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German Wine Labels – Page 1: Introduction

Understanding the German naming system in a few easy steps.

German wine labels are famously confusing – and with good reason. The amount of information they try to communicate – and in a language renowned for compounding words instead of adapting or creating new ones – is more than in any of the other classic “Old World” wine nations. Like everywhere else, you are getting:

  • the name of the producer
  • the zone
  • the alcohol level.

So far, so familiar. But other information that may or may not be on the label can include:

  • grape or grapes (Riesling et al)
  • relative dryness of the wine itself (trocken, etc.)
  • specific vineyard name (such as Sonnenuhr) within
  • a particular larger site (perhaps Juffer) usually associated with a
  • village (like Brauneberg) – or not – as well as
  • level of ripeness/harvest (Kabinett to Trockenbeerenauslese) communicated with words broadly indicating how and when, relatively, the grapes were harvested – but actually really indicating the minimum sugar content of the grapes at the time of harvest.
  • non-binding terminology, such as If the vines are considered particularly aged (Alte Reben)

And that is if the wines fall into the standard, most common category of “Qualitätswein”, which is part of the legal framework established for German wines. The German Wine Law does NOT have a system in place to indicate the top sites like in Burgundy or Bordeaux; there is no “Grand Cru” or so forth defined by German law. One simply needs to know from the name if a site is famous or not, not to mention for what it might be known. More on that later. 

Enter: The VDP

Did you think that was enough? Well guess what! There is another system in place, too! One established by the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter), which is a group of some 200 of the finest producers in Germany whose mandate since 1910 has been to produce wines of superior quality by voluntarily adhering to (much) lower yields and other vineyard and cellar practices not specified in the German Wine Law. Only members of the VDP are obliged to use their system, but its influence reaches far beyond its membership. The VDP has also established a system to indicate, without having to know individual site names, the “best” vineyard sites in the country. More, too, on them later.

Once we get away from the classifications enshrined in German law, we start to see:

  • Terms indicating seemingly arbitrary, indecipherable levels of quality such as “Ortswein” and “Gutswein
  • Sundry terms intended to communicate style, such as “Classic” or “Selection”, which, like the quality levels above, have meaning only to those already familiar with them
  • Erste Lage”, “Grosse Lage” and “Grosses Gewächs”, which are intended to indicate premier vineyard sites and, again, particular styles

Really. It is no wonder that many consumers simply give up on the whole thing.  Which is an immense tragedy, because, not only are exciting things happening in many regions of Germany, but the overall quality of particularly the white wines ranges from good to astonishing, and all for a price that is often far, far below wines of similar quality from the prestige regions of France. Wines, in this case, that can – and do, among those who know them – stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the world.

So how about understanding what you are getting?

This post was massive, so I’ve broken it up into four parts. The following parts deal with:

Onward to the Official System!


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