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German Wine 101

A Short History Of German Wine

Wine-Making German Monasteries

On the steep slate and shale banks along the Mosel, the pristine, castle-crowned vineyards of the Rheingau and the rolling hills of Rheinhessen, Germany produces some of the world’s most underrated wines.

Germany has a history of winemaking that dates back to 100 B.C. when ancient Romans, who conquered the region, began producing wines on local soil. It was the Romans, who already recognized the potential of sites like the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen and who cultivated grapes there. Researchers have found a wine press in Piesport that dates back to 400 A.D., making it the largest Roman wine press ever found north of the Alps.

During the Middle Ages, monks upheld the tradition of making wine and cultivated the vineyards that are famous today. Today, it is almost forgotten, but Germany and France were once revered as the two great wine producing countries in the world and German wines fetched top prices at auction.

In 1845, Queen Victoria of England visited the Rheingau, where she discovered her love for German Riesling and coined the term “Hock”, which is synonymous with German Riesling in Britain today, but originally referred to Riesling from the Rhine community of Hochheim.

Germany’s wine production lost its luster in the 1960s and 70s, when large quantities of sweet blended wines were created for export, among them the infamous Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun. While Germany continued to make and drink high quality wines (most Germans have never heard of either brand), sweet non-descript wines became synonymous with German wines internationally. Although still hard to find in your local wine shop, an increasing number of high quality German wines are now finding their way across the Atlantic, recapturing the reputation they once possessed internationally.

Why Is German Wine Different?

Wine Harvest

While today many great wines are found around the globe, it is the unique terroir and traditional production methods, which allow Germany to produce exceptional quality wines that are still some of the finest in the world.

A remarkable characteristic of German viticulture is the care and attention to detail that goes into the production of its wines. German vintners are extremely adept at blending centuries-old experience with the latest in modern viticulture and are exacting in their methods: They harvest the grapes for their best wines by hand, use “green” or sustainable production techniques, age their whites in stainless steel tanks and the reds in traditional aged oak barrels.

What’s even more outstanding is the fact that wine of such quality is produced in one of the coldest and northernmost growing regions in the world. Because of the harsher climate, Germany’s vineyards are usually found on slopes facing southward to assure the longest exposure to the sun. They are also often found in river valleys, such as the Rhine and Mosel, because of the water’s ability to moderate night temperatures and reflect the warmth of the sun.

The naturally high acidity, outstanding fruit and transparent quality of German Riesling are its trademark around the world. Its long finish, complex flavors and crisp zest are the benchmarks that make German Riesling so unique and ideal for pairing with food.

View our German Wine & Food Pairing Chart

German Quality Measures

Probably the most unique characteristic of German wine is its use of a hierarchy measuring quality based on the grape’s natural sugar level at harvest (which is entirely different from the sugar level of the finished wine). The same grape varietal can produce anything from bone dry to sweet dessert wines and is classified into two major quality categories: QbA and QmP. A table wine category does exist at the bottom of the scale (Tafelwein or Landwein), but its total production (0.3 million hl in 2005, according to the Deutsches Weininstitut) is dwarfed by the two larger quality categories and almost never exported to the United States.

  1. Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA)

    QbA wine must come from one of Germany’s thirteen official growing regions. The grapes are usually not at a very high level of ripeness and chaptalization is allowed, which means sugar may be added to the unfermented grapes to increase the final alcohol level (but not necessarily to increase sweetness). This is a very common quality level and with a production of 5.9 million hl in 2005 (Deutsches Weininstitut), it is the most widely available German wine quality level.

    Browse QbAs

  2. Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) / Prädikatswein

    Translated as “quality wine with distinction,” QmP wines mark the pinnacle of German wine making. A QmP wine must be approved by German wine authorities and does not allow any additives or chaptalization. Starting with the 2007 vintage, the QmP designation has been simplified to the term “Prädikatswein” and you will find this term on German wine labels going forward. The scale for QmP wines is based on six ascending degrees of ripeness. They start with Kabinett, then Spätlese, Auslese, and finally the dessert wines: Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. In 2005, 2.8 million hl (Deutsches Weininstitut) of QmP wines were produced.

    At Truly Fine Wine, we deal almost exclusively with QmP wines. QmP wines produced by top estates are the best the German wine experience has to offer. Contrary to common belief, ripeness does not define the quality of the wine or the sweetness of the wine. It merely describes when the wine was picked during the harvest cycle.

    For example, Kabinetts are picked during the first harvest, producing a lighter-bodied wine, but the vintner will leave some grapes on the vine for the subsequent harvest cycles.

    The second harvest is the Spätlese harvest and while its grapes will have higher sugar content, the vintner has the choice to either let all the sugar ferment to produce a dry (trocken) Spätlese or to leave some of the sugar in the wine, producing a sweeter style wine.

    German wine labels usually indicate if a wine’s style is dry or semi-dry. For a dry wine, look for the word Trocken on the label and for an off dry or semi-dry wine look for the words Halbtrocken or Feinherb. To simplify things, all wines carried by Truly Fine Wine list the style of the wine on the back label, both in English and German.

    Kabinett:

    kabinett

    Kabinett wines are picked during the normal harvest time and are usually light to medium bodied, well-balanced in acidity and dry to semi-dry in style, although sweet Kabinetts are made as well. The term Kabinett is derived from the Cabinet, a side room, built in the cellar of the Eberbach monastery in 1245, in which the best wines were stored. From there, it took on the meaning of a wine of high or reserve quality. Kabinetts are more refined than QbA wines and are great food pairing wines. They are outstanding with lighter cuisine or simply for casual drinking. Kabinetts are commonly consumed young, but can stored for 2-5 years, depending on quality.

