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Understanding Germany’s Wine Laws and Styles

Germany’s wine classification system is not based on the French AOC system, as those of most European countries are. German wines (like most European wines) are in fact named after the places they come from — in the best wines, usually a combination of a village name and a vineyard name, such as Piesporter (town) Goldtröpfchen (vineyard). Unlike most European wines, however, the grape name is also usually part of the wine name.

German wine classifications

The finest German wines have yet another element in their name — a Prädikat, which is an indication of the ripeness of the grapes at harvest (as in Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Spätlese). Wines with a Prädikat hold the highest rank in the German wine system.

Germany’s system of assigning the highest rank to the ripest grapes is completely different from the concept behind most other European systems, which is to bestow the highest status on the best vineyards or districts. Germany’s system underscores the country’s grape-growing priority: Ripeness — never guaranteed in a cool climate — is the highest goal.

German wine law divides wines with a Prädikat into six levels. From the least ripe to the ripest, they are:

  • Kabinett

  • Spätlese

  • Auslese

  • Beerenauslese, abbreviated as BA

  • Eiswein

  • Trockenbeerenauslese, abbreviated as TBA

Wines whose (grape) ripeness earns them a Prädikat are categorized as QmP wines. They are QWPSR wines in the eyes of the EU (European Union). When the ripeness of the grapes in a particular vineyard is not sufficient to earn the wine a Prädikat name, the wine can qualify as a “quality wine” in Germany’s second QWPSR tier, called QbA. Often just the term Qualitätswein appears on labels of QbA wines, and the name of the region will always appear.

Dry, half-dry, or gentle

The common perception of German wines is that they are all sweet. Yet many German wines taste dry, or fairly dry. You can find German wines at just about any sweetness or dryness level you like.

Most inexpensive German wines, such as Liebfraumilch, are light-bodied, fruity wines with pleasant sweetness — wines that are easy to enjoy without food. The German term for this style of wine is lieblich, which translates as “gentle.” The very driest German wines are called trocken (dry). Wines that are sweeter than trocken but dryer than lieblich are called halbtrocken (half-dry). The words trocken and halbtrocken sometimes appear on the label, but not always.

You can make a good stab at determining how sweet a German wine is by reading the alcohol level on the label. If the alcohol is low — about nine percent, or less — the wine probably contains grape sugar that didn’t ferment into alcohol and is therefore sweet. Higher alcohol levels suggest that the grapes fermented completely, to dryness.

What’s noble about noble rot?

Wine connoisseurs all over the world recognize Germany’s sweet, dessert-style wines as among the greatest wines on the face of the earth. Most of these legendary wines owe their sweetness to a magical fungus known as botrytis cinerea, commonly called noble rot.

Noble rot infects ripe grapes in late autumn if a certain combination of humidity and sun is present. This fungus dehydrates the berries and concentrates their sugar and their flavors. The wine from these infected berries is sweet, amazingly rich, and complex beyond description. It can also be expensive: $100 a bottle or more.

Another way that nature can contribute sweetness to German wines is by freezing the grapes on the vine in early winter. When the frozen grapes are harvested and pressed, most of the water in the berries separates out as ice. The sweet, concentrated juice that’s left to ferment makes a luscious sweet Prädikat-level wine called Eiswein (literally, ice wine).

Both botrytised wines and Eisweins are referred to as late-harvest wines, not only in Germany but all over the world, because the special character of these wines comes from conditions that normally occur only when the grapes are left on the vine beyond the usual point of harvest.

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