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Germany’s Wine Industry

Today, Germany boasts almost 170 collective and 2,700 individual vineyards grouped into thirteen wine-growing regions. The vintages produced in each region have their own distinct qualities, and the regions can be further divided into Bereiche (districts). Each district is made up of both collectively and individually operated vineyards and is usually named after its most important wine-growing village or center. The relevant facts of this information identify the wine and will appear on its label. The smaller or more highly defined the wine’s area of origin, the more individual its character is likely to be.

Not surprisingly, Germany produces a remarkable diversity of wines, the great majority of which are white. Indeed, less than 20 percent of the country’s wines are reds, a ratio that is almost exactly the opposite of the rest of the world’s wine production. Color, of course, is determined by the variety of grape chosen. Perhaps 85 percent of the wine’s content comes from the grape. Just under half of Germany’s wine production is based — in almost equal quantities — on either the Riesling grape or the Muler-Thurgau hybrid (developed in last century from a cross between Riesling and Silvaner grapes).

Nonetheless, several makers and experts I met commented on the fact that German wines were neither well known nor well regarded internationally. Americans especially tend to think of German wines a sweet and heavy. This reputation was earned in the years following World War II. Germans have an undeniable sweet tooth: “We pass no day without chocolate,” joked Marlies Steinmetz, a slim ash blonde who looked like she never touched the stuff, over lunch in Rudesheim. The sweetness of their wines reflected that indulgence. More than one person commented that the tendency toward a high sugar content might be directly attributed to the shortages and austerity of the post-war years.

The Wine-Making Process

Following the harvest, the cellar master supervises the entire wine-making process. Harvested grapes are pressed, and the juice, or must, is stored in barrels (or stainless steel tanks, in the large cooperatives) to ferment. A natural process, fermentation occurs after the sugar in the must comes into contact with yeast on the grapes” skin. This causes the sugar to convert to alcohol. The high sugar content found in the ripest grapes thus produces the strongest wine (a 15 percent alcohol content is about the maximum possible). Sometimes, if harvest are not fully ripened because of poor weather conditions, sugar may be added. When sugar content is low, barley might be added, to give the wine “body” and reduce sourness without diminishing the alcohol.

Wine Making Process
Wine Making Process

After fermentation the wine is moved to new, clean containers and left to age. Sediments settle to the bottom of the barrels, and the wine is again drawn off, or racked, and moved to another clean barrel. Racking may be repeated several times as the wine matures. Finally, in a process known as fining, an additive draws out all remaining sediments and the wine is filtered. Crystal clear, the wine is now extremely dry. This means that almost all of the natural sugar has been converted to alcohol.

The cellar master, who has carefully handled each step in this process, now can choose to add a little unfermented grape juice (the reserve) to sweeten or balance the wine”s flavor and aroma before bottling. Use of the reserve enables the wine maker to create different styles (dry, semidry, or sweet) of the same wine. The wine may mature for several months in the cask, but even after bottling wines will continue to mature.
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