A cool-climate wine region steeped in Old World tradition, with origins dating to the Roman Empire. A detailed hierarchy of vineyards, with specific soil types that encourage two key grape varieties to flourish under optimal conditions. Wines with tension and energy that tend to be shy and restrained in their youth, blossoming into beautiful representations after a few years of aging.
For most wine professionals, this description likely brings Burgundy to mind. But what if the region in question is, in fact, Germany?
German wine has always posed a challenge to students of wine, and today its study is further complicated by significant updates to German wine law. The changes are related to German wine’s shift toward dryness, a transition propelled by both climate and consumer preferences. An analysis of 30-year mean temperatures shows that the country’s temperature increased by an average of 1.07 degrees Celsius (1.9 degrees Fahrenheit) from 1961–1990 to 1991–2020. Many vineyards that once struggled to achieve ripeness now do so with ease. At the same time, taste preferences have swung toward dry (trocken) styles. Though Germany’s famed sweet wines are still produced, 48% of the country’s wine production meets the EU definition of dry (no more than nine grams per liter of residual sugar, except when acid is over seven grams per liter). This is up an astounding 31% in a little over 30 years. An additional 21% of all wines are produced in a semidry style (9–18 grams of residual sugar).
As the wines have trended dry, there has been more of a focus on vineyard hierarchy, which is reflected in the revamping of German wine law that took place in 2021. These changes will be rolled out gradually until 2026.
This article will establish a foundation for understanding German wine before outlining the 2021 wine law changes and describing the country’s key grand cru sites. By appreciating the why behind Germany’s classification systems, wine professionals—and by extension, all wine drinkers—can more fully experience Germany’s uniquely expressive vineyards and excellent wines.
Recognizing the role of noble grapes, the relationship between wine law and climate, and producers’ focus on quality over the past century will help wine professionals build a comprehensive understanding of German wine.
Native to Germany and synonymous with the country’s greatest wines, Riesling dominates at 23.4% (24,150 hectares) of Germany’s vineyard area, more than double that of the second most planted grape, Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), with 11.3% (11,660 hectares). Germany contains almost 40% of the world’s Riesling plantings and ranks third in plantings of Pinot Noir, after France and the United States.
It is impressive that Germany’s most cultivated white variety is a grape as noble as Riesling. Very few European countries have such notable top-planted varieties. In France, the most planted white variety is Ugni Blanc (82,000 hectares), a grape so neutral it is destined for brandy distillate. In Spain, the most planted white variety is Airén (217,000 hectares), also a favorite in brandy production. Italy’s top planted white grape is Glera (27,000 hectares), the main grape of Prosecco. Though Prosecco is a favorite at brunch in restaurants across America, Glera lacks the star power Riesling regularly achieves.
Riesling offers elegance, longevity, versatility, expression of terroir, and bracing acidity, with tension balanced by fruitiness. It flourishes in numerous environments—not only slate soil but also limestone, gneiss, sandstone, marl, and loam, on slopes as steep as 70 degrees or on gentle rolling hills. And as for red grapes, no one needs to be convinced of Pinot Noir’s worthiness of grand cru status, thanks to Champagne and Burgundy.
A golden era for German wine stretched from the 1800s to the two world wars. Most of the wine made in this period was fermented to dryness. In Germany’s cool climate, it was difficult for grapes to accumulate the amount of sugar necessary for producing sweet wines. This was possible only in the most prized vineyard sites, and sweet Rieslings were cherished for their rarity.
As a result, when Germany’s wine law was established in 1971, it was centered around ripeness. Ripeness in German wine is measured in degrees of Oechsle, or must density in relation to water. The rationale was that a higher Oechsle level would indicate a riper wine from a superior growing site.
In 1971, four classification categories were formed; the two most relevant for export markets were Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein. Qualitätswein includes both dry and sweet wines and allows for chaptalization (anreicherung in German), a process of adding dry sugar to wine must before and during fermentation. Producers use chaptalization to achieve an elevated alcohol level and richer mouthfeel. Prädikatswein does not allow chaptalization, and the wines can have some form of residual sugar. Prior to the category’s establishment, in 1971, these unadulterated wines from top vineyard sites were referred to as Naturwein and represented the pinnacle of German wine, accounting for a fraction of total production countrywide. Through the lens of wine production in a cool-climate region, it made sense that a naturally ripened wine (sans chaptalization) would indicate a superior site, and price would reflect that.
