primarily in the Pfalz, Rheinhessen, Franken and Nahe regions.

Like many other ancient grape varieties, Chardonnay stems from the Middle East. As viticulture spread, the variety found a new home in France, particularly in Burgundy. Chardonnay is one of the most popular grape varieties in the world. The cultivation of Chardonnay has been officially permitted in Germany since 1991. A wide range of aromas are typical for Chardonnay, e.g. melons, exotic fruits, overripe gooseberries or slightly underripe apples. Higher qualities are usually rich in alcohol and extract. They are wines of substance, with a long finish, and often vinified in Barrique casks.


In Germany, the Spätburgunder is to red wine what the Riesling is to white wine: the cream of the crop. Sensitive to climate and soil, it needs warmth (but not intense heat) to thrive and does well in chalky soils. As the name implies, it ripens late (spät) and it was brought to Germany from Burgundy, where it has probably been cultivated since at least the 4th century (first documented, however, in the 14th century). Called Pinot Noir in France, this grape produces elegant, velvety wines with a distinctive bouquet reminiscent of bitter almonds or blackberries. The traditional style of German Spätburgunder is lighter in color, body and tannic acidity than its counterparts from warmer climates. Many contemporary winemakers, however, are producing wines that are more international in style, i.e. fuller-bodied, deep red wines with higher tannin levels. Often the wines take on more depth and complexity (and a light vanilla tone) if they are aged in small oak casks.

Portugieser is a very old variety that probably originated in the Danube Valley (not Portugal). This prolific, early-ripening grape yields mild, light, easy-to-enjoy wines. A good portion of the annual crop is vinified as Weissherbst (rosé), yet even the red wines are fairly pale in color. While the Pfalz by far has the largest number of plantings, there is a considerable amount of Portugieser grown in Rheinhessen and it is the second most important variety in the Ahr.

A promising, and relatively new, red wine grape, Domina is a crossing of Portugieser and Spätburgunder that was bred at the Institute for Vine Breeding in Siebeldingen in the Pfalz. Like the Portugieser, it is a fairly prolific variety and does not require a particular type of soil or site. Domina ripens later than Portugieser but earlier than Spätburgunder. In 2001, there were 563 acres of Domina under vine - more than double the area a decade ago, most of which is planted in Franken. Although they seldom show the finesse of Spätburgunder, Domina wines are pleasant, full-bodied and deep in color.

Among new varieties, the Dornfelder shows great promise. A prolific, relatively early ripener, it produces wine far deeper in color than is typical of German reds. In fact, it was initially bred (1955, in Württemberg) to serve as a blending wine to improve the color of pale reds. Today it is prized on its own as a fragrant, full-bodied, complex wine with a fairly tannic acidity. The Dornfelder wines fermented and/or aged in oak casks (including Barriques), in particular, fetch high prices.

Gemany has come a long way with regard to its standing in the world as a class wine producing country. From its award winning Spätburgunder, to its most famous and well known Reisling, next time you are thinking wine, think German!

Auf Wiedersehen,


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