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Reading German Wine Labels
Jennifer Rosen of the Rocky Mountain News deciphers the biggest mystery in alll of winedom


Decoding German Wine Labels

By: Jennifer Rosen

OK, I promised I’d do it, and here it is. An explanation of German wine labels. It’s not for the faint of heart. We’ll start by dissecting the example label. At the end is a pronunciation guide.

1. Grape Variety
If one grape makes up 75% or more of the wine, it’s listed. Examples: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau. If there’s no grape name, it’s a blend, called whatever the proprietor wants to call it. Examples: “Liebfraumilch” and “Gentil.” Exception: if the wine is QmP level (which we’ll be getting to) and no grape is listed, it must, by law, be Riesling

2. Vintage
If 85% of the grapes came from one year, the vintage is allowed (but not required) to be listed. It’s often followed by –er. Example: 1996er.

3. Region
There are 13 wine regions in Germany. The ones you see most in the US are: Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen and Pfalz.

4. Village/Vineyard
A two-word statement. Examples: Piesporter Goldtröpfchen and Wehlener Klosterberg. You know it’s the village/vineyard statement, because the first word, which is the village, ends in –er. In our example, Berncastel is the village, and this wine is a Berncasteler, like you might be a New Yorker.

The second word, Doctor in our example, is the name of either a single vineyard, or a group of vineyards. A single vineyard is called an Einzellage (einzel- = singular, lage = site). A small group of contiguous vineyards is called a Grosslage (gross = bulk). Doctor is an Einzellage.

Unless you memorize all 3000 or so named vineyards, and all 160 Grosslagen, there’s no way of knowing if you’re looking at an Einzellage or a Grosslage, but either way, it’s where the grapes were grown, and it comes right after the village.

Sometimes, instead of a village/vineyard combo, you get an Ortsteil, which is a single estate. The estate name appears instead of a village name. They have an option of listing a vineyard, or not. Example: “Schloss Vollrads.” You probably don’t want to memorize the 200 Orsteile in Germany, either.

If you can’t find a village/vineyard statement, and the wine comes from Rheingau or Pfalz, AND it’s QmP level (we’re getting to that, remember?), it’s a cru or estate wine, a new labeling system, which serves the purpose of confusing everyone and keeping wine educators in business.

Review

Two words, first one ending in –er = village/vineyard or village/Grosslage.

Two words, first one NOT ending in -er = Ortsteil.

Note: the words Einzellage and Grosslage do not appear on the label. They are used here purely so you can throw them around and impress people.

You’re doing great! Now we get into the really fun stuff:

5. Quality Classification

There are 5 quality levels for German wine. The label shows either the whole word or phrase, or just the initials. From lowest to highest:

1. Tafelwein (T) = Table wine. Lowest level. Grapes can come in part from other countries. If 50% or more of the grapes come from Germany, it can be labeled: Deutscher Tafelwein ( DT) = German table wine.
2. Landwein (L) = Country wine.
3. Qualitätswein (Q) = Quality wine.
4. Qualitätswein bestimmten Anbaugebietes (QbA) = Quality wine from a specific region.
5. Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) = Quality wine with distinction.

Level 5, the “Prädikat” level, is, in turn, divided into 6 levels. They’re determined by the ripeness of grapes at harvest, which is the same thing as saying the potential alcohol level. You can have different levels within the same vineyard, if you pick some of the grapes earlier, when sugar level is lower, and some of them later, when sugar is higher.

6. Prädikat Level

1. Varietal name only: Example: “Riesling”
2. Kabinett: Literally “cabinet,” which is where they used to keep the good bottle to bring out for guests with dinner. The lightest wine, dry or off-dry.
3. Spätlese: “Late harvest.” Usually fuller body and off-dry, but can be dry.
4. Auslese: “Selected late harvest.” The ripest bunches are chosen in repeated trips through the vineyard. Medium-sweet.
5. Beerenauslese: “Selected berries; late harvest.” The ripest individual grapes are chosen in repeated trips through the vineyard.
6. Eiswein: “Ice wine.” In the same level as Beerenauslese. The grapes freeze on the vine before picking. Both quite sweet, intense dessert wines.
7. Trockenbeerenauslese: “Individual dried berries, selected late harvest.” In this case, the grapes hang so long that they dry up on the vine a little, like wet raisins. They have to be pressed to get any juice, and it takes about 20,000 grapes to make a bottle of wine. Both BA and TBA are almost always affected by Botrytis Cinerea, the noble rot of Sauternes fame. Very sweet, very concentrated wine.


