Guest Article by Debra Meiburg MW
Wine Contributor, Hong Kong
Traveling in Germany this past month, I tasted many a Riesling and other regional wines. For clarification of the German labeling system, I went right to Master of Wine Debra Meiburg, who shares her passion for wine as an IN CLASSIC STYLE correspondent.
A quick glance at any bar in Hong Kong on a Friday night and its clear language is rarely a barrier to romance. However, in the case of German Riesling, sadly it’s probably the inscrutable if poetic German language labels that keep them from getting more dates.
There are other explanations: white wine is still not as highly regarded in Asia as red; Germany is affiliated with sweet wines, long unpopular in international markets. But if we compare Germany to its francophone neighbor, Alsace, we will see how the latter’s brand-driven labels and simple sweetness indicators have endeared them to those few consumers currently ordering anything white and flute-shaped.
Even attempting to understand the German labeling system requires the capacity for three-dimensional thought. Though both German and Alsatian labels feature grape varieties, hugely helpful in the New World, the benefits of varietal labeling are minimal for Germany since its top-quality exports are made from little besides Riesling.
Nearly unique worldwide, the primary axis of the system is not region but must weight, i.e. the sugar levels of the unfermented grape juice. The classifications, or “Prädikats,” rise from Kabinett to Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (plus Eiswein, its own animal). Again these don’t convey sweetness, as many mistakenly assume; a wine labeled “Auslese,” normally sweet, may be a wine of palate-scouring dryness if it’s an “Auslese Trocken.”
Sweetness, which we’ll call the second axis, would seem a more sensible place for consumers to start. Here we find terms like “Trocken“ (dry) and “Halbtrocken” (half-dry), which are government-sanctioned, and “Feinherb,” which is not. Feinherb, a euphemism for Halbtrocken, was created for wines with around 15g/L of residual sugar, but can now be seen on bottles with 40 or more decadent grams, and thus is only sort of helpful. Classic and Selection, terms indicating “harmoniously dry” wines typical of their region, and intended to obviate the prädikat-sweetness problem altogether, were largely rejected as an oversimplification.
Thus we come to our final axis: location. German labels do identify region, the best known of which are Mosel and Rheingau. Mosel is known for delicate, aromatic and lightly sweet wines, Rheingau for drier, more robust and even savory styles. The other eleven are unfamiliar to all but German wine devotees, though lately Nahe, Baden and Pfalz have established themselves as strong contenders. Villages within regions, such as Piesport and Wehlen, usually lend their names to individual vineyards such as Piesporter Goldtröpfchen or Wehlener Sonnenuhr, thus an “-er” suffix on the first word would seem to indicate a quality vineyard. Sadly not: what follows may in fact be a larger general area that is no promise of quality at all such as Piesporter Michelsberg. Many producers have over 30 bottlings, with little indication of which are specific and which generic.
To resolve this quandary, the Verband Deutsche Prädikatsweingüter or VDP, comprising around 200 top German producers, developed a vineyard classification pyramid analogous to the Grand Crus of Burgundy. In simplistic terms, vineyards can be Grosse Lage (Grand Cru), Erste Lage (Premier Cru), Ortswein (“regional wine”) or Landwein (“country wine”). A dry wine from a Grosse Lage is a Grosses Gewächs or GG. However, despite their name, the group doesn’t advocate the use of Prädikats for dry wines; Prädikats are only used for sweet wines, where they denote sweetness rather than must weight.6
Confusing? Maybe, but the VDP has given German wine a number of useful icons. The VDP logo, a stylized eagle with a grape cluster on its breast, appears on the capsule of members’ bottles as a stamp of quality. The Erste Lage symbol, a “1” merged with an L cradling a grape cluster, indicates a top-quality wine from a Erste or Grosse Lage and is printed on labels and occasionally restaurant menus. From 2012, Grosses Gewächs will be indicated by the letters GG around a grape cluster, making dry wines easier to spot.
Sadly, the system leaves much room for clarification by individual producers. Schloss Johannisberg uses capsules with various colors on top to help distinguish their different bottlings. Weingut Prinz von Hessen, which recently decided to reduce its 30+ wine labels to five dry and a handful of sweet, took a more subtle conceptual approach, using the most colorful graphics for its basic wine, H, moving towards an increasingly spare white and gold aesthetic for its top bottlings.
At this stage a comprehensive understanding is still elusive; we almost have to resort to little tips and tricks. Perhaps it is too much to expect total consistency across the country (after all, you would never insist Burgundy and Bordeaux develop a country-wide system). But in the end, once a few base creds are established, why let a few complicated consonants and vowels stand in the way of a kiss?