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Text by Ben West.
Photos by Sonja Hüsler.
A line of golden and light yellow Rieslings are lined up in front of me, shimmering in the glorious summer sunshine. With the hulking great Lorelei rock on the River Rhine rising behind me, I could hardly wish for a grander backdrop for sampling the exquisite produce of Germany’s choicest vineyards.
These delightful wines are distinctly different from each other. One tastes like apricot, another has a flowery aroma. One is sweet, another is drier – but all have extraordinary depth.
“Liebfraumilch are ‘industrial’ wines, they have nothing to do with the traditional winemaking of this region,” says Thomas Philipps of Weingut Philipps-Mühle, whose wines I am sampling. His family has tended vineyards on the slopes of the hills surrounding St. Goarshausen for generations.
For a great way to discover Germany’s wonderful wine heritage, following the trail of the Rhine is a great place to start. The intoxicating beauty of its vineyard-bedecked hills and river valleys, lakes and unspoiled villages is ideal for a “slow” holiday, holding appeal for cyclists and walkers as well as wine connoisseurs – and all within only 95 to 125 kilometres of Düsseldorf airport.
“German wine is very much seeing an increase in interest outside Germany,” says Sebastian Thomas at British specialist wine importers Howard Ripley. “Good sweet wines are finding a new market. There’s more emphasis on value for money, which suits German wines, as they are very underpriced.”
The region has produced wines since Roman times and is peppered with independent producers and co-operatives using traditional methods to produce wines by hand.
“The winemaking works together well with the tourist business in the region,” says Philipps. “Tourism is the top business here in the Mittelrhein valley. A lot of winemakers work together with the hotels and restaurants, many of which serve traditional regional food together with typical local wines. Some wineries offer wine tastings and accommodation. We have a lot of wine events throughout the year in the region.”
Winemaking, though ingrained in the local heritage, has relatively little impact on regional employment. Most wineries are family businesses and the bigger ones often only take on eastern European workers seasonally. Germany’s winemaking regions are a mixed bag economically: some are depressed, such as the Mosel, and others are not, like the thriving Rheingau.
“Winemaking was at a low point 20 years ago, but today more winemakers are gaining qualifications, old vineyards have been renewed, and young winemakers have started in the business,” says Philipps.
This is especially true of Nierstein. A town with a population of only 8,000, it has more than 100 wine producers, including Kai Schätzel of Weingut Schätzel Nierstein.
“A new generation of winemakers has emerged, starting anew and breaking with the ideas of the previous generation,” he says. “Many of them looked to the ideas of their great-grandparents and went back to a very classic, high-quality production method. We, for example, are now producing in a very old-fashioned way. We believe wine grows in the vineyards and is not made by techniques in the cellar. We believe in nature,” says Schätzel.
The magical thing about Germany and wine is that there are so many different attractions packed closely together. Within a radius of 150 kilometres there is the classic Rheingau region, the steep Nierstein red slope vineyards, the romantic hills of Wonnegau and the spectacular Mosel valley. All represent totally different facets of wine growing, each with its own unique wine, food and architectural style – yet all within a driving distance of one hour or less.
“Germany is the number one place for Riesling, and we know it can be a perfect and elegant food pairing. The low alcoholic content, deep minerals and vibrant play from acidity and fruit is unique!”
Wine specialist Sebastian Thomas’ Top 3 picks:
2013 Georg Mosbacher Riesling trocken, Georg Mosbacher, Pfalz (€15)
2013 Bockenauer Schiefergestein, Schäfer-Fröhlich, Nahe (€23.25)
2013 Braunerberer Juffer Sonnenuhr GG, Fritz Haag, Mosel (€26.60)
Top Teutonic tipples
The most popular wines from the region, in terms of bottles sold, are dry Rieslings costing between €7.60–15.20.
Germany has 13 wine regions, each with its own set of traditions translating into an exceptional range of distinctly different wines. The principal white grape varieties are Riesling, Silvaner and Rivaner, with pinot noir for red.
Recommended wine tastings:
Philipps-Mühle in St. Goarshausen
Schätzel in Nierstein
Franzen in Bremm
Vollenweider in Traben-Trarbach
Raddeck in Nierstein
Toni Jost in Bacharach
Georg Müller in Hattenheim
Schloss Johannisberg in Geisenheim
Howard Ripley offers three London tastings to present new vintages to the general public every year. Admission is free. Other tastings are by arrangement.
This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.