German wine is primarily produced in the southwest of Germany, along river Rhine and its tributaries, with the oldest plantations going back to the Roman era. Approximately 60 per cent of the German wine production is situated in the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where 6 of the 13 regions (Anbaugebiete) for quality wine are situated. Germany has about 102,000 hectares (252,000 acres or 1,020 square kilometers) of vineyard, which is around one tenth of the vineyard surface in Spain, France or Italy. The total wine production is usually around 9 million hectoliters annually, corresponding to 1.2 billion bottles, which places Germany as the eighth largest wine-producing country in the world. White wine accounts for almost two thirds of the total production.
As a wine country, Germany has a mixed reputation internationally, with some consumers on the export markets associating Germany with the world's most elegant and aromatically pure white wines while other see the country mainly as the source of cheap, mass-market semi-sweet wines (notably Liebfraumilch) which a discerning wine drinker wary of his reputation should avoid altogether. Among enthusiasts, Germany's reputation is primarily based on its sweet wines and on its being home to the Riesling grape variety, which at its best is used for aromatic, fruity and elegant white wines that range from very crisp and dry to well-balanced, sweet and of enormous aromatic concentration. While primarily a white wine country, red wine production surged in the 1990s and early 2000s, primarily fuelled by domestic demand, and the proportion of the German vineyards devoted to the cultivation of dark-skinned grape varieties has now stabilized at slightly more than a third of the total surface. For the red wines, Spätburgunder, the domestic name for Pinot Noir, is in the lead.
Germany produces wines in many styles: dry, semi-sweet and sweet white wines, rosé wines, red wines and sparkling wines, called Sekt. (The only wine style not commonly produced is fortified wine.) Due to the northerly location of the German vineyards, the country has produced wines quite unlike any others in Europe, many of outstanding quality. Despite this it is still better known abroad for cheap, sweet or semi-sweet, low-quality mass-produced wines such as Liebfraumilch.
The wines have historically been predominantly white, and the finest made from Riesling. Many wines have been sweet and low in alcohol, light and unoaked. Historically many of the wines (other than late harvest wines) were probably dry (trocken), as techniques to stop fermentation did not exist. Recently much more German white wine is being made in the dry style again. Much of the wine sold in Germany is dry, especially in restaurants. However most exports are still of sweet wines, particularly to the traditional export markets such as Great Britain, which is the leading export market both in terms of volume and value. The United States (second in value, third in volume) and the Netherlands (second in volume, third in value) are two other important export markets for German wine.
Red wine has always been hard to produce in the German climate, and in the past was usually light coloured, closer to rosé or the red wines of Alsace. However recently there has been greatly increased demand and darker, richer red wines (often barrique aged) are produced from grapes such as Dornfelder and Spätburgunder, the German name for pinot noir.
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of German wines is the high level of acidity in them, caused both by the lesser ripeness in a northerly climate and by the selection of grapes such as riesling which retain acidity even at high ripeness levels.
The wild vine, the forerunner of the cultivated Vitis vinifera is known to have grown on upper Rhine back to historic time, and it is possible (but not documented) that Roman-era German viticulture was started using local varieties. Many viticultural practices were however taken from other parts of the Roman empire, as evidenced by Roman-style trellising systems surviving into the 18th century in some parts of Germany, such as the Kammerbau in the Palatinate.
Almost nothing is known of the style or quality of "German" wines that were produced in the Roman era, with the exception of the fact that the poet Venantius Fortunatus mentions red German wine around AD 570.
Before the era of Charlemagne, Germanic viticulture was practiced primarily, although not exclusively, on the western side of Rhine. Charlemagne is supposed to have brought viticulture to Rheingau. The eastward spread of viticulture coincided with the spead of Christianity, which was supported by Charlemagne. Thus, in Medieval Germany, churches and monasteries played the most important role in viticulture, and especially in the production of 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.
Many grape varieties commonly associated with German wines have been documented back to the 14th or 15th century. Riesling has been documented from 1435 (close to Rheingau), and Pinot Noir from 1318 on Lake Constance under the name Klebroth, from 1335 in Affenthal in Baden and from 1470 in Rheingau, where the monks kept a Clebroit-Wyngart in Hattenheim. The most grown variety in medieval Germany was however Elbling, with Silvaner also being common, and Muscat, Räuschling and Traminer also being recorded.
