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GERMAN WINES

The reason German wines aren't more popular here in the U.S. is that most consumers don't like being embarrassed by appearing ignorant.  The names are difficult to pronounce and the labels have so many differentiations that a consumer might die of thirst attempting to ask for a bottle of their favorite wine!

On top of that, when many consumers think of Germany and its wines, they believe everything made there, Riesling or not, is sweet.

 

 



Here's a link to an ancient map of Germany's Rheingau.

Here's a link to "vintage" map of Germany's Mosel region.



"I'd like a bottle of FREIHERRLICH LANGWERTH VON SIMMERN'SCHES RENTAMT'S RAUENTHALER BAIKEN RIESLING SPATLESE but in the HALB-TROCKEN style, please!"    And that's one of the easier names!

Okay.  They can be tough to pronounce.  But Riesling makes such stunning wine!   It doesn't require the oak of a Chardonnay to be a complex and fabulously satisfying bottle of wine.

There's more to Germany than Riesling. 
Not all German wine is sweet!   (In fact, the Germans make a lot of wonderful dry wine.)
The wines are often very fairly priced. 

 

 

German wine labels, though they attempt to be crystal clear, can be a challenge to the average bear.

Even producers of German wines will complain about the various regulations for explaining their wines to consumers.

We've spent hours trying to digest the current labeling issues and reading various expert interpretations and suffice it to say it's easier to drink good bottles of German wines than it is to comprehend the minutiae on the labels.

There are some superficial explanations here but there's a lot of quicksand once you delve into this topic because there are numerous contradictions and special exceptions for damned near every rule.

If you have a look at various German wine information sites, it will become clear that virtually nobody understands German wine labeling laws.
There may be German government regulations in place, but then you have various local agencies and private organizations drawing up additional rules so there are no easily understandable protocols to help explain labeling.

 

 


Photo Taken By Gerald Weisl.
The cellars of Zilliken in the Mosel...underground, with lots of old cooperage...
It was a rainy day and you can see the water pouring down in the cellar.
It's a cool and humid place, ideal for aging wine.

 

 

One of the odd things of German wine is that they basically make wines from less-than-fully-ripe fruit and find a market for it!   You can taste wines with the designation Qba (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete) which are made from grapes a California winemaker would simply leave on the vine.  

Then they have a higher quality category and these will have Qualitätswein mit Pradikat on the label and a further designation as to how ripe the grapes were at harvest.  This varies according to the region (for example, a Mosel need have a potential alcohol of just 10% for Spatlese designation, while in the Rheingau, it must have a potential alcohol of 11.4%).   Compare these figures with California Chardonnays which often weigh in at more than 14% alcohol !!!!

German Wine Label Terminology
Good Luck  ---  Viel Gluck

DEUTSCHER WEIN / LANDWEIN
Table wine.  Some wines are truly of very modest quality, while others simply don't conform to German "standards" (maybe a wine made from an unapproved grape variety).
Deutscher Wein simply means it's German and it must have no less than 8.5% alcohol and not more than 15% alcohol.
Landwein must come from the particular place noted on the label and are usually trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (off-dry).
QbA
Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete
QbA must come from one of 13 wine growing regions, be made from approved or permitted varieties, have a (low) minimum sugar level at harvest. 
To add to the confusion, a Rheinhessen group allows its members, if they're wines are so selected, to have the use of a Rheinhessen Selection label.  Though the wines are of better quality, they permit these to be sold only as Qba level wines!
QmP
Qualitätswein mit Prädikat
These are wines which are not "chaptalized" (no sugar added to the juice or must!), grapes must be from a particular area and quality-tested.   (We wonder, though.)  There are five sub-categories of Qmp

KABINETT-- 8.6%-9.5% potential alcohol

SPÄTLESE--10.0%-11.4% potential alcohol  (now you're talking!  For my palate, this is the minimum for most wines, especially wines which are dry.)
Curiously, most wine books tell you this is "late harvest" wine!   Ha!   A California Chardonnay of this alcohol would be regarded as feeble and weak.

AUSLESE--11.1%-13% potential alcohol  Since these are rarely fermented to total dryness, unless the word "trocken" appears on the label, these are usually a bit sweet.  Trocken and Auslese on the same label usually means an extraordinary and expensive wine.

BEERENAUSLESE--15.3%-17.7% potential alcohol.  When they're fermented to just 8%-10% alcohol, you have a fair bit of residual sugar.

TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE--something like 21.5% potential alcohol, being made from dried or raisined fruit. 

EISWEIN--Now must be at least Beerenauslese sweetness as a minimum and be made of grapes harvested in a frozen state.

Someone sent me this photo of a picker in Germany harvesting frozen grapes which had been purposely left on the vine for harvesting in December during a freeze.

There is a private organization comprised of many top level German estates called the VDP:  Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter.
We have sometimes described the VDP as standing for Very Difficult People.
They are certainly well-intentioned and have attempted to change, to some degree, the notation for quality to include a bit of a geographical hierarchy or nobility.
For decades the sole labeling notation for quality, apart from the name of the winery, was the sugar level of the grapes when they were harvested.





