Guide to German Wines
German wines are the most misunderstood in the world. The best vineyards lie as far north as grapes can be persuaded to ripen. Many vineyards are on land unfit for normal agricultural; if there were no grapes there would be forest and bare mountain. All things considered, Germany’s chances of producing the world’s best white wines look slim. And yet on many occasions, they do, producing white wines with a racy elegance that cannot be imitated anywhere. The secret is the balance of two ingredients: sugar and acidity. Sugar without acid would be flat; acid without sugar would be sharp. But in good years, the two are so finely counterpoised that they have the certainty of great art.
The majority of Germany’s best wines are made from Riesling, the great grape of Germany. The best vineyard sites in the Mosel-Sarr-Ruwer, Rheingau, Nahe and Pfalz are planted almost exclusively with Riesling. In challenging vintages, Riesling stands little chance of ripening. To reduce risk and ensure a larger production, Germany turned during the mid-20th century to the Muller-Thurgau, a much earlier ripening white grape variety that lacks the charm and elegance of the noble Riesling grape. Plantings of Silvaner also proved successful, thriving on the best sites in Franken, Rheinhessen and Baden. Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Dornfelder are the two principal red grape varietals of Germany, producing lighter bodied red wines that are easy drinking and soft in tannins.
German wine laws adapted in 1971 established three categories for defining the quality of German wines. In increasing order of quality, they are as follows:
DTW (Deutscher Tafelwein) – table wine
QbA – quality wine from a specified region
QmP – quality wine with distinction
Kabinett – light, refreshing wines, ideal aperitifs, usually driest
Spätlese – literally “late harvest” meaning riper than Kabinett, usually medium sweet
Auslese – made from riper grapes, sometimes botrytized grapes, usually some residual sugar, usually sweet
Beerenauslese – rare, sweet wines, made from botrytized grapes, usually sweet
Eiswein – wine made from grapes high in sugar and acidity concentrated by being frozen on the vine, sweet-dessert style
Trockenbeerenauslese – very rare, very sweet, made from grapes fully “dried” on the vine from botrytis, sweet-dessert style
Both QmP and QbA wines must come from specific growing areas.
There are 13 designated regions, or Anbaugebiete, most of which are located along the Rhine River and its tributaries. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheinhessen, Nahe, Rhiengau, Franken and Pfalz are the best known of Germany’s winemaking regions. The wine regions are further divided into districts, or Bereiche. Vineyards with similar characters within a Bereiche are often grouped into a Grosslage, or collective site.
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