(It doesn’t have to be so complicated)
Let’s break our German wine labels down into two categories; the first we will call QbA (Qualitätswein) and the second one we’ll call QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat).
QbAs must be produced only from allowed grape varieties grown in one of the 13 wine-growing regions of Germany. This region will always be printed on the label. There are several other rules, but for now this is the important part.
A wine classified as a QmP is at the top level of the German classification system and will have extra information about the wine printed on the label. The ripeness level, printed clearly on QmP wine labels is the most complicated part to understand, but also one of the most important.
Your enjoyment level of German wine will reach new heights when you fully understand the differences between ripeness and sweetness.
More about the ripeness level:
Think of ripeness in terms of weight. When you bite into a crisp apple, you get a snappy, almost crunchy and light sensation as you chew. Now imagine biting into a very, very ripe peach and the juicy, gooey, syrupy mess that virtually melts as you slurp. Both are delicious and both have complex flavors, fruitiness and acidity. But there is a difference in the perceived heaviness or body. Just like the two fruit examples mentioned, the final weight of the wine is directly effected by the ripeness level of the grapes at the time of harvest.
Below are the terms describing each level of ripeness and the corresponding “weight” of the wine.
• Kabinett – the first level of ripeness, these grapes produce the lightest of the QmP wines.
• Spätlese – later harvest, medium level of ripeness, makes a medium weight wine.
• Auslese – specially selected, usually later harvest, makes medium / heavy weight wines.
• Beerenauslese – or “BA” – a wine made from individually selected berries, makes a heavy bodied wine.
• Trockenbeerenauslese – or “TBA” – made from individually selected dried (very ripe, almost raisin-like) berries, makes a very heavy bodied wine.
• Eiswein – wine made with grapes which were harvested while frozen. Eiswein must be at least as heavy as Beerenauslese and can be more concentrated than a Trockenbeerenauslese.
There are several grape varieties that are grown in Germany and made into wine, but by far the most popular grape is Riesling.
For those of you who think that all Rieslings are sweet, you are in for a big surprise because they are not.
This is undoubtedly the biggest misconception about Riesling.
So, how do you tell if the wine is dry or sweet? One of the best ways is to take note of the alcohol level. The lower the alcohol percentage (7-8%), the sweeter the wine. This is because the bulk of the sugar in the fermenting fruit has not been converted to alcohol. Longer fermentation times allow the sugars to convert to higher levels of alcohol (11-13%). This is why it is possible to have a very dry late harvest Riesling (can you say yum?)