Buying German Wine – Understanding the Label

Sprechen Sie Deutsch (Do you speak German)? Looking at the text on German wine labels, it is leichter gesagt als getan (easier said than done), or, more correctly, easier said than understood. And, for that matter, it isn’t even very easy to say.

If wine labels are generally intimidating to the uninitiated, German wine labels are among the most intimidating of all – unfamiliar names; lengthy, unpronounceable terms; and just an all around use of a lot of words could scare off even the most avid wine drinker.

But, in truth, German wine labels actually provide the consumer with a wealth of information about the wine in question. You don’t need a secret decoder ring, but learning some basic German wine vocabulary will assist you in understanding what you are looking at on the wine store shelf.

To begin, there are two levels of German quality wine – Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete(QbA) and Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP).  The first category designates wines that come from one of Germany’s 13 wine regions and account for the majority of German wine production. The latter (QmP) are more complicated because, in addition to coming from a particular wine region, they also indicate wines produced from grapes that have achieved certain levels of ripeness at harvest. These are considered to be higher in quality than QbA because Germany’s cool climate makes it more challenging to reach full ripeness, thereby placing a premium on riper grapes.

Prädikat Levels

Once one has worked out the two quality levels, they may encounter some confusion with regard to the grape varieties themselves. Spätburgunder? Grauburgunder? Weissburgunder? Sure, they sound exotic, but actually, these are just the German names for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, respectively. Other grapes likely to be seen include Müller-Thurgau (white), Silvaner (white) — particularly prized when it hails from Franken, Portugieser (red) and the more respected Dornfelder (red). Also of note is Lemberger (elsewhere known as Blaufränkisch) which offers red fruit, spice and nice tannin structure. Above all else, there’s Riesling; this vaunted white grape accounts for over one-quarter of all German plantings.

Dry or sweet? Although many people associate Germany with sweet wines, the majority of German wines produced today are dry. Admittedly, a lot of the drier style wines never make it to our shores (the Germans keep much of it at home for themselves), but consumers can find dry style German wines on U.S. shelves. Some of these wines are distinctly labeled as being dry – if you know how to decipher the label. The specific words to look for are trocken (dry) and halbtrocken (off-dry).

Charta logoIn addition, the label terms “Classic” and “Selection” may also be used to indicate a dry (or high-acid, off-dry) wine.  Similarly, wines bearing the double Romanesque arch of the Charta Association, created in 1983, are dry to off-dry QbA- or prädikat-level Rieslings from the Rheingau region that meet the organization’s strict quality regulations.

In general, wines that have no indication of their sweetness level can usually be expected to be somewhat sweet. Another hint is to check the alcohol level since lower alcohol levels (9% abv and lower) generally mean that at least some of the grape’s sugar content hasn’t been converted into alcohol and, thus, remains in the wine as detectable sweetness.

As with many other wine producing countries, Germany’s wine regions can be further broken down into smaller areas – bereiche, grosslagen and einzellagen. A bereich is a regional or district designation, while a grosslage is a group of vineyards and an einzellage is, theoretically, a single vineyard.  Unfortunately, it is these last two territories that cause the most confusion since it is often difficult to ascertain whether the label refers to a grosslage or einzellage.

However, this uncertainty can be overcome by either memorizing a list of the top sites, limiting purchases to wines from well-known/well-respected producers or simply giving up and taking a chance on the bottle in hand, despite its murky label (well, not really).

Thankfully, an additional classification system was launched in 2002 by the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, can boost one’s confidence in choosing a wine. VDP LogoEstablished in 1910 and abbreviated as VDP, this association represents Germany’s leading wine estates, with a dual focus on quality wine production and classified vineyard sites. All of these wines sport the association’s eagle logo, making them easily identifiable to the consumer.

In 2012, this classification system was further refined, closely modeled on Burgundy’s regional and vineyard hierarchy. Accordingly, the top category, VDP. Grosse Lage (translating as Great Site) is awarded to the best vineyard sites, equivalent to Burgundy’s Grand Cru vineyards. Dry wines in this upper echelon are further designated as VDP. Grosses Gewächs “Great Growth” and labeled “Qualitätswein trocken” while naturally sweet wines are labeled with the appropriate traditional Prädikat term.

VDP LevelsAnalogous to Burgundy’s Premier Cru vineyards is the VDP. Erste Lage (First Site), while VDP. Ortswein (Classified Site) is akin to Burgundy’s Village-level wines. The lowest tier of this system is the VDP. Gutswein (Estate Wine), which is similar to the regional designation in Burgundy (i.e. AOC Bourgogne). Dry wines in these categories are also labeled “Qualitätswein trocken” while the sweet wines retain the Prädikat designation on their labels.

Bearing all of these clues in mind, the careful consumer can more readily choose among the selection of German wines on the shelf of their neighborhood wine retailer and find the bottle that best meets their preferences.

silvaner

Castell-Castell Silvaner 2012, Franken, Germany, $18.00 
With aromas of pear, wax and white flowers, this dry wine offers medium acidity and medium body on the palate with flavors of almond, wax and pear and medium+ length.

Grafen Neipperg Lemberger
Trocken 2011, Württemberg, Germany, $20.00 (not pictured)
Medium aromas of cinnamon, berry and wood are joined on the (clearly stated –trocken) dry palate with flavors of cranberry, mulberry and a hint of earth in the finish.

Undone PNUndone Pinot Noir
2012, Rheinhessen, Germany, $11.00
A Pinot Noir from Germany isn’t so surprising these days (Germany is #3 in PN production), but this wine’s origin from Rheinhessen (as opposed to Ahr or Baden) makes it somewhat unusual as does its great quality at this price. With cherry, herbal and wet leaves on the nose, this dry wine has lively acidity on the palate. Medium+ length.

 

Schloss Saarstein Riesling Kabinett 2012, Serrig Schloss Saarsteiner, Mosel, Germany, $25.00Schloss Saarstein
Located within the municipality of Serrig, the Schloss Saarsteiner property, so named for the large castle (schloss) that sits amidst the vines, above the Saar River (a tributary of the Mosel) is an Erste Lage site. The wine offers peach, floral and wet stone aromas on the nose. Its palate is off-dry with high acidity and flavors of lime zest, peach and wet stone, culminating in long length.

Prinz SalmPrinz Salm Roxheimer
Berg Spätlese 2012, Nahe, Germany, $28.00
With an alcohol level of 7.5% abv and a designation of spätlese, there was no question that this wine (from a Grosse Lage site) would have some sweetness. However, its sweetness is beautifully balanced by its high acidity, so it is perceived as off-dry on the palate, with lemon zest, lime, peach, honey and minerality aromas and flavors.

Johannishof Charta Riesling 2012, Rheingau, Germany, $25.00Johannishof

A pronounced nose provides aromas of floral, straw, wet stone and Asian pear. The dry palate displays high acidity with notes of granny smith apple, lime, stone, pith, blossom and minerality. Long Length.

 

 

Kesselstatt Josephshöfer Riesling Kabinett 2012, Mosel, Germany, $30.00thumb
First documented 1,100 years ago, the Josephshöfer Grosse Lage site has been wholly owned by Kesselstatt since 1858. Citrus, floral, apricot and slight honey aromas greet the nose and persist on the dry, but ripe, palate. Long length.

The case of/for German Rieslings

Our Thanksgiving dinner table overflowed with bounty; weighed down with more food than we possibly needed, we were also truly blessed by the family and friends who sat around it. With the diversity of deliciousness that lay before us, I felt that Riesling – and especially German Riesling – would be the perfect accompaniment to our meal.

Due to Riesling’s generally high acidity and wide range of styles from bone dry to lusciously sweet, it is extremely versatile at the table. Consequently, I decided it would be fun to open up not just one or two Riesling to pair with our Thanksgiving dinner this year, but ten different bottles. So it was that I found myself staring down ten, numbered glasses an hour or so before the feast.

My husband did the honors of preparing the set-up and since neither of us was fully acquainted with these wines, we determined that the best approach was to line them up from highest alcohol (and presumably the driest) to lowest alcohol (and likely the sweetest). If we’d had any wines of Auslese-level or higher this wouldn’t have worked quite as well, but since our selection included Kabinett and Spatlese only, we felt it was reasonably safe way to proceed. And, to our pleasant surprise, there were only two tweaks I felt were needed when I actually sat down to taste the samples.

Of further interest, the wines in question ranged in price from a low of $11.00 to a high of $67.00, with an average of $30.00/bottle. This price divergence was the primary impetus for tasting the wines blind, but, of course, removing all preconceived notions (not just that of price) enabled a more unbiased evaluation.

