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Wine topic of the month – the German wine classification system

urzwurz

Ürziger Würzgarten – Ürzig, Mittlemosel, Germany

Germany’s wine classification is pretty straightforward, as you might expect from a society that prizes order. And yet, it can be a little confusing to the neophyte, especially if someone is acquainted with the German language. For instance, how is it that a Trockenbeerenauslese is sweeter than a Spätlese? (I’ll explain this in a minute) Doesn’t Trocken mean dry in German? How is an Auslese sweeter than a Spätlese, because, doesn’t Spät indicate “late” and shouldn’t a “late harvest” wine be sweeter than something that’s not indicated as “late”?

Well, you’ll just have to put all that aside. The easiest way to remember how to think of the sweetness of German wines is to remember this sequence which is listed from less sweet to more sweet – Kabinett, Spätlese (late harvest), Auslese (select harvest), Beerenauslese (select berry harvest), Trockenbeerenauslese (select dried berry harvest), Eiswein (harvest of semi-frozen berries, i.e. “ice wine”).

We don’t really need to know very much about the official categories Tafelwine (table wine) and Landwine (country wine),  because we rarely see these wines outside of Germany (and perhaps its immediate neighbors). Most of the wine that we see in the Western Hemisphere is Qualitätswein. This is divided into Qualitätswein bestimmer Anbaugebete (Q.b.A), quality wine from defined regions, and Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (Q.m.P) or more simply, Prädikatswein, wine with distinction.

The first listing of Kabinett, etc. are considered “distinctions” of Qualitätswein. The difference between Q.b.A and Q.m.P. is that Q.b.A is allowed to have additional sugar added (usually from reserved unfermented grape juice). This sort of practice of adding additional sugar was abused in the 70s by wines claiming to be Prädikatswein and this diluted the German brand to the point where the Germans cracked down on the practice of letting wines claiming to be “the best” adding extra sugar. Doing so would drop the classification down a rung (like a British football team being relegated to a lower league).

How are these “distinctions”  determined? They are determined by the measurement of residual sugar in the must (must being the fermenting mass of grape juice) as measured in Oechsle, a German method of determining the amount of residual sugar by measuring the volume of the liquid, which changes as the amount of residual sugar increases or declines. The amount of residual sugar remaining will determine whether a wine is a Kabinett or an Auslese, so the Germans confuse things even more by using a term like Spätlese, it’s its theoretically possible for a wine harvested earlier than another harvested later in another part of the country to end up as a Spätlese and the latter as a Kabinett, although this would be pretty rare, if not unrealistic. It’s all determined by the sweetness, not the actual date of the harvest. Except…

Beerenausleses and above are always the latest of the harvest. This is the only way to get to the Oechsle levels required of wines above Auslese. Beerenauslese is basically “overripe” grapes that the “noble rot” Botrytis has started to attack. This concentrates the juice and makes it sweeter than normal. And now, as promised, we explain the Trocken (German for dry) in Trockenbeerenauslese. Trocken as used here refers to the state of the grape, not the sweetness of the wine. At this stage of harvest, the grape is almost entirely shriveled up, looking a lot like a raisin. so dry refers to the fact that there’s very little juice in the grape, which explains the very high price paid for the product. The last ‘distinction” and the sweetest, is Eiswine, the last grapes allowed to be harvested, grapes that are frozen on the vine. These wines are the most prized and are the equivalent to a great sauterne.

Confusing the issue even more is the presence of Trocken and Halbtrocken wines. These wines are fermented in a way that keeps the residual sugar lower than their brethren. Therefore, they are done in a dry or half dry style. They are still going to be slightly sweeter than a dry California chardonnay though.

There is also a way of indicating quality by capsule length or color, but this is a convention used by specific regions and/or Weingute and have no significance from a “classification” standpoint. There are also some famed vineyards like Doctor or the above pictured Ürziger Würzgarten. Discussing these, as well as regions, grape varieties (no, not all German wines are Rieslings, or even whites), specific vintages, or producers is beyond the scope of this post. Perhaps we’ll tackle them separately in future posts.

Should you always choose a Q.m.P over a Q.b.A? Not necessarily. There are some really fine wines in the latter category and they are good values. You should generally pay less for them than for Q.m.Ps though. BTW, I believe that Q.m.P is being phased out in favor of Prädikatswein, so, you might not be seeing the longer term any more.

In the meantime, here are a couple of links that go into more detail about German wines that you might enjoy:

http://www.winepage.de/

http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~walter/wine/germany.html

http://www.germanwineusa.org/

And here’s a compact dictionary page:

http://www.thewinedoctor.com/regionalguides/germanydictionary.shtml

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