WineAccess Travel Log
Read stories from the world's greatest wine trails.
Whether or not it's true that Charlemagne himself brought winemaking to the eastern bank of the Rhine River, the historical record shows that the eastward expansion of viticulture in Germany is roughly contemporaneous with the era of Charlemagne and the spread of Christianity. More importantly for present-day enthusiasts of German wines, the Rhine region is reportedly the site of the first Riesling plantings, near the Rheingau in 1435. Seven centuries later, the Riesling grape has a near-monopoly on the most favorable growing sites, not just in the Rhine, but in all of Germany.
The lengthy stretch of vineyards along the Rhine are divided into four regions: Mittelrhein, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz. Diverse in microclimate and tradition, all of these areas feature the Riesling grape in their best sites and are produce wine bottled in tall brown flutes.
The Mittelrhein, which runs from just south of Bonn to just north of the confluence of the Rhine and Nahe, is dominated by slate slopes and wines with certain similarities to those of the Mosel. Production in this area is predominantly Riesling, but the region's planted area has been shrinking for a number of years, and the wines that are produced lack the high profile of wines from the nearby Mosel and Rheingau. Many of the vineyards in this region lie above the 50th parallel, traditionally regarded as the northern limit of wine producing climates.
Across the Rhine from its intersection with the Nahe begins the Rheingau, a stretch of river running east to west and exposing gentle riverside slopes and steep hillsides farther back, both of which generate some of Germany's most famous wines. The jog in the river, which otherwise flows northwards from the Alps to the North Sea, exposes a fertile stretch of south-facing slopes, providing the perfect exposure for optimal ripening of grapes. The best of these wines are round and seductive, with a racy but complex structure.
The Rheinhessen, south of the Nahe region and across the Rhine from the Rheingau, happens to be Germany's largest wine producing region: more than 26,000 hectares of land. The region was once known primarily as the birthplace of Liebfraumilch, the semi-sweet wine white most prominently represented by Blue Nun. Now that Blue Nun and its analogues have became the subject of derision across the wine world, quality-minded producers in the Rheinhessen have moved away from Liebfraumulich production. Few want to taint their reputation through association with sweet yet insipid plonk. Instead, the region is now better known for its high volume of interesting wines from flatlands and grape crossings than it is for its handful of top Riesling sites. But the latter--particularly the steep red shale slopes down to the Rhine--are justly famous.
The Pfalz, which begins south of Rheinhessen and is in effect the northward extension of Alsace's Vosges foothills, is the warmest and driest of Germany's Riesling regions, supporting fuller-bodied wines that are typically dry. In fact, the soil here, like Alsace, shows great diversity, marked by alluvial gravel and various types of sedimentary rocks, as opposed to the near exclusive domination of slate in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Like the Rheinhessen better known until recently for quantity than for quality, the Pfalz's handful of top villages and vineyards have nevertheless always been among Germany's most cherished, and the entire region has undergone a substantial turnabout in reputation over the last two decade. While only about one-fifth of the vineyards are planted to Riesling, the grape holds a disproportionate position in the top growing sites, just like elsewhere in the Rhine.