The Pfalz Wine Region
The Pfalz is a narrow stretch of land just 9 miles (15km) wide that extends peacefully through a gentle landscape of budding vineyards, fertile orchards and picturesque, half-timbered villages. It is the second largest German wine region by growing area and only topped by Rheinhessen, which it borders to the north.
From there, the Pfalz stretches to the French border 53 miles (85km) to the south and borders the French wine growing region of Alsace. Near the French city of Wissembourg, some vineyards even reach across the border into France. To the west, it is sheltered by the uplands of the Pfälzerwald, which protect it from cold winds and heavy rainfalls. To the east, it is bordered by the lowlands of the Rhine River. It is a beautiful, idyllic landscape that reaches a ratio of grapevines to people of 600:1.
Before the phylloxera epidemic erased many of the vines in the Pfalz at the end of the 19th century, wines from here were among the most expensive and most highly prized in the world. Riesling from the Pfalz was served at important international events, including the opening ceremony of the Suez Canal in 1869.
The Pfalz can be visited along the "German Wine Route," which leads through many of its wine-producing villages and landscapes.
The Terroir and the Grape Varietals of the Pfalz
The Pfalz benefits from almost perfect conditions for viticulture and is one of the warmest German wine growing regions with around 1,800 hours of sunshine per year. Summers are dry, but not too hot, and winters tend to be mild, creating near-Mediterranean microclimates. The climate is mild enough for almonds and other warmer weather plants to thrive.
The soil is varied and ranges from sandstone, limestone, marl, loess-loam and granite to isolated stretches of slate. Limestone is particularly common in the northern Pfalz, while loess and loam are more prevalent in the southern Pfalz.
Riesling is by far the most important white wine grape and continues to grow in importance. In 2008, the Pfalz became the largest Riesling growing area in the world with almost 5,500 hectares of plantings.
While Riesling plays a dominant role throughout the Pfalz, the southern Pfalz has also distinguished itself with its Pinot varietals. The warmer climate and deep loess-loam soils are conducive to Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder), Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) and Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder). Almost 40% of the growing area is planted with red vines, making the Pfalz Germany’s largest red wine region. Today, the Pfalz is highly regarded for its red wines and, each year, its vintners are among the recipients of the German Red Wine Prize. The most widely planted red wine grape is Dornfelder, followed by Pinot Noir.
You can also find pockets of Gewürztraminer plantings in the Pfalz, which are not as common throughout the German wine regions as the very Germany sounding name would lead you to believe.
History of Winemaking in the Pfalz
The Pfalz received its name from the Latin word palatium or palace and is sometimes referred to as the “Palatinate” in English. The region was named after the Palatine Counts of the Holy Roman Empire, who held court in the nearby city of Heidelberg from the 13th to the 18th century.
The region has a long and tumultuous history of viticulture. Traces of winemaking have been found in Celtic graves from 550 BC. After the Celts, the Romans fostered winemaking, which was all but abandoned after their departure from the region. Vineyards lay dormant until viticulture was revived by Christian monasteries in the 7th century. It is in the 12th and 13th century that some of today’s vineyard names show up for the first time in historic documents and land deeds.
The region and its budding viticulture were devastated in the 17th century by the looting and foraging armies of the Thirty Years War. The damage took decades to undo, but the region regained its former status in the 19th century. The quiet times didn’t last long, as most of the Pfalz fell victim to the phylloxera epidemic, which destroyed the majority of European grapevines.
As a consequence, the Viticultural Institute of Neustadt (Weinbauschule Neustadt) was founded to conduct research and still educates future generations of vintners. It is an expression of the undefeated spirit of the Pfalz that at least one vineyard did not fall victim to the times: The region is home to Germany’s oldest grapevines. Almost 400 year old, they still produce Traminer grapes from their gnarled old vines.