Visiting German vineyards, part 1
German wines: an introduction

The Rheingau

Germany is a remarkable wine-producing country, responsible for truly world class expressions of Riesling coming from an array of amazing vineyards. But here in the UK – and also in many other places – its wines are somewhat ignored, and not treasured in the way that they should be.

In part, this is because of the way the German wine industry pressed the self-destruct button in the 1960s and 1970s by going down-market. Rather than focusing on Riesling made from special patches of land, the Germans decided it would be smart to seduce customers with inexpensive off-dry Liebfraumilch and the like, made from second-rate grape varieties such as Müller Thurgau, grown in  fertile soils that should really have been used for potatoes or wheat. 

The introduction of the Seitz sterile filter in the 1940s and 50s helped this cause by providing the technical means to make stable, cheap sweet wines. Just stop fermentation early, whack the wine though a sterile filter and there you have it: boringly insipid, sometimes sickly wines that met with consumers’ tastes at the time. This sort of wine is what Germany has become associated with. 

Looking down to the village of Urzig from the Wurzgarten vineyard in the Mosel

But this has not always been the case. Look back to the first third of the last century, and you’ll see from wine merchant lists that the top German wines were as highly prized as the best from Bordeaux, which is currently the world’s dominant fine wine region.

Here’s a selection from London merchant Berry Bros & Rudd’s 1909 price list, with prices in shillings per dozen. (There were 20 shillings in the pound in those days; I haven’t worked out what the equivalent value would be today, although I’m sure on the internet there’s probably a facility somewhere that would make this comparison possible.)


Zeltinger, 1900 ... ... ... ... 42/-
1900 ... ... ... 48/-
“Berncastler Doctor.” 1900 ... ... 54/-
1900 ... ... 66/-
” ”
1904 ... ... 60/-
Graacher Hummelreich,
1893 ... ... 66/-


Eltville Sonnerberg 1904 ... ... 60/-
Rudesheimer, Berg,
1900 ... ... ... 66/-
” ” 1904 ... ... ... 60/-
” ” Cabinet 1886 ... 132/-
Steinberger, 1893 ... ... ... ... 96/-
Steinberger Cabinet,
1876 ... ... 90/-
Cabinet 1886 ... ... 190/-
Schloss Johannisberg Cabinet–

Prince Metternich’s,
1893 ... ... 200/-
” ”
1889, 144/-; 1884, 180/-


Ch. Talbot ... ... ... ... 30/-
Ch. Pichon Longueville ... ... 33/-
Ch. Gruaud Larose Sarget ... 34/-
Ch. Canon, 1er St Emilion ... 36/-

Ch. La Mission Haut Brion Ch.bottled 42/-
Ch. Margaux, 1st growth ” 54/-
Ch. Latour,
1st growth ” 50/-
Ch. Mouton Rothschild,
Ch. Haut Brion,
1st growth ” 60/-

Ch. Léoville, Poyferré ... ... 42/-
” ” Lascases
... ... 45/-
Ch. Brown Cantenac
... ... 45/-
Ch. Lafite
... ... ... ... 72/-

Ch. Lafite ... ... ... ... 78/-
Ch. La Mission Haut Brion 72

Ch. Léoville, Lascases
... ... 60/-
Ch. Cheval Blanc
... ... ... 78/-

Ch. Smith Haut Lafite
... ... 72/-

Ch. Lafite
Ch. Bottled ... ... 180/-
Ch. Palmer Margaux
... ... 96/-
Ch. Léoville ... ... ... ... 108/-
Ch. Larose, in Wine Bottles ... 66/-
Ch. Margaux ... ... ... ... 90/-
Ch. Lafite, Grand Vin, Ch. Bottled 200/-

It’s interesting to do this comparison. People were willing to pay equivalent prices for German Riesling as they were for the top wines of Bordeaux. It’s unthinkable now.

But when you visit Germany, look at the vineyards, and then taste the wines in context, you can appreciate how special these wines are (and I realize that I’m generalizing by including all German wines together here in this way).  

I recently visited German vineyards for the first time. I know – I should have gone before: it’s almost unforgiveable for someone in my position not to have visited, for example, the Mosel. But in some ways, I’m glad I delayed my visit, because I was able fully to appreciate just how special these wine regions are, and how complex and intriguing the wines they make can be.

Vineyard in the Rheinhessen

Some background on Germany. Most of its top regions are relatively cool climate, and to get enough warmth to ripen the Riesling grapes sufficiently, many of the leading vineyards make use of south-facing slopes, on the banks of rivers.  

Of course, there’s more to German wine that just Riesling. Warmer regions such as the Pfalz and Baden specialize in a wide array of other varieties, including Spätburgunder (the German name for Pinot Noir). But while these wines can be wonderful, it’s Riesling that Germany excels with.

Germany is, currently, one of the countries that has benefited from global warming. The increases in average temperature in recent decades have meant that marginal regions such as the Mosel, where it is sometimes just a bit on the cool side to ripen Riesling, are now enjoying fewer difficult vintages than they used to, and more high quality vintages.

If you are new to German wines, reading the label can be a bit of a problem. Let’s take Mosel wines as a starting point, because these are the ones you’re more likely to encounter. As an example, we might see the following:

Dr Loosen is the producer. Mosel is the region. 2008 is the vintage. All straightforward. Then we have the long bit. Sonnenuhr is the name of the vineyard, and because it is located in the village of Wehlen, the prefix Wehlener is added. Riesling is the grape variety. Spätlese means ‘late harvest’, and is one of the words used as an indicator of the sweetness levels of the grapes in what is known as the Prädikatswein system, which we’ll return to in a second. All German wines also have what is known as an AP number, which is a unique identifier of each lot of wine that is bottled.

