We’ve learned something about Germany’s history and wine producing regions in which I mentioned some of the country’s principal grape varieties. Now let’s explore the grape varieties in more detail. Today, Germany has more than 130 grape varieties. Many are indigenous, some have been imported, and some have been created by crossing grape varieties. Not all are commercially important, and currently only 31 are sufficiently important to be included in the annual report published by the Deutsches Weininstitut (German Wine Institute). The three most important are Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir).
With nearly 24,000 hectares (59,305 acres) or 23% of the vineyard area planted, Riesling is Germany’s most important grape variety. Riesling is an old variety, first mentioned in 1435 as “riessling” by Klaus Kleinfisch, the wine cellar supervisor at Castle Katzenelnbogen in the city of Rüsselsheim, so we can assume the variety existed years before this date. Although it’s not possible to verify the origin of the name after so many centuries, perhaps the most plausible explanation is the similarity to the German verb “reissen” (in Old German “rîzan”), which means “to split” as the grape tends to split when squeezed between the finger and thumb. Unfortunately, even using DNA profiling, it has proven impossible to identify both of Riesling’s parents. One is definitely Gouais Blanc; the other still unknown although it has been suggested that it could be a wild vine, or perhaps a grape variety now extinct. Eventually, Riesling would arrive to the Mosel and Rheingau regions, then to other regions of Germany, and then to other parts of Europe and the rest of the world.
Riesling is adapted to Germany’s cool climate and is resistant to frost. It’s also among the few grape varieties that can produce good-quality wine at high yields although the better producers typically maintain lower yields. Riesling produces white grapes although there is a rare mutation that produces red grapes. In this cool climate Riesling wines have a crisp acidity, and in the coolest zones the wines tend to be vinified with a touch of residual sugar to balance the pronounced acidity. But the tendency for the past few decades is toward dry wines. If you’d like to try a dry German Riesling, look for the words “Grosses Gewächs” or “GG” on the label. This designation, along with the letters “GG” embossed in the bottle’s glass, indicate a dry wine produced from Germany’s best vineyards. You’ll be surprised that these dry wines are relatively inexpensive given the level of quality.
Also known as “Rivaner,” Müller-Thurgau was Germany’s most planted grape variety from the seventies until the new millennium. For many years, it was believed to be a cross of Riesling and Silvaner (hence the its synonym “Rivaner”), but in 2000, DNA testing revealed that its parents are actually Riesling and Madeleine Royale, the latter a cross of Pinot and Schiava Grossa bred in the nineteenth century and no longer cultivated. Dr. Hermann Müller, a grape breeder born in the Swiss canton of Thurgau, created this variety in 1882 at the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute in Germany’s Rheingau region. His idea was to create a new grape variety with the best characteristics of each parent. Although he wasn’t completely successful, the new variety soon became popular with grape growers. It’s less demanding of soil type than Riesling, produces an abundant crop, and ripens sooner than Riesling. Although it produces pleasant wines, they unfortunately lack Riesling’s structure and finesse. With few exceptions, the wines are generally not worth cellaring for more than a few years. In general, pretty wines wine light floral notes destined to be drunk young. A good option for an afternoon on the terrace chatting with a friend.
pinot noir (spätburgunder)
Spätburgunder is the black-berried mutation of the grape variety commonly known as Pinot. Formerly considered distinct varieties, today we know that Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir, along with various others are color mutations of the “Pinot” variety. Little is known about its origins, but it is a very old variety, and there has been much speculation about its ancestry. In 1956, the French ampelographer, Louis Levadoux, suggested it was domesticated from a wild parent, but DNA testing has not been able to confirm this. Alas, the knowledge of its origin is probably lost in time. Over the centuries, Pinot has been a prolific parent. Along with the ancient variety Gouais Blanc, the two have produced at least 21 other grape varieties, including Chardonnay and Gamay.
