Understanding German Wines

Understanding German Wine

I love German wines!  I love German Rieslings, Silvaners, Gewürtraminers and Spätburgunders, to name a few. For years I was intimidated by German wines because the classification system was so ridiculously hard to understand.  When looking for a dry Riesling, I often got home with a something that was sweeter than expected.  A German wine label can be really confusing, with terms like Trocken, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Gutswein, Ortswein, Erste Lage and Grosse Lage adding complexity for the average wine customer.  While I learned this complicated system of wine classification from my wine studies, it wasn't until I visited Germany recently that I fully understood that these terms are intended to convey the quality and character of the finest German wines.

There are three things to look for while gazing at a German wine label:

1. Natural Ripe Sweetness.  When grapes are left on the vine to ripen longer, they develop more sugar and sweeter wines can be produced.  These terms usually apply to white wines as most red wines (Fruhburgunder and Spätburgunder) are dry or Trocken.

2.  Alcohol Levels.  If the level of sweetness is still too hard to understand, the level of alcohol can be an easy substitute for sweetness. The sweeter the wine, the lower the alcohol.

  • Dry wines typically are between 12-13.5% ABV
  • Off-Dry wines typically are from  10.5-11.5% ABV
  • Sweet wines typically are between 6-10% ABV

3. Vineyard Quality.  For the 2012 vintage, Germany introduced a VDP classification system to indicate the quality of the vineyards from which the wine comes.  Wines that come from VDP classified vineyards have the VDP symbol on the capsule, which is considered 'the seal of quality'.  The VDP classification has four tiers to indicate vineyard quality: 

If its still too complicated, my best advice to you is to just plunge in and give a Trocken Riesling a try.  Life's too short to miss out on some of the best wines in the world!