Believe it or not, it's time to start loving German wine

As far as I can remember there was nothing about wine in the recent Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition curated by Neil MacGregor at the British Museum. Understandably perhaps the show focused on higher – and abysmally lower – things. But German wine seems to me one of the finest and most typical fruits of German culture. When wine writer Hugh Johnson wondered why there was no "Chair of German Wine Studies at one of our universities", he may have been joking, but the suggestion remains valid.

You may be wondering first whether wine can be considered an aspect of culture, and secondly why on earth one would choose German wine – long decried as glorified sugar-water – as an exemplar. Here we need what the Michelin guides call "un peu d'histoire".

Some German vineyards were planted by the Romans. In the Middle Ages the Cistercian abbey of Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau and its satellites were at the forefront of quality wine production and German wines were the first quality wines to be bottled, in the late 17th century. (Bottling in Bordeaux started later.) They were appreciated by figures such as Goethe (who had a fondness for Franconian wines) and Schiller, the inventory of whose wines found at his death includes Malaga, Burgundy, white port and wine from Rust in Burgenland as well as Franconian. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, German wines, as judged from prices at Christie's auction house, were the most highly valued in the world.

The decline in reputation after the Second World War had less to do with the legacy of Hitler than with socially well-intentioned but disastrous wine laws. The integrity of great names such as Piesport and Nierstein was compromised by extending vineyards into land more suitable for potatoes; the Liebfraumilch boom began and swamped markets with cheap sweetish bland stuff that had little connection to the piquant, minerally Rieslings that are Germany's greatest gift to the world of wine. Bastions of quality remained in the steep valleys of the Mosel, Saar, Ruwer and Nahe; along the south-facing north bank of the Rhine between Wiesbaden and Rüdesheim, the historic Rheingau, and in the warmer Palatinate villages with their peach orchards and tiled roofs.

I used to visit them every spring on tasting and buying trips with my wine merchant father. What struck me was the crazy elaborateness of the vineyard classifications and winemaking procedures, and how these were beautifully reflected in the intricacy of the landscape itself, with each vine stitched to its place on the hill like a thread in a medieval tapestry.

Tasting the wines of the new vintage at an estate such as J J Prüm in Wehlen or the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier (Karl Marx's old school, with a fine endowment of vineyards) was more like attending an academic seminar than experiencing a sales pitch. The fine distinctions between neighbouring vineyards such

as Zeltinger Sonnenuhr and Graacher Himmelreich and their different levels of quality (Kabinett, quite light and medium-dry, leading up to the intensely sweet Beerenauslese and Eiswein) were discussed rather as one might compare different Mozart string quartets. Manfred Prüm (who can still sometimes be seen at J J Prüm, though his daughter Katerina has taken charge) never seemed concerned with anything so vulgar as shifting crates of Spätlese; most of the wines he brought out were not even available for sale.

It strikes me that these German wines are the most rarified and metaphysical of any that have ever been made. They are so far removed from the material world that they cannot really be drunk with food; to appreciate their incomparable finesse, you need to sip them on their own.

Sadly, post-war Germans largely turned their backs on this unique part of their culture. In the restaurants of Frankfurt or Düsseldorf, Chianti is more popular than Mosel Riesling. And when a vast and unnecessary motorway bridge was proposed traversing and potentially damaging some of the Mosel's greatest vineyards, the most vocal protesters were British wine journalists. It looks, sadly, as if nothing can stop the Hochmoselübergang, but at least it could be a wake-up call for the Germans to start valuing their wonderful wines again.

Believe it or not, it's time to start loving German wine | Culture