History of German Wine

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The origins of viticulture in Germany can be traced back to the Romans, at the first century. The earliest vineyards existed at the left bank of the Rhine, and plantings spread to the Mosel probably around the 3rd century. The vine advanced further in the Middle Ages, mainly through the church, its monasteries in particular. In the Rheingau, Benedictines founded an abbey, which later became the Schloss Johannisberg. Cistercians established Kloster Eberbach in 1135. The planting of vines reached a high point in the 15th century, when the area under vine was four times larger than it is today. This included Alsace, which was the most highly esteemed region during that period. The most important early variety was probably Elbling. Silvaner, Muskat, Traminer, Spätburgunder, and Trollinger were also known. Riesling arrived relatively late, and is first reliably documented in the Rheingau in 1435 and in the Mosel not much later. Different varieties were generally mixed within a vineyard, rather than carefully distinguished. A serious crisis developed around the 17th century, when prices fell, due to overproduction and competition from beer. The 30 Year War raged, which ended in 1648, with Alsace becoming a French province. In the wake of the disaster, quality improved as unsuitable land was returned to other uses. Riesling replaced lesser varieties, often by decree from political and clerical authorities. The term "Cabinet" was first used in 1712 by the Kloster Eberbach to indicate wines of superior quality. In 1720 the first monoculture of Riesling was planted at Schloss Johannisberg. Noble Rot was discovered a little later, and Kloster Eberbach produced a successful wine from botrytis grapes in 1753. The invention of Spätlese is generally dated at 1775, when the harvest at Schloss Johannisberg was delayed by accident, resulting in a late harvest of largely rotten grapes. The wines made from these grapes became a legend.

In the 19th century, in the wake of the French occupation, most of the church's wine estates were secularized. Technological progress, such as the invention of the ``Oechsle"(Erks-Leh) must weight scale, helped to further improve the wines. In many ways, German wine entered a golden age. The great estates of the Rheinpfalz and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer rose to fame, alongside the Rheingau. At the height of its prestige, Rhine wine generally sold at prices above those of first growth Bordeaux. The Mosel's first Trockenbeerenauslese was made by the Thanisch estate from the Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard in 1921, and created something of a ``Doctor cult". Yet, times were not easy during the deterioration of the political and economic situation in the early 20th century. Phylloxera added to the troubles. The worst blow to German wine since the 17th century came with the Nazis, when the 2nd world war eventually devastated Germany's wine regions, along with much of the rest of Europe.

Germany's economy recovered surprisingly quick from the disaster, yet the German wine industry slowly began to loose its way during the ``economic miracle". Post war western Germany saw large increases in wine production, and consumption. New vineyards were planted, usually on flat land, which was accessible to machines, and suitable for production of high quantities of wine at lower costs. The Mosel area for example expanded to twice its size by planting on the valley floor and on slopes that are famously "gently rising to the south". New crossings of varieties were introduced, in particular Müller Thurgau, which ripen reliably in inferior sites, producing high quantities, rather than quality. Cloned selection, chemical fertilization, heavy use of pesticides, and new cellar technology added to the increase in output. The average yield used to be around 20hl/ha in earlier centuries. By the 1950s it had doubled, only to reach 80hl/ha by 1971. Over 100hl/ha, often a lot more, is common practice since the 80s. The notorious wine law of 1971 cemented the confusion of must weight with "quality in the glass", and allowed labels to carry the names of large, undistinguished vineyards, with no indication of their inferiority to the finest single sites.

As German consumers became more wealthy, and open to the world, the demand for cheap, sweetish German wine dropped in favor of imported dry wines from France and Italy. By the 80s the good name of German wine had been practically ruined at home by the ocean of sugar water that spilled from its vineyards. Exports increased, with the largest share of Liebfraumilch et al. going to the UK, which tripled during the 80s. The whole direction of the German wine industry clearly pointed to a dead end. Labor costs and climatic conditions did not favor mass production of wine in Germany. Sweetness, which masks the lack of flavor, was rejected by most wine drinkers. To make things worse the top estates quality standards were slipping. Production of dry wines increased during the 80s, to cope with the changes in demand. This has revitalized the German wine landscape, although too often these dry wines only expose the inferiority of the fruit that they were made from.

In recent years the gloomy picture has become brighter again. Various ambitious smaller growers have rediscovered the superb potential of Germany's best vineyards to produce unique wines. Good dry wines are being made, and are held in high regard by the more discerning consumers. Sweeter versions from Kabinetts to Auslesen are still widely misunderstood though, and thus present bargains among the worlds fine wines. At the rare top end of production, the worldwide demand is high enough for the greatest BA's, TBA's, and Eiswein to fetch astronomic prices. Germany produces the loveliest, lightest, most delicate white wines in the world. Low in alcohol and exquisitely balanced, they are wines of charm and subtle nuances. Other wine countries have planted the same grapes most notably, the Riesling and tried to make the same wines, but they have been, at best, imitations. Other factors, which contribute to the unique character of German wines, such as soil, structure and climate, simply cannot be relocated.