German wines are produced according to an imperfect scale based on the
ripeness of the grapes at harvest time. In general, riper grapes produce richer,
more complex wines. This system was put into place in 1971 because of
Germany’s cool, northern climate, where full ripeness was often difficult to
achieve. With global climate change, however, getting full ripeness is no longer
as difficult, and the distinctions between the ripeness levels can be less clear.
Another potential problem with this ripeness-based system is that it ignores the
historically proven superiority of certain grape varieties and vineyard sites, and
does nothing to address differences in quality among producers. Judging only
from the label, a Riesling Spätlese from a dedicated winemaker and a great
vineyard would seem to be of the same quality as a Spätlese from an inferior
grape variety, an industrial producer, and lousy vineyards. It’s important to
become familiar with the producers that offer consistent quality.
Each wine-producing region has it’s own unique terroir, which is loosely defined as the geographical factors that impact viticulture. Germany is defined by its steep slopes and cool climate. In many ways, it is the prototype for cold-weather wine production. Their success has demonstrated to other cold regions that quality wine may be consistently produced. In regions such as this, it can be difficult for grapes to fully ripen, vineyard sites are often chosen based on how well they can utilize available sunlight. Stony, south-facing, slopes are ideal for providing grapes with more sunlight exposure and heat retention.
There are 13 major wine-producing regions in Germany. Most of the wine I find comes from Mosel, though I’ve encountered wines from Nahe, Pfalz, and Rheinhessen. Unlike other Old World wine-producing countries, I have never seen German wines divided by region in stores. At this time, I simply do not think we see the volume of wine imported from all regions that would necessitate this kind of categorization.
However, I do think it’s important for wine to have a sense of place, so for those who are curious, here are Germany’s 13 wine regions:
- Hessische Bergstrasse
Major Producing Regions:
The Mosel is easily one of the most beautiful places in the world of wine. In particular, the Middle Mosel is a steep protected valley with vineyards of crumbling slate some of which are steeper than a black diamond ski slope. Riesling is king here and the wines combine the purity of fruit, delicacy, high acidity, and the unmistakable terroir of the vineyard.
Top vineyards: Erdener Prälat, Ürziger Würzgarten, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Bernkasteler Doctor, Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr, Piesporter Goldtröpchen
The Rheingau is considered by most to be Germany’s most historic and important region. Here the Rhein River turns east/northeast offering the vineyards a perfect southerly exposure. Like the Mosel, Riesling is by far the most important grape here but the relatively warmer climate makes for riper grapes, a richer wine style, and proliferation of outstanding dry wines—as in Grosses Gewächs—from top vineyard sites. There are also two places in the Rheingau—Assmanshausen, and Hochheim—where Pinot Noir ripens successfully every year.
Top vineyards: Rüdesheim Berg Schlossberg, Schloss Johannisberg, Schloss Vollrads, Erbacher Marcobrunn, Kiedricher Gräfenberg, Hochheimer Hölle
The Rheinhessen is literally just across the river from the Rheingau and the largest of Germany’s 13 regions. The region is also a land of extremes being at once the home of Liebfraumilch as well as the Nackenheimer Rothenberg, one of Germany’s great vineyards. Riesling is not as widely planted here but the style of Rheinhessen Rieslings is opulent, powerful, and racy. The best vineyards are concentrated in three villages bordering the Rhein in the northeast of the region near the beautiful medieval city of Mainz.
Top vineyards: Nackenheimer Rothenberg, Niersteiner Hipping, Niersteiner Pettenthal, Oppenheimer Sackträger, Westhofener Morstein
Called the Rheinpfalz until 1992, the Pfalz region is located near Alsace in southern Germany. Like Alsace, the Haardt Mountains in the Pfalz create a rain shadow effect making it the warmest, driest place in the entire country. The range of grape varieties grown here is more varied compared to more northerly growing areas. Pfalz Rieslings, many of the top quality dry wines, are among the most opulent, powerful, and complex whites in Germany. Also worth seeking out are excellent Weissburgunders, Grauburgunders, and Spätburgunders.
Top vineyards: Forster Kirchenstück, Forster Ungeheuer, Forster Jesuitengarten, Deidesheimer Langenmorgen, Deidesheimer Hohenmorgen, Ruppertsberger Reiterpfad, Kallstader Saumagen
The Nahe is located due west of the Rheingau and considered by many to be the most beautiful part of Germany. Here Riesling is the most important grape and the wine style often described as combining the delicacy of Mosel wines with the power and elegance of the Rheingau.
