Flatiron's Guide to German Wine, Part 2: Germany’s Wine History
Germans have been making wine for about 2,000 years,
As evidenced by wine presses found in the town of Trier in the Mosel. The skills of viticulture and vinification were most likely introduced by the Romans. Grape varieties were probably a combination of introduced cuttings and domesticated wild vines that were suitable for winemaking.
Charlemagne, ruler of the Frankish empire in the early 800s, is credited for spreading and revitalizing grape growing after the fall of Rome. The stories are that Charlemagne was the leading wine geek of his era. For instance, he noticed that the snow melted first on the Rheingau’s southern facing slopes, which taught him that grapes would ripen better there, making them quality sites.
Riesling, long heralded as Germany’s greatest gift to wine, was documented as early as 1435, but had probably been growing as part of field blends long before that. By 1787, it was fully recognized for its importance at the expense of all other varieties, which it legally had to replace.
At the peak of its popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, German wine fetched prices far exceeding those of Bordeaux and Champagne. Rieslings, especially from the slopes of the Rheingau, were drunk in royal castles across Europe, most famously by Queen Victoria of England.
Since then, the country has seen its fortunes rise and fall, affected by calamities that impacted all of Europe: disease (downy and powdery mildew), pests (phylloxera), the World Wars, multiple depressions, and changing consumer tastes.
How German Wines Lost Their Mojo, and What They’re Doing to Get it Back
How did German wine go from being the most illustrious in the world to an afterthought for most?
It started with the same problems most European regions faced. Vine pests and diseases from the U.S., most famously phylloxera, arrived in Germany and devastated the vineyards.
The World Wars ravaged the country. Economic earthquakes eliminated markets, while climate change, a boon to most German vintners, has altered the landscape and destabilized traditions.
But why didn’t Germany rebuild its industry as successfully as France, for instance, rebuilt Burgundy's reputation?
They tried. But many of their early attempts to set the German wine world on a path to its former heights backfired—most notably, their attempt at land reform.
By the start of the 20th century, the Napoleonic code had made a chaotic mess of Germany’s vineyard holdings—not something the orderly culture could embrace.
Under Napoleon’s law, when a vineyard owner died his land had to be divided equally among his children. As fair as it may have been to the younger children who would have been disinherited under primogeniture, the rule had the effect of breaking estates up into ever smaller holdings. After a few generations, the result was that most growers could only own a few vines, generally far from each other.
This made it hard to invest time or money in the vineyards (as well as just being disorderly, and not very German-like). The government set out to fix things, but not much happened until they passed the Flurbereinigungsgesetz in the 1950s, a law meant to promote land consolidation and modernize farming and winemaking.
The law amalgamated many small, ancient vineyards into larger vineyards. It was somewhat like if the French had decided to force Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, and Richebourg to become part of a single, larger, easier-to-understand vineyard called Vosne-Romanée.
The loss of legal status for so many unique sites meant they were lost to us as individual wines. And instead of making the wines easier to understand, it tended to make them harder to understand: combining what had been distinct vineyards under a single vineyard name meant wines of the same name could actually come from very different sites and be of different characters and qualities.
The law also aimed to allow for improved roads through vineyards and even modernization of vineyards themselves. Sadly, this was often by bulldozing the precipitously steep vineyards into gentle slopes, destroying some of the best vineyards in Germany.
Regulating Ripeness: The Birth of Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein
In 1971 the government passed another law to standardize wine labels. The plan was to make it easier for consumers to understand what was in the bottle.
This was the moment that the government mandated the quality designations Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein, based on grape ripeness. Their intentions were good.
Before the 1990s, and the rising temperatures brought on by climate change, Germany was on the latitudinal edge of viable viticulture. For centuries, approximately three out of five vintages were a disaster, with grapes failing to ripen enough to make drinkable wine. Ripeness came to be valued above all else, and a wine drinker needed to know whether the wine they were buying was from grapes that got ripe enough to make the quality wine they were being charged for.
Unfortunately, the law set no other quality standards, such as minimum yields and farming standards. There are few winemaking standards, and for Qualitätswein (not Prädikat), even though a certain level of sugar must be present in the grape when it is picked, it's still legal to add sugar during fermentation (a process called chaptalization, which is common even in places like Burgundy) to boost finished alcohol levels, not add sweetness.
Neither did the law classify the vineyards themselves, unlike the wine laws of, for instance, Burgundy or Douro. As long as the grapes were ripe enough and came from one of the 13 Anbaugebiete (wine regions), it could be Qualitätswein. Get the grapes ripe enough in one of the 39 Bereich (subregions), and you can label a wine Kabinett no matter how dilute the flavor.
The effect has been that wines labeled as Qualitätswein can vary enormously in quality. Their standards are low enough that the Landwein (on par with a French IGP) and Deutscher Wein (equal to table wine) categories are rarely applied.
Now that ripe grapes are nearly guaranteed the standards set forth no longer dictate the style, quality or the sweetness level. Once again, an effort to make German wines easier to understand actually resulted in making them less predictable.
Rise of the VDP
Of course, Germany is full of maniacally conscientious winemakers with extraordinary terroir. Just because the law doesn’t require them to control yields or farm the right way doesn’t mean they’ll cut corners.
To the contrary, knowing that it is on them to preserve their traditions and reputations, the bulk of these German growers do backbreaking work in the vineyards and spare no effort in the cellar in their efforts to make the finest wines their terroir and the vintage will allow.
This ethos also led Germany’s to the formation of the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), or Association of Distinctive German Winemakers, an association of the majority of Germany’s top growers devoted to promoting and marketing their wines. It was started way back in 1910 to support the production of “natural” wines. (Back then natural wines simply meant wines made without chaptalization—the addition of sugar during fermentation.)
Today it holds its 200 members to strict winegrowing and winemaking standards, above those mandated by the government, and acts as its own guarantee of quality.
The VDP also took it upon themselves to classify the best German vineyards as Erste Lage (Premier Cru) and Grosse Lage (Grand Cru). Many of these are based on old Prussian maps or historical mentions.
In an effort to help the public identify Germany’s greatest dry wines, they introduced the term Grosses Gewächs (Great Growths), labeled as “GG” for the very best examples. Growers in the VDP can use the designation on dry wines made entirely from a Grosse Lage vineyard that comply with the VDP’s stringent rules. GGs are some of the best wines in the world.
Although the VDP has set some of the highest quality standards around, there are many producers not part of the organization yet still making world class wines.
Producers who belong to the VDP will stamp their labels or capsules with their logo, a quick way to know if a wine is going to be of higher than average quality.
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