A Short History of German Wine
On the steep slate and shale banks along the Mosel, the pristine, castle-crowned vineyards of the Rheingau or the rolling hills of Rheinhessen, Germany produces some of the world’s best, yet 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 (little droplets of gold) and who cultivated grapes there. Researchers found a wine press at the base of Piesport that dates back to 400 A.D., which is 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 to this day. Historical properties like the Cistercian Monastery Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau have a viticultural history dating back to about 1200 AD.
Although almost forgotten today, Germany and France were once revered as the two greatest wine producing countries in the world. German wines fetched top prices at auction for their noble sweet (edelsüß) wines, alongside the classified growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy. These wines were treasured and collected by nobility, hence the derivation of the word noble sweet.
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. It originally referred to Riesling from the Rhine community of Hochheim.
Germany’s wine reputation 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 flowing across the Atlantic, recapturing the reputation they once possessed internationally.
Today, focus is on drier (or trocken) styles of wine, which make up nearly 70% of production. Germany also produces some extraordinary Sekt (sparkling wine). Correspondingly, Germans are the world’s largest consumers of sparkling wine per capita and it is customary to have a glass of bubbly any day of the week, no special occasion needed.
Most importantly, the Germans are in love with the great Pinot varietals of the world, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. It is a little known fact, but Germany is the world’s 3rd largest producer of Pinot Noir and over the last 40 years has adapted the same high quality production methods that are also found in Burgundy, France. Today, Germany is being recognized as the new frontier for exceptional Pinot Noir. Many German Pinots can rival Burgundy, but sans the price tag!
Terroir and Wine Production in Germany
While many great wines are found around the globe, it is the unique terroir (microclimate, geography and geology of a small area) and traditional ecological production methods, which allow Germany to produce exceptional quality wines that are still some of the finest and affordable in the world.
Residing about as far north as grapes can be cultivated (49-51˚ N), Germany provides the ideal landscape for producing finicky but prized noble grape varietals, such as Riesling and Pinot Noir. There is no other country in the world where you can spend $20-30 on a bottle that can easily be aged for 20+ years.
Germany has one of the longest ripening windows for grapes in the world, which allows nature to impart a perfect sugar and acid ratio, providing for optimum balance and harmony, along with age worthiness. German Riesling grapes contain especially high levels of natural acidity and sugar, which act as a natural preservative and allow the wines to age gracefully, rewarding those who are patient to wait.
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 or small French barriques.
What is 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 wines are its trademark around the world. Its long finish, complex flavors and crisp zest are the benchmarks that make German wines so unique and ideal for pairing with food.
The 1971 Classification and the Prädikatswein System (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, etc.)
The Rationale Behind the 1971 Classification
Probably the most unique characteristic of traditional German wines was the use of a hierarchy measuring quality based on the grape’s natural sugar level at harvest, also known as Oechsle in Germany or Brix in America. This is entirely different from the sugar level of the finished wine, known as Residual Sugar or RS, the sugar left over after fermentation.
In essence, the sugar level in the grape at harvest is a determining factor for two things: Alcohol level OR sweetness of the wine. During fermentation, sugar converts into alcohol and the winemaker can choose to make a drier, higher alcohol wine or a sweeter, lower alcohol wine from the same grape varietal. To make a sweeter wine, fermentation is stopped sooner, thereby leaving more residual sugar behind.
This system developed in Germany due to the relatively cool climate for growing grapes, making the sugar level of the grape at harvest a more important indicator of quality in the finished product.
German wine labels usually indicate, if a wine’s style is dry or semi-dry. 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.
However, there is an even better way to know if you are looking at a bottle of dry or sweet wine. We always teach our customers to look at the alcohol level on a bottle of wine. Something that is 7-9% alc. will be fairly sweet (Mild or Süß in German), in the 9-11% range you are looking at semi-dry (Halbtrocken or Feinherb in German), push north of 12% and you are typically in the dry range (Trocken in German).
This corresponds to residual sugar levels, which can be 45+ g/l in a sweet wine, 18-45 g/l in a semi-sweet wine, 9-18 g/l in a semi-dry wine and less than 9 g/l in a dry wine. More alcohol equals less residual sugar. Rather than getting hung up on the terminology on the label, just look at the alcohol level!
The Categories of the 1971 Classification
The traditional 1971 classification is broken down into two major quality categories: Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein.
