Most of Germany’s baker’s-dozen growing areas are concentrated within an hour or two of the Greater Frankfurt metropolitan area, close to Cologne, Heidelberg and Stuttgart, as well as Würzburg. Off the beaten track are those near Jena, Leipzig and Dresden. With Autobahn, rail and regional road, all are easily accessible, including Germany’s two newest appellations – Sachsen, (immediately east and west of Dresden) and Saale-Unstrut, (between Magdeburg and Jena.)
The best times to visit the vineyards are from late April into the summer and then, depending on weather conditions, immediately after the harvest in late autumn. Wherever you go there are hundreds of open-air wine festivals (Wein-or Winzerfeste), a perfect opportunity to taste the wines, mix with people, and enjoy local taste treats. There’s frequently dancing, and a parade led by the reigning wine queen, usually a junior family member of a leading local vintner. Spectacular fireworks displays brighten the skies at the biggest fests, and major culinary events are scheduled at local restaurants.
Traveling by bike or hiking? Well-marked foot and bike paths follow the rivers where the wine abounds. The website of the German Wine Institute can tell you everything you want to know about such things as wine regions, festivals, visitor-friendly wineries, grape varieties, how to cook with wine and lots more. There is even video.
We present here sketches of the country’s officially designated wine-growing areas:
The meandering Mosel River, snakes its way between the Rhineland-Palatinate’s Eifel and Hunsrück regions, carving a valley that is so narrow that no significant urban development ever evolved. The 160 kilometer (100 mile) valley’s steep slopes and slate-laden bedrock soils, however, are ideal for wine production, especially for Riesling, Germany’s world-renown varietal since the Middle Ages, and also for Elbling, Riesling’s predecessor, a grape which predates Roman times.
Given the extremely steep inclines, the Mosel’s vines don’t shade each other; and, the Devonian slatey soil retains the sun’s warmth at night. Riesling’s aggressively long roots penetrate the soil up to nine meters – that’s 27 feet or more! – resulting in Mosel Riesling’s characteristic, bracing, slate-driven minerality.
The Mosel experiences more sunshine hours than any other German appellation. This enables high fruit-sugar levels and extreme ripeness to evolve resulting in delicious tropical fruit flavor nuances: mango, banana, guava, pineapple and sweet citrus and peach. These are balanced with acidity and minerality that are so typical of Mosel wines.
Towns along the Mosel include Trier, Germany’s oldest city with the biggest concentration of Roman ruins north of the Alps. Another is the idyllic town of Bernkastel-Kues, home of to extraordinary vineyards including Graach, Sonnenuhr and Himmelreich at a dozen wine bar-restaurants riverside and in town. You can sample these and many others from the district’s world-renown vineyards at the wineries or at one of the town’s festivals as well. Another Mosel town of note is Cochem, with its iconic, multi-gabled, turreted, hilltop castle midway along the river. It hosts a wine festival in August.
Though the Rhine flows mainly in a northerly direction from the Swiss border to Holland, it makes a rather sharp bend half way along its course near Wiesbaden and flows west for about sixteen kilometers (ten miles). This means that the vineyards on the right bank have a southern exposure and get more sun than most others. This area is called the Rheingau, and it too produces top wines, specifically Riesling, in and around Rüdesheim, Oestrich-Winkel and Eltville. Riesling abounds here and thrives on a massive base of granite as well as on loamy, rich alluvial soils that provide a different sort of minerality underlying a basic, rich fruity, citrus Granny Smith apple taste.
The principal town of the Rheingau is Rüdesheim, about 20 minutes’ from both Wiesbaden and Mainz, with its very narrow “fun” street, the Drosselgasse — some 200-meters of door-to-door wine bars and pubs — and a wine museum. The commanding view of the entire Mittelrhein district from the huge commemorative Niederwald Franco-Prussian War Memorial high above the river is breathtaking.
Among the foremost growths in Rüdesheim is the stellar Schloss Johannisberg estate that belongs to the House of Metternich, the Austrian family that dominated post-Napoleonic Europe. You can enjoy Schloss Johannisberg’s famed growths from its terrace restaurant with a spectacular view of the river and the valley. Its winery tour and spacious shop are well worth the time, extraordinary wines both sparkling and still the first ever color-coded wine style designations.
