Why You Should Be Drinking Off-Dry and Sweet German Wines
If you were tempted to stop reading the minute you read the words “sweet wine,” hear us out—no other region in the world does wines with residual sugar like Germany. The country’s off-dry and sweet wines—most of which are crafted from the Riesling grape—can be exceptionally delicate, wildly complex, or mind-blowingly luscious. After all, the most expensive wine ever sold was a sweet wine from legendary German wine producer Egon Müller.
In fact, off-dry and sweet wines from Germany tend to be back-pocket secrets of every sommelier. With just the right balance of acidity and sugar, these wines can pair with a huge assortment of foods, from super savory ramen to spicy Szechuan and classic barbecued meats. Here’s a primer on the off-dry and sweet wines of Germany with pro tips on pairing them with food.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DRY, OFF-DRY, AND SWEET?
Let’s start with the basics: How can wine be dry in the first place? What does it mean for a wine to be sweet? And what the heck does “off-dry” mean?
Generally, all of these terms relate to the amount of residual sugar—that is, sugar that has not been converted into alcohol during the fermentation process—in a wine and how well we can taste it. Technically, a dry wine is one that contains less than 9 g/L of residual sugar—sometimes none at all.
However, sweetness isn’t all about residual sugar. Many factors can affect the perception of sweetness in wine, particularly acidity—something that is key when talking about German wines. Acidity acts as a kind of counterbalance to sugar, so when a wine has high acidity—as Germany’s Riesling wines often do—a wine with residual sugar may not taste sweet at all. Many wines that we dub “dry” are actually “perceptibly dry”—wines that we cannot taste any sweetness in.
This is the more important piece to focus on—not the actual grams of residual sugar left in a wine, but how much sweetness we can taste. California Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, rarely has less than 4 g/L of residual sugar, but it is still a dry wine.
Sweet wines, therefore, are ones that contain noticeable sweetness. This encompasses a wide spectrum, however—a wine with 50 g/L of residual sugar will taste far less sweet than one with 300 g/L. That’s why some people use terms like “medium-sweet” and “lusciously sweet” to differentiate. (According to German wine law, a wine may be called “sweet” if it has 45 g/L of residual sugar or more.)
That leaves us with the somewhat vague term of “off-dry.” Essentially, off-dry wines (which may also be called “semi-dry”) have a light sweetness to them; some say that when taking a sip, they start off sweet but finish dry. Many German wines fall into the off-dry category (about 21 percent, to be specific).
A BIT OF HISTORY ON SWEET GERMAN WINE
If you’re still somewhat skeptical of sweet German wine, you’re not alone.
Before the 20th century, German wines were, as a whole, quite dry and very high in quality.
But amidst the setbacks of phylloxera and two world wars, German wine production was decimated. Vines were planted on flat land, rather than higher-quality (and difficult-to-work) hillsides, which resulted in more neutral, less ripe grapes. Winemakers added sugar to compensate for this lack of quality, and by the 1980s, the result was a sweet wine labeled as Liebfraumilch and exported in abundance around the world—including to the U.S.
The sweet German wines available on the market today are nothing like the ones of the past. Crafted with attention and care, and with characteristically high acidity and loads of flavor to balance the residual sugar, these German wines will change any preconceptions you may have about the quality and deliciousness of the country’s sweet wines.
HOW TO IDENTIFY A GERMAN WINE’S SWEETNESS
One of Germany’s very best qualities is its huge range of wine styles; only France’s Loire Valley is capable of deftly producing such a variety of very dry to super sweet wines. But that begs the question of how to determine whether a wine is going to be dry, off-dry, or sweet without, well, opening and tasting it first.
Helpful Labeling TermsThe good news is that German wine labels can be very helpful in determining a wine’s sweetness, though these labeling conventions are not used uniformly across all German wine bottles. Here are a few things to look out for:
Some German wines have words on the label that will tell you how sweet it is.
Trocken (“Dry”): A wine with no perceptible sweetness (in other words, a wine that will not taste sweet)
Halbtrocken (“Half-Dry”): An off-dry wine with a touch of sweetness (but still light and fresh)
Feinherb: While this term is not legally defined by German law, it’s used casually among winemakers to indicate that a wine is slightly sweeter than Halbtrocken.
The Prädikat System
Kabinett: Made from grapes with the lowest ripeness levels, Kabinett wines tend to be delicate, light, and low in alcohol. Some may be very dry, but Kabinett wines do often have a slight, well-balanced sweetness.
Spätlese (“Late Harvest”): Made from late-harvested berries, Spätlese wines tend to be richer and more complex. They often have more sweetness, but powerful, dry Spätleses are crafted, too.
Auslese (“Select Harvest"): Made from selected, riper grape bunches, Auslese wines tend to be intense, layered, and typically sweet. In rare instances, Auslese wines may be dry.
