German Wine: Purity and Elegance: A Regional Tour

Liebfraumilch and Hock, Blue Nun and Black Tower… it’s fair to say that mass market, bulk wines have done the German wine industry’s image no favours over the last 40 years. With a vinous history stretching back to Roman times it’s a shame that so much damage was caused over such a short period.

The History of German Wine

In the late 19th Century the great wines of the Mosel were held in high regard with prices exceeded those of the great First Growths of Bordeaux. The seeds of decline were sown with the rise of industrial scale production in the years following the Second World War, compounded further by German Laws, introduced in 1971, which classified quality according to the ripeness of grapes as measured by their sugar levels. Consequently, the focus shifted to early ripening, high yielding varieties such as Müller-Thurgau at the expense of the noble, but somewhat unpredictable, Riesling.

It’s beyond themass market where the true identity of the best German wines lies, here Riesling is king. Indeed, almost 60% of the world’s Riesling vines have their roots in German soils, but it’s not all white wine – it may surprise many to learn that Germany has the 3rd highest amount of Pinot Noir plantings in the world (known here as Spätburgunder).

Understanding the terroir of Germany

Germany’s wine-lands lie to the southwest of the country, due to its northerly latitude these are often located in river valleys – where the combined climatic benefits of a southerly facing slope and proximity to a body of water provide favourable conditions for the ripening of grapes in what is a marginal climate, although in recent years there is evidence to suggest that climate change has helped somewhat. Most wines were traditionally fermented with a varying degree of residual sweetness – from Kabinett (off-dry) though Spätlese (late harvest) to Auslese and Beerenauslese (select harvest, typically very sweet). However, changing tastes in recent years have seen more producers fermenting to full dryness with the best wines coming from so-called Grosses-Gewachs (literally great growths).

Grosses-Gewacas are typically steeply sloping vineyards, where the vines’ exposure to the sun is maximised by the angle. The precipitous nature of these vineyards makes them somewhat labour intensive to manage as mechanisation is often impossible. A vineyard such as Ürziger-Würzgarten in the Mosel takes around 10 times more working hours per year than an equivalent sized vineyard in the flatter region of Pfalz further south.

What sets German Riesling apart from those produced elsewhere in the world is its purity and elegance, partly a result the cool climate and long growing season, but few varietals reflect their origin as faithfully as Riesling and what makes the top examples from Germany special is the soil (or rock) in which it’s grown.

In the Mosel, growers such as Dr Loosen produce elegant and mineral driven wines from blue slate soils around Wehlen and fuller, more expressively aromatic wines from the red slate soils found near Ürzig.

A little further South lies the Nähe – where producers such as Donnhöff craft exquisite Riesling from a complex mix of grey slate, red sandstone, quartzite and loam soils – each lending a distinct character to the wines and ultimate proof of the notion of terroir.

To the East the tranquil river Nähe flows into the mighty Rhein where we find the powerhouses of the Rheinhessen and Rheingau, here top names such as Johannes Leitz have mastered the precipitous south-facing slopes to produce Riesling of unrivalled depth and exceptional finesse from a range of red slate, sandstone, quartz and grey slate soils.

Travel further south and you’ll come across Baden and Franken, here the focus shifts to mastery of the capricious Spätburgunder. As great Riesling is demonstrative of its origin, in the right place and the right hands so too is Pinot Noir. There are few producers that demonstrate the cerebral heights of Spätburgunder better than Weingut Rudolf Fürst, tending small parcels of vines planted on south / south-west facing slopes with a combination of iron-rich sandstone and loam soils. The Fürst family trace their winemaking history in Frankonia back to the 17th Century, now headed by father and son team Paul and Sebastian – these aren’t just some of Germany’s best Pinot Noirs – they’re arguably some of the best in the world.

Published on 06/08/2015 / By Will Hepworth