Understanding German Wines
Alright, let’s do this. Many people find talking about Italian wines difficult as they have hundreds of regions and grapes to talk about. I often that German wines are difficult, not because there are masses of grapes or regions to learn about. Quite the contrary, the quality and single-vineyard classifications are meticulously thought out and highly complex as a by-product. Of course, all of this is a great thing for the wines and consumers as it leads to higher quality wines often at very decent price points (compared to some other famous wine regions…).
There are two classifications that you need to know about: VDP and the Pradikat system.
The former is a vineyard classification and the latter a wine classification.
Stay with us – things are about to get a whole lot more complicated.
VDP aka Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter – we will stick to VDP! This is formally an organisation of about 200 growers who came together in 1910 for the sole purpose: to promote better wines and high quality vineyard practices. In fact, if you don’t subscribe to their laws you are kicked out of the organization!
What do members of the VDP need?
They need to have:
-Own their vineyards & have their own winemaking facility/equipment/cellar
-Prune to agreed upon yields
-Pick grapes that meet the high must (sugar) weights
-Use ‘traditional’ grape varietals (Riesling NOT Sauvignon Blanc, for example)
-Practise sustainable viticulture and use traditional winemaking techniques
Then we come to the VDP classification of the vineyards (you are doing a great job thus far – stick in there!)
Starting from the bottom we have: Gutswein, Ortswein, Erste Lage, and Grosse Lage sites.
Gutswein sites are the ‘entry level’ wines from member’s vineyards.
Ortswein indicate sites that are seen (by the members) as a particular village’s best vineyards. Wines made under the Ortswein classification must be planted with a grape traditional to the region in question.
Erste Lage indicate the first class vineyards. These are all said to have unique characteristics – something the French would cite as ‘terroir’. Like Grand Cru sites in Burgundy, over many years these sites have stood the test of the time.
Grosse Lage indicate the best of the best. Essentially certain parcels of land within an Erste Lage site that are said to be the best microclimates. Like an Erste Lage, the grapes must be not just traditional to the respective region but also a grape varietal voted on as being the best in said site.
A couple more things to add:
Now to make things there are Erste Gewachs and the highly lauded Grosses Gewachs (GG) wines. A Grosses Gewachs wine is one that is dry and must be from a Groose Lage vineyard site, the Erste Gewachs is the same as a GG but are from Grosse Lage sites in the Rheingau. Got that? In short GG = top quality dry wine made from the best sites in Germany (a Grosse Lage) made in all regions that the VDP members belong to. And, an Erste Gewachs is a GG wine made solely in the Rheingau.
Then we come to pciking of the grapes. High quality wines across the wines are usually hand-picked – something that adds costs to the manufacturing of it all but also brings about higher scrutiny to grape selection thus better wines. The grapes from either Erste Lage or Grosse Lage sites must be hand-picked! Orstwein and Gutswein vineyard’s grapes don’t have to be but are heavily suggested they should be…
Let’s move on to the Pradikat system. It’s full name is the Pradikatswein system.
This is all to do with the wines themselves and refer purely to sugar weights – or in layman’s terms: percentage of sugar is in the grapes. The longer the hang time on the vine or the warmer the region, the more sugar in the grapes. Capiche?
Let’s go up the scale again: Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), and finally Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA).
Kabinett wines are those that have used grapes that are above average in ripeness thus higher in sugar level. The resulting wines tend to be off-dry.
Spatlese wines are those that have used ‘late harvest’ grapes. These wines will be between off-dry and medium dry in sweetness on the palate & will have more complex flavours.
Auslese wines are those that have used grapes that have got a mix of late-harvest characteristics and some noble rot (Botrytis) influence to them. These wines will be medium-sweet and have more dried/candied fruit flavours.
Beerenauslese wines are those that have used exclusively noble rot (botrytis) influenced grapes. The hand-pickers will pick bunches that have got roughly 70-80% noble rot influence. These wines will be sweet and have a more complex aromatic spectrum to them still with more dried/candied fruit flavours.
Trockenbeerenauslese wines are the sweetest of the lot and will use exclusively noble rot (botrytis) influenced grapes. The pickers will go through the vineyard multiple times to ensure that they are picking individual berries that have been raisined due to noble rot. These wines will be lusciously sweet and have the most complex aromatic spectrum with plenty of tropical and candied fruit flavours.
One last thing; as we know the pradikat system relates to sugar ripeness of the grapes in question. We get sweeter wines the further we go up the spectrum as those grapes have more sugar in them thus more residual sweetness in the wines they make.
So, one last category of wines that can be made: trocken wines. Trocken means a dry wine and halbtrocken means half-dry (or off-dry) wine. Usually these are the only terms you will see on a German wine label but the pradikatswein allows for us to make things like Spatlese Trocken or and Auslese Trocken which are wines that have all that extra ripeness, complexity, and sugar levels in the grapes but have been fermented till dry. These make wines that are higher in alcohol, often up to 14% - high for a Riesling, but are also fuller in body and much more complex.
Note: Icewines (icewein) is another category of wine which equate to the sweetness level of a Beerenauslese wine, usually.