Guide to Wines from Germany

In vino veritas” (in wine, there is truth)

This ancient Latin proverb not only points to the truth-telling effects of intoxication, but also to the fact that today’s wine industries in Italy, France, Austria, and Germany all date back to the Roman Empire.  However, while France and Italy became globally recognized leaders of fine red wines, in particular, Germany attained a reputation for weirdly named white wines with a “lieblich” (mellow, sweet) character. It is time to take another look. Today, global wine experts recognize Germany’s award-winning dry whites, top rated pinot noirs, orange-colored wines, as well as vegan, organic and alcohol-free products. This guide debunks some of the myth that may still mar the reputation of German wines abroad and introduces you to the varieties, regions, classifications, and innovations of Germany’s wine making industry. If you want to contribute to this article with additional facts, anecdotes, or perspectives, please send an email to [email protected]

No longer cheap and sweet

German white wines have always been a bit sweeter (on average) than white wines from other countries. This is a result of taste preferences, climate, and ripe grapes. And for many centuries, sweet wines sold for high prices. One of the best known sweet wines is Liebfraumilch, established in late 1770s. It translates to “milk of our good lady”, a name derived from the Liebfrauenkirche in Worms, where the wine comes from. The reputation of this brand and many other like products took a nosedive in the 1970s and 1980s, when German wine makers, especially those from the Rhine Hesse and Palatine regions, mass produced and exported cheap, versions of sweet German wine, branded as Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun or Black Tower. Some rogue vintners even added sugar to the mash to boost profits. That all changed in the early 2000s when a younger generation of winemakers and entrepreneurs turned their focus to quality, small batches, and sustainable viticulture.  Today, German white and red wines (in particular, Riesling and Pinot Noir) can easily compete with the best wines from the US, Australia, South Africa or Chile.

More than Riesling

While Riesling remains the number one grape, counting for 25% of the total wine acreage, German vintners cultivate over 100 white and dozens of red wine grapes.  You can find wines made from “native” grapes like Silvaner, Bacchus or Elbling, as well as crossbreeds like Müller Thurgau (Silvaner +. Madeleine Royale), Kerner (Trollinger + Riesling), or Huxelrebe (Gutedel + Courtillier). See below a list of the most common grape types. Increasingly popular are “adopted” grapes like Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Spätburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Chardonnay. The leading red varietals are Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Blauer Portugieser, Dornfelder and Trollinger. Occasionally, you may find German niche white or red varietals in North American restaurants, but for a taste of the best wines, you may have to travel to Germany enjoy them.

Primarily Alongside the Rhine River

Wines grow where rivers flow. In the case of Germany, most of the viticulture lies along the Rhine River between Cologne and Freiburg, and its tributaries, the rivers Ahr and Mosel (between Koblenz to Trier), Main (between Mainz and Würzburg) and Ahr, Nahe, Neckar, (between Heidelberg and Stuttgart) Saar, and Ruwer, all located in the West and Southwest. On a smaller scale (but with high quality wines) you can find vineyards in Eastern Germany, alongside the Elbe River (close to Dresden) and its tributaries, the rivers Saale and Unstrut (between Erfurt and Halle).  Every year, millions of tourists take Rhine River cruises, flock to the hills of the Mosel, indulge a Dornfelder red in Franconia (near Würzburg) or Rotling rose wines from the Black Forest (near Freiburg). The official names of the 13 German Anbaugebiete (officially designated wine growing areas) are (from North to South and West to East): Ahr, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Hessische Bergstraße, Baden, Württemberg, Franken, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen

Basic classifications of quality: Terroir

Determining the quality of wines is probably the most complex, arcane, and subjective professional activity in any industry. It may not come as a surprise that Germany has one of the most complex and complicated quality assessments among most wine producing nations. Considered are the type of grape, quality of harvest, vineyard location, soil chemistry, degree of sweetness, and vineyard craftsmanship. In 2021, the German parliament enacted a new law attempting to simplify the classification of wines. On most basic level is Deutscher Wein (German wine), where 100% of grapes (no matter which and where from) have to be German. Next is Landwein, where at least 85% of grapes have to come for a specific region like Hesse or Baden-Wuerrtemberg. The designations Qualitätswein (quality wine) and the highest level Prädikatswein (predicate wines) mandate that 100% of grapes come from a specific wine growing area, vineyard, or grape. However, Prädikatsweine are further classified as described below.

