24 Aug 101: The Big Wine Regions of Germany and What They Produce
I drink a ton of Riesling. I love the grape and find it fascinating in all its incarnations. Call me a traditionalist, but I love to drink wine from the home of this noble grape: Germany.
A few years ago my love of German Riesling led me to hook up with Wines of Germany, an information and PR organization, that has a quarterly press send of wines from top producers. I have been incredibly fortunate in that nearly all the wines they send are top quality.
Now, in your head you’re saying, “yeah, of course free wine tastes awesome!” But I gotta tell you, it’s not always true! And because of the repeated exposure to styles of the major regions of Germany, I have learned so much about the country, its climate, the differences between regions, and the styles that are typical of each place. Although I’ve done this before in a review post, I think it’s time to do a summary post on some of the major German regions and what they are best known for without any reviews to complicate matters. I’ll follow this up with a giant round-up post of Rieslings and other German wines that you can seek out, if this piques your interest and you want to try typical styles.
So, away we go…
Known for: Being the most famed Riesling region in the world. Mostly off-dry Rieslings grown on incredibly steep slopes in slate soils. Peachy, honeyed, floral, citrusy wines with a little petrol note (gasoline), spritz, and high, sharp acidity.
White v. Red Breakdown: 90% white, 10% red
Top 3 Grapes: Riesling (61%), Müller-Thurgau (12.2%), Elbling (5.8%)
The most famous of all German wine regions, this cool area has a continental climate and is near the border of France and Luxembourg. The best sites are on the twisty-turny Mosel River and on its smaller tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer (the region used to be called Mosel-Saar-Ruwer but that was a mouthful so now it’s just Mosel). The top vineyards are on steep, south-facing hillsides that reach a 70% gradient. The coveted slate topsoil washes down the slopes during the rainy season and vineyard workers spend time in the spring retrieving slate pieces to lay back on the vines, since they believe it imparts flavor.
As you can imagine, hand-harvesting is necessary, a practice that is much easier on the grapes and usually results in clean, pure flavors – which is the hallmark of Mosel Riesling. Expect these wines to be light in color, light to medium in body, super aromatic — floral, honeyed, citrusy and peach with petrol (gas station!) notes too — with a touch of spritz and a tooth-enamel stripping acidity that often requires the winemaker to add a touch of sugar back in the form of unfermented grape juice from the same vineyard, to balance out the tartness. Not much has changed here since the Romans started vineyards in the 2nd century AD, except winemaking has gotten better and better.
I’ll state my bias here: this is, far and away, my favorite German region because of the aromatics, the acidity, and the complexity of the wines.
Known for: Along with Mosel, one of the most famed Riesling regions in the world. Riesling is the most important grape here. The wine styles vary based on vintage and site, but tend to be more pear-like and spicy yet softer in acid and less overtly fragrant than wines from Mosel.
White v. Red Breakdown: 85% white, 15% red
Top 3 Grapes: Riesling (78.6%), Spätburgunder (12.3%), Müller-Thurgau (1.6%)
Along with Mosel, this is the most famous wine region in Germany. Rheingau isn’t big — it has about 1/3 the vineyard land of Mosel — but it’s important. Just 20 minutes from Frankfurt, 80% of the region is planted to Riesling. For this area of the world, which is really far north and cold, they’d never be able to grow grapes, but for a little quirk in the Rhine River: it takes a jog from its northerly flow for a bit and flows West for a stretch in the Rheingau region. This shift provides a nice southern slope for grapevines. Insulating the grapes even more are the Taunus Mountains to the north, which deflect nasty polar winds.
That warmth means Rheingau grapes have got it made and for 150 years, the folks living here have taken special pride in that knowledge. 35% of all Rhingau’s vineyards are considered top quality (erstes gewächs). 13 are first class, including two you may have seen before — Schloss Johannisburg and Marcobrunn. Rheingau was developed mostly by monks and has been wining it up since the 980s. The Riesling here is different from Mosel – a bit spicier, more pear-like and minerally, with good acidity, yet softer feeling than wines of Mosel.
Known for: Small production of high quality dry and off-dry Riesling with some reds as well.
White v. Red Breakdown: 75% white, 25% red
Top 3 Grapes: Riesling (28%), Müller-Thurgau (12.7%), Red Dornfelder (10.5%)
Located on the River Nahe, the area is a combination of orchards, meadows, and vineyards. The range of soil types and variety of terrain results in outstanding Riesling. The best sites are on the steep slopes of the Nahe (noticing a trend here? Top vineyards on steep slopes to catch the sun’s rays?). Riesling reigns — 27% of vineyards are planted with it. Nahe used to be known for some the best quality Riesling in Germany but the modernization of the wine industry left the more rural producers in the dust and it has struggled to regain its golden reputation.
The wines are acidic, spicy, yet floral and peachy – kind of like a cross of Mosel and Rheingau. These wines tend to be harder to find, and more expensive given how small the region is, but they can be excellent and in warmer years are often dry or just slightly sweet. Sommeliers constantly rave about one producer out of Nahe, Dönnhoff, whose Rieslings are, indeed, perfection.
Known for: Huge production, warm climates, and improving dry Riesling. A place of excellent value and innovation that isn’t too far from Alsace, France – in geography or style.
White v. Red Breakdown: 63% white, 37% red
Top 3 Grapes: Riesling (24.5%), Red Dornfelder (13.2%), Müller-Thurgau (8.7%)
In the western part of Germany on the border of France, just north of Alsace, lies Pfalz. It contains the second largest vine acreage (after Rheinhessen) but given its warm, dry climate, it often yields the largest crop. Looming to the west is the Haardt Mountains, which serve a similar function to the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, of which they are a continuation. These slopes make a rainshadow that limits vineyard exposure to the wet, cool winds from the west. Given the warmth here, reds can grow well in Pfalz and 40% of the crop is red grapes – mostly Dornfelder and Blauer Portugieser. The other 60% is white – mainly Riesling and Müller-Thurgau.
The warmth means the style of Riesling here is softer, less acidic, and fruitier and more often than not dry rather than sweet. With a better ability to consistently ripen grapes to balance alcohol with acidity than in Mosel or Rheingau, sweetness is not needed to balance the wine.
Known for: Huge production, variable quality, and Liebfraumilch (sweet, nondescript wine from at least 70% of Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, or Kerner that usually comes in a blue bottle and ruined the perception of German wine the world ‘round). Rheinhessen wine can be spectacular if from the right places and people. Just make sure you look for sub regions or good producers to be sure!
White v. Red Breakdown: 69% white, 31% red
Top 3 Grapes: Müller-Thurgau (16.4%), Riesling (16%), Dornfelder (13.1%)
In the largest wine region in Germany, land, soil, and talent ranges, making quality sometimes a crapshoot. The best wines come from steep slopes (here we go again…) rather than rolling hills. In the top site, Nierstein, the vineyards are close to the Rhine and the soil is full of mineral deposits, adding interest to the wines’ flavors. The famed “der roter Hang” or red slope area of Rheinhessen has red sandstone soil and is considered the site for the best wines. Although Riesling is significant, the white Silvaner often overshadows it, as does Liebfraumilch (BLUE NUN) the nasty concoction that ruined the reputation of German wine with its cloying sweetness, low quality, and hodgepodge of flavorless, poorly raised grapes (yes, I did just tell you how I really feel about it.)
Known for: Whites from Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau, some bottled in a green flagon called a bocksbeutel. Reds with an earthy, dry quality.
White v. Red Breakdown: 81% white, 19% red
Top 3 Grapes: Müller-Thurgau (27.7%), Silvaner (23.3%), Bacchus (12%)
In Bavaria, this wine stronghold produces 90% white wine mainly from the Silvaner and Müller Thurgau grapes. Riesling makes only a small appearance here, since the cold weather and ample fall rain mean winegrowers need early ripeners to succeed and Riesling doesn’t fit the bill. The vines are on hilly slopes with the best vineyards hugging the banks of the zig-zagging Main River and its tributaries. Red wines are grown in the west of the region, and they tend to be full bodied, less aromatic with earthy, dry, firm acid and tannin.
And now for lesser known regions that produce a significant proportion of red wine:
Known for: This third largest growing region churns out Burgundy grapes! Over 50% is planted to Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris, with Pinot Noir making up most of the plantings.
White v. Red Breakdown: 58% white, 42% red
Top 3 Grapes: Spätburgunder/Pinot Noir (35%), Müller-Thurgau (16%), Grauburgunder/Pinot Gris (12.3%)
The southernmost winegrowing region in Germany, Baden is warm, sunny, and dry. It is, in fact, the warmest of the wine areas due to its position between the Black Forest and the Rhine River, both which warm temperatures and protect the area from fierce continental winds. Over 50% of what grows in Baden is Burgundy grapes, led by Pinot Noir (called Spätburgunder here). Ample Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) and Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) are here too. Baden has a lot of potential, but I personally have had a hard time finding truly magnificent wines from here.
Known for: Fruity reds. Germany’s only mostly red region.
White v. Red Breakdown: 30% white, 70% red
Top 3 Grapes: Red Trollinger (20.2%), Riesling (18.7%), Schwarzriesling/Pinot Meunier (14.8%)
In this rural, hilly area, 50% of the vineyards are planted with red grapes, which is amazing given that at this latitude (48.7˚N) it can be hard to ripen reds. The leaders are Trollinger, which rarely makes it out of the region, Schwarzriesling (a.k.a. Pinot Meunier of Champagne fame) and Lemberger (Blaufrankisch in Austria). Most of the reds are light and fruity, but from good sites and in warmer years they can be rich, spicy and full bodied.
The next post will contain a round-up of mostly Rieslings with some reds and interesting whites too. Stay tuned!
Sources for this post: Deutscher Wein Statistik 2015 / 2016, www.germanwineusa.com, photos from Wikipedia, Wines of Germany