Wines of Germany
Germany produces some of the finest white wine in the world from the Riesling grape. In addition to being deep and complex, the Germans do not forget to make the wine fun to drink. German wines are lamentably underappreciated in the United States, but that can be to your advantage: prices remain low until the public at large "discovers" it.
Skip ahead to:
The Wine Regions of Germany
Germany is cold, even more so than most of Continental Europe (which exists at a latitude corresponding with the more northern parts of the Continental United States). The climate is extremely marginal for growing grapes, and the extremely steep slopes that are characteristic of Germany's most famous wine regions are extremely hostile towards agriculture. Unfortunately nobody informed the Germans of this fact, and they proceeded to make world-class white wines from the land.
The most famous region is unquestionably the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer valley. The finer vineyards here are situated on extremely steep slopes (over 45 degrees), giving lower yields but better solar exposure and ripeness. Most of the region has slate soil, and this shows up in some of the wines as a mineral-like flavor. It is here that the finest Riesling is produced. They changed labeling recently to be less of a mouthful, so after 2007 it will just say Mosel on the label instead of Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, but nothing else has changed.
Other regions of Germany are less well-known but still produce quality wine. The Pfalz is the highest-producing region and makes much of Germany's inexpensive bulk wine. The Rheinhessen is the physically largest region, and produces mostly Muller-Thurgau for low end wines. The Rheingau is hilly terrain and produces high end Riesling, but in a less "exeuberant" style than the Mosel.
Finally, there is the little-known region of Franconia (Franken). Franconian wines are easily recognized by their distinctive bottle shape, which is protected by EU law. These wines are not exported often (and are quite limited when they are because Franconia is small) but are of quite good quality. Sylvaner and Muller-Thurgau are the most common white varietals, and the red (mostly pinot noir) is said to be good as well.
Of the grapes grown in Germany, Riesling is king. The grape has a slightly floral bouquet, and very prominent mixed fruit flavors, containing citrus, pineapple, apple, apricot, and even honey. In Germany, winemakers typically do not ferment all the sugar, resulting in a slightly sweet nectar flavor. Additionally, many German winemakers choose to emphasize the complex fruitiness of the Riesling grape.
You may also see other varietals. Gewurztraminer is a lively, sharp grape. Silvaner is often used in blends, and occasionally alone. Some hybrid varietals are used to make dessert wine, as they mature faster than Riesling. You may see Siegerrebe (Gewurztraminer - Madeleine Angevine) or Huxelrebe (Weisser Gutedel - Courtillier Musque) at Beerenauslese and higher levels for more affordable prices than Riesling. Lastly, Muller-Thurgau (Riesling - Silvaner cross) is one of the most widely grown varietals, but is usually not named as it is not a very high quality grape.
You may see some German Qualitatswein called "Liebfraumilch." This is a very light, sweet, and rather bland white wine that is produced in bulk from the fast-ripening Muller-Thurgau grape. It's very inexpensive, but you get what you pay for. For only a little more you can buy QbA Riesling, which is a significant step up in quality.
German Wine Labels
Leave it to the Germans to devise a wine labelling system that includes all the information that there is to know, and none of it useful.
The top tier German wines are labelled Qualitatswein mit Pradikat, abbreviated QmP. These wines have attained the specified ripeness level (pradikat), come from the named location, are made in the traditional styles, and passes chemical analysis and taste tests (yes, the Germans chemically analyze their wine and look for things like Ph and residual sugar parts per million)
The second tier is labelled Qualitatswein bestimmter Angaugebeite, often written simply as Qualitatswein, and abbreviated as QbA. These wines come from the specified location and are made in the traditional styles, but typically do not achieve the ripeness levels required for pradikat designation.
The bottom tier consists of things labeled Deutscher Tafelwein or Deutscher Landwein, and rarely escape the country.
A German wine label includes the following things:
- Winemaker, the people who made the wine, such as Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt. You will often see the word "Weingut"; this means winemaker and indicates that the wine was grown, made, and bottled on the premises (in the manner of a French chateau). There are other designations for cooperatives and merchant resellers.
- Varietal, the type of grape. Most top German wine is Riesling, but one occasionally runs into other varieties like Gewurztraminer or Silvaner. Muller-Thurgau is one of the most widely grown varieties, but nobody advertises this fact because it's a fast-ripening grape designed to be grown in bulk. A named varietal guarantees a minimum of 85% content.
- Vintage, the year the grapes were harvested. All grapes must come from the named year.
- Geographic Origin, the region the grapes came from, such as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. All grapes come from the specified region.
