White wines from Germany

Article and photos by Petteri Harjula, English translation Sini Kaukonen

Germany is the only country among the ten biggest wine producing countries in the world that produces mostly – almost 2/3 – white wine. In addition to the country's location in the north, the underlying reason for this is the strong affinity that Germans have for white wines – especially German ones. It is no wonder that this is the case in the home of Riesling. However, other interesting white wine grapes can also be found in Germany.

Back in the early 20th century, Germany was a superpower in the world of quality wines in Europe. Only three different types of wine had their own terms in the English language: sack for sherry, claret for the red wine of Bordeaux, and hock for German white wine. The best semi-dry and sweet German white wines were worth twice as much as the best wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Two lost wars and the rise of dry wines changed the situation. Unluckily, the German wine law was also changed significantly in the late 1960s, which led to emphasis on quantity over quality in the production of wines. Müller-Thurgau, a prolific variety of grape developed in the late 19th century by Hermann Müller from Thurgau, Switzerland, became the most cultivated grape variety in Germany. Even though it is possible to make quality wine from Müller-Thurgau, it was (and still is) used mainly in cheap basic wines as a substitute for Riesling.

This direction changed in the 1990s. A new generation wanted wines that were better quality (and drier), at the same time when New World wines, mainly from South America and South Africa, were taking over the cheap wine market. By the mid-1990s, Riesling had passed Müller-Thurgau as the number one grape variety in Germany.

Morning fog on the Moselle
Vineyards in Rheingau

Riesling – born by the River Rhine

Riesling's strength is in its ability to produce highly different and multidimensional wines that keep well over time. A distinctive quality of the Riesling wines is their very high acidity, which was historically balanced with residual sugar. This is also reflected in the traditional German rating system of quality wines, in which the rating is based directly on the sugar content of the grapes at the moment of picking (with the exception of ice wine, in which the grapes also have to be frozen).

The basic aromas of Riesling are citrus (especially grapefruit and lime), gooseberry, white flowers and wet stone or steel. As the sweetness increases, peach, nectarine and even more exotic fruits also come into play. The acidity softens with age, and the wet stone turns into kerosene. Even dry top-quality Riesling wines mature and last easily for a couple of decades, the semi-dry ones last for several decades, and the sweet ones even more than a hundred years.

Riesling is by far the most cultivated grape variety in Germany with its 24,000 hectares, which accounts for about one-fourth of Germany's entire vineyard area, and more than half of the vineyard area dedicated to Riesling in the world. In eight of the 13 wine-growing regions in Germany, Riesling is the most cultivated grape variety. The most significant of these areas are Mosel, Nahe, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz. The first two were named after two tributaries of the Rhine, the other three border on the Rhine itself. This region around the River Rhine is considered to be the birthplace of Riesling.

The aforementioned areas – especially Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz – are also the most traditional wine regions in Germany. Mosel is considered the number one wine region, and it is the visually most impressive one with its steep slopes. Nahe was regarded as the best region in Germany in the 19th century, but then it started to lag behind the other areas – now, it's making a comeback. Rheingau is the most compact of the regions, and the home of Germany's leading wine institute (Geisenheim), which is also one of the leading wine institutes in all of Europe. It was also the place where Spätlese wine was produced for the first time. Rheinhessen is the largest wine region by surface area, Pfalz by its volume of wine production.

View to the River Rhine from the Red Slope near Nierstein

Grauburgunder, Weissburgunder, Gutedel and Baden

If we skip over the already mentioned Müller-Thurgau on the list of German white grape varieties, the third and fourth place go to Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), introduced to Germany from France. Both are found in several wine regions of Germany, but they perform best in the more southern areas, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, and especially Baden.

Grauburgunder produces full-bodied wine with moderately low acidity. In Germany (unlike on the other side of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, France), it is used to produce mostly dry wine. The grape's other German name Ruländer is used to denote a sweeter style of wine. It was named after pharmacist Johann Seger Ruland (1683-1745), who was reportedly the first winemaker to grow Grauburgunder in Germany. 

Weissburgunder, on the other hand, is lighter-bodied, more acidic, and freshly fruity. Even though Weissburgunder is also able to produce wines that age well, it is used more in wines that are meant to be drunk young, enjoyed on a sunny summer's day with or without food.

Baden is the warmest of Germany's wine regions, and is known as the ”sun deck” (Sonnendeck) of Germany. In terms of quality, red wines are more important to the region than white wines – in terms of money, white asparagus is even more important. One particular white grape variety, Gutedel or Chasselas, is worth mentioning. It is grown almost exclusively in Baden, probably partly because of Switzerland's location on the other side of the border. The Helvetians have a high regard for both this grape variety which is rich in aroma and low in acid, and the affordable price of the wines made from the grape in Germany.

Different types of bottles in Germany

Silvaner and Franconia

The fifth most popular white grape variety in Germany is Silvaner (or Sylvaner as it's known in France). Its cultivation area has decreased significantly in the last 20 years, which is also the case with Kerner (and Müller-Thurgau). Silvaner is associated with two things in Germany – Franconia and white asparagus. The latter one is partly the reason for the diminished popularity of Silvaner wine. In Germany, it has been marketed so effectively as a so-called ”asparagus wine” that its demand decreases drastically when the vegetable is out of season.

Silvaner produces full-bodied, juicy wines with medium acidity. Their aroma is relatively neutral, but Silvaner is easily recognizable by the shape of the bottle. Franconian wines are typically bottled in the traditional Bocksbeutel bottles, which are round and flat, quite unlike the tall, thin white wine bottles used in Germany's other wine regions.

Germany's wine regions
Petteri Harjula, Chief Wine Officer, DipWSET