Understanding German Wine Labels

German wines, Rieslings in particular, are among my absolute favorite wines so I am very excited that this week I am heading to the Rheingau wine region of Germany, with its famous Geisenheim Viticultural Research center.

For many wine consumers German wines are an enigma. Many blatantly hate the often off-dry style, associating it with cheap, unsophisticated wines. Others become terrified by the complexity of the label, which, while delivering copious bits of information, is to many daunting and incomprehensible. Here is a guide to understanding German wines and demystifying the label.

With 247,000 acres under vine Germany is Europe’s fourth largest wine producer (after France, Italy and Spain). Vineyards are located in the southern part of the country. North to south they stretch from the capital city Bonn to the Swiss border. East to west they go from Sachsen in the east to Luxembourg in the west. Most vineyards border the famous river Rhine or one of its tributaries.

About 80% of wine produced is white, but red wine production is on the increase. Climate change is making for consistent warmer growing seasons and fueling much of this growth.

In Germany, Riesling truly is king. And, while drier styles are definitely on the increase German wines are essentially, categorized by their off-dry to sweet styles. The secret to German wine perfection lies in that delicate balance between two key components in the wine: the extremely high acidity and the residual sugar.

German wine styles are primarily based on the ripeness (or sugar content) of the grapes at harvest. This is expressed in degrees Oechsle (Oe). The main categories that you will see in U.S. wine stores are described below.

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Quality wine is known as Qualitätswein, of which there are two main classifications (and this is where it can get complicated!)

First, there is the QbA category:

Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (Quality wine from a particular designated region). There are 13 approved Anbaugebiete. Examples are the Mosel, Rheingau, Rhinehessen and the Pfalz. No inter-Anbaugebiete blending is allowed. The Anbaugetiete name will always be indicated on the label. Off dry unless the term dry (trocken) is indicated.

Above this category there is the QmP category:

Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (superior quality wine), which represent the finest of German wines. In addition to the rules governing QbA, the grapes must come from a single Bereich (district) within the Anbaugebeit (region). Within the QmP category there are five ripeness levels, which are stated on the label of German wines. These are:

  • Kabinett – signifies that grapes were picked at normal harvest (but riper than QbA). Off-dry, Kabinett wines are among the most delicate and beautiful of German wines
  • Spatlese - late harvest. Grapes are riper with higher sugar levels. Wines have more depth of flavor than Kabinett
  • Auslese – selected harvest – made from selected extra-ripe bunches. Grapes may be affected by botrytis (Nobe Rot), called Edelfaule in Germany
  • Beerenauslese – selected berries – made from extra-ripe individually selected berries. Many grapes will have Edelfaule. Very sweet.To give an idea of the sugar content. If the wine was fermented dry it would achieve an abv of 18.1%
  • Trockenbeerenauslese – dried /shriveled selected berries – the peak in QmP quality. These wines are only produced in the finest of vintages. All grapes are affected by Edelfaule and shriveled like a raisin. Extremely sweet and heavenly. If fermented dry these wines would have an abv of 21.5% but fermentation is usually stopped at about 8% alcohol
  • Eiswein – made from grapes, which are at least as ripe as Beerenauslese level, but not affected by Edelfaule, and, which have are harvested deep into the winter during heavy frost. Grapes are picked and pressed whilst frozen. Very sweet style.

If the wine is fermented dry, the five ripeness levels described above are usually omitted and the label includes the term ‘Trocken’, which means dry. Today, more and more dry styles are available on the U.S market.

Additional information on the label will be the grape variety, the vintage (often suffixed with "er" e.g. 2007er) and the producer’s name and address. It may also have the name of an Einzellage (a single vineyard) or Grosslage (the name of a group of adjoining vineyards). Unless the consumer knows the names of the different Einzellage or Grosslage it can be nigh on impossible to know whether what you are buying is a single vineyard wine or not.

Newer terms, on top quality wines may include Grosses Gewächs, a sort of Grand Cru designation, the apex of German wine quality, and VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter,) the most influential and prestigious German growers' association, incorporating 200 of the finest wine estates in Germany. More about these in a future post.

It can all sound very complex. Hopefully, some of these explanations may help decipher the next bottle of German wine that you choose. That said, over the past five to six years there certainly has been a noticeable effort by German wine producers to both simplify the language and modernize wine label design.

So don’t be daunted by the label, as German wines are some of the most versatile, food-friendly wines in the world. The high acidity and varying levels of dryness makes them ideal companions for the often hard to pair hot and spicy foods, which are an integral part of so many cuisines. Another great plus for German wines is, they are all low in alcohol. Kabinett wines can be as low as 7.5% - 8% in alcohol. Even the driest German wines do not exceed 12% - 12.5% abv. So, no worries about sharing a full bottle with someone over dinner.

Here are some Germans wines that I particularly like, and which are less than $20.

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2006 Selbach 'Fish' Dry Riesling, QbA Dry, Mosel $11 - Crisp and refreshing, oozing clean, ripe tropical fruits, peach, guava and passion-fruit. Great value and cool label!

2007 Gunderloch 'Jean-Baptiste' Riesling, QmP Kabinett, Rheinhessen $19.99 - Off dry with great acidity. Refreshing and packed with mature stone fruit with hints of honey and tangerine zest. Beautifully balanced.

2007 Leitz Rüdesheimer Klosterlay Riesling, QmP Kabinett, Rheingau $17.99 - Off dry. Great concentration of ripe fruit, peach, fig, with hints of lemon and lime. Elegant.

Watch out for more exciting posts on German Riesling following my visit.

Meanwhile, have a great week!

(Images Courtesy of Deutsche Wein Institut)

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Drinks, Germany, Wine

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.