Germany is the eighth largest wine-producing country in the world, and white wine accounts for almost two thirds of the total production. Many experts believe that Germany is the home of the world’s greatest white wines and much of the merit must, of cours,e go to Riesling, as the only grape variety that excels both as a dry wine and a sweet, late harvest wine. This is a far cry from only 20 or 30 years ago, when German wines had at best, a mixed reputation internationally, with consumers often associating Germany with cheap, mass-market, semi-sweet wines such as Liebfraumilch. On the contrary, Germany has long made fine wines dating back to ancient Roman Times (20 A.D.).
Primarily a white wine country, where Riesling is the most common grape planted, there are also significant vineyards of Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder), Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder), Sylvaner, Kerner, Gewürztraminer amongst others. Mostly fuelled by domestic demand, red wine production has surged since the 1990s and early 2000s, now accounting for roughly 33% of the total surface area under vine. Red wines are most often made with Spätburgunder, the local name for Pinot Noir, and Dornfelder. It has always been hard to produce red wine in the cold, German climate, and in the past was usually closer to rosé in colour.
German wine is predominantly produced in the west of the country, along the river Rhine and its tributaries. The best known wine production areas are the Mosel, Saar, the Rheingau and the Pfalz, although there are still fabulous producers based elsewhere. The Rheingau is the home of many wonderful noble castles that have long enjoyed a reputation for some of Germany’s best wines.
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of German wines is their high acidity levels, caused by both the weaker ripening in a northerly climate and by the ability of Riesling to retain acidity even at high ripeness levels. The wines are usually unoaked and low in alcohol (12.5% is common) though some areas like the Rheingau and the Pfalz, have warmer microclimates and can produce slightly richer wines. Traditionally, German wine has always been slightly sweet, even the Kabinett wines, which are the entry level quality of the “mit predikat” system (with predicate or certification, meaning the wine is certified to have reached a minimum sweetness level and therefore ripeness). Recently, however, much more German white wine is being made in the dry or trocken style again. Most exports are still of sweet wines, particularly to traditional export markets such as Great Britain, which remains the leading export market both in terms of volume and value.