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German Wine - A Guide to All You Need To Know

German Wine - A Guide to All You Need To Know

franco salzillo arriaga |

Germany has long-lasting winemaking traditions. Despite being one of the northernmost wine-producing countries in the world, winemakers in Germany make miracles in their extreme terroir. German wine has had its difficulties, but today, the quality is better than ever. 

Forget what you thought you knew about German wine, because the country’s wine scene has been completely revamped in the past couple of decades to the point of being unrecognisable. 

German wine is much more than sweet wine, and there’s more than Riesling in the country’s renovated repertoire — expect the unexpected. Here’s a guide to all you need to know about German wine. 

If you want to appreciate the absolute best from Germany’s most acclaimed wineries, explore our World Wine selection of wines from Germany. There’s a bottle for every food pairing and occasion. 

The History of German Wine

The first grapevines arrived in Germany during Ancient Roman times, at least 2,000 years ago. Only the steep hillsides overlooking the Mosel and Rhine rivers had enough sun exposure to ripen vinifera varieties, so the Romans planted the vineyards in terraces, some of which still exist today. 

Not dissimilar to what happened in most wine-producing European countries, the Christian church continued the Ancient Roman’s viticultural efforts, expanding the continent’s vineyards far and wide while improving the wine’s quality. 

Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne (747-814), promoted Germany’s winemaking efforts, and the country’s flagship grape, Riesling, was planted sometime around 1435. A few centuries later, at Schloss Johannisberg in 1775, the first late harvest wines were created, leading to Germany’s preference for sweet wines. 

In 1971, the German government created the first wine quality laws, or the Prädikat system, which rewarded sweet wines for their sugar content. Still, the 70s and 80s saw a decrease in German wine quality, only restored and elevated to higher levels in the early 21st century. 

Today, the authorities aligned German wine laws with those of the European Union. Although sweet wines are still widely available and of excellent quality, Germany now shines for its dry table wines, some as complex and sophisticated as the best in major wine powerhouses worldwide. 

German Wine Types

The better-known German wines are made with Riesling. These can be inexpensive or incredibly rare and pricey; they can also be bone dry or lusciously sweet. This makes Riesling hard to categorise. Peach and apple aromas, along with white flowers, an unusual petrol aroma and a tight acidity, are all typical. Still, the wine’s sweetness and alcoholic strength vary immensely. 

An up-and-coming German wine style is made with the noble Burgundian grape Pinot Noir. These red wines are silky, with tart black fruit on the nose and judicious use of oak. Elegance describes these red wines that are taking the world of wine by storm.

Other grape varieties produce distinct wine styles in Germany, including Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder), Trollinger (Schiava), and many others. International varieties, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, are also gaining ground. Germany is the 14th largest wine-producing country globally, with around 102,000 hectares of vines. 

German Wine Regions

The Mosel is one of the finest sources for sweet and dry Riesling with moderate levels of alcohol and high acidity. The Mosel River serpents its way through narrow valleys, and it’s in these steep benches where enthusiastic winemakers grow grapes. This is extreme viticulture, but the risks are worth it. This is one of the most refined expressions of the noble German grape.

The Rheingau is a single south-facing hill overlooking the Rhine. Here grapes ripen easier than in the Mosel, so the wines are fuller and richer, with more alcoholic strength. Riesling is king in the Rheingau and produces some of the most coveted wines in Germany. 

Between the Rhine and the Haardt mountain range, Pfalz borders Alsace, and it’s an excellent source for Riesling and Pinot Noir. Thanks to the warmer weather, the wines are riper than those from the Mosel and Rheingau. The wines from this region, or Anbaugebeite, are also most likely dry or Trocken.

Baden is the warmest wine region in Germany, so here, Pinot Noir, AKA Spätburgunder, produces full-bodied wines. This is red wine territory, although white wines are also well represented.  

The small wine region along the Nahe River might only have 4,000 hectares of vines, but the quality here is outstanding. Both white and red wines from Nahe are great values, and the region’s sweet wines are also of the highest quality. 