Beerenauslese ("Select Berry Harvest"): Made from very ripe grapes picked berry by berry and often infected with botrytis (noble rot), which is essential (and desirable) for the making of sweet wines. Beerenauslese wines are always rich, sweet, and complex, but with plenty of acidity.
Eiswein (“Ice Wine”): Made from very ripe grapes (as ripe as Beerenauslese) that are harvested at night while frozen on the vine, but not affected by botrytis. Eisweins are always sweet, with clean, concentrated fruit flavors.
Trockenbeerenauslese ("Dry Select Berry Harvest"): The rarest of them all, Trockenbeerenauslese wines are made from shriveled, botrytis-infected grapes. These are extremely sweet, intense, and complex.
Look at the Wine’s ABV
Sugar is converted into alcohol in the fermentation process, so the ABV of a wine can help you determine how sweet a wine may be. The most advanced strategy: If you know what the potential alcohol of a wine should be, every percentage point of ABV below that is equivalent to 16 g/L of residual sugar. So, if a wine’s potential alcohol is 13% ABV, and the ABV on the label is only 10%, the wine has 48 g/L of residual sugar—making it a noticeably sweet wine.
If you want to skip the math, just remember this general rule: wines of 11% ABV or more will usually taste dry.
EXCELLENT FOOD PAIRINGS FOR OFF-DRY AND SWEET GERMAN WINES
While off-dry and sweet German wines can and should be drunk and appreciated for their delicious merits without food, they can also create some of the best and most surprising food pairings around—and we’re not just talking about dessert. With so many sweetness levels and styles, there’s no limit to the ways you can pair German wines with food, but here are some of the best categories of dishes for off-dry and sweet German wines.
There’s no better match for spice than sweet or off-dry German wine—period. The perceptible sugar and ripe fruit flavors essentially douse the fire of spicy dishes, cooling and cleansing your palate before the next sip. This is also why Kabinett and Spätlese Rieslings, for instance, are go-to recommendations for curry, Szechuan dishes, and enchiladas—all spicy dishes with complex flavors.
For those who aren’t fans of spicy foods, off-dry and sweet German wines may help you dip a toe into the world of spice. That combination of fresh acidity and juicy, sweet fruit makes experimenting with spicy dishes much friendlier—and oddly enough, makes those sweet wines taste drier.
Sweet wines and seafood might not be the first pairing that comes to mind, but it’s the bright acidity and balance of German wines that makes this combination work. With slightly meatier fishes like arctic char or trout, the standout acidity of a trocken Riesling might be a bit too aggressive. But with a light, fresh, delicate Kabinett, the acidity isn’t so searing, better matching the texture of the fish. For dishes with rich sauces, like lobster soaked in butter or a classic meunière, a slightly richer wine like a Spätlese can work well, too.
Spicy or vinegary, savory or sweet, dry rub or wet, barbecued meats have a wide flavor range of their own. The one wine that works with them all? Sweet German wine. Ripe, juicy fruit flavors contrast well with vinegar-based sauces and dry rubs, and they won’t seem thin against sweeter types of barbecue.
Whether it’s ramen, French onion soup, or short rib, off-dry German wines can enhance savory, umami-laden dishes in unexpected ways. The contrasting, concentrated fruit flavors add another dimension of complexity to the dish, and the complexity of off-dry German wines (many of which have some sort of umami component of their own, especially if they are aged) works well with the complexity of these savory dishes. Want to try something bold? Pair an umami-rich, well-marbled steak with an Auslese Riesling.
Cheese and Charcuterie
Assortments of cheese and charcuterie are built for wine experimentation, so there’s no better time to bring an off-dry or sweet German wine into the mix. Plus, there’s a reason why honey and fruit compotes are often served on a cheese and charcuterie board; they add much-needed contrast to those salty flavors. The strong flavors of blue cheese, for instance, are perfectly counterbalanced by the intensity of Auslese Riesling.
Entrées with Fruit Components
Dishes like duck à l’orange and pork with applesauce use a fruity, somewhat sweet component to add dimension to a savory meat. Look to off-dry or mildly sweet German wines, which essentially do the same thing while underscoring those fruit flavors.
Whether they have fruit components or vinegar-based dressings (or both), salads can be great accompaniments to off-dry German wines. The bright acidity of a Kabinett Riesling will match vinaigrettes without overwhelming delicate vegetable flavors, while juicier Spätlese Rieslings will stand up well to fixings like strawberries and goat cheese.
Finally, we have to highlight the obvious pairing: Germany’s sweet wines can be just sublime with dessert. The acidity of an Auslese or Beerenauslese Riesling cuts through rich desserts like crème brûlée, while those concentrated peach and lemon flavors complement fruit-forward desserts like peach cobbler. Less sweet desserts like berries and whipped cream or shortbread cookies are delicious with something off-dry, like a Spätlese.
If you’re worried that sweet German wine and dessert might be just too much sugar, fear not—sugar in food diminishes the perception of sugar in wine, so your wine will actually seem less sweet than it is when sipped on its own. It’s both fascinating and delicious.