Popular German Wine Styles

As a wine-producing country, Germany has a mixed reputation internationally, with some consumers in the export markets associating Germany with the world’s most elegant and aromatically pure white wines. In contrast, others see the country mainly as the source of cheap, mass-market semi-sweet wines, such as Liebfraumilch.[1]

Germany produces wines in several different styles[2], including dry, semi-sweet, sweet white wines, rosé wines, red wines, and sparkling wines called Sekt (The style commonly used to produce is fortified wine). Due to the geography of the German Vineyards in the northern location, this country has produced several high-quality wines unique to the region and not found elsewhere in Europe. Between the 1950s and 1980s, German wine was internationally considered cheap, sweet, or semi-sweet, with low-quality mass-produced wines like Liebfraumilch.

Historically, German wines have predominantly been white, and the finest are made from Riesling. Many are sweet, light, and unoaked with low concentrations of alcohol. Historically many of the wines, except the late harvest wines, were probably dry because the techniques to stop fermentation did not exist at the time. Recently more German white wine has been made in the dry style again. Much of the wine sold in Germany is primarily dry, especially in restaurants. However, most exports are still of sweet wines, particularly to the traditional export markets such as the United StatesNetherlands, and Great Britain, which are the leading export markets in volume and value. [3]

Red wine has always been hard to produce in the German climate, and in the past, it was usually light-colored, closer to rosé(or the red wines) of Alsace. Pinot Noir, Dornfelder, and Portugieser are prominent among the red wines. However, in response to dramatically increased demand, darker, richer red wines have been produced from grapes such as Dornfelder and Spätburgunder, the German name for Pinot noir.[4]

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of German wines is their high acidity, both due to reduced ripeness in a northern climate and by the selection of grapes such as Riesling, which has the property to retain acidity even at high ripeness levels.

Many customers are familiar with the aromatic, full, and elegant wines from the Riesling grape variety outside Germany. However, different wine regions of Germany produce wines from different grape varieties and styles dry, semi-sweet, and sweet white wines, rose wines, red wines, and sparkling wines, with the oldest plantations in these regions dating back to the Roman Era. The cultural roots of wine production and consumption in Germany go back to the Roman Empire [5] [6]

History Of German Wine

The history of German wine mainly comprises two eras, including the Early and the Modern eras (From Medieval times to today).

Early Era of German Wine German wine history dates to Ancient Roman times, from around 70 to 270 CE/AD, in an ancient region known as Agri Decumates, which today is primarily the area in southwestern Germany. Agri Decumates was a region of the Roman Empire provinces of Germania superior “(“Magna Germania””) and Raetia.

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

German Wine, History of German Wine

Trier, considered the Oldest City in Germany, was a Roman garrison 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 to get a local source of wine for their garrisons.

In those days, the outpost of the Roman empire included the western parts of today’s Germany against the Germanic tribes on the other side of the Rhine.

Did you know? Emperor  Probus, whose rule dates two centuries after these knives, is generally considered the father of German viticulture. 

Still, for more solid documentation of winemaking on the soil of Germany, we must go back to around 370 AD, when Ausoniusof Bordeaux wrote Mosella, where he, in enthusiastic terms, described the steep vineyards on the river Moselle.[7]

Some 2,000 years ago, the Romans, who adopted viticulture from the Greeks and Etruscans, introduced viticulture to the Germanic land. Transporting the wine across the Alps in heavy amphorae would have been cumbersome, so they brought them instead and planted them in the right conditions and suitable areas. Even then, these “Nordic” wines were seemingly fresher and more divergent in taste than their predecessors of the south.

In the 8th century, Charlemagne regulated viticulture, winemaking, and wine-related commerce. Above all, the monasteries were centers of wine culture, and wine was the predominant drink, replacing the frequently polluted drinking water. Documents show that vineyards existed in nearly Germany during the Middle Ages. However, due to climate changes, improved methods of brewing beer, and increased imports of wine, the area under vine continually shrunk after 1500

The wild vine, the ancestor of the cultivated Vitis vinifera, is known to have grown on the upper Rhine in historical times. It is possible that Roman-era German viticulture was established using local varieties. Many viticultural practices were adopted from other parts of the Roman empire, as evident by Roman-style trellising systems surviving into the 18th century in some parts of Germany, such as the Kammertbau in the Palatinate.[8]

Almost nothing is known about the style or quality of “German” wines produced in the Roman Era, except that the poet Venantius Fortunatus mentions German red wine around AD 570.

