How to Decipher German Wine Labels

“I don’t read German!  How the hell am I supposed to know what I’m drinking?”

The Germans produce some of the best wines in the world and the language of their labels can give you a pretty good indication of what’s in the bottle.  It can be complicated and confusing but also endlessly fascinating, a wine region so vast and varied cannot be generalized by some kind of simplification.

For the most part you will encounter two categories of wines…

Qualitätsweine mit Prädikat (QMP)

“Quality wines with special attributes”

This refers to ripeness levels in grapes, or at what stage the grapes are picked.

Kabinett-lightest wines, first picked from the main harvest.

Spätlesea bit fuller bodied, means “late Harvest”.

Auslese-very ripe, “select harvest”,sometimes the grapes have the noble rot-super concentrated sugars (botrytis).

Beerenauslese (BA)-grapes are affected with botrytis, made into dessert wines.

Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA)-“dry berry selection”, overly ripe, dried up raisony grapes reserved for powerful dessert wines.

Eiswein-made from grapes of at least a Beerenauslese ripeness that have been naturally frozen on the vine.

Within this category you will see…

Trocken-meaning “dry” meaning all of the sugar has been fermented into alcohol.

Halbtrocken-meaning “Half dry” or not all of the sugar has been fermented into alcohol.

So you might see a “Kabinett Trocken” label indicating it is light and dry.  Or “Spätlese Halbtrocken” meaning full bodied and rich.  Sometimes you will come across “Auslese Trocken”, bone dry, tart and steely.

Qualitätsweine mit Prädikat (QMP) wines cannot have the artificial addition of sugar (chaptalization).

The other category…

Qualitätswein (QBA)

“Quality wine”

The wines are from a specific wine-growing region with approved grape types.  These wines may be chaptalized (the good producers don’t).  Generally meant for everyday enjoyment.  Trocken and Halbtrocken appear on these labels as well.

Finally got that all figured out but… “What about all that VDP nonsense?  What do those letters mean?  I don’t see the above stuff on those labels as much?”

Verband Deutscher Qualitäts- und Prädikatsweingüter (V D P)

“The Association of German Quality and Prädikat Wine Estates”

The wine growers associated with this group must practice organic and sustainable farming, only use grapes associated with the area, must farm low yields, cannot chaptalize, and can only use natural wine making techniques.  They are all about the preservation and acknowledgement of Germany’s finest vineyard sites.

You will find three catagories here…

Gutsweine (house wines), labeled with a proprietary, village or regional name.

Klassifizierte Lagenweine (wines from a classified/superior vineyard site), labeled with a vineyard site name.

Erste Lage (wines from a top site-Grosses Gewächs-“Great Growth or Grand Cru” look for the “GG”), labeled with a vineyard site name and the super vineyard site logo…

either in print or embossed on the bottle.

Some examples and some further notes…

“Selbach-Oster” is the wine estate. “Zeltinger” is the town, “Schlossberg” is a single vineyard site.  “Riesling” is the grape.  “Kabinett” is the level of ripeness.  You can see that it is a “Qualitätsweine mit Prädikat (QMP)” wine. “Gutsabfüllung” is a very important word, it means “Estate Bottled”.  “Weingut” means winegrower, also important. “D-54492 Zeltingen” is the address of the estate.  “L-AP. NR 2 606 319 011 07” is the official tasting number that indicates where the wine was approved, what village the producer comes from, the code number of the wine grower, the wine growers application number and what year it was approved. Then under that you see some shit about sulfites.  “Mosel-Saar-Ruwer” is the wine growing region where this wine comes from, Mosel is the main river, Saar and Ruwer are tributaries.  The “9,5 % vol” tells us there is some residual sugar in the bottle (a fully fermented dry wine will be around 11-12 %).

You can see the same language on Peter Lauer’s bottle.  “Steillage” means steep vineyard sights, “Handverlesen” means handpicked.  You won’t see these terms on many wine labels.  Peter Lauer happens to be a super star.  Notice “Qualitätswein”.  The “alc 12% vol” means this wine is not going to have much residual sugar.

“QMP”.  Müller-Catoir has been growing wines since 1744.  They are part of the VPD business.  This wine is labeled with a superior site name.

Emrich-Schönleber is also part of the VPD.  This is one of their entry level “house wines”.  “Trocken” means dry. “Nahe” is the region.

“Ratzenberger” is the estate.  “Steeger St. Jost” is a single vineyard site, “Spätlese” ripeness, “Trocken”, fermented dry.

“Feinherb”????  -A term that means the wine is trapped between Halbtrocken and Trocken.  You don’t see it very often.  Basically the wine has some sugar but the acidity is very prevalent.
Just for fun here is a Riesling from the French side (It’s all the same wine growing area).  “Alsace” is the place, in Alsace they alway label the grape varietal.  “Herrenweg” is a single vineyard site.  “Mis en bouteille au Domaine” or “Estate Bottled”, is super important in French wines, it means that the same person grew the grapes and made the wine.  You can also see Barmes’s address.  A real couple of people are responsible for this wine!

This wine comes from a place, “Rheinhessen” and has some guys name on it.  It tells you that it is “Refreshing Crisp” and “White”.  It doesn’t tell you much else.  What does “Sichels Superiour Vinification” mean?  What are they vinifying?  How are they vinifying it?  Blue Nun is sold in over 100 countries around the world.  The United Kingdom alone consumes 5 million bottles of the stuff a year.  This brand and several others like it have helped hurt Germany’s wine image.  Stay away from Blue Nun.

German wines are meant for people with higher IQ’s.  It is a fact.  Smart people drink them and by drinking them you become smarter.  When reading German wine labels– or any region’s wine labels– the most important thing to look for is who grew the grapes and where, and who turned the grapes into wine.

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