The German wine quality story was interrupted by the two world wars and reconstruction, though it was a topic of conversation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although chaptalization was a respected method, there was another enrichment tactic, called Gallization, whereby sugar solution was added to the finished wine, which was widely considered to undermine quality. Gallization was abused to stretch the output of substandard wines from lower-quality vineyard sites. The process of adulteration upset producers of Naturwein and other quality wine, as their reputations were at stake.
In response, quality-driven auctioneers banded together in 1910, declaring a higher standard than the nascent wine law at the time. They were drawn together under the tenets of natural ripeness and estate wines from estate vineyards. This group called itself the Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer (VDNV) and was the predecessor to the organization now known as the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP)—the oldest continuously operated winemaker membership group.
Despite the impact of this group, unscrupulous wine merchants, Gallized wine, and increased mechanization in the post–World War II period further negatively impacted the perception of German wines. The 1971 wine law aimed to refocus German wine production on quality and provenance. One key tenet of the law was the delineation of vineyard sites. Prior to this law, Germany had over 30,000 einzellagen, or historical vineyards equivalent to lieux dits. Wine law revision combined vineyards and districts into grosslage, or collective sites, decreasing the number of einzellagen to 2,650. (Grosslage should not be confused with Grosse Lage. Grosslage is a collection of einzellagen, or single-vineyard sites, whereas Grosse Lage is a VDP term that indicates a top-tier site.) But there was little information to help consumers differentiate between einzellagen and grosslage, which led to additional confusion.
Since its establishment, the VDP membership organization has made great strides in propelling the German quality story forward. Recognizing the need for clearer labeling and wine law, while also forecasting the market trend toward dry wine, the VDP implemented its own vineyard classification model in 2012. The model mirrors the vineyard classification of Burgundy with its hierarchy. The German counterparts to regional, village, premier cru, and grand cru are Gutswein, Ortswein, Erste Lage, and Grosse Lage, respectively, with the tip-top of the pyramid reserved for Grosses Gewächs, or dry grand cru wines. Some of the top producers in Germany do not belong to the VDP for various reasons yet hold themselves to the highest standards in winemaking and vineyard management as well.
Given the success of the VDP classification, a new quality scheme was introduced in Germany in 2021. This reimagining of the 1971 law shifts Qualitätswein to a geographic hierarchy, while Prädikatswein will ultimately remain the same, accounting for a scale of ripeness from Kabinett to Trockenbeerenauslese. Qualitätswein now encompasses classifications for winegrowing area, region, village, and vineyard, in line with the EU system of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). The two systems will work in tandem to define a wine’s place and its must concentration. The main tenet of both systems is that espoused by the VDP’s motto: “The narrower the origin, the higher the quality.”
The change in wine legislation shows a determination to correct the flaws of the 1971 model and make the system more understandable to the consumer, true to the sense of vineyard place, and focused on quality.
Moving from largest geographic area to smallest, Qualitätswein will encompass the following categories:
- Largest geographic indication under Qualitätswein - From 1 of the 13 specified German wine areas (e.g., Mosel)
- From a bereich (district) or grosslage (a collective site that spans communes or districts)- Name includes region in front of the collective site name; district or village name may not be used
- Name includes village or district as designation of origin- Must reflect characteristics of local vineyards- Must be ripened to at least Kabinett level- May be still or sparkling- May not be sold until December 15 during the year of harvest
- Name includes designation of single vineyard or classified site with the village or district- Can be further classified as Erstes Gewächs or Grosses Gewächs (if dry)- One or more grape varieties specified by regional association- Must be ripened to at least Kabinett level- May be sweet or dry- May not be sold until March 1 of the year following harvest
- From a single vineyard or small parcel within a collective site- Selectively harvested with a yield not exceeding 60 hectoliters per hectare in flat areas and 70 hectoliters per hectare in steep areas- Single grape variety that matches regional taste profile- Must undergo a sensory evaluation from a licensed panel- Must reach minimum alcohol level of 11%- Must be dry- May not be sold until March 1 of the year following harvest
- From a single vineyard or small parcel within a collective site- Hand-harvested with yields not exceeding 50 hectoliters per hectare- Single grape variety that matches regional taste profile- Must undergo a sensory evaluation from a licensed panel- Must reach minimum alcohol level of 12%- Must be dry- White wines may not be sold until September 1 of the year following harvest; reds may not be sold until June 1 of the second year following harvest
There will be a transition period for the Qualitätswein geographical hierarchy, which will be in effect until 2025 for most wines, with the exception of Grosses Gewächs and Erstes Gewächs; these will adhere to the new standards with the 2023 vintage. In 2026, consumers will start to see the hierarchy reflected on the labels of wines on the market.
