Germany’s wines have had many obstacles to overcome. After World War II, German wines fell sharply in popularity due in part to anti-German sentiments as well as the destruction of vineyards, property and lost wine knowledge during the war. Along with this, the export of many cheap low quality wines has left its mark on the reputation of German wines. However, prior to the war, German wines were quite popular and in recent years, German wines have been proving themselves to again be quite favorable, with good reason.
Where the grapes grow
Beyond historical challenges, Germany’s wine regions are in much colder climates for grape growing. In fact, the main grape growing region is at the northernmost point in which grapes can actually ripen. It is rather unusual for grapes to fully ripen beyond Germany’s latitude. Yet, some of the finer white wines are grown in this area of Germany.
Germany has 13 wine regions. Most of Germany’s vineyards are in the western part of the country with 11 regions in the west and only 2 regions in the east. The most well-known German wine regions run along the Rhine River. These include Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Rheinpfalz. These areas along the Rhine combined with the regions along the Mosel, the Saar and the Ruwer Rivers produce the majority of Germany’s wines.
What grapes are growing
The most well-known German grape and wine is Riesling. This grape is somewhat temper mental and requires a lot of sun to ripen. A quarter of German vineyards grow Riesling. Other German grapes include Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Kerner, Scheurebe, and Rulander. The Rulander grape in Germany is also known in France as Pinot Gris and as Pinot Grigio in Italy.
While known mostly for white wines, Germany is moving toward producing more red wines, primarily Pinot Noir (called Spätburgunder). More wine regions are starting to grow these grapes such as Rheingau and Rheinhessen with some regions along the Ahr River producing over 60% of its total wine production in Spätburgunder. As red grapes require more warmth to produce a good wine, certain regions along these rivers benefit from steep slopes absorbing the sun and even the sun’s rays that reflect off of the river’s waters, thus allowing more suitable temperatures for red grapes.
It’s all about ripeness and sweetness
Germany has rules regulating wine growing, but different from the AOC and DOC standards in France and Italy, German wines are categorized by the ripeness of the grape at the time it is picked. The riper the grape, the higher quality the wine is considered. There are six levels of ripeness for German wines. From least to most ripe in order are: Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, and Trockenbeerenauslese. The riper the grapes at harvest, the sweeter the wine will be. You will notice these categories of ripeness on the labels in addition to naming the region, vintage or year.
Wines of Germany are divided into four categories including:
Tafelwein (table wine) is the lowest quality of German wine. If the table wine is made entirely from grapes grown in Germany, then this is called Deutsche Tafelwein. Tafelwein can be blended with wine from other European countries.
Landwein is a higher grade Tafelwein made entirely from German grapes and must state this on the label. It is considered dry or medium dry, must be grown within one of the 20 Landwein regions and is rarely seen outside of Germany.
Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet (QbA) is the second highest quality of the four German wine categories. Qualitätswein Garantierten Ursprungs (QbU) is a QbA wine but from a specific region, village or vineyard and must have a consistent taste profile with its appellation of origin. Anything bearing the QbA or QbU designation means that there are strict standards adhered to which involve testing sugar levels for sweetness by a laboratory and a taste test done by a panel within the district of origin.
The superior quality level is Prädikatswein. Harvesting of these grapes must be authorized by local wine authorities. The grapes must be from only one district within one of the thirteen wine growing regions. Wine in this category must contain a minimum amount of sugars in the harvested grapes that are consistent with their region and grape varietal.
The highest quality category is Qualitätswein mit Prädikat which translates to “highest quality with distinction.”
Interpreting the bottles
When navigating German wines you will notice that most are usually bottled in brown bottles, except for those that come from Mosel (these are in long green bottles). That’s just one way they stand out. The labels also stand out especially if you’ve never read German.
Let’s make this easy. First, until you become an expert on German wines and their producers, you really only want to pay attention to:
1) the type of grape or wine – like Riesling, Silvaner, Spätburgunder;
2) the level of sweetness – like trockenbeerenauslese;
3) the region in which it was grown – like Mosel-Saar-Ruwer or simply Mosel;
4) alcohol content; and
5) the vintage
As for all those other words, just know that anything ending with “…fullüng” has to do with where or how the wine was bottled. Gutsabfullüng means ‘estate bottled’. Erzeugerabfullüng means ‘producer bottled’ which can be used if wines are blended from various members. Another term is Weingut which is ‘wine estate’ and will be followed by the name of the estate (for example, Weingut von Hovel is the wine estate of von Hovel).
With a little practice and tasting, you too can enjoy what the ninth-largest wine-producing country has to offer.