German - Wines
It used to be said that German wines were unique, and the lightest in the world. The claim remains true in those parts where the climate sets the pattern for wines with an intense, fruity aroma, long flavour and refreshing but not sharp acidity. Rieslings from the Mosel producer Dr. Loosen, or from von Hovel and the Rautenstrauch Karthäuserhof estate in the Saar and Ruwer valleys are classic examples of the breed. They are unique because their delicacy and style, common to good wines from the northern German regions, cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Their quality depends on the local climate and the skill of the winemakers in guiding the transformation of sometimes relatively sour grapes into wines of distinction.
Moving south to the Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Rheinpfalz the summers become progressively warmer and the wines gain in alcohol. In the Rheinpfalz, the Burgunder (or Pinot family) grapes on estates such as Lingenfelder and Knipser can develop as much as 13.5 percent alcohol or more. Tannic, dark red wines for which no chaptalization was necessary are much less rare than they were in the mid-1980s, but the German wine most popular abroad remains white, light and medium-sweet. For millions Liebfraumilch is the archetypal German wine.
As far as the outside world was concerned, German wines used to be either Hock or Moselle. These days, however, there is more emphasis on the regions of origin. The regional name gives a broad indication of the likely style of wine but says nothing about its true quality. The law judges matters in a way of its own and as a result some 95 percent of German wine is classified in accordance with European Community regulations as "quality wine."
The first quality assessment is made at the harvest. It is based on the sugar content of the grape juice, or must weight, measured on a scale devised by Ferdinand Oechsle, a particularly inventive early nineteenth-century scientist and notable amateur musician from Württemberg. The minimum legal levels of must weight can vary according to the grape variety and the region, with Baden in the southwest requiring higher levels than other regions. This does not necessarily imply that Baden wine is the best, but in its middle-priced versions it does sometimes have more substance than those from further north.
The grapes in a German vineyard rarely ripen in unison and so in the last century it became the practice to gather the harvest over several weeks. Grapes picked at different times are vinified and bottled separately. The result is a range of officially recognized categories of wine based on factors such as the date of the harvest, the sugar content of the grapes, or the way in which they were gathered. Usually over half the German vintage is classified as simple Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (Q.b.A.), meaning "quality wine from a specified region," with almost all the rest being Qualitätswein mit Prädikat or Q.m.P., meaning "quality wine with distinction." The first of these "distinctions" is Kabinett and here the description of "the lightest white wine in the world" is often legitimate -- particularly in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. A medium sweet Kabinett wine from the Mosel may have less than eight percent of actual alcohol, but if it is well made it will not taste thin or too insubstantial. The alcohol content of a Q.m.P. cannot be increased by adding sugar to the fermenting must, which shows how German thinking on cellar procedure varies from that of Burgundy or Bordeaux, where such "enrichment" is a regular practice at all levels of quality. The producers of the cheapest German wines consider the minimum legal must weights as sufficient, but good estates with different aims set their own, much higher, analytical standards. It is therefore possible (though unusual) to find a producer such as Klostergut St. Lamprecht in the Rheinpfalz offering Kabinett wine with over twelve percent alcohol. Perhaps it would assist the consumer if the Germans set maximum as well as minimum levels of must weight for each quality category, as happens in certain instances in Austria.
The higher categories of Q.m.P. should not be cheap and if a late picked or Spätlese wine is offered at a low price it is unlikely to be a bargain. Many of the best modern, drier German wines are gathered late in the season which gives them sufficient alcohol to balance their relatively high acidity and lack of residual sugar. If the Germans preferred their wines in the 1960s to taste sweet, a noticeable acidity seems to be a common attraction in the 1990s. What constitutes harmony in wine is open to debate and a matter of personal opinion, but excessively high or low levels of acid are not welcomed by the international wine trade.
The fruity-tasting tartaric acid that comes from a slow ripening of the grapes is the backbone of all good German wine. Its flavor and feel are quite different from that of the sharp and short-tasting malic acid of any early gathered grape in a hot climate. Even so, it can be too strong if it is not matched by a little sweetness, and that is why the amount of bone dry wine produced in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer is proportionately less than that from further south in Germany.
