A few days ago, I celebrated one of those “milestone” birthdays. You know, the ones with a zero or five at the end of the (hopefully) two-digit number. Fortunately, my husband lifted me out of my “I’m aging” depression with a truly wonderful gift: a box of carefully-selected German wines.

Huh? Who drinks German wine, anyway? It’s not popular. And all the bottles have nuns on them, right?

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When I tell people that I’m writing a new column on German wine, the inevitable response is, “Oh, that sweet stuff,” which proves my main theory of German wine – let’s call it Theorem G.

Theorem G: Most casual wine drinkers outside of Germany have no idea what German wines are all about.

And that’s no coincidence.

German wine styles are confusing, at best. It’s difficult to decode the detailed labels. Many German cooperatives and estates produce so many types of wine that drinkers often can’t tell one German wine from another. Recent changes to German wine classification laws have muddled the picture. Most American wine shops don’t stock a wide range of German wine. Many wine lovers just give up on the whole German thing.

This brings me to my next theorem – I’ll call this one Theorem N.

Theorem N: You’re missing out if you don’t taste some German wine.

German wines aren’t just light, white and sweet. German wineries produce some opulent reds, amazing (and expensive!) specialty wines and dry, balanced whites. If you haven’t tasted good-quality German wine, you’ve shortchanged yourself.

Why not come along with me on a tour of Germany’s wine regions? In future columns, we’ll unravel the mysterious web of German labels, styles and varietals. I hope to share my love of German wine, food and culture with you along the way.

The Regions: An Overview

Given Germany’s geography, it’s amazing that this country produces so much wine. Germany’s northern latitude provides a short, cool growing season which results in wines with lower alcohol content. The thirteen German wine regions stretch from Bonn in the northwest to the German-Swiss border and from the tri-border area of Germany/France/Luxembourg east to Würzburg. Each German wine region has a unique terroir linked to its geographical situation, and they’re all worth a visit.

Ahr

Germany is the world’s third-largest pinot noir producer (“Spätburgunder” in German), and many of the top German pinots come from this tiny northern wine region. The vineyards border the Ahr River from Altenahr to Heimersheim. Ahr wineries emphasize red wine production from pinot noir and Portugieser grapes, but many also produce rieslings.

Baden

Baden stretches from Heidelberg south to the Swiss border and east toward Heilbronn. This region has four separate areas, including a small section along Lake Constance. Baden is the only German wine region with an EU climate zone B classification, which means its wines must meet the same standards as those from France’s Alsace, Loire Valley and Champagne regions.

Baden’s warmer climate gives its wines a different character than those from other German wine regions. Baden, Germany’s third-largest wine-producing region, is known for pinot noir and for a wide variety of white wines, including riesling, chardonnay, pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc.

Franken (Franconia)

On a map, Franken is part of Bavaria, but, as any local will tell you, this wine region has its own culture and character. Franken wines are easily identified by their squat green bottles (“Bocksbeutel” in German). Würzburg is the largest city in this wine region. Franken wine growers rely on the silvaner grape, but they also produce rieslings and Müller-Thurgaus. Many wineries also produce pinot noir and other reds.

Hessische Bergstrasse

The Hessische Bergstrasse wine region is quite small, running south from Darmstadt to Heppenheim. This region also includes a subregion called the Gross-Umstadt, located east of Darmstadt. Wineries here produce rieslings, pinot gris, Müller-Thurgaus and silvaners. The climate doesn’t lend itself to red wine production, but some wineries do produce some pinot noirs.

Mittelrhein

Mittelrhein is perhaps better known outside of Germany for its panoramic beauty, culture and historic heritage than for its wines. In fact, the Upper Middle Rhine Valley (“Oberes Mittelrheintal”) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is Rhine cruise territory, home to the Loreley rock and the famous castles which cling to the sides of the Rhine valley. Don’t forget about Mittelrhein wine, though. The Mittelrhein wine region runs along the Rhine valley from Remagen to Leutesdorf and from Koblenz south to Rüdesheim.

Mittelrhein wine growers face special challenges because of the steep valley walls along the Rhine; they must often turn to special machinery for help in the growing and harvesting processes. This region produces a wide variety of white wines, including riesling, Müller-Thurgau, pinot blanc and pinot gris. Some wineries also produce pinot noir.

