“You know lately I’ve been into other wines too…I mean…lately I’ve been really into Rieslings… You like Rieslings, Rieslings?”-Paul Giamatti aka Miles “Sideways”, 2004.
Yes, Paul, we like Riesling. Over the past few decades, we have seen a steady rise in the variety’s reputation as an absolute gem of wine and food pairings and one of the most complex white wines. But… there is an issue with Riesling, especially coming from Germany. The labels for German Riesling are some of the hardest to decipher. The culprits likely are;
- The intense, multisyllabic, and rather harsh nature of the German language
- The multiple complex clashing hierarchies of German wine law
- The incredible diversity of the Riesling grape, made with a variety of sweetness levels from bone dry to syrup-sweet
- All of the above
In this blog, we will tackle deciphering this complex nest of German language to help you properly pick a Riesling suitable for your enjoyment. And we will start with sweetness because that seems like what anyone cares about when it comes to Riesling.
Sweetness Level Indicators
Simply speaking, this is the primary concern of most consumers these days. Riesling’s “bad rep” as a sweet, flabby, unbalanced wine has turned many a potential consumer from trying the juice. This stereotype is entirely false, for Riesling is a high-acid grape, and the ripping acidity is often balanced by the sugar, making the sweetness not as perceptible. Nonetheless, some people desire sweetness, and others prefer dry, so it’s important to understand what kind of Riesling you are buying. Unfortunately, ze Germans don’t make it easy on you…
If you see these on the label, they directly indicate the sweetness level.
If the label says trocken(Dry) it contains a maximum of 4 g/L of sugar (or 3 g per bottle). There Is of course an exception stating that “a trocken(dry) wine can have up to 9 g/l (6.75 g per bottle) if the sugar level doesn’t exceed the total acid level by more than 2 grams”. So if your total acid (TA) is at a high 7 g/L, you can have a 9 g/L sweetness and still be considered dry because of the acid/sugar balance.
If the label says halb-trocken or feinharb (Off-Dry), the range is between 4 g/L and 12 g/L. It can also go up to 18 g/L if the sweetness doesn’t exceed your acid by more than 10 g/L. So, at absolute mouthwatering acid of 8 g/L, you can have 18 g/L of sugar
If the label says lieblich (Semi-Sweet), the wine has between 12 and 45 g/L of sugar. Wines that are süss(sweet) can have 45 + g/L of sugar. If you think some of these are too sweet, remember that Coke has 95 g/L of sugar, which eclipses even some of the sweetest Rieslings.
The International Riesling Foundation (IRF) Sweetness Chart
Now the IRF has its own sweetness scale, designed to take the guesswork out of the Riesling sweetness. Rather than talk about it, I will show you the scale and the scientific data behind what each sweetness level indicates.
The Deutsche Hierarchy
This is the overarching ranking of regions and vineyards, similar to the French and Italian systems.
The lowest tier of quality is called “Wein” (Wine) or “Deutscherwein”(German Wine). Riesling may be made at this quality level, but I would avoid buying it as it is likely grown in inferior sites and farmed for quantity, not quality.
The middle tier, called “Qualitätswein” (Wine of Quality) is a classification given to a wine grown in one of 13 main German growing regions (Anbaugabeite). It is generally good, although quality can vary due to very lax winemaking regulations and styles vary from producer to producer.
The top tier, the “Pradikätsweine” are more focused, only grown in 40 specialty wine-producing districts, Bereiche. Regulations are more strict, and the quality is significantly higher. Most top-quality Rieslings come from this category, and it is here where we need to lay the most focus
Historically, the quality of old-school German Riesling was often dependent on the ability of the site to allow proper ripeness (see Terroir Blog) and for the grape to develop sufficient levels of sugar(as well as flavors that such a ripening developed). The system of distinctions or “Pradikäts” may be a bit outdated, but it is still used for most German Rieslings, indicating the style/flavor profile of the wine and (in tandem with the ABV) the sweetness levels of the wine (if none of the sweetness indicators are present)
Roughly translated to “cabinet wine” (wines you store and drink daily), this designation comes from sites where sugars have developed the least, meaning typically colder sites (or, more likely in the days of Global Warming, the grapes were picked earlier for the style). That means the flavor profile is usually greener fruit and more mineral than fruity. Since Kabinett isn’t made from as ripe fruit as the others below, there is typically more sugar left in the wine, and typically these wines are off-dry to medium sweet.