Qualitätswein must come from one of Germany’s thirteen official growing regions (Anbaugebiete). 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 represents what is typically purchased at a local grocery store and drank in most households.
It is important to know that higher end wines (Grosse Lage / Grand Cru and Erste Lage / Premier Cru among others) are also labeled as Qualitätswein, as long as they are dry in style. These wines are classified according to the VDP Classification (see below) and not according to the 1971 Classification.
Translated as “quality wine with distinction,” Prädikatswein denotes time of harvest as the most important differentiator between the various different quality levels. Prädikatswein must be approved by German wine authorities and does not allow any additives or chaptalization. The scale for Prädikatswein is based on six ascending degrees of ripeness or sugar level of the grapes at harvest: Kabinett, then Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein (the latter 3-4 are considered dessert wines).
At Truly Fine Wine, we deal almost exclusively with Prädikatswein and, moreover, the new VDP system that is modeled after Burgundy and explained in detail below. But we will focus on Prädikatswein wines and the traditional system for now.
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.
The six classifications within the Prädikatswein category all denote at which time the grapes were harvested and are as follows:
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. Originally, 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 wines that are part of the Qualitätswein category 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.
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 weight and complexity, tension between different aromas and 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 5-25 years.
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 10-30 years and will greatly increase in complexity as it matures.
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.
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!
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.
The Charta Association Delineates a Path into the Future
The Rheingau Charta (or Charter) Association was, and still is, a small growers association founded in 1983 by top quality minded producers from the Rheingau. The Rheingau is one of the most important and historic growing regions in Germany and especially known for its most prized grape, Riesling. The Charta methodology set the stage for what became the VDP’s current Cru based classification, which was rolled out in 2012 and modeled very much after the system found in Burgundy (see below).
Charta was developed because the classic Prädikat system (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese…) of the 1971 Classification did not address vineyard site to denote quality. Rather, it was a system that focused on sugar in the grape at harvest (Oechsle) as a means to denote quality. Charta members wanted to make high quality wines from top producing vineyard sites. To qualify, the wines were required to be from exceptional sites, limited yields, built out harmoniously dry, bottled and aged for about a year before release, double blind tasted by a panel of members and presented in heavyweight double roman arched bottle.
Charta later set the stage for what has transformed the classification system used by Germany’s highest quality wine estates (the VDP). They now put all the emphasis on the designate of “the place of origin,” or terroir (the French term describing the specific microclimate, geology and geography of a place). The VDP now distinguishes quality based on regional wines, village-specific wines, Premier Cru vineyards and Grand Cru vineyards, because the place of origin makes great wines great, not their sugar level at harvest…
The 2012 VDP Classification
History of the VDP Classification
Starting with the 2012 vintage, the organization of Germany’s highest quality wine estates (VDP) decided to change the way they classified the quality of their wines. The VDP producers strive to separate themselves from the confusing and inefficient 1971 German wine law. The hope is to reintroduce consumers to the best specific sites for growing wines within each major growing region.
Again, the 1971 wine law codified quality based solely on the ripeness of the grapes at the time of harvest –the amount of sugar in the grapes is measured in a scale called Oechsle. It appears on the label in the form of an ascending order of six Prädikats or distinctions, which we discussed earlier (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein).
These additions to labels were intended to give consumers a scale of sweetness in the wines. Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese are considered regular wines that still have some residual sugar (RS), unless trocken (dry) or halbtrocken / feinherb (semi-dry) are on the label. On the contrary, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein are noble sweet dessert wines. This way of classifying wine does not take into account what most growers around the world consider the 3 most important rules of quality: location, Location, LOCATION!
The top quality producers sought to return to the idea of classifying the quality of wines based upon the quality and reputation of site-specific dry wines. In 1984 Bernhard Breuer of Weingut Georg Breuer led the charge and founded the Charta Association with a group of like-minded growers in the Rheingau region. The Charta Association then expanded to include dry wines from the best Rheingau single-vineyard sites, which were labeled as Erstes Gewächs (First Growths). The Association’s goal was to have the VDP pick up on this movement and expand it to include the 12 other major wine growing regions.
