Tips & Tricks: How to Decipher a German Wine Label

18 03 2011

In preparation for a special celebratory edition of PnP tomorrow, I thought that tonight I would run over the finer points of wrestling with German wine labels.  German wine is often a struggle for people, either because they often think that every German white on the shelves will be sickly sweet (totally untrue) or because they don’t feel like wending their way through 16-letter words with two vowels on the label (go figure).  I’m actually a huge fan of German wine labels because they provide what so few other Old World labels do:  information.  Once you learn how to decode them, you can tell a lot about your Teutonic wine before you even open it.

The first thing to know about Germany:  unlike almost any other European country, its top quality wines (which are designated by the words “Prädikatswein” or “Qualitätswein mit Prädikat” on the label) are classified and organized by the ripeness levels of their grapes at the time of harvest.  As a cold weather wine region with a similar latitude to Canada, ripeness is singularly prized by German producers, and their wines are labelled according to the sugar content of the grapes when picked (the riper the grapes, the more sugar is in them that can be converted to alcohol during fermentation).  In ascending order from low sugar to high sugar, these ripeness designations are:

  • Kabinett (CAB-ee-NETT) — standard harvest
  • Spätlese (SHPAYT-lay-suh) — literally, “late harvest”
  • Auslese (OWSS-lay-suh) — “selected harvest”
  • Beerenauslese or BA (BEAR-en-OWSS-lay-suh) — “berry selected harvest”
  • Trockenbeerenauslese or TBA (TROCK-en-BEAR-en-OWSS-lay-suh) ” dry berry selected harvest”
  • Eiswein (ICE-vine) — “ice wine”

By themselves, believe it or not, these terms tell you a ton about a wine.  While many German wines aren’t sweet, ANY German wine classified Auslese or higher will definitely have a lot of residual sugar in it.  Any wine classified Beerenauslese or higher is strictly a dessert wine.  Eiswein does not necessarily have more sugar content than BA or TBA wines, but it is classified differently because it signifies that the grapes used to make the wine actually froze on the vine (and were picked and the juice pressed out of them before they thawed, thus separating out the [frozen] water and concentrating the remaining juice).  Kabinett or Spätlese wines may or may not be sweet depending on how they are made, but if you ever see the word Trocken (“dry”) on the label, you will know that there is little to no leftover sugar in the bottle.

The other things that will always be on a German wine label are (1) the producer’s name (usually obvious), (2) the type of grape from which the wine is made and (3) the region and particular area/vineyard where the wine is from.  This last bit of info is usually presented in a specific way.  If you ever see two words on a German label on a line by themselves, and the first word ends in “er”, there is a 99% chance that the second word is the name of the vineyard where the grapes were grown and the first word is the town closest to that vineyard (with the “er” being the possessive suffix signifying that the vineyard is “from” that town).  For example, the most famous German vineyard of all time is “Bernkastler Doctor”:  Doctor is the name of the vineyard, while Bernkastel is the closest town.

Know what this means? You do now!

Putting this all together, take a look at the label to the left.  This is the 2007 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett Riesling (incidentally, one of my favourite white wines of all time).  The producer’s name here is Joh. Jos. Prüm.  The grape is Riesling (you’ll have to take my word for it that this info shows up on the back label — it does, I promise, along with the name of the larger German wine region where the wine comes from, the Mosel valley region).  The ripeness classification is Kabinett, which means that the grapes in the wine have the lowest sugar content permitted in German Prädikatswein.  This in turn means that there is a good chance the resulting wine won’t be all that sweet; this one only has a touch of sweetness.  The only other key words on the label are “Wehlener Sonnenuhr”, and they’re a perfect example of the Two Word “Er” Rule described above:  the name of the wine’s vineyard is Sonnenuhr (which means “sundial”, because there’s a giant stone sundial in the middle of it) and the nearby town is Wehlen.

Don't worry, you don't have to pronounce it.

Take two.  The wine label on the right comes from a German wine I just bought last week.  In small vertical writing on the left hand side of the label it says “Rheingau”; this is the larger wine region in Germany where the wine is made.  The producer is Wegeler (the words “Weingut” or “Weinguter” on a bottle mean “wine-growing estate”, so the next words following will be the producer’s name).  The grape is Riesling (this time it’s on the front label), the vineyard where it was grown is called Hasensprung (“hare’s leap” — German vineyards have awesome names) near the town of Winkel.  The ripeness level is Spätlese, which is higher than Kabinett and might suggest some sweetness, BUT the label also says “trocken”, which means that this wine will be dry and not sweet.  Cool, hey?

So now the longest entry in the history of this blog is about German wine labels.  Do I know how to keep the interest of an audience or what?  Believe me when I say that this will come in very handy tomorrow…until then!

[Wine Jargon Notes:
Old World = see this previous post]
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19 03 2011
Page not found « pop & pour

[…] Tips & Tricks: How to Decipher a German Wine Label […]

24 03 2011
Wine Review: 2009 Muller-Catoir Mussbach Riesling Kabinett « pop & pour

[…] you’ve read this previous post about deciphering German wine labels, you will notice one major difference between this […]

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