If the name of a region suggests wine of a particular style and flavor, the grape variety, the presence or otherwise of the words trocken or halbtrocken (dry or medium-dry), and finally the official quality category, lead to a specific type of wine. Searching for top quality is an exercise in which the name of the producer is one's best guide. A lesser wine from a good estate is much more interesting than a wine of legally superior quality from an indifferent bottler. In truth, the official control system to which all Q.b.A. and Q.m.P. wines are subject in Germany is concerned more with the elimination of faulty or uncharacteristic wines rather than with what is generally understood by the word quality. This may be a weakness but it is nevertheless the only nationwide attempt in the European Community to maintain a standard of quality wine by tasting every bottling.
Riesling produces its most distinguished and complex wines in the northern German regions, where it can be successful at all quality levels. To produce wine in the Auslese category in the Rhine, it almost always needs the concentrating effect of noble rot, thus limiting the amount that can be produced and the frequency with which it can be harvested. The yield from Riesling Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese grapes is tiny, and the rain-free but humid conditions in the fall necessary for their production seldom occur more than twice in a decade. By pressing frozen, ripe grapes that have been harvested at -8°C/17°F or thereabouts (artificial refrigeration or cryoextraction, currently being tested in France, is not allowed in Germany), the sugar content of the must can be increased by 40 percent or more. The result, Eiswein, can be marvelous, as the State Cellars at Eltville in the Rheingau and the Mosel estate of Max Ferd. Richter frequently demonstrate. Like Beerenauslese, Eiswein is immensely sweet, and its concentrated acidity will keep it fresh for years, but it lacks the complexity and honeyed flavor of a top-quality Beerenauslese. The preference for drier wines that developed in Germany in the mid-1970s has meant that on some estates even the sweeter, richer wines are now more alcoholic and drier than they were. To this extent, Beerenauslese from the Rheinpfalz and Sauternes have drawn closer together in style.
Many of the innovative producers who are still in their thirties or forties received a more extensive formal education in winemaking than their fathers. They are scattered throughout Germany, often and excitingly in areas not well known for interesting wines. In the southern part of the Rheinpfalz, for example, growers such as Siegrist, Rebholz, Dr. Wehrheim and others have built a reputation for concentrated, serious wines from low yields. Where appropriate, they use the popular techniques of fermenting and aging in new 225 liter/59.4 U.S. gallon casks (barriques), particularly for wines from the Burgunder vine varieties. In internationally famous wine regions it may be less easy to attract attention, as the competition is already so strong. In spite of this, the new-style Rheingau wines of Becker of Walluf, and Kesseler of Assmannshausen, rightly bring them much publicity.
The range of German wines is starting to be more comprehensible, but there are so many names under which it can be sold that few become familiar. As always, there are complaints about the effects of the wine laws, but price lists can be simplified without a change in legislation, as the various Wegeler-Deinhard estates, and Gunderloch in the Rheinhessen have shown. The pricing of some of the newer, interesting red wines ignores the competition on the international market, but they have an enthusiastic following in Germany and, if anything, demand exceeds supply.
Some cooperative cellars, particularly in Baden and in the Rheinpfalz, appear to be settling down to producing the sound, fairly priced white wines that attract export customers. The marketing pretensions of others lead them to Italian-designed bottles and innovative artist's labels; neither of these devices suggests much pride in the geographical origin of the wine. The value of these new creations may well decline if their present rate of appearance continues, and once again price-cutting will doubtless be seen as a way out of a difficulty. Those large merchants who follow a policy of "anything you can do, I can do cheaper" do nothing for the reputation and health of the German wine industry. The successful new selling initiatives in the future will be those that take an improved quality of wine as their starting point. In the meantime, skilled and committed estate owners or administrators are becoming better known and understand that a carefully thought out marketing plan is essential to their future business. There have been no bad vintages in recent years, with the trio of 1988, 1989 and 1990 showing an almost unparalleled run of high quality. In spite of difficulties, good German wine looks in better shape than it has for many years -- even if much of it is still relatively unknown abroad.
The area under vine in Germany of roughly 100,000 hectares/250,000 acres is about a tenth of that in France or Italy. As throughout Europe, the average vineyard holding per grower is small, and viticulture is mainly a part-time occupation. In the 1980s yields averaged 104 hectoliters of must per hectare/6.1 tons per acre. They were at their highest in the Mosel -Saar-Ruwer region (120 hectoliters per hectare/7 tons per acre) and at their lowest in the Rheingau and the Ahr valley (81 hectoliters per hectare/4.8 tons per acre). On top estates the yield would be about 30 percent less than that of the regional figure. The average price of quality wine was at its highest in the Ahr valley, the Rheingau, and Franken, and at its cheapest in the Rheinpfalz. Over a quarter of German wine is exported, of which nearly 60 percent is sold in the United Kingdom.