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer

Stop by any American wine shop and check out the selection of German wines. You’ll discover that over half of them come from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. Stretching from Perl in the southeast to Koblenz in the northwest, vineyards line the Mosel River valley. This steep, winding, sometimes foggy valley seems an improbable host for grapes, but wine growers here produce some elegant rieslings. Nearly sixty percent of the vineyards are given over to riesling grapes, and for good reason. The Mosel region produces world-class rieslings at every ripeness level.

Nahe

Nahe, a triangular region between Martinstein, Bingen and Mannweiler-Cölln, is known for its wide variety of soils. It’s known for its eiswein, a true specialty wine made from grapes that are frozen on the vine. While over 75 percent of the wines produced here are white, the mix of grape varieties grown in Nahe includes riesling, Müller-Thurgau and pinot blanc. Nahe reds focus on Dornfelder and pinot noir.

Pfalz

The Pfalz, Germany’s second-largest wine region, is moving to the forefront of German wine innovation. Reviewers use words like “dynamic” to describe Pfalz wines. The Pfalz lies west of the Rhine, reaching south from Worms through Neustadt and Schweigen to the French border.

The northernmost part of the Pfalz wine region, the Mittelhardt, has long been known for its award-winning wines. Riesling and Müller-Thurgau dominate white wine production, but the Pfalz is also known for gewürztraminer. Wineries of the Pfalz also produce red wines, mainly Dornfelder and pinot noir.

Rheingau

The Rheingau wine region follows the Rhine River from Lorch south past Bingen and east to Wiesbaden and Mainz. Two small subregions lie east of Mainz, around Hochheim and Flörsheim. Rheingau viticulture dates back to Roman occupation in the 1st Century B. C. Rheingau wine producers focus on riesling. Over 75 percent of Rheingau vineyards are planted with riesling grapes. The world-famous Johannisberg riesling variety comes from the Rheingau. Pinot noir tops the list of red varieties produced.

Rheinhessen

Germany’s largest wine region lies west of the curve of the Rhine River that begins at Bingen, encircles Mainz and heads south toward Worms. The Nahe and Appelbach Rivers flow near Rheinhessen’s westernmost vineyards. Rheinhessen wines include silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, riesling, scheurebe and gewürtztraminer. Reds include Portugieser, Dornfelder and Blauer Spätburgunder, a type of pinot noir. Rheinhessen is the home of Liebfraumilch, arguably Germany’s most famous – or infamous – wine export.

Saale-Unstrut

One of the two German wine regions that belonged to East Germany during the Cold War years, Saale-Unstrut is Europe’s most northern wine region. Saale-Unstrut lies south and west of the city of Halle, along the Unstrut and Saale rivers. Wine growers here face cold winters, frosty springs and hot summers. Saale-Unstrut’s wine history dates back to 998 A. D., so vintners obviously know the risks. Saale-Unstrut’s wineries produce Müller-Thurgau, pinot blanc and silvaner, and some wine growers are also producing Portugieser and pinot noir reds.

Sachsen

This small, eastern wine region, known as Saxony in English, is part of the former East Germany. The Sachsen wine region follows the Elbe River northwest from Dresden toward Meißen (home of Europe’s first viticulture school) and Diesbar. When East Germany was a separate country, wine production in Sachsen and Saale-Unstrut was collectivized. Today, wineries have modernized and Sachsen wines continue to improve in quality. Wine growers in Sachsen must contend with climate conditions similar to those in Saale-Unstrut, with harsh winters, hot summers, short growing seasons and occasional droughts. White wines produced in Sachsen include riesling, Müller-Thurgau, traminer and pinot blanc. Pinot noir and Dornfelder are also produced here.

Württemberg

Württemberg is a very large wine region featuring many different red and white varieties. The Württemberg wine region is centered between Heilbronn and Ludwigsburg, north of Stuttgart, and stretches south to Tübingen. Stuttgart’s well-attended summer wine festival, the Stuttgarter Weindorf, is famous throughout Germany. Weinsberg’s wine research institute works to improve and cross-breed grape varieties. Over 60 percent of the region’s vineyards are planted with red varieties, including Trollinger, pinot meunier (“Schwarzburgunder” in German), and Lemberger. Popular whites include riesling, Müller-Thurgau and Kerner.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip.

Next time: German wine styles

Visiting wine country? The Priority Wine Pass gives you Complimentary or 2 for 1 tastings at 250 California wineries for an entire year.