Flatiron’s Guide to German Wine
Few other wine countries garner the passionate, cult-like following that Germany does. Its fans—us among them—dissect and detail every village and vineyard, every bottle and producer—and yet, strangely, it’s often misunderstood and underappreciated by the greater wine-drinking public.
Well, we’re not afraid to say it: Germany is one of the world’s greatest wine countries, and we’re here to show you why.
Through our comprehensive guide, we’re going to dive into the vast world of German wines, first discussing why exactly German wine is so misunderstood—and why we love it so much. Then we’ll take a trip back into Germany’s wine history, from the early days of Riesling to the rise of the VDP, and the country’s many challenges in between.
We’ll then decode what can often seem like the most daunting part of German wine: the label. Armed with a few basics, you’ll soon see that German wine labels aren’t confusing at all—in fact, they are designed to tell you exactly what you’re going to get in the bottle. Then, we’ll get into an overview of the nitty-gritty—climate conditions, grape varieties, and ideas for pairing German wine with good—before diving further into the world of Germany’s non-Riesling grapes.
Sweet wines are often some of the most vilified styles in Germany—and around the world—but we’ll examine why Germany’s off-dry and sweet wines are unlike any other, along with how to pair them with food. Finally, we’ll round things out with an answer to any and every question about German wine you’ve ever had.
Thirsty yet? We certainly are, and Germany’s high-acid wines are just the thing to quench our thirst. This guide offers an overview of each of our individual series installments, so if you want to stick to the high-level overview, stay on this page and we promise you’ll come away knowing a ton more about German wine than you ever thought you could. Or if you want to dive in headfirst, click on the links to discover even more.
You don’t have to pore over study materials to love and appreciate German wines, but something about this fascinating wine country pulls wine lovers to do just that. Maybe it’s the sheer complexity of Germany’s 13 regions (called Anbaugebiete), villages, and vineyards, or maybe it’s the utter deliciousness of its wines, but something about German wine makes geeky wine lovers really, well, geek out.
But still, many U.S. wine drinkers overlook the wines of Germany. Maybe it’s the unfamiliar language on the label, or maybe it’s the country’s tie to Riesling (and subsequent assumptions that Riesling will always be sweet), but even though we have a huge range of German wines available here in the U.S.—often at great values—too many wine lovers will walk right past the Germany section on their way to France.
There are a few reasons why we love German wines so much. First, as we already nodded to, it offers exceptional wines with serious value thanks to the fact that the country remains overlooked. Second, German wines have been some of the best in the world for centuries, at one time outpricing First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy.
Germany is also home to phenomenal terroir, with steep vineyards that offer distinct and fascinating expressions of grapes, especially Riesling. But even though this country makes profound wines, German wines are also accessible—that is, straight-up delicious. Few other wines combine depth and complexity with sheer enjoyment in the way German Riesling does.
Finally, German wines are incredible with food—even and especially the off-dry or sweeter ones. They can pair with notoriously difficult vegetables, complex cuisines, and even spicy dishes.
Though German wines have gained new followings over recent decades, they are by no means new. In fact, wines have been made in Germany for about 2,000 years, likely thanks to the Romans. Charlemagne was one of the local wine industry’s biggest champions in the 800s.
Riesling was documented in Germany as early as 1435, and it dominated vineyards by the 18th and 19th centuries. Royalty across Europe clamored for German wines, with prices typically exceeding those of Bordeaux and Champagne.
But German wine’s downfall came towards the end of the 19th century and followed into the 20th century, thanks to mildew, phylloxera, two World Wars, depressions, and changing tastes. Though the country attempted to rebuild its industry, initiatives like Flurbereinigung had a negative impact on quality, and the introduction of Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein focused only on ripeness, rather than integrating standards for farming or winemaking.
With the rise of the VDP—Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter—German winemakers decided to set their own standards for wine production without reliance on chaptalization (the addition of sugar during fermentation to create fuller-bodied wines). Though not every quality producer chooses to join the VDP, it remains a standard of quality in Germany.
Unless you’re a native German speaker (willkommen!) German wine labels can seem daunting at first glance. With gothic script, unfamiliar words, and plenty of umlauts, there’s a reason why many wine drinkers automatically classify German wine labels as confusing.
However, three out of four of the keys to understanding German wines (and wine labels) are the same as any other country: regions, grapes, and producers. The fourth is ripeness versus sweetness, which is where things get complex. Because Germany was historically such a cold country—where grapes couldn’t reliably ripen—tools like the Prädikat system were created to tell customers exactly how ripe the grapes were when they were harvested for a specific wine.
But while riper grapes can translate to sweeter wines, they don’t necessarily have to; they could just translate to fuller-bodied wines. Kabinett wines are the lowest on the ripeness scale, followed by Spätlese and Auslese, which get progressively riper and fuller-bodied. Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese are the ripest, sweetest, and rarest levels on the Prädikat scale.
