As with many customs and institutions in Europe, the cultivation of vines and the making of wine in what is now Germany owe everything to the Romans and, later, to Christian monks. Ausonius of Bordeaux — for whom Chateau Ausone in St. Emilion is named — writing in about 370 AD, mentions the steep vineyards found in the Rhine valley. Five hundred years later, the Carolingian kings encouraged the spread of vineyards throughout the region by granting lands to monasteries that sent out missions, taking vine cuttings to propagate more vineyards. Little is known about the kinds of grapes that were grown or the sort of wine that was made then. Some of Germany’s best-known vineyards survive under the same name from as long ago as the 11th Century, and they still produce grapes.
During the Middle Ages, Germany established wine trade relationships with the Netherlands, the Scandinavia countries and England, using the mighty Rhine in its flowing to the North Sea, through the Netherlands, to advantage. The major wine trading cities were Frankfurt and Cologne. When Shakespeare writes about “Rhenish,” he refers to German wines popular in England during the Renaissance. (And don’t forget Byron’s “hock and soda water!” “Hock,” from Hockheimer, became a synonym for German wine in Great Britain.) The success of these trading efforts, however, was diminished by the expansion of the vineyards, leading to overproduction and falling prices, and by the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which extensively damaged vineyard regions and reduced the pool of farm workers and craftsmen. (They were, you know, dead.)
The situation just briefly cited offers a microscopic view of a macro-historical problem. All ferocious economies of war aside, before the Industrial Revolution and the widespread availability of manufactured goods, the materials most severely affected by the inevitable forces of the market were agricultural products. Every aspect of the grape-growing, wine-making and wine-selling economy is slapped out of kilter by such elements as over-expansion of vineyards, the resulting decline in quality (as vines are planted in more and more unsuitable soils and climats), prices drop and surplus wine that cannot be sold builds up. Sounds like Soave and Valpolicella in the 1980s and ’90s or Vin de Pays d’Oc in the 1990s and 2000s. Greed never takes a holiday. Before the Thirty Years War, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition), vineyard lands in Germany amounted to — get this — 865,000 acres. That’s four times the cultivation of grapes in Germany today. Those must have been some yummy wines.
It took 150 years for the wine industry in Germany to recover from these crises, but more changes came with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, which altered Germany politically and geographically and shifted much vineyard ownership from the church to private producers, a process that also occurred in Burgundy. (The German and Burgundian systems resemble each other in that small distinctive vineyards are often owned piecemeal by many individuals.) The fact that “Germany” was actually a collection of kingdoms and principalities imposed burdens of taxes and duties that restricted the trade in wine, but that problem was eliminated in 1871 with the formation of the German empire.
The 20th Century struck the German wine industry with new catastrophes. World War I, the economic travails of the Weimar Republic, the rise of National Socialism and the Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II provided four decades of deprivation, while the introduction of branded wines in the 1930s — Liebfraumilch! — hurt the image of German wines abroad. National Wine Laws in 1892, 1909 and 1930 attempted to set standards, especially in the controversial area of adding sugar during fermentation to raise the alcohol level, but primarily these regulation left farmers and producers confused and dissatisfied.
War after war, famine, poverty, charging markets, the radical shifting political map of Europe, the clashes of dynasties: Then came the Wine Law of 1971, and what producer after producer described to my group touring organic estates in Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz last week as “the death of wine in Germany.” That topic deserves more thorough examination in its own post, coming up in a few days.
I may be smart, but I didn’t hold all this information in my head. My thanks to the aforementioned Oxford Companion of Wine (third edition of 2006), still under the leadership of the estimable Jancis Robinson; the fifth edition of The World Atlas of Wine, by Robinson and Hugh Johnson (Mitchell Beazley, 2001); and The Wines of Germany, by Stephen Brook (Mitchell Beazly Classic Wine Library, 2003). The excellent map of the German wine regions is from vinum-x-tellus.ie.