Deciphering German Riesling
Fewer things are more intimidating than picking up a bottle of wine and not knowing the language. In the case of German Riesling, this can be especially difficult. So let us dissect a German Riesling label:
To start off, as with most other areas of the world, German labels have the producer (Karl Erbes), alcohol content (8.0% by vol), and the vintage (2004) displayed prominently on the label. Germany is different from a good portion of Europe in the sense that it does list the varietal (Riesling) on the label, not just the region like in France, Spain, and Italy.
It does however list the region in addition to the varietal. This particular wine is from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. This is a relatively old title, the same region today has simply been shortened to “Mosel”. Germany contains 13 wine growing regions, but the ones most likely to be found on a label for riesling are:
Next comes the specific vineyard, if there is one. For this particular label, the specific vineyard site is Urziger Wurzgarten. This particular vineyard is one of the most stunning examples of German vineyards and vineyard engineering. A severely steep slope with south facing exposure, this site allows the grapes to ripen well and give this particular wine a fantastic fruit, minerality, and acidity. Not all rieslings have a specific vineyard site, but if you do see that on the label, it generally means a higher quality wine.
Now to the technical aspects of the label. First, the words “Qualitatswein mit Pradikat” or just ‘Pradikatswein” mean that the wine is in one of the highest quality tiers that the government oversees. There are four levels of wine quality in Germany, and some of them also depend on the style of the wine (aka sweet or dry):
- This is the base level wine, table wine not quality controlled by the government.
- Includes styles from dry to semi-dry to super sweet. This level is supervised by the government and has certain requirements for alcohol and yeilds out in the vineyard.
- This quality level is the highest quality level overseen by the government. The style is broken up and organized around the ripeness of the grapes going into the wine and is split up into six different ripeness levels, which then of course translates into sweetness levels.
- VDP or “Verband deutscher Prädikatsweingüter”
- This is a quality designation that certain producers use to indicate areas of production, more similar to the French AOP system of villages and vineyards designating quality levels due to their terroir. This designation is not governed by German Wine Laws and relies on the integrity of the producer to maintain the quality levels.
The designation most likely to be seen on a bottle of German Riesling is the Pradikatswein quality range. In this range there are the following grape quality levels:
- These are the least ripe grapes. They may contain some traces of residual sugar to balance out the racing acidity of the wine, but over all they are the driest of the Pradikat wines.
- These grapes are more ripe that those of the Kabinett level, but still leave a wine with low enough residual sugar to be palatable. Slightly higher alcohol contents sometimes occur in this level of ripeness, as well as more often than not an off-dry style.
- Auslese wines are picked at the peak of ripeness, as well as have a certain condition called “noble rot”. This means that not only are the grapes ripe, but some of the water in the grapes has evaporated and concentrated the sugars, creating wither a sweet wine, or a rich wine with high alcohol.
- These grapes have not only been affected by noble rot, but have become slightly raisinated on the vine. These grapes have to be selected by hand while carefully picking over the vineyard, so they are rare and expensive. Most come is half size or smaller bottles and have a high amount of residual sugar. However, with the great producers, these wines still have a ripping acidity that cuts through the sugar, making them more palatable than most other sweet wines of the world.
- These grapes have become fully raisinated on the vine. These are the most rare of the Pradikatswein. The grapes, just as with the Beerenauslese above, are hand harvested and carefully selected, therefore creating high cost and low volume.
- This category we in Buffalo are all too familiar with. But outside of our little corner of the world, Eiswein (or Icewine) is a rare thing indeed. To make Eiswein, the grapes have to freeze on the vine. Then, usually at night, they’re pressed to relieve them of their concentrated juices. Thus is made a sweet wine without the intense honeyed ginger characteristics that sometimes overpower sweet wines made with noble rot. However, a consistent, solid frost is necessary to make Eiswein. In the Niagara region, that is no problem, however, in Germany it doesn’t happen every year.
So hopefully that clears up some things about German Riesling styles and labels! So next time you come on in, check out some of the ones we have at Georgetown!