Flatiron's Guide to German Wine, Part 1: Introduction to the Wines of Germany
Germany is one of the very greatest wine countries in the world. And yet, German wine can be oddly under-appreciated by many people in America.
Not that there aren’t plenty of fans here, of course. Downright rabid fans band together, obsessing over every bottle, village, vineyard, producer, and vintage they’ve ever tasted. No wine makes the geekiest wine lovers geek out more than German Riesling.
There are also fans among the less geeky. Casual, everyday wine drinkers who know that they can get a straight up delicious wine at an absolutely unbeatable price if they walk over to the German shelf. You don’t have to study deeply to love and appreciate German Riesling.
What seems to be missing in America is the group of wine lovers between the casual drinker and the terroir fanatic. Folks interested in Beaujolais or Chablis, Piedmont or Tuscany who don’t gravitate to German wine. Hundreds of dollars spent trying to grasp the nuances between Vosne Romanée and Volnay is nothing to them; but they never make the small investment required to discover the nuances between the Mosel and the Nahe.
Bargain hunters can’t get enough of the Languedoc’s exceptionally well-priced and honest wines, but wouldn’t drop $20 on a gorgeous bottle of Riesling, one which 100 years ago would have been more expensive than a splurge night Burgundy.
There are a lot of possible reasons: it can be hard for newbies to tell if a wine is sweet or dry; the labels can be difficult to read with gothic typeface and funny looking umlauts; German grape names are unfamiliar as are the thousands of different vineyards. German culture is clear and precise, but this degree of precision on a label risks becoming unintelligible to all but the most obsessed.
But have no fear! It’s actually much simpler than it may look at first blush. German wines are actually very easy to understand, once you learn just a few basics about how they work. More importantly, we are firmly of the view that German wines are so great and offer so much reward, that it would be worth even an enormous effort to get to know them.
We set out to write this Flatiron Guide to German Wines to explain not just why the wine geeks go so nutty for all things Deutsch, and not just why German wines are among the best wines for the super-casual wine drinker. And not even why we are so deeply in love with them, ourselves.
No, we set out to explain why a German wine is the bottle you should take home tonight. You. Yes, you.
Why We Love German Wines
Great Value. German wine spent years out of fashion. As demand fell, so did prices. Low prices alone don't equal value. But, great wines at reasonable prices does.
Great Wines. Germany has made great wines for two millenia. In fact, German wines have historically been among the most expensive in the world. Until relatively recently, the best Rhine and Mosel wines were at least as valuable as the top Bordeaux and Burgundies; there are lots of old wine lists with Rieslings priced above DRC and the First Growths.
Great Terroir. The Romans planted many of Germany’s best vineyards on steep, rocky, hills. Growers matched grapes (principally, but not exclusively, Riesling) to site over the centuries.
Germany’s cool climate allows for markedly high acidity, meaning mouthwatering wines, which have great aging potential.
From the Mosel to the Pfalz, Germany’s great regions offer fascinating and distinct expressions – varying from vineyard to vineyard – that are expressed clearly and consistently across vintages. All of this makes for an intellectually fascinating tasting.
As accessible as they are profound. One thing that sets German wine apart from so many of the world’s other great wine regions is how straight-up delicious it is. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo — these are wines that take some time to develop and are not necessarily easy for non-wine drinkers to “get” on their first taste.
German wines, most famously Rieslings, are the opposite. For all their depth and complexity, they also taste great in a way that’s immediately obvious. It’s amazing but true: the same bottle that will captivate your foodie friends will also make your mother-in-law very happy.
Incredible with Food. And not only are German wines delicious on their own, they are downright miraculous with so many foods. Germany is, as we’ll discuss below, a very northerly wine region. The cool weather tends to keep the wines fresh and light -- making them unlikely to overpower food. The complex terroirs make for complex wines, which can bring out subtleties in even the most refined cuisines.
The real magic of German wine pairings is how good they are even with the most challenging foods. A very dry German Riesling is one of the few great pairings with notoriously difficult vegetables, like artichoke. And, if you’re looking for something that will stand up with Szechuan or Thai cooking, you can’t do any better than an off-dry German Riesling. It will refresh and cool, while offering flavor complements and contrasts that bring out all of the meal’s hidden depths.
Straight-up deliciousness. German wines elevate as they enrapture.
Germany’s Wine History
Germans have been making wine for about 2,000 years, as evidenced by wine presses found in the town of Trier in the Mosel. The skills of viticulture and vinification were most likely introduced by the Romans. Grape varieties were probably a combination of introduced cuttings and domesticated wild vines that were suitable for winemaking.
Charlemagne, ruler of the Frankish empire in the early 800s, is credited for spreading and revitalizing grape growing after the fall of Rome. The stories are that Charlemagne was the leading wine geek of his era. He noticed that the snow melted first on the Rheingau’s southern facing slopes, which taught him that grapes would ripen better there, making them quality sites.
Riesling, long heralded as Germany’s greatest gift to wine, was documented as early as 1435, but had probably been growing as part of field blends long before that. By 1787, it was fully recognized for its importance at the expense of all other varieties, which it legally had to replace.
At the peak of its popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, German wine fetched prices far exceeding those of Bordeaux and Champagne. Riesling, especially from the slopes of the Rheingau, were drunk in royal castles across Europe, most famously by Queen Victoria of England.
Since then, the country has seen its fortunes rise and fall, affected by calamities which affected all of Europe: disease (downy and powdery mildew, phylloxera), World Wars, multiple depressions, and changing consumer tastes.
Germany is at the very Northern end of where grapes are able to ripen. Before climate change, only the warm air currents from the Gulf Stream made viticulture possible. Its 13 wine regions (Anbaugebiete) are mostly clustered toward the south-west corner of the country near the borders of France and Switzerland.
The wine regions enjoy a continental climate, winters are very cold, but the summers are moderately hot and fairly rainy, with dry autumns. The vagaries of these conditions -- just how much heat and rain the vines get, and when -- determine the character of each vintage. In good years the moderate heat (and cool nighttime temperatures) allow the grapes to mature slowly and develop their full range of fruit flavors without losing the acidity that makes German wines (especially the whites) what they are.
To capture the maximum amount of sunshine and encourage ripening, vines are planted on south and southwest facing slopes on inclines. Most of the best vineyards are along rivers which help moderate temperatures and reflect the much needed sun up onto grape clusters.
Climate change has also meant more consistent vintages. Until recently, only 3 or 4 vintages a decade could produce fully ripe grapes and outstanding wines. Now, poor vintages are few and far between.
Germany’s long, cool, and dry autumns are their secret weapon; fall can stretch all the way into November, for one of the latest harvests in the world. The often heavy rains of summer usually dissipate by September. Temperatures drop, especially at night, and in the last 2-8 weeks before harvest grapes get an extended period during which they physiologically ripen, while retaining acidity. This gives the wines a nerve and tension, along with complex flavor development, unseen anywhere on earth.
How German Wines Lost Their Mojo, and What They’re Doing to Get it Back
How did German wine go from being the most illustrious in the world to an afterthought for most?
It started with the same problems most European regions faced. Vine pests and diseases from America, most famously phylloxera, arrived in Germany and devastated the vineyards.
The World Wars ravaged the country. Economic earthquakes eliminated markets, while climate change, a boon to most German vintners, has altered the landscape and destabilized traditions.
But why didn’t Germany rebuild its industry as successfully as France, for instance, rebuilt Burgundy's reputation?
They tried. But many of their early attempts to set the German wine world on a path to its former heights backfired, most notably, their attempt at land reform.
By the start of the 20th Century, the Napoleonic code had made a chaotic mess of Germany’s vineyard holdings. Not something the orderly culture could embrace.
Under Napoleon’s law, when a vineyard owner died his land had to be divided equally among his children. As fair as it may have been to the younger children who would have been disinherited under primogeniture, the rule had the effect of breaking estates up into ever smaller holdings. After a few generations, the result was that most growers could only own a few vines, generally far from each other.
This made it hard to invest time or money in the vineyards (as well as just being disorderly, and not very German-like). The government set out to fix things but not much happened until they passed the Flurbereinigungsgesetz in the 1950s, a law meant to promote land consolidation and modernize farming and winemaking.
