Germany produces some of the world’s very finest white wines, presenting natural, grapey richness complemented by racy acidity. A really fine example sets off a roller coaster of emotion akin to a skilfully played piece of music. Riesling is king here, offering almost painful purity and precision. Vineyards run the gauntlet of a very marginal climate, at the absolute limit of where grapes will ripen. This is both a constant threat and a magnificent opportunity as vine and man both struggle to balance two essential but dangerous elements in fine wine – acidity and sugar. We need acidity for freshness. Similarly, sugar has rather fallen from favour yet, here, in the best wines, the sweetness is grape ripeness, not sugar per se. Added sugar is indeed one of the problems further down the quality ladder. When ripeness and acidity come together harmoniously, the results can be electric.
Germany’s vineyards are centred around two main rivers – the Rhine and the Mosel – and their tributaries, the Nahe, Saar and Ruwer. The climate is continental, with warm summers, long autumns and cold winters. Being so far north, struggling for ripeness, acidities do tend to be high, perfectly complementing residual grape sugar. The long autumns allow for prolonged and late harvests and river mists promote the onset of botryris cinerea, so-called noble rot, essential for dessert wines.
The Mosel houses some of the very finest vineyards, on precipitous slopes, generally facing south. The vines bathe in the summer and autumn sunshine and benefit from its being reflected from the river below. Top Mosel Rieslings are, for many, the most noble of German whites; elegant, ethereal even, pale, mineral and floral – across all levels of ripeness (see below). We are delighted now to be offered allocations from arguably the top producer Weingut Joh Jos Prüm. They have some magnificent sites, the flagship being the celebrated sundial Sonnenuhr vineyard, opposite Wehlen. They also have vineyards in Graacher Himmelreich, Zeltinen and, upstream, in Badstube. These are the very finest expression of Mosel offering, across all of the Prädikat wines (see below), poise, finesse, elegance, purity and vivacity. They are, in truth, less expressive in youth but that is the fault of the impatient, not of the wines, which have legendary potential for ageing.
The Rheingau vineyards are protected by the Taunus Hills and the slopes face towards the south and the river. The climate tends to be drier and sunnier than the Mosel and, allied to the reflected sun’s rays from the river, this makes fuller, characterful wines with floral aromatics certainly but with greater depth than in the Mosel. Riesling is the dominant varietal here, almost exclusively so. We are delighted to represent the privately-owned family estate Schloss Schönborn, in the Rheingau. The family has some 650 years of history and experience under its belt, during which time they have amassed some spectacular sites, notably Erbacher Marcobrunn and Hattenheimer Pfaffenberg.
There are many fine wines from other regions, Saar, Ruwer, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheinhessen, Baden, Württemberg, Ahr, Hessische-Bergstrasse, Franken and now, post reunification, Sachsen and Saale-Unstrut. Corney & Barrow do not currently have listings from these regions.
Germany, in fact, produces wine on a pretty grand scale. Sadly the majority of production would not be recognisable from our introduction. A great deal of commercial, bulk wine is made, making specialist, artisan wines, made by perfectionists in difficult conditions, seem expensive. In fact, top quality German wines give excellent value. The wines at the lower end of the scale could be factory-produced almost anywhere yet it is German legislation which allows it and Germany’s reputation which has suffered as a result. Good German wine is phenomenal and fine Riesling exquisite. One of the world’s most noble varieties, it is stunning in youth and ages well.
Germany’s wines – key styles and grape varieties
Riesling clearly is king and is planted, almost exclusively, in the best sites. Müller-Thurgau is widely grown and is higher yielding, earlier ripening and less of a risk – and widely used in bulk production. Silvaner is less common and can make for some very attractive wines. There are also red wines produced from Spätburgunder, Trollinger, Portugieser and Dornfelder. Although relatively rare, red production is on the increase.
From its heyday, Germany’s reputation was built on wines with natural residual grape sugars which were not fermented out, producing wines with lower alcohol levels as a consequence. Germany is now slightly at sea, something of a fashion victim. One response has been the increasing production of dry, trocken, wines. However racy and daring, these rarely achieve the thrill and tightrope-walking balance of the country's traditional wines.
Germany’s wines – labelling
German wine law centres on the degree of ripeness at harvest which dictates what goes on the label. That is where there is some confusion about all of German wines being sweet. It is important to remember that it is the degree of ripeness, not sweetness which is the issue, allied to the presence of complementary acidity. This balance depends on nature, microclimate and plant husbandry, not the addition of sugar.
Listed below are some label definitions.
Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA): This shows that a wine comes from a specific region. It is rather a catch-all term and applies to many bulk wines, almost all chaptalised (sugar added during fermentation).
Classic: This is a relatively new labelling of dry varietal wines.
Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (wine with a specific attribute): Top German wines, bearing the QmP label, may not have sugar added. The specific attributes are listed below in ascending order of ripeness:
Kabinett: Specially selected, light and fresh.
Spätlese: Late picked and riper. Can be fermented dry and more alcoholic or remain grapey and light.
Auslese: Individual bunches are selected on the basis of ripeness – sweet.
Beerenauslese: Individual, botrytised berries dried and concentrated – sweet.
Trockenbeerenauslese: Botrytised berries, shrivelled raisin-like on the vine, – very sweet, very rare.
Eiswein: Grapes which have high sugar and high acidity through having been frozen on the vine (literally, 'ice wine').
Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyards at Weingut Joh. Jos. Prüm, Mosel
Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyards at Weingut Joh. Jos. Prüm, Mosel
Bernkasteler Badstube vineyards at Weingut Joh. Jos. Prüm, Mosel