Unfortunately, the size of our dining table, already encumbered with multiple platters of food, didn’t permit us to have all ten bottles of wine on hand. However, we did bring two bottles to the table at a time and let guests fill their glasses as they preferred, replacing empty bottles as necessary.

Interestingly, while well-liked and well-regarded, the most expensive wine wasn’t the immediate favorite and didn’t necessarily stand out among the “crowd.” Additionally, the sweeter, but balanced, styles were more preferred than the drier ones.

The wines are listed in the order in which they were tasted:

1. Kesselstatt Josephshofer Riesling GG 2010, Mosel, Germany, $67.00
Pronounced nose with honey, tropical fruit, lychee; Dry with high acidity, citrus, spice and zest; extremely long length. Well structured and balanced; lean and nervy with some complexity.

2. Baron K Riesling Kabinett 2011, Rheingau, Germany, $18.00
Floral, lime and lime zest aromas; Off-dry with citrus, peach and floral on the palate; medium+ to long length. Well made and classic.

3. Undone Dry Riesling 2011, Rheinhessen, Germany, $11.00
Slight petrol notes, floral and nectarine; bone dry with medium+ acidity; citrus, pith, mineral and some nectarine.

4. Johannishof Charta Riesling 2011, Rheingau, Germany, $25.00
Slight spice with citrus and citrus peel, some floral aromas; Dry with high acidity, peach, citrus, petrol and honey; Angular with good complexity.

5. Joh. Jos. Prum Riesling Kabinett 2011, Mosel, Germany, $24.00
Quince, lychee, petrol and minerality; Off-dry almost medium sweet, with peach, tropical fruit and mineral; Rich and tropical.

6. Schloss Saarsteiner Riesling Kabinett 2010, Mosel, Germany, $27.00
Limited nose with petrol and citrus, but opening up on the off-dry palate with citrus, petrol, spice and honey, culminating in long length; One of my favorites.

7. Schloss Saarstein Riesling Spatlese 2011, Mosel, Germany, $38.00
Citrus, citrus zest, floral and a hint of minerality; Off-dry, but on the sweeter side of off-dry, citrus, floral and mineral.

8. Maximin Grunhauser Abtsberg Riesling Spatlese 2010, Mosel, Germany, $38.00
Quince, spice, honey; Off-dry with spice, honey and quince; Exotic and luscious.

9. Graff Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spatlese 2011, Mosel, Germany, $17.00
Shy nose displaying floral and peach notes; Medium-sweet palate with floral, peach and pineapple; Balanced by the acidity despite the sweetness level.

10. Graff Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spatlese 2010, Mosel, Germany, $17.00
Petrol and floral aromas; Off-dry with rich quince, honey, floral, petrol, citrus zest and very long length; Nicely balanced and complex.

 

Of course, ten wines was more than enough for our party of five, but should you wish to make a full case of it, here are two more wines to add to your list (tasted on separate occasions):

11. Liebfrauenstift Dry Riesling 2011, Rheinhessen, Germany, $19.00
Structured, dry, fresh, ripe lime and peach, mineral. Long length; Fabulous!

12. Baron zu Knyphausen Erbacher Michelmark Riesling Erste Lage 2009, Rheingau, Germany, $57.00
Displaying floral, citrus and tangerine aromas on the nose, the dry palate offered piercing acidity with rich, ripe flavors of peach, tangerine, citrus pith, lime zest, floral and minerality, finishing with a very long length. Truly amazing.

Quick Sips

A number of wine samples crossed my dining table in the latter half of 2011. Some were quite nice; others were amazingly good. Here are the highlights.

Italy Calling

The Frescobaldi Remole 2009, Tuscany, Italy ($10.00) is a country level wine (it’s labeled as IGT Toscana) that combines 85% Sangiovese with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. With leafy, cherry and vegetal aromas and flavors, the wine was in keeping with its Sangiovese origins, but the Cabernet Sauvignon was more evident on the palate, with black fruit lingering in the finish. A nice value at this price and an excellent foil for the homemade pizza we paired with which we paired it.

A more traditional “Super Tuscan” style wine, Frescobaldi’s Tenuta di Castiglioni 2008, Tuscany, Italy ($22.00) switches the blend to lead with 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and only 10% Sangiovese. The nose presents blackberry, mint, smoke and slight vegetative aromas, while the palate offers bright acidity, firm tannins, full body and black cherry, vegetal, mint and cedar flavors. Overall, it is nicely structured with some complexity.