For several centuries of the Medieval era, the vineyards of Germany (including Alsace) expanded, and is believed to have reached their greatest extent sometime around 1500, when perhaps as much as four times the present vineyard surface was planted. Basically, the wine regions were located in the same places as today, but more lands around the rivers, and land further upstream Rhine's tributaries, was cultivated. The subsequent 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 market for wine, and to the Thirty Years' War ravaging Germany in the 17th century.
At one point the Church controlled most of the major vineyards in Germany. Quality instead of quantity become important and spread quickly down the river Rhine. The Development ended when Martin Luther's activities initiated revolts leading to the death of millions and affecting culture for centuries. In the 1800s Napoleon took control of all the vineyards from the Church, including the best, and divided and secularized them. Since then the Napoleonic inheritance laws in Germany broke up the parcels of vineyards further, leading to the establishment of many cooperatives. However, there are a great deal of notable and world famous wineries in Germany, who have managed to acquire or hold enough land to produce enough wine not only for domestic consumption, but also for export.
An important event took place in 1775 at Schloss Johannisberg in 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 had been affected by noble rot before the harvest began. Unexpectedly, these "rotten grapes" gave a very good sweet wine, which was termed Spätlese, meaning late harvest. From this time, late harvest wines from grapes affected by noble rot have been produced intentionally. The subsequent differentiation of these late harvest wines into additional categories, starting with Auslese in 1787, laid the ground for the Prädikat system.
Most of the present German wine law was introduced in 1971, and definied the Prädikat designations as they have been since then.
Because of the northerly climate, there has been a search for suitable grape varieties (particularly frost resistant and early harvesting ones), and many crosses have been developed, such as Müller-Thurgau in the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute. Recently there has been an increase in plantings of Resling as local and international demand has been demanding high quality wines.
The wines are all produced around rivers, mainly the Rhine and its tributaries, often sheltered by mountains. The rivers have significant microclimate effects to moderate the temperature. The soil is slate to absorb the sun's heat and retain it overnight. The great sites are often extremely steep so they catch the most sunlight, but they are difficult to harvest mechanically. The slopes are also positioned facing the south or south-west to angle towards the sun.
The vineyards are extremely small compared to new world vineyards. This makes the lists of wines produced long and complex, and many wines hard to obtain as production is so limited.
The wine regions in Germany usually referred to are the 13 defined regions for quality wine. The German wine industry has organised itself around these regions and their division into districts. However, there are also a number of regions for the seldomly-exported table wine (Tafelwein) and country wine (Landwein) categories. Those regions with a few exceptions overlap with the quality wine regions. In order to make a clear distinction between the quality levels, the regions and subregions for different quality level have different names on purpose, even when they are allowed to be produced in the same geographical area.
These 13 regions (Anbaugebiete) are broken down into 39 districts (Bereiche) which are further broken down into collective vineyard sites (Großlagen) of which there are 167. The individual vineyard sites (Einzellagen) number 2,658.
