The German Wine Region You’ve Probably Overlooked

The Nahe — A Study in Soil Diversity


Sometimes overlooked for its larger and better-known neighbors, the Nahe is leveraging its geological diversity to build a reputation in the global wine world as a region for distinctive, world-class wines.    

Situated about 45 minutes southwest of Frankfurt, the Nahe is named for the river that winds through the region.  Spanning 125 kilometers (78 miles), the river Nahe rises near Nohfelden in the Saarland, stretches east to the region’s capital town of Bad Kreuznach and then north to Bingen where it flows into the Rhine.

Framed by the Hunsrück hills and the North Palatine Uplands on either side of the river, the Nahe is a pastoral region of rolling green hills and expansive meadows dotted with charming villages of historic timber-framed homes, vineyards climbing steep hillsides, and striking rock formations jutting from the valley floor.  

The steep south-facing slopes along the river Nahe and its tributaries, the Alzenz and Glan, are among the finest terroirs in Germany for distinctive, elegant Riesling.
Just over a quarter (29%) of the 4,200 hectares of vines in the Nahe are planted to Riesling, clinging to steep slopes climbing from the banks of the river.

Müller-Thurgau, the grape created by Swiss Botanist Hermann Müller in 1882 by crossing Riesling and Gutedel, was the most planted grape in the Nahe (and across Germany) until Riesling overtook it a few decades ago.  Today, the early-ripening grape accounts for 13% of vineyard plantings followed by Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) with 8%, and Silvaner 5%.  

Dornfelder is the most planted red grape in the region with 10% of hectares followed by Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) with 7%.  Lesser-known varieties like the aromatically charming Pinot Madeline are also thriving in the region.

“Although vines have been cultivated in the region since Roman times it was only under the German Wine Law of 1971 that the Nahe was declared an independent region,” explained Ernst Büscher of the German Wine Institute.  “This is one reason why it’s like a hidden treasure for many wine lovers.”

Though the Nahe valley is one of the smallest regions, accounting for less than 5% of the 105,000 hectares of vineyards in Germany, it’s one of the most geologically diverse, boasting 180 different soils.

In his book, Reading Between the Vines, renowned wine importer Terry Theise writes, “Riesling does more than just imply terroir: it subsumes its own identity as fruit into the greater meaning of soil, land, and place. Riesling knows soil more intimately than any other grape.”

This truth can be found in Riesling’s many expressions of the diverse soils of the Nahe.  

From melaphyre, quartz-porphyry, and light sandstone soils in the upper Nahe, to loess and red sandstone in the central part of the region around Bad Kreuznach, to the slate and argillaceous shale soils of the lower part, the varied soils speak through Rieslings and other varieties.  

“The soil diversity is the foundation for this multifarious microcosm called the Nahe region,” explained Andreas Held, Sommelier at Meisenheimer Hof, a historic hotel and restaurant in the village of Meisenheim.

“On each soil you have different grapes, cultivated by different winemakers with their own ideas and philosophies, who create their wine in different styles with different techniques. That adds up to an oenological treasure chest.”

The Rieslings of the Nahe are not the one-dimensional, sweet wines that flooded the market in the 1980s and 90s.  As a small region overshadowed by its larger neighbors, Nahe winegrowers collectively focus on producing quality wines that are transparent and expressive of their place.  

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