From Wine Library TV’s Terroir Blog
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WE all know it, and begrudgingly, many
Germans will admit it - German wine labelling stinks. The names are often
ridiculously long, nearly impossible to remember, and even when you can read
and remember them, the information that they actually contain are often no use
at all to the consumer. So what is all of this Teutonic verbiage anyway? Well,
while it is difficult to generalize about ALL of the names on German labels,
most of them contain predominantly very specific geographical information,
specifying the principal town in the growing zone, and very often the specific
vineyard from which the grapes were harvested. Now all of this would be fine if
on the back label these strings of 16 letter names were defined and
contextualized, but alas, this sort of explanation is almost unheard of…
So back to German wine classifications…The first distinction is between Tafelwein and Qualitatswein. The former is simple “table wine”. Wines with this classification are basic “every day” wines with little pretention or aspiration. Tafelweins are most often made in large lots from large, often cooperative wineries. Qualitatswein is the heading under which all of the rest of German wines fall. As the name implies, these are wines of “quality” - wines that are deemed to be made to a higher standard.
The next and more specific divisions are most often known by their acronyms: QBA and QMP. QBA wines are considered to be the more “pedestrian” branch of the primary Qualitatswein classification, and unless one is really splitting hairs, Qualitatswein and QBA are synonymous. QMP (Qualitat mit Predikat) wines are qualitatsweins that the board that makes such distinctions has deemed to have special or even unique qualities.
The first level under the QMP umbrella is called Kabinett. As can be inferred from the name, these are the first level of quality that is deemed to be ageworthy (think storage cabinet). These wines tend to be fairly light. From here we move through, in order, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and finally Eiswein. But the REAL question here is “what does this ordering actually represent?” Now if you’re in the camp that thinks that these classifications stand for a ranking of how sweet the WINES are, you would be mostly WRONG, but despair not, better than 9 out of 10 folks think this too. This is probably the single biggest misconception about German wines. What these classifications REALLY represent are SUGAR LEVELS IN THE GRAPES MEASURED AT HARVEST. Lets take short look at the names themselves actually mean…
Spatlese means “late harvest” in German, and wines that carry this designation must be harvested at least one week later than the first pass within the greater harvest (the actual sugar levels required to meet each of these designations, by the way, vary from region to region and grape(s) to grape(s)). The next rung up is called Auslese which means “selected harvest”. This is the first classification that permits botrytis (”noble rot”) infection. Moving up the line, we reach beerenauslese. “Beerenauslese” means “selected berry harvest”. Beerenauslese wines are always picked after a bit of shrivelling and in almost all cases, the grapes have been infected by botrytis. These wines are often referred to as “BAs”. Even sweeter berries go into producing trockenbeerenauslese wines. Trockenbeerenauslese in German means “selected harvest of dried berries”. Only the best conditions in the best vineyards can produce grape with high enough must weights to be classified as “TBAs”. These wines are ALWAYS VERY expensive. The final classification within the QMP hierarchy is eiswein. As may be inferred from the name, eiswein means “ice wine”. These are the sweetest German wines of all (but also the most searingly acidic, so when all is said and done, they are balanced). Eiswein is made by literally allowing the grapes to freeze on the vine, with harvest beginning only as early as November, but depending on conditions, sometimes as late as January. Becasue of the freezing, eisweins are uneffected by botrytis. Also, unlike Canadian ice wines for example, German producers are forbidden to artificially freeze the grapes used to produce eiswein.
So like Bill Cosby said in his act many years ago, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one”…
So now we know what the German wine classification nomenclature actually refers to, but we still don’t know how to judge sweetness by just looking at the label. And I’m sure you’ll all be glad to hear that as difficult as the above system is, this one is that easy - it comes down to just one word: ALCOHOL…ready?…OK…here it goes…the LOWER the alcohol level, the SWEETER the wine. The HIGHER the alcohol, the DRYER the wine. That’s it. Period. Think of it this way: if the alcohol level is low (let’s say 7.5%), this means that much of the sugar (that with the addition of yeast, produces alcohol) has not been coverted into alcohol, and therefore remains dissolved in the wine. Wines with higher levels of alcohol are drier because the fermentation has been allowed to run on longer yielding a wine of say 11%-13% alcohol. So, there are scads of Spatlese and even Auslese level wines that are dry to BONE dry. Of late, to help folks who don’t know about the alcohol/sweetness correlation, many producers have taken to putting the word “trocken” or “halbtrocken” on their labels. Trocken means “dry”, and halbtrocken “half dry” or “off dry” in German, but the word trocken has the same SET of meanings in German that it has in English, so it can mean FIGURATIVELY dry (as in a dry tasting wine) or it can mean, as in the case of “TROCKENberrenauslese”, that the grapes have literally dried somewhat from hanging so long on the vine. Do not be confused, trockenbeerenauslese wines are ALWAYS sweet.
So guess no more about sugar levels in German wines, just follow the numbers…