Germany is not just renowned for its beer; its wines also hold a significant place in the global wine scene. German wines are incredibly diverse, ranging from semi-sweet light white wines to rich botrytized liqueurs and even unique ice wines.
The country is home to 13 production areas, each with distinct soil and climate conditions, approximately 160 collective vineyards, and 2650 individual vineyards. Thousands of grape growers and winemakers have crafted their unique wines, each with distinctive characters, qualities, and types. These factors ensure the diversity, typicality, and traditional and innovative wine styles of German wines.
The Climate and Weather Challenges
As one of the northernmost growing regions globally, Germany falls under the “cool climate category of wine-producing countries. The ability of the grapes to grow and ripen there depends mainly on the Gulf Stream, which influences Western Europe’s climate. Despite this, the climate and weather in various German production regions pose many unique ecological challenges to growers that are unfamiliar to those in the Mediterranean region. The key differences are:
- Compared to southern European wine-producing countries, the sunshine in German wine-producing regions is quite low.
- The average temperature in Germany is relatively low.
- The rainfall in German wine-producing regions mainly occurs during the grape growing period in summer. During the grape ripening period, there is little precipitation in southern wine-producing countries. When it increases, rainfall decreases in Germany. In southern Europe, rainfall increases sharply during the grape harvest.
These factors significantly affect German wine. The warm climate and high rainfall allow the grapes to ripen slowly, enabling them to absorb nutrients from the soil. This promotes the buildup of fruity, well-structured acidity, which prolongs the life of especially white wines.
Currently, the planting area of wine grapes in Germany is 102,504 hectares, of which 65% are white grape varieties and 35% are red grape varieties. However, in terms of wine production, white wine accounts for 60% and red wine accounts for 40% because the unit yield of red grape varieties is slightly higher than that of white grape varieties.
History of the Production Area
Germany has a long history of grape growing and brewing. In 50 BC, the ancient Romans conquered Germany and cultivated vineyards along the Mosel and Rhine rivers. From 276 to 282 AD, grape planting extended to the northern Alps.
In 884 AD, Charles III planted Germany’s first Pinot Noir on Lake Constance in the Baden district (i.e., Lake Constance). By the 12th century, some French, especially Burgundian monks, came to Germany and established many monasteries; they cleared the forests along the Mosel River, the Rhine River, and its tributaries and cultivated vineyards: 1136 Rheingau Eberbach Abbey (Kloster Eberbach); 1137 Kloster Marienthal in Arres.
On March 13, 1435, the earliest record of Riesling comes from an invoice from Klaus Kleinisch to his landowners for the purchase of Riesling vines planted on the site he built in Rüdesheim am Rhein, next to the palace (Hochheim near the Rheingau).
Germany’s first “wine route—the Deutsche Weinstrasse—opened in the Pfalz district in 1935 to help boost local tourism.
In 1949, Elisabeth Gies, the first wine queen, was crowned in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse in the Pfalz. In 1971, a comprehensive new wine law laid the foundation for German wine classification, a system that is still widespread today.
Grape Growing Area
Germany’s wine-producing regions are distributed between latitudes 47 and 52 degrees, which is the northernmost limit of the world’s wine-producing regions. The top wine of France, a model of wine in cold regions
Crisp, slightly bubbly, fruity, and slightly mineral—these are the characteristics that distinguish German white wines from those of other countries. This description is determined by the special climate and soil conditions of German wine regions. With the exception of Saale-Unstrust and Sachsen in the east, German wine regions are mainly concentrated in the south and southwest. These regions are among the northernmost wine-growing regions in the world, smack in the middle between the warm, humid Gulf Stream-influenced climate in the west and the dry, continental climate range in the east. The long growing season (harvesting sometimes stretches into November) and moderately warm summers result in wines that are more refined and less alcoholic than those in southern wine countries. Different soil types and grape varieties also contribute to German wine diversity.
