A slow drawing in of the evenings in Germany when the leaves are beginning to change color, doesn't only herald the start of autumn. In the wine regions of the country vines in the hundreds of German vineyards, most of which are based around historic villages, hang with ripened grapes, so it is time for the onset of harvesting, and with it the hundreds of very different annual wine related work, customs and festivities.
The first vines were imported into the country, along with chestnuts, asparagus and idea of baths amongst other things, by the Romans as they conquered the continent. They established most of Europe's famous wine growing regions, however Germany is the furthermost northern country where grapes can be grown productively, with a successful wine tradition reaching back over 2,000 years.
Cooler conditions meant the majority of vines planted along the picturesque Wine Route's patchwork of small vineyards were set onto steep hillside slopes facing south or southwest to attract as much sun as possible, and the incline of the vineyards need agility and fitness to climb to the vines, tend them during the growing season and, with the arrival of the harvest, handpicking each individual bunch of grapes.
Most vineyards, or Weingut, especially along the River Rhine and River Mosel, are not only protected from wind by the forested hills bordering them but also benefit from the warmth of the sun as it reflects from the water, nevertheless the grapes in this part of the world ripen slowly and this adds to their flavor.
Over a hundred different varieties of grape are grown producing a wide variety of German wines, but the Muller-Thurgau grape is a type specially bred to ripen quickly in these conditions, and wineries produce Liebfraumilch, amongst similar a sweet, light wines that are imported by countries outside Germany, but neither drunk nor enjoyed by Germans themselves.
The Reisling grape is amongst others replacing the Muller-Thurgau, nevertheless outside the country it is the latter class of wine which consumers often continue to identify as typical of that produced by Germany's vineyards and wineries.
Not an accurate picture of present day German wines and, as good wine needs the slower ripening varieties of grape, those are what the greater majority of German vineyards and wineries concentrate upon.
The German wine classification for the ripeness of a grape is called Pradikat, and ranges from Kabinett which are just ripe and make a light wine, through Spatlese which are late harvest and have a more intense flavor, via several more stages of ripeness and intensity until reaching Eiswein.
The well named Eiswein, or Ice Wine, is a limited and expensive sweet dessert wine, made from over ripe grapes showing signs of a good fungus infection, 'botrytis', which have been allowed to freeze on the vine, hand picked and processed in the middle of the night and pressed while still frozen.
Both German red wines and white wines were considered on a par with the best produced by France during Germany's 18th and 19th century golden era, but outside influences, ranging from imported viruses decimating the vines and the collapse of the economy, to wars and occupation of the vineyards, led to a collapse within the industry.
The subsequent production of inferior wine, made from quicker ripening grapes, went a long way towards continuing the destruction of Germany's reputation as a producer of quality wine.
By the late 1960's German wine growers were already in the forefront of organic wine development, grown without chemical sprays, as well as bio-dynamically raised and harvested vines, and are credited not only for the taste and variety of the wines produced but also their early focus on the protection of the environment.
Vintners now emphasize and promote the high quality and vintage wines which have always been produced in the various wine areas, and are gradually repairing the damage done to the reputation of German wine. Some varieties are amongst the best in the world, complementing modern cuisine and tastes perfectly, but few outside of Germany know they exist.
There is even a terraced vineyard in the grounds of the beautiful Rococo style Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, but really large vineyards are rare in Germany.
There are many small vineyard owners whose vines cover no more than two acres. Some cultivate them for their own use, others as an addition to other work with their yield either sold or put into a co-operative, while any visitor to a wine region will come across the small family owned "Gasthaus" with a menu featuring red and white wine from its own "backyard" vineyard.
For the last two decades German vintners with vineyards large and small have been working together towards change.
The sloping vine covered hillsides, hand picking of grapes, vineyard sundials, no watches for grape pickers in days past, and the many customs and wine festivals, wine weeks and firework displays, including one of the Rhine in Flames celebrations, centered around harvesting have not changed.
However vintners are determined to succeed in changing the out-of-date image of German wine as sickly, sweet and tasteless to reflect the quality of wine now produced, and which used to be created in the vineyards of Germany of centuries past.
Some of the best wines in the world.
Himmelsleiter, Ladder to Heaven, the 1,200 vine terraces overlooking the meeting point of the rivers Neckar and Enz in Baden Wuerttemburg, and the Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, both courtesy Deutsches Weininstitut, www.germanwines.de, Frozen grapes in Pfalz courtesy Pfalz.de Wein und Genuss
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Reading between the Wines: is an engaging book, enthusiastically written, and as well as discussing other wines, and wine areas, the author's obvious love of German and Austrian wines shines through. Really worth reading, and even more especially for those who would like to know more about Germany's little known wine gems.
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