Viticulture & winemaking
2000 Year Wine Tradition
Today's grape varieties evolved during a centuries-long process of selection. The wild vines that tasted best and seemed best-suited for winemaking were cultivated and ulimately developed into the species known as vitis vinifera. There is evidence that viticulture existed thousands of years before Christ, especially in the highly developed Middle Eastern civilizations that today correspond to modern Egypt, Iran or Israel. Grapes were also cultivated in Greece and Italy during the pre-Christian era. In Asia Minor, Dionysus was worshipped as the god of wine; Bacchus was his Roman counterpart.
In the course of their conquests north of the Alps some 2,000 years ago, the Romans - who adopted viticulture from the Greeks and Etruscans - introduced viticulture to the Germanic territories. It would have been cumbersome to transport the wine across the Alps in heavy amphorae, so they brought the vines instead and planted them in suitable areas. Even then, these “Nordic” wines were seemingly fresher and more diverse in taste than their southern predecessors.
In the 8th century, Charlemagne regulated viticulture, winemaking as well as wine-related commerce. Above all, the monasteries were centers of wine culture and wine the predominant drink, serving as a replacement for the frequently polluted drinking water. Documents show that vineyards existed in nearly all of Germany during the Middle Ages. However, due to climatic changes, improved methods of brewing beer and increased imports of wine, the area under vine continually decreased after 1500.
The church’s dominance over wine-growing was abolished by the conquests of Napoleon in the areas left of the Rhine. Fortunately, the new vineyard owners also attached great importance to quality and wines from the Rhine and Mosel achieved international success in England, Bohemia and Russia.
Many vineyards were still planted with several grape varieties side by side as late as the 19th century. This all practically came to a standstill however, when at the end of the 1800s, the vine louse phylloxera wreaked havoc on Europe’s vineyards. As a result, many indigenous grape varieties disappeared. Viticulture revived at the turn of the century with the introduction of grafting vines on phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks - a practice that was later made mandatory. Vine breeding and selection led to the standard grape varieties that are predominant in modern German viticulture.
Thanks to the close cooperation between research, science and winemakers, a number of innovations in vineyard and cellar technology have been implemented. This know-how has become an export hit as much as the wines themselves, and influences wine countries as far as South Africa, Australia, California or Chile. Innovation is the one thing that German wines have in particular. That may sound a bit theoretic or even technical, but without this ability, there would be no wonderful delights like Dornfelder or Kerner. Both varieties were not grown until 1955 or 1929 respectively, and have long since fought for a place alongside grape varieties such as Riesling or Pinot Noir.
To explore Germany’s wine history further, there are several wine museums in the different growing regions, for example, Speyer, Bernkastel-Kues on the Mosel and Oppenheim.