There are perhaps 200 members and we understand the participating wineries account for less than 5% of German vineyard lands.

The group was founded in 1910 and it's changed over the course of time.  A winery cannot simply join the organization but has to be vetted as there are quality constraints which preclude many producers from becoming a member.
But apparently some former members found the various stipulations and requirements to be burdensome and unhelpful.
One winery departed because the VDP permits, apparently, just one bottling of a wine from what is considered a "Grosse Lage" site as they seek to limit, to some degree, the quantity of the top bottlings made by various estates.




Further, chaptalizing (adding sugar to the grape must (juice) is permitted for these lofty Grosse Lage/Grand Cru bottlings and some quality-oriented vintners oppose this winemaking option.




They have tried to simplify the labels so consumers would have less difficulty in understanding the supposed quality of a bottle.
In addition, the group imposes stricter limitations on the quantity of grapes cultivated in the vineyard and they seem to be more environmentally conscious than industrial wineries.


This is somewhat based on the hierarchy found in France's Burgundy region:

The Grosse Lage is akin to a Grand Cru caliber vineyard site.

Yields are capped at 50 hectoliters per hectare or roughly 3.7 tons-per acre of fruit.
If you don't see the familiar terms of Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein, then you can be sure the wine is dry.


And the idea is that the wine hails from an elite vineyard site.  Typically you would find the letters "GG" emblazoned on the glass bottle or, at the very least, prominently on the label.


If we understand the current regulations for these, only the vineyard site would be noted on the label and you would not have a notation of the town.  As in Burgundy, for example, the label reads: Richebourg.  The village name, Vosne-Romanée does not appear on the label.

To be labeled as a "GG" wine, the grapes at harvest need to be of the minimum sugar level as a Spätlese wine, having a potential alcohol level of 12% at harvest.  

Then you can understand why a "GG" wine is not eligible to be a Kabinett level wine.

And it is supposed to be dry, that is, having less than 10 grams of sugar per liter.
So if you make a wine using native yeasts instead of commercial yeast and the wine stops fermenting, leaving 11 grams of sugar, then the wine cannot, according to the VDP group, be called a GG wine.

Maybe an unintended consequence of this is that winemakers are encouraged to make wines which may be less exceptional in order to get that vaunted GG indicator on the bottle?

What happens if the growing season is warm?
Suppose the sugar level at harvest is in the range of an Auslese wine but the fermentation sticks or stops before getting to below 10 grams of sugar...then that wine is not eligible for their Grosses Gewächs status.
Or should the winemaker push the wine, by some means, to continue to ferment to hit the parameters of the VDP?

German wines, dry or not, are prized for their often-pinpoint balance.
Sometimes a wine which may be over the 10 grams' threshold for sugar could have a high level of acidity, achieving good balance, but as it would be outside the boundaries for "GG," the wine loses a bit of prestige???

Is the idea here to encourage high quality winemaking or is this solely about marketing and achieving a high price?



Now, as usual, things can get a bit twisted and so this protocol of "GG" wines has not been adopted by the German government.  It's a dynamic for the VDP wineries, so they cannot (yet) legally put the words Grosses Gewächs on the label, so the letters "GG" is, to use a phrase popularized by Monty Python's Flying Circus, a wink, wink, nudge, nudge to this vaunted quality level.


But you can find VDP member's wines with a vaunted vineyard name on them and, of course, you can find non-member winemakers using the same geographical designations with somewhat looser cultivation protocols and winemaking practices.

So while, yes, the VDP wines may be of really good quality, you will find exceptional wines from non-member wineries, too.

This is why trying to understand German wine labels will give you a headache.




Erste Lage wines come from what in Burgundy would be a Premier Cru vineyard.
You would expect these to be dry unless they carry the traditional notations of Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein and the label will typically have this notation of the wine being a "First Growth":

You will hear someone speak about these wines as being Erstes Gewächs or First Growths.



Ortswein would then be something like a "Village" wine taking the name of the bus stop or town name.
These might be dry wines if there's the word Trocken on the label, although off-dry to sweeter versions would be noted using the traditional designations of "Kabinett," "Spätlese," "Auslese," "Beerenauslese,"  "Trockenbeerenauslese" and "Eiswein."
The vineyard yields 


And Gutswein is simply a wine made from Estate Grown vineyards, not purchased fruit and these are usually the entry-level wines from a particular wine producer.
These can be dry, but if they do have some residual sugar the winery is allowed to use the traditional terminology to designate the level of ripeness of the fruit at harvest.  Thus, these wines would be labeled as "Kabinett," "Spätlese," "Auslese," "Beerenauslese" and "Trockenbeerenauslese."

 

Additionally, there are unofficial designations found on German wine bottles.

Sometimes you will find a gold capsule or foil on the bottle to distinguish that bottling for the so-called "normal" bottle of a wine.
Some producers utilize an asterisk to signal special quality...so you might find a single asterisk, a double asterisk or a triple asterisk.