The sense of vineyard place in Germany is built into the winemaking heritage and dates back centuries, with well-known vineyards named after sundials, church parcels, knights, and gold. In this more marginal climate, the grand cru vineyards of Germany stand out because they receive prolonged exposure to the sun, allowing grapes to ripen naturally. Light reflection from a nearby river or heat retention of the soil can further aid in ripening.
The following is by no means an exhaustive list of the top grand cru sites, as so many vineyards are categorized as Grosse Lage. Listed below are the top vineyards that are encountered in most mature export markets, particularly the United States.
The Mosel is the most famous wine region of Germany, with some of the most beautiful and esteemed vineyards in the country. It is also one of the most northerly growing regions, and, while the Mosel produces exceptional dry wines, it is better known for its legendary off-dry wines. With over 8,500 planted hectares, the Mosel is the fifth largest growing region in Germany in terms of vineyard area. With its steep slate slopes and winding river, the Mosel is certainly one of the most visually striking wine regions in the world.
Most of the grand cru vineyards are in the Bernkastel district of the middle Mosel, between the villages of Briedel and Trier—with one famous vineyard being the outlier.
Scharzhofberg: The most reputable grand cru of the Mosel, Scharzhofberg (Scharzhofberger) lies along a Mosel tributary called the Saar. In grand cru form, only the vineyard name is listed on labels, without the village. Friable red and gray slate and intense wind provide the framework for one of the most unique vineyards of Germany. Famously, Egon Müller produces a rare Trockenbeerenauslese wine from Scharzhofberg that fetches higher prices on release than any other wine in the world. Other notable producers include von Hövel, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, Van Volxem, and Johannes Peters.
Piesporter Goldtröpfchen: Located at the village of Piesport, Goldtröpfchen is a steep, sun-drenched amphitheater-like vineyard with dark, weathered Devonian slate. The vineyard was farmed in the year 371 by the Romans, and a restored wine press from this period is still located in the vineyard. The vineyard name, which means “droplets of gold,” likely comes from either the glittery appearance of the soil or the water droplets seen on botrytized grapes. Key producers include Julian Haart, A.J. Adam, Willi Haag, Nik Weis, Schloss Lieser, Reinhold Haart, and Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt.
Bernkasteler Doctor: At just 3.5 hectares, the Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard is one of the smallest in the Mosel. It is also one of the most historic, with steep slopes with weathered blue slate and mostly ungrafted vines. Reportedly, the archbishop of Trier became ill in 1360 and was healed only by drinking two bottles of Bernkasteler Riesling from this reputed site, lending the doctor name. Other famous admirers of the vineyard were German Emperor Wilhelm II, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Producers include Dr. H. Thanisch, Markus Molitor, Schloss Lieser, and Weingüter Wegeler.
Sonnenuhr vineyards of Juffer, Wehlen, and Zeltingen: Long before pocket watches, sundials (sonnenuhr) were constructed in vineyards and used to tell time. These storied vineyards are incredibly steep and have intense solar radiation and classic Devonian slate. Vineyard owner Jodocus Prüm erected the first vineyard sundial in 1842, in the famed vineyard of Wehlen, and the village now has nearly 50 sundials displayed throughout town. Some of the most recognizable producers are J. J. Prüm, S. A. Prüm, Willi Schaefer, Fritz Haag, Schloss Lieser, Selbach-Oster, Dr. Loosen, and Markus Molitor.
Ürziger Würzgarten: The “spice garden” vineyard reaches gradients of 80 degrees, and the vines must be trained on single posts. The upper portion of the hill, unlike other middle Mosel vineyards, is red sandstone and volcanic debris, leading to the iron oxide slate that gives the vineyard a distinct red color. The wines are often noted for their intensity. Dr. Loosen, A. J. Adam, J. J. Christoffel, and Markus Molitor are a few of the producers here.
In the Rheingau, the moderating influence of the Rhine River and a rain shadow effect from the Taunus hills provide a rare, nearly Mediterranean growing climate. Riesling accounts for almost 80% of the plantings, the highest proportion for any one region in all of Germany. Spätburgunder is a focus on the western portion of the Rheingau at the Rüdesheimer Berg sites, which arguably yield some of the country’s best wines from this grape.
The Rheingau, which spans 3,200 hectares, is known for abbeys, monasteries, and castles. The first Spätlese Riesling was made at Schloss Johannisberg in 1775, and the Rheingau was the first region to revitalize vineyard classification, with the Charta in the 1980s. The following list focuses mainly on the grand cru vineyards in the western portion of the Rheingau.