The black-berried variety of Pinot, Pinot Noir, was first mentioned in the thirteenth century under the name “Morillon” in the Île-de-France located around the city of Paris. Other old synonyms are “Noirien” and “Auvernat.” About the name “Pinot,” there are two hypotheses. Either the name is derived from the French word “pin” (“pinecone” in English) because the grape cluster resembles a pinecone; or it is linked with the name of a place. Indeed, there is a village in the historic region of Auvergne called “Pignols,” where the vine has been cultivated since the Middle Ages. The first use of the name “Pinot” occurred in 1375 when Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy mentioned it in a text: “six queues et un poinçon de vin de pinot vermeil” (six queues and a poinçon of Pinot Ruby wine). “Queue” and “poinçon” are old measures of volume – in total approximately 25 hectoliters (550 gallons).
Although there are suggestions that the variety arrived in Germany as early as 1318, the first reliable mention of its cultivation there was in 1470 in the village of Hattenheim in the Rheingau region, and together with Riesling they are currently the region’s two most important varieties. Pinot Noir is the most important variety in the regions of Ahr and Baden, and only three of Germany’s thirteen wine producing regions don’t cultivate the variety. The quality of German Pinot Noir can be very high indeed, as evidenced by consumer demand and its high price, although not all are expensive.
Regarding German Grape Names
Because there are many old grape varieties in Europe, each country, or in some cases each region, uses different names for the same variety. In Pinot’s case, it was probably thought to come from the Burgundy region, hence the word “Burgunder,” or “coming from Burgundy.” The four most popular varieties from this group in Germany are:
- Frühburgunder: this is Pinot Noir Précoce. “Früh” means “early,” and indeed this is a mutation of Pinot Noir that ripens about two weeks earlier than regular Pinot Noir.
- Grauburgunder: this is Pinot Gris. “Grau” means “grey.”
- Spätburgunder: this is Pinot Noir. “Spät” means “late.” This variety ripens later than Frühburgunder.
- Weissburgunder (or Weißburgunder): this is Pinot Blanc. “Weiss” or “Weiß” means “white.”
A Few Unusual Varieties
Today there are some old varieties that are nearly extinct. It’s interesting to know a little about these relics of the past.
gouais blanc (heunisch weiss)
In German called “Heunisch Weiss,” this is a white grape variety. It played an important role in the Middle Ages but also had a reputation for producing low-quality wine. It’s not possible to precisely determine the location of its birth, but it’s believed to come from northeast France or southwest Germany. As early as 1598 there were orders to grub it up and replace it with varieties considered of higher quality. This isn’t surprising since German botanist, Hieronymus Bock (1498 – 1554) described it in his “Kreutterbuch” (Plant Book): “die grossen feiste Hynische Drauben, welche umb ihrer schnelle würckung willen, von etlichen scheiss Drauben genandt werden” (the big, large Hynsch grapes, which are known for their rapid growth, are called shit grapes by some). But what it lacked in quality it more than made up for in reproductive prowess. It’s the father of at least 81 grape varieties! Among them Chardonnay, Gamay, Savagnin (Traminer), Chenin Blanc, Furmint, Blaufränkisch, and Riesling. Today, there a few acres planted in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.
Gänsfüsser (“goose foot” in English) is an old variety first mentioned in 1505. Although it was an important and popular variety in the Middle Ages, with time it was replaced by other, better quality varieties. Today, in the municipality of Hassloch in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, there are a few vines planted along the walls of several old houses on Gillergasse Street. The only other significant plantings of Gänsfüsser are in Meckenheim (North Rhine-Westphalia) and in Neustadt-Mussbach (Palatinate).
In spite of sharing its name with the French city of Orléans, this old variety is from the Rheingau region. Hieronymus Bock also mentions this variety under the name “Hartheinish.” At one time it was cultivated widely in the Rheingau along with Riesling and other varieties, but was eventually replaced with better quality varieties producing more aromatic wines. It was thought to be extinct until Helmut Becker of the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute discovered some wild vines growing on the terraces of the Rüdesheimer Berg vineyard in the eighties. With the collaboration of a few wineries a small amount of wine is made from vines propagated from the wild vines. Five vines of the variety were found in 2008 in the course of a nationwide survey commissioned by the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food in a facility owned by Baroness von Racknitz on Disibodenberg near Odernheim am Glan. The grape variety expert Andreas Jung determined this using ampelographic comparison. Based on historical documents these vines were planted between 1108 and 1559. If true, these are possibly Germany’s oldest vines.
Coming soon: How are German wines classified?
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