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Wine Label Words – German wines

December 16, 2010

It’s a good time to start a series on how to decipher wine label words, the kind that make buying Old World (European) wines a mystery for some folks. The timing is good, because the holiday season which is now upon us, brings about more interest in rieslings, gewurtztraminers and dessert wines.

So let’s start right at the top with Germany. German wine laws are among the hardest to decipher, so everything after this will seem easy!

First, the good news: German wines generally have the grape variety listed right on the front, so you don’t need to try to memorize Germany’s geography. There are a few varieties that may not be familiar to you (e.g. Lemberger, Scheurebe), but the most commonly found wines on local shelves or wine lists are the better known riesling, gewurtztraminer, and spätburgunder. (Yeah, you actually know that last one, it’s the German name for pinot noir).

Now the harder parts. First, there’s a ripeness hierarchy which doesn’t have a comparison on American wine labels. But it’s not as hard as it seems. Here’s why it exists: Germany is a very cold growing region, and that can cause grapes to have less sugar than those grown in warmer climates. Since sugar turns into alcohol during fermentation, the wines can be too low in alcohol. The levels in the hierarchy are based on the sugar levels in the harvested grape. It does not, however, determine the sugar level of the finished wine (which can still be dry, off-dry or sweet).

So, German wine law allows for adjusting the alcohol level of the finished wine (which is done by either adding sugar to the unfermented grape juice (called must) or concentrating the juice, removing water thus increasing the sugar percentage). The first two ‘levels’ of the ripeness hierarchy allow this. I’ve included a helpful graphic, taken from a fantastic site that explains German wines in more detail:

The first level of wine is considered a table wine, written as Deutscher Wein (“German Wine”). Basically, it’s a wine made of grapes all grown in Germany and harvested ‘early.’ The ensuing must could be low in sugar, so altering the sugar level is allowed. While these can be good wines and tend to be dry, they can also be simpler, less complex wines. In fact, this category until recently was just known simply as “Table Wine” (Tafelwein in German).

The next level, Deutscher Landwein (German Land Wine) is considered to be better because the grapes all come from a named region, which must be shown on the label. There are 13 wine regions in Germany, with Mosel being the most commonly seen in US stores. Land Wine has to have a little more alcohol than Table Wine, so are theoretically a little riper. These wines can be dry or off-dry but not sweet.

Next level up is Quality Wine, annotated as QbA (Qualitatswein in German). These are wines that also come from a single named region, but also are made from approved varieties and are ripe enough to make a quality wine (though the laws still allow for adding sugar to the unfermented must, which would create more alcohol and make up for any shortfall in ripeness). Many of the lower priced wines found in the German section of your local store would fall under this category. While they are still considered ‘simple’ wines in the larger scheme of the hierarchy, these wines do carry a minimum guarantee of quality (in the same way that that Italian, Spanish or French wines that bear a named location do).

After all of that, we’re finally entering the last, highest level, though this one is itself separated into various categories. This level is called QmP (for Qualitatswein mit Pradikat in German) or just Pradikat for short. It translates as ‘Quality wines with Attributes.’ The attributes in reference are increasing levels of sugar-ripeness, attained by letting the grapes stay on the vine longer.

This is where people tend to get even more confused, if only because this one level has six categories. But stay with it; you’ll be amazed at how easily it can all fall into place.

The first category of Pradikat wine is called Kabinett. They are made from ‘fully ripe’ grapes, meaning that they can’t be picked early and have sugar added to the must. The nice thing about Kabinett wines is that they tend to be lower in alcohol than to what we’re accustomed, so they can be enjoyed easily with food. Kabinett wines can be dry, medium or sweet, so trying a few different labels might be necessary to find one that is just how you like it (of course, a knowledgeable wine store clerk or sommelier can help here, too).

[A sidebar tip to Kabinett (or other) level wines: the term ‘trocken’ on a label means dry and ‘halbtorocken’ denotes half-  or off-dry. The new designations ‘Classic’ and ‘Selection,’ either of which would be found just after the grape variety, also would be dry wines.]

The next level of Pradikat wines is called Spatlese (speyt-lay-suh), which translates as Late Harvest. Allowing the grapes to hang longer on the vine provides for greater ripeness and more concentrated flavor. These wines can still be dry, medium or sweet. The takeaway here are the words “concentrated flavor.” The longer ripening leads to more intense and concentrated flavor.

That’s good to know, because the next level is Auslese (aus-lay-suh). These wines are made from grapes that are harvested late (potentially even later than Spatlese) and of selected bunches of grapes. Yes, they are hand-harvesting whole bunches of very ripe, late harvested grapes. So the flavors are even more concentrated and full of rich, ripe flavors. And yes, they can be dry, medium or sweet.

Now we’re near the end. The next two levels are always sweet, basically dessert wines. Beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese wines are of grapes that were extremely late-harvested, hand-picked individually (not even by the bunch, each berry is plucked from the vine!), and in the case of the last one, they are picked only after the grapes start to dry out on the vine. These wines make some of the most luscious, rich and sweet dessert wines on the planet. (Don’t be mislead by ‘trocken’ in the name, it does not mean dry in this case.) Trockenbeerenauslese wines are not made every year, only when growing conditions are right.

Finally, as if the last two wines weren’t rich enough, the final category is Eiswein (Icewine). These grapes are left out so long to over-ripen and concentrate, they’re not harvested until after the first frost. The night of the first frost, harvesters go out into the field before the next sunrise and pick each berry by hand. The frozen grapes make the most incredibly rich dessert wine of them all.

The higher up the scale of the wine hierarchy you go, the more expensive the bottle. Think about the expensive of picking berries individually! That’s a big reason that not everyone drinks Auslese wines on a regular basis, you just can’t find them under $25 or so (and can be far higher in price).

Here’s a tip on navigating these so far: drink a bottle from each level! Homework has never been so fun, right? You’ll likely not find Tafelwein, maybe a Landwein, so seek out a Qualitatswein (Qba), a Kabinett, Spatlese and an Auslese. The Auslese is pricey enough for most of us, so don’t worry about finding a Beerenauslese or Eiswein, unless you want to spend the money and try some of the finest dessert wines on the planet! Which means: try them out some day, it would be a shame to never taste one of these beauties.

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