Deciphering German Wine

Paul Blow

Midway through a Riesling tasting at a beautiful winery in Germany’s Nahe region, one of the people at my table interrupted the animated conversation and said, “We’re spending all our time talking about regulations and not talking about the wines.” He was trying to get us back on track, but it was basically impossible. Everywhere I went in Germany, the conversation was dominated by discussion of rules and terminology. Why? Well, because wine there is so damn complicated.

German wine is partly categorized by the level of ripeness at which the grapes are picked: Kabinett (low levels), Spätlese (riper), Auslese (riper still, made from selected bunches of very ripe grapes), Beerenauslese (made from selected berries that are superripe and usually dehydrated with botrytis), Trockenbeerenauslese (means literally “dry berry selection” and is made only of shriveled, botrytis-infected grapes), and Eiswein (made from very ripe grapes that have frozen on the vine). Most wineries issue different wines from the same vineyard at each level of ripeness, meaning that from Weingut Fred Prinz you will see a Jungfer Vineyard Kabinett, Spätlese, etc.

Those terms don’t completely describe the wine, only the ripeness of the grapes they were made from. The wines made from grapes at the Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese levels might be sweet, semisweet, or bone dry (the riper categories are always sweet).

But it gets worse. If the wine says trocken on it, then it will be a dry wine, though not all dry wines say this. Halbtrocken means off dry, but that term has gone out of fashion and some Germans prefer to use feinherb to mean the same thing. Use of any of these terms is voluntary. If you aren’t acquainted with the producer, you will have no idea what kind of wine is inside when you pick up a bottle.

This year, new regulations for members of Germany’s top producers’ association, the Verband Deutscher Prädikats (VDP), will mandate that only sweet wines can bear the ripeness levels. Dry wines will just bear the name of the vineyard or some proprietary name, such as Red Stone Riesling, by Gunderloch. Of course, this means that labels of dry wines can’t give as much information about the power of the wine (Kabinett, harvested earlier, will always be lighter than Spätlese), but most producers seem to want a more easily understood labeling system. It’s still not straightforward: Not every great German producer is a member of the VDP, meaning that they are under no obligation to follow these guidelines. And more regulations are expected from the VDP next year, so everything could change.

The good news is that German wines are better than ever. Producers are saying that the upcoming 2007 vintage is possibly the best since 1971. One that I like in particular:

2006 Dönnhoff Estate Riesling—Everything you could want in a Riesling and more. Stones and minerals comprise the sole of the wine, while the uppers are all about apples, pears, and lime zest with a hint of lemongrass. The texture is smooth, brushed suede, soft and solid.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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