Downstream a few kilometers in Assmannshausen, Spätburgunder or Pinot Noir shares the acreage with Riesling as one heads north to the legendary Lorelei Cliff and its 200 meter (600 feet) plunge to the Rhine. Rüdesheim celebrates its wine festival in August.
This is the celebrated part of the Rhine that you have always heard about; idyllic, half-timbered towns right to the water’s edge, and steep vineyard-covered slopes topped by castles. It starts right where the Rheingau leaves off but is on both sides of the Rhine and extends almost to Bonn. Most of its granite-driven, powerful, minerally white wines are consumed locally, but you can try them out at the festivals at some of the region’s best tourist attractions. The pretty town of Bacharach, named after the wine god Bacchus, holds its festival October. St. Goarshausen, across from the Lorelei where singing maidens supposedly lured lovelorn, entranced boatmen to their deaths, has a festival in September. And Braubach – near the Marksburg, the best-preserved castle on the Rhine – has its festival in early October.
This area’s scattered growths includes the upper Rhine, from the Swiss border to just north of Mannheim, parts of the Neckar River, (a Rhine tributary,) and the shores of Lake Constance. People are drawn to the area by such attractions as Heidelberg, Baden-Baden and the Black Forest. It wines are very variable flavor-wise given the totally different soils and weather of the many sub-districts along the Neckar and Rhine as well as the Genfer See. Probably the most noted Baden districts are those in the Kaiserstuhl and Ihringen. The village of Achkarren, near the Kaiserstuhl, has a wine museum and hosts a festival each September.
The vineyards of this region line the banks of the upper Neckar River, from about Heilbronn to Stuttgart, but very little Württemberg wine makes it outside of Württemberg, much less Germany. Its Lemberger/Blaufränkisch/Bardolino, Trollinger and St Laurent varietals are unique. Its Spätburgunder/Pinot Noir and Schwarzriesling – Pinot Meunier – are the perfect foil to French and Swiss culinary influence in Swabia and the Black Forest, Germany’s gourmet paradise. You can visit quite a few festivals without leaving Stuttgart. Districts of the city holding festivals include: Obertürkheim, Feuerbach, Uhlbach, and Untertürkheim. In fact the steep, enclosed, terraced vineyards confining the city’s eastern boundary extend virtually to the door of the Mercedes works where an important group of cooperatives produce wine in Untertürkheim. Kill two birds with one stone: visit the Daimler Benz Museum, and/or pick up a new car celebrating with a tasting at the Weinmanufaktur Unterürkheim!
The chain of hills about 23 kilometers (14 miles) miles inland from the Rhine paralleling the river’s east bank, northeast of Darmstadt, and from south of that city to immediately west of the Odenwald forest to Heppenheim are especially known for their early blossoming almond and cherry trees. They produce a delightful spectacle when they bloom in the spring usually a month before anywhere else. The same hills also produce good wines, but they are little known outside the area. State- and municipally-owned wineries, a cooperative and several well-above average individual producers account for Riesling, Pinot blanc and Pinot gris, Pinot noir, Rotling, and even some Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay on these greatly weathered-granite soils.
The places to sample them are the festivals in County seat Heppenheim in June and July, in ancient, picturesque Zwingenberg in summer, a few weeks later in Bensheim – Auerbach in July, and, finally in Bensheim proper for nine whole days beginning the first weekend of September. Do not miss the big time fireworks display from the Kirchberg the final Saturday of the fest.
Directly across from Baden on the Rhine’s Left Bank, the Pfalz extends from the French border up to Worms, and inland from banks of the Rhine to the Escarpment. One of the few cities along the Wine Road is Neustadt, at the center of Route 271 that bisects the entire growing area. It is the site of a festival where the German National Wine Queen is crowned each year. The festival runs every October.
