Verstehen Sie Deutsch? Making Sense of German Wine Labels

by Jim Clarke
December 2009

There’s no question what country has the wordiest labels in wine: Germany. A linguistic penchant for compound words, the focus on ripeness levels in addition to the usual producer, grape, regional, and vineyard names, and then the various terms individual regions have come up with to distinguish certain wines make a German wine label a pretty cluttered sight to behold, never mind the traditional Gothic script. For that matter, most Americans encounter a Romance language of some sort in school, rather than German, so the language and pronunciation may not feel familiar in the first place. But German wines can’t be dismissed; not only is it the homeland of Riesling, a grape whose star is rising, but other German wines are also becoming more common here in the US, including some reds. Here’s a breakdown on the sorts of information a German wine label might throw at you.

Producer Name: The most obvious item, unlike in Burgundy, where the village or vineyard might be in largest font. Often personal names, though “Schloss Such-and-Such” (“Castle…”) is not uncommon. “Weingut” also shows up a lot; it simply means “wine estate.”

The Grape: It may seem like it’s all Riesling, all the time, in Germany, but there’s more to it than that. Sylvaner, Scheurebe, Gewürztraminer, are all making in-roads into the export market, as are the reds Lemberger and Pinot Noir. The latter is known as Spätburgunder; “burgunder” denotes the whole Pinot family, an appropriate acknowledgement of its Burgundian roots: Grauburgunder is Pinot Gris, Weissburgunder, Pinot Blanc. However, the “Spät” in Spätburgunder doesn’t mean “Noir,” it means “late,” as in “That grape ripens really late for a cool climate like Germany.” In any case, the grape name shows up on the label.

Quality level: As in most European countries, there are four officially recognized quality levels, but only two really concern us in the US, as Tafelwein and Landwein generally don’t’ show up over here. The lesser category, officially, is Qualitätswein bestimmter

Anbaugebiete; it means “quality wine from a certain region” and is informally called a “QbA.” On a given wine, look for “Qualitätswein” and the regional name: Nahe, Pfalz, Mosel, and so forth.
The top level for German wines is “Predikätswein,” prior to 2007 called “Qualitätswein mit Predikat” (QmP). A “quality wine with predicate” has a ripeness level indicated, probably giving rise to more confusion about German wines than anything else on the label. More to follow, for now, note that, in principle, QbA wines are second to Predikätsweins; however, some producers are releasing top-notch wines as QbAs, especially for drier styles. In part, this allows them to bypass some restrictions, including a ban on chaptalization. It’s a bit like the Super Tuscans bypassing of the DOC system in Italy.

Ripeness levels: There are six, defined by the amount of sugar in the grapes when harvested (exact numbers vary by grape variety and region):

  • Kabinett: the lowest in sugar, and harvested the earliest.
  • Spätlese: literally, “late picked,” though not by the standards of other, warmer wine regions; typically harvested a week or so after the Kabinett grapes.
  • Auslese: “Selectively picked,” wines from these grapes are at the tipping point between table wines and dessert wines; it depends on personal preferences, the particular wine, and pairings. These wines, and the remaining three categories, are always sweet to some degree.
  • Beerenauslese (BA): Into the dessert wines of Germany, individual berries, often botrytized, are picked out from among their brethren.
  • Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): “Dried berries picked out,” more or less. These are definitely botrytized, and intensely concentrated and rich.
  • Eiswein: Icewines have other specifications besides just sugar ripeness, so stand outside the normal system, but technically are part of the Predikätswein category.
  • The big confusion, and one that even dedicated, professional Riesling fans give into, lies in the first two categories. Kabinett and Spätlese are terms that reflect the amount of sugar in the grapes when harvested, not the amount of sugar in the wine. So a Spätlese wine can be dry or slightly sweet, as can a Kabinett wine. It’s up to the winemaker: ferment all the grapes’ sugars into alcohol, or stop the fermentation at some point and leave some residual sugar in the finished wine. Ideally, they’re looking for the right balance with the wine’s acidity. In fact, more dry wines are made from Spätlese grapes (the sweeter grapes, remember) than from Kabinett, because the acidity in riper grapes is lower, and so easier to balance without resorting to residual sweetness. If you want to know if a wine is dry, look instead for:
  • Trocken: which simply means “dry.” Want some sweetness, but only a little? Try a halbtrocken –“half-dry” – or feinherb. The latter is an old-fashioned term enjoying a revival of interest; it’s more-or-less the same as halbtrocken, but the official requirements for it are not as strict, so winemakers have a bit more freedom with it.

Geography: All Predikätsweins and QbA wines will indicate the region they come from. Individual vineyards are usually indicated by a village name and then the vineyard itself. For example, the Mosel vineyard “Ürziger Würzgarten” comes from a vineyard named Würzgarten in the village of Ürzig. Some of these so-called “vineyards” can be quite large – the so-called “Grosslagen” – so large that they don’t represent a distinct terroir.

A couple of regions have developed grand or premier cru vineyard systems. The Rheingau calls its best vineyards “Erste Lagen,” and the wines from them “Erstes Gewächs;” other parts of Germany use the term Grosses Gewächs. By agreement these wines are all from Spätlese level grapes, fermented to dryness.