Sprichst du Deutsch? In true German fashion, wine laws have been placed to make the system more efficient and less elusive. An entire guidebook to the bottle is placed on German wine labels. Unlike the loose labeling laws set by the American Viticulture Association, theoretically you should know exactly what you’re getting into when you read a German wine label.
Dr. Thanisch Piesporter Goldtröphen Spätlese Riesling 2015- Makes sense, right?? If you find all of the labeling terms confusing, you’re not alone. There are multiple independent bodies that classify wines in addition to the the laws set by the government. Each anbaugebiete (region) has their own set of rules, and it varies again by grape varietal…Add to that the intimidating German words! German wine labels and the rules have been stumping wine drinkers for decades, which unfortunately means that some very delicious, food-friendly wine at a great value is left on retail shelves to collect dust (luckily Riesling ages very well). Empower yourself with the basics of wine labeling laws and start enjoying some of the most graceful wines on the planet.
A Brief History on German Wine Label Laws
Evidence of viticulture in Germany dates back to a mention of the steep vineyards along the Mosel in the year 370. The vineyards were developed and classified as early as the Middle Ages, as monks inherited land and began to plot the best sites on high slopes. Riesling became a popular grape due to its capacity to ripen in the cool climate. Meanwhile, the bourgeois planted vines near urban centers. The confusion began in the 15th Century, as partial inheritance laws began to divide the vineyards into small parcels.
Following the French Revolution, church-owned vineyards were put into the hands of the public. With more understanding of quality and ripeness, the beginning delimitation occured in the 1830s. Quality was measured by ripeness and must weight through a system developed by Ferdinand Oechsle, which is still used today. However, following the industrial revolution in late 19th Century, urbanization shrank the wine industry and halted its developments in quality.
During Nazi rule, the Gleichschaltung ruling required all private enterprise to be handed to the state, thus destroying the incentive to produce better wine. Cheap, sweet white blends such as Liebfraumilch became the face of German wine in the 20th century. Even with the expansion of viticulture in the latter half of the century, yields became some of the highest in the world. If effort to simplify and correct flaws in the industry, the German wine law was refreshed, but not without criticism.
Perhaps the most controversial elements of the law was the Flurbereinigung, which restructured the vineyards into larger sections, requiring vineyards to be a minimum of 5 hectares in size, which many felt took away from the individual characteristic of the best sites.
Quality & Sweetness Levels
Wines are first divided by place on German wine labels:
Wein (Formerly Tafelwein)- Table wine. The fruit is not place-specific (actually, doesn’t even have to be from Germany!)
Landwein- introduced in 1982 as Germany’s response to France’s “Vin de Pays.” This is essentially an IGP from one of 26 winegrowing areas.
“Qualitätswein”- This is the most regulated branch and considered the highest tier. It must be analyzed by a wine committee and receive an AP number (Amtliche Prüfnummer), which indicates the region of origin, volume, location of producer, and alcohol.
Within this category, several subdivision exist on German wine labels:
QbA- Quality Wine from a Specific Origen (must be from a classified area)
Qmp- Quality wine with distinction from riper grapes
Pradikätswein- This sub-category is divided by must weight of the grapes. 7% minimum alcohol by volume is required, except for beerenauslese which is only 5.5%. These numbers express a minimum must weight level, which means that winemakers have the option to “declassify” wines to a lower category if the grapes do not meet their preferred level of quality in that category. All numbers are on the Oschlese scale.
Of course, not ALL good German wines are sweet:). Here are some terms for quality dry wines that you might see on the label:
Halbtrocken-Half-dry (a touch of sweetness)
Classic- “Harmoniously Dry,” Maximum 15 g/L Residual Sugar (RS) from a single variety
Selection- “Superior Dry,” Maximum 9 g/L RS (or 12 g/l for Riesling) from a single variety and vineyard harvest at a minimum must weight of 80, equivalent to a Spatlese. The wine must be a minimum of 12% alcohol by volume (11.5% for the Mosel) and cannot be released until the following year from harvest.
Also Good to Know
Some producers use a secret code to showcase their special bottles on German wine labels. This is not regulated by the government. Some producers showcase their “reserve” or special bottlings with a Goldkapsule. If the Goldkapsule includes stars, then it means that the grapes were harvest at a higher must weight than is classified on the label. The consumer can expect more intensity or sweetness from these wines.
….But wait. You might be wondering how it can be dry if it was harvested as a Spätlese. A wine can be harvested very ripe, but then fermented until dryness, as the yeasts feed off of the sugars. This converts to alcohol, which is why sweeter wines are typically lower in alcohol. Think about a very ripe California Zinfandel. It was probably picked with a heavy must weight due to the sugars in the juice that were developed under extensive hours in the sunlight. The winemaker will usually ferment this until the sugars convert to alcohol, which is why those extra-ripe reds can have 15-16% alcohol (and frankly, sometimes even a hint of RS!).