|German wine-growing regions sorted by size (2006 situation)|
|Region||Number on map||Vineyard area (ha)||Proportion white:red (%)||Districts||Collective sites||Individual sites||Most grown varieties|
|Rheinhessen||10||26 281||68:32||3||24||442||Müller-Thurgau (16.0%), Dornfelder (13.3%), Riesling (12.2%), Silvaner (9.5%), Portugieser (6.8%), Kerner (5.1%), Spätburgunder (5,1%), Grauburgunder (4.3%), Scheurebe (3.9%)|
|Palatinate||8||23 353||60:40||2||25||330||Riesling (21.8%), Dornfelder (13.9%), Müller-Thurgau (10.2%), Portugieser (10.1%), Spätburgunder (6.8%), Kerner (5.2%), Grauburgunder (4.5%), Silvaner (3.8%)|
|Baden||2||16 008||54:46||9||15||315||Spätburgunder (36.7%), Müller-Thurgau (18.1%), Grauburgunder (10.3%), Riesling (7.5%), Weißburgunder (7.1%), Gutedel (6.8%)|
|Württemberg||13||11 522||29:71||6||20||207||Trollinger (21.6%), Riesling (18.1%), Schwarzriesling (15.6%), Lemberger (13.4%), Spätburgunder (10.9%), Kerner (3.3%)|
|Mosel||6||8 975||91:9||6||20||507||Riesling (58.2%), Müller-Thurgau (14.7%), Elbling (6.4%), Kerner (4.6%)|
|Franconia||3||6 123||81:19||3||22||211||Müller-Thurgau (31.3%), Silvaner (20.5%), Bacchus (12.2%)|
|Nahe||7||4 124||74:26||1||7||312||Riesling (25.7%), Müller-Thurgau (13.6%), Dornfelder (11.2%)|
|Rheingau||9||3 088||84:16||1||11||120||Riesling (78.4%), Spätburgunder (12.7%), Müller-Thurgau (1.7%)|
|Saale-Unstrut||11||663||73:27||2||4||20||Müller-Thurgau (19.2%), Weißburgunder (11.6%), Silvaner (8.7%)|
|Ahr||1||548||12:88||1||1||43||Spätburgunder (61.5%), Portugieser (8.8%), Riesling (7.1%)|
|Mittelrhein||5||460||75:25||2||11||111||Riesling (67.6%), Spätburgunder (8.5%), Müller-Thurgau (6.5%)|
|Hessische Bergstraße||4||435||80:20||2||3||24||Riesling (49.0%), Spätburgunder (10.1%), Müller-Thurgau (7.8%)|
|Saxony||12||416||82:18||2||4||16||Müller-Thurgau (19.5%), Riesling (14.9%), Weißburgunder (12.5%)|
There are seven regions for Tafelwein (Weinbaugebiete für Tafelwein), three of which are divided into two or three subregions (Untergebiete) each, and 21 regions for Landwein (Landweingebiete). These regions have the following relationship to each other, and to the quality wine regions:
|Tafelwein region||Tafelwein subregion||Landwein region||Corresponding quality wine region||Number on map|
|Starkenburger Landwein||Hessische Bergstraße||4|
|Moseltal||Landwein der Mosel||Mosel||6|
|Landwein der Saar|
|Landwein der Ruwer|
|Niederlausitz||-||Brandenburger Landwein||In the federal state of Brandenburg, outside the quality wine regions|
|Stargarder Land||-||Mecklenburger Landwein||In the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, outside the quality wine regions|
Out of all the grape varieties listed below, only 20 have a significant market share.
|Common grape varieties in Germany (2006 situation, all varieties >250 ha)|
|Variety||Colour||Synonym(s)||Area (%)||Area (hectares)||Trend||Major regions (with large plantations or high proportion)|
|1. Riesling||white||20.8||21 197||constant||Mosel, Palatinate, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Nahe, Mittelrhein, Hessische Bergstraße|
|2. Müller-Thurgau||white||Rivaner||13.7||13 988||decreasing||Rheinhessen, Baden, Franconia, Mosel, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen|
|3. Spätburgunder||red||Pinot Noir||11.6||11 807||increasing||Baden, Palatinate, Rheinhessen, Württemberg, Rheingau, Ahr|
|4. Dornfelder||red||8.1||8 231||constant||Rheinhessen, Palatinate, Nahe|
|5. Silvaner||white||Grüner Silvaner||5.2||5 314||decreasing||Rheinhessen, Franconia, Saale-Unstrut, Ahr|
|6. Blauer Portugieser||red||4.6||4 683||decreasing||Palatinate, Rheinhessen, Ahr|
|7. Grauburgunder||white||Pinot Gris, Grauer Burgunder Ruländer||4.3||4 382||increasing||Rheinhessen, Palatinate, Mosel|
|8. Kerner||white||3.9||4 004||decreasing||Rheinhessen, Palatinate, Mosel, Württemberg|
|9. Weißburgunder||white||Pinot Blanc, Weißer Burgunder, Klevner||3.4||3 491||increasing||Baden, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen|
|10. Trollinger||red||2.5||2 518||constant||Württemberg|
|11. Schwarzriesling||red||Müllerrebe, Pinot Meunier||2.4||2 424||constant||Württemberg|
|12. Regent||red||2.1||2 183||increasing|
|13. Bacchus||white||2.1||2 113||decreasing||Franconia|
|14. Scheurebe||white||1.7||1 781||decreasing||Rheinhessen|
|15. Lemberger||red||Blaufränkisch||1.6||1 664||increasing||Württemberg|
|16. Gutedel||white||Chasselas||1.1||1 123||constant||Baden|
|17. Chardonnay||white||1.1||1 087||increasing|
|22. St. Laurent||red||0.7||673||increasing|
|29. Cabernet Mitos||red||0.3||317||increasing|
