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German Wine Regions and History

Germany produces some fantastic wine and most of it is produced in the west along the river Rhine and its tributaries, however its reputation as a wine producing country is often misunderstood, rather narrowly perceived as a source of elegant and aromatic white wines by some, while others see it as a source of cheap, mass-market, semi-sweet wines.

Map of Germany
Map of Germany
Though, outside of Germany many are familiar with the aromatic, fruity and elegant wines made from the Riesling grape variety, the different wine regions of Germany produce wines from different grape varieties and styles—dry, semi-sweet and sweet white wines, rosé wines, red wines and sparkling wines, with the oldest plantations in these regions going back to the Roman era.

Brief History of German Wine

German wine history dates back to Ancient Roman times, from around 70 to 270 CE/AD in the ancient region known as Agri Decumates, which today is mostly the area in southwestern Germany. Agri Decumates were a region of the Roman Empire's provinces of Germania superior ("Magna Germania") and Raetia.

The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna
The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna
The reference to Agri Decumates is found in The Germania, written by the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus around 98 AD. In those days, the western parts of present Germany made up the outpost of the Roman empire against the Germanic tribes on the other side of Rhine.

Trier which is considered as Germany's oldest city, was a Roman garrison, situated on the banks of the river Mosel. It is believed that viticulture was brought to this area by the Romans who planted vineyards along the Mosel and the Rhine in order to have a local source of wine for their garrisons.

A reference to the vineyards along the Mosel can be found in the work of Roman poet Ausonius who wrote Mosella around 370 AD, describing steep vineyards on river Moselle.

et uirides Baccho colles et amoena fluenta
and the hills green with the grapes of Bacchus, and the lovely waters
subter labentis tacito rumore Mosellae.
of the Moselle flowing silently beneath.

Display of ancient vine trellising system from the Pfalz by Tomas er
Display of ancient vine trellising system from the Pfalz by Tomas er
The Roman-era German vineyards used viticulture practices from other parts of the Roman empire, as evidenced by Roman-style trellising systems commonly used until the 18th century in some parts of Germany, such as the Kammerbau in the Pfalz.

From Medieval Times to Today

In Medieval Germany, churches and monasteries played the most important role in viticulture, and especially in the production of quality wine. The era of Charlemagne help spread viticulture to Rheingau from the western side of Rhine, where it was primarily practiced.

Vineyard on the shores of Lake Constance by Andreas Praefcke
Vineyard on the shores of Lake Constance by Andreas Praefcke
The documentation for many grape varieties commonly associated with German wines dates back to the 14th or 15th century.

The first written information about the cultivation of Riesling dates back to 1435 around the Rheingau region when the storage inventory of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen, a member of the Holy Roman high nobility, lists the purchase of vines of 'Rieslingen'.

It is presumed that the Riesling originated somewhere in the valley of the Rhine, and recent DNA fingerprinting by Ferdinand Regner has identified, Gouais blanc as its ancestor, pollinated by a cross of a wild grape with Traminer, which has a long documented history in Germany. Gouais blanc is known to have been widely planted in central and northeastern France in Medieval times and is an ancestor of many traditional French and German grape varieties.

In comparison to the Riesling, Pinot Noir which is known as Spätburgunde (Late Burgundian) was grown in the area around Lake Constance much earlier, and is said to have been brought from Burgundy and grown in the south of Germany. It widely spread from the 15th century onward, thanks to Cistercian monasteries, and its first documented evidence in the Rheingau dates back to 1470.

Elbling which is a variety of white grape is considered to be the most cultivated variety in medieval Germany, and likely originated somewhere in the Rhine area.

Viticulture in Germany developed rapidly from 1000 to the 1500 mostly produced by the monasteries and churches as well as by the nobles and the bourgeois.

The Decline of Vineyards

Starting from the 16th century, viticulture and production of wine in Germany began to decline, particularly because of beer becoming a popular beverage in northern Germany and the result of the Thirty Years' War which was fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648, having started as a conflict between various Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmented Holy Roman Empire.

During the 1700s many laws were introduced in favor of the production of quality wines, by imposing on viticulturists the cultivation of specific grape species and in specific areas. This decreased the quantity of the vineyards but improved quality as unsuitable vineyards were abandoned and inferior grape varieties were replaced with Riesling. This was also the start of the period where more attention was paid to the level of ripeness of grapes and acidity, creating more refined wines.