 

Germany has something like 2,600 Einzellagen or individual vineyard site names.
While the VDP group has tried to highlight vineyards by quality, in reality the best indicator is by the winery name and their designation as to the quality of the fruit at harvest.

 

 

Curiously many Americans know only wines from Piesport (easy to pronounce), J.J. Prüm (a famous Mosel winery), Zeller Schwarze Katz (with a black cat on the label), Kröver Nacktarsch (with kids being spanked depicted on the label) or branded wines such as Blue Nun or Black Tower (which are names of Liebfraumilch, a relatively meaningless designation of rather modest quality). 

This dynamic has improved greatly since the turn of the century.  In the late 1990s it was rare to find dry wine from Germany.  
These days, though, there are many "trocken" wines coming to the US Market.  
Further, Germany has become increasingly famous for its red wines, especially Pinot Noir.

There are good bottle-fermented Sparkling wines, too.  

So the bottom line is if your perspective on German wines is from the Dark Ages, it's time to become enlightened and discover today's Germany.


Another curiosity is that many customers come in and ask for "Spätlese wines" and will buy these without the slightest clue as to where they come from (Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinpfalz, etc.) or as to who made the wine!  Imagine customers in other parts of the world buying California Zinfandel and not caring whether its label is "Turning Leaf" or "Ridge Vineyards"! 

So then, a "chicken and egg" situation arises: Is it that smart people know German wines or are German wine drinkers simply smarter than the average bear?



Photo:
The door to a German winetasting room.
Sometimes these are meant more for social gatherings and selling wine by the glass and snacks more than for "serious" wine evaluations.


 

 

 

German Grape Varieties

RIESLING Grown in many areas of Germany, it makes fabulous wines.  It reflects the climate and soil, perhaps more so than any other grape variety (Pinot Noir, perhaps).  This is the grape called White Riesling and had been known as Johannisberg Riesling (years ago) in our part of the planet.
WEISSBURGUNDER Pinot Blanc.  Grown in Germany since the 1500s!
GRAUBURGUNDER/ RULANDER Known as Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio.  Grauburgunder is, typically, a rather dry white wine.  Old style, sweeter wines are often called Rulander. 
SPÄTBURGUNDER Pinot Noir.  These used to be exceedingly wimpy wines.   However, some producers take a lot of care and now make some terrific wine of this grape.  Further, it's claimed that Germany is the 4th largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world!
SILVANER Though not as "noble" as Riesling, we've tasted some very good wines of this white grape.   Sadly, California allowed Silvaner to be labeled "Riesling" as though it were real "Riesling" wine! 
Happily this is no longer permitted.
SCHEUREBE A cross of Silvaner and Riesling, said to have blackcurrant fruit aromas or grapefruit notes.  We're big fans of Hans Wirsching's dry Scheurebe.  Geil makes one with a touch of sweetness that's very fine.
MÜLLER-THURGAU/
RIVANER
The oldest cultivated "cross" in the world, being Riesling x Silvaner...first produced in 1882.  Some call their wines "Rivaner" (Riesling/Silvaner).
RIESLANER Not much of this planted at the moment, but it's another crossing of Silvaner and Riesling.
HUXELREBE A crossing of Gutedel and Courtillier Musqué, this is rather like Muscat and best when made as a late-harvest, sweet wine.
KERNER A cross of Riesling and Trollinger, these tend to lack a bit of elegance and acidity, but are often nice sweet wines.
LEMBERGER This is the variety that's better known in Austria as Blaufränkisch.
It can be made in a range of styles, from light and fruit to more 'serious' and intense.
DORNFELDER A new variety capable of making some of Germany's most intensely-colored red wines.  These end up being comparable to a pretty nice Beaujolais.
SCHWARZRIESLING This is what the French call "Pinot Meunier," a variety used for sparkling wine.  Also known as Müllerrebe in some parts of Germany.
Other Interesting Varieties Frühburgunder (also known as Clevner or "early Burgundy"), Elbling (brought by the Romans around 300AD), Gutedel (also called Chasselas), Blauer Portugieser (a modest red) and Trollinger (or Vernatsch).   We've tasted a good Alvarinho from a vintner in the Rheingau!
EVEN STRANGER !! CABERNET SAUVIGNON?? !!
Syrah?  Merlot?  
CHARDONNAY ?? !!
Yes.  There's even a bit of Chardonnay.  Most are similar in style to a Macon wine.
SAUVIGNON BLANC??
Our friends at Von Winning make several Sauvignons and their oak-aged bottling is a gem!

 


Near Trittenheim along the Mosel in July of 2005.

For our some suggestions, check out the following page:

Some of our German Wine Selections
CLICK HERE


From the archives:

A Great German Tasting 2001

Another Great German Tasting 2002

2001 VINTAGE NOTES 

We are often tasting German wines but the importer that used to host these tasting seminars retired a few years ago and he was an elderly gentleman who simply ran out of steam.
Back in those days he was somewhat of a Lone Ranger in promoting German wines.
Happily, these days, we have numerous sources importing top wines from Germany.

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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