Where It’s From
Often the town will be listed first on German wine labels, followed by the vineyard. Germans signify the place from which something is from by adding “ER,” as is Piesporter Michelsberg (Piesport is the town, Michelsberg is the collection of vineyards). Here are some terms to know:
Anbaugebiete – 13 regions classified by the german wine law, which include the Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Nahe, Pfalz, Baden, Sachen, Saal-Unstrut, Württemberg, Franken, Hessische-Bergstrasse, Ahr, and Mittelrhein.
Bereiche– Classified sub-region. Ex. Bernkastel in the Mosel
Gemeiden– Town in the sub region. Ex. Piesport in Bernkastel, Mosel
Grosslage– Collection of vineyards, such as Piesporter Michelsberg
Einzellagen- Piesporter Goldtröpfchen
Alleinbesitz– Single vineyard owned by a single producer (i.e. monopole), such as Johannisberg
Other German Wine Labeling Organizations
To add to the confusion, many critics felt that the 1971 ruling de-credited the best sites by joining them into the larger Grosslage category. In effort to highlight the specificity of place, several wine organizations formed (and/or rebranded) with their own set of rulings. The most influential is the VDP- Verband Deutscher Pradikatweinguter. This includes roughly 195 producers from all 13 anbaugebiete. The collective is marked by the Traubenalder on the label-the eagle with a cluster of grapes. The VDP requires higher must weight and lower yields than set by the government. Only “Traditional” grapes can be grown, which excludes high-yielding hybrids. The grapes must be estate grown and hand-harvested if from a single vineyard, or above auslese ripeness. Although there is some overlapping of the vineyards designated by the German wine law, plots under the VDP label are usually smaller and more specific (a jab at the Flurbereiningung). Grosslage is not permitted on the labels.
More Terms Explained for German Wine Labels
Gutswein– Regional wines. Yields lower than 75 hl/ha
Ortswein-Village wines. Yields lower than 75 hl/ha
Erste Lage– Premier single vineyard site, usually listed with the village (Ex. Iphöfer Kronsberg). Yields lower than 60 hl/ha. Several regions have opted out of this category, including the Mosel, Ahr & Rheinhessen).
Grosse Lage (NOT to be confused with Grosselage)- Superior single vineyard Site/Grand Cru. Here the village name is dropped (Ex. Rothenberg). Yields lower than 50 hl/ha.
For superior dry wines, an additional category exists:
Grosses Gewächs– Dry/Trocken Grosse Lage. Must be harvested with a minium Spatlese ripeness and cannot released until 9/1 following the year of harvest. This term is not legally allowed on labels and therefore indicated with the letters GG.
In the Rheingau, a similar organization called the Charta Association was formed in 1984 to promote fine dry Rieslings. Its aims mirror those of the VDP, promoting higher standards from selective sites. The members distinguish their participation on the labels with organization’s logo, a Roman arch.
Erste Gewächs– Similar to a Grosses Gewächs or Ertes Lage, this is wine that is from a premiere site. The wines are fermented dry and hand-harvested. This is legally sanctioned and can therefore appear on the labels. Unlike the VDP, producers do not need to be a member of the organization to use the term.
Grape Varieties for German Wines
Germans do give customers the advantage of labeling the varietal, a practice not commonly found in other countries, such as France. However, hybrid grapes are commonly used, as are the German name for French grapes.
Riesling– The most iconic and heavily planted grape in Germany. It’s high acidity allows for graceful ageing and food pairing. It also provides balance to wines with sweetness. Riesling ranges from very dry to very sweet. It is further prized for its aromatics.
Müller-Thurgau– This is a floral and high-yielding crossing of Riesling and the grape Madelaine Royale developed in 1882. It is typically the main component in the Liebfraumilch blends. For much of the 20th Century, it was the most planted grape in Germany, until Riesling passed the threshold at the turn of the mellinium.
Spätburgunder– Germany’s name for Pinot Noir and the third most planted varietal in Germany.
Dornfelder– This is the second most commonly planted red grape, a crossing of the grapes Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe. It has more color than Spatburgunder, but is also much more heavy-yielding and therefore of lesser quality.
Grauburgunder– This is Pinot Gris, but typically made in the rich, spicy as seen in Alsace, rather than the quafable and simple style made famous in Northern Italy (i.e. Pinot Grigio).
Silvaner- Although typically crossings are held to lesser esteem, this crossing of Traminer and Österreichisch-Weiss is popular for its herbal aroma and full body. It is most commonly planted in Franken and a sits well with tricky-to-pair asparagus.
Weissburgunder– Known as Pinot Blanc in France, this grape shows lushious texture when made well, with more acidity than Pinot Gris.
Scheurebe– Another high quality crossing, this is a mix of Riesling and Bukettrebe that ranges in sweetness levels. Unlike Riesling, the aromas tend to be pungent rather than floral.
Kerner- This is an aromatic grape crossing of Traminer and Riesling
Portugieser- This red grape is native to Austria. Easy to grow and easy to drink, this grape is commonly used for rosé, especially the Weissherbst of Pfalz.
Other terms to know
Gutsabfüllung– Estate bottled
Sekt– German Sparkling, made in the Charmant method
Rotling– Rose wine made from red and white grapes
Weingut– Wine Estate
Weissherbst- Rose made from a single red variety
Winzergenossenschaft– Wine growing co-op