How to Read a German Wine Label

(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).

QbA

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.

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QmP

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.

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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?)

Tears of Riesling

Reisling GrapeBy Richard J. Serrano, L’Eft Bank Wine Domestic Brand Manager

Sometimes selling Riesling makes me want to cry. The other day I poured a 2007 Setzer Riesling from Austria for some non-industry friends. Most said that they didn’t like it because it was sweet.
Technically, the wine was dry. BONE DRY. No residual sugar whatsoever. But they still tasted sweetness. Why? Because it said Riesling on the label. I tried to explain that they were simply tasting fruit, but it fell on deaf ears.

If I had poured them a low-grade Shiraz with 6% residual sugar, no one would have batted an eye. Most Americans would assume red means dry. Also, for most Americans, Riesling, the greatest grape of all, gets no respect. Riesling, with soaring acidity and an ability to match with so many foods, is frowned upon. Riesling, the grape that reads terroir better than even Pinot Noir, is looked at askance. Many Americans would say that they only drink “dry” wine, at the same time guzzling a caramel latte. I can perfectly understand all this, given what has historically been passed off as Riesling. (Do you think the average Liebfraumilch drinker knows it’s made from Muller-Thurgau?)

As I wipe away the tears I take solace in the knowledge that Riesling currently has the highest percentage of growth among all grape varieties. Granted, it’s from a small base, but the category is on the rise. Plus, Millennials seem to have much less fear of hock bottles than baby-boomers. And for every 5 people that recoil when I offer them a glass of Donnhoff Trocken, there will usually be one person who will be convinced, and start down the Riesling path. (This is not easy. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to turn people onto Riesling, but we can’t be deterred. And I’m only discussing DRY, since selling off-dry Spatlese is a whole other set of issues.)

Fortunately, not all my friends are tasting sweet and walking away. My friend Kate was a longtime Sauvignon Blanc fan. She loved crispy, high acid whites, and she HATED Chardonnay. When I suggested Dry Riesling to her, she looked at me like I had two heads. After sharing many Alsatian and Austrian Rieslings, I had her repeating the words, “My name is Kate and I love Riesling.” True story. It took some time, but she no longer hesitates when grabbing a Riesling off the shelf. And I no longer cry when trying to sell Riesling, as much.

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Richard Serrano, Domestic Brand ManagerRichard Serrano, L’Eft Bank Wine Domestic Brand Manager
Raised on beer and tequila since the age of 12, Richard had his first sip of White Zin at the age of 26, and declared it righteous. A bottle of cheap Chilean Merlot followed a week later, and there was no turning back. After a brief flirtation with high-alcohol fruit-bombs, two years in wine retail tempered and matured his palette. He now spends his time in the Sisyphusian pursuit of finding Domestic wines that emphasize balance, purity, and terroir. Known as the company hothead, he spends his off time listening to acoustic blues, reading Decanter, and trying to find old bottles of Roussanne on close-out.

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