German wines appear to be a victim of their own regulatory restraints, which present some significant marketing hurdles to clearly communicate with consumers. Between German wine label protocol to unfamiliar German wine terms like Trocken (“dry”) or feinherb (“medium dry”), German wines have their work cut out for them in an international export market, demanding that consumers become savvy with respect to labels, terminology, producers and regions, but with a promise of rich rewarding Riesling for those willing to go the distance. Thankfully, the International Riesling Foundation has designed a Riesling label “short-cut,” an ingenious communication tool to help consumers determine what to expect from a bottle of Riesling (a graph that ranges from bone dry to sweet) before purchasing. Though not all Riesling producers are taking advantage of the free label addition, over 2 million bottles will wear the label for their Riesling fans this year.
German Wine Terms – What You Need to Know
Consumers and connoisseurs alike need to be armed with a few key pieces of information when it comes to interpreting German wines. Grape varieties, ripeness levels, style (dry/sweet) and quality levels are all worth considering when buying German wine.
1. Grape Varieties: While Riesling has dibs on being the most widely grown grape in Germany, it shares the spotlight with several other white wine varietals, namely Muller-Thurgau, Silvaner, followed up by Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Kerner. Red wine grapes grown, though not nearly to the extent of whites include Pinot Noir, Dornfelder, Trollinger and Lemberger. If a bottle says “Riesling” on the label, you can bet that it maintains at least 85% Riesling within.
2. Riesling Ripeness Levels: How ripe the grapes are at harvest will determine several other aspects of the Riesling's fate – mainly the wine’s level of quality and thereby the price as well as an early indicator of style in some instances. The six categories (Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein) of Riesling ripeness levels are listed in order from least ripe to most ripe:
- Kabinett – These are typically lighter-bodied, medium-dry wines, made from a grape that has been harvested at the peak of the season.
Mosel Producers to Try: Schmitges, Markus Molitor, J.J. Prum, Dr. Loosen, S.A. Prum, Werner, Ratzenberger (Mittelrhein), Fritz Haag, Selbach-Oster and Heymann-Lowenstein
Kabinett Price Range: $15-25
- Spatlese – Literally meaning “late picked” or “late harvest,” the extra time in the sun allows the Spatlese ripeness level to bring in a wine that is typically fuller in body than the Kabinett and increases the intensity of both the aromas and the flavors.
Mosel Producers to Try: Fritz Haag, Markus Molitor, J.J. Prum, Schmitges, Dr. Loosen and Selbach-Oster.
Rheingau Producers to Try: Schloss Vollrads, Werner
Spatlese Price Range: $ 25-40
Auslese - Literally the term “Auslese” means “out picked” designating ripe grapes picked out from a specific cluster of late harvested berries. This fuller-bodied Riesling can be crafted into either a dry or a sweet version. This is the first Riesling range that may exhibit true dessert wine status.
Mosel Producers to Try: Fritz Haag, J.J. Prum, Markus Molitor, Selbach-Oster, and Schmitges.
Auslese Price Range: $30-50+
Beerenauslese (BA for short) – A rare treat, this Riesling is made into the luxurious dessert wines that are sought out for their compatibility with a myriad of dessert options. They are only made every few years when the vintage conditions are just right, adding to the cost (and taste) considerably.
Mosel Producers to Try: Markus Molitor, Dr. Loosen.
Beerenauslese Price Range: $40-100+
Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA for short) – Translated as “dry berry select picking” designates a late harvest, Botrytis picking, where the berries have started to shrivel on the vine, concentrating the sugars). These Trockenbeerenauslese wines are the ultra concentrated, nectar like dessert wines that can claim quite a price.
Eiswein - Literally “ice wine,” these grapes are picked and pressed while frozen, resulting in an exquisite, highly concentrated dessert wine experience. Weingut Werner, Ratzenberger and Markus Molitor all put out Eisweins worth trying.
3. Riesling Style: When we are discussing Riesling’s “Style” we are referring largely to its level of sweetness, ranging from bone dry to quite sweet. Not surprisingly there are some terms to know for determining what style of Riesling resides in the bottle.
- Trocken - Dry
- Halbtrocken – Half-dry, “off-dry” or medium-dry
(also the term “feinherb” can be found on some bottles of German Riesling, this term also means “medium-dry”).
Keep in mind that sweeter Rieslings can be made in either Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese or Beernauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) styles, it just depends on the balance between the acidity, sugar, pH and alcohol.
German Wine Quality Levels:
In an effort to try to simplify things all European wines fall under one of two classifications: table wine or quality wine. “Pradikatswein” is the specific term you’ll see on German wine bottles to indicate that it is considered “quality” and not table wine (tafelwein). Only a very small percentage of Germany’s wine is made into table wine, what you see in the export market should be deemed “quality wine.” However, Germany does take the quality standards up another notch with VDP designated wines. The VDP is a premium wine association consisting of 200 German estate members. They create and hold to extremely stringent protocols for grape-growing and winemaking. To complicate matters just another hair, the Mosel vintner's association has designated a new term 'Grosses Gewächs' to indicate a sort of "super premium" or "super quality" status to certain Mosel wines. All this to say there are a lot of terms, designations, words and protocols surrounding German Riesling, but if you take the time to wade through it - the Riesling rewards are great. If all of the designations make your head spin, simply check out our Top Riesling Recommendations, which are updated regularly and let us do the work for you.