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German wine labels can be intimidating: long foreign words and ornate gothic script are enough to make many consumers head for a different section of the wine shop. But for the initiated—and you’ll qualify after reading this quick primer—German wine labels are among the most descriptive out there.
Like any wine label, you’ll find the name of the producer, the vintage, the region, and sometimes the name of the grape.
In addition to the grape-growing region (see below), 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 that vary by grape variety and growing region. 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 ten years or more.
Spätlese—Literally, “late picked.” These grapes are generally only late-picked with respect to those grapes that go into Kabinett or QbA wines. If vinified dry (an increasingly popular style), they can still seem less than optimally ripe. Traditionally made, with some residual sugar left in, they are extremely food friendly. Try them with anything from Asian food to baked ham and roast fowl. Most should be consumed before age twenty.
Auslese—Made from select bunches of grapes left on the vine until they achieve high sugar readings, these wines often carry a hint or more 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 with 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 sweet fruit, or cellar for ten to twenty 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 fifty 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 which produce wines with much racier levels of acidity. The intense sugars and acids enable these wines to easily endure for decades.
Aside from the ripeness levels denoted by the QmP system, you can 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 0.9 percent); 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, a few relatively new terms have cropped up that supplement, replace, or partially replace the traditional labeling system. Erstes Gewächs wines, or “first growths,” come only from designated sites in the Rheingau. Classic wines must be “harmoniously dry” and must omit references to specific villages or vineyards. Selection wines bear a single-vineyard designation on the label and must be dry.
German Wine Regions
Most of the classic German wine regions are closely identified with river valleys, the slopes of which provide the proper exposition for ripening grapes at this northern latitude. Virtually all of Germany’s best wines come from the Riesling grape, but there are several exceptions, like the fine Gewürztraminers from Fitz-Ritter in the Pfalz and Valckenberg in Rheinhessen and the exquisite Rieslaners and Scheurebes from Müller-Catoir in the Pfalz.
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer—The coolest of the German growing regions, and home to Germany’s crispest, raciest, and most delicate Rieslings. Green apples, floral notes, and citrus are all likely descriptors, but the best wines also display fine mineral notes that express their slate-driven terroirs.
Rheingau—Steep slate slopes and slightly warmer temperatures than found in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer yield powerful, sturdy wines, with ripe fruit flavors underscored by deep minerality.
Rheinhessen—Source for much of Germany’s production, quality here can vary from generic liebfraumilch to fine single-estate wines.
Nahe—This small side valley is the only rival to the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer for elegance and finesse, with Rieslings that balance lightness of body with mineral-based tensile strength.
Pfalz—One of Germany’s warmest winegrowing regions, with a great diversity of soils, microclimates, and grape varieties. Dry styles, whether made from Riesling or other white grapes are more common here, and show better balance than those from cooler regions. Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is also more successful here than elsewhere.
Wines from other Germany winegrowing regions, such as the Ahr, Baden, Franken and Württemberg are infrequently seen in the United States.