A brief history of German wines:
The French Revolution (1789 – 1799) had a profound effect on German viticulture. The area of the country west of the Rhine was ceded to France, and because of Napoleon’s policies a large part of the vineyards belonging to the Catholic Church passed to private ownership. The Congress of Vienna (1814 – 1815) reestablished Europe’s internal borders, and so Germany became even further politically divided, provoking fierce competition among the country’s wine producing regions and the trade agreements negotiated among them. Improvements in transportation, particularly the railroad, presented yet another threat: competition with the wines of Bordeaux. With the founding of the German Empire in 1871 the internal trade barriers were finally eliminated. Notably, Alsace and Lorraine became German territory once again, and the production of wine in those two territories would come to represent 40% of the total German wine production until their reannexation to France for the last time after the First World War.
During the 1830s, several German states began to recognize and establish different harvest times for grapes of differing ripeness. In the same period, the German scientist Ferdinand Oechsle developed a system to measure the level of sugar in grape must, in degrees Oechsle, the system still used today in Germany. Interest in bettering technology and the quality of German wine in general were motives for the founding of new professional associations and institutes for research and training. The first, Weinsberg Academy, was founded in 1860 in Württemberg. Others would be established during the rest of the century.
Unfortunately, the new emphasis on quality left poor country wine producers in a difficult situation. Unable to afford the new technologies and with vineyards of inferior quality, they found it more and more difficult to sell their wines, typically thin and acidic, and so the first wine cooperative was formed in 1869 with the idea of combining forces and resources to make better wine to benefit all involved. Of course, it was understood that the use of chaptalization, adding sugar to grape must, could correct the finished wines only to a certain extent. The abuse of the technique and the resulting alcoholic and poorly balanced wines would lead to regulations starting with a series of new wine laws in 1892, and then in 1901 and 1909. But for some, the new laws didn’t go far enough, and so in 1910 four wine auction houses favoring the production of “naturrein” (naturally pure) wines formed the Verein Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer (the Association of German Natural Wine Auctioneers), today known as the VDP or Prädikatsweingüter, the country’s most important association of quality wine producers.
The first half of the twentieth century would be dominated by two world wars. The German economy failed, and along with it vineyard area and wine production decreased dramatically. In 1914 the country exported 190,000 hectoliters (5 million gallons) of wine. In 1928 exports had plummeted to only 39,000 hectoliters (1 million gallons). A series of bad harvests between 1922 and 1932 contributed to the bleak outlook, and with the rise of National Socialism the independent grower associations were abolished. The precarious situation led some merchants to create wine brands made with a blend of grape varieties (the top quality wines were 100% Riesling) from various regions and often sweetened: the origin of wine brands like Liebfraumilch. But something good did happen during this dark period: the Wine Law of 1930, much stricter than its predecessors. This law clarified the difference between natural and sweetened wines, and prohibited the blending of red and white wines, and foreign and German wines.
Between 1950 and 1990 the situation improved considerably. Vineyard plantings and wine production both increased. Wine quality as well. In 1971, new German wine law was introduced with the goal of restructuring vineyards, clarifying techniques of viticulture and winemaking, and simplifying the information published on wine labels. New grape varieties were created, seeking ones that ripened earlier, were disease resistant, or red varieties better suited to the country’s cool climate. Unfortunately, many grape growers had replaced their Riesling vines with, for example, Müller-Thurgau vines, a variety that gives higher yields and matures earlier, but which produces wines lacking the elegance and complexity of Riesling. Riesling lost her crown as queen of the vineyards for many years but recovered it with the beginning of the new millennium.
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