The law amalgamated many small, ancient vineyards into larger vineyards. It was somewhat like if the French had decided to force Romanee Conti, La Tache and Richebourg to become part of a single, larger, easier to understand vineyard of Vosne Romanee.
The loss of legal status for so many unique sites meant they were lost to us as individual wines. And instead of making the wines easier to understand, it tended to make them harder to understand: by combining what had been distinct vineyards under a single vineyard name meant wines of the same name could actually come from very different sites and be of different characters and qualities.
The law also aimed to allow for improved roads through vineyards and even modernization of vineyards themselves. Sadly, this was often by bulldozing the precipitously steep vineyards into gentle slopes, destroying some of the best vineyards in Germany.
Regulating Ripeness: the Birth of Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein
In 1971 the government passed another law to standardize wine labels. The plan was to make it easier for consumers to understand what was in the bottle.
This was the moment that the government mandated the quality designations Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein, based on grape ripeness. Their intentions were good.
Before the 1990’s, and the rising temperatures brought on by climate change, Germany was on the latitudinal edge of viable viticulture. For centuries, approximately three out of five vintages were a disaster, with grapes failing to ripen enough to make drinkable wine. Ripeness came to be valued above all else and a wine drinker needed to know whether the wine they were buying was from grapes that got ripe enough to make the quality wine they were being charged for.
Unfortunately, the law set no other quality standards: no minimum yields and no farming standards. There are few winemaking standards and for Qualitätswein (not Prädikat) even though a certain level of sugar must be present in the grape when it is picked, it's still legal to add sugar during fermentation (chaptalization, common even in places like Burgundy) to boost finished alcohol levels, not add sweetness.
Neither did the law classify the vineyards themselves, unlike the wine laws of, for instance, Burgundy or Douro. As long as the grapes were ripe enough and came from one of the 13 Anbaugebiete (wine regions) it could be Qualitätswein. Get the grapes ripe enough in one of the 39 Bereich (sub regions) and you can label a wine Kabinett no matter how dilute the flavor.
The effect has been that wines labeled as Qualitätswein can vary enormously in quality. Their standards are low enough that the Landwein (on par with a French IGP) and Deutscher Wein (equal to table wine) categories are rarely applied.
Now that ripe grapes are nearly guaranteed the standards set forth no longer dictate the style, quality or the sweetness level. Once again, an effort to make German wines easier to understand actually resulted in making them less predictable.
Rise of the VDP
Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (Association of Distinctive German Winemakers)
Of course, Germany is full of maniacally conscientious winemakers with extraordinary terroir. Just because the law doesn’t require them to control yields or farm the right way doesn’t mean they’ll cut corners.
To the contrary, knowing that it is on them to preserve their traditions and reputations, the bulk of these German growers do backbreaking work in the vineyards and spare no effort in the cellar in their efforts to make the finest wines their terroir and the vintage will allow.
This ethos also led Germany’s to the formation of the VDP, an association of the majority of Germany’s top growers, devoted to promoting and marketing their wines. It was started way back in 1910 to support the production of “natural” wines. Back then natural wines simply meant wines made without the addition of sugar during fermentation (chaptalization).
Today it holds its 200 members to strict wine-growing and winemaking standards, above those mandated by the government and acts as its own guaranty of quality.
The VDP also took it upon themselves to classify the best German vineyards as Erste Lage (1er Cru) and Grosse Lage (Grand Cru). Many of these are based on old Prussian maps or historical mentions.
In an effort to help the public identify Germany’s greatest dry wines, they introduced the term Grosses Gewächs (Great Growths), labeled as “GG” for the very best examples. Growers in the VDP can use the designation on dry wines made entirely from a Grosse Lage vineyard that comply with the VDP’s stringent rules. GGs are some of the best wines in the world.
Although the VDP has set some of the highest quality standards around, there are many producers not part of the organization yet still making world class wines.
Producers who belong to the VDP will stamp their labels or capsules with their logo, a quick way to know if a wine is going to be of higher than average quality.
“Complex Wines, But Not Complicated”: Making Sense of German Wine
If you aren’t used to German wine labels, it can be tricky to know what to expect from any given bottle. Stick with us and you’ll be able to tell your Halbtrocken from your Weissburgunder in no time at all.
