German wine labels can be confusing, but mostly because of the tangled gothic letters that make it difficult to pick out specific words. Once you’ve deciphered the script or found a label printed in a nice, clean typeface, everything suddenly becomes much clearer. Like any wine label, you’ll find the name of the producer, the vintage, the region and sometimes the name of the grape. Once past these basics, the German penchant for bureaucracy takes over, and extra words sprout faster and more irritatingly than bamboo under your fingernails. Here’s a quick primer to get you past the pain.
Most labels will show the names of the town and the vineyard in large type, such as Graacher Himmelreich (the town of Graach, Himmelreich vineyard). In much smaller type will be the terms Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (often just Qualitätswein, or QbA), indicating a "quality wine," or Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), denoting a quality wine picked at designated minimum ripeness levels. These ripeness levels will be indicated on the label as follows:
Kabinett: The least ripe of the prädikat levels, and typically the lightest of a grower’s offerings. With their low alcohol levels and touch of sweetness, these wines make ideal picnic quaffs and mouth-watering apéritifs. Most often consumed in their youth, they can last for 10 years or more.
Spätlese: Literally, "late picked." If vinified dry, they can still seem less than optimally ripe. Traditionally made, with some residual sugar left in or added back, they are extremely food friendly. Try them with anything from Asian food to baked ham and roast fowl. Most should be consumed before age 20.
Auslese: Made from "select" bunches of grapes left on the vine until they achieve high sugar readings, these wines often carry a hint of botrytis. While some are sweet enough to serve with simple fruit desserts, others are best sipped alone. With age, some of the sugar seems to melt away, yielding wines that can ably partner roast pork or goose. Thirty-year-old auslesen can smell heavenly, but sometimes fall flat on the palate. Enjoy them on release for their luscious fruit, or cellar for 10-20 years.
Beerenauslese: "Berry select" wines are harvested berry by berry, taking only botrytis-affected fruit. While auslesen are usually sweet, this level of ripeness elevates the wine to the dessert-only category. Hold up to 50 years.
Trockenbeerenauslese: These "dried berry select" wines are made from individually harvested, shriveled grapes that have been heavily affected by botrytis. Profoundly sweet and honeyed, their over-the-top viscosity and sweetness can turn off some tasters, while others revel in the complex aromas and flavors.
Eiswein: Made from frozen grapes that are at least equivalent in sugar levels to beerenauslese, but usually producing wines with much racier levels of acidity. The intense sugars and acids enable these wines to easily endure for decades.
You can also expect to see the terms trocken and halbtrocken on some labels (their use is optional). Trocken, or dry, may be used on wines with fewer than 9g/L residual sugar (less than .9%); halbtrocken (half-dry) refers to wines with between 9 and 18g/L. Given the allowable ranges, these wines may be truly dry or verging on sweet, depending on acid-sugar balance.
In an effort to simplify German labels, new terms have cropped up that supplement, replace or partially replace the traditional labeling system. Erstes Gewächs wines, or "first growths," come from designated sites in the Rheingau. Classic wines must be "harmoniously dry" and omit references to specific villages or vineyards. Selection wines are dry and bear a single-vineyard designation on the label.