From rave-worthy Riesling to weighty, complex Pinot Noir, German wine has much to offer.
Profoundly complex and expressive of the most exacting intricacies of terroir, the wines of Germany are among the most iconic and revered in the world. Remarkably, they are also among the most undervalued and misunderstood.
Germany epitomizes the cool-climate wine region, with its vineyards tiptoeing the northernmost limits of viticulture for nearly 2,000 years. Amidst inhospitable climes, grape vines are coaxed to greatness by the most unimaginable confluences of sun exposure, topography, and soils.
Home to over half of the world’s Riesling vines, Germany is the unrivaled benchmark for Riesling production worldwide. Regional grapes like Silvaner, Scheurebe, or Müller-Thurgau can yield gloriously pure, often thrilling white wines. Germany is also the third largest producer of Pinot Noir (known locally as Spätburgunder), after France and the United States. Alongside Pinot Noir, it’s home to a growing production of exceptional Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) too.
The oft-heard claim is that German wines are dismissively sweet and simple,yet in truth, an increasing majority of German wines today are dry (or trocken), and crafted in better quality than ever before. While cooler climates dominate, Germany’s thirteen wine regions span a diversity of climate and terroir, and have benefited substantially from the warming effects of climate change.
Most of Germany’s vineyards trace the paths of river systems that temper harsh vineyard climates. In the southwest, vines stretch along the Rhine River and its tributaries from Mittelrhein and the Ahr in the north to Baden in the south. Far afield to the east are Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen (also known as Saxony) in what was formerly East Germany.
Key Wine Regions in Germany
The Mosel is Germany’s most famous wine region, best known for its spry, laser-cut expressions of Riesling that span the full spectrum from dry to unctuously sweet. Running northeast from Germany’s borders with Luxembourg and France, the Mosel region extends along the Mosel River to its junction with the Rhine and through the valleys of its tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer.
Ethereal in body yet electrifying on the palate, the wines of the Mosel are born out of a juxtaposition of extremes. Cool climates countered by intense sunlight are amplified by the region’s rivers, precipitous slopes, and famously rocky, heat retaining slate soils.
“We have a special situation here in the Mosel,“ says Ernst Loosen, whose family winery, the Dr. Loosen estate, boasts eight of the Mosel’s storied grosse lage, or grand-cru sites. The “cool, northern climate, our slate soil, and the deep, twisting river valley give us very steep, south-facing vineyard sites. All of that adds up to wines that are intense in flavor but not high in alcohol and with a racy, elegant structure that is unique to slate soil.”
Like many of the region’s best winemakers, Loosen focuses exclusively on Riesling in the Mosel, sourced in part by exceptionally rare vines dating 130 years in age. Increasingly warmer growing seasons have contributed to fuller-bodied, weightier expressions of dry Riesling in recent decades along with small but consistent quantities of elegant red wines, particularly Pinot Noir.
The Rheingau region is easily identifiable on a map as the abrupt left turn in the Rhine River’s otherwise northerly path between the cities of Wiesbaden and Mainz.
Planted along the northern banks of the river on hillsides dotted with ancient castles and monasteries, the vineyards of the Rheingau enjoy mild winters and warm summers due to southern exposure and protection from cold winds and rain by the nearby Taunus mountain range.
“The Rheingau is a small but beautiful area with vastly diverse vineyards [differentiated] not just by climate conditions [but] different elevations [and] soil types [that] create a unique place for Riesling,” says Wilhelm Weil, co-owner and director of Weingut Robert Weil, one of Germany’s most iconic estates.
Wines from the Rheingau, says Weil, are marked by fine acidity, a distinctive mineral tone, and complexity. Riesling, typically plusher and silkier in mouthfeel than those in the Mosel, makes up 80% of the Rheingau’s vineyard plantings. Dry styles of Riesling are most typical in Rheingau today, but top producers like Weil excel with both dry as well as complex, age-worthy sweet wines. The Rheingau is also famous for perfumed, pure-fruited Pinot Noir grown on the slate and quartzite slopes of Assmannshausen, the region’s historic red-wine enclave.
South of Rheingau across the Rhine, Rheinhessen is a fertile agricultural basin of soft, undulating hills framed by the Rhine to the north and east and the Nahe river to the west. Shielded from harsh weather by surrounding mountains and forests, Rheinhessen boasts one of the sunniest, driest climates in Central Europe.
In the increasingly distant past, Rheinhessen was known for inexpensive, mass-produced sweet wines like Liebfraumilch. Today, it’s better recognized as one of Germany’s most dynamic wine regions with a growing fellowship of star winemakers producing exceptional, diverse wines.
