Decoding Riesling

Decoding Riesling

Learn to decode wine labels from your favorite Rieslings from around the world.


German wine labels somehow manage to convey both too much and too little information. Repeated efforts to revamp label standards have simply layered new categories on top of the old. Adding the trocken/halbtrocken terminology promised to make clear which wines were dry, but, alas, not every producer uses the lingo. This is how your local wine shop staff earn their pay.

1. Mosel-Saar-Rüwer: Region where the grapes were grown.
2. Riesling: Grape variety.
3. Spätlese: Ripeness level (amount of sugar) at harvest—and not necessarily a guide to the sweetness of the finished wine. In ascending order, ripeness levels for table wines are kabinett, spätlese and auslese.
4. Trocken: Dry. Any ripeness level can be made trocken, or halbtrocken (semi-dry), or Feinherb (loosely defined, between halbtrocken and off-dry). Wines marked as “classic” tend to be on the dry side. If there is no dryness indicator, chances are (in the U.S. market) it’s off-dry.
5. AP Nr.: Identification number, ending in the vintage year, from the quality certification process.
6. Qualitätswein mit Prädikat: Quality wine with a (ripeness) grade, often abbreviated as QmP.
7. Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg: Vineyard; in big print because German vineyards are a Big Deal.
8. Gutsabfüllung: Estate bottled.
9. Karthäuserhof: Winery name, in this case the same as their vineyard.
10. D-54292 Trier-Eitelsbach: Town where winery is located, complete with zip code.
11. Alc 11.5%: Except for the decimal comma, alcohol is alcohol. This can be an important clue to sweetness/ dryness: any alcohol this high in the Mosel has to mean dry wine, while a wine at 9% would have some sugar.

Vintage: For this wine, it’s on the back label, but you already know how to read a vintage.

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Like the Germans, the Austrians manage to cram a lot of information onto their wine labels. Starting from the top, this one shows the following:

1.Gutsabfülling: Estate-bottled.
2. Weingut Bründlmayer: Name of the producer.
3. Langenlois Osterreich: Langenlois is the town where Bründlmayer is based.
4. Zöbinger Heiligenstein: Following the same model as the German label, this gives the name of the vineyard and its village. This is from the Heiligenstein vineyard in the village of Zöbing.
5. Alte Reben: Old Vines.
6. Qualitätswein: Shows the wine meets certain government quality standards.
7. Trocken: Dry. The 14.5% alcohol indicates a very powerful wine.
8. Kamptal: The winegrowing region.

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Wine labels in Alsace range from fairly simple, showing just the basics–producer, grape variety, vintage–to more elaborate examples, like the one seen here.

1. Alsace Grand Cru: Indicates that the wine comes from a vineyard classified as Grand Cru. All other things being equal, these will generally be better—and more expensive—than wines carrying just the Alsace appellation.
2. La Dame: Name of this particular cuvée.
3. Wiebelsberg: Name of the Grand Cru.
4. Marc Kreydenweiss: Name of the producer. The address appears immediately below in fine print.

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U.S., Italy and Australia

As this New York example attests, front labels in the U.S., Italy and Australia don’t contain the same density of information as their European counterparts. Scanning the back label sometimes sheds more light.

1. Name of producer or cellar.
2. Vintage: Finger Lakes Riesling’s high natural acidity and substantial flavors means the wines can age well, but these wines are good young, too.
3. Style: Look for either dry or semi-dry styles in New York Riesling. The styles are somewhat self-explanatory: “Dry” means the wine is low in sugar and has a crisp, clean, minerally character, while “semi-dry” means some residual sugar remains to highlight the floral, honey, tropical flavors of the wine. Late-Harvest Rieslings are made here too; these are dessert wines left longer on the vine for increased sweetness. (Note: “Dry” is an unregulated term, so you’ll find wide variation even among those that are so labeled.)
4. Variety: This is the grape variety; the label might say “Johannisberg Riesling” or “White Riesling”—same thing.
5. Region: Some Finger Lakes producers will be more specific and list Seneca Lake, the region within the Finger Lakes region known for Riesling.
6. Alcohol level: This will indicate alcohol level, but can also serve as an indicator of dryness. (See note)

NOTE: Some labels in the U.S., Australia, Italy and other places do not indicate a style—that is, the all-important issue of sweet vs. dry. It’s worth reading the wine’s back label to see if there is any information there regarding style, but if not, check the wine’s alcohol content, either on the front or back label. In very general terms, the higher the number, the drier the wine. Wines that only have 10% alcohol will undoubtedly contain a fair bit of unfermented sugar; wines that are above 12% are likely to be dry—or at least close to it. If you want bone dry, you’ll need to find a bottle that is at least 13% alcohol.

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Published on November 12, 2007
Topics: LabelsRiesling