From further south, the Xavier Flouret Quattro Canti 2007, Sicily, Italy ($24.00) offers an interesting 50-50 mix of the indigenous Nero d’Avola with the non-traditional Cabernet Franc, aged for 12 months in French oak barrels. This deep colored wine had aromas of plum, vanilla, oak, licorice and some spice with dusty tannins, ripe, jammy fruit flavors of plum, cocoa, black cherry, vanilla and oak, with medium+ length.

You had me at Pinot

A  Pinot Noir “taste off” pitted Foppiano Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, CA ($25.00) against Bouchaine Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros, CA ($30.00) with the following results. The Bouchaine showed cherry, black cherry and vanilla aromas, which were joined by spice and herbs with vibrant acidity, medium+ body, ripe tannins and long length on the palate. The Foppiano offering was a bit shier on the nose, with less pronounced aromas of cherry and herbs. Bright red fruit, spice and wood dominated the slightly lighter-bodied palate, culminating in long length.

Down by the bay

Shifting attention down under, a series of wines from Hawkes Bay were tasted in anticipation of a New Zealand wine seminar given at the American Wine Society’s annual conference.

Among the whites, the Decibel Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($14.00) showed citrus and grassy aromas on the nose, giving way to lemon, lime marmalade, slight grass and minerality with high acidity and medium+ body, while the Te Awa Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($18.00) displayed more grapefruit and pith with slightly less acidity on the palate. The Te Awa Chardonnay 2009 ($27.00) offered apple notes with slight oak and mineral character, which were joined by citrus and spice flavors on the full-bodied palate.

Moving onto the reds, the Te Awa Syrah 2009 ($27.00) had fresh fruit aromas of blackberry with a hint of oak followed by spice, earth, leather and black cherry flavors with medium acidity, full body,  med tannins and long length. The more unusual, varietally-labeled Decibel Malbec 2009 ($18.00) is a blend of blueberry, cranberry and slight spice on the nose with ripe tannins, medium+ acidity and rich blueberry and blackberry notes on the palate.

German Riesling and beyond

I ended the year with several German wines including Silvaner, Lemberger and Riesling.

The P.J. Vlackenberg Gewürztraminer 2010, Pfalz, Germany ($14.00) has pronounced aromas of spice, floral and pear, which persisted on the off dry palate with medium+ body and medium length.

With notes of pear, blossom and smoke, the Castell-Castell Silvaner Trocken 2010, Franken, Germany ($18.00)’s palate gives way to riper versions of these aromas on its light-bodied palate.

A nice red, quaffing wine, the Grafen Neipperg Lemberger 2010, Württemberg, Germany ($24.00) greets the nose with cherry, plum and slight spice and finishes with medium length.

The Liebfrauenstift Dry Riesling 2010, Rheinhessen, Germany ($15.00) is a good value, food friendly wine, offering  fresh citrus and candied lemon aromas, with good acidity on the dry palate.

Enjoyed on Christmas day and shared with close friends, the Baron zu Knyphausen Erbacher Michelmark Riesling Erste Lage 2009, Rheingau, Germany ($57.00) was a wonderful surprise. Displaying floral, citrus and tangerine aromas on the nose, the dry palate offered piercing acidity with rich, ripe flavors of peach, tangerine, citrus pith, lime zest, floral and minerality, finishing with a very long length. Truly amazing.

Grand Cru Grape Vine: Happy Mutter’s Day (May 2011)

Happy Mutter’s Day! The word Mutter is German for mother and, with Mother’s Day on May 8th, and our focus on Germany this month, we’re sending you a bilingual greeting.

This month, Jared and Tracy will once again participate in TasteCamp East. The 2011 itinerary includes visits to the Niagara wine regions on both the Canadian and American sides. Then, in June, Tracy will travel to the Kingdom of Navarra in Spain’s Basque region where she will taste the wines and cuisine.

Public classes begin June 25th when we’ll kickoff the season with a wine class and concert. This special evening will feature a wine class on Australian wine, followed by a concert and story-telling by Australian folksinger, Susanna Carman, as part of her U.S. tour. Enjoy wines and cheeses as you listen to Susanna sing and share her tales of living Down Under.

Other special events for the season include a wine and chocolate tasting with Roxanne Browning of Exotic Chocolate Tasting (July 17), and a class on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, with high end wines such as Diamond Creek and Far Niente (August 14). Visit our website to sign up for these and all other classes.