The largest community on the Wine Road is Bad Dürkheim, home of the annual Sausage Market in September. Actually it’s a wine festival, too, and a big one. It is held in front of “the world’s largest wine barrel,” made strictly according to coopers’ principles but sufficiently massive to contain a full-blown restaurant!
(They say you have not lived until you have tried Saumagen – the Rheinland’s version of Scotch Haggis – with local Riesling, of course – and Zwiebelkuchen onion cake, for good measure!)
This region, which produces more wine than any of the others, is the warmest in Germany. Naturally sweet grapes such as spicy Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Scheurebe are now vinified dry rather than sweet – to be enjoyed as table wines with food or for simple sipping rather than as aperitifs or dessert wines. Its vineyards don’t need the shelter of river valleys – it is so warm that even Mediterranean fruits, such as figs and lemons, grow here. It is there that we find the “German Wine Road,” the first “named” road to be established of the numerous named-roads that abound in Germany today.
This area is on the west bank of the Rhine, north of the Pfalz. It is Germany’s largest wine region in area and is second only to the Pfalz in the amount of wine it produces. Among Germany’s most celebrated growths are those along the 24 kilometer (15 mile) Rheinfront between south of Oppenheim (home of one of Germany’s most celebrated state colleges for oenology and viticulture.) Rheinhessen extends from Worms through Nierstein towards Mainz, and northwesterly towards Alzey, and Autobahn 63.
The Rheinfront’s hematite-rich red soils – loam, sandstone, limestone – at 45- to 65-degree inclines rise 60 meters (200 feet) from the Rhine to the top of the escarpment. Phenomenal Riesling grows here. A petroleum-tinged minerality is very unique to wines from these vaunted vineyards. Originally planted by Roman soldiers under Drusius, Emperor Augustus’s nephew who founded Mainz, these vineyards are 2,000 years old – Pettenthal, Hipping, the Oelberg, the Roter Hang, Ludwigshöhe and Guntramsblüm – are most famous among others.
Indeed, the flavors here reflect the mild, almost Italianate climates provided by the majestic Rhine. Most of these vineyards from the Rhine’s banks are hand-cultivated while the vast plateau above the “front” allows large acreage holdings, machine operations and large yields for mass consumption wines. A lot of dark purple-red, earthy Dornfelder grows here.
Adjacent to the northern edge of Rheinhessen is the Nahe, yet another tributary of the Rhine, which the Nahe enters at Bingen. The center of the wine region is Bad Kreuznach, which holds its wine festival in August. Extending east from the mineral- and semi-precious stone-rich area near Idar-Oberstein.
The Nahe is bounded on its northern bank by a huge wall of pink granite near Traisen. Pinot or Burgundian grapes such as Pinot blanc, -gris, -noir, -meunier and -madeleine and Riesling all do well. A dozen top wineries are bringing fame to this mountainous area with rolling hills and widely differing soils. But outside of Germany, Nahe wines require some searching.
This region, about 25 minutes southwest of Bonn off Autobahn A-61, extends along the banks of a small tributary that joins the Rhine at Remagen. The Ahr is one of the least-known German appellations. Many of its top growths are perilously hanging onto extremely steep heights — more than 50-degree inclines are common. The Ahr produces minute quantities of superb spicy Pinot Noir and terrific briskly acetic Riesling, but you’ll probably have to attend a festival, or visit a vintner or buy online to taste it. The principal city of Ahrweiler hosts a festival in September.
In Bavaria and in the East
The Silvaner, Pinot blanc and Riesling wine from this area, mainly along the Main River to the west and east of Würzburg, (Wertheim and Sommerach/Volkach, respectively) are noted for their use of the round, squat Bocksbeutel flask- bottle for its finer wines, although increasingly more use of Bordeaux- and Burgundy style bottles is evident.
Franconian red wines have seen the spicy-winey Domina grape emerge while the naturally sweet Bacchus white varietal in various cuvees appeals in the warmer months.