- A pradikat designation for QmP wines.
- A vineyard may also be named, such as Piesporter Goldtropfchen, although this is usually done only for the better pradikat wines.
Some of the low-end QbA wine omits the varietal and uses a traditional name instead, like Blue Nun or Schwarze Katz. There are rules covering these names as well and are specific to the traditional name.
The pradikat designation on the wine indicates the level of ripeness that the grapes have attained. They are, in order of increasing ripeness:
- These grapes are considered ripe. They make the lightest wines of the pradikat-designated wines.
- These grapes are considered late harvest; they have been left on the vine much longer and are more intensely flavored.
- These grapes are very late harvest hand-selected grapes, and are extremely ripe.
- These grapes are over-ripe and are showing signs of botrytis fungus infection (which is a good thing). The grapes are extremely concentrated and intense, and is usually made as dessert wine.
- These are Beerenauslese grapes that have been deliberately allowed to freeze on the vine. The grapes are pressed while still frozen. The ice locks up most of the water, leaving a more concentrated, sweeter juice. Since the frozen grapes must be hand selected and processed immediately in the middle of the night while they are still frozen, production is very limited and expensive.
- These are Beerenauselse that have been left on the vine so long that they have shriveled due to botrytis. This produces fine dessert wine. Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese is extremely rare and expensive.
Sweetness usually goes up as you move up the pradikat scale, although this is not required. The designation only refers to the sugar levels at harvest time, not in the final product. However, in most cases, a higher pradikat wine will taste sweeter and more concentrated than a lower wine at the same alcohol level, since the higher wine has much more residual sugar. Beerenauslese and higher wines have sufficient residual sugar to taste sweet even at 14% alcohol.
Wines are reasonably priced through Auslese. Beyond that, prices increace very rapidly. In the case of Riesling, the growing season is often not long enough to produce significant quantities of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, and this extreme scarcity leads to high prices. Eiswein of any sort tends to be very expensive as well. For Beerenauslese and higher, the wines are frequently sold in half-size (375ml) bottles, to be more affordable and more accessible (it is difficult for two to finish a full bottle of very intense dessert wine in one sitting).
In addition to the pradikat designation, the modifiers trocken and halbtrocken may be added. Trocken means dry; halbtrocken means off-dry. Most Riesling is made with higher residual sugar (hence the common 8.5% alcohol); the trocken and halbtrocken wines are made drier and thus reach more typical alcohol levels of 11.5-12%.
Putting all this together: consider this label, courtesy Fitz-Ritter. The pertinent information is that it is a Fitz-Ritter Ungsteiner Herrenberg Riesling Spatlese 1996, Qualitatswein mit Pradikat Pfalz.
This means that the wine was made and bottled by Fitz-Ritter (as the "weingut" indication tells us), that it comes from the Herrenberg vineyard near Ungstein, that Riesling grapes were used, that these grapes attained Spatlese level ripeness, that the harvest year was 1996, and that the region is Pfalz.
There, that wasn't so hard, was it?
If you're not sure what you want, look for a good QmP Riesling, Kabinett level or higher. The quality is fairly consistent and truly bad wines are exceedingly rare. At the Spatlese level you're all but guaranteed something tasty in the classic Riesling style.
Certain producers are worth watching. Dr. Loosen is a small Mosel-Saar-Ruwer producer who makes extremely good, extremely exuberantly styled wines. Unfortunately, his wines may be hard to find, due to his small production. Definitely worth snapping up at any opportunity! Joh Jos Prum is another one of the top Mosel Valley producers producing exceptional (and often exceptionally expensive) wines. Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt is another (somewhat larger) producer that makes consistently high quality wine. Also, Schmitt-Sohne is one of the largest producers and his famous blue bottle Rieslings are the most widely available line of mass-market QbA and QmP Riesling at very low prices; not the most distinguished, but among the most accessible.
Liebfraumilch is good for wine coolers or for chugging at parties. It is generally too sweet and too bland to be suitable for "serious" consumption.
2003 Very dense, like liquid raisins. Syrupy nectar flavors with moderate earthy tones and light mineral scent.
$34 / 375ml
17 November 2006 Sweet nectar with spicy honey, melon, and light floral tones. Rich.
$40 / 375ml
2002 Very rich and intense and heady. Thick nectar flavor and extremely zesty floral spice, like drinking sweet wildflowers. Woody and earthy finish. Very potent.
$15 / 375ml
10 May 2008 Deep golden color with intense honeyed fruit and faint hints of botrytis. Exeuberantly fruity and sweet, almost syrupy, and very complex and layered.
