Snapshots from Germany's Wine Country: Mosel, Nahe, and Rheinhessen

Riesling near the Felsenberg tower. "We don't have soil here, just stones which don't store water at all," says Cornelius Donnhoff. Maggie Hoffman

It is one thing to drink wine at home, to open bottles at a dinner party, to remark on how delicious something is. Maybe you heard about it from the clerk at your local wine shop, or tasted it when they were pouring free samples and brought a bottle home. And maybe you find another bottle from the same country, maybe the same grape. It's one thing to make your way down that little section of the store, trying every bottle you can afford, writing down the wines that you like or saving pictures in your phone. For me, that was the beginning.

Riesling near the Felsenberg tower. "We don't have soil here, just stones which don't store water at all," says Cornelius Donnhoff. Maggie Hoffman

It is one thing to read the long, hard-to-pronounce words on a label as you sip, and find a picture of that place online or in a book. It is another thing entirely to stand on that hard-to-pronounce hill and feel the dry wind pulling at your hair, feel the loose red rocks slipping under your sneakers. To peer down at the river reflecting the sun upward on the vines, the ones the winemaker's grandfather planted 60 years ago, each trained to its own pole to make it easier to walk between vines on the steep slopes.

It is a different thing to hear how his grandfather made the wines, and how his father did, and what has changed, and what has stayed the same. To taste how the wines they make from this tiny hillside are different from the wines from that other hillside, how each wine is a polaroid photograph capturing a year's seasons—the sun and hail, the cool evenings, the vein of red soil, the old 1,200 liter casks—the polaroid image slowly softening over time, as that vintage gets further away. This other thing: that is the heart of why wine isn't just like any other product you can buy; it isn't like Cheerios or Sprite—and why wine like this—handmade wine—is a tradition worth preserving.

I've wanted to travel to Germany since I started studying wine. I recently got the chance to visit parts of the Mosel, Nahe, and Rheinhessen with a press group led by Wines of Germany (and the Deutsches Weininstitut). Here's a bit of what I saw and what I learned.

Tiny Parcels, Steep Slopes

The steep slope at Urziger Wurzgarten. Can you imagine farming there?.

In the US, we often picture wineries to be a bit like ranches: there's a big house with a fancy tasting room and a cellar where the action happens, surrounded by land, and perhaps with some additional vineyards a bit further afield. In the US, you might hear: "That hill over there? That's ours." But that's not how it works everywhere. In the German wine regions I visited recently, many of the winemakers worked with just a few hectares, divided into dozens of tiny plots.

The Urziger Wurzgarten in the Mosel is about 35 super-steep hectares, and there are at least 150 different owners who have planted grapes on some small parcel of it. This pretty much blew my mind: there are very few paths through the vineyards, and it's difficult to walk through them at all, let alone climb from one parcel to another to manage the plants. For a long time, inheritance laws in Germany split property equally between all the children in a family, dividing the family's holdings into many small parts over the generations rather than keeping a family's holdings together. Those who have parcels in the vineyard may have 40 different non-contiguous sections. The famous Hermannshohle vineyard in the Nahe is 8.5 hectares, and twelve different growers have plots, interspersed with each other—those vines are Schneider's and those are Donnhoff's, then Schneider again, then someone else, then a few owned by a fourth guy, then some more Donnhoff and then someone else, more Schneider, etc.—it's a few scraps of patchwork, not what you'd regularly think of as an estate.

Each parcel is often made into wine separately; you'll get different flavors from plants in different spots, especially in a vineyard that's an underground patchwork as well, with skeins of dozens of different soil types.

On Trends and Sweetness

Frederich Groeber told us, "6000 bottles a year is too much for drinking by yourself, so you have to sell some, but the small size of the estate allows me to make an individual wine; I don't have to pay attention to what is in vogue now, what the press is talking about. If the wine is ok to me, then I put my name on the label."

Though Germans have moved toward drinking a higher percentage of dry wines in recent decades—and they're eager to make sure you know that not all German wines are sweet—some grapes seem destined for wines with a bit more residual sugar. Many of the winemakers we talked to mentioned that they designated vineyards that tended to yield particularly high-acid berries for making sweet wines with remarkable balance. "Every vineyard has its own type of talent for a certain type of wine," Cornelius Donnhoff told us.

A Matter of Time

Supple and earthy Jakob Schneider Hermannshöhle Riesling Spatlese Trocken from 1998.

I'm often asked what wines should be bought for cellaring and saving—wines that will taste good—taste better in a decade or when a newborn baby turns 21. During my trip through Germany, I asked each producer I met a bit about the famed aging potential of German riesling. (It turns out that even winemakers with incredible cellars don't drink delicious old wine all the time—Ernst Clusserath told me, "We have a special time in the year for drinking the cellared wines—at Christmas. You need time to drink old wines, you need to be relaxed, you need to have friends to share the bottle with.")

