Germany is known the world over for the king of the vines: Riesling. No grape shows its origin as clearly as this unique fruit and the world envies us for it. It reflects soil, climate, the wines’ producers as well as the maturity level. Well, we certainly don’t want to talk about the over-used empty marketing label “terroir” for the umpteenth time. But it is clear that the interplay of natural factors indisputably leaves its mark on the flavour profile of high-quality German wines.
German winemakers have the potential to produce some of the world's best white wines. And more recently, certain reds have also drawn some attention.
Germany has 13 wine regions, which mainly reach along the Rhine and its tributaries Mosel, Nahe, Main, Neckar and Ahr. About 60% of the vineyards are located on extremely steep slopes that are facing south, southeast and southwest.
Here we don’t just see a diversity of grape varieties, but also a myriad of wine styles. These are of course owing to the different climates that we have recorded from A for Ahr to W for Württemberg. Incidentally, the wine region of Baden is the only German wine-growing region located in the wine-growing zone B, the same as Alsace, the Loire, Champagne and so on. All other areas are in the coldest climate zone A. Germany is generally considered a cool-climate wine-growing region. This is where sophisticated white wines with a low alcohol content and fine aromatic red wines are produced.
Previously we were able to rely on the German climate. We had moderately warm summers and mild winters. Sufficient rainfall throughout the year during the growing season made for a long maturation.
In recent years, however, weather extremes have put the skills of the winemakers in this country to a severe test. The most important partner of the winemaker and his wines has become unpredictable, namely Mother Nature.
For example, this is what happened in the night from 3 to 4 May 2011. That morning, the fresh green of the vines froze to death in some valleys and resembled a tobacco crop at best. The results ranged from a drastic reduction in yield to total existential threat. Then, in September, hailstorms caused large losses to the rest of the harvest.
In 2012, everything changed yet again. A much too dry spring was followed by a long period of wetness, posing the risk of mildew and downy mildew (Peronospora).
Wineries that completely depend on Mother Nature, such as organic wineries, find themselves in great danger. And let’s face it, when we speak about organic wineries we are speaking about the top wines of this world, produced in harmony with nature. And these winemakers have high demands when it comes to the quality of their products. For them, origin and terroir are guarantors for regionality, originality and identity.
The soil has to be able to nourish the vine: organic materials are brought together with mineral materials, micro-organisms such as earthworms keep the soil loose. This results in soil rich in humus, serving as nutrient and water dispenser.
Perennial plantings with different root systems guarantee that both soil and vines on the slopes can benefit from a wholesome nutrition.
But let's get back to the moods of Mother Nature.
Although the winemakers had a satisfactory harvest in 2012, the crop in 2013 again faced some harsh conditions. A long wet period in the spring with floods and cold spells which also affected the bloom was followed by an extreme summer with long, tropical nights. The development of the vineyards was delayed.
Another phenomenon of Mother Nature currently affects not only the top areas. Too much harvest results in limited aroma and sugar content in the individual berries. If the winemaker wants to produce top qualities, he must reduce excess grapes. While this reduces the yield, it brings more quality into the bottle.
Generally what I can hear from the wine-growing regions in Germany is that 2013 could become a very good vintage. A vintage with many uncertainties that can be taken as opportunity for winemakers to show their skills in handling Mother Nature. This is definitely a year for winemakers who focus on quality... thus again separating the wheat from the chaff – or rather the grape.
While, a few years ago, we had a significant wine surplus, German winegrowers are increasingly going to become wine shortage managers due to these weather extremes. Imagine, only a third of the amount is still producible. But the cost of the operation nonetheless continue like before – a major economic challenge for every business.
And yet our German winegrowers are not weary and keep letting the vintage do the talking. They don’t want fabricated but fostered wine for their customers.
Illustrations by Alicia Fernandez