I’ve had a love affair with German wines from the very start of my wine journey. The 1971s, 1975s and 1976s were what I cut my teeth on, and I am so very pleased to see German wines enjoying world-wide attention, especially over the last 15 years. Although the enjoyment can be attributed to the wonderful expression of the Riesling variety, and the near magical balance of fruitiness, sugar and acidity, much of my fascination with German wines is in the recognition of top-performing vineyards and the interaction of different ripeness levels, as expressed using the pradikat system.
It hasn’t been easy for the German wine industry in the 20th Centrury, and some decisions by the lawmakers have proven to be impediments to the further understanding of the scene. In particular the 1971 classification that tied quality to grape must levels at harvest did no favours to the recognition of the best producing sites, this exacerbating the reduction of vineyard names with the creation of meaningless grosslagen conglomerate site names. The introduction of the laws essentially brought into play two criteria by which to judge German wine quality – ripeness as well as vineyard or geographic origin. It is the latter which has been the universal framework for appreciating the world’s best wines, and the concept of terroir has never been more strongly followed as it is today. By using sugar levels of must or potential alcohol as another method of deciding quality removed the focus from what special vineyards offered in distinctiveness, character and individuality.
Thankfully many German winegrowers, particularly those in the Rheingau, never lost sight of the fact that quality stems from the vineyard, and the use of Erstes Gewachs (first growth) and Grosses Gewachs (great growths) by VDP estates to identify superior vineyards and their wines, made essentially in the dry style is a positive action. The VDP is progressing their recognition of terroir with recent changes to the classification of these wines by accepting those graded to various pradikat levels of sugar. It all seems so logical to understand that quality is dependent on the vineyard site, but to legalise it is a nightmare that moves forward at an excruciatingly slow pace.
The German Vineyards Classified
This Wine Atlas was originally published by the authors in German in 2007 and this translated edition was released in 2014. Kevin D. Goldberg took great care to render a faithful translation of the authors’ work, and notes that the geological terms were challenging. However, his interest in German wine and its history has provided a human and very readable script. The authors Dieter Braatz, Urlich Sautter and Ingo Swoboda are all writers on various topics of German wine and the industry, and the production of this atlas is clearly a labour of love. They look to the future of German wine and the rightful recognition of place, site and terroir as the primary determinant of quality. This is evident in the introductory chapters which discuss the factors contributing to a vineyard’s uniqueness, from the climate and soil, as well as the less tangible inputs of minerality and terroir. The authors take the reader through the winegrowing history of Germany, and the current classification systems in use, along with a chapter on the grape varieties grown. As this is an atlas, rather than a focus on the grapes and the resultant wines, this section is minimal and factual.
In publishing this atlas of every German winegrowing region with every registered German vineyard – all 2,658 of them – in it, the authors have introduced a four tier classification of the vineyards. At the top is the ‘Exceptional’ category, these vineyards similar in standing to grand cru in Burgundy. Next are ‘Superior’ vineyards, equivalent to Burgundy premier cru sites, and ‘Good’ sites, on the same level as village in Burgundy, with ‘Other’ vineyards which are those without special distinction. The classification of all German vineyards into this tier system is no mean feat, and the authors discuss the criteria such as the prevailing reputation of the site, the inclusion of strong or weak parcels within the vineyard, and market influence. I believe the authors have undertaken this task with impartiality, and while I can see there could be criticism, especially from those with a vested interest (personally, I see some of my favourite sites not as highly rated as I thought they might be), there has to be a starting point. It’s a long way off before such a classification system becomes acknowledged, let alone ‘official’. This is a bold move by the authors, and I am just a little disappointed that the classification and process getting to it was not highlighted more or discussed in greater depth, rather than given a single page in the introduction. Maybe the authors are too modest or taking very tentative steps?
Around three-quarters of the book is dedicated to the mapping of the 16 different growing regions, covering Ahr, Mosel, Saar, Ruwer, Mittlerhein, Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Hessische Bergstrasse, Baden, Wurtemberg, Taubertal, Franconia, Saxony and Saale-Unstrut. Each chapter of each region provides perspectives from historical, varietal, climactic and soil perspectives, and if appropriate breaks the region into different districts. Each chapter has summary panels with statistics covering area, varieties, soil, rainfall, temperature, sunshine as well as poignant facts. The maps are very clear and precise, and it is easy to see the vineyards’ different grades of classification. The VDP Erste Lage sites are identifed, and important landmarks are highlighted. There will be the inevitable comparison with the Mitchell Beazley ‘World Atlas of Wine’ publication, which has the inclusion of topographical features such as contours which provide an indication of altitude and steepness, but the delineation of the vineyard sites in the German Wine Atlas is far superior.
The German Wine Atlas takes the recognition of the vineyards a further step with descriptions of the ‘Exceptional’, ‘Superior’ and ‘Good’ sites along with detail on area, altitude, exposure, steepness and soil. The authors note the most important grape varieties for these sites as well as the important producers and the style of wine that emanates from the site. The descriptions for the wine styles are rather general, but give some indication of what they might be like to taste, which is better than nothing! As one goes from the ‘Exceptional’ vineyards to the ‘Good’ there is a corresponding decrease in wording.
The latter part of the book is devoted to the all-important indices, where a reader can locate the position on any particular map of a vineyard they are searching. There is an index based on the vineyard name, along with an index by village. Somewhat less useful is a list of ‘major producers’ in each region. This appears somewhat more subjective, rather than based on providing access to producers based on soil type or sub-district. For instance, there are 19 producers for the Ahr (with 548 ha under vine) and 24 Mosel producers, a region with over 8,000 ha of vines).
However, despite these minor quibbles, German wine aficionados will find this is a book that will give further insights, and the wine geek may see it as an indispensable reference. Its completeness including every vineyard is a major feature. There’s nothing like seeing the site where a specific wine comes from. Ideally this is in person, but an atlas such as this is the next best thing. Hendrik Holler and other photographers have provided 87 images which capture the character of many of the top-rated sites. The next edition of this German Wine Atlas could make more of a feature of the authors’ classification system. This would provide material for debate for further recognition of the best German vineyard sites.
Wines Atlas of Germany, By Dieter Braatz, Ulrich Sautter and Ingo Swoboda
University of California Press, Berkeley, California 2014 ISBN 978-0-520-26067-2