Germany's wines and wine regions
German wines are categorized based on the amount of ripeness — the grape’s natural sugar content — measured at harvest. Grapes with higher levels of ripeness produce wines with more flavor, extract and complexity, and are considered higher quality (see sidebar for classification graph). Wines made with less ripe grapes appear at the bottom of the pyramid and move upward as ripeness and special attributes increase. For detailed explanations on German wine classifications, visit www.deutschewines.de and www.vdp.de/en.
Fermentation, the chemical process of changing the wine’s sugars into alcohols, affects a finished wine’s level of sweetness. If fermentation is stopped before all of the sugar changes to alcohol, then the wine will have a sweeter flavor.
Quality wines produced in Germany must derive from a list of approved varieties, have specific alcohol content, degrees of ripeness (Oechsle), and originate from specific wine-growing regions. Of the approximately 100 grape varieties grown in Germany, two dozen have important significance in the commercial winemaking industry, with Riesling at the top:
Riesling – The star of Germany’s wine production, this complex, late-blooming grape yields fragrantly dry, semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling white wines that are floral and fruity, with hints of honey, apple, pear, apricot, pineapple and citrus. A Riesling with high acidity also fares well if allowed to age.
Müller-Thurgau (Rivaner) – Once thought to be part Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau is actually a cross of Riesling and Gutedel. Germany’s second largest wine crop yields light, acidic and floral wines.
Silvaner – This old and once popular variety is now mainly grown in the Franken and Baden regions. It yields a neutral, light white wine.
Kerner – A cross between Riesling and Trollinger, wines from this newer breed can be dry or off-dry with a hint of Muscat.
Bacchus – A cross of Silvaner, Riesling and Müller- Thurgau, it yields fruity white wines with a light tone of Muscat.
Scheurebe – This cross of a Riesling and Silvaner can be dry or off-dry, yet late-harvest yields can produce richly sweet wines prized for their powerful bouquet of black currant and honey.
Grauer Burgunder (Pinot Gris) – Called Pinot Gris/Grigio in France/Italy, this grape is grown mainly in the Pfalz and Baden regions and yields white wines that vary from light and dry to fragrantly full-bodied (called Rulander).
Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) – Grown in Baden, Pfalz, Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen regions, this grape usually yields dry, neutral yet acidic white wines.
Faberrebe – A cross of Weissburgunder with Müller-Thurgau, this grape yields fruity whites with aromas of Muscat.
Huxelrebe – This cross between Gutedel and Courtillier Musqué (or Muscat Précoce de Saumur) can produce high-quality sweet or dessert wines with fine Muscat aromas in controlled yields.
Gutedel – Considered an ancient grape, Gutedel produces neutral, dry white wines suitable for both quality and table wines. It is grown in the Baden region.
Morio-Muskat – A cross between Silvaner and Weissburgunder, the grape is grown in the Pfalz and Rheinhessen regions and yields neutral white wines.
Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) – This grape hails from Burgundy and ripens late in the season (Spät). Traditional German Spätburgunder is light in flavor and color; modern growers are producing oak-aged, full-bodied wines rich with tannins, flavor and aging potential.
Portugieser – This old variety ripens early and produces light, mild rosé or pale red wines.
Dornfelder – This newer variety produces a darker red than other grapes in Germany. Primarily used in blending to improve color, some oak-aged Dornfelders continue to grow in popularity.
Trollinger – Grown only in the warm Württemberg region, this late-ripening grape produces light, fruity reds, popular with locals.
Schwarzriesling – This “black Riesling” is actually not a Riesling but a mutation of Spätburgunder that produces red wines deep in color with light, acidic notes. Some vintners also press a dry white or utilize the grape in sparkling Sekt production.
Lemberger – This versatile, complex grape grown virtually exclusive to Württemberg, yields wines from light and fruity to rich in color, tannin and flavor.
Dunkelfelder – Grown in several regions, this variety produces a deep red color and is used primarily in blends.
Heroldrebe – Producing light rosé wines, this late-ripening grape is found in the Pfalz, Reheinhessen and Württemberg regions in decreasing numbers.