Drink wisely and well,

Tracy Ellen Kamens, Ed.D., DWS, CWE
CEO: Chief Education Officer

and

Jared Michael Skolnick
COO: Cork Opening Officer

Happy Mutter’s Day: The Wines of Germany
A young engineer accompanied his boss on a business trip to Germany in the 1970s. One evening at dinner, their German hosts were keen to show off the quality of their wines and selected a special bottle from the restaurant’s wine list. The red wine was presented to the boss for tasting, with all eyes anxiously awaiting his reaction. The gentleman raised the glass to his lips, took a sip and declared, with his face revealing displeasure, “It’s too sweet!”

Whether true or not, for a long time, many people attributed all German wines with being too sweet. However, at least these days, the reality is that Germany produces a wide range of high quality wines from bone dry to lusciously sweet, so there are wines to suit a variety of palates and occasions. Germany’s association with sweet wines stems from its focus on the ripeness levels in its grapes. While we generally say that grapevines grow between 30-50o north and south of the equator, vineyards in Germany can be found as far north as the 52nd parallel. Given the northerly locale, reaching full grape ripeness is no easy task. Without the steep (often 45o), south-east facing slopes along the Rhine River and its tributaries, grapegrowing would not be possible in this area. As a result of this slope and orientation, the sun’s rays hit the water and reflect back onto the grapes, permitting them to reach full maturity. Consequently, such ripeness is prized and, much of the German classification is based upon ripeness/sugar levels at harvest.

This ripeness classification, whose designation is restricted to Germany’s quality wine category  – Qualitatswein mit Pradikat (Quality wine with attributes), starts from the least ripe, Kabinett, followed by Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, in ascending order of ripeness. You can expect wines of Auslese level and above to be noticeably sweet, but Kabinett and Spatlese wines may be dry or off-dry (slightly sweet). One clue is to look at the alcohol level; a lower level (10% and under) will generally suggest a sweeter wine since not all of the sugar was converted into alcohol. Another is to look for the word Trocken, which is German for dry, or the terms Classic and Selection, both of which indicate dry-style wines. Those with a little sweetness will pair brilliantly with Asian or other spicy cuisine as well as fatty poultry dishes. Auslese level and sweeter wines are best saved for dessert or as accompaniment to blue cheeses, but while they do retain high levels of residual sugar, they are beautifully balanced with high acidity. This is particularly true of German Rieslings.

And, as a final note, Germany is not a one-grape wonder. In fact, Riesling’s spiritual home is also home to Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and a myriad of other Germanic grape varieties.

Wine Tasting Notes

Bernhard Huber, Alte Reben Spatburgunder Trocken  2007, Baden, Germany, $75.00
From the southernmost and warmest region (Baden), this wine is produced from old vines (20-40 years of age) and presented a complex nose of wet leaves, vegetal notes and cherries. These flavors continued on the dry palate with vibrant acidity, low tannins and an extremely long finish. In a word, stunning!

Grafen Neipperg, Lemberger Trocken, 2008, Württenberg, Germany, $22.00
This estate is owned by Count (Graf) Neipperg and is located in the Württenberg region which is predominantly (70%) planted to red grapes, cherry, clove and vanilla greeted the nose . The dry palate had medium+ acidity, light tannins with flavors of bitter cherry, cloves and vanilla.

Johannishof, Charta Riesling, 2008, Rheingau, Germany, $22.00
Johannishof is owned by the Eser family, which has a winemaking history dating from 1685. This wine showed aromas of spice, floral, pineapple and peach. Dry with just a hint of ripeness, this wine has high acidity and concentrated fruit flavors of pineapple and tropical fruit, along with floral notes, all of which remain throughout the wine’s long length.

Liebfrauenstift Riesling Trocken 2009, Rheinhessen, Germany, $22.00
Originally cultivated by Capuchin monks, Peter Joseph Vlackenberg purchased a stake in the property in 1808, with his family currently owning 90% of the site. With citrus and stone aromas on the nose, this wine is dry with piercing acidity. Citrus, pith, stone and slight spice linger on the palate with long length.

Schloss Saarstein, Pinot Blanc, 2008, Mosel, Germany, $15.00
This estate is located on slate soils overlooking the Saar River. A refreshing wine, with good fruit concentration, this wine displayed floral, pear and melon notes on the nose. These notes were joined by some minerality and a hint of spice on the slightly off-dry palate with medium+ length.