Classifications of predicate quality: Sweetness

When a bottle of Schwarzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese fetched about $15,000 at an international auction in 2015, the world took note. It was the world’s most expensive wine that year. Trockenbeerenauslese (lit: dry berry selection) is the pinnacle of Germany’s predicate quality classification, which encompasses all types of grapes (white and red). At the core of this system is the weight of Most (engl: mash or must). Most is the defined as the grape liquid plus the dissolved sugar particles available for fermentation. The higher the specific weight of the sugar content, the more alcohol is in the finished wine. The specific must weight (aka the difference between 1000 grams of must and 1000 grams of water) is measured in “degree Oechsle.” For example, Most with a weight of 1076 grams is equivalent to 76°Oechsle. The base level is called Kabinett (lit. cabinet), a fine flavored, light wine made from ripe grapes, with relatively low alcohol by volume and a minimum of 76°Oechsle. The next quality step is Spätlese (lit: late harvest), a ripe, elegant wine from grapes that are harvested later in the season and are consequently sweeter (76°-90° Oechsle). Next is Auslese (lit: selected harvest) are noble wines made exclusively from fully ripened grapes (83°-100° Oechsle). Beerenauslese (lit: berry or grape selection) are fruity sweet wines made from overripe grapes, harvested at the end of the season in November. These grapes must be affected by Edelfäule (noble rot), a beneficial fungus called botrytis that essentially pokes holes into skin of grape. Water evaporates, which leaves more sugar inside the grapes for the fermentation process. The minimum must weight of Beerenauslese has to be 110°-120° Oechsle (which equates to about 300g sugar in 1liter of must). Trockenbeerenauslese is also harvested late in the season. The berries must be covered by noble rot and are shriveled to the size of raisins. The minimum must weight is about 150˜ Oechsle. The resulting wine is sweet, honeylike and it ages to perfection. Finally, there is Eiswein (Ice Wine). This top-rated wine is made from grapes harvested in December, long after the season ends, frozen in ice and snow. These grapes cannot be affected by noble rot and need to have a minimum of 120° Oechsle.

New Classifications of predicate quality: grapes and vineyard

Alongside the official, nationally regulated wine classification, the Association of Predicate Wine Producers (Verband deutscher Prädikatsweine VdP) issued its own rules for the classification of predicate wines based on grape type and single origin. This classification is independent of dryness or sweetness and resembles the Bordeaux wine classification of 1855:

  • GG (Großes Gewächs = Premier Cru) which must be made from a specific grape varietal, matured to perfection, grown at a specific topography (wine hill) with certain types of soil, harvested by hand and produced in traditional ways. Per harvest, GG designated wines cannot exceed a yield of 50 hectoliters (42 barrels) per hectare (2.5 acres) of grapes hill.
  • 1G (Erstes Gewächs or Grand Cru) mandate similar stipulations, but allow a maximum of 60 hectoliter wine yield per hectare of wine hill,
  • Ortswein – (town wine) the wine comes from a specific town, for example Bad Dürkheim
  • Gutswein – (vineyard wine) the wine comes from selected, premium vineyards within a specific town or region. Both Orts- and Gutswein wines may contain any type of grapes (typical for a region), with a maximum yield of 75 hectoliter yield per hectare of wine hill.

Many shades of white and red

Many German white wines are not white. They stand out for the golden colors. That’s a function of their sweetness, age, and type of grape. Young, dry Riesling, in contrast, has a unique greenish-blue tinge.  German rosé wines derive from from red grapes, which are produced with white wine fermentation methods. Rosé wines always list the types of grape; most often, they contain Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) grapes. German rosé wines are also called Weissherbst (lit. white fall), Rotling (a specialty grape from Baden) or Schillerwein (lit. scintillating wine). Recently, you can also find orange wines in some restaurants or stores. These complex and full-bodied wines originated in the Caucasus (Georgia) and get their orange/amber color from red grape skin pigments that are kept in the mash during the fermentation process.