To understand whether a German wine will be dry (aka, a wine that isn’t sweet, or doesn’t taste sweet), look for a few labeling terms that may be present on the bottle. Trocken indicates a dry wine, while halbtrocken points to a wine with a touch of sweetness. Feinherb often indicates a wine that is a touch sweeter than halbtrocken.
You’ll also find standard metrics like the vintage, producer, and ABV on a German wine label, and there are also a few handy tricks to pinpoint things like the region and vineyard.
Think that Germany only produces Riesling? Think again! Germany is at the northernmost end of where grapes are able to ripen, which is why a light, fresh, high-acid grape like Riesling is so well-suited to many of its regions. But German winemakers are also masters of their terroir, understanding precisely how to capture the maximum amount of sunshine for ripening a variety of grapes.
Germany’s continental climate features very cold winters and fairly hot, rainy summers. But it’s the country’s autumns—long, cool, and dry—that are the secret to the wines’ success. As the growing season stretches into November, temperatures drop and grapes are able to ripen while retaining acidity.
Riesling is undoubtedly the king of all white grapes, found in every German wine region. It’s supremely terroir-expressive and versatile, able to be made into every style of wine imaginable, from bone dry styles to lusciously sweet ones—and even sparkling.
But there are other grapes to highlight as well, such as Germany’s top red grape, Spätburgunder (better known as Pinot Noir to the non-German speakers among us). Amidst the impacts of climate change, Spätburgunder is now able to ripen more reliably and create complex, world-class wines.
Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) can be made into youthful, light wines or serious, age-worthy ones, not to mention some excellent sweet ones. Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) works well on sites too warm for Riesling, with medium to full body and fine acidity.
Speaking of those non-Riesling grape varieties, there are quite a few of them; nearly 100 grape varieties are grown in Germany, and more and more winemakers are experimenting with options beyond Riesling.
That includes red grapes like the aforementioned Spätburgunder, which makes a huge range of top-quality wines from the Ahr to Baden (in fact, Germany is the third-largest producer of Pinot Noir, after France and the U.S.). It also includes Lemberger, the grape known as Blaufränkisch in nearby Austria, which has increased in plantings and makes fairly juicy, fruit-forward wines. Dornfelder is a crossing created in Germany in 1955, developed to add color to the country’s then-pale wines but now appreciated in its own right.
It also includes plenty of other white wines. Silvaner finds a stronghold in Franken, where it produces wines that can range from neutral and easy-drinking to powerful and minerally. One of the oldest cultivated grape varieties in the world is Elbling, grown on the Mosel’s steep slopes to produce dry, refreshing, easy-to-love whites. Chardonnay joins Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder in the collection of more international varieties being used to produce elegant, high-quality wines.
Crossings are quite important in Germany wine culture, as the country has a long history of viticultural research and science. In addition to Dornfelder, Germany is home to some of the world’s best-known crossings, such as Müller-Thurgau (an adaptable, fresh, friendly white), Scheurebe (an aromatic variety often used for sweet wines), and Rieslaner (most of which are off-dry to sweet). Germany’s sparkling wines, called Sekt, and rosés have also gained in popularity recently.
Don’t doubt us now that you hear the word “sweet”—have we led you astray in this guide so far? Not only are Germany’s off-dry and sweet wines sorely underappreciated, but their past reputations have turned generations of wine drinkers off from German wines. Now’s the time to change that misperception.
The terms dry, off-dry, and sweet all relate to the amount of residual sugar—the sugar that has nor been converted into alcohol—in a wine and how well you can taste it. So, a dry wine is a wine that does not contain residual sugar, while a sweet wine tastes noticeably of sugar. Off-dry wines fall in the middle; they have a light sweetness but often finish dry.
Many factors impact the perception of sweetness—most importantly, acidity, which counteracts sugar and makes wines taste drier—which is why the taste of sweetness is more important than the actual amount of sugar left in a wine. Many wines that we dub “dry” are actually “perceptibly dry”—wines that we cannot taste any sweetness in. (By the way—most California Cabernets contain at least 4 g/L of residual sugar!)
As we discussed in our label decoding section, there are many helpful hints on a wine label that can point you to the amount of sweetness that will be in a given wine, from labeling terms to ABV to the Prädikat system.
But if you’re still nervous to try off-dry and sweet German wines, pair them with food! Dishes absolutely transform these wines, and vice versa. There’s no better match for spice than sweet or off-dry German wines, which douse the fire of even the spiciest dishes. Lighter dishes like seafood and salads are well-matched to the body and light sweetness of Kabinett Rieslings, while richer Auslesen can even pair with umami-laden dishes like well-marbled steaks. And of course, sweet German wines are revelatory with desserts.
Is all German wine sweet? Does Germany only make Riesling? Where are Germany’s wine regions? And what the heck is Eiswein? Get the answers to all of these questions and more in our roundup of frequently asked questions about German wine.
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