    Browse Kabinetts

    Spätlese:

    Riesling Spatlese

    Literally translated as “late harvest,” Spätlese is picked about two weeks later. The grapes are now fully ripened and have a greater body, longer finish and more intensity of fruit than their younger siblings, the Kabinetts. Spätlese can be dry, semi-dry or sweet in style and maintains an amazing balance of sweetness and acidity. We love Spätlese as a food-pairing wine, because of its greater complexity, tension between different aromas and its long finish. Spätlese pairs extraordinarily well with bigger seafood dishes, such as salmon, lobster or crab, and spicy dishes, including Thai and Mexican cuisine. A Spätlese can be aged for 3-10 years.

    Browse Spätlese

    Auslese:

    Riesling Auslese

    Translated as “select harvest,” Auslese is made from very ripe grapes, which come from individually selected bunches that are harvested by hand. Auslese is typically done in a sweet style and marks the beginning of the dessert wine category, although some Auslese still pairs very well with rich dishes such as foie gras and spicy foods. The aroma of the wine is now more reminiscent of tropical fruit, honey and caramel. The acidity creates tension and a good Auslese will never be sugary sweet. Rather, its complex flavors unfold slowly, continuously exposing new facets of taste and revealing a wine of singular character. An Auslese can be aged for 5-25 years and will greatly increase in complexity as it matures.

    Browse Auslese

    Beerenauslese:

    Hand-Sorting Grapes

    Translated as “berry select harvest,” Beerenauslese (BA) is rare and expensive, because individual grapes (!) are selected and harvested by hand. Similar to Sauternes, BAs have typically been exposed to botrytis cinerea (noble rot), but tend to be lower in alcohol with greater acidity. BAs are exceptional, highly sought after dessert wines, whose great aging potential and richness of honey, caramel and tropical fruits make them sought after collector wines! Wines with the ripeness of a BA and higher are only produced in good years, when the weather remains dry. A Beerenauslese can age for 10-35 years on average and up to 50 years for exceptional wines.

    Browse BAs

    Trockenbeerenauslese:

    TBA Grapes

    Translated as “dried berry select harvest,” Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) is the richest of the German dessert wines. In the best years, the grapes shrivel up like raisins and are overtaken with botrytis. Because the grapes contain little water so late in the year, it can take a single individual an entire day to pick enough grapes to make one bottle. As a result, they are very expensive. However, TBAs display an overwhelming intensity and complexity of flavors. They have the potential to age for up to 80 years and only get better with age. They are the König (King) of German dessert wines!

    Browse TBAs

    Eiswein:

    Ice Wine Grapes

    Translated as “Ice Wine,” a traditional ice wine only happens in rare years when the first frost, usually in December, will freeze the small portion of grapes that the vintner has left on the vine. Ice wine grapes have the minimum sugar level of a Beerenauslese, but must be unaffected by botrytis.

    Ice wine is always a gamble for vintners, because they have to decide to leave grapes on the vine long after the regular harvest is finished.

    They risk that the winter may not become cold enough for the harvest of an ice wine, which can only happen after several days of consistent, below freezing temperatures. If the temperature doesn't turn cold enough or does not stay consistently below freezing, the entire harvest is lost. However, in the rare years when a harvest occurs, the grapes are harvested by hand (wearing gloves, so the grapes won’t defrost) very early in the morning to avoid thawing temperatures. The grapes are pressed frozen, which means that very little water gets into the press, extracting a small quantity of highly concentrated juice. The resulting elixir creates a vibrant bond between sweetness and acidity that holds its own against the equally charismatic BAs and TBAs.

    Other countries produce Ice Wine, but often by freezing the grapes in a commercial facility. For the German purist, this is heresy. The German Eiswein, sits alongside the Trockenbeerenauslese as the Königin (Queen) of the German dessert wines and a good ice wine can age for up to 100 years.

    Browse Ice Wine

Sekt Or Sparkling Wine

Sekt - Sparkling Wine

While Germany is generally perceived as a country of beer drinkers, even less known than Germany’s penchant for wine is its love affair with Sekt (sparkling wine). Germany has the highest per capita consumption of sparkling wine in the world and sparkling wine is drank at every occasion and also commonly served as an aperitif.

While most of Sekt is produced by large sparkling wine houses and caters to the mass market, there are many vintners that produce small quantities of racy Sekt, made according to the traditional champagne method. Most commonly, the grape used is Riesling, but some vintners have been very successful with Chardonnay and Rosé style sparklers made from Pinot Noir.

German Sekt made according to the champagne method undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle and hand riddled over the course of 18-24 months. It is vivacious, clean and more aromatic than its cousins from the Champagne region of France. The most common styles are Extra Brut (very dry), Brut (dry) and Trocken (off dry), but sweeter styles are made as well (demi-sec or doux). Needless to say, these high quality sparkling wines are very hard to find outside of Germany.

Browse Sekt

Spätburgunder / Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir Grapes

Another noteworthy German varietal, Spätburgunder, the German word for Pinot Noir, has drawn increasing attention in recent years.

Little of its potential is known outside Germany, but with its cool nights and warm summer days, Germany has a perfect microclimate for the finicky Pinot grape.

Over the last 25 years, the quality of German Pinot Noir has increased significantly, allowing some German Pinot Noir to compete with top Pinots from around the world. Many German Pinots are aged for some time in traditional barrique barrels (small French oak barrels) and have a velvety, silky smooth texture. And in comparison to Pinots from other regions, German Pinot Noirs are true bargains…

Browse Pinot Noir