Germany's most widely known wine region follows the Mosel from the French border to its confluence with the Rhine at Koblenz. At its upper end the vineyards of the Saar and Ruwer valleys can produce superb Riesling wines. Even more than those of the Bereich or district of Bernkastel in the central section of the river, Saar wines have strong acidity, an easy-to-recognize flavor from the soil and a powerful aroma. Their attraction is obvious and much appreciated by the Dutch and other visitors who drive to the district to buy wine directly from the producer.
The large estates based on Trier -- the Bischöfliche Weinguter, von Kesselstatt, the Vereinigte Hospitien and the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium -- own vineyards on the Saar as well as in the better-known villages of the Bereich Bernkastel. The best-known producer, resident in the Saar, is Egon Müller with a holding in the finest part of the Scharzhöfberg vineyard, but it is invidious to highlight one estate when others, such as Forstmeister Geltz of Saarburg or Fischer of Ockfen, can also claim attention.
All the best wines of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer are Rieslings from steep, slate-covered vineyards, which may all look very much alike but yet produce wines with many variations of structure and flavor within a common style. Quality in this northern region can vary greatly from year to year with the local climate having a strong influence. A good winemaker aims to retain the individuality of each wine, while the cheaper products of large bottling establishments have a more generalized and less subtle style. The Müller-Thurgau vine and some more recent crossings of Vitis vinifera are the main source of ordinary Mosel but above Trier in the Obermosel, agreeably rustic wine has for centuries been made from Elbling.
Full, classy and long in flavor describes the best wines of Piesport. The Braunebergers of Fritz Haag are exquisitely delicate, a good Bernkasteler Riesling is firm and solid, and Wehlen is internationally known for the wines of J.J. Prüm from the better part of the Sonnenuhr vineyard. The good wines from each village have a constant style which can easily be lost by heavy handling. A blemish in light Mosel without excessive sweetness is obvious, as the wine does not have the robustness that comes from a high alcohol content.
Downstream Mosel, more correctly known as the Bereich Zell, is at last starting to achieve some of the recognition it deserves, thanks to the high standards of a few estates and an association of growers calling themselves the Erzeugergemeinschaft Deutsches Eck. Their Riesling wines from low-yielding vines are steely in flavor and have the body of a Rhine wine rather than the delicacy of a Mosel. As yet few are exported.
"There are no bad vintages in the Rheingau -- only wines that take longer to mature." The administrator of the Schloss Schönborn estate, Robert Englert, could have been speaking for all good wine producers in Germany. Successful wines in off-vintages can be a delight after aging has overcome the handicaps of their year of birth, and Rheingau Rieslings do need time to develop in bottle. The home market is more attracted by the latest vintage, but as good wine takes time to move through the channels of trade on the export market, mature bottlings are often obtainable abroad.
Anyone whose experience of Riesling is limited to wines from hot climates may wonder if the praise of Rheingau Riesling is exaggerated, but it is not. At its best, the balance can make it one of the very few great white wines of the world.
The Rheingau has a higher proportion of top-quality estates in relation to its size (a modest 2,904 hectares/7,260 acres) than any other region in Germany. They begin with Weingut Graf von Kanitz at Lorch and follow the Rhine to Walluf, to appear once more at Hochheim on the Main. Traveling upstream, the vineyards leave the Rhine gorge near Rüdesheim and gently climb to the edge of the Rheingauer Wald. The climate is dry, the soil varied, with the difference in the height of a vineyard and its distance from the Rhine often determining the type of wine produced.
Rheingau vineyards have been reconstructed and modernized in recent years, and the process still continues. If soil and microclimate permit, Riesling is planted, usually with a variety of clones from the vine-breeding institute at Geisenheim.
Although Riesling is famous for its sweeter wines, many Rheingaus today taste dry -- although, analytically and officially, they may be medium-dry. Wines of this sort are most easily found from estates such as Schloss Vollrads which are members of the Charta association. Their bottles and capsules are embossed with a Romanesque double arch.
The red vine varieties reached the Rheinland before the white, and since the eighteenth century Assmannshausen in the Rheingau has been known for its Spätburgunder (or Pinot Noir). It is now enjoying the Germans' recent interest in their own red wine as an accompaniment to food, which has led to Spätburgunder being planted on many Rheingau estates as a supplement to Riesling.