The whole German wine producing area is divided into 13 specific grape-growing areas, and the 13 producing areas of high-quality wine are mainly located in the southwest of Germany. Soil types, considerable differences in regional climates, and regional traditional grape varieties contribute to the diversity of German wines. Not all German wine regions are limited to the southwest; the northernmost vineyard that can produce good wine is the Werderaner Wachtelberg, near Potsdam, in the Saale-Unstrust region. Due to climate change, the edge of winegrowing has moved farther north in recent years. Meanwhile, there are even vineyards growing grapes on the North Sea island of Sylt, although these grapes are only allowed to make regional table wines, not fine wines. The easternmost vineyard in Germany is Königliche Weinberge, located on the outskirts of Dresden in the Sachsen region.
Germany has an impressive range of grape varieties. The data compiled by Germany’s Federal Statistical Office lists around 140 grape varieties, with several varieties awaiting approval to be officially used in fine wine production to be added to the list. Of those approved varieties, about 35 are suitable for red wines, and more than 100 are suitable for white wines.
However, only about 24 have any real market significance, the most important of which are two white grape varieties: Riesling and Muller-Thurgau (Rivaner). These two varieties account for exactly 1/3 of the entire German vineyard area. About 22,600 hectares of Riesling and about 13,600 hectares of Muller-Thurgau are planted in 13 production areas. The third most widely planted is a red grape variety, Spratburgunder (Pinot Noir), with about 11,300 hectares. Nearly half of German vineyards are planted with the above three grape varieties.
The comprehensive ranking table (area and proportion) of each grape variety in the figure below not only indicates its own popularity but also reveals its economic importance and market success. In general, most German wine growers have realized that it is worthwhile to replace grape varieties that are not popular on the market.
Among white grape varieties, Silvaner comes in third with about 5,200 hectares, followed by Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) with about 4,700 hectares, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) with about 4,100 hectares, and Kerner with about 3,500 hectares. However, the new hybrids that were so successful in the 1960s and 1970s clearly lost ground, and traditional grape varieties regained lost ground.
Global markets have also affected viticulture. International grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, or promising red grape varieties with a Mediterranean style, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, have been added to this list of officially recognized grape varieties. Amid the growing demand for red grape varieties in Germany, growers are increasingly interested in replacing white varieties with red varieties. Although the surge in demand for red wine that began in the mid-1980s has declined, the acreage of red grape varieties has tripled and now accounts for 36% of the entire German vineyard area.
Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) with over 11,300 hectares is clearly the most important red grape, followed by Dornfelder with around 8,000 hectares, Portugieser with around 4,000 hectares, Trollinger, and Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier) with 2,400 and 2,300 hectares, respectively. Regent has expanded rapidly in recent years, currently covering more than 2,000 hectares, and Lemberger’s approximately 1,700 hectares are also among the top red grape planters in Germany. The lucrative red wine industry has inspired a younger generation of growers to return to traditional vineyard and cellar activities, as well as making styles suitable for international wines.
Germany’s contemporary wine scene is full of fine red wines. The only disadvantage is that the low output puts it at a disadvantage in terms of competitiveness in the international market. The real strength of the German wine industry is white wine.
German table wine (with or without grape variety or vintage) Deutscher Wein A formerly used general category “table wine (Tafelwein)” has been replaced by “German table wine”. Wines in this range can only be made from grapes grown in German vineyards. Relatively small quantities of this quality are produced in Germany compared to other wine-producing countries. Maximum yields per hectare are already regulated by law in the entire German wine region, and these regulations apply not only to German premium wines but also to German table wines. In some regions, the maximum allowed production of German table wine is even higher than that of some fine wines.
In climate zone A (except Baden, all German production regions), the minimum natural wine content (grape juice weight) of German table wine is 5% (equivalent to 44 degrees Oechsle); in climate zone B (Baden) Deng, it is 6%. A total alcohol content of at least 8.5%, but not more than 15%, and a total acidity of at least 3.5 g/l are regulated. Although grape varieties can be marked on the wine label, there are exceptions: 22 varieties can be named without labeling.
Wine with a protected geographical indication (regional table wine) At least 85% of the grape varieties come from the region indicated on the wine label (which must be declared). Regional table wines can be dry or off-dry, with exceptions: those from the Rhineland, Upper Rhine, Rhine-Neckar, and Neckar can have more sweetness. The minimum natural alcohol in all regional table wine regions is at least 0.5% higher than German table wine (4% Oechsle).
