Lesson 18 – Introduction to Germany


 

Sommelier School

Lesson 18 – Introduction to Germany

 

Guten Tag, studenten. And that’s about as much German as I’ll attempt. I hope everyone had an outstanding winter break. Today we will do an overview of German wine and German wine laws. Germany has 13 different “quality” wine-growing regions. It also has a different philosophy to categorizing wine than most other countries. 

50° N Latitude just about bisects the country. This is significant as most wine growing regions in the world occur between 30° and 50° in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. Above 50° and the grapes are not getting enough sun to produce the needed sugars.  As a result much of Germany’s regions are in the Southwest part of the country. There are only 2 in the Eastern part of the country between Leipzig and Dresden. And even those are at about 51°.

Because of the lack of sufficient sunlight, those of you that have been students for awhile will also know that red grape production will be tricky at best here. Most of Germany’s wine production is white. In fact over 60% of the grapes grown are white. At just about 22% of the total, Riesling is the top grape as you might expect. The second most grown is Müller-Thurgau at 13%. A grape many people are not familiar with. At 3rd with about 12% grown is Pinot Noir also known as Spätburgunder. These 3 varietals comprise almost half of the grapes grown in Germany. 

In all, there are 135 varietals grown. We won’t need to know all of them right now. For now, remember the three above, plus the following:

  • Dornfelder
  • Silvaner
  • Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder)
  • Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder)
  • Blauer Portigieser

Germany has 4 levels of wine. 

  • Deutscher Tafelwien – German table wine
  • Deutscher Lanwein – German country wine
  • Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA), or quality wine from a specific region.
  • Prädikatswein,  (as of August 1, 2007) renamed from Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP)

Per European Union law the first two categories are considered table wines and the last two are quality wines. We will see very little of the table wines outside Germany. Less than 4% of the total wine production is table wine. As a result we will only concentrate on the quality wine categories.

OK, so QbA and Prädikatswein are just like everywhere else right? Not so much. There are no “first growths” here. No DOCG either. The determination of “quality” effectively is sweetness or ripeness level. More specifically “must weight.” This is a measurement of the amount of sugar that is in the “must” or grape juice. It is measured in many ways depending on the country. In Germany it is know as Oechsle and the measurement is in degrees. If you’ve heard of Brix or Specific Gravity, then you know Oechsle.

There are total of 7 classifications in the quality wine category. They are as follows:

  • Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA)
  • Kabinett
  • Spätlese
  • Auslese
  • Beerenauslese
  • Eiswein
  • Trockenbeerenauslese

QbA wines are from grapes picked with the minimum level of ripeness to be classified as a quality wine. They are also wines that are from grapes grown in the 13 quality regions (see below). These are harvested the earliest at the normal harvest time for Germany but may lack full ripeness. The quality of these wines can vary greatly.

Next are the Prädikat levels. The above list is in order of when the grapes are harvested. Kabinett wines are harvested several days after the QbA wines. Even with this delay, the grapes are still not considered fully ripe. While technically a higher sugar level than QbA wines, many producers will produce a drier wine at this level.

Spätlese means “Late Harvest.” Even though the name means late harvest, Spätlese grapes are considered to be fully ripened by most standards. These are normally harvest a couple weeks after Kabinett. 

Auslese stands for “select harvest.” This means that they are specially selected after the Spätlese grapes are harvested. While automated harvest is allowed per German law, in reality these need to be hand picked as they have to be fully ripe to very ripe bunches of grapes.

Beerenauslese means “berry selection.” Are starting to see a pattern forming here? If you guessed that this mean individual berries are harvested, you are correct. Another characteristic of these grapes is that botrytis has occcured.

I’ll skip Eiswein and go directly to Trockenberrenauslese. This means “dry berries selection.” Don’t let the “Dry” part (Trocken) confuse you. The dry refers to the heavily botrytized grapes being dried out. These are very rare wines and are harvested the latest.

Finally Eiswein. Literally Ice Wine. The reason I skipped this, even though it has the same ripeness level as Berrenauslese is that it is created in a different manner than the other grapes. These grapes are actually harvested frozen and rushed to the winery to be pressed while still frozen. Many times this means harvesting at night.