The Rheinhessen is best known abroad as a source of cheap, medium-sweet white wine, sold under the names Niersteiner Gutes Domtal, Oppenheimer Krötenbrunnen and Liebfraumilch. Much is bottled by merchants outside the region and is sold particularly successfully in the United Kingdom. But there is another side to Germany's largest wine region, represented by the vineyards that climb away from the west bank of the Rhine between Bodenheim and Mettenheim. This area, known as the Rheinterrasse, amounts to about 14 percent of the whole of the region.
High-quality wine has also been made for centuries by a handful of producers further north at Ingelheim and Bingen. Often, as the vineyards of the Rheinterrasse are improved or rebuilt, Riesling is replacing other vine varieties. A dry Rheinhessen Riesling is firm, fresh and sometimes has an attractive taste of the soil. Late-picked versions from good estates in Nierstein, Oppenheim or Nackenheim sell well in Germany. In the search for characterful, good-quality Rheinhessen wine, the name of the bottler is particularly important.
Silvaner has long been associated with the region of Rheinhessen but today's dry wine from low-yielding vineyards is quite unlike some of the soft, oxidized wines of twenty years ago. Good examples of Rheinhessen Silvaner from a number of producers can be found under the admirably simple name of R.S.
The Pfalz, to use the shortened name, offers a wider range of top-quality wine than any other region in Germany -- as well as much that is ordinary and rightly cheap. In the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and the Rheingau, all the best white wines are from Riesling, and the Pfalz also has its stunning examples. They are fresher and have more acidity than was the case fifteen years ago and to this extent some resemble wines from the northern regions. Besides the Rieslings, Rülander, or Grauburgunder as its modern, crisp form is often called, is very successful. It reaches more than 13 percent alcohol without being overburdened with flavor. The Gewürztraminers are also impressive, but those of Alsace over the border and to the south are usually more concentrated. For a vine that is uniquely German and is not grown much elsewhere, Pfälzer Scheurebe from estates such as Pfeffingen of Bad Dürkheim or Lingenfelder of Grosskarlbach produces wines with the expected blackcurrant flavor and some of the elegance of Riesling.
During the 1990s, the quality of the region's red wines will continue to improve as the vines become older. The decade may start to show how good Pfälzer Spätburgunder can be, and if growers such as Müller-Catoir can add complexity to its other virtues, middle-priced Burgundy could be faced with a rival nearer to it in style than any other wine. Dornfelder from Thomas Siegrist in the Süd Pfalz and from similarly innovative private estates is a deep-colored, intensely flavored red wine which can improve by aging in new oak casks. Weaker, cheaper and more commercial bottlings of Dornfelder can be bought from cooperative cellars, but it seems a pity when pale colored Blauer Portugieser is widely available as a thirst quencher.
Until the start of the 1980s, Kallstadt, Bad Dürkheim, Wachenheim, Forst, Deidesheim and Ruppertsberg were almost the only Pf'älzer villages known outside Germany for their wine. For hundreds of years, their vineyards below the Pfälzer Wald have been the largest suppliers of the best wine in the region. Others, on rolling slopes further north, are now seen to have tremendous potential-- when they are in the right hands -- and the same is true of vineyards in the Süd Pfalz. Here the quality of inexpensive varietal wine from the largest cooperative cellar in the region -- the Gebiets -Winzergenossenschaft Rietburg -- has been recognized abroad. Even allowing for its success so far, the Rheinpfalz could be the sleeping giant of German fine wine production
In a region that is over 400 kilometers/249 miles in length there is bound to be a great variety of wine, and so it is with Baden. The natural tendency is for Baden wines to be more alcoholic and less acidic, although this is by no means always true. Their virtues are therefore different, and their style is often of a generalized, European sort which is perhaps both an advantage and a disadvantage.
As the cooperative cellars control over 80 percent of the production, they have access to the best as well as the more ordinary vineyards. A third of the Baden harvest is handled by the Badischer Winzerkeller in the Kaiserstuhl district, where it is bottled by robots at a rate of 36,000 bottles per hour. Judged by the quality of the Winzerkeller wines the robots work well and consistently. Throughout the region there are small village cooperatives, some of which operate very much like privately owned estates. That is to say there is a close working relationship between the grape growers and the winemakers.
