In 2015, Germany had a good year. After a long, hot summer, the vineyards were dry and ready for the late rain that carried the ripening grapes to harvest. The result was something like a dream for winemakers in each and every growing region. Tasting notes and vintage reports have been glowing — the likes of Jancis Robinson, Dr. Loosen, Mosel Fine Wines, Theirry Theise and many others gushing over what is certain to be a vintage of note, if not one of the most lauded in decades.
As the wines come stateside, we’re no less stunned by some really incredible bottles. In turn — curiosity stoked — we’ve begun to look closely at the unique and nuanced wine regions of Germany. We’ve compiled some of our research here in a guide to German wine in general, with a focus on Riesling in this special vintage. Hopefully it will serve as a roadmap for those of you interested in a region that may have fared better than any other in 2015.
The VDP and The Prädikat System
To start, here’s a short primer on the way the wine map of Germany is split up, the legal designations and a word or two on reading the labels. For better or worse, German wines are subject to a number of taxonomies that offer a great deal of information. In particular, there are three main metrics that apply to any given bottle:
- The 1971 German Wine Law: Despite its many detractors, the system laid out by this law stands as the most general taxonomic account of wine in Germany. It grounds the distinction between German wines (Deutscher Wein) and wine made anywhere else in the world. It divides up the different Landwein (wines made exclusively in one of the 13 designated growing regions). Most uniquely, it serves as the basis for a metric that ties the quality of a wine to the character of its fruit. This begins with the designation of Qualitätswein, a wine made of fruit with an acceptable amount of naturally occurring sugar (this differs per given region). Next, and more important, is the laws’ underpinning of the Prädikat system.
- The Prädikat System: This system focuses on the quality and character of the fruit in a given wine. It is a metric that tells you about the concentration of sugar (the potential for alcohol) in the fruit. This is calculated by measuring the density of the must, or the juice resulting from the harvested fruit. These respective must densities categorize the wines they make up. In increasing order of concentration, the categories are: Qualitätswein, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Eiswein/Beerenausele and Trockenbeerenauslese. Is an Auslese wine always of better quality than a Kabinett wine? Is one necessarily sweeter than another? Not categorically, but there is a fairly strong correlation in both regards.
- The VDP (The Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter): The VDP is dedicated to the classification of wines based on terroir as opposed to quality of fruit. The best facsimile is Burgundy. Where Burgundy differentiates village wine, Premier Cru, Grand Cru and the like, we have the designation Gutswein to designate wine from a given region, Ortswein for wine from a particular village, Erste Lage that mirrors the designation of premier cru in Burgundy and finally Grosse Lage which mirrors the designation of grand cru. In other words, Erste Lage and Grosse Lage denote single vineyard sites, and the Grosse Lagerin are rated a bit more highly.
So, what does all this mean when you are looking at a German Wine label? For starters, the majority of German wine we see here in the States (the majority of German wine in general) will be at the level of Qualitätswein. That means you can expect to see the name of one of the 13 winegrowing regions on the label. These are Ahr, Baden, Franconia, Hessische Bergstraße, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau (as seen above), Rheinhessen, Saale-Unstrut, Saxony, and Württemberg. In the next article, we will take a quick look at what makes each of these regions unique.
But this is only the start. Given that the variety (Riesling) has been given the predicate (‘Qualitätswein mit Prädikat’, or ‘Qualitätswein with a predicate’), we know a little something about the character of the fruit for this bottle.
We can also glean that this wine is probably at least an Erste Lage based on the fact that the village and vineyard site are printed (Wallufer Walkenberg). Although it is legally prohibited to put Grosse Lage on any label, you may sometimes see a ‘GG’ printed. This stands for Grosses Gewächs, a Grosse Lage vinified dry.
Beyond all this, there is one last piece of information that yields a lot, and that is the alcohol content (ABV). The ABV serves as a good rule of thumb for determining sweetness. Since sugar turns to alcohol, the lower the percentage of alcohol, the more sugar is leftover in the bottle. Once again, this is not always foolproof. For starters, there may not have been that much concentration of sugars to begin with. Secondly, residual sugar doesn’t always mean that a wine will taste sweet. This is especially the case with highly acidic Rieslings that are able to balance out this potential sweetness with their strong, tart backbone. Many wines with an ABV of 8 or 9 percent will taste much dryer than wines of 10 or 11 percent ABV when these wines lack a strong acidity.
A bottle of wine is never a sure thing, but some familiarity with cryptic looking information printed on a German wine label can help. Next, we will dig into what the region says about a given wine.