Monday, August 15, 2011

GERMANY: A Quality Tradition of Precision

North of the Alps, wine grapes that were cultivated by the Romans and then by Charlemagne, hang on the very edge of the most northerly situated viticultural region in the world. They were organized and lovingly tended by the monastic societies of the Middle Ages; these Church influenced vineyards(einzellagen) saw the cultivation of Riesling and Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir), today the most popular white and red German grape varieties. With its fertile soils offered to other agricultural crops, these vineyards were anchored in the poor soils of slate and basalt on the south-facing hillsides above the moderating climates of the important rivers of Germany's southwest. Then among the most prestigious wines in Europe, they were the result of precision and hand-worked tradition until the secularization of Church holdings by Napoleon in 1803.
Vineyards above Mosel River

The 19th century saw the 'golden age' of German wines, supported by the many advancements in the science of agriculture(viticulture). Established as a research center, the Rheingau's Geisenheim Wine Institute, founded in 1872, developed grape crossings like the popular white Muller-Thurgau, and continued to search for disease resistant, reliably ripening grape varieties. With the European outbreak of the vineyard louse, phylloxera, in the late 19th century, progress continued to be set back by the devastating world wars and economic depression that followed. A radical overhaul of the industry occurred in 1971 with the enactment of the German Wine Laws, condensing more than 30,000 individual einzellagen(vineyards) into slightly more than 2600 registered properties within defined districts(beriech) that are inside a demarcated wine region(anbaugbiet). Four(4) quality categories were defined, based upon subjective wine qualities and its objectively measured sweetness. In its theory, any property, any producer was capable of producing a great German wine.

German table wine or Tafelwein is the base category, with typical country wines(Landwein) above them, each with controlled minimums on sugar levels at harvest or must weight(Oechsle scale) and alcohol. As the top major categories, quality wines from a specific region(QbA) and the top ranked superior quality wines(QmP) compose the most heavily regulated and tested tiers. Analysis for typicity and authenticity is required, with registered 'A.P.' numbers as displayed proof of their testing. Chaptalization, the process of adding sugar prior to fermentation,  is not allowed on QmP wines.

Precision and time-honored traditions are seen in the steep, terraced cliffs of slate above the river Ahr, in the anbaugebiete of the same name, one of the coolest, northernmost regions.  Surprisingly, here Pinot Noir(Spatbungunder) dominates, producing light, fruity red wines. Traditions are similarly honored in the vineyards of Baden in the warmer southwest, where Weissherbst, a Rose' of Spatbungunder, is a much heralded specialty. Between these bookends Germany's best wines are consistently found in important regions like the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.  With its multi-colored slate soils, these (3)river valleys are home to the steep, hand-tended vineyards of bright, acid-driven and mineral-ed Rieslings. To the southeast, sits the distinguished Rheingau, producing among the most renowned and elegant of Rieslings from an undulating south-facing vineyard landscape that uniquely runs east to west along the mighty Rhine. Across the river to the south is this predominately white wine countries largest wine region by volume.  The fertile rolling hills and varied soils of the Rheinhessen find many grapes sharing acreage with other agricultural crops, but it's the small amount of Riesling it produces that is its greatest wine. To the south sits the warmer Palatinate or Pfalz, Germany's second largest anbaugebiete(region) in acreage. Across the Rhine from Alsace, where it too enjoys a dryer climate by the Haardt (Vosges) Mountains, the Pfalz makes a spectrum of different wines and styles from as many different types of grapes as anywhere in the country, including the neutral white Silvaner.

Precision is also reflected in the German wine label, many still decorated by their Gothic script. Consumers may find the term, Weingut, which is a wine producing estate, or  Gutsabfullung(grower/producer estate bottled), among the field of unrecognizable terms. Basically,  the producers name(11) will always be prominent, as well as the suffix-added village(5) and vineyard(6) that was the source of the quality fruit. Our lunch/dinner wines will always show the grape variety(4), as well as the ripeness level(7) of that fruit, where Kabinett's and Spatlese(late harvest) will be dry wines by degree, and Auslese(select harvest) can be off-dry(halbtrocken) to pleasantly sweet. Feinherb(8) wines are sweeter than off-dry, but as with all Pradikat wines, always balanced by acidity. Dryer wines(trocken) will always have higher alcohol levels(10), but never to our standards of warmer grape regions, because they are from the fruit of early pickings in a cool climate. Late season harvested grapes affected by Edelfaule or noble rot can be found in the wines of Beerenauslese(BA), TBA and Eiswein, which will always be levels of sweet. 

Ever the tinkerers, the German trocken label terms for wines of the Kabinett & Spatlese levels were re-introduced in 2000 as 'Classic' and the higher level, hand-harvested 'Selection' for easy consumer recognition. Since the enactment of the German Wine Laws, every bottle of these quality QbA, QmP wines is tested and analyzed to meet some of the most exacting standards in the European Union. They remain today the traditional product of grapes uniquely suited for the extremes of climate and the limits of ripening sunlight, hand nurtured on some of the most inhospitable vineyard sites on the planet. It is this environment that demands successive vineyard pickings over many weeks, producing not just a seasonal crop, but numerous levels of wine products that are based on the measured ripeness of the fruit upon harvest. Where else but in the wines of Germany could such precise tradition produce not just some of the world's greatest value wines, but also white wines that are among the greatest drinking & dessert wines in the world.

Zum Whol! (To Your Health)

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