The harvest schedule is very strict. The beginning of the Kabinett harvest starts a “clock” for all 5 Prädikat levels. Anything picked during the first six days and twenty-three hours of harvest is considered Kabinett. You cannot start picking Spätlese until seven days, to the hour, after Kabinett picking has begun. You are, however, allowed to pick Auslese during Spätlese harvest, because Auslesen are the early, overripe bunches that are selected separately. Depending on grape variety, BA needs 35-40 additional days of hang-time and TBA gets twice that. Riesling is a late-ripening grape to begin with, which can push a TBA harvest as late as February. Because the weather is only good enough to do this about once in a decade, Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese is very rare and very expensive, which is a shame, because it’s so much fun to say.

*(Remember: those categories won’t appear unless the wine is at the QmP level.)

Is Kabinett always dry and Spätlese off-dry? Hardly! That would be too easy! There are sweet Kabinetts and dry Spätlesen. If you’re lucky, there will be a:

Residual Sugar Statement
Trocken = dry, or less than 0.9% RS
Halbtrocken = half-dry, or less than 1.8% RS

BUT, as you can see, neither of those words appear on our example label. So how the heck do you know? A secret decoder ring! Sort of. I have provided, at the end of this article, a German-Wine RS Calculator, courtesy of the International Wine Guild. You have their permission to print it out, laminate it (scotch tape works) and keep it in your wallet. It only applies to Riesling wine, but other grapes will be similar.

7. Producer

The producer’s name is what’s left over in big print: Wwe. Dr. H. Thanisch. I wish there were a more scientific way to identify it, but there isn’t. It’s sometimes on the top, sometimes in a scrolly ribbon, but not always either. In most cases, right under or next to it you’ll find the:

8. Address

The letter D (for Deutschland), followed by some numbers. D-5550 Bernkastel-Kors. That’s a postal code, and what follows is the address of the producer.

In the lower right is the word: Erzeugerabfüllung. This is the:

9. Bottling Statement

Not terribly important for most practical purposes, still it’s good to know you’re not missing something. Here’s what they mean:

1. Aus dem Lesegut - Bottled by the producer. May be grown by others. Generally used by negociants.
2. Erzeugerabfüllung - Grown, produced and bottled by the estate.
3. Erzeugergemeinschaft - Produced and bottled by the Co-op
4. Gutsabfüllung - Special estate (Ortsteil) grown, produced and bottled. Or, special bottling (a very exclusive statement).
5. Schlossabfüllung - Chateau/castle bottled.

10. AP Nr.

Or, Amtliche Prüfungsnummer. Found on all Q, QbA and QmP labels. It’s a code, indicating the testing station, vineyard code, bottler code and bottling year.

In this case, reading backward: 91 is the year it was bottled (different, you’ll note, from the vintage year. It can take a few years before the wine is bottled.) 13 is the run of bottles tested. Vineyard code and bottling code come somewhere in between. 2 is the testing station.

11. Cool little symbol

Only the top 200 producers - as voted on by the producers themselves, not the government - are allowed to use this. It means quality. VDP stands for Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (Association of German Predicates).

All that’s left on this label is the alcohol percentage: 9.0%, and bottle size: 750ml. On other German labels you might see the word:

Weingut - An estate that makes and bottles its own wine.

You did it! Ready to practice on some labels?

Pronunciation guide:

Einzellage: ayn-ts-lah-ga

Grosslage: gross-lah-ga

Ortsteil: orts-tyle

Prädikat: pray-dee-caht

Trocken: troh-kn

Spätlese: shpeyt-lay-za

Auslese: ouse-lay-za

Beerenauslese: bee-ren-ouse-lay-za

Trockenbeerenauslese: troh-ken-bee-ren-ouse-lay-za

Residual Sugar Calculator

Potential Alcohol - Riesling

Region: Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese; BA TBA

Group 1 8.6% 10.0% 11.1% 15.3% 21.5%

Group 2 9.5% 11.4% 13% 17.7% 21.5%

Group 3 9.1% 10.3% 11.4% 16.9% 21.5%

Group 4 9.5% 11.4% 13% 16.9% 21.5%

Group 5 Wines finished dry (trocken)

Group 1 Ahr, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Mittelrhein

Group 2 Hessische-Bergstrasse, Rheingau

Group 3 Nahe

Group 4 Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Baden

Group 5 Franken, Wurttemberg

To Calculate Residual Sugar take the potential alcohol from the chart minus the alcohol % on bottle x 2 - And: < 1 = dry 1- 4 = off dry > 4 = sweet

Residual Sugar Calculator International Wine Guild ©1996-2002 by C. L. Robbins, MWA, all rights reserved
©Copyright 2003 Jennifer Rosen