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.
German vintners and Germany's wine law have often been their own worst enemies, and consumers understandably bemoan the unintelligibility of the labels as well as the mediocre quality of so many commercial-grade wines. It is a shame if this situation acts as a barrier to appreciating some of the world's most distinctive and versatile wines. In fact, an excellent case can be made that no other class of wine offers the stylistic diversity, nuanced expression of site and climate, and versatility at the table of German Riesling. These German wines can be adamantly dry, off-dry, or downright sweet. German Reisling wines can be complex and satisfyingly complete at a mere 7% alcohol, yet can also avoid coming off as heavy at over 14%.
The tradition of Riesling excellence in Germany makes two important presuppositions over and beyond the talents of the individual vintner. First, in a generally cool environment incorporating Europe's northernmost significant vineyards, the microclimatic conditions of a given vineyard site--its exposure to the sun, shelter from wind, proximity to water, geological underpinnings, and other environmental factors--are of paramount importance. Second, to get the most out of Riesling's potential in a good site, the grapes in any given parcel are generally harvested in multiple passes, at times weeks apart, in a process that often involves the selection of particular bunches or occasionally even of individual berries. These factors explain why most of the best German Rieslings preserve their vineyard identity and are labeled to reflect this. They also reflect the many pickings of a given vineyard through labeling with different designations of descriptions or taste.