Today we journey to a region small in size but mighty in influence situated in one of the norther-most sections of the winemaking world; Germany’s Nahe region. Over the millennia, Nahe has undergone periods of boom and bust; expansion and contraction of vineyards as well as success and failure of the wines made here make for an interesting story. So let’s get into it!
First up let’s get our bearings of exactly where this region is. Nahe, like almost all of the major regions of Germany is named for the river its vineyards follow. It begins in the mountains which form the border between, Germany, Luxembourg and France, and winds its way north-east to eventually empty into the Rhine at the town of Bingen, which is about 15km west of major city Mainz. Along this incredibly circuitous way out of the mountains, the Nahe is split roughly into 3 sections; the mountainous and steep Upper Nahe, the slightly gentler, clay soil dominant Middle Nahe, and the gently hilly Lower Nahe. The best sites are almost all located in the Upper Nahe, but more on them later.
Now I mentioned this region has had a bit of a boom-and-bust history, though honestly it seems this has little to do with the quality of the vineyards and more to do with its mountainous location and proximity to foreign borders. When the Romans moved north through Europe, they brought the vine through much of this part of Germany, famously setting up vineyards in the Mosel which can still trace their history back to those times, however it took them 500 years longer to get to Nahe! The terrain, especially in the Upper Nahe is quite difficult to work, though as the population of the region grew, and as the ‘savage’ Gallic tribes to the west were conquered, more and more adventurous vignerons settled in this region, discovering the quality of the sites. During the early and mid 19th century, Nahe was experiencing a golden age of prosperity where select vineyards achieved high prices and their wines were served to royalty. Then Phylloxera and 2 world wars hit, followed shortly after by the popularity of Blue Nun. High-priced German Riesling was a dirty word, and many producers either switched over to more productive varieties or walked away altogether. Even today with the exceptional understanding of the sub-regions, better technology and attractively high prices achieved in international markets for wines from here, there are still winemakers giving up on and walking away from these remarkably steep, rocky vineyards.
Next point of information is varieties. Whilst usually a fairly straightforward paragraph for German wine regions, not so much here in Nahe. Riesling is of course the noblest variety grown, and the majority of wine that is exported out of this region from the top producers is pretty much all Riesling, however quite surprisingly, this variety only accounts for 27% of plantings! These plantings are all focussed around the top sites in the Upper and Middle Nahe, almost all of which are incredibly steep hillsides. Müller-Thurgau is the next-most grown with just under 20% of plantings. This does well in the frost-prone hilltops away from the protective river, though unfortunately is only able to produce unexciting, rather watery wines. Next is Silvaner, quite similar in style and flavour to Müller-Thurgau and again planted to the poorer, colder sites, accounting for around 10% of plantings. In the 1960s, when Blue Nun was at its highest point, this variety once accounted for just over 50% of all the vines in Nahe- definitely one of its ‘bust’ periods- and winemakers had to focus on quantity over quality. Reds make up a higher percent of total output here than almost any other German region, with spicy black-fruited Dornfelder responsible for 11% of all vines and light, brisk Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir) 6%. These are planted on the rarer flat valleys of the Middle and Lower Nahe, which have clay soils that hold enough heat to ripen the grapes. Plantings of red varietals have quadrupled since 1990, and have not slowed their upwards trajectory in the last few years! All up, there are around 4,000 hectares of vines in Nahe today, making it one of the smallest regions in Germany.
Despite its small size, there are quite a number of well-known, high quality sub regions with their own Grosse Lage (Great Growth– the top quality classification) which must be 100% Riesling vineyards. Below they are listed moving downstream west to east with a brief description of style.
Monzingen was established in 778 and is one of the highest vineyards in the region. It has soils of reddish loam, slate, quartzite and basalt gravel and produces complex yet searingly fresh wines. Riesling can only ripen here due to warm updrafts from the lower valleys.
Schlossböckelheim sits on an ancient copper mine and has mineral-rich volcanic soils which combined with the steep south-facing aspect creates a very specific mesoclimate. Riesling produced from here is typically aromatic in style with a mineral backbone.
Niederhausen, along with neighbour Oberhausen, are considered the top sites of the Nahe, with 5 Grosse Lage shared between them. The vineyard’s soils are mostly black slate with some igneous rock and limestone. Hermannshöhle has long been rated as the single best site in the Nahe, and the Riesling wines made here are prized for their concentration, elegance and powerful ability to age due to the ability of the black igneous rock to hold heat. The region’s best-known producer Weingut Dönnhoff is based here.
Norheim is the oldest recorded wine village, first mentioned in a sales document from Lorsch Abbey dated 766. It produces intense, long-lived Riesling, and has two Grosse Lage vineyard sites.
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles