Flatiron's Guide to German Wine, Part 4: An Overview of Germany’s Climate and Grape Varieties
This is the fourth installment in our German wine series. If you missed our detailing how to decode German wine labels, check it out first!
Germany is invariably associated with Riesling, but the reality is that this country is home to a huge number of grape varieties and styles of wine. Part of that is thanks to Germany’s particular climate and terroirs, along with the country’s exceptional winemakers.
Germany is at the very northern end of where grapes are able to ripen. Before climate change, only the warm air currents from the Gulf Stream made viticulture possible. Its 13 wine regions (Anbaugebiete) are mostly clustered toward the southwest corner of the country near the borders of France and Switzerland.
The wine regions enjoy a continental climate; winters are very cold, but the summers are moderately hot and fairly rainy, with dry autumns. The vagaries of these conditions—just how much heat and rain the vines get, and when—determine the character of each vintage. In good years, the moderate heat (and cool nighttime temperatures) allow the grapes to mature slowly and develop their full range of fruit flavors without losing the acidity that makes German wines (especially the whites) what they are.
To capture the maximum amount of sunshine and encourage ripening, vines are planted on south and southwest-facing slopes on inclines. Most of the best vineyards are along rivers which help moderate temperatures and reflect the much-needed sun up onto grape clusters.
Climate change has also meant more consistent vintages. Until recently, only three or four vintages a decade could produce fully ripe grapes and outstanding wines. Now, poor vintages are few and far between.
Germany’s long, cool, and dry autumns are their secret weapon;
fall can stretch all the way into November for one of the latest harvests in the world. The often-heavy rains of summer usually dissipate by September. Temperatures drop, especially at night, and in the last two to eight weeks before harvest, grapes get an extended period during which they physiologically ripen while retaining acidity. This gives the wines a nerve and tension, along with complex flavor development, unseen anywhere on earth.
Germany has an astounding number of grape varieties being grown within its borders—a whopping 140, of which 100 are white. As a cool-climate region, white grapes thrive—although climate change is helping the red grapes catch up in stature.
The king of all white grapes, you’ll find it in every German region, comprising more than 20 percent of the country's plantings. This crown jewel grows on the Mosel’s precariously steep slopes.
No other white grape has the ability to transmit terroir as clearly as Riesling does. Ever wonder what the flavor of red slate is? How about blue or green or grey? How about limestone, clay, sandstone, or basalt? Well, I didn’t either, until I started drinking Riesling.
It is a high-yielding, late-ripening, high-acid, and aromatic grape. It can be made into every style of wine imaginable, from the simplest quaffer to the longest-lived, most complex, sweetest wines on earth.
It’s at its best when planted in steep sites with meager soils (which naturally limit its yields). Whether dry or sweet top wines should be aged; your patience will be rewarded with a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures.
Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir)
Pinot Noir is Germany’s dominant red grape. It’s planted in all 13 wine regions. In fact, only France and America have more Pinot Noir than Germany.
Historically, most of Germany was too cold to fully ripen Spätburgunder regularly. German Pinots had a reputation as thinner, less full-fruited, and less complex than those of Burgundy. Global warming is changing things, as well as better clonal selection, farming, and winemaking techniques. Pinot ripens fully as a matter of course now, and when planted in top sites it makes wines of real depth and distinction. Best of all, the wines are often a fraction of the price of Burgundy or California Pinot Noir.
- The majority of plantings are in Baden and in the Pfalz. Other important growing regions include Rheinhessen, Württemberg, and Rheingau.
- Pinot Noir, a very old variety, needs much more care and makes high demands on climate and soil. It thrives best in Riesling sites.
- The majority of German Pinot Noir wines are vinified as dry red wines with complex cherry aroma with subtle hints of smoke and almond, slight tannins, and high acidity, with a long finish.
Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris)
A mutation of Pinot Noir, but with almost pink skins, coming from the Burgundy region of France.
Germany is the world’s third-largest producer of Pinot Gris, with the primary regions for cultivation being Baden, Rheinhessen, the Pfalz, and the Nahe.
Pinot Gris grows particularly well on loess, soil made up of windblown dust and sand, on terraces, as well as in chalky soils and sites with stony sub-soils.
Usually made into a young, light dry or off-dry style, Pinot Gris is a great summer wine. It can also be made as a serious, oak-aged wine, or in sweet Kabinett and Spätlese styles. Because of its pinkish skins, it makes great orange wine as well.
Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc)
- Pinot Blanc is a mutation of Pinot Noir, but with white skins. It has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially in Germany which is now the world’s leading producer of Pinot Blanc.
- More than 5 percent of Germany’s vineyards are planted with Pinot Blanc, usually in sites that are too warm for Riesling, primarily in Baden, the Pfalz, and Rheinhessen.
- In a glass, Pinot Blanc is pale to straw yellow in color, and delicate on the nose. A slightly nutlike aroma is typical. Vinified dry, its medium to full body and fine acidity complement many types of food.
- Good examples age very well, although generally made with the aim of everyday fresh and dry wines in mind.
Pairing Riesling with Food
Can I pair Riesling with any food? Absolutely! It’s one of the best wines for food. No wine is better suited to a wide variety of hard-to-pair foods, from traditional German pork products, to complex Asian dishes and the modern haute cuisine blending of the two with novel techniques. German wines elevate the dinner as they enrapture the diner.
Dry examples are great substitutes for Sancerre or other crisp, dry whites. A fine glass of Trocken Riesling can enliven any simple fish dish. But Riesling’s real magical culinary powers come out when you look at hard-to-pair foods, especially spicy ones like Thai or Chinese.
The spice and sugar in those foods can make red wines taste austere or metallic, and dry white wines sour or just washed out. Rieslings with a bit of sugar will stand up to the sweetness and even temper the heat. The mineral cut and bracing acidity are like a squeeze of lime on southeast asian food, bringing out details and making you want more all the time.
As we mentioned earlier, Germany is special because it is in the middle of a string of incredible vintages. This makes shopping easy! Grab a bottle off the shelf of your local shop and it’s likely to be very special!
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