The Rheinhessen is the largest wine-producing region in Germany with over 26,500 hectares of vines, and for many years it has been the source of inexpensive sweet wine. Still, the vast area is home to a new generation of winemakers doing everything right, and the quality is better than ever. 

German White Wine

Germany is best known for its white wine, mainly made with its flagship variety, Riesling. Riesling is native to Germany, and it stands out for its ability to ripen in the country’s cold climate. Riesling can also develop high sugar levels, making it suitable for both sweet and dry wines. 

Producers can vinify Riesling to dryness, but they can also harvest the grapes late for sweet renditions. Grapes affected by the noble rot, botrytis cinerea, are amongst the sweetest on earth, and they’re age worthy as well. 

Dry Riesling is labelled as Trocken. Producers label sweeter examples with the terms Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. Eiswein (ice wine) is a German speciality made with frozen grapes, which allow winemakers to separate the grape’s sweet juice from the excess water.

Riesling is not the only white grape variety in Germany, though. Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder,) Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder,) Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau are widely planted.

German Sparkling Wine

Germany also has strong sparkling wine traditions. German Sparkling wine goes back to 1826. The country’s sparkling wine is called Sekt, and it’s often made with Riesling at various quality and sweetness levels. Most of it is made with the Italian or Charmat method, although examples made with the Champagne method are becoming more common. 

In the past, consumers did not consider German sparkling wine on par with more prestigious European examples, but that’s not the case anymore. Sekt is now a connoisseur’s secret, and although not as readily available as Champagne or Prosecco, its quality is at the same level. 

What is the Best German Wine?

There’s no doubt the finest German wine is up there with the best in the world, but there’s still a lot of average wine coming out of the country’s cellars. 

The best German wine is always labelled with a single Anbaugebeite, Germany’s 13 wine regions. The VDP mark, is a sign that the producer is part of The Association of German Quality and Prädikat Wine Estates, the source of the country’s best wines. 

Terms like Grosse Lage, Grosses Gewächs (grand crus) and Erste Lage (1st cru) are also signs of quality. Any Prädikatswein terms, including Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein, also guarantee a superior quality — only quality wines are part of the Prädikatswein system.

Unlike most other wine-producing countries, today, most German wine produced is high or premium quality. In fact, low-quality table wine is rare. 

How to Pair German Wine with Food?

German wine is compatible with a wide range of foods. Dry Riesling is extraordinary with white and oily fish, veal sausages, veal or chicken cutlets, pork and other types of white meat. 

Spicy food, such as Thai curries and stir-fries, are best enjoyed with semi-sweet Riesling, while the sweetest examples are best enjoyed on their own or with creamy desserts. 

German Pinot Noir is best suited for oily fish, including salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines and eel. Such vibrant and light Pinot Noir is also extraordinary with mushrooms and gravies, especially if served with pork. 

German Wine to Try 

Dr Loosen Dr L Dry Riesling 2020

A dry, refreshing Riesling with pitted fruit, petrol and floral aromas over a mineral palate. 

Huber Sommerhalde Pinot Noir Grosses Gewächs 2013

Light-bodied and refreshing, with red cherries on the nose and palate, along with undergrowth scents. 

Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Eiswein

A lusciously sweet but balanced dessert wine with peaches and apricots, honey and white flowers. Best enjoyed cold with custard desserts. 

Make German Mulled Wine

Let’s end our Guide to German wine with a winter speciality. The German mulled wine, or Glühwein, is a Christmas tradition that warms you inside out. 

Every family in Germany seems to have its own recipe for Glühwein, but they’re all pretty similar. Red wine, sugar, a dash of citrus and warm spices, including cinnamon and cloves, give the wine a cheerful personality. 

German wine is, without a doubt, unlike any other wine. In a world where every wine-producing country seems to follow the same game plan, German wine’s uniqueness is very much appreciated. Besides, German wine is delicious, so adding it to your wine rotation is easy. Stock your cellar with your favorite German wine and treat yourself to the unique wine coming from the coldest wine regions in the world.