The region has two districts with reputations that stretch well beyond their borders. The Ortenau on the slopes of the Black Forest has some fine estates in spectacular and steep vineyards around Durbach, and Kaiserstuhl near Alsace produces characterful wines from Burgunder family grapes. Nearly a quarter of the region's area under vine is planted in Spätburgunder. Where the yield is high the wine lacks grip and is of little interest outside Germany, but serious red wine is also being made by cooperative and private estates alike, showing what might be achieved in the future.
The Nahe has far fewer well-known estates than the Rheingau but for connoisseurs its Rieslings can be among the best in Germany. Indeed, the leading estate, the Staatliche Weinbaudomäne at Niederhausen-Schlossböckelheim, is one of the great wine producers of the world. Freshness and high acidity are characteristic of good Nahe, and the Rieslings in particular respond sensitively to variations in site and soil.
Most of the good vineyards of the Bereich Schlossböckelheim, upstream from Bad Kreuznach, lie close to the Nahe River. In some places the flavor of their wine is influenced strongly by the neighboring porphyritic rocks, which also increase the average temperature in the vineyard to good effect. At Kreuznach, the Anheuser family has now been making wine for thirteen generations, and the true worth of the local wine was recognized in Germany long before the town became a spa. Like the Rheinpfalz, the Nahe also has some outstanding
young winemakers in villages so far unknown to the export market. The cheapest wines of the region, based on Müller-Thurgau, resemble those of neighboring Rheinhessen in quality and style.
At their best the wines of Franken are truly impressive. They have class, a long, strong flavor influenced by the soil, and a powerful aroma. The large and historic estates based on Würzburg and the Castell estate on the edge of the Steigerwald to the east are responsible for much of the most distinguished wine. There are, of course, other good producers scattered throughout the region making wines that are characterful and well worth tasting, in particular those of Hans Wirsching of Iphöfen.
The vineyards often suffer from frost so that recent yields have ranged from 13 hectoliters per hectare/0.8 tons per acre in 1985 to 155 hectoliters per hectare/9.1 tons per acre in 1989. Franken Q.b.A. wine, of which about a half is dry, is often sold in liter/2.1 U.S. pint bottles, but the better wines are offered in the traditional flagon known as a Bocksbeutel. So far little is exported. Over 40 percent of the harvest is processed by cooperative cellars, which achieve average prices nearly three times higher than those on the Mosel. To an outsider, cheap Franken wine seems expensive, while prices for top-quality wine are high but fair.
This is a small region of less than 400 hectares/1,000 acres, with sloping vineyards looking towards the Rhine from the edge of the Odenwald. At Bensheim there are distinguished Rieslings from the Staatsweingut which taste like a variation on the Rheingau theme with a shade less acidity, and there is also a good regional cooperative cellar. Worth a detour, if not a journey.
The typical wine of the Ahr Valley not far from Bonn is a Spätburgunder that is low in tannin, high in acidity, and slightly sweet. Some more internationally acceptable red wine is also starting to be produced but it is bought by visitors to the Ahr almost as soon as it is bottled -- at surprisingly high prices.
To anybody outside the region the wines of Württemberg are among the least impressive in Germany. They are pleasant enough, but quality suffers through overproduction. Although over half of the vineyard area is planted in red vine varieties, the average yield per hectare/acre for the whole of the region is among the highest in Germany. Many of the vineyards are steep, sometimes terraced, and therefore very expensive to operate, so that costs could only be covered by producing top-quality wine or, as is the case, by a large crop. The result is that Württemberg wines often lack grip and body, but they are much enjoyed by a well-trained local community willing to pay prices twice as high as those on the Mosel or in the Rheinpfalz. In fact the region drinks more wine than any other in Germany, and it is really only in Württemberg that wine becomes an everyday drink of the people -- a Volksgetränk.
There are a few producers whose wines have the concentration normally associated with serious winemaking, but nearly 95 percent of the harvest is delivered to cooperative cellars, whose big task is to keep the supply of café wines rolling.
The Mittelrhein is a small but beautiful region whose steep Riesling vineyards rise above the romantic Rhine downstream from Lorchhausen. Much of the wine is sold through local wine bars and restaurants but a few private estates are now becoming known abroad. Some of the best are members of the association of top German estates -- the V.D.P. -- whose wines are identified by an eagle emblem on the capsule.