$60 / bottle
17 April 2002 Very pronounced melon and nectar flavor, with peach and apple, and some earthiness blending with muted citrus flavors. Syrupy texture. Sweet.
$23 / bottle
2003 Deep, rich fruit and honey, with apricot, peach, tangerine, and strong slate flavors. Weighty but elegant.
$36 / bottle
2003 Pale gold nectar, sweet and fruit forward, with barely a touch of the standard regional slate and flowers. Surprisingly simplistic.
$13 / bottle
21 June 2010 Grassy nose with plump mouthfeel. Sweet honey and melon with faint peach and apricot notes.
$17 / bottle
?? Crisp, simple tropical fruit, with faint traces of melon and honey. Smooth. Strong acid backbone holds the structure. The Muller-Thurgau in this blend makes it less intense and lively than a full Riesling.
$11 / bottle
?? Sweet, with strong fruit flavors and very faint floral scents. Short finish. Inexpensive.
$11 / bottle
2010 Sweet melons and honey with a mineral finish. Very well-balanced.
$19 / bottle
20 June 2004 Big honeyed fruit, with melons and apricots. Very smooth. Ponderous and filling.
$26 / bottle
?? Deep honeyed flavor with strong mineral tones. Light citrus flavors.
$16 / bottle
17 April 2002 Bold, extremely fruity nose and flavor. Primarily a grapefruit and nectar based flavor with some mineral hints, with strong melon aftertaste and an almost syrupy texture. Very good.
$25 / bottle
?? Honey and nectar over strong tropical citrus, following with sharp melon and flowers. Long mineral finish.
$12 / bottle
?? Very floral bouquet, with strong citrus and mineral flavors. Light melon notes, high acid. Very delicate.
$26 / bottle
6 September 2008 Strong minerals with abundant and lively fruit, melons, pineapple, and honey, and jelly. Moderate floral scent. Slightly drier than expected and very crisp.
$32 / bottle
?? Extremely light with a slight floral fragrance. Very smooth. Underwhelming.
$12 / bottle
?? Extremely crisp and fruity, with slight herbal hints and a slight effervescent sensation. Faint secondary peach and melon flavors behind an over-bold grape. Initially strong apple impression gives way to nectar and melon with a short sweet finish.
$18 / bottle
17 April 2002 Semi-sweet fruit, more peach and pear in flavor. Acid is muted and lighter, with medium to long finish. Some melon and nectar flavors are present.
$15 / bottle
24 July 2004 Deep melon and nectar, very crisp, unusually sweet for halbtrocken.
$15 / bottle
7 August 2011 Bright and unusually crisp with fruity melons and flowers. Strong slate finish. Dry.
$12 / bottle
17 June 2004 Bright and crisp, with a touch of tropical citrus and slate. Very high acid with more bite and kick than is usual for Riesling.
$14 / bottle
?? Floral, with strong apricot fruit. Very high acid. No slate.
$?? / bottle
10 September 2011 Crisp with strong minerality. Aromas of flowers and honey. Well-balanced sweetness. Slight tartness on finish. Loosen Bros. is Dr. Loosen's second label.
$14 / bottle
17 April 2002 Crisp but smooth texture, off-dry to semi-sweet. Strong apple, peach, melon, and fruit flavors, with a hint of pear and slate mineral. Exuberantly fruity, like a fruit salad in a glass. Excellent.
$12 / bottle
17 April 2002 Nectar and honey flavors backing up apple and peach. Noticable and pronounced mineral taste. Complex and elegant.
$15 / bottle
2 May 2006 Straight honeysuckle over sweet flowers and simple fruit. Very pleasant.
$11.50 / bottle
6 March 2007 Sweet and very smooth, with light floral and moderate petrol notes. Delicious.
$23 / bottle
12 May 2011 Tart citrus on the attack, with hints of apple, melon, and sugar on the finish. Tastes much drier than it is.
$12 / 500ml
4 May 2006 Faint grassy flavor over plain fruit. Simplistic and sweet.
$8 / bottle
17 April 2002 Very crisp and fruity, some citrus flavor and a dry finish. Some background fruit, citrus, and peach flavors. High acid, dry.
$15 / bottle
?? Light riesling with slight mineral and slate flavor. Above average.
$9 / bottle
5 January 2009 Crisp clean fruit with a slightly plump mouthfeel. Strong minerality and a vegetal nose. Unidentifiably mysterious and fun.
$16 / bottle