Germany’s wine governing body is the Association of German Quality and Prädikat Wine Estates known as Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweinguter (VDP). This is an association of about 200 top German wineries. Membership is voluntary but requires adherence to strict standards well above those required by German wine law.
Since 1910, the VDP and its black eagle logo have been an important, although unofficial, symbol of German wine quality. The association has created its own wine quality system based on the vineyard classification terms ‘Grosse Lage’ and ‘Erste Lage’ (similar to France’s Grand Cru and Premier Cru).
Grosse Lage is used only for Germany’s very best vineyard sites – small, carefully demarcated areas with clear site-specific characteristics. Yields on these sites are limited to 50 hectoliters per hectare, which generally equates to about 8,000 kilograms of grapes per hectare, if that is any help giving you a visual.
Grosse Lage vineyards produce Grosses Gewächs (a dry wine). A Grosses Gewächs may be either white or red wine, depending on the vineyard.
Erste Lage identifies first class vineyards with distinctive characteristics, but which rank a little behind Grosse Lage in terms of quality. Yields are limited to 60 hectoliters per hectare.
From a government perspective, German wine is classified into 1 of 4 quality categories: Deutscher Wein, Landwein, Qualitätswein (QbA) and Prädikatswein. The latter is further divided into levels of ripeness: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese.
- Kabinett = the lowest level of Prädikatswein. It is lower in ripeness than Spätlese
- Spätlese = a white wine made from fully ripe grapes harvested late in the season
- Auslese = a late harvest white wine made from grapes that are riper than Spätlese
- Beerenauslese = made from individually selected grapes that are very ripe. Usually these grapes have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, (noble rot), further concentrating their high sugars. As a result these wines are rare and costly.
- Eiswein = an icewine/dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine.
- Trockenbeerenauslese = a medium bodied dessert wine with the highest sugar concentration of any German wine ity. Yields
Each of the quality categories is determined by the level of ripeness that the grapes have achieved by the time they are harvested. Generally speaking riper grapes provide more aroma and more flavourful wine. It is interesting to note that ripeness is used as the basis of the quality scale because it is not uncommon for grapes to not fully mature before being harvested. This is due to the cool climate conditions which can reduce the growing season.
The German wine law identifies Prädikatswein (previously referred to as Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP)), as representing graduating ripeness levels in ascending order: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, BA, and TBA. These wines are all naturally produced with no chaptalization (no sugar is added). This sounds like a winner to me.
The second category is Qualitätswein (QbA). These wines must comply with the regional appellation laws and are tested for compliance by an official committee. The laws ensure that the wine is from one specific wine-growing region, is made of approved grape varieties and reached sufficient ripeness for a quality wine. Those wines that successfully meet the standard receive an AP-Number.
About three-quarters of all German wine are in this category. A QbA wine must be made exclusively from grapes grown in one of Germany’s 13 official wine regions, called an Anbaugebiete.
It is interesting to note that the wines in this category are chaptalized (have sugar added to the juice before fermentation to increase the alcohol level after fermentation).
The third category is Deutscher Wein, which consists of normally ripe and slightly under ripe grapes. This class of wine is primarily consumed in Germany with very little being exported to North America. These wines only have to comply with few restrictions and the wines are not officially tested. They do not have an AP-Number. This would be the equivalent of France’s Vin De Pays and Europe’s IGP category.
A superior type of Deutscher Wein is Deutshcer Landwein, which has a minimum of 0.5% more alcohol. The wine must come from one of 19 specified wine districts. A Landwein must not contain more than 18 grams of sugar per liter.
From my interpretation I would see only the Qualitätswein (QbA) and Prädikatswein being a worthwhile pursuit in your wine search. Grosse Lage and Ertse Laga wines would be included in these categories. Personally I am not a fan of incorporating sugars that are not part of the natural fermentation process, so I limit my own search to Prädikatswein grade wines.
Here are some hints that will help you interpret German wine labels.
- Amtliche Prüfungsnummer (A.P. Nr) = Quality control number, granted after official quality testing
- Anbaugebiet = One of Germany’s 13 wine regions
- Bereich = One of Germany’s 39 wine districts, which make up the 13 Anbaugebiete
- Einzellage = Single vineyard, meaning the grapes used to produce the particular wine came from one vineyard. This helps to ensure quality control and consistency of the grape content
- Erste Lage = High quality vineyard, similar to France’s ‘Premier Cru’
- Goldkapsel = ‘Gold capsule’, indicating a producer’s finest wine
- Grosslage = Collection of vineyards; the opposite of Einzellage above
- Grosse Lage = Top-quality vineyard, similar to France’s ‘Grand Cru’
- Grosses Gewächs = Dry wine from a Grosse Lage vineyard
- Gutsabfüllung = Estate-bottled wine
- Halbtrocken = Medium-dry
- Liebfraumilch = Semi-sweet style, made most often from Muller-Thurgau grapes
- Oechsle = Unit of must-weight (grape sugar content)
- Prädikat = ‘distinction’, or ripeness level
- Rotwein = Red wine
- Rotling = Rosé wine made from red and white grapes
- Schillerwein = Rotling-like rosé style from Württemberg (and N.Switzerland)
- Sekt = Sparkling wine
- Trocken = Dry
- VDP Verband Deutscher Prädikats = Qualitätsweinguter, which is described above
- Weingut = Wine estate
- Weinkellerei = Winery
- Weissherbst = Rosé made from a single red-wine grape variety
- Weisswein = White wine
I have had a number of wonderful German Rieslings and Gewürztraminers over the years and I must admit that I have not paid attention to the quality rating the wine has had. However, not being a fan of overly sweet wine, I do pay attention to the scale of dryness.