Top vineyards: Niederhauser Hermannshöhle, Oberhauser Brücke, Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube, Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg
The tiny Ahr Valley in north-central Germany is one of the anomalies—free electrons—of the wine world. Located at 50° latitude at the very outer limit where Vitis vinifera can be grown, over 80% of the grapes planted here are red and Pinot Noir by far the most important. Oddly enough, the Ahr is actually warmer overall than the Mosel because it’s protected by the Eifel Mountains and its steep slopes of volcanic and slate soils face south and southwest acting as a sun trap.
Franken or Franconia lies due east of Hochheim on the Main River. Although the region is known for its outstanding beer some excellent wines are made particularly from Silvaner. In fact, many argue the best examples of the Silvaner grape come to the Franken region. In the spring during spargel season (white asparagus) Silvaner is the go-to wine. Some Riesling is also grown here but the grape is challenged by the region’s cooler, wetter climate. Generally, the wine styles produced in Franken are dry.
Top vineyards: Würzburger Stein, Iphofener Julius Echter Berg, Bürgstadter Centgrafenberg
Riesling: gets my votes as the world’s greatest white grape. Riesling is the most widely planted grape in Germany accounting for over 22% all acreage under vine. In Germany Riesling displays an extraordinarily wide range of aromatics and flavors and can be made in a wide range of styles, from the dry Grosses Gewächs bottlings to the ultra-sweet, rare Trockenbeerenauslesen.
Müller-Thurgau: once the most widely planted grape in-country now usually destined for blends or jug wines. Some good single-varietal bottlings are also made.
Silvaner: originally from Alsace, plantings of Silvaner (note the spelling vs. Alsace) are concentrated in Franconia. Here the grape excels under the guidance of producers like Hans Wirsching.
Scheurebe: a Riesling-Silvaner cross that resembles part Gewürztraminer-part Riesling. Plantings of Scheurebe are on the decrease.
Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc): increasingly popular in the post-sweet wine era of Germany. Plantings have increased by over 80% in the last 15 years.
Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris): focused on warmer southern regions such as the Rheinhessen and the Pfalz. Plantings of Grauburgunder (literally “gray Burgundy”) have increased by over 90% in the last 15 years.
Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir): there are dozens of red grapes commercially planted in Germany but Pinot Noir is by far the most important. Perhaps the true litmus test of climate change for Germany is the fact that the country now ranks third in plantings of the grape worldwide. The learning curve for quality is steep as well with a Spätburgunder from Ahr Valley producer Meyer-Näkel winning Decanter Magazine’s Pinot Noir of the year award in 2009.
Germany’s Levels of Wine Quality:
Qualitätswein/QbA: [kval-ee-TAYTS-vine] German for “quality wine.” QbA is an acronym for “Qualitätswein bestimmter
Anbaugebiete,” which means a quality wine that comes entirely from one of the 13 designated wine regions in Germany.
This is an estate’s basic wine, and can often be a very good value, especially from a top-rated producer. Chaptalization
(adding sugar to improve ripeness) is allowed in QbA.
Qualitätswein mit Prädikat/QmP: The word Prädikat [PRAY-dee-cot] literally is the grammatical term, “predicate.”
Prädikat wines are “predicated” on a certain level of natural ripeness. But this does not necessarily refer to the amount of
sweetness in the finished wine. How dry to ferment the wine is up to the winemaker.
There are six Prädikats:
Kabinett: This is the lightest and most delicate style of Riesling, made from normally ripe grapes picked early in
the harvest. In a cool-climate region like the Mosel, Kabinett can be quite low in alcohol (7.5–8%).
Spätlese: [SHPAYT-lay-zeh] German for “late-harvest.” Spätlese has more richness and body than Kabinett
because the grapes are allowed to ripen for an extra week or more. Once harvested, the wine can be fermented
fruity (lieblich), half-dry (halbtrocken) or dry (trocken), depending on the preferences of the winemaker.
Auslese: [OWS-lay-zeh] Auslese means “selected from the harvest.” This is the Prädikat level for very ripe, late-harvested grapes, and often involves some amount of botrytis (aka “noble rot”). Normally made in the fruity style
with residual sweetness, Auslese is considered by most winemakers to be their finest achievement (aside from the
rare dessert wines).
Beerenauslese/BA: [BEAR-en-ows-lay-zeh] By adding “Beeren” to the word “Auslese,” this means “berry selection.” Beerenauslese is a rare dessert wine made from extremely overripe grapes that are fully affected by botrytis and have shriveled down about halfway. The desiccating effect of the botrytis concentrates the juice.