Federweiße, Sekt, & Weinbrand

One of the noteworthy wines making byproducts is the Federweiße (lit. feather-white). Describing the whitish, cloudy color, this young wine is made by adding yeast to the freshly pressed grape juice. These speeds up the fermentation process. The yeast remains which gives the drink its feathery appearance. Federweisse is served from early September to late October only in towns with close by vineyards. Sparkling wine is, of course, another wine-related product. It’s called Sekt in German. Although the widely distributed Sekt brands, like Rotkäppchen, Fürst Metternich, Söhnlein or Deinhard, cannot compare with top rated Champagne, some German Winzersekt (vineyard-specific sparking wine) are rated on par with the top ranked champagnes. Riesling grapes are also used to produce Germany’s best-selling Weinbrand (brandy) Asbach Uralt. Hugo Asbach established the distillery in 1892 and even coined the term Weinbrand.  His product is still considered the Germany’s premium brandy. Finally, an ever-growing number of niche wines cater to the dietary preferences, Vegan wines use plant-based gelatin during the clarification process of the must. Bio-dynamic wines are from grapes grown using Rudolf Steiner’s process of organic, sustainable agriculture. Alkoholfreie (non-alcoholic) wines not simple grape juices. They are created by reverse osmosis or vacuum-method of any type of regular wines. The process is elaborate and expensive, with the goal to preserve the flavor and aroma characteristics, while losing the alcohol content almost completely.

Finding German wines in the North America

The German wine industry consists primarily of small, family-owned vintners who produce primarily for the domestic market. In fact, only 20% of German wines are exported, primarily to the US and UK.  This contrasts sharply with some of the billion-dollar, export-oriented wine producers in the US, Australia, South Africa, and Chile, who have the resources to market their brands abroad. So, you’ll have to travel to Germany to taste the best crops and vintages. That said, it is astounding how many high-quality German wines can be found at restaurants and specialty retailers the main North American markets like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto, and even smaller towns.

The main grapes cultivated in Germany

White

  • Riesling ancient
  • Silvaner ancient
  • Müller from Thurgau CH (Rivaner) 1882 in Geisenheim, (Riesling + Madeleine Royale)
  • Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) ancient
  • Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc) ancient
  • Elbling ancient
  • Bacchus
  • Kerner (Trollinger + Riesling)
  • Gutedel (Chasselas in France, Fendant (CH) ancient grape
  • Huxelrebe (Gutedel + Courtillier)
  • Gewürztraminer (Red or yellow Traminer)
  • Chardonnay (ancient)
  • Sauvigon Blanc (France)
  • Scheurebe (Riesling + Bukett)
  • Ortega (Mueller Thurgau + Siegerrebe)
  • Bacchus (Silvaner + Riesling)
  • Morio Muskat (Silvaner + Weissburgunder)
  • Faberrebe (Weissburgunder + Mueller Thurgau
  • Viognier (Rhone)

Red

  • Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir)
  • Dornfelder new
  • Portugiese (Danube Valley)
  • Trollinger
  • Blauer Lemberger
  • Schwarzriesling
  • Domina
  • Cabernet Sauvgnon
  • Regent
  • St. Laurent
  • Merlot
  • Syrah/Shiraz
  • Cabernet Frabnc
  • Malbec/Cot
  • Acolon

Associations for organic agriculture and viticulture

Bioland
Demeter
ECOVIN
Naturland
Biokreis

The thirteen German wine regions (Anbaugebiete or Terroir)

  1. Ahr,
  2. Mittelrhein,
  3. Mosel,
  4. Rheingau,
  5. Nahe,
  6. Rheinhessen,
  7. Pfalz,
  8. Hessische Bergstraße,
  9. Baden,
  10. Württemberg,
  11. Franken,
  12. Saale-Unstrut,
  13. Sachsen

Dryness and Sweetness

  1. Wines with a remaining sugar content of 9gram/liter. The acidity cannot be more than 2gram/liter less than the sugar content.
  2. Semi dry. Wines with a remaining sugar content between 9-18grams/liter. You can taste a light Restsüße (lingering sweetness). Some wines may be classified as semi-dry, but taste dry due to their high acidity.
  3. Semi-sweet, “lieblich.” Wines with a remaining sugar content of 18-45 grams/liter. The sweetness is palatable.
  4. Wines with a remaining sugar content of more than 45 grams/liter. Sugar and other particles of the original grape clearly dominate the flavor (such as in ice wine).

Sources:

German Wine Institute (in English)

Wine Classification of German Predicate Wines (in German)

About Blue Nun (in German)

Germany’s top rated Pinot Noir (in English)

The 50 best wines of Germany (in German)

New German Wine Quality Laws in german

About Liebfraumilch (in German)

About Sweet Wines (in german)

The most expensive German wine (in german)

From Dry to Sweet wines – Overview

Difference Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese

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