Noble Rot Creates the Late Harvest Wine

An important event took place in 1775 at Schloss Johannisberg in Rheingau, most of the grapes in Johannisberg's Riesling-only vineyard had been affected by noble rot before the harvest began. Unexpectedly, this 'rotten vintage' produced a very good sweet wine, which was termed Spätlese, meaning late harvest. This led to the intentional creation of late harvest wines from grapes affected by noble rot.

The Formation of Cooperatives

In the early 1800s Napoleon took control of all the vineyards from the Church and divided and secularized them. The Napoleonic inheritance laws in Germany broke up the parcels of vineyards further, leading to the establishment of many cooperatives.

The Influence of the World Wars

The first half of the twentieth century was a period of serious crisis for German viticulture, mainly because of the two world wars.

Post-war, German wine lost its reputation due to the production of large quantities of sweet blended wines such as Liebfraumilch, which used grapes of inferior quality. This was also driven by the period of post-war austerity when many people could not afford to drink expensive wine.

The 1971 Wine Classification System

Between 1970 and 1990, German viticulture underwent a considerable development, as new quality control laws and a classification system were introduced.

The 1971 Classification system was driven by the relatively cool climate for growing grapes in Germany, and it introduced a hierarchy known as the Prädikat scale that was based on the sugar level of the grapes at harvest, as a more important indicator of quality in the finished product. In essence, the sugar level in the grape at harvest determines the alcohol level or sweetness of the wine.

The 1971 classification is broken down into two major quality categories: Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein.

Qualitätswein

Qualitätswein must come from one of Germany’s thirteen official growing regions. It is a very common quality level and represents what is typically purchased at a local store and drank in most households.

The grapes are usually not at a very high level of ripeness, so chaptalization is allowed, which means sugar may be added to the unfermented grape juice in order to increase the alcohol content after fermentation.

Prädikatswein

Prädikatswein which means 'quality wine with distinction' does not allow any additives or chaptalization and must be approved by German wine authorities.

The scale for Prädikatswein is based on six ascending degrees of ripeness or sugar level of the grapes at harvest: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese.

Kabinett - light, refreshing wines, ideal aperitifs.

Spätlese - literally means 'late harvest', riper than Kabinett. Can be dry, medium-dry or sweeter style.

Auslese - made from riper grapes, sometimes botrytized. Intense aroma and flavor.

Beerenauslese - made from individually selected grapes that are very ripe. Rich, sweet dessert wines.

Eiswein - wines from grapes high in sugar and acidity, concentrated by being frozen on the vine.

Trockenbeerenauslese - made from individually selected grapes that are overripe and dried up on the vine almost to raisins. Very sweet, honey-like and expensive.

Wine Regions of Germany

The wine regions in Germany are subdivided into 4 different categories: Anbaugebiet (a major wine region), Bereich (a district within the wine region), Großlage (a collection of vineyards within a district) and Einzellage (a single vineyard).

There are 13 major wine regions in Germany and most of them are located in the western part of the country—Ahr, Baden, Franconia, Hessische Bergstraße, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Saale-Unstrut, Saxony, and Württemberg.

Each of these wine regions has its own history, and their collective histories make up the history of German wine.

In this article we explore the main grape varieties and interesting historical facts of five major wine regions of Germany:

Baden

Baden wine region located in the southwestern part of Germany is warm, sunny, and dry. It is located across the river Rhine from Alsace and most of its vineyards lie in a narrow strip between the Black Forest and the Rhine valley.

The best of its wine is excellent but scattered in very small areas and consumed locally that the outside world rarely gets to know about it.

Vineyards in Ortenau, Baden by Peter buck
Vineyards in Ortenau, Baden by Peter Buck
Interesting Facts
  • The region has a long history of making wine, dating back to Roman times, and the wine growing tradition continued by the monks.
  • Baden is Germany's third largest wine region, but is much less known internationally in comparison to the neighboring French region of Alsace.
  • Baden is Germany's longest wine region, approximately 250 miles (400 km) and reaching from the border of Franken in the north to Lake Constance in the south.

The main red grape variety planted in the Baden region is Pinot Noir (Spätburgunde). The white grape varieties include Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) and Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder).

Riesling plays a smaller role than in most other regions, although it is more common around some villages.

Mosel

The Mosel wine region is located near Germany's western border and takes its name from the Mosel River. It is the most famous of all German wine regions known for its wines made from the Riesling grape.