Modern Era (From Medieval times to today)

Before the Era of Charlemagne, Germanic viticulture was practiced primarily, although not exclusively, on the western side of the Rhine. Charlemagne is supposed to have brought viticulture to Rheingau. The eastward spread of viticulture coincided with Christianity, which Charlemagne supported. Thus, churches and monasteries played the most critical roles in viticulture in Medieval Germany, especially in producing quality wine. Two Rheingau examples illustrate this; archbishop Ruthard of Mainz(reigning 1089–1109) founded a Benedictine abbey on slopes above Geisenheim, the ground of which later became Schloss Johannisberg. His successor, Adalbert of Mainz, donated land above Hattenheim in 1135 to Cistercians, sent out from Clairvaux in Champagne, who founded Kloster Eberbach.[9]

Many grape varieties commonly associated with German wines are documented in the 14th or 15th. Riesling has been documented from 1435 (close to Rheingau), and Pinot noir from 1318 on Lake Constanceunder the name Klebroth, from 1335 in Affenthal in Baden, and from 1470 in Rheingau, where the monks kept a Clebroit-Wyngart in Hattenheim.[10] [11] The most grown variety in medieval Germany was Elbling, with Silvaner also being shared and MuscatRäuschling, and Traminer also being recorded.[12]

While Germans are renowned for their beer-brewing techniques, the foamy beverage ranked well behind wine until about 1500. At that time, German farmers started cultivating land formerly used for winemaking instead of food crops. The decline in the production of wine made beer more popular, and by the end of the 16th century, beer, rather than wine, was the everyday staple. Centuries later, this still reigns proved true in Germany and here in America.

For several centuries of the Medieval Era, the vineyards of Germany, including Alsace, enlarged and are believed to have reached their greatest extent sometime around 1500, when perhaps as much as four times the present vineyard surface was planted. The locations of the wine regions remain the same to this day, but lands around the rivers, and further upstream of Rhine’s tributaries, were cultivated. The afterward decline can be attributed to locally produced beer becoming the everyday beverage in northern Germany in the 16th century, leading to a partial loss of the wine market. Additionally, the Thirty Years’ War ravaging Germany in the 17th century, the dissolution of the monasteries, where much of the winemaking know-how was concentrated, in those areas that accepted the Protestant Reformation, and the climatic changes of the Little Ice Age made viticulture difficult or impossible in marginal areas.[5]

A significant event occurred in 1775 at Schloss Johannisbergin Rheingau when the courier delivering the harvest permission was delayed for two weeks, with the result that most of the grapes in Johannisberg’s Riesling-only vineyard were affected by noble rot before the harvest began. Unexpectedly, these “rotten grapes” gave a delicious sweet wine called Spätlese, meaning late harvest. Early harvest wines from grapes affected by noble rot have been intentionally produced since then. The subsequent differentiation of wines based on harvested ripeness, starting with Auslese in 1787, laid the ground for the Prädikat. These laws, introduced in 1971, define the designations still used today.

At one point, the Church controlled most of the foremost vineyards in Germany. Quality instead of quantity becomes important and spreads quickly down the river Rhine. In the 1800s, Napoleon took over all the vineyards from the Church, including the best, and divided and secularized. Since then, the Napoleonic inheritance laws in Germany further broke up the vineyards’ parcels, leading to the establishment of many cooperatives. However, many notable and world-famous wineries in Germany have managed to acquire or hold enough land to produce wine for domestic consumption and export purposes.

Many vineyards were still planted with several grape varieties side by side as late as the 19th century. This practice reached a standstill at the end of the 1800s when the vine louse phylloxera wreaked havoc on ‘Europe’s vineyards. As a result, wide native and original grape varieties disappeared. Viticulture was revived at the turn of the century with the introduction of grafting vines on phylloxera-resistant—American rootstocks – a practice later made mandatory. Vine breeding and selection led to the standard grape varieties predominant in modern German viticulture.