Slowly some other regions picked this up. The Mosel region began labeling the wines from their best sites as Erste Lage (First Site). Shortly after that the VDP extended this philosophy to the rest of their members in the remaining regions and the idea of Grosses Gewächs (Great Growths) was put in place. However, some producers still wanted to make Grosses Gewächs wines that still had a Prädikat on the label and make wines that did not have to be dry, which was the original vision of Breuer and the Charta Association.
The Categories of the 2012 VDP Classification
The differences in terminology and style between regions led to great confusion among consumers and sometimes the growers themselves! This is what ultimately led the VDP to come up with a new, single system of classifying the regions, villages, and single vineyards that could be used across all the 13 major regions.
Here’s what they did:
The VDP created 4 different quality categories that are loosely modeled after how the famed Burgundy region of France is organized:
Gutswein (Regional wine)
• e.g. – Rheingau
• Burgundy equivalent: Wine from anywhere in Burgundy
• e.g. – Bourgogne AOP
Gutswein must be grown in a single major region of Germany. The grapes can come from vineyards located anywhere within the region on the label (eg: Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz, etc.). The wines can be made from any grape variety as long as it comprises at least 85% of the grapes used for the bottling. Additionally, growers are limited to a maximum of 75 hectoliters of wine they are allowed to produce from each hectare of vineyard used for the wine. Gutswein is intended to show the consumer what the overall style of wine the region produces as a whole.
Ortswein (Village wine)
• e.g. – Hattenheim (within the Rheingau)
• Burgundy equivalent: Wine from a specific village in Burgundy
• e.g. – Vosne Romanée AOP
Ortswein must be grown in the vineyards within the delineated borders of a specifically named village (known as Gemeinde) within a major growing region. The wines can be made from any grape variety as long as it comprises at least 85% of the grapes used for the bottling. Additionally, growers are limited to a maximum of 60 hectoliters of wine they are allowed to produce from each hectare of vineyard used for the wine. Orstwein is intended to show the consumer what style of wine each individually specific village within a region can produce.
Erste Lage (First or Premier Growth wines)
• e.g. – Schützenhaus vineyard (located in the village of Hattenheim, Rheingau)
• Burgundy equivalent: Wine from a highly regarded specific vineyard site within a village.
• e.g. – Vosne Romanée AOP – Le Suchots Premier Cru
Erste Lage wines come from specific vineyard sites within the named villages. These vineyards have long reputations for producing exciting wines of high quality above normal sites. They may have longer exposure to the sun, more desirable soils types, be better drained, or many other factors that allow them to produce wines of greater complexity, and higher demand than the average vineyard in the region. Additionally, growers are limited to a maximum of 50 hectoliters of wine they are allowed to produce from each hectare of these sites for use in a wine labeled as Erste Lage. Not to be confused with the former designation of Erste Lage used in Mosel, the term Erste Lage may now be used by any producer in the VDP who has access to the fruit from these sites.
Grosse Lage (Great or Grand Growth wines)
• e.g. – Wisselbrunnen (located in the village of Hattenheim, Rheingau)
• Burgundy equivalent: Wine from the highest quality regarded sites.
• e.g. – La Tâche Grand Cru AOP (located in the village of Vosne Romanée)
Grosse Lage wines come from specific vineyard sites within the named villages. These vineyards have long historical reputations, often going back centuries, for producing the highest quality wines that the regions have to offer. They are on the best sites with the longest sun exposure and the most desirable soils types, are the best drained, and many other factors that allow them to produce wines of greatest complexity, weight, and renown than any other vineyards in the region. Additionally, growers are limited to a maximum of 50 hectoliters of wine they are allowed to produce from each hectare of these sites for use in a wine labeled as Grosse Lage.
The VDP now uses the old Prädikat system only on labels for sweet wines, which can still carry the designation of Kabinett, Spätlese and so on. VDP classified wines may include a Prädikat, if they reach the required sugar level (Oechsle) at harvest for each Prädikat. The wines may also be labeled as Trocken or Halbtrocken, if there is less than 9 grams per liter (g/l) or 18 g/l in the wine, respectively.
These designations may be confusing in the short term to consumers who have been used to the older way spanning the past 40+ years, and in some cases longer. However, in the long term it should make it easier to recognize where and how the grapes were grown based upon these new designations on wine labels of VDP recognized producers. Even many non-VDP producers have voluntarily started to reorganize their wines according to the new VDP classification, because it is clearer and easier to understand than the old system.
