German Wine Labels: How to Understand Them
German wine labels are hard to interpret as Gemany has some of the most complex wine labeling laws in the world. From Qualitätswein to Pradikätswein to the VDP (Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter), there’s a lot to unpack.
Before getting into those terms, if you like dry wine, the most important word to remember is “trocken”. If that’s not on the label, it doesn’t necessarily mean the wine isn’t dry, but if you do see it, that’s a guarantee. “Halbtrocken” means half-dry.
Now to untangle the rules behind wines that qualify as having protected designation of origin (PDO). It's a designation equivalent to other countries' elite wine regions such as France’s AOC, or Italy’s DOC and DOCG. In Germany, those wines are known as Qualitätswein and Pradikätswein.
Qualitätswein is less exacting in rules than Prädikatswein, but must come from one of the Anbaugebieten, Germany’s designated quality wine regions: Mosel, Ahr, Mittlerhein, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Baden, Nahe, Würtemberg, Saale-Unstrut, Franken, Hessische-Bergstrasse, and Sachsen. They have a minimum alcohol and undergo lab testing and tasting.
Pradikätswein must come from a Bereich, one of 40 smaller districts within the Anbaugebieten, but it is the Anbaugebiete that must be stated on the label. Grapes destined for a Pradikätswein have the highest must weights (the indicator of how much sugar has developed). They fall within one of six categories of sweetness which will also be stated on the label. From least sweet to sweetest, the levels are Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese (the last level at which wine may be fermented dry, although in practice most have some level of sweetness), Beerenauslese, Eiswein, and Trockenbeerenauslese.
How does this all play out on a German wine label? Well, to throw more balls into the air, the village and vineyard name may appear on the label too. So, take a label that looks like this:
2001 is the vintage. The “er” at the end of Erdener signifies that the vineyard, in this case Pralat, is in the village of Erden. Then we get the grape, Riesling, and the must level of Auslese. Bottles should also cite the Anbaugebiete, which in this case would be the Mosel.
For extra credit, if you want to impress your friends, get to know the AP number that appears on the back of qualitätswein and pradikätswein. The 10-12 digits represent the testing station, village, producer, the bottling’s lot number, and the year the wine was submitted for testing.
You might also see wines called Deutscher Wein or Landwein on German wine labels, but those are usually of lesser quality. Deutscher Wein can be any style, and Landwein must be trocken or halbtrocken.
And now we come to the terminology used by producers that are members of the VDP, a body of producers that aims to elevate vineyards along the lines of a Grand Cru system. You can spot a VDP producer by their logo: an eagle carrying a bunch of grapes, which will be printed on the capsule. There are four categories of wine in the VDP. Gutswein is from a general region, Ortswein is a village level wine, an Erste Lage wine is essentially a Premier Cru vineyard, and a Gross Lage is the equivalent of a Grand Cru vineyard. If the wine is dry and from a Grosse Lage, you’ll see “GG” on the label, which stands for Grosses Gewachs.
It may seem like a daunting amount of information, but the more you familiarize yourself with German wine labels, the more easily you’ll be able to decipher the bottle and the more you’ll know about what is in your glass.
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