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Germany’s best vineyards are the world’s northernmost – as far north as grapes can be persuaded to ripen. Many vineyards are on land unfit for normal agriculture; if there were no grapes, it would be forest and bare mountains. All things considered, Germany’s chances of producing some of the world’s best white wines might seem slim.

And yet, the best German wines have a racy elegance that cannot be duplicated anywhere else. The secret is the balance of sugar and acidity. Sugar without acid would be flat; acid without sugar would be undrinkable. In good wines, the two are so finely balanced that they have the certainty of great art.

The majority of Germany’s best wines are made from Riesling, the great grape of Germany. The best vineyard sites in the Mosel, Rheingau, Nahe and Pfalz wine regions are planted almost exclusively with Riesling.

In challenging growing seasons, Riesling stands little chance of ripening. To reduce risk and ensure a larger production, Germany turned during the mid-20th century to Muller-Thurgau, a much-earlier-ripening white grape variety that lacks some of the charm and elegance of the noble Riesling grape. Plantings of Silvaner also proved successful, thriving in the regions of Franken, Rheinhessen and Baden. Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Dornfelder are the two principal red grape varieties of Germany, producing light-bodied red wines that are easy-drinking and soft in tannins.

Recently revised German wine laws divide "quality" wines – covering the great majority of those produced, and virtually all exported to the United States – into two categories. The larger is Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA), or quality wine from a specific region. Smaller and regarded as higher in quality is Prädikatswein, or quality wine with special attributes. The Prädikatswein category is divided into six subcategories indicating ripeness of the grapes at harvest time, which effectively rank wines from driest to sweetest: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.

Kabinett wines are the driest, ideal as aperitifs or table wine. The word "Trocken" on a label will further confirm that the wine is dry. Spatlese wines and Auslese wines may be off-dry to sweet. The rest are sweet enough to be dessert wines, with late-harvest and sometimes botrytized grapes adding honeyed character to the wines.

Despite all the talk about sweetness and ripeness, in recent years most German winemakers have shifted their focus to producing dry wines meant to be paired with food. These wines, much drier than the sweet, cheap imports many remember from decades past, are also somewhat higher in alcohol, with the residual sugar in the wine fermented away into alcohol.

Germany has 13 designated wine regions for quality wines, most surrounding the Rhine River and its tributaries: Ahr, Baden, , Hessische Bergstrasse, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen and Württemberg.

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