Viniculture in Germany

Life is too Short to Drink Schlecht Wine

Germany, Lower Franconia, Vineyard near Kohler with view of chapel and Kreuzberg hill in background
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If there’s ever been an appropriate use of the phrase “low potential, high achiever” (“das geringe Potenzial, Überflieger”), its application to German viniculture is it. Just as the French entomologist August Magnan was puzzled by the homely bumblebee’s ability to fly, many viniculturists are delighted and surprised by Germany’s phenomenal wines, especially given the geographical and environmental challenges. The quality of German wines owes its prestige and its success to German diligence, imagination, and wise use of resources.

What Makes German Wine Hard to Produce

This collective surprise and delight spring from the latitude of Germany’s 13 main wine regions, the southernmost of which is on a par with Inner Mongolia, Alaska & the Bering Sea, and Labrador & Newfoundland, and the northernmost of which is on a par with Sakhalin. The prime German wine regions lie between the 53rd and the 51st northern parallels, an inhospitable clime to say the least, in that the German vineyards’ annual exposure to sunshine is obviously limited, the growing season is understandably much briefer than it is in sunnier France and Italy, and the ambient temperature during the growing season is also much lower. All in all, Mother Nature has erected a lot of hurdles for German vintners to clear, but clear them they do.

In brief, Germany is a surprising contender in the international wine market, a maverick. For example, Germany has fewer vineyard hectares than does India, Moldova, Romania, Iran, Turkey, or China - nations not particularly renowned as viniculture centers. Also, as a rule, Germans drink more than four times as much beer as they drink wine. In Germany, beer seems to be the drink of choice with meals and for relaxation, while wine seems to be categorized as a treat, even a self-indulgence, trotted out for special occasions, but not routinely enjoyed with lunch, supper, or dinner. Think how discouraging it must be to German winemakers to have their countrymen prefer a local beer rather than to savor what amounts to a work of agricultural art that commands worldwide demand. Beer unquestionably has its place, particularly on a very hot day, but not as a peer to wines. A superb German wine is to an excellent German beer what a thick, juicy, marbled slice of rare prime rib is to an Imbiß Currywurst.

Certainly there’s a lot of mediocre wine in Germany, just as there is in all wine-producing countries. That’s not a surprise; however, from the standpoint of spinning gold from straw, Germany wins hands down. Consider the adverse climate, the difficult terrain, and the tremendous expense involved over the months - shepherding the vines, nurturing the grapes, tending to the various threats to the crop and, yet, Germany’s best is not only Germany’s best, it is among the world’s best, despite the overwhelming geographical and environmental advantages of other wine-producing nations.

Enjoying German Wine

When we drink a superb German wine, we imbibe the dedication of the German winemaker who, like the long-distance runner caught in an endorphin reverie, goes beyond the routine winemaking tasks to do something for its own merit, to create an object of truth and beauty for its own sake.

There are 13 German wine regions (Anbaugebiet), which, based on increasing vineyard areas are: Hessische Bergstraße, Mittelrhein, Saxony (Sachsen), Ahr, SaaleUnstrut, Rheingau, Nahe, Franconia (Franken), Mosel (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer), Württemberg, Baden, Palatinate (Pfalz), and Rheinhessen. Each region contains one or more districts (Bereiche), and each district contains ons or more vineyard collections (Großlage) and/or individual vineyards (Einzellage). The structural organization is not complicated, but it is extensive and, of course, being German, it is as logical as it can be.

These varied regions offer many, many superb wines - many of which are not available outside Germany because their production is limited and because local demand (in beer-drinking Germany!) is high. It might seem rash to suggest, but many of the superb German wines that aren’t available elsewhere make an extended trip by visitors from around the world to German wine regions an essential for a true wine-lover's bucket list. As Yeats so poignantly said,

“Wine comes in at the mouth / And love comes in at the eye; / That’s all we shall know for truth / Before we grow old and die. / I lift the glass to my mouth, /I look at you, and I sigh.”

There are wines in Germany that demand personal attention and there are many, many outstanding German wines with which you may not be familiar or which will astonish you when you learn of them. A journey of delight and enlightenment awaits. Prosit!