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A short history of German wine

Germany produces around 10 million hectolitres (that's a whopping 1.3 billion bottles!) of wine a year, making it the eighth-largest producer of wine worldwide. Boasting over 1,000 square kilometres of vineyard, and home to 13 defined "Anbaugebiete" (wine regions), Germany has a well-defined reputation when it comes to wine. But where did it all begin?

A vineyard in the Ahr Valley, North-Rhine Westphalia. Photo: Didgeman via Pixabay

The Romans are responsible for the cultivation of grapevines in Germany. During their conquests, they decided to bring their grapes to new territory rather than to carry heavy containers of wine over the Alps. Wine remained popular ever since, and throughout the Middle Ages was a particularly prominent beverage in the monasteries.

For quite some time, German wine was considered the best in the world and in the 19th century it was more expensive than almost all other wines, including those from Bordeaux and Champagne. Britain’s Queen Victoria was a great ambassador for wines such as Riesling and, as such, German wine became the height of fashion all over the British Empire at the time.

Bottles of dry Riesling wine. Photo: Sandra Grünewald via Unsplash

However, both the First and Second World Wars had a catastrophic impact on German viticulture. One of the reasons for this was reduced workforce due to the national call to the frontline. As a result, the area of land used for vineyards decreased by more than 50% after the First World War. The main impact that the World Wars had on German wine, however, was on its international demand, which became extremely low.

The demand for Riesling did not resurface until recently, despite having been incredibly sought-after prior to the First World War. Riesling’s first record dates back to March 13, 1435, in a cellar log that mentions Count John IV of Katenelnbogen’s purchase of six “Riesslingen” vines, which probably came from the Rhine Valley. In 1720, Riesling was planted in all of the vineyards in Schloss Johannisberg, due to a fad that had started in Alsace following the Thirty Years’ War.

Before long, Riesling was being grown in countless vineyards in Germany. Unfortunately, the effects of the World Wars meant that vintners started to focus on producing lots of average wines rather than making a small number of incredible ones. The mass production of German wines meant that Riesling lost its reputation. However, in the 1990s it regained its place on the pedestal and is now regarded as one of the "top three" white wine varieties along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

From the 1950s until the 1980s, Blue Nun became a notorious German wine. It is arguably the first wine to aim at an international mass market. Perhaps one of the reasons for its popularity was that it advertised itself as not requiring thought over food pairing; it could allegedly be drunk over a whole meal. It has a sweet flavour and is designed for easy-drinking, which is one of the main reasons for which many people now consider all German wines to be sweet. However, in reality, the German home market opts for dry wine and almost half of all the wine produced is, in fact, of the dry variety. Sweet wines started to lose international interest in the 1990s and so, despite having been the world’s top-selling wine for some years, Blue Nun’s sales declined and it eventually became to be perceived as kitsch.

Nowadays, despite having had a hard past, the demand for German wine is once again on the rise. Below are some vineyards in Germany which are most definitely worth visiting:

  • Bremmer Calmont, Mosel

  • Bernkasteler Doctor, Bernkastel-Kues

  • Rotenfels, Nahe

  • Roter Hang, Reinhessen

  • Würzburger Stein, Franken


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