German Wines: The Middle Ages

Part 2: The Role of Churches and Monasteries

After the Roman Empire, the other great influence on the growth of viticulture, and most particularly the production of quality wines, in Germany was the Christian church and religious houses.

The time of Charlemagne (742 to 814), at the end of the so-called Dark Ages, saw the spread of vineyards to the Rheingau from the west of the Rhine river and this expansion continued into the Middle Ages, not least because wine formed a necessary part of the Catholic mass, so the monasteries needed to ensure supply.

Indeed, the Benedictine monks became one of the largest producers of wine in both Germany, in the Rheingau and Franconia, and in France, in Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux.

However, it was actually a member of the Holy Roman nobility who was the first, in 1435, to introduce the Riesling grape into Germany, now the most important grape grown in the country. The monks then started producing wines from this grape variety on a scale that also satisfied the secular market, not only in Germany, with inroads made into what had, historically, been beer-drinking areas of the country, as well as further afield, across the whole of Europe.

Recent DNA fingerprinting has shown Riesling to originate from the Gouais blanc grape, the result of pollination by a wild grape cross with the Traminer varietal, the latter with a long and well-documented history in Germany. Gouais blanc is known to have been extensively planted in France at this time and is now known to be an ancestor of many traditional German (and French) grape varieties.

First documented in Germany in 1470, the Pinot Noir grape (Spätburgunde in German) is said to have been brought  from Burgundy earlier than this and planted initially in the area around Bodensee (known in English as Lake Constance) on the most southern part of the river Rhine. The area of cultivation for this grape varietal was, as with the Riesling grape, also considerably expanded by the Cistercian monasteries.

The work of the monks to improve quality is a tradition that’s carried on today with fine examples of both Riesling and Pinot Noir from the Baden region’s vineyards of Weingut Stigler: the “fruit-driven rich and complex, particularly finely balanced minerality and gentle acidity” of the company’s 2015 Ihringer Winklerberg Riesling Spätelese VDP.Erste Lage. Or their 2014 Ihringen Winklerberg Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) VDP.Extra ‘Cuvee Max’: “really smooth, with a fine nose of black cherries, ripe intense spice and cranberry aromas with distinct minerality…” – these and other fine German wines can be found on the pages of the Vintners Pride of Germany website.



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