German wines currently enjoy tremendous popularity, doubtless because they are so attractive to new wine drinkers. Typically, they are white, refreshingly crisp, fruitily flavoured, with a flowery scent, and low in alcohol. This makes them ideal as aperitifs, or even as easy substitutes for water or fruit juice with food.
The Germans are great technicians, and they have perfected the art (or is it the science?) of making clean, scented, dependable if unexciting wine at a reasonable price. They are even able to produce such wines from raw materials other than their own. Hence the new ‘EEC blends’, Germanic white wines made largely from imported Italian wine.
German wine labels may look complicated, but the complications are strictly logical, starting with the green glass for Mosel and brown glass for Rhine wine, or ‘hock’, convention. Tafelwein is the most basic quality level, often described as Deutscher, meaning German. Landwein is a small category just above this but the vast majority of German wine falls into the catch-all category Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebeite, or ‘quality wine from a specified region’.
These are the German wine regions most often represented outside Germany:
Also known as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, it includes the names of two tributaries of the Mosel which produce particularly light wines with piercing flavour. All wines from the Mosel, or Moselle as we often call it, are very low in alcohol, often only 8%, delicate in body and very high in acidity- Piesport and Bernkastel are the two most famous wine villages on this beautiful winding river, whose steep slaty slopes are planted with mainly Riesling vines often at a dizzy angle, designed to make the most of the sun’s rays.
The vineyards planted on the south-facing north bank of the workmanlike river Rhine are probably the most revered in Germany. They produce the most expensive hocks, from villages such as Johannisberg, Winkel, Oestrich, Krbach, Eltville and Hochheim. Such wines are in great demand in Germany and are slightly more honeyed than their counterparts from the Mosel valley; their raciness can keep them going tor decades.
Hocks from this more southerly, warmer region are softer and less powerfully flavoured than Rheingau wines. This is the region most famous for Liebfraumilch, a blend of medium-dry German wine designed for early drinking, though considerable quantities are also made in Rheinpralz. Bereich Nierstein and Niersteiner Gutes Domtal are other often-encountered exports from the Rheinhessen. (Nierstein is a commune, Bereich means ‘district’ and Gutes Domtal is the name of a large collection of vineyards near Nierstein which are allowed to sell their wine, often blended together, as Nicrsteiner Gutes Domtal.)
Wines from this warm region are characterized by richness, spiciness and much more body than other German wines.
Germany’s other wine regions, more rarely represented abroad, are Ahr, Mittelrhein, Nahe, Hessische Bergstrasse, Baden and Franconia (whose wines are very distinctively bottled in flat green flasks).
In Germany, where sunshine is at a premium, it is the ripest grapes that are most revered – in contrast to hot wine regions such as California and much of Australia where acidity in grapes is at a premium, and the trick is to pick sufficiently early. The most exciting German wines are those that are high in natural sugar and the system for grading superior quality wines rests principally on exact sugar levels in the grapes that went into them.
Qualitatswein, or QbA, wines usually derive what sweetness they have from added unfermented grape juice, called Sussreserve. The top drawer wines, Qualitatswein mil Pradikat, or QmP, are sweet because the grapes were very sweet and, even after fermentation, some sweetness remains. The driest of these is Kabinett, then come Spatlese and Auslcse which are usually medium dry to medium sweet (though with enough acidity to stop them being cloying) and, richest of all, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (which in the USA is abbreviated to TBA).
This exciting ladder of riches represents the finest achievements of Germany’s vineyards. In most years only about 20 per cent of the vintage is ripe enough to warrant QmP status, but the very hot summers of 1975 and 1976, for instance, yielded crops of which 50 per cent and 82 per cent respectively were QmP wines.
Because they are the rarest, Beerenauslese and, even sweeter, Trockenbeerenauslese wines are the most expensive, but the much more affordable Spatlese and Auslese qualities are perhaps more useful. The sweet wines are very sweet, while being delicate too, so they tend to be overwhelmed by food, while being too sweet to be served as aperitifs. However, Kabinett, Spatlese or even a mature slightly sweeter Auslese can make a delicious pre-dinner drink.
Riesling (pronounced ‘Reece-ling’) is the classic grape variety on which almost all other German vines are based. The hardworking grape breeders of that country have been trying to develop new vine crossings that have the wonderful honey-and-flowers flavour of the Riesling, with higher production and good disease resistance. Muller-Thurgau is a century-old crossing that has some of the fragrance of Riesling but less acidity and is much shorter-lived. It is very productive, however, which is why it is now the most widely planted grape variety in Germany. Only in the Mosel does the Riesling still dominate the vineyards. Elsewhere the rather tart Silvaner (Sylvaner of Alsace), Ru lander (Pinot Gris) and three new crossings, Scheurebe, Kerner and Morio Muskat are already popular. In good, ripe years Scheurebe can rival the great Riesling, though in poor years its aroma can be just too reminiscent of cats. The Kcrner is similar to the Riesling but a bit less assertive, while the Morio Muskat’s overwhelmingly grapcy scent can sometimes be almost too forceful.
Some red wine is made in Germany, much of it in the Ahr region and most of it either from Spat burgunder (Pinot Noir) or Portugieser, also commonly grown in Austria. German reds are very pale, often slightly sweet, and rarely exported.