Sekt or 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). Unbeknownst to most, Germany has the highest per capita consumption of sparkling wine in the world. Sparkling wine is drank at every occasion and also commonly served as an aperitif.
While most Sekt is produced by large sparkling wine houses and available for purchase in grocery stores, there are many vintners that produce small quantities of of 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 styles made from Pinot Noir.
As in Champagne, German Sekt made according to the traditional method undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle and is hand riddled over the course of 18-24 months (and sometimes longer). 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.
We are proud to represent Weingut Barth from Hattenheim in the Rheingau. The Barth estate is considered among the best traditional method Sekt producers in Germany and it is well worth sampling their lineup.
We also carry our own house line of everyday sparklings, called Über den Mond (Over the Moon). We have both a Riesling and Rosé Cuvee that are off-dry in style.
Overview of German Grape Varietals
When most people think of German wine, they think about Riesling. Riesling is thought to have come from the Rhine region of Germany, although its exact origins are somewhat murky. The grape is first mentioned in merchant documents from the 1400s and was widely planted in the late Middle Ages.
Riesling is a noble grape varietal that is ideally suited to the cooler conditions and long growing windows in Germany. It ripens late and will develop high levels of both acidity and sugar in the grape, when grown in a cooler climate. When grown in hotter wine growing regions, Riesling tends to ripen too quickly and will lack in acidity. This can result in wines that taste flabby or syrupy. German Rieslings are exposed to generally ideal growing conditions for the grape and the natural sweetness of the grape is balanced beautifully by its acidity.
While most Riesling that has been exported over the years to the United States has been sweet, the vast majority of what is bottled today in Germany is dry Riesling. Although we also sell traditional sweet Rieslings and noble sweet dessert wines, at Truly Fine Wine we have specifically focused to bring more of the contemporary dry Riesling styles to the US. We carry a vast selection of dry Riesling styles, ranging from entry level to Charta Riesling and Grosse Lage.
Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder)
Another noteworthy German varietal, Spätburgunder, the German word for Pinot Noir, has drawn increasing attention in recent years. It is for good reason, since the Germans have one of the best microclimates for this finicky grape and also are the world’s 3rd largest producer of Pinot Noir. Little of its potential is known outside Germany, but over the last three decades, Germany has become a new frontier for this most noble grape varietal.
Today, the quality of German Pinot Noir has increased significantly, allowing some German Pinot Noirs 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. In comparison to Pinots from other regions, German Pinot Noirs are true bargains…
We work with Weingut Gutzler and Weingut Siegrist, considered among the best red wine producers in Germany and two masterful craftsman with Pinot Noir. We also carry the Ingelheimer Sonnenhang Pinot Noir from Weingut Wasem. This estate has been in operation for over 300 years and their village is the first known planted to Pinot Noir in Germany. The original rootstock was actually brought there by Charlegmagne over 1000 years ago, a place of summer residence for him and fortification in Germany. Wasem, Gutzler and Siegrist all have substantial accolades for their Pinot Noir.
Pinot Gris & Pinot Blanc
Two other very popular and classic grape varietals grown in Germany are Grauburgunder (Gray Burgundy or Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (white Burgundy or Pinot Blanc). The latter shouldn’t be confused with White Burgundy from Burgundy in France, which is made from Chardonnay.
These grapes produce fragrant and bright whites that pair wonderfully with food. They are most commonly grown in the Baden, Pfalz and Rheinhessen wine growing regions. German Grauburgunder generally displays aromas of almond, pear, pineapple and citrus. Weissburgunder tends to show more delicate floral and apple notes.
Due to the German sounding name, Gewürztraminer is generally thought of as a grape varietal commonly planted in Germany. However, it is rather the opposite. Worldwide plantings of Gewürztraminer are rather small to begin with due to the low yields that the grape produces. The largest global producer of Gewürztraminer is France – almost all is from the Alsace region, which borders Germany’s Pfalz region. In Germany, it is the Pfalz with the most plantings of Gewürztraminer.
Like Riesling, Gewürztraminer is a grape varietal that it is very adaptable and can be made in a range of styles from dry to noble sweet dessert wines. It is a very aromatic grape, with a signature floral, fruit and spice nose. In Germany, many winemakers reserve Gewürztraminer for noble sweet dessert wines, because of the low yields the grape produces. However, dry and semi-dry styles can also be found.