You’ve tasted delicious dry German Riesling and want to repeat the experience. You look at the bottles and start scratching your head. Fear not—even pros think German labels are a nightmare. Luckily, great winemakers continue to make great Rieslings. Here’s how to find them.
Step 1 > Determine if it’s Dry
Does it say trocken on the bottle? The word literally means “dry.” But, even if the word doesn’t appear, the wine might still be dry. The trick: Check the listed alcohol percentage. If it’s above 11 percent, you’re good to go.
Step 2 > Pick Your Regional Style
While there are myriad exceptions, here are each region’s general flavor profile.
Mosel, Saar, Ruwer: Thrilling, with peach, mineral and sometimes floral notes as well as spine-tingling acidity.
Pfalz, Baden, Württemberg: Full bodied, with ripe, clean-cut fruit and a firm backbone of acidity.
Nahe, Mittelrhein, Franken: Crystalline and clean, with mineral and possible steely notes.
Rheingau: Statuesque, sleek and some-times austere.
Rheinhessen: Fresh fruit with stone, mineral and occasionally steely tones.
Step 3 > Check the Quality
German labels must list a quality level. But the archaic system is inherently flawed (in seemingly countless ways) so you can’t always rely on it. Think of it more as a loose guide.
There are four quality levels. The most common in the U.S. are the two top categories: Qualitätswein, or QbA; and the theoretically higher-quality, Prädikatswein, or QmP.
Members of the VDP, or Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, a group of wine estates, were so fed up with the confusing labelling laws that they created their own classification with four easy-to-understand categories, in ascending order:
Gutswein: estate wine, dry
Ortswein: village wine (from dry to sweet)
Erste Lage: first growth (from dry to sweet), from a single classified site
Grosse Lage: great growth/grand cru (from dry to sweet), from a single classified site. Dry wines made from a Grosse Lage can be labelled as Grosses Gewächs. If you are looking for a top-class dry wine, look out for the VDP logo and the phrase Grosses Gewächs. Generally, the VDP-logo itself signals superior quality at all levels.
Step 4 > Review the Ripeness
If QmP, the label will include a Prädikat, one of five designations indicating the grapes’ ripeness level at harvest and can—sometimes, but not always—help you dial in on a style you prefer.
The levels in play for a dry Riesling are, from least ripe to most: Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese.
Kabinett: Wondrously light, with weightless structure, big fruit, pronounced aromas and very restrained alcohol.
Spätlese: More textured, rounded and full-bodied than Kabinett.
Auslese: More body and substance, often muscular and textured, but never fat.