Kabinett and Alcohol: Wines with the Kabinett designation are between 7% and 12% ABV. The higher the alcohol %, the drier the wine will be. Even if there are no sweetness indicators, a Kabinett with 12% ABV is most likely trocken, and one with 7% abv is likely halbtrocken. Kabinetts don’t develop sufficient sugars to be very sweet.
This means late harvest, grapes for these wines are picked two weeks later than those for Kabinett (but this can also mean a more exposed, warmer site). They show a much riper profile for Riesling, meaning more stone fruit expression.
Spätlese and Alcohol: Due to higher alcohol content, these wines will be weightier on the palate than your classic Kabinetts. The same rules apply regarding alcohol vs. sweetness, but Spätlese is typically between 7.5% and 12.5% ABV. Note that this is an estimation, as there is no maximum ABV and the minimum abv is still 7%. That being said, Spätlese will have higher alcohols at the same levels of residual sugars vs. Kabinett.
These are wines from specially selected, extra-ripe grapes from the most exposed sites. Otherwise, the sugars wouldn’t develop. If fermented dry (Auslese Trocken), these wines are the most concentrated versions of dry German Riesling (the next [below] Pradikäts are not permitted to be made into dry wines). These wines are far more aromatic, intense, and richer than the previous versions.
Auslese and Alcohol: I would approximate the range for Auslese to be between 8% and 13.5% ABV. Wines can be at any of these alcohol levels (as long as they are above 7% ABV), but most fall on the lower ABV side of the spectrum, meaning they tend to be sweeter. It is important to note that, just like with the previous Pradikäts, Riesling’s naturally high acidity allows for a balance between sweetness and freshness. This will NOT be your cheap Sweet Moscato.
Hand-picked, translated roughly into “Berry Select,” BA grapes develop incredible concentrations of sugars on the vine. Thus, fermentation takes a long time and reaches a conclusion between 5.5% and about 8% ABV( same as for the next two Pradikäts). These wines have incredibly concentrated dried fruit aromas/flavors and are very sweet (but nonetheless balanced by high acid). They are often made with a percentage of grapes affected by “noble rot,” which concentrates the flavors and sugars even more by siphoning the water out of the grapes.
Similar to BA, “Dry Berry Select” TBA is a luxuriously sweet style wine. For this wine though, all of the individual hand-picked grapes are affected by noble rot, concentrating the sugars and flavors even more. Very laborious to make, very expensive, but phenomenally complex.
A relatively newcomer to the German designation category, “Icewine” is picked very late in winter when the grapes are frozen on the vine. The freezing process concentrates the sugars but doesn’t affect the fruit flavors. Eiswein will be distinctly sweet and fresh-fruited, whereas TBA or BA will have more dried fruit.
The Oeschle Scale
The Vineyard Hierarchy
This is a tremendously complicated structure, and easy to go down the rabbit hole. I will briefly describe each type of region/vineyard and leave it up to you to explore further.
There are 13 in total. These are the largest, most generic winemaking regions in Germany. If you only see this on the label, usually it is a generic blend and a lower tier of “Qualitätswein”
A specific designation within an Anbaugabeit, better known for quality wines. There are forty in total. At least one Bereich usually makes up an Anbaugabeit. A Pradikätswein has to have at least a Bereich on the label.
An individual vineyard site within a Bereich, known for high quality. Usually small in size but high in quality.
Confusingly, a collection of vineyards with a name attached. Some Einzellagen are parts of these collections, but not all vineyards are of high quality. Unfortunately, there is no way to distinguish on the label between an Enzellagen and Grosslagen without memorizing the names; it’s something that the Germans should work on in the future.
A great resource for learning about Einzellagen vs. Grosselagen is GuildSomm. It is a subscription-based service though.
The VDP/GG Hierarchy
The Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter (VDP) is an independent organization of high-quality vintners who also use their own pyramid of quality that is more akin to that in Burