German wine’s historical roots
The Romans introduced viticulture to what we now call Germany in around 50BC. As they conquered lands north of the Alps, they were drawn to the transport routes of the River Rhine and its tributaries, most famously the Mosel, in the south-west of the country which have powered the economy here for millennia.
Two thousand years later, this area remains Germany’s most important wine-making region. The hillsides plunge precipitously down to narrow valleys – these are the steepest vineyards in the world, where all the work is done by hand and harvesters have to sit on chairs dragged up the slopes on rails to pick. This is labour-intensive production and prices of the best wines reflect this, but the quality can be sublime.
Riesling is the major grape here, and the one that gave German wines such a bad reputation only a few years ago. These days quality has improved hugely and now riesling is used to make really thrilling wines in steely, searingly dry styles, as well as the more traditional off-dry wines that generally come in at modestly low alcohol levels of 10% or less, and are brilliant with gently spiced food.
Labelling can be intimidating and confusing – look for trocken (dry), kabinett (dry to off-dry), spätlese (sweet) and auslese (sweeter) to get a steer on what you’re buying. Müller-thurgau, pinot gris and pinot blanc are the other main white grapes grown, although innovative makers are now experimenting with others. Red wines make up only 12% of production here, the vast majority of which is pinot noir, known as spätburgunder, and is generally elegant, savoury and earthy.
As well as esteemed traditional producers such as JJ Prüm, Fürst and Dönnhoff, innovative young winemakers are also getting in on the act making exciting natural wines that are probably more like the wines the Romans made than the pristine, modern incarnations. After decades in the doldrums, German wine is on the rise again.