Eiswein: [ICE-vine] Quite literally, “ice wine.” One of the rare dessert wines, made from overripe grapes that have
frozen solid on the vine. They are harvested quickly before sunrise and pressed while still frozen so that only
ultra-concentrated grape juice is extracted. The water stays in the press as ice, so the resulting wine is very dense,
but with vibrant, racy acidity.
Trockenbeerenauslese/TBA: [TRAW-ken BEAR-en OWS-lay-zeh] Germany’s greatest and rarest dessert wine.
Trocken (dry) here refers to the individually selected berries, which have been completely shriveled to dried-up
raisins by the botrytis mold. It does not refer to the taste of the wine, which is quite the opposite of trocken. This
is the sweetest, most intense dessert wine produced in Germany. When made from Riesling, that variety’s superior structure keeps the wine vibrant and elegant, despite its massive weight.
The 1971 Laws and the VDP Classification:
A quick check of the six prädikate concept and entire German system where quality is based on grape sugar at harvest quickly reveals some troubling conclusions: great historic vineyard sources became irrelevant overnight and potential was created for making TBA from a secondary grape that still could find its way into the top tier of quality wine. To the latter point, I remember the very first German wine I tasted in the late 1970s. It was a 1976 BA made from the not-so-world famous Ortega grape from a producer in the Pfalz. The wine was syrupy sweet and smelled somewhere between a Glade plug-in air freshener and Aqua Velva. World-class it definitely was not.
Enter the VDP, or Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, an association of Germany’s best producers founded in 1910. Today the VDP has just 200 members from all 13 regions. Given that over 30,000 entities grow grapes and make wine in Germany, it can easily be argued that the organization is the best of its kind in the world. It also goes without saying that the VDP’s regulations and classification are far more stringent than typical German laws.
Originally the VDP promoted sustainable agricultural practices and un-chaptalized wines from member producers that were featured at an annual auction. With the passing of the ’71 laws, its mission expanded and the organization sought to return Germany’s great vineyards to their former prominence as well as the reputation of the country’s great dry wines. Over time the organization created its own classification that would seek to accomplish both. In 2002 the VDP published the first version of their classification which was updated in 2006 and again in 2012. As it now stands the classification, called “Grosse Lage” (not to be confused with the grosslage described previously), is based on the Burgundian system of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards. The four-tiered system is as follows:
• Grosse Gewächs: Grand Cru vineyards
• Erste Gewächs: Premier Cru vineyards
• Ortsweine: village-level wines
• Gutsweine: traditional estate wines
The best dry wines from top vineyard sites are called “Grosses Gewächs,” roughly translated as Grand Cru. Wines designated as such carry a “GG” embossing on the bottle and only the name of the vineyard vs. the traditional village-vineyard combination noted above. GG wines follow far stricter regulations than typical German wines including mandatory hand harvesting, minimum must weights (Spätlese level), and lower yields (50 hectoliters per hectare).
Each regional VDP association is now in the process of reviewing sites in its own area to determine if they will be classified as Grosse Gewächs or Erste Gewächs. It’s also important to note that not all 13 regions signed off on the four-tiered classifications vs. the previous three-tiered version from 2006. Not a surprise given the fact that the VDP is a very political organization. It’s really no different than expecting the Consorzio from Chianti Classico and Alto Adige to agree on anything.
Additional Info which is good to know:
The öchsle scale: the system used in Germany to measure the amount of grape sugar at harvest. Here the specific gravity or density of grape juice is compared to a similar amount of water. The difference—as in grape sugar and solids—is measured in degrees öchsle. Every quality level of German wine—from lowest to highest—has minimum öchsle requirements.
Village-Vineyard wine names: like Burgundy, top German wines are labeled with both the village and vineyard of their origin. For example, with a wine such as Bernkasteler Doctor from the Mosel, Bernkastel is the name of the village and Doctor the name of the vineyard. Note that the Germans usually add “er” to the name of the village like we would say New Yorkers are from New York. Remember, it’s just like Burgundy.
Acreage under vine: as a country, Germany has approximately 252K acres of vineyards—far less than the region of Bordeaux.
The scale of production: Germany’s entire annual production is only 25% that of France.
White vs. red wines: just over 60% of German wine produced is white. That’s down almost 20% in the last 25 years due partly to climate change but also because plantings of red grapes such as Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder in German) have increased significantly.