Assmannshauser Höllenberg: Rising to 160 meters and as steep as 45 degrees in certain parts, the Höllenberg vineyard has unique purple phyllite slate and optimal conditions for grand cru–worthy Spätburgunder, which has been produced here since the 1500s. The word hölle literally means “hell,” but the vineyard name actually derives from halde, a term for a steep hill in the local Rheingau dialect. Top producers include Weingut Künstler, Robert König, and August Kesseler.
Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg: The view of Berg Schlossberg from the Rhine River is impressive. Vineyard walls are a necessity because of the steep, 45-degree gradient, and the Schloss Ehrenfels ruins are striking. Because of the proximity to the river and the slopes facing south-southwest, the vineyard receives ample sunshine, allowing both Riesling and Spätburgunder to thrive.
Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck: One of the steepest vineyards in the Rheingau, at a 50-degree gradient, Berg Roseneck rises to 200 meters and is devoted to Riesling. The world-famous Niederwald monument is located above the vineyard and provides spectacular views of the Rheinhessen and Nahe regions. The vineyard name translates to “rose hedge,” and, indeed, wild rose hedges grow from the granite cliffs.
Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland: The vineyard closest to the famed village of Rüdesheim, Berg Rottland has an easier slope of 15 degrees, and the red slate soils store heat that radiates to the vines. Because of the fog that rolls in from the Rhine, the vineyard is prone to botrytis and can produce outstanding Spätlese and Auslese wines even in average years. Top producers include Georg Breuer, Weingut Künstler, Josef Leitz, and Kloster Eberbach.
Schloss Johannisberg: Riesling has been exclusively cultivated since 1720 in this monopole of the Schloss Johannisberg estate, which claims to be the world’s first contiguous vineyard planted to Riesling. The 15-hectare Grosse Lage within the larger 35-hectare vineyard is one of the sunniest sites in the Rheingau.
In 1775, 55 years after the first Riesling vines were planted at Schloss Johannisberg, the first Spätlese Riesling was produced here. Legend has it that the prince-bishop of Fulda employed a courier to transport a selection of grapes from Johannisberg to Fulda so that he could determine if the grapes were ready to be harvested by the monks. While the courier was delayed 14 days, botrytis affected the vineyard, leading to the birth of the first late-harvest wine in Germany.
Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest winegrowing region, with just under 27,200 hectares planted to vine. “The land of 1,000 hills,” as it’s commonly called, offers a diverse array of soils, ranging from clay and sandstone to loess and limestone, accommodating various grape varieties. Riesling is the most planted variety, but there are also notable plantings of Dornfelder and Silvaner, among other grapes. Today, Rheinhessen is home to some of the top producers in Germany and the world, and grand cru vineyards from the villages of Bingen, Nierstein, and Westhofen rank among the best.
Bingen Scharlachberg: Located in northern Rheinhessen, Scharlachberg is known for its red iron oxide slate, which gives the vineyard its name (scharlach means “scarlet”). A persistent wind in the vineyard keeps the grapes dry and helps mitigate disease pressure. Scharlachberg reaches 220 meters in elevation and as much as a 50% slope gradient. Producers of note include Wagner-Stempel, Weingut Bischel, and Weingut Riffel.
Nackenheimer Rothenberg: The grand cru vineyards Rothenberg and Pettenthal are located in the Roter Hang (red slope), a striking vineyard with iron-rich, red sandstone. The south- and southeast-facing Rothenberg is the most northerly parcel of the Roter Hang and receives an abundance of sunlight as well as solar reflection from the Rhine River. It is a small vineyard, at 5.5 hectares, with a gradient that reaches 75% in some areas. Rothenberg wines tend to have a riper and richer palate compared with wines from Pettenthal. The vineyard is nearly a monopole of Gunderloch, which produces a legendary Trockenbeerenauslese in addition to dry Riesling. Weingut Schmitz, Weingüter Wegeler, and others also farm small parcels.
Niersteiner Pettenthal: The Pettenthal parcel of the Roter Hang is as impressive as Rothenberg. At approximately 6.5 hectares, Pettenthal is slightly more shaded, though it receives ample sunshine. The eastern exposure helps protect against wind. Klaus Peter Keller, Gunderloch, Weingut St. Antony, and Weingut Kühling-Gillot are top producers here.