Three of the four keys to understanding German wines are the same as any other country:
- Regions. Germany is a country of wine regions (Anbaugebiete). France has Bordeaux, Burgundy etc., and Germany has: The Mosel, the Nahe, the Pfalz and Rhenhessen (and many more!). In subsequent posts, we’ll give you the grand tour of Germany’s diverse regions.
- Grapes. Germany makes very good wines from a whole host of grapes. Its most famous wines are Rieslings, but hundreds of grapes are vinified overall and we see at least eight of those regularly in NY. We will discuss those grapes in general later in this post, and talk about particular examples from individual regions and growers in subsequent posts.
- Producers. Germany has generations-old wineries (and winemakers) that are preserving ancient traditions. It has also enjoyed an explosion of interest among super-talented young winemakers who are rediscovering old traditions and terroirs, as well as breaking new ground in response to changing circumstances (including global warming). Exploring this dynamic mix of the traditional and the cutting edge is one of the great pleasures of German wine.
- Ripeness vs. Sweetness in German Wine. Ripeness is one thing that comes up with German wine labels that doesn’t come up in many other regions. Because Germany has always been right at the northern limit of where grapes could ripen, ripe grapes were especially prized and equated with the best quality wines.
* * * Winemaking 101 side note: Grapes contain sugar, which is fermented by yeast into alcohol and CO2 to make wine. Most wines finish fermenting to dryness, that is, until there is no more sugar left for the yeast to eat. If there’s a little leftover sugar (what wine folks call “residual sugar,” or “RS”), there will only be a little sweetness; if there’s a lot of leftover sugar, there will be a lot of sweetness.
- Ripeness = the measure of how much sugar is in a grape when harvested.
- Sweetness = when enough sugar is left in a wine after fermentation so the wine tastes sweet or lightly sweet.
- Dry = not sweet or the absence of enough sugar in a wine after fermentation so the wine doesn’t taste sweet anymore. A wine can be dry or off-dry.
How Do I Know if This Wine is Dry?
German whites can range from bone dry to unctuously sweet. One of the few other wine regions in the world with such a broad range is Loire Valley. In most of the rest of Europe the only way to know if a wine is sweet or dry is to do some research, or ask a Sommelier. For instance Rivesaltes and Sauternes are sweet wines and Sancerre and Rioja are dry wines.
Germans want to make it easier for you to know what’s inside that bottle. So they have a few different methods to help you out.
The easiest thing is to turn the bottle over and check the alcohol level. Since more leftover sugar means less alcohol (all else being equal), the lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine. As a rule of thumb, wines of 11% ABV or more will usually taste dry.
Tasting dry vs. being dry. Of course, even some wines with less than 11% will taste dry, because they have so much acidity. Acidity is like a counterpunch to sugar; with more acid you can’t really taste the sweetness of the wine. It’s similar to making lemonade at home: you could add a few teaspoons to a cup of lemon juice and it would still taste very sour, because the acid overwhelms the sugar. But add a few tablespoons and it mellows right out. This is the concept of balance in wine!
Some German wines will also have German words right on the label to tell you how sweet it is. You can always look for these:
- Trocken = Dry
- Indicates no perceptible sweetness (there could still be trace amounts of RS).
- Halbtrocken = Half-dry
- A touch of sweetness, but still light and fresh.
- Feinherb = Half-dry
- Unlike Trocken and Halbtrocken, which are legally defined, Feinherb is a more casual term that winemakers use, usually to show that a wine is just a little sweeter than a Halbtrocken is allowed to be.
Ripeness Level: The Prädikat System
Ripeness has historically been considered the most important mark of quality in German wines. When vintages were consistently cool and grapes often failed to ripen fully, insipid, watery wines lacking in character were all too common. So Germans created a hierarchy of ripeness for their top, or Qualitatswein level, wines. These names can’t be applied to the lower quality categories.
Today climate change ensures ripe grapes almost every year. But these categories are as important as ever. Just familiarizing yourself with the differences between Kabinett and the other categories below will be a great start to knowing what kind of German Riesling is right for you in any given situation.
- Kabinett means “Cabinet”. Why is this wine named after the furniture? Originally, to show that it was a high quality wine that you could set aside and drink after a while. A sort of German version of “Reserve.”
- The lightest wine on this scale, made from the least ripe grapes, Kabinett is usually slightly sweet (but balanced by great acidity), though some are very dry.
- Good for early drinking or mid-term cellaring, though top examples can improve over much longer periods, even decades.
- These wines are a dream for pairing with food: the touch of residual sugar will help it pair with spicy Asian cuisines, while the complex acidity and mineral notes will highlight the details of even the most subtle dishes.
Spätlese "Late Harvest"
- Made from riper berries picked later than Kabinett.
- These wines are a little richer and more complex, usually with more sweetness, but can be dry.
- Great for mid-term drinking, though they can be delicious even in their youth. Top examples improve over many years.
- Excellent with super spicy dishes, dishes with very complex flavors, like Indian food, or richer dishes like stews, roast chicken or sausages.
Auslese "Select Harvest"
- Riper than Spätlese from bunches that were ripening extremely well.
- Intense, concentrated, complex, usually sweet, but can very occasionally be dry.
- Benefits from some cellar time and can age for many decades. A neat feature of many sweet wines is that the longer you age them the drier they can actually taste.
- Also pairs well with rich or spicy foods or enjoy on its own.
BA - Beerenauslese "Select berry harvest"
- Made from perfectly ripe grapes picked berry by berry from the best bunches, often infected with noble rot/botrytis.
- Incredibly labor-intensive and only available under perfect weather conditions, so fairly rare.
- Very rich and sweet, but with lots of acidity for balance. Ages for a very long time.
- Pair with hard cheese, sweet desserts, or sip on its own.
TBA - Trockenbeerenauslese "Dry select berry harvest"
- Don’t be fooled by the word “trocken” -- it’s the berries that are dried on the vines, not the wine!
- Made from desiccated grapes that have been infected with noble rot/botrytis, which concentrates the sugar and makes for an even rarer, richer, and more complex treat than BA.
- Decadent and pricey.
- Impossible not to enjoy on it’s own, but pair with cheese or desserts.
Here’s a handy graphic to help you understand where your wine falls on the Prädikat System:
Guide to German Labels
German words can sometimes be unfamiliar, but each one tells us something useful about what is in the bottle.
Of course, all of the things that you normally find on a label are present: producer, vintage, ABV (alcohol by volume). But, German winemakers have gone the extra mile. You can tell the degree of dryness, region, and vineyard. Basically, before opening your wine, you know a lot about how it’s going to taste. No surprises! (Just kidding, you’ll still be blown away!)
VintageThis will indicate the year all of the grapes were grown and harvested. Eiswein is often picked in January, but will have the vintage date of the year before when the grapes were grown.
- Fun German fact! Many labels list the vintage with the suffix “er” appended, as in “2018er.” This “er” means “from,” as in, “from the 2018 vintage.” You also see this when they put a wine’s home village on the label like “Zeltinger Himmelreich,” “Zeltinger Schlossberg,” and “Zeltinger Sonnenuhr” (all three vineyards from the village of Bernkastel.
Whether a winemaker or a winery, this will usually be the most prominent word or words on a label. Eg. Joh. Jos. Prum, Keller, Donnhoff. Weingut means Winemaker.
Grape VarietyMost German wines are made up of a single grape variety which will almost always be listed on the label. Eg. Riesling, Elbling, Spätburgunder.
There are some well known styles of wines which might be listed instead. Eg. Liebfraumilch or Gemichter satz, which is made up of a blend of grapes and will not list the varieties separately.
Village and Vineyard
The often difficult to pronounce names on the label indicate the village where the vineyard is located (identified by the suffix -er) followed by another name (often ending in –berg, which means mountain or slope) indicating the vineyard site.
You’ll know that the grapes in the wine come 100% from a specific vineyard. Eg. Schwarzofberger, Wehlenher Sonnenur, Morstein.
Other Words You Might Find
- Alte Reben or Uralte Raben - Old vines or Ancient Vines
- Usually more than 50 years, but not legally defined.
- The capsule on the bottle is gold and designates and estates top wines, not legally defined.
Germany has an astounding number of grape varieties being grown within its borders, a whooping 140, of which 100 are white. As a cool climate region, white grapes thrive -- although climate change is helping the red grapes catch up in stature.
The king of all white grapes, you’ll find it in every German region with more than 20% of the country's plantings. This crown jewel grows on the Mosel’s precariously steep slopes.
No other white grape has the ability to transmit terroir as clearly as Riesling does. Ever wonder what the flavor of red slate is? How about blue or green or grey? How about limestone, clay, sandstone or basalt? Well I didn’t either, until I started drinking Riesling.
It is a high yielding, late ripening, high acid, and aromatic grape. It can be made into every style of wine imaginable, from the simplest quaffer to the longest-lived, most complex, sweetest wines on earth.
It’s at its best when planted in steep sites with meagre soils (which naturally limit its yields). Whether dry or sweet top wines should be aged; your patience will be rewarded with a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures.
Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir)
Pinot Noir is Germany’s dominant red grape. It’s planted in all 13 wine regions. In fact, only France and America have more Pinot Noir than Germany.
Historically, most of Germany was too cold to fully ripen Spätburgunder regularly. German Pinots had a reputation as thinner, less full-fruited and complex than Burgundy. Global Warming is changing things, as well as better clonal selection, farming and wine making techniques. Pinot ripens fully as a matter of course now, and when planted in top sites it makes wines of real depth and distinction. Best of all, the wines are often a fraction of the price of Burgundy or California Pinot Noir.
- The majority of plantings are in Baden and in the Pfalz. Other important growing regions include Rheinhessen, Württemberg, and Rheingau.
- Pinot Noir, a very old varietal, needs much more care and makes high demands on climate and soil. It thrives best in Riesling sites.
- The majority of German Pinot Noir wines are vinified as dry red wines with complex cherry aroma with subtle hints of smoke and almond, are slightly tannic, high in acidity, and have a long finish.
Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris)
- A mutation of Pinot Noir, but with almost pink skins, coming from the Burgundy region of France.
- Germany is the world’s third largest producer of Pinot Gris, with the primary regions for cultivation being Baden, Rheinhessen, the Pfalz, and the Nahe.
- Pinot Gris grows particularly well on loess, soil made up of windblown dust and sand, on terraces, as well as in chalky soils and sites with stony sub-soils.
- Usually made into a young, light dry or off-dry Pinot Gris is a great summer wine. It can also be made as a serious oak aged wine, or in sweet Kabinett and Spätlese styles. Because of its pink-ish skins it makes great orange wine as well.
Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc)
- Pinot Blanc is a mutation of Pinot Noir, but with white skins. It has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially in Germany which is now the world’s leading producer of Pinot Blanc.
- More than 5% of Germany’s vineyards are planted with Pinot Blanc, usually in sites that are too warm for Riesling, primarily in Baden, the Pfalz, and Rheinhessen.
- In a glass, Pinot Blanc is pale to straw yellow in color, and delicate on the nose. A slightly nutlike aroma is typical. Vinified dry, its medium to full body and fine acidity complement many types of food.
- Good examples age very well, although generally made with the aim of everyday fresh and dry wines in mind.
Cuisine & Pairings
Can I even pair Riesling with any food? Absolutely! It’s one of the best wines for food. No wine is better suited to a wide variety of hard-to-pair foods, from traditional German pork products, to complex Asian dishes and the modern haut cuisines blending of the two with novel techniques. German wines elevate the dinner as they enrapture the diner.
Dry examples are great substitutes for Sancerre or other crisp, dry whites. A fine glass of Trocken Riesling can enliven any simple fish dish. But Riesling’s real magical culinary powers come out when you look at hard-to-pair foods, especially spicy ones like Thai or Chinese.
The spice and sugar in those foods can make red wines taste austere or metallic, and dry white wines sour or just washed out. Rieslings with a bit of sugar will stand up to the sweetness and even temper the heat. The mineral cut and bracing acidity are like a squeeze of lime on southeast asian food, bringing out details and making you want more all the time.
As we mentioned earlier, Germany is special because it is in the middle of a string of incredible vintages. This makes shopping easy! Grab a bottle off the shelf of your local shop and it’s likely to be very special!
Is Riesling always sweet? Can you pair Riesling with food? Where does the best German Riesling come from? And who makes it? All your burning questions about German Riesling, answered.
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