Uniquely, no single grape variety enjoys predominance in Rheinhessen. “There are a lot of places with great terroir for Riesling and the Burgundian varieties [Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc],” says Philipp Wittmann, winemaker and owner of Weingut Wittmann, one of the region’s flagship organic and biodynamic wineries. Rheinhessen also produces striking examples of Silvaner, Scheurebe, and Chardonnay.
Diversity of soil is a defining characteristic of Rheinhessen,. Most famous, he suggests, is the Rheinfront (also known as the Rheinterasse) subregion near Nierstein with its majestic Roter Hang, a red sandstone escarpment that produces complex, often savory expressions of Riesling. He notes that Wonnegau in the south with its amazing limestone driven soils, the loamy soils around Ingelheim to the north, and the volcanic soils in Siefersheim all add to the range and complexity of Rheinhessen’s viticultural identity.
Tucked away in a pocket nearly enclosed by mountain ranges, the Nahe wine region is one of Germany’s smallest. Vineyards in the Nahe fringe the valleys of the Nahe River’s junction to the Rhine as well as its own tributaries. From volcanic soils to decomposed slate, sandstone, limestone and clay, the Nahe offers the widest range of soil types of any of Germany’s wine regions. Riesling is most celebrated in the Nahe, particularly among the region’s best producers – Dönnhoff, Schlossgut Diel, Emrich-Schönleber, Schäfer Frohlich, Gut Hermannsberg and others. The diversity of Nahe’s terroir fosters a wide range of grape varieties too including some of Germany’s finest Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
More than wine, Bavaria is probably better known for its historic villages and lively beer culture. For die-hard devotees of German wine, however, the south-eastern state is personified by the distinctive, stately wines of Franken (also known as Franconia).
Franken’s most prominent vineyards trace the bends of the Main River, a grand tributary of the Rhine that extends from east to west through central Germany. Franken produces noteworthy examples of Riesling and Pinot Noir, but the true king of Franken is Silvaner – a uniquely textural white wine that’s almost always produced in a bone-dry style.
The taste of Silvaner originates in the soil, says Andrea Wirsching, owner of Hans Wirsching Winery, a family estate that dates back to 1630. In Franken, most vineyards are planted on one or more layers of rocky soils deposited during the Triassic period – buntsandstein (or Bunter sandstone), muschelkalk (or shell-limestone) and keuper. In Iphofen, where Wirsching’s vineyards are based, keuper soils yield opulent, even luminous, expressions of Silvaner with intense minerality and delicate acidity. Bone-dry yet bolstered by the full flavor of ripe grapes and a characteristic herbal tone, the wines of Franken reflect the region’s rich history and culture as encapsulated by the bocksbeutel, the region’s uniquely round, squat bottles.
South of Rheinhessen and extending further south to Germany’s border with Alsace, the vineyards of the Pfalz are sandwiched “through the rift of the Rhine Valley” between the Haardt Mountains (a southern extension of the Vosges) and the Rhine, explains Hansjörg Rebholz, owner of Ökonomierat Rebholz, one of Germany’s most heralded organic and biodynamic estates.
Southerly latitude and sun-drenched terrain make the Pfalz (also known as the Palatinate) one of Germany’s warmest winegrowing regions. “The Pfalz has an incredible diversity of soils,” says Rebholz, whose vineyards undulate between outcrops of limestone, loess and loam, to sandstone and slate. This complexity of soil functions in combination with the traditionally broad range of grape varieties in the region, reflecting the terroir of the individual vineyards. The region is known most prominently for opulent expressions of bone-dry Riesling and Pinot Noir, but also seductively aromatic whites like Pinot Gris, Scheurebe, Muskateller (Muscat Blanc) and Gewürztraminer.
Southernmost of all of Germany’s wine regions, Baden extends north from Germany’s southwestern border with Switzerland – a narrow corridor flanked by the Rhine and the Alsatian border to the west and the Black Forest to the east. Traditionally the warmest and sunniest of Germany’s wine regions, Baden is a natural stronghold for the production of richly concentrated expressions of Germany’s Pinot trio – Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. Pinot Noir is especially reflective of the diversity of soils in the region – weighty and complex when grown in the volcanic stone and loess terraces of the Kaiserstuhl, thrilling and finessed in the shale limestone soils of the Breisgau.
North of the Mosel and along the banks of the Ahr River as it flows into the Rhine, the Ahr Valley is one of Germany’s smallest wine regions. Despite its extreme northerly latitude, the uniquely sheltered microclimate of the Ahr Valley is almost Mediterranean, bathed in intense sunlight and warmed by heat that radiates off the region’s dark slate and volcanic soils. The region produces miniscule volumes of wine but specializes in perfumed, bright-fruited expressions of Pinot Noir.