Germany’s wine styles can be difficult to understand. This is due partly to the fact that you can’t automatically tell how a German wine will taste by reading its style on the label. Unlike French wine styles, which are based on terroir, or Italian wine styles, which focus on geographical zones and specific blends of grape varieties, German wine styles are based on grape ripeness. Add in the long style names – how do you pronounce Trockenbeerenauslese, anyway? – and it’s easy to see why many wine drinkers stop trying to learn more about German wines.
German wine styles are defined by law. Each style of wine must have a minimum must weight, which is determined at the time the grapes are picked. In Germany, must weight is described in Oechsle degrees. The riper the grape, the higher the degrees Oechsle, and the higher the final alcohol content of the wine. This measurement determines the classification of each wine, as you’ll see.
So far, so good. Ripeness determines style. As you might guess, it’s a bit more complex than that. Producers in the cooler wine regions can use grapes with lower must weight for each wine style. This means that a Kabinett from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region may be made from grapes with lower must weight than those used to produce a Baden Kabinett.
Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s look at each of the different German wine styles.
German Table Wines
Deutscher Tafelwein translates to “German table wine.” This type of wine is exactly what its name says, with at least 8.5% alcohol content and must weight of 44 degrees Oechsle. In Baden, the minimum must weight is 50 degrees Oechsle. There are five approved Tafelwein regions in Germany.
The second level of German table wine is called Deutscher Landwein. This category is relatively new, dating from 1982. Deutscher Landwein must be dry (“trocken”) or half-dry (“halb-trocken,” sometimes called “off-dry” in English). The alcohol content of Deutscher Landwein must be at least 9%. Grapes used in Deutscher Landwein must come from one of 19 approved Landwein regions.
German table wines may be chaptalized, which means that sugar may be added to the grape juice in order to boost the alcohol content of the resulting wine.
German Quality Wine (QbA)
The German phrase for “German Quality Wine” is “Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete.” That’s definitely a mouthful.
This category is usually abbreviated as QbA. QbA wines must come from one of Germany’s 13 official wine regions. The wine label will show the name of the region as well as a number called the A. P. number, which is a control number unique to each wine. QbA wines may be chaptalized.
German Quality Wine with Special Attributes (QmP)
This category, Qualitätswein mit Prädikat, includes six subcategories of German wine. QmP wines cannot be chaptalized. As with QbA wines, QmP wines must come from one of the 13 German wine regions. Each QmP wine must be subcategorized. There’s no such thing as a generic QmP wine. The subcategories reflect the ripeness of the grapes used to make each wine.
Let’s take a closer look at the six QmP subcategories:
Kabinett wines, which are made from the earliest-picked grapes, have the lowest alcohol content of the QmP wines. They can be labeled “trocken” (dry) or “halbtrocken” (half-dry). Sometimes you’ll see the word “feinherb” instead of “halbtrocken”.
Spätlese (“Late Harvest”) wines are made from grapes that are picked later in the growing season. These grapes are riper than those used for Kabinett wines. Spätlese wines can be sweet, half-dry or dry.
Auslese (“Select Harvest”) wines come from grapes that are specially selected from the late harvest. These grapes are usually extremely ripe. Many, but not all, Auslese wines are sweet.
Beerenauselese (“Berry Select Harvest”) wines are created from carefully chosen, overripe grapes, harvested by hand, that have botrytis (noble rot). Beerenauslese wines can be made only when weather conditions permit the grapes to overripen on the vine. These sweet wines may be stored for many years.
Trockenbeerenauslese (“Dry Berry Select Harvest”) wines come from grapes that dry on the vine after botrytis sets in. The grapes shrivel up and must be picked by hand. Trockenbeerenauslese wines are rich and sweet. These rare dessert wines also keep for many years.
Eiswein (“Ice Wine”) is made from grapes that have literally frozen on the vine. The grapes are picked and pressed while still frozen, at a maximum temperature of 19° F. Eiswein is a unique dessert wine.
New Designations: Classic and Selection
As you’ve seen, navigating the maze of German wine styles is challenging. In an attempt to simplify matters, the Deutsche Weininstitut (German Wine Institute) recently introduced the “Classic” and “Selection” categories. The labels for Classic and Selection wines are simpler in appearance than traditional German labels. Both Classic and Selection wines are “harmoniously dry,” according to the Deutsche Weininstitut’s criteria, so you won’t see the term “trocken” or “halbtrocken” on the label.
The label includes the grape variety, producer’s name, and region. Selection wines must come from a particular vineyard, so the wine label shows the vineyard name. Selection wines have a higher alcohol content than Classic wines.
Sailing the German Wine Sea
If you’re still feeling confused, you’re not alone. Even experienced wine critics have difficulty with the German labeling and classification systems. The Deutsche Weininstitut and various regional wine associations have tried to simplify labels and designations, but these efforts have had little effect. Sometimes it’s best just to grab a bottle and try the wine for yourself.
I recently began keeping a wine diary of sorts (okay, it’s currently a Post-It Note wine diary) because I was having trouble remembering which wines I really enjoyed. If you are venturing into the German wine tasting world, I encourage you to start your own wine diary. Consider writing down the A. P. number of each German wine you try; this will help you keep track of exactly which bottlings you’ve tasted. You’ll quickly discover that there are some truly great German wines out there.