Looking for a Good German Wine? Skip the Liebfraumilch!

German Vineyard in Rhineland-Palatinate

Rhineland-Palatinate is the leading producer of wine in Germany. The federal state grows 65-70% of the grapes used in wine production.

Let’s just get this wine monkey off Germany’s back right away: Liebfraumilch is far and away its leading export. Great Britain, the US, and the Netherlands knock back most of it and, rest assured, this accounts for almost all Liebfraumilch consumption, because in Germany, it is not popular. Sweet and simple, if innocuous, Liebfraumilch is mass-produced almost exclusively for export. Germans rarely touch it after it leaves the winery.

One can hardly blame Germany for exporting a profitable commodity. Unfortunately, Liebfraumilch has become far too synonymous with German wine. Liebfraumilch undermines the reputation of Germany’s fine wine makers and hides the nation’s world-class estates; it masks the region’s legacy and cloaks its recent innovations.

Bis wir uns wiedersehen, mein Liebfraumilch…

German Wines

Since the first few centuries AD, when the region was an outpost of the Roman Empire, wine grapes have been cultivated along the Mosel and its tributaries. Most of the better vineyards are located towards the west of the country. German vineyards have the distinction of being among the most northerly in the world. The cool climate; the steep slopes of the local topography; the soil composition — limestone, slate, loess, quartz — define an unusual terrier and all influence the wines.

Popular misconception holds that Germany produces only white wines, but almost a third of its production is red and rose, and some of the white wine is finished in a sparkling style, Sekt. Germany’s most widely planted red wine grape is Spatburgunder, the local strain of Pinot Noir, but Dornfelder is a perennial favourite, too. Dornfelder produces full-bodied, dark, fruity age-worthy wine in a climate quite harsh for red wine grapes.

Although German viticulturists planted many acres of black-skinned grapes over the past few decades, the ratio of white to black grapes has now steadied. Despite its proliferation of red wine vines, Germany remains one of the world’s foremost producers of refined whites. Although most are finished sweet, many are dry, and the better sweet wines show layer after layer of complex fruit and floral perfume supported by steely acidity.

Staple grapes in German wine include:

  1. GewŸrztraminer: off-dry, often slightly spritzy, rose petal, lychee, passion fruit, highly aromatic
  2. MŸller-Thurgau: an early-ripening, high-yielding hybrid. The backbone of Liebfraumilch.
  3. Riesling: Germany’s most plentiful and signature grape. Aromatic, acidic. Can be finished dry, semi-sweet, sweet or sparkling. Fresh, crisp apple, gooseberry, grapefruit, cut grass, honey, peach and roses.
  4. Silvaner: once the most popular white wine grape in Germany, but acreage has steadily declined over the past 50 years. Can produce forceful, dry, earthy white wines in Franconia and Rheinhessen.

Those who enjoy dry whites should look for labels that describe the wine as Trocken, Halbtrocken, Classic, or Selection. The dry German styles pair well with food. For rich, more fruit-forward wines look for SpŠtlese, and the very sweet Auslese styles. For a dessert treat, try an Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese.

Photo of German Wine Country By Wolfgang Staudt (Flickr)

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