Everywhere we went, winemakers were proud to demonstrate how well Germany riesling aged. Frederich Groebe said, "The secret of these wines is you have a low concentration of alcohol and the little bit of sugar keeps the wine alive for a lot of years." He opened a dry wine from 2007 that was mellow and sultry: "You have to be patient," he said, "now, after five years, it is open, and concentrated. This is starting to be ready to drink," he said.

Quite a few of the winemakers mentioned that they were beginning a program of holding some bottles back a few years, cellaring and not releasing them for sale until five or so years later. It's not a cheap thing to do, but these wines are ambassadors for riesling as a category, and show customers why it might be worth setting their recently-purchased bottles aside for a few years.

Markus Berres in the Urziger Wurzgarten.

What happens to the wines over time? At first, the wines can be slow to open and soften. "My personal preference is to wait to serve these wines after 1 or 2 years of maturing, so they are more round in the mouth," Markus Berres told us. Jakob Schneider said he'd recommend waiting 3 to 5 years before opening any bottle of powerful dry Germany wine. "It needs 3 to 5 years to come to its peak, when everyone will like it."

After that time, the flavors seem to deepen, and rieslings made with a bit more residual sugar develop a bit differently than the drier ones. "You have to think of sugar as a preservative that keeps the wine alive and youthful—these wines will develop slower than those without any sugar," said Jakob Schneider. "Think about it like marmalade—the fruit is preserved by the sugar."

The perceptible sweetness and fruit in the wine tends to slowly retreat as years pass in the bottle, while the wine slowly gains the first flavors of slow oxidation: caramel, mushrooms, nuts, earth. One of my favorite wines of the trip was an 8 year old Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett from Dr. Pauly Bergweiler, a gorgeous wine full of creamy caramel between acid and rocks. At Kruger-Rumpf, the winemaker poured us a 2002 riesling spatlese from Dautenpflänzer that had just the very beginning hints of age, hints of caramel pushing the fruit forward, along with a 2002 Pittersberg Auslese that seemed as if it had just been made. Those wine have decades to go. At Doctor Loosen, we tasted a 1980 Kabinett from Wehlener Sonnenheur that was bright and fresh, with a creamy undercurrent of mushroomy flavors. It was wildly delicious with goat cheese. A 1985 Urzinger Wurtzgarten Auslese from Dr. Loosen had more rich fruit that mingled with a subtle nuttiness. The wine seemed to have grown more delicate over time, as if a weight was lifted from it.

A few winemakers mentioned that they generally drink the more basic wines fresh, while giving the higher-power wines more time. "But it's not a question of if it's ready, it's a question of how you like it," Adnrews Schmitges said to me. For a powerful dry wine, Jakob Schneider said "It depends on the taster—If you love those petrol notes, you need to wait 8 years. If you hate them, then you need to drink [a dry riesling] in 3 or 5 years." For sweeter wines, Schneider recommended cellaring for 15 to 20 years—if you can wait that long.

Young Winemakers Take Up The Reins

Jochen Dreissigacker stands among his vines in the Rheinhessen.

In Bechtheim, Jochen Dreissigacker's parents gave him responsibility for the winery when he was just 21. Now he says, "If I plant vineyards, they are for my son—I hope."

Markus Berres worked alongside his father for a few years starting in 2004 when he returned from his studies at Geisenheim and an internship in New Zealand's Central Otago, then they split up the responsibilities, moving his father into the office while young Marcus adjusted the cellar into his more modern style of winemaking. Some of the vines he works with in the Urziger Wurzgarten are 150 years old, and planted on their own roots (the Mosel has never had a problem with phylloxera, though it's now illegal to plant vines that aren't grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks.) Splitting the labor works well at Weingut Jakob Schneider as well. 29 year old Jakob has been the winemaker since 2007; his father works in the vineyards, and his grandmother handles direct sales out of the Schneider house.

Cornelius Donnhoff on a beautiful day in the Nahe.

While a few of the young winemakers we met talked about changing cellar techniques to apply what they learned during their time at the university, 33 year old Cornelius Donnhoff sees much continuity with his father's winemaking style: "We both like the same type of wine: very clear, like fresh spring water." He continues: "I am responsible for the winery since 2007, I didn't change anything."

Instead, he emphasizes that each wine, each vintage, requires attention and flexibility in the cellar: "You never know. We aren't working by a book or anything." Georg Rumpf of Kruger-Rumpf shared a similar sentiment: "You can't always make wine the same way. It depends on the site, it depends on the vintage—if you only have one way, it can't always be the best way."

Want to see more of Germany's wine country? Check out the slideshow above »