Understanding German Wine
One of the most misunderstood and maligned Old World wine regions is one of our favourites: Germany. German wines have long been considered cheap, sweet, unbalanced plonk by a large portion of North American wine consumers. This is a terribly unfair characterization, driven by the proliferation of poor quality, value offerings available in our local shops. However, Sommeliers have always loved Germany as it is the Mothership for the “King of Grapes”, Riesling.
Germany is a true cool-climate wine country. The secret to success for winemakers in this Northern region is to seek out vineyard sites close to rivers that offer the perfect microclimate to craft nervy, acid-driven wines with purity of fruit. The vast majority of vineyards here are in close proximity to the Rhine and Mosel and their tributaries. Limestone, Devonian Shale and Slate are the main soil types, with some exciting volcanic soil in the Nahe and calcareous marl in some of the smaller subregions. All of these are perfect for growing fresh whites and balanced reds.
One very confusing aspect for many consumers is the almost incomprehensible German wine labelling system. Many wineries are eschewing this system and placing more of a focus on proprietary branding and varietal name, but wines of quality still possess a daunting array of multi-syllabic terms. To understand these wines, you need to have a handle on the labelling laws.
There are 13 distinct wine producing regions in Germany, known as Anbaugebiete. These include popular regions like Mosel (formerly Mosel-Saar-Ruwer), Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz, as well as interesting, lesser known ones like the volcanic soiled Nahe and the red wine focused, warmer Baden. There are subregions as well; 39 districts, known as Bereiche, 167 vineyard collectives called Grosslagen and over 2600 individually designated vineyards called Einzellagen. Wineries are known as Weingut. If a wine is “Estate Bottled”, it may have Gutsabfüllung on the label.
At the top of the German wine classification system are the Prädikatswein (formerly QmP), that utilize the Prädikat, referring to the weight of sugar in the must of unfermented grapes according to the Oeschle scale. This does not necessarily indicate the wine itself will be sweet, but that it has achieved a high level of ripeness, quite difficult in many of the vintages in Germany. Within the Prädikat, there is a tier system, ostensibly for quality, but there are many stellar examples of “lower tier” wines. Kabinett is the entry level (usually, but not always, off-dry); a wine that bears the term Feinherb will be medium sweet. The other tiers are Spätlese (late harvest), Auslese (select late harvest), Beerenauslese (berry selection late harvest), Trockenbeerenauslese (dried berry selection late harvest, frequently botrytis affected) and Eiswein (like Canadian Icewine, made from frozen grapes).
The next level is known as QbA (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete). These wines come from one of the 13 distinct wine regions referenced above and the region must be shown on the label. This classification does not refer to sweetness levels, but you may see references to Trocken (dry) or Halbtrocken (off-dry or half dry) on the label. There are also Deutscher Wine and Deutscher Landwein classifications, which refer to more generic bottlings that can be multi-regional.
A relatively new classification was created in 2012 called VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter). This brought together approximately 200 of the best wineries in Germany that all agreed to certain standards which are more stringent than those outlined in German wine law including: limiting hand harvests to under 50 hl/ha, having a minimum must weight (sugar ripeness in the grapes) and coming from recognized, top-quality sites. This was created particularly, but not exclusively, for dry wines which were not classified as top quality under the Prädikat, that has a hierarchy based on sweetness. The two top levels within this are Erste Lage (the equivalent of Premier Cru in Burgundy) and Grosse Lage (Grand Cru), with the dry wines in this category, typically from the Rheingau, given the term “Grosses Gewachs”. The lower tiers are called Gutswein (good from the ground up) and Ortswein (sourced from superior soils).
While Riesling is certainly king amongst German wines, there are beautiful examples of Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder), Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder), Silvaner (a steely, mineral-driven white), as well as elegantly crafted reds made from varietals like Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Dornfelder, Zweigeltrebe and Blauburgunder (Blaufrankisch or Frankovka).
At Buyers+Cellars, we have an exciting lineup of German winery partners including Markus Hüls from the Mosel, Weingut Weschler and Weingut Manz from Rheinhessen and Matthias Gaul, a Pinot Noir specialist from Pfalz.
Riesling Feinherb Hüls 2018
Loaded with intense aromatics of grapefruit, passion fruit and yellow plum. The palate is off-dry, round and beautifully textured. At once a complex and easy, delicious wine.
Manz Silvaner Trocken 2019
This is a dry and flavourful wine from Rheinnhessen. Aromas of ripe apple and peach alongside streaky minerality.
Weissburgunder Trocken 2018
A wine made for gastronomy, this is serious and playful at once. Aromas of white blossom, apricot and peach abound. The palate is mid-weight, nicely textured and dry, with a slight muttiness added on the finish.
Pinot Noir Asselheim 2017
An elegant and mineral-inflected Pinot Noir. It is highly aromatic and leans towards darker fruit notes: blackcurrant, black cherry. The palate adds a mineral freshness with rupe, soft tannins and bright acidity.