Dalsheimer Bürgel: Known for its terra fusca (black earth) limestone soil, Bürgel is planted largely to Spätburgunder, along with Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder. Klaus Peter Keller produces a legendary Spätburgunder that is one of the most expensive and highly regarded Pinot Noir wines made in Germany. The grapes of Bürgel are also used for some of the very best German sparkling wines, made by neighboring producer Sekthaus Raumland.
Westhofener Morstein: The Morstein grand cru is predominantly limestone bedrock, with an aquifer beneath it that provides water and nutrients, particularly during drought years. This is a large vineyard, at 150 hectares, but only about 26 hectares are considered grand cru. A gentle 25% south-facing slope is favorable to an extended growing season, perfect for late-ripening Riesling and Spätburgunder. Top producers such as Klaus Peter Keller, Philipp Wittmann, Dreissigacker, Seehof, and Wechsler make world-renowned Riesling from Morstein.
Westhofener Kirchspiel: In the Kirchspiel (“cherry tree hill”) grand cru, clay marl leads to limestone, and hills block the wind, providing coverage and an opening facing the Rhine. Riesling dominates, along with some Silvaner. Top producers include Philipp Wittmann, Klaus Peter Keller, Dreissigacker, and Seehof.
With about 23,800 hectares under vine, the Pfalz is the second largest German wine region. Located slightly north of the French region of Alsace, the Pfalz has a similar climate, thanks to protection from the westerly Haardt hills, an extension of the Vosges Mountains. The Pfalz is Germany’s largest producer of both red wines and Riesling. Because of the Mediterranean-leaning climate, grapes ripen easily and can yield powerful wines. The Pfalz is further segmented into the two bereiche of Mittelhaardt and Südliche. Most of the grand cru vineyards are in the Mittelhaardt, between Wachenheim and Deidesheim, and there is also a concentration at the southern border near France.
Felsenberg: The most northerly grand cru of the Pfalz, Felsenberg is in the middle of the Felsenberg-Berntal nature reserve, at the edge of the Haardt hills. The vineyard is predominantly limestone and cooler than the vineyards of the southern Pfalz. Weingut Rings is a top producer.
Forster Pechstein: A 17-hectare grand cru in the village of Forst, located alongside the Deutsche Weinstrasse (German Wine Route), Pechstein has many soil types, including black basalt, weathered sandstone, and sandy loam. The now extinct Pechsteinkopf volcano influenced soil composition, as did a nearby stone quarry. Pechstein has more clay than most vineyards in the Mittelhaardt, which is beneficial during warm vintages. Top producers include von Winning, Bassermann-Jordan, Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, and Reichsrat von Buhl.
Forster Jesuitengarten: Basalt, clay, loam, and limestone are the primary soils of Jesuitengarten. The basalt helps warm the soil in the morning sun, and an afternoon breeze helps mitigate disease pressure and cool the grapes. Named after the Jesuit monastery of Neustadt, Jesuitengarten is planted exclusively to Riesling and is a favorite site of many producers in the region, including von Winning, Bassermann-Jordan, Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, Reichsrat von Buhl, and Heinrich Spindler.
Forster Kirchenstück: Surrounded by a sandstone wall and the Forster church, Kirchenstück has east-facing slopes that resemble Burgundian vineyards. The soil is limestone, with basalt, sandy loam, and sandstone. Jesuitengarten and Kirchenstück are favorite vineyards of the legendary three B’s of the Pfalz: Reichsrat von Buhl, Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, and Bassermann-Jordan. Von Winning and Heinrich Spindler also produce wines here.
Siebeldinger Im Sonnenschein: Located at the base of the Palatine Forest in southern Pfalz, Im Sonnenschein translates to “in the sunshine,” and this vineyard receives an abundance of sun. Grapes thrive on the gentle slopes and Triassic-era limestone soil. Rebholz is a key producer in Im Sonnenschein, making a Weissburgunder that ranks among the top expressions of this grape.
Schweigener Kammerberg: Located just over the French border, Kammerberg was resurrected in the 1960s by the producer Friedrich Becker and his legendary Spätburgunder. The vineyard’s soils are marl over limestone, which is perfectly suited to Spätburgunder. Warm days with cool evenings preserve the intense acidity and longevity of the wines.
Germany’s reimagined wine law was established to provide a better framework for grasping the origins and quality levels of its wines, while also reflecting stylistic shifts related to climate and consumer preferences. Understanding these legal changes, the nuances of Germany’s key grand cru sites, and the unique characteristics of German wine can help the trade and consumers alike appreciate the stunning wines produced in this country.
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Damn, nice work Joe!