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Great german wines are among the worlds sublime bottles. Much ordinary wine has been disappointing, but recent successes by young winemakers signal a renaissance.

Wherever in the world wine is made, its bouquet, flavour and style are influenced mainly by soil, climate and vine variety. This universal truth is accepted by Germany's many wine producers, but with a different emphasis. A relatively cool climate, probably the most marginal for growing grapes successfully of all the world's major wine-producing regions, has obliged German growers to search out the most suitable sites. If the grapes are sour, characteristics derived from the soil and vine variety count for nothing, so ripeness is all. The result is that many German vine yards lie on south-facing slopes above rivers, benefiting from an equable and warmer riverside climate. Each parcel of land has its own cocktail of viticultural virtues, and, perhaps even more than in France, good and ordinary vineyards adjoin each other. With a background of dangerous living a few hours of bad weather can ruin a year's work -the archetypal German wine expresses the brinkmanship of the country's vinegrowing. Typically white (though red wines are increasing in importance), it is not strongly alcoholic, and freshness and elegance are qualities it retains over many years. Its character is perhaps most clearly seen when the Riesling grape is used. Germany's vineyards are mainly in the west and south of the country: only here is the climate suitable for vine growing. The vineyards are, as through history, grouped along and close to river valleys, notably the Rhein and its tributaries. German wine began with the Romans who set out of many of the Mosel and Rhein vineyards and who left some fine monuments, including a famous sculpture showing wine casks on a river boat, now in the Landesmuseurn at Trier. The monks and princes of the Middle Ages, starting with Charle-magne, were an even greater influence, as were the noble estates - many of which survive. German wine was exported, via the Rhein and other rivers, to most of northern Europe in medieval times.

The rivers of Germany continued to be used for transporting wine until the 1960s. Now their main importance to vinegrowers lies in the sun's warmth, retained and reflected back to the steep vineyards overlooking them, and the wine-drinking tourists they attract. The largest of these rivers, the Rhein, flows into Germany near Basel, after which it keeps in loose contact with the vineyards of Baden. The Neckar and its tributaries wriggle past many of the steep vineyards of Wurttemberg, before joining the Rhein at Mannheim. The meanderings of the Main end at Mainz, where it joins the Rhein after unifying some of Franken's far-flung vineyards on the way. The small Hessische Bergstrasse region looks across the Rhein Valley north of Heidelberg. The Pfalz region across the Rhein felt sufficiently independent from the river to drop the name "Rhein" from its title in 1992. Immediately to the north is the Rheinhessen, bounded on the east and north by the river, and facing the Rheingau vineyards on the right, or north, bank. The steep, spectacular vineyards of the Rhein gorge are in the Mittelrhein region. The Nahe, another tributary, has its own wine region.

The Mosel forms one region with the vineyards of the Saar and Ruwer. It is better known outside Germany than any other. The beautiful Ahr region is near the northern edge of vinegrowing in western Germany. In eastern Germany, the rivers Saale and Unstrut form one region, and the vineyards of Sachsen follow the course of the Elbe.

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