Domina – This promising newcomer produces red wines with deep color and complex, full-bodied flavor and is planted mostly in Franken.
Germany’s wine regions
Ahr – This tiny region on the Ahr River in Rheinland-Pfalz produces some of Germany’s best red wines in one of the most difficult red wine growing, northern climates in the country. Vines literally cling to steep slate and volcanic rock ledges above the river that aid in ripening. Visit a spa in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler between wine events.
Baden – Germany’s warmest and longest region runs from the Rhine to the Swiss border and shores of Lake Constance. Numerous wine varieties grow here. The 124-mile Baden Wine Route winds through some of Germany’s most beautiful towns and scenery as it passes through six Baden wine districts including Ortenau, Kaiserstuhl, Tuniberg, Breisgau and Markgräflerland.
Franken – This region in northwest Bavaria grows several varieties, but Müller- Thurgau is the most planted. Many regional quality wines are bottled in the unusually shaped Bocksbeutel, a squat and flattened bottle. Notable towns of the region include Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Würzburg; most towns hold their own wine fest each year.
Hessische Bergstrasse – Bordering the Rhine just north of Heidelberg (home of one of the world’s largest and oldest wine barrels) is Germany’s smallest wine region that produces fragrant, fruity, full-bodied quality white wines. Head to one of their local fests, as their wines are scarcely found outside of the region.
Mittelrhein – Half-timbered houses, medieval castles and other sites of cultural and historical significance are found along the way in this wine region on the Rhine. That includes the 40-mile stretch of the Rhine Gorge between Koblenz and Bingen, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Take a river cruise during Rhine in Flames and visit both St. Goarshausen and Oberwesel’s annual wine fests.
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer – Germany’s oldest region follows the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer rivers and is known for world-class Rieslings. Romans grew wine here more than 2,000 years ago; the vineyards are also some of the world’s steepest, planted in 65- and 70-degree gradients. The vines are trained to grow along special, heart-shaped stakes to aid laborers who handpick and work along the precariously positioned rows.
Nahe – This region follows the Nahe River where it meets the Rhine at Bingen then south to Monzingen. Several vineyards and towns host annual harvest festivals, tastings and open-cellar days to celebrate the quality, predominately white wines produced in Nahe.
Pfalz – Germany’s second largest region often yields the largest wine crop. The sheer number of vines and the region’s beauty can be enjoyed by vehicle along the Deutsche Weinstrasse. This 50-mile scenic wine road was established in 1935 to help local vintners move their crops. Bad Dürkheim’s Wurstmarkt is considered the world’s largest wine festival.
Rheingau – Near Wiesbaden, the Rhine curves toward the west and flows through 12.5 miles of the heart of this world-renowned wine region. You can follow the route, see the stunning wine estates and visit during open cellar days for a taste. Don’t miss the Rheingau culinary wine fest in Wiesbaden; international chefs pair their gastronomic delights with the region’s best wines.
Rheinhessen – Germany’s largest wine region sits between Mainz, Worms and Bingen and is known for its commercially exported wines, such as Liebfrauenmilch, a sweet, mellow wine originally made from grapes around the Liebfrauenkirche in Worms. Today, however, several young winemakers are changing history as they create fresh, innovative and dynamic wines that are receiving top quality classifications.
Saale-Unstrut – This small northeastern region along the Saale and Unstrut rivers boasts vines that have been cultivated since A.D. 998. Due to its climate, yields are low and most are dry varietals with marked acidity and bouquet.
Sachsen – Just north of Dresden along the Elbe River is Germany’s easternmost and third smallest wine region. Much like those vineyards of Saale-Unstrut, the climate allows for the best yields from early-ripening varieties such as Müller-Thurgau, and are usually vinified dry.
Württemberg – Located within the state of Baden-Württemberg, the region follows the slopes of the Neckar River and stretches from Stuttgart to Heilbronn and down to Lake Constance. As one of the warmest regions, it produces more red wines than white, and many different varieties. While the region produces the most red wines, its vintners are mainly “hobby” growers with small vineyards.