The last three wines are not made every year. Especially TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese). Also, since these wines require most labor and the winery to leave grapes on the vine, they tend to be more expensive. They also tend to not be bottled in the standard 750ml bottles.

Another thing to know about the Prädikatswein is that the technique of Chaptalization is not allowed. Remember this is the technique of adding sugar to unfermented must to increase the alcohol after fermentation. Much of German wine is of a lower alcohol content without the use of Chaptalization. Table wines can only achieve an alcohol level of 5-6.7%. 

QbA can only go as high as 9.4%. So to increase the alcohol level, this technique is allowed. In Prädikatswein it is not. However the minimum alcohol level that can be achieved by a Kabinett is 8.6% and can go as high as 11.4%. Many of the Prädikatsweins can achieve very high alcohol levels (20%+ for TBA), but the wineries make sure that doesn’t happen as they are trying to achieve a level of sweetness, not alcohol. 

Once you realize this, you understand why sweetness level is the determining factor of quality. In other parts of the world, wine makers will let their wines harvest longer to get more sugar to create higher alcohol wines. Except for those creating dessert wines obviously.

So if the Prädikatsweins cannot use chaptalization, what about something called Süssreserve (Süßreserve)? This is unfermented grape must that is added to the wine to not only increase the sweetness level, but also lower the alcohol level. Normally you will only find this in Kabinett or Spâtlese wines.

To round out the styles of German wine, I’ll add a few more terms. Trocken (which you’ve already seen), Halbtrocken, and Sekt. Trocken means “dry” in German. Other than TBA on a label, Trocken will indicate a wine that is dry rather than sweet. These wines need to have at least a ripeness level of Spätlese, but to get decent wine you need at least Auslese. Halbtrocken means “off dry” and therefore has a higher level of sweetness. Sekt is German sparkling wine. Something we don’t see much of in the U.S. It is mostly made in the cuve close method (aka in tanks rather than in bottle for the second fermentation).

Let’s briefly cover the 13 Regions that earn the QbA designation:

  • Ahr
  • Baden
  • Franconia (Franken)
  • Hessische Bergstraße
  • Mittelrhein
  • Mosel (previously known as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer)
  • Nahe
  • Palatinate (Pfalz)
  • Rheingau
  • Rheinhessen
  • Saale-Unstrut
  • Saxony (Sachsen)
  • Württenberg

Of these, Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Palatinate (Pfalz), and Nahe are the ones that I’ve seen the most of at retail. Palatinate is the #2 in terms of area under vine. Below are the areas ranked by size:

  • Rheinhessen
  • Palatinate (Pfalz)
  • Baden
  • Württenberg
  • Mosel
  • Franconia (Franken)
  • Nahe
  • Rheingau
  • Saale-Unstrut
  • Ahr
  • Saxony (Sachsen)
  • Mittelrhein
  • Hessische Bergstraße

We will cover where in Germany all these areas are over the next couple weeks so don’t worry right now about learning where they are all at. Just remember 11 of the 13 are in Southwest Germany right now. Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen are the two in Eastern Germany.

That’s it for this lesson. Hopefully this has given you a basis to read a German wine label, even though I didn’t really break down a label for you. The one thing I didn’t mention is an “AP” number. For our purposes just know that this is a quality control type of thing. The numbers designate various things such as the board that inspected the wine, where the wine is bottled, and the year the application for the number was made (significant in determining age in a non-vintage wine). Next week we will begin cover the different regions, concentrating on the largest producers.

As always, a HUGE Thank You to everyone that watches and reads these lessons. As you may have noticed, I’ve tweaked a few things. First I’ve got to exclusively using the Blip.TV player for all of the lessons. The reason for this is I am having too many problems with audio sync with the old player for anything that is over 12-14 minutes long. Since all the lessons are at least 20 minutes, they become unwatchable at that point. I’ve also been experiment on the review side with video settings so that should translate into better video quality of the lessons from here on out.

Until next week!

Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training

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