Wines from the ultra-steep, fossil-laden, chalky Steinhang on the northern bank of the Main are among Franken’s greatest growths. They date back to the 1300’s. You can try them at Würzburg’s Weinfest am Stein in July or at the Summerfest in the Talliaferre right on the River Esplanade. Numerous 2016 events commemorate the 700th and 880th anniversaries of the Bürgerspital and Juliusspital Charitable Foundations’ Wineries this year with special tastings and gala dinners. Special Edition wines for long-term storage will be presented at lavish ceremonies. Each of these top producers own vineyards beneath the imposing ramparts of the Marienburg Bishops’ Residence Castle; high above the city.
The alluvial soils of the Main to the east and the famed Eschdorfer Lump and Katzenkopf grand cru vineyards situated on rolling hills extending northeasterly to Schweinfurt vary greatly from the more gravelly soils of the Main’s zig-zag stretches south of Autobahn 3. Recently the Divino and GWF Grower’s and other co-ops’ wines are becoming increasingly visible in the US thanks to pooled marketing resources.
About 280 kilometers (175 miles) to the east of Franken is Sachsen. Following Reunification, this is one of the two smaller wine regions in the former East Germany that returned to quality German wine production after the ecological devastation of almost 50 years’ neglect and ecological abuse. Sachsen runs along the banks of the Elbe River on a stretch that includes Dresden and the famed porcelain-making city of Meissen, as well as Dresden’s fairy-tale summer Residence – Pillnitz Castle – the lovely summer residential rococo palace and its beautiful riverside gardens and grounds.
These two cities – and Pillnitz – are among the most popular tourist attractions of the no-longer, so-called “new” states. Their dry, crisp Silvaner, Weissburgunder/Pinot blanc and Riesling white wines created a long-standing wine-drinking culture here dating back centuries. The wines produced here were the ones savored by the first German emperors, the Ottonian kings of Saxony around 980 A.D., and then, some 550 years later, by Martin Luther, and were used by the new “reformed” Church. Dresden has a wine festival in July and Meissen has one in September.
This East German “other” growth area, flanking the same-named rivers in Thüringen and Sachsen-Anhalt, lies southwest of Leipzig, and east of Weimar in the heart of Martin Luther and J.S. Bach’s birthplaces. Saale-Unstrut has regained much of its wine making glory in recent years.
Forced collectivization of the wineries and excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides by the East German government-run wineries had all but destroyed its fame. Today, a handful of dedicated wine makers in and around Naumburg have worked wonders restoring these vineyards to their earlier excellence.
Millions of years ago, prehistoric seas left deep deposits of fossil-laden chalk soils under the scenic valleys’ loamy earth. Now that these once-polluted soils have been rehabilitated and reclaimed, finer quality white wines are returning as well as drier reds. Not much gets beyond the region so that travels along the historic Romanesque and the Reformation Route gives you the chance to savor some truly infrequent wines from private producers and a few former monasteries. Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch wines, originally from Austria, Pinot Noir, and Portugieser are red local favorites along with razor-sharp, finely delineated Riesling, Silvaner and occasional Pinot blanc are cultivated here. Traditional eastern German foods work well with them. No trip to Weimar, Jena, Magdeburg, Quedlinburg, Halle or Leipzig is truly complete without taking in this virtually tourist-free area with its old-fashioned, slow-paced friendly villages, bucolic, pastoral settings and cultural treasures.
Whether you are a true wine devotee seeking new taste sensations or simply enjoy a glass once in a while, trips Germany’s wine-growing districts are one of the most delightful ways to discover a different side of Deutschland and its most charming landscapes and ancient sites. Best of all, every vintage is different and every new wine a new sensation.
So, newcomers and veterans, Welcome to Germany and its wonderful wines.
As Robert Parker,the American wine maven says, “Here’s wishing you the best in Life and Wine,” during your stay in Germany.
Written by Tom Lipton. Tom’s relatives owned a fine wine store in New York City. Enthralled with the colorful growing areas maps photos of the world’s great growing areas, their history and beautiful packaging and labeling as a child, he eventually left performing arts management and made his way to the world of wine as a journalist, exporter, importer, broker and retail sales specialist. He has studied and worked with wineries in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and the U.S. and is a frequent attendee at professional tastings and trade shows in Europe and the U.S.