Nahe is one of the smaller German wine regions, named after the river which joins the Rhein at Bingen. Like most of the regions on or near the Rhine, its most prestigious wines are made from Riesling, though it only accounts for around one quarter of all plantings, and it is difficult to pin down one particular Nahe style.
There are around 4000 hectares of vineyards, spread across 7 Grosslagen (wine districts) and 328 Einzellagen (individual vineyard sites). The total vineyard area has declined – like the Mosel there are many steep vineyard sites here, and while they can produce great quality, the effort required to farm them has led to many being abandoned. The subregion of Alsenztal, once covered in vineyards, has now almost ceased to exist.
Müller-Thurgau had been the most common variety since records began, but in the 1990s accounted for less than 20% of all plantings. By the 1960s Silvaner had firmly taken over with over half of the total vineyard area, but now the figure has dipped under ten percent. Riesling is now king among quality producers, but still only accounts for around 27% of all Nahe plantings. Red varieties are also on the rise, with plantings of Dornfelder, Spätburgunder and Portugieser having quadrupled since 1990.
The relatively low plantings of Riesling, despite its prestige, reflect Nahe's diversity in terms of terroir. Most of the vineyards overlook the river, but its meandering, and the inclusion of wine villages on a number of tributaries creates a range of terroirs, not all of which are suitable for Riesling. On the positive side, the region boasts a wide variety of soil types which allow it to offer numerous wine styles from what is still a relatively narrow choice of grape varieties.
The wider region can be divided into three main sections. From Sobernheim to Bad Kreuznach the Nahe river flows west to east and is known as the Upper Nahe. Steeper slopes of volcanic or weathered stone or reddish slate with clay and an ideal southern exposure give more finesse, minerality and spiciness to fine Riesling. The area is also known for its gemstones. The most concentrated area of top vineyards in the Nahe runs from Schlossböckelheim to Traisen, with Monzingen – around 10km further to the west being the most acclaimed site further upstream.
Around Bad Kreuznach the vineyards are less stony and mineral-rich, and the clay content in the soil increases as the Nahe heads north to Bingen. The best Bad Kreuznach vineyards are located at the northern outskirts of the town. Rieslings from here and the Lower Nahe, usually grown on south-facing slopes on tributaries of the main river, tend to be fuller-bodied than their Upper Nahe counterparts.
Flatter sites of loam, loess and sand in the Lower Nahe are similar in composition to much of Rheinhessen, and are more suited for lighter Müller-Thurgau wines. Full-bodied Silvaner wines are also made on a variety of terroirs. Pinots Blanc, Pinot Gris, Kerner, Scheurebe and Bacchus are the other principal white grapes. The red grape varieties Spätburgunder, Dornfelder and Portugieser account for around a quarter of all plantings here.
As with the rest of Germany, a precise ranking of the vineyards of the Nahe, in the style of the Côte d'Or or Chablis, is still a work in progress, with much of the classification work being carried out by the VDP and other producer organisations, rather than the German government. Top-ranked vineyards identified as Grosse Lage by the VDP can be found from Monzigen in the far west of the Upper Nahe to Bad Kreuznach, and down through the Lower Nahe to Münster-Sarmsheim.
The Nahe's leading producers are similarly located in a diverse array of locations. Weingut Dönnhof at Oberhausen was a standard bearer for many years, and remains one of Germany's greatest estates. Nowadays other top names include Emrich-Schönleber at Monzigen, Dr Crusius at Traisen, and in the lower Nahe, Tesch at Langenlonsheim, and Kruger-Rumpf at Münster-Sarmsheim.