This know-how has become an export hit similar to the wines themselves and influences wine countries in South Africa, Australia, California, and Chile. Innovation is a thing specific to German wines. That may sound a bit theoretical or even technical, but without this ability, there would be no beautiful delights like Dornfelder or Kerner. Both varieties were only grown in 1955 and 1929, respectively, and have long since fought for a place alongside grape varieties, such as Riesling or Pinot Noir.

Unfortunately, the 20th century was devastating for the German wine industry. The economic crisis, wars, and diseases had destructive consequences on the wine industry. On top of it, a series of confusing laws were introduced in the ’70s. These laws further weakened the already declining winemaking industry. Quality standards were at their lowest stage, and Germany began exporting strictly sweet and inexpensive wine.

German Wine in Recent times

Much has changed in recent times. Germany still produces inexpensive wines but has also introduced many new premium wines. New, modern, and progressive wine labeling laws were introduced that proved advantageous to the German winemaking industry. But the overall impression is room for further work to boost the wine industry. The winemakers primarily focus on producing drier wines, about 70% of the whole production. Germany produces some exceptional fizzing and foaming wines as well. They are the ‘world’s largest consumers of foaming wines per person.

Nowadays, almost 100 varieties of grapes are produced in Germany. But Muller-Thurgau and Riesling make up more than 40% of all varieties. Spatburgurnder, also called Pinot Noir, is a common red variety in Germany. The Germans also love their Pinot varieties like Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. Germany is the new figurehead for producing extraordinary and uncommon Pinot Noir.

Germany holds more than 60% of the Whole Riesling market worldwide. Their Riesling vineyards make the most extensive Riesling growing area worldwide. At the same time, the demand for German Riesling is insurmountable. Much of that demand is related to a shift in quality-oriented consumption patterns. German Riesling is banking big on that, and current projects will keep doing that in the foreseeable future.

Many German wines are highly regarded by wine critics from all over the world. They are praised for their intensely complex sweetness, food-friendliness, and so on. Many of their white wines have received several international awards for their quality. Red wines are getting better and better, but a big challenge of ripeness remains.

All in all, German wines provide extraordinary value compared to other premium wines from different parts of the world. As an additional value, wine tasting in Germany can be quite an experience. A couple of beautiful vineyards featuring many historical buildings are worth the trip. Any wine devotee can take great happiness in touring the wine regions of Germany.

German Wine Production

Germany is the leading global Riesling producer, possessing nearly half of the Riesling vineyards worldwide, and is third in Pinot Noir planting [13]. Within the European Union, Germany has the youngest vineyards [14]. Additionally, German cultivation exceeds 140 different grapevine varietals [15].

Germany reports almost 45,000 winegrowers, with 40% of that population stating wine as their primary income source [16]. The industry experienced a drastic reduction in producers. Since the 1980s, more than half of the suppliers have vanished.

A significant decrease in producers, but a constant vineyard area, increased the size of the remaining wine estates. The larger size allows for the exploitation of economies of scale, increasing profitability [17].

In a pan-European comparison, German wine growers are leaders in productivity and profitability, despite the small size of the businesses [18]. Indeed, our surveys observed a constant performance increase across all success dimensions from 2012 to 2016. Still, there is room and a need for improvement to increase profitability for many German winegrowers and adequately compensate for family-member employment [19], imputed interests, and imputed entrepreneurial profit [20] [21] [22] [23]. The wine ‘estates’ ambition to further increase the market size and profitability is jeopardized as agricultural land prices more than doubled within the last 13 years [24].

More resource: Everything You Need To Know About Mosel Wine Region

Want to read more? Try these books!

German Wine, History of German WineGerman Wine, History of German Wine

References

  1. ^Andrew Ellson, Roll out the riesling, German wines are making a comeback, in The Times dated 9 December 2019
  2. ^Jason Wilson, How German Wine Found Its Sweet Spot, in The Washington Post dated 5 September 2019
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