The Riesling wines from this region are often light, having lower alcohol, crisp, aromatic and high in acidity. Additionally, many of the vineyards in this region have soils with various kinds of slate deposits, that tend to give the wines a mineral flavor and complexity.

Vineyard near the Mosel River by Friedrich Petersdorff
Vineyard near the Mosel River by Friedrich Petersdorff
Interesting Facts
  • The Mosel is considered to be Germany's oldest wine growing region with viticulture dating back to Roman times.
  • Viticulture was flourishing in the area by the 4th century when the Roman poet Ausonius wrote a poem about the beauty of the land and the steep vineyards on Mosel.
  • The steep river bank slopes that are scattered around the Mosel region are considered some of the most labor-intensive vineyards in the world.

The main red grape variety planted in the Mosel region is Pinot Noir (Spätburgunde). The white grape varieties include Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, and Elbling.

The Mosel is also well known for its Ice wine (Eiswein) production with the area's characteristic high acidity balancing the sweetness produced by the concentration of the sugars in the frozen grapes.

Pfalz

The Pfalz (Palatinate) wine region is located in southwest Germany and is the southernmost area in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz. The region is the second largest wine region in Germany after Rheinhessen.

It is one of the warmest, sunniest and driest of German wine regions and many of the vineyards are planted on a mixture of sandstone and volcanic soil. The warm temperature means the style of Riesling here is less acidic, and fruitier and more often than not dry rather than sweet.

Vineyard Kastanienbusch in Birkweiler by F. Wehrheim
Vineyard Kastanienbusch in Birkweiler by F. Wehrheim
Interesting Facts
  • Viticulture in the Pfalz dates back to Roman times. Several Roman countryside villas (villa rusticae) were found in the Pfalz region near Wachenheim and Ungstein.
  • The word Pfalz is a derivation of the Latin word palatium, meaning palace.
  • In this region, wine is also mixed with sparkling water to make up a popular refreshing drink called Schorle, a term that also describes juice, mixed with water.

The main red grape varieties planted in the Pfalz region are Pinot Noir (Spätburgunde) and Dornfelder. The white grape varieties include Riesling and Müller-Thurgau.

Rheingau

The Rheingau wine region is located in west-central Germany less than half an hour from Frankfurt. The region is one of the smallest, and yet one of the most important and historical wine region in Germany. The greater part of the Rheingau is situated on the right bank of the Rhine River.

Many of of the Rheingau's vineyards are on south-facing slope between mountains and rivers, which provides excellent wine-growing conditions. Along with the Mosel region, it is one of the best Riesling producing wine regions in the world.

Schloss Johannisberg, Rheingau
Schloss Johannisberg, Rheingau
Interesting Facts
  • The Rheingau region has the oldest documented references to Riesling. It is also the region where the German form of noble rot was discovered by accident.
  • Many German wine making practices have originated in this region, such as the use of Prädikat (ripeness level) designation.
  • The region is home to many wine producers of international reputation, such as Schloss Johannisberg and Marcobrunn.

The main red grape variety planted in the Rheingau region is Pinot Noir (Spätburgunde). The white grape varieties include Riesling and Müller-Thurgau.

Rheinhessen

Rheinhessen wine region is located in the western part of Germany and lies on the left bank of the Rhine between Worms and Bingen in the federal state of Rheinland-Pfalz. It is the largest viticulture region in Germany and the city of Mainz, which hosts a great annual wine fair, is its main center of activity.

In general the wines are best nearest the Rhine, where the soils impart more complex flavors. The best known area for white wines is the so-called Rhine Terrace between Oppenheim and Nackenheim.

A part of the Rhine Terrace, between Nackenheim and Nierstein is known as the Red Slope (Roter Hang) because of the presence of a mixture of iron and clayish slate, which is rich in minerals.

Vineyard in Nierstein, Rheinhessen by R. Dautermann
Vineyard in Nierstein, Rheinhessen by R. Dautermann
Interesting Facts
  • Grapes have been grown in this region since Roman times, and viticulture was promoted by Charlemagne.
  • Liebfrauenmilch is named after the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in the city of Worms, about 28 miles south of Mainz.
  • Rheinhessen with its hundreds of hills and land covered with vineyards, orchards and other forms of farming is also called 'land of the thousand hills'.

The main red grape variety planted in the Rheinhessen region is Dornfelder. The white grape varieties include Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, and Silvaner.


References

Die Mosella by Decimus Magnus Ausonius

The World Atlas of Wine

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