This is where things start to get complicated. For German whites there are two main styles. The first is the ‘fruity’ style, and the second is the dry style, known as Trocken. For Mosel Riesling, the fruity style (off-dry, ranging through to sweet) is the most commonly seen in the UK, although trocken wines are very popular in Germany and most producers will now do, on average, a 50:50 split between their fruity and trocken styles.

Quality German wines are classified as either QbA (for Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete), the lower level, or as part of the Pradikatswien system, where the different levels are classified on the basis of sugar content of the must into Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. Eiswein is a separate category, made from grapes naturally frozen on the vine. The most important of these categories are the first four: Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) are very sweet, very expensive wines made from botrytised grapes which you won’t see very often.

Why are German wines often sweet when the fashion is for dry wines? Why not just make all wines in the dry (trocken) style? It is a question of balance. German Rieslings can be quite delicate wines, with high acidity, and a bit of sweetness brings them into balance where they’d be a bit austere and off-putting bone dry. Qba and Kabinett are just off-dry, with lovely delicacy and high acidity levels. These are made from the least ripe of the harvested grapes and so the high acidity levels do need a bit of balancing by sweetness. Interestingly, well made examples will have some sugar, but the counteracting effect of the acid will make them seem drier than they are.

Spätlese means late harvest, and these wines will typically be a little riper and sweeter. Trocken examples often work quite well, because the later harvest means a riper, fruitier character is present in the grapes, and so they don’t seem so austere. Auslese (selected harvest) wines are sweeter still, and this is where many producers make their top wines. Confusingly, some winemakers will make small lots of special Auslese, which they might designate with asterisks, or the use of a gold capsule (Goldkapsel). These are called Goldkapsel or long Goldkapsel, and they’re usually really expensive.

I should also mention here the relatively new classification called Grosses Gewachs, which is a new designation for the top dry wines from special vineyard sites, and stands for 'great growth'. It's currently an unofficial designation.  

Here’s a quick guide to Germany’s different regions.

Urziger Wurzgarten in the Mosel: Erden is the village over the river

One of Germany's great wine regions (actually, more correctly three separate neighbouring regions making similarly styled wines - now you can find the names used separately on the labels), named after the three interconnecting rivers along whose banks the vineyards are sited. It's a northerly region, right at the limits of where grapes can ripen, and so the vineyard site is the key to quality here: the best wines are made from Riesling grapes grown on the steep hillsides overlooking the river. These wines are fresh, delicate, mineralic, with racy acidity and low in alcohol, and are among the world's greatest expressions of the Riesling grape. As with other German regions, quality can vary hugely between the best and the worst producers.

Another German wine region named after the river that it's arranged around, the Nahe is small, fragmented and generally keeps a low profile. But with a slightly warmer climate than some of the more northern regions, it makes some lovely, intense white wines from the Riesling grape. The best wines come from the hillside vineyards.

Felsenberg: a Nahe vineyard

This warm, southerly region is Germany's most productive. Although many of the vineyards here make inexpensive commercial wines of the sort that has given the German wine industry such a poor reputation (about 50% of the Liebfraumilch produced comes from the Pfalz), subregions such as the Mittelhardt do produce high quality wines, mainly from the Riesling grape.

This small region on the north bank of the Rhine near Mainz in Germany's most aristocratic. The south-facing hillside vineyards produce some of the world's greatest expressions of the Riesling grape, which need long ageing to show their best and are a little fuller than the lighter wines of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.

Immediately south of the aristocratic Rheingau region, on the other side of the Rhine river, this large German region makes wines of hugely varying quality. On the one hand there are some top quality estates in the nine villages known collectively as the 'Rheinterrasse'; on the other hand this is the region responsible for half of all Liebfraumilch produced (the rest comes from the Pfalz).

This is an interesting region, centred on the town of Wurzburg in southern Germany. Its distinctive bocksbeutel (flask shaped bottle) is still used by most producers. The wines here can be really interesting, and Riesling isn’t the sole focus. This is one of the regions that can actually do some interesting things with the Müller Thurgau grape variety.

Large southern German wine region which runs along the French border, over the Rhine from the Alsace. You'd think that with it's southerly location it would be a better place to grow grapes than Germany's chilly northern regions, but the wines from Baden, while often soft and reliable, rarely hit the peaks. The key grapes here are  Müller-Thurgau, Spätburgunder (the German name for Pinot Noir), Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris); Riesling is just a minor player. And unlike the other German regions, the wines from Baden are mostly dry in style.

So, if I wanted to explore German wine, where would be the best place to start? I think Riesling should be the entry point, and I’d look out for QbAs, Kabinetts and Spätleses from good quality producers. In the UK, Dr Loosen’s QbA is available about everywhere and is a great starting point. Leitz, from the Rheingau, are also well represented, and their wines are solidly reliable. The following list of producers is a useful start as a shopping list, although this is by no means an exclusive list of all the great German producers:

  • Loosen

  • Fritz Haag

  • Maximin Grünhauser

  • Donnhöff

  • Reinhold Haart

  • JJ Christoffel

  • JJ Prum

  • Willi Schaefer

  • Egon Müller

  • Leitz

  • Gunderloch

  • Markus Molitor

  • Max Ferd Richter

  • Keller

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Leitz, Rheingau
Part 3: Dönnhoff, Nahe
Part 4: Gunderloch, Rheinhessen
Part 5: Paul Furst, Franken
Part 6: Dr Loosen, Mosel

Wines tasted as 05/09  
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