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Introduction to Germany

Some people think Germany is one of the most complicated countries to understand – and they are correct. Whilst France has its Appellation system and bottles that don’t tell us which grape types are involved, Germany is another kettle of fish. Not only does it have categories by area, it also has levels regarding the ripeness of grapes.

However, if you are prepared to make a little effort to understand the wines, and can forget the unfashionable reputation that German wines have, you can find some world-class white wines at very good prices. As Ken Mackay MW says, "German wines are often underrated, especially those of higher quality. The estate wines are all made from Riesling grapes, which arguably reach their finest expression in Germany's marginal climate."

Germany’s climate varies from year to year. It can also experience heavy rains, hot summers and bitterly cold winters. All this means that some years produce superb wines, whilst other vintages are poor. Many regions are blessed with long, dry autumns, which give perfect conditions for late harvest (i.e. sweet/dessert) wines.

The classifications within Germany are (in descending order):

  • Quality wine – many styles, from dry to sweet (we will discuss this further below)
  • Landwein – this is wine from specific designated areas (a bit like France’s Vin de Pays). They will all be dry (“trocken”) or off-dry (“halbtrocken”).
  • Deutscher Tafelwein – made from one of four large designated areas.

 

Quality Wine

This is where things start to get trickier. Germany has two categorizations for its best wines: by region (QbA) and by grape ripeness (Pradikatswein).

Qualitatswein bestimates Anbaugebiete (QbA)

QbA is similar to France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée system, whereby wines are produced within quality assessed designated areas. The general belief is that wines coming from a specific area are better in quality, and reflect a specific sense of place rather than being made up of many random parts (referred to as “terroir” in France). Therefore, the theory is that the smaller the area, the better the wine.

  • The biggest designated areas are regions. There are 13 regions in Germany (such as Mosel, Rheigau, Pfalz) – the main ones will be discussed below. Wines from regions are known as “Anbaugebiet”.
  • Districts are smaller areas within these regions. Wines made from specific districts are labeled “Bereich”.
  • “Grosslage” is a still smaller category, and comprises a group of adjoining vineyards.
  • “Einzellage” is the smallest designated area and refers to individual vineyards.

Unfortunately, labeling is not very clear as the above terms are not used on bottles, so the only way to know where a wine fits in the scale is to know individual regions, districts, Grosslage and individual vineyards. Take make it worse, Grosslage wines often use names from Einzellage vineyards. And, to top it off, there is a category of “Gemeinde” (communes) which are between Bereich and Grosslage, but it has no legal status.

There have been discussions recently to simplify this labeling, but nothing has changed yet.

Pradikatswein

One major decision a vineyard has each year is when to pick the grapes: the later grapes are picked, the riper and sweeter the grapes will be. This ripeness/sweetness can be objectively calculated by measuring the density of the grape juice before fermentation (“must weight”).

Winemakers in Germany can label their wine according to the wine’s must weight, using the Pradikatswein system. The Pradikatswein system has the following categories, in ascending order of must weight:

Kabinett

A late-harvest wine (meaning the grapes were left on the vine longer than usual), this is the lightest and most delicate of all Pradikatswein. Usually has crisp acidity, flavours of green fruit (e.g. apples) and a slight sweetness.

Spätlese

Another late-harvest wine, but more concentrated and heavier than Kabinetts. Flavours experienced now are exotic fruits (e.g. mango).

Auslese

Uses late-harvest grapes and/or grapes that have been dried out by botrytis (a good form of rot!). Unfortunately, grapes don’t ripen all at the same time, so individual bunches will often have to be picked for these wines (making them more expensive).

Beerenauslese (BA)

These are pretty rare (and expensive) wines because individual grapes will have been picked from the bunches to ensure that only the best grapes are used. These are always sweet, but should also be refreshing.

Eiswein

Eiswein is produced using a unique process. The grapes are left on the vine during winter until they freeze. They are then picked, crushed, and the frozen water removed from them. By removing the water, the flavours and sugars are concentrated, resulting in a sweet wine.

Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA)

Even rarer than Beerenauslese, TBA wines are made from individually picked grapes from exceptionally outstanding vintages. The grapes used will be so ripe that they will have been reduced to tiny raisins.

 

Other label terms

  • “Trocken”: dry
  • “Halbtrocken”: off-dry
  • “Classic”: dry, from a single grape, single vineyard, single year
  • “Selection”: like Classic, but sweeter and from one of the best vineyards in the country.