Wine is mostly produced in the southwest of the country, along the River Rhine and its tributaries.
The Romans founded Trier (Augusta Treverorum), modern Germany’s most ancient city, on the Mosel. In 370, Ausonius lauded the beauty of the region’s steep vineyards in his poem Mosella. Little is known about the style or quality of these and other early ‘German’ wines, although, in about 570, the poet Venantius Fortunatus did make mention of a red wine from the region.
During the Middle Ages, Christianity spread east, bringing with it churches and monasteries and the cultivation of the vine. Riesling is first documented in or near the Rheingau from 1435, and Pinot Noir from 1470.
However, the most common grape varieties in the 15th century were Elbing and Silvaner, probably planted pêle-mêle along with other varieties such as Muskat and Traminer.
Viticulture reached a high point around 1500, with the area under vines four times larger than today. The vines receded for a number of reasons including competition from beer, the Thirty Year’s War (which ended in 1648 with Alsace becoming a French province), the expropriation of the monasteries, and the Little Ice Age, which made viticulture difficult in more marginal climates.
Paradoxically, quality improved as unsuitable land was abandoned and lesser grape varieties were replaced with Riesling. The first Riesling monoculture was planted in 1720 at Schloss Johannisberg, then a Benedictine abbey in the Rheingau.
In 1775, the courier delivering the permission to begin the harvest arrived at Schloss Johannisberg so late that most of the fruit had been affected by Botrytis. This vintage of ‘rotten’ grapes became legendary, inaugurating a number of late harvest styles.
In the early 1800s, Napoleonic France seized the Church’s vineyards and parcelled them out. Owing to strict inheritance laws, vineyards became ever smaller, creating an important demand for co-operatives.
At the height of their renown in the 19th century, the wines of the Rhine could fetch higher prices than first growth Bordeaux.
But then came vine diseases, wars, and economic upheaval.
Whatever remained of the lustre of the golden age was completely tarnished in the 1970s when Germany began blending and exporting cheap semi-sweet wines such as Liebfraumilch that, in foreign eyes, came to epitomize the country’s entire wine offering.
However, among enthusiasts, Germany’s reputation is still founded on aromatic, elegant, complex, and long- lived Rieslings that range across the entire spectrum of sweetness.
The best examples are among the finest wines in the world and quite enough to make anyone believe in a Roman Catholic God.
Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.