The poem “Mosella”

It is known that the wild vine Vitis vinifera silvestris existed in the Rhine River Valley in prehistoric times, but it is more probable that the Romans are the ones responsible for modern viticulture in Germany. Archaeological discoveries, like a pruning knife from the first century A.D., signal the presence of viticulture, but the first concrete evidence is the poem Mosella, descriptions of the countryside along the Moselle River and its steep vineyards, written by the Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius around 370 A.D. From that period until the reign of Charlemagne (≈747 – 814) German viticulture was centered to the west of the Rhine River. To the east of the Rhine, outside the zone of Roman occupation, the Catholic Church managed the viticulture. During this time not much is known about the quality of the wines nor the grape varieties planted except the red wine was produced.

The city of Esslingen situated above the Neckar River, surrounded by vineyards.
by Andreas Kieser – 1685.

Starting with Charlemagne’s reign we know much more about German viticulture. His officials’ documents show us that the emperor ordered new vineyards to be planted and where to plant them. Charlemagne’s support of the Catholic Church was key to the rapid expansion of vineyards, and a great number of vineyards established by the monasteries in the centuries following his reign still exist today. A great example, the Johannisberg vineyard, was established by order of Archbishop Ruthard of Mainz (1088 – 1109) on the hillsides above the Rhine River, today the renowned Schloss Johannisberg, ranked VDP.Grosse Lage, the highest quality designation (similar in concept to grand cru in France). During the Middle Ages, the monasteries were the mechanism for the improvement of technology in the vineyard and the vinification of wines. During this time the Riesling grape variety was recognized for its superior quality, particularly for this zone, and the dominant variety in Germany today. Indeed, during the sixteenth century there was a gradual change to the production of white wine and wines of better quality in general.

03 March 1435
Klaus Kleinfisch, manager of the wine cellar at Castle Katzenelnbogen in the city of Rüsselsheim, prepares an expenditure report for his boss, Count Johann IV. He writes:
˃ item XXII ß umb setzreben riesslingen in die wingarten ˂
(22 Solidi [gold coins] for Riesling vine cuttings for the vineyard).

Up to the time of the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), the establishment of new vineyards (350,000 hectares/864,868 acres, nearly four times the current size of Germany’s vineyard area) and the production of wine would rapidly expand. Production would eventually exceed demand, and international trade would be established with England, Scandinavia, and Holland: key markets for German wine today. But the Thirty Years War would reverse this trend, devastating vineyards and killing a large part of the German population (up to 20%). Although the industry would eventually recover, Germany would never have the have such a large vineyard area planted as it did in the years before the Thirty Years War.

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