Wine with a protected designation of origin (Superior Wines vs. Premium wines) Wines from this segment account for the largest share of German wines, taking into account long-term averages. They must be 100% from one of 13 appellations; the minimum natural alcohol content of each premium wine or premium premium wine varies by appellation and grape variety. The minimum starting grape must by appellation, variety, and quality level ranges from 55 degrees to 154 degrees Oechsle. High-quality wine (Qualitätswein) and regional table wine are allowed to add sugar. The final alcohol level of regional table wines or premium wines can be increased through concentration. Sugar can be added to grape juice before fermentation; this is called saccharification,” and the French term is “chaptalization.” Concentration is allowed, but only subject to legal restrictions.
In climate zone A (all regions except Baden), the extra alcohol obtained by “sugar addition” is limited to 3%; in climate zone B (Baden), it is limited to 2%. For high-end wines, the final total alcohol content obtained by this method cannot exceed 15%. “Vacuum evaporation” and “reverse osmosis” are the only two methods allowed for concentrated juices, with no more than a 2% alcohol increase and a total alcohol reduction limited to 20%.
Premium wines in Germany are classified into several categories, each with its own unique characteristics and requirements:
- Kabinett: This is usually a light-bodied wine, made from mature grapes, with relatively low alcohol content.
- Spätlese: This is a full-bodied wine, made from fully ripe grapes. Because they need to be fully ripe, they are often left on the vine for longer, and these grapes are generally harvested late.
- Auslese: This wine is made from fully ripe bunches; selective harvesting is done to remove immature or diseased grapes.
- Beerenauslese (BA): These are full-bodied, fruity wines made from overripe grapes — often infected with noble rot –; the grapes are selectively harvested.
- Eiswein: This wine is harvested and pressed at minus 7 degrees Celsius (minus 19.4 degrees Fahrenheit); it is made from naturally concentrated wines. The grapes, almost shrunk to raisins, are selectively harvested.
A premium wine must meet more requirements than a regular wine. Adding sugar, using oak bars, and dealing alcohol are all prohibited.
Wine Labels and Regulations
The label of each German wine must indicate its respective classification. The minimum standards stipulated by the law for each level must be fully complied with; that is, consumers can clearly identify the legal level of a wine from the wine label, price list, and restaurant wine list.
The regulations that wine must comply with are:
- Geographical origin, that is, a wine or its components must come from the place of origin that is defined for a certain quality type.
- Approved grape varieties.
- Harvest time, that is, recording the ripening state of the grapes.
- Harvest type, that is, manual or machine harvesting, degree of selection.
- Maximum yield per hectare.
- Minimum grape maturity.
- Approved winemaking methods.
- Scope of analysis.
Since January 1, 2012, the terms “geographic Indication-protected wine” refer to regional table wine (Landwein) and “Wine protected by appellation of origin” refer to premium wine or premium premium wine. These two new terms can be used on German wine labels. In addition, the traditional terminology used to designate quality types can continue to be used. Neither the German abbreviations “ggA” and “gU” nor the English abbreviations “PGI” and “PDO” are permitted. The EU label, representing a protected designation of origin, may be used.
German Wine Label
A wine label is the business card of a wine. A well-designed wine label can add recognition value and provide information that facilitates consumer choice and purchasing power. Beginning on August 1, 2003, the labeling laws were undoubtedly relaxed. Before that date, the guiding principle was that terms and descriptions that were not explicitly permitted were prohibited; after that, terms and descriptions that were ambiguous or confusing were not allowed.
Mandatory declaration for German quality wines:
- Country of origin: Deutscher Qualitätswein or Qualitätswein aus Deutschland
- Specific appellation: one of 13 German appellations
- Quality category (e.g.: Prädikat)
- Producer or bottler
- Final Alcohol content
- Quality control test code: APNr.
- Contains sulfites
- Since July 1, 2012, certain products from eggs or dairy products (such as protein and casein clarifiers; lysozyme stabilizers)
- If they are not white wine or red wine Type of wine, e.g. single varietal rosé, blended rosé
Due to the cold climate in Germany, in order to fully mature the grapes, the harvest time is generally late. The wine made from this has a fresh and lively sour taste, and sugar is sometimes added. Germany is the homeland of Riesling. The wines produced from this grape are rich in aromas and fresh on the palate, and today they are synonymous with elegant wines with rich character.