In the '70s and '80s it released into the world a torrent of cheap and not very cheerful wines that continue to colour its reputation and do no justice to the excellence routinely on offer. For Germany can craft wines from the Riesling grape that are inimitable and many less familiar vines, such as Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau and, for red wines, Portugieser and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), can achieve exceptional quality and value for money.
Neither the Phoenicians nor the Greeks made it to Germany and so the Romans, who never missed such an opportunity, pioneered the cultivation of the vine and the making of wine on its soil. Charlemagne, the Church and a wine-loving aristocracy encouraged viticulture to thrive throughout the Middle Ages, but the Thirty Years War in the early 17th century ripped out its heart. In the aftermath, however, Riesling was planted in abundance to ensure that where there was no longer quantity there was quality instead. This legacy remains to this day.
Both topographically and climatically, Germany produces wine on the edge. Vineyards are traditionally located on land unsuitable for other agriculture, chiefly the steep slopes of river valleys, and are usually south-facing to take maximum advantage of the sun. For the climate is marginal and whether the grapes will ripen is the main concern of the German winemaker. This creates problems, and requires great skill in production, but can result in unique wines of exceptional character.
Unlike other countries, where quality, geography or history tend to dominate, Germany has created its own nationally relevant standards of classification. This is based upon the ripeness of the grapes at the time of the harvest. It makes perfect sense in the light of their climate, and ensures that every vineyard has the chance to achieve the highest classification with every new vintage, yet this common sense and equality has come at a cost. Not only is a German wine label an arduous task to decipher, but an average bottle can achieve the same classification as the finest of wines.
The German wines of today are amongst the finest in the world, just as they always have been. The essential difference between now and the apparently dark days of the seventies and eighties is the quality of the wines that Germany exports. We are no longer awash with the characterless plonk of mass production cooperatives, though these do still exist to entrap the unwary, and are able to find the finest of Rieslings along with the other great wines that the country produces. Above all, once the pitfalls are sidestepped, Germany produces wines that are incomparable in style to anywhere else in the Old World or the New.