|30. Cabernet Sauvignon||red||0.3||274||constant|
|31. Sauvignon Blanc||white||0.3||260||increasing|
|All white varieties||63.1||64 331||decreasing|
|All red varieties||36.9||37 668||increasing|
|Grand total||100.0||101 999||constant|
During the last century several changes have taken place with respect to the most planted varieties. Until the early 20th century, Elbling was Germany's most planted variety, after which it was eclipsed by Silvaner during the middle of the 20th century. After a few decades in the top spot, in the late 1960s Silvaner was overtaken by the high-yielding Müller-Thurgau, which in turn started to lose ground in the 1980s. From the mid-1990s, Riesling became the most planted variety, a position which it probably had never enjoyed before on a national level. Red grapes in Germany have experienced several ups and downs. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there was a downward trend, which was reversed around 1980. From mid-1990s and during the next decade, there was an almost explosive growth of plantation of red varieties. Plantings was shared between traditional Spätburgunder and a number of new crossings, led by Dornfelder, while other traditional German red varieties such as Portugieser only held their ground. From around 2005, the proportion of red varieties has stabilized around 37%, about three times the 1980 level.
According to the German wine law, the federal governments are responsible for drawing up lists of grape varieties allowed in wine production. The varieties listed below are officially released for commercial cultivation. The lists include varieties only released for selected experimental cultivation.
Many of the best vineyards in Germany are steep vineyards overlooking rivers, where mechanisation is impossible and a lot of manual labour is needed to produce the wine.
German vintners on average crop their vineyards quite high, with yields averaging around 90 hl/ha, a high figure in international comparison. "New" crossings used for low-quality white wine commonly yield 150-200 hl/ha, while quality-conscious producers who strive to produce well-balanced wines of concentrated flavours will rarely exceed 50 hl/ha.
German wine classification is sometimes the source of confusion, especially to non-German speakers. However, to those familiar with the terms used, a German wine label reveals much information about the quality level and dryness/sweetness of the wine.
In addition, wines are classified by the Verband Deutscher Prädikatswein (VDP). Top wines are classified according to region and the very best vineyards.
On wine labels, German wine may be classified according to the residual sugar of the wine. Trocken refers to dry wine. These wines have less than 9 grams/liter of residual sugar. These bottles are usually identified by a yellow-coloured capsule. Halbtrocken wines are off-dry and have 9-18 grams/liter of residual sugar. Due to the high acidity ("crispness") of many German wines, the taste profile of many halbtrocken wines fall within the "internationally dry" spectrum rather than being appreciably sweet. "Feinherb" wine are slightly more sweet than halbtrocken wines.
There are also several terms to identify the grower and producers of the wine.
If the suffix "-er" appears after the name of the town, the wine comes from a particular vineyard located in that town.
5 892 vineyard owners owned more than 5 ha each in 1999, accounting for 57% of Germany's total vineyard surface, and it is in this category that the full-time vintners and commercial operations are primarily found. However, truly large wineries, in terms of their own vineyard holdings, are rare in Germany. Hardly any German wineries reach the size of New World winemaking companies, and only a few are of the same size as a typical Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé château. Of the ten wineries considered as Germany's best by Gault Millau Weinguide in 2007, nine had 10,2 — 19 ha of vineyards, and one (Weingut Robert Weil, owned by Suntory) had 70 ha. This means that most of the high-ranking German wineries each only produces around 100,000 bottles of wine per year. That production is often distributed over, say, 10-25 different wines from different vineyards, of different Prädikat, sweetness and so on. The largest vineyard owner is the Hessian State Wineries (Hessische Staatsweingüter), owned by the federal state of Hesse, with 200 ha vineyards, the produce of which is vinified in three separate wineries. The largest privately held winery is Dr. Bürklin-Wolf in the Palatinate with 85,5 ha.