Ultimate Guide to German Wines

Stahleck Castle in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, boasts the Winery Stahl.

Germany is one of the top 10 wine-producing countries in the world, generating more than 3 percent of the world's wine in 2009. Until relatively recently, Germany specialized in somewhat sweet, white wine that's relatively low in alcohol. White grapes grow well in the cooler climate and hilly topography of the German countryside where they account for nearly 85 percent of Germany's wine production.

Besides being a major wine producer, Germany is a big wine consumer, too: about 8.5 percent of the world market. For a country known for its beer and beer culture, that's something of an accomplishment. Because of the cool climate and inconsistent weather, German wine can vary widely from vintage to vintage -- one feature that makes experimenting with German wines an adventure. Another potential wrinkle is Germany's labeling conventions, which can make understanding what you're buying a hassle if you're not paying close attention.

The premier vineyards in Germany have been established along large river systems like the Rhine and the Mosel that have favorable microclimates. This helps stabilize the inevitable weather extremes, giving grapes the best opportunity to mature before harvest. The limitations of a cool climate and a short growing season make selecting cool-weather, quick-ripening grape varieties doubly important. The three most significant grapes grown in Germany are: Riesling, Silvaner and Muller-Thurgau. There are 13 winemaking regions in Germany, but exports favor what are often considered the top four: Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Pfalz.

Now that we know a little about the why of German wine, let's explore a few varieties that make a bottle of trocken or halbtrocken wine from Germany such a singular delight.

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