German Wine Labels – Page 2: The Official System

Page 2 – The Official System

First, let us deal with the opacity of German quality levels, place names will be on the next post. Yes, it is very helpful if you speak German, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the language is very systematic, so it is not necessary to understand German to understand what you are seeing on the label.  Let’s look at the words indicating the level of quality first. There is a pyramid that should be easy to grasp. Starting at the bottom, it is:

The Table Wines

Deutscher Wein – formerly “Tafelwein”, which literally meant “table wine”.  The lowest, most inauspicious category – and the easiest one to put wines into, obviously. Can be made with grapes from more than one wine-growing region within Germany. At only 5% of total German wine output, not much is being produced. Nevertheless, there are some interesting things happening here, particularly if you are interested in grapes or styles that aren’t permitted to carry a designation higher up.  Think Supertuscans, back in the day….they started out in a similar category. Where there is flexibility, there will be innovation. All wine styles are permitted, from dry to sweet.

Deutscher Landwein – a slightly higher category of table wine where 85% of the grapes must come from a single Landwein region: Baden, Rheinhessen, Mosel, Franken, etc. Often, the name of the region will be adapted with an “-ischer” (like “Badischer”) to indicate the genitive of the name, which is to say “Wine from Baden State” becomes “Badischer Landwein”. Wines from this category are either dry or off-dry.

That’s the bottom rung.

Qualitätswein

Then we take a step up into the broad categories of QbA (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet) and QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat), both of which categories must be made 100% from grapes permitted in and coming from one of the 13 wine zones in the country. Let’s look at QbA first:

QbA are generally dry or off-dry, though all styles are permitted. The label must indicate which of the 13 wine zones in the country, such as Baden, Mosel etc., the wine is from. Here you will generally also see simply the grape variety, if it is a varietal wine, or a brand name. This is not a category with complicated naming.

Prädikatswein

Then we move into the QmP wines, known today simply as “Prädikatswein”, and this is where things start to get exciting – particularly as far as labelling is concerned. In ascending order of level of “ripeness” (sugar content/potential alcohol at the time of harvest), the classifications are: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Eiswein.

Kabinett – the entry-level designation. The wines are usually dry or off-dry.

Spätlese – literally “late harvest”. Sugar levels are obviously higher, wines can still be dry or off-dry, not usually sweet.

Auslese – very selected grape bunches, higher sugar.  Can be dry, but are usually off-dry or even sweet, without generally being dessert-wine sweet.

Beerenauslese (or BA) – single grapes (Beeren) are harvested for their sugar levels. The wines are sweet to lusciously sweet, alcohol levels are quite low.  And longevity of the wines, already high in the case of Riesling, has increased dramatically.

Trockenbeerenauslese (or TBA) – selected dry (trocken) berries, which invariably means the grapes had noble rot (or botrytis cinerea, if you prefer). Like with Beerenauslese, and as with all other wines of this style made in the world (Sauternes), this requires multiple passes through the vineyards, all hand-picked grapes. And if you have seen, for example, the vineyards along the Mosel, you will know how labour-intensive this can be. The wines are always lusciously sweet, and approach immortality in a wine cellar.

Eiswein – ice wine. Clear? If not, ice wines are made from grapes harvested once they have been, essentially, frozen on the vine. The water freezes, the sugars and acids are concentrated. The wines are intensely sweet, but also fresh — and very long-lived. Climatically, Germany is having more and more difficulty consistently producing wines in this category naturally. There are other nations, like my homeland, Canada, that are able to do it far more reliably. Nevertheless, a German Eiswein made from Riesling can be exquisite.

A word on declassification: if a winemaker has grapes that legally could be in a higher category of Prädikat wine, they can declassify to a lower category. This happens increasingly with very quality-oriented producers when they have grapes that have the ripeness but not the quality they personally associate with a higher category of their wine. In productive, ripe vintages such as 2015, it happens also so that there will be enough wine of the lower categories to sell!

Sweetness

Now, a look at the words indicating, roughly, the level of sweetness.

If something is written at all, then it is isn’t a big challenge:

Quite easy:    

  • Trocken = dry
  • Feinherb/Halbtrocken = off-dry
  • Süss/Edelsüss (“ss” can also be represented as “ß”, which used to be the norm) =sweet

More difficult:  

  • when nothing is specified. 

If there is no qualifying word on the bottle, it becomes helpful to look at the alcohol and to know your Prädikat levels.  The higher up the pyramid you go, the sweeter the resulting wine is likely to be. Conversely, the lower the alcohol is, also the sweeter the resulting wine will be. Don’t be surprised if that bottle of Mosel Riesling Auslese with just 8.5% abv tastes, not only glorious, but quite sweet. But even a Kabinett, if the word “Trocken” is not found on it, is going to have a higher level of residual sugar. If you must drink fully-dry wines, instead of just enjoying a wine that is dry on the palate, but nevertheless contains a sometimes-significant level of residual sugar, then look for wines that specifically state “Trocken”.

Additional Terminology

There are two words – important only because they are, indeed, “official” – that might turn up. Neither one of them is particularly popular, and they are disappearing fast:

  • Classic: dry-tasting. Nevertheless, residual sugar can be as high as 15g/L
  • Selection: dry, with vines at least 15 years old and from a declared parcel.

Moving on to vineyard site naming!

Or back to Page 1.

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