Flatiron's Guide to German Wine, Part 3: A Handy Guide to Decoding German Wine Labels
This is the third installment in our series all about German wine. If you missed our last article, about German wine history, feel free to catch up before diving in.
We often say that while German wine is complex, it doesn’t have to be complicated. 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, and beyond, and Germany has the Mosel, the Nahe, the Pfalz, and Rheinhessen (and many more!).
Grapes. Germany makes very good wines from a whole host of grapes. Its most famous wines are Rieslings, but hundreds of grapes are vinified across the country, and we see at least eight of those regularly in New York and San Francisco. We will discuss those grapes in a later post.
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.
Riper grapes can make for sweeter wines, but they don’t have to. Producers can choose to ferment all that extra sugar into alcohol. So, while knowing how ripe the grapes were at harvest gives you some sense of how sweet a wine is, it doesn’t tell you for sure.
The Germans developed the Prädikat system to let customers know just how ripe the grapes were when they were harvested for a specific wine. We now know that ripe grapes can make both dry or sweet wines, and they are more of a guide for body, complexity, and age-worthiness, rather than a statement of dry versus sweet. More on the Prädikat below!
* * * Winemaking 101 side note: Grapes contain sugar, which is fermented by yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide to make wine. Most wines finish fermenting to dryness—that is, untilthere 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 versus being dry. Of course, even some wines with less than 11% ABV 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:
- Indicates no perceptible sweetness (there could still be trace amounts of RS).
- A touch of sweetness, but still light and fresh.
- 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 SystemRipeness 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 Qualitätswein 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
A 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, and 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.
Producer NameWhether a winemaker or a winery, this will usually be the most prominent word or words on a label—like Joh. Jos. Prum, Keller, Dönnhoff. Weingut means “winemaker.”
Grape VarietyMost German wines are made up of a single grape variety which will almost always be listed on the label—like Riesling, Elbling, Spätburgunder.
There are some well-known styles of wines which might be listed instead. These include Liebfraumilch or Gemischter Satz, which are made up of a blend of grapes and will not list the varieties separately.
Village and VineyardThe 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 percent from a specific vineyard—like Scharzhofberger, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, 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.
We’re not done with our guide to German wine. Visit our next series installment, all about Germany’s climate, grape varieties, and pairing ideas.