The Ahr is one of Germany’s northernmost wine regions. It is also one of the smallest, with vineyards extending only 24 km/15 miles along the Ahr River as it flows toward the Rhine just south of Bonn. From Altenahr, in the west, to the spa Bad Neuenahr, the vines are perched on steep, terraced cliffs of volcanic slate. In the broad eastern end of the valley, the slopes are gentler and the soils are rich in loess. Four out of five bottles of Ahr wine are red — velvety to fiery Spätburgunder and light, charming Portugieser predominate, with plantings of Dornfelder on the rise. Lively, fresh Riesling and Müller-Thurgau are the white wines produced here.
Franken lies some 65 km/40 miles east of the Rhine, in Bavaria, with most of its vineyards planted on the hilly slopes lining the Main River and its tributaries. Würzburg is home of the famed vineyard Stein, which gave rise to the generic term Steinwein, formerly used to denote all Franken wines. Fuller-bodied, less aromatic, often drier, firmer and earthier, Franconian wines are generally the most masculine of Germany’s wines. Part of Franken’s wines singular personality is due to the climate: cold winters, high annual rainfall, early frosts — long, warm autumns are rare. As a result, the late-ripening Riesling plays a minor role. Müller-Thurgau (also called Rivaner), Silvaner and new crossings, such as Bacchus and Kerner, are the most important white varieties. Red wine grapes thrive in the western portion of the region between Aschaffenburg and Miltenberg.The finest Franken wines are traditionally bottled in a Bocksbeutel, a squat green or brown flagon with a round body — which lends considerable recognition value to the region’s wines.
Beginning just below Bonn and extending about 100 km/60 miles south along the banks of the Rhine, the Mittelrhein is a beautiful region of steep, terraced vineyards and some of the wine world’s most splendid scenery — medieval castles and ruins clinging to rocky peaks, sites of ancient legends where Siegfried, Hagen and the Loreley seem to spring to life. Nearly three-fourths of the vineyards are planted with the noble Riesling grape. The clayish slate soil yields lively wines with a pronounced acidity. In years when the wines are particularly austere, they are sold to the producers of Sekt , Germany’s sparkling wine, where high acidity is an asset.
The Nahe region is named after the river that traverses the valleys of the forested Hunsrück Hills as it gently flows toward Bingen on the Rhine.
It is a peaceful landscape of vineyards, orchards and meadows interspersed with cliffs and striking geological formations. Although the Nahe is one of the smaller German wine regions, its extraordinary range of soil types is second to none. For this reason, the region is able to produce quite diverse wines from relatively few grape varieties. The steeper sites of volcanic or weathered stone, and those with red, clayish slate seem predestined for elegant, piquant Riesling wines of great finesse and a light spiciness, while flatter sites of loam, loess and sandy soils yield lighter, fragrant Müller-Thurgau (Rivaner) wines with a flowery note. The Silvaner grape thrives in a number of soils and produces full-bodied, earthy wines.
The Rheingau is one of the most distinguished wine regions of the world. Moving from east to west, the fairly flat, dimpled landscape evolves into progressively steep slopes. It is a quietly beautiful region, rich in tradition. Early on, its medieval ecclesiastical and aristocratic wine-growers were associated with the noble Riesling grape and, in the 18th century, were credited for recognizing the value of harvesting the crop at various stages of ripeness — from which the Prädikate, or special attributes that denote wines of superior quality, evolved. Queen Victoria’s enthusiasm for Hochheim’s wines contributed to their popularity in England, where they, and ultimately, Rhine wines in general, were referred to as Hock. The world-renowned oenological research and teaching institutes in Geisenheim have contributed significantly to the extraordinarily high level of technical competence in the German wine industry today. Two grape varieties predominate: the Riesling and the Spätburgunder. The former yields elegant wines with a refined and sometimes spicy fragrance; a fruity, pronounced acidity; and a rich flavor. The Spätburgunder wines are velvety and medium- to full-bodied, with a bouquet and taste often compared with blackberries
Vines have been cultivated since AD 998 on the hillsides lining the Saale and Unstrut rivers which lend their name to the small, but growing, Saale-Unstrut region. It is among the northernmost of Europe’s traditional wine regions. Due to this, and the cooler climate, the weather is more variable than in the regions to the west. As such, many of the vines are planted on labor-intensive stone terraces that help temper the climate. Yields are low and Spätlese or Auslese can be produced only in exceptionally warm years. The wines are labelled as varietals and, with the exception of extremely rare dessert wines, all wines are vinified dry and have a refreshing acidity.
Apart from the urban centers of Stuttgart and Heilbronn, Württemberg is a rural, hilly countryside with vineyards and orchards scattered amidst forests and fields. Most of the terraced vineyards of the past have been reorganized to improve efficiency. However, a number still exist, notably the so-called “cliff gardens” near the Neckar’s scenic loops between Besigheim and Mundelsheim. With more than half of its vineyards planted with red wine varieties, Württemberg ranks as Germany’s premier red wine region. The main variety is Trollinger, seldom found outside of this region, followed by Schwarzriesling, also known as Müllerrebe or Pinot Meunier, and Lemberger. An additional 919 ha / 2,270 acres are planted with Spätburgunder, Dornfelder and Portugieser. Much of the wine is light, fruity and easy to enjoy; but deep-colored, rich, full-bodied red wine with great class is also produced here. Riesling is an important variety in Württemberg, accounting for nearly a quarter of the vineyard area, followed by Kerner and Müller-Thurgau. Kerner, a crossing of Trollinger and Riesling, was bred at the region’s oenological research and teaching institute in Weinsberg. In general, the wines are hearty and full-bodied, with a vigorous acidity.
Baden is the southernmost of Germany’s wine regions. It is primarily a long, slim strip of vineyards nestled between the hills of the Black Forest and the Rhine River, extending some 400 km/240 miles from north to south. Comprised of nine districts, Baden has many soil types and grape varieties. Nearly half of the vineyards are planted with Burgunder (Pinot) varieties: Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), yielding velvety to fiery red wine and refreshing Weissherbst (rosé), ranging in style from dry to slightly sweet; Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), a dry, food-compatible wine, or marketed under the synonym Ruländer to denote a richer, fuller-bodied (and sweeter) style; and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), food friendly variety with attractive floral aromas. Spicy Gewürztraminer and the noble Riesling are specialties of the Ortenau district near Baden-Baden, where they are known as Clevner and Klingelberger, respectively. Light, mild Gutedel (synonymous with the Chasselas of France and Fendant of Switzerland) is a specialty of the Markgräflerland district between Freiburg and the Swiss border.
The tiny region Hessische Bergstrasse takes its name from an old Roman trade route known as the strata montana, or mountain road. It is a pretty landscape of vines and orchards scattered on hilly slopes — famous for its colorful and fragrant springtime blossoms, the earliest in Germany. Riesling and Müller-Thurgau account for two-thirds of the area under vine. The wines tend to be fragrant and rich, with more body and an acidity and finesse similar to those of the Rheingau.
The Mosel River is the sinuous spine of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, changing direction so often as it flows northeast toward the Rhine that it meanders nearly 250 km/150 miles, to cover about half that distance as the crow flies. Together with its two small tributaries, the Saar and the Ruwer, the Mosel composes one geographical entity. Although each river’s vineyard area produces a wine with its own distinctive personality, the three share a family resemblance: a fragrance reminiscent of spring blossoms, a pale color, light body and a refreshing, fruity acidity. To add to their charm, they often have the slightest hint of effervescence. Most display their finest charms in youth; the late- and selectively-harvested wines merit aging. Along the serpentine route of the Mosel, the river banks rise so sharply that the vineyards carpeting these slopes are among the steepest in the world, with some planted at an astounding 70-degree gradient. On these precipitous inclines, nearly all labor must be done by hand. That includes tying each vine to its own eight-foot wooden stake, and carrying up the slate soil that has washed down with the winter rains.
Bordered by Rheinhessen on the north and France on the south and west, the Pfalz’s vineyards sweep across this remarkably pretty, peaceful land for nearly 80 uninterrupted kilometers (50 miles). It is Germany’s second largest wine region in acreage, but often has the largest crop of all. The word Pfalz is a derivation of the Latin word palatium, meaning palace. The English equivalent, Palatinate, is sometimes used to refer to the Pfalz. Modern technology and viticultural training have made their mark here in the past four decades. Yet for the visitor driving through the sea of vines along the German Wine Road, the scene is still pastoral with the tree-covered Haardt mountain range, castle ruins, fruit trees, and old walled villages of half-timbered houses. The Pfalz is second only to the Mosel in acreage planted with the noble Riesling grape. Here, it yields wines of substance and finesse with a less austere acidity than their Mosel counterparts. Pleasant, mild white wines rich in bouquet and full of body are produced from Müller-Thurgau, Kerner, Silvaner and Scheurebe grapes, while smooth, fruity red wine is made from the Portugieser grape. In response to the growing demand for red wine, there are many new plantings of Dornfelder, which produces a deep-colored wine that can be quite complex, depending on the winemaking techniques employed.
Germany’s largest wine region, Rheinhessen, lies in a valley of gentle rolling hills. While vines are virtually a monoculture in the Rheingau or along the Mosel, they are but one of many crops that share the fertile soils of this region’s vast farmlands. Steep vineyard sites are confined to small areas near Bingen and south of Mainz along the Rhein Terrasse. Varied soils and the favorable climate make it possible to grow many grape varieties, old and new. In fact, many of Germany’s aromatic, early-ripening new crossings were bred in Rheinhessen by Professor Georg Scheu, after whom the Scheurebe grape is named (pronounced “shoy”). The region boasts the world’s largest acreage planted with the ancient variety Silvaner and is the birthplace of Liebfraumilch, the soft, mellow white wine originally made from grapes grown in vineyards surrounding the Liebfrauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, in Worms. Rheinhessen wines are often characterized as being soft, fragrant, medium-bodied and mild in acidity — pleasant, easy-to-drink wines. There are also wines of great class and elegance, with a depth and complexity second to none.
Sachsen is Germany’s easternmost and smallest wine-growing region. Its recorded viticultural history dates from 1161 and parallels that of other wine regions, where the Church and the aristocracy were the primary medieval property owners and responsible for the development of the vineyards. In addition to viticulture, their legacy includes a wealth of art and architectural gems throughout the region. Most of the vineyards are between Dresden and Diesbar-Seusslitz, the northern end of the Saxon Wine Road. A few vineyards are being restored on the southern outskirts of Dresden and further south, in Pillnitz and Pirna, the gateway to Saxon’s Switzerland. Many of the small parcels are planted on steep, labor-intensive stone terraces. The proximity of the Elbe River helps temper the climate, but given this northerly location and growing conditions similar to those of Saale-Unstrut, it is not surprising that the early-ripening Müller-Thurgau predominates. Here, too, the wines are marketed as varietals and nearly always vinified dry.