With its well-developed niche in the beer industry, Germany is generally associated with biergartens, Oktoberfest and the pub grub that comes along with them -- bratwurst, pretzels, schnitzel. But it doesn't take a pinkie-poker to know that Germany also has a hand in the finer things of life -- wine, for instance.
When it comes to wine, Germany is synonymous with Riesling, a white grape variety that first originated here in the Rhine region. Written references prove that the "Rießlingen" existed in the Rhine as early as 1435.
Today, it is the leading grape variety, produced in all 13 of the country's wine regions and accounting for 22 percent of all vineyards' yields. Of the world's Riesling-devoted vineyards, more than half are found in Germany. But the deep history of wine in this country doesn't begin and end with the highly acidic Riesling.
Some regions focus on red grapes, and others have varieties that never leave the area. Others bring visitors with their world-famous festivals or kitschy towns -- but all are distinctly German, with hillsides crowned in castles, timber-framed houses and remnants of an unstable history with the French. In some, there are even ruins of a great Roman occupation.
In no particular order, here is your guide to Germany's 13 wine regions, including some of the most famous vineyards, must-see sights, and wine-related events.
The Mosel wine region is one of the most famous. It starts near the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine rivers near Zoblenz and carries on toward Luxemburg and the French border, with the Mosel slicing a path right through the middle. The hilly slopes of the river banks and the hard slate soil are ideal for vineyards, so much so that Mosel is the third-largest wine producer in all of Germany.
A must-see along the Mosel wine trail is the city of Trier. Founded in 15 B.C. by the Romans, the entire community marks a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once home to the capital of the Western Roman Empire, it is now a quaint university city with astounding ruins to explore -- the Porta Nigra, or city gate; three vast Roman bath houses; the throne hall of Roman Emperor Constantine; and a still-intact Roman amphitheater with underground tunnels and cages that were used for slaves and animals. Karl Marx was born and raised here, and you'll find his baroque-style childhood home still standing as a museum to honor his work.
Rheingau is one of the smallest regions on the western side, comprising only three percent of Germany's total vineyard plantings. Following the Rhine River between Wiesbaden and Rüdesheim, the area is one of the few that is known for something other than Riesling. Spätburgunder has a pronounced presence here. It was brought over from Burgundy, France, where it is called Pinot Noir.
Rheingau is home to one of the country's most famous vineyards. Schloss Johannisberg is a Benedictine monastery and vineyard where the idea of a late harvest, or Spätlese, is said to have originated. This technique increases the sugar levels of the grapes, creating the distinct taste that Johannisberg wines are known for. The gently sloping hill on which the monastery is set provides spectacular views of the valley and the Rhine River below.
Extending off the Rheingau is the region of Mittelrhein, which follows a great expanse of the Rhine River past the Mosel and into Bonn, just 30 minutes' drive from Cologne. Eighty-five percent of the grapes grown here are white, the largest concentration of any German region with the exception of the Mosel.
The area is best known for its tourist-friendly locales along the river's banks. The Upper Middle Rhine Valley, as it's called, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is chock-full of spectacular scenery popular with riverboat cruises -- think lofty medieval castles, idyllic towns with half-timbered homes, and the Lorelei, a bulging slate rock that marks the Rhine River's narrowest and deepest point. Lorelei is also famous for an old tale that spoke of beautiful singing maidens who lured boatmen to their death.
Baden is the southernmost and third largest of Germany's wine regions. Including the Upper Rhine, it extends from Basel, Switzerland, to Mannheim, following the Rhine on its southern half. Due to its extensive coverage of land, the wines produced here are very diverse. Though white-wine production outnumbers red, the area is still acknowledged for its Spätburgunder. Known as "Burgundy Paradise," Baden has a unique clime that allows for top-notch grape growing. It is the warmest and sunniest area in Germany, and with the surrounding mountains of the Black Forest, receives plenty of rain -- an ideal combo for producing sturdy, full-bodied wines.
A popular pastime in these parts is walking, which allow visitors to book multi-day tours to hike wine trails through sprawling forest. Traipse the foothills between vineyards, stopping to sip at each one. And for sleeping, cozy up in a quaint village where toasting the day's accomplishments over a plate of warm wiener schnitzel is a nighttime ritual.
One of the two wine regions in former East Germany, Sachsen runs along the Elbe River. It is also the smallest and the most eastern wine-growing region in all of Germany. Of course, Sachsen's history involves a period of Communist rule, during which estates were state-owned and quality lacked. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification in 1990, estates slowly found their way back into private ownership, a process that is still under way today. Since then, the area has made a turn for the better, with centers that focused on industrial production turning into quality wine estates.
Although furrowed, the region has extensive history in wine making. In 1811, Europe's first wine school was founded in Meissen, a small town near Dresden. It still exists today. And in 1992, the Saxon Wine Route was constructed to pay homage to Sachsen's past. The winding tourist trail weaves through fanciful towns and churches and past whitewashed cottages and vine-covered terraces.
The only wine region in Bavaria, Franken is most known for the shape of its wine bottles. The short, squat bottles, known as bocksbeutel, house the dry, earthy wines typical of the region. The wines are mainly white -- nearly 90 percent of the grapes planted in this region are of that variety.
Würzburg, located right on the Main River, is a charming city known for its fantastic architecture and unique art. A prime example is the Würzburg Residence, the home of prince-bishops for centuries. The grand baroque-style palace is regarded as one of the finest in all of Europe, and each of the 300 rooms evokes a new tale of famous artists and old-time visitors. The grandest piece of this UNESCO World Heritage-listed estate is the staircase that served as the formal reception hall. Stories abound, but perhaps the most well-known is the fight architect Balthasar Neumann had to make to convince people that the 59-by-98-foot vaulted ceiling would stay erect without any pillars or supporting beams--a stance that still proves true today.
This region produces more wine than any other, even though it is just a narrow stretch of land in the center of the 12 other regions. The climate is quite calm here -- summers are warm but not too hot, and winters are quite mild -- allowing some Mediterranean fruits, like figs and lemons, to thrive. It also has the oldest wine road in Germany. Established in 1935, the German Wine Road was the brainchild of politician Josef Bürckel, who dreamed of constructing a road that would connect all of the villages, making it easier for tourists to get around and therefore boosting sales.
Harvest time comes later in the fall season, usually kicking off in late September or early October. To mark the occasion, the world's largest wine festival, Wurstmarkt, is held every September in Bad Dürkheim. It features yields from some of the most famous vineyards of the region. Selections are served not in a wine glass, but in a water glass filled with half wine, half sparkling water.
Württemberg's vineyards, which line the slopes of the Neckar River, are unique because they are planted with mostly red grapes (80 percent), making it the largest red-wine region in all of Germany. Interestingly, though, these wines are rarely found outside of the region -- most are bought and consumed by locals. The few that are exported are of very high quality and quite expensive. The steep slopes the grapes are planted on make cultivation hard, and it's sometimes necessary to do it by hand because tractors can't hold the angle.
The region has its own wine tradition by way of besenwirtschaften, or broom taverns. These makeshift taverns are only open for 12 weeks of the year and get their name from the broom that owners hang on the door to indicate they're open. The owners serve only their own wines, usually in mug-style glasses.
This region just north of Heidelberg, bordered by the Rhine on the west and the Odenwald Forest on the east, is one of Germany's smallest, with just over 1,000 acres. The name Hessische Bergstrasse is translated as "Hessian Mountain Road" and comes from the trade route Romans built long ago. You'll rarely see a Hessische Bergstrasse wine outside of Hessische Bergstrasse, which is a great reason to make an appearance at one of the region's wine festivals. Try the festival in late June in the small town of Heppenheim, or the one in Bensheim in early September.
While passing through the region, an Austrian emperor noted, "This is where Germany transforms into Italy," bringing to life a tagline that is still used today. He wasn't referring to the architecture or culture of the towns, but to the area's mild climate and therefore its ability to grow fruits that you normally can't find north of the Alps. Orchards nearly equal vineyards here.
This is the largest of Germany's wine regions, producing 25 percent of the bottles that come from the country. Its borders lie on the banks of the Rhine River, and the area is known as the "land of a thousand hills" due to its undulating landscape. Surrounding by forest on three sides (the Taunus Hills, Hunsrück Mountains, and Oden Forest) and virtually enclosed by rivers, it sees a very mild climate.
The Rheinfront or Rheinterrasse are both monikers given to the vineyards occupying the land that directly faces the Rhine near the town of Nierstein. This area is particularly famous and thought to produce some of the finest German wines. Many of the region's growers are choosing to focus on creating quality organic wines, using eco-friendly harvest, bottling and storage methods.
Living along the slopes of the Nahe River and its many tributaries, the Nahe region is one of the smallest -- but that doesn't mean it isn't responsible for some very fine wines. Because of the diversity of its soil, the Nahe is capable of producing eclectic and varied wines without planting too many grape varieties -- the same grape can produce vastly different tastes from vineyard to vineyard.
The Nahe Cycle Route runs along the river for nearly 75 miles, starting at the source of the Nahe and ending where it meets up with the Rhine. The route has convenient stop-offs for sights such as Idar-Oberstein, one of Germany's premier gemstone mining towns; Bostalsee, the largest lake in southwest Germany; and the mineral spas of Bad Kreuznach.
The Ahr River, a tributary of the Rhine, marks the beginning and the end of this region. It is small in area, but also Germany's largest contiguous red-wine producing area. Eighty-five percent of the wines that come from the Ahr are of the red-grape variety.
Like the other regions, the Ahr has a rich history of lost control and do-overs. The Romans, appreciating the slate soil and mild climate, were the first to grow grapes here. By the 1200s, the majority of the land was owned by monks and people of power. In 1794, the area was taken over by the French, who mainly used it to sell their own wine to the Germans. Then the Prussians came, and it was again a major wine-producing area. In 1833, the Germans won control, and for several different reasons, the grape-growing nearly ceased. In 1868, the few vineyards that were left banded together to form a wine cooperative, the first in the world. Just 30 years later, the region was on its way back. By the 1900s, it was nearly fully restored to its original splendor.
The northernmost of the 13 wine regions, Saale-Unstrut is little-known throughout the world but considered to be one of the hidden gems for wine connoisseurs. Most of the wines produced never leave the region and are consumed mainly by locals. The northerly location allows for production of especially fragrant wines, dry with a certain fruitiness or spice. Many insiders consider Saale-Unstrut a must-see for any oenophile who wants to explore a region known for quality over quantity.
This region is also considered one of the most picturesque: think rows of vines, beautiful river valleys, countryside dotted with cottages and stone walls, and centuries-old medieval castles.
A few months out of the year, Saale-Unstrut wineries have straußwirtschaften, where local wine and food can be tasted from small wine taverns. The vineyard Weingut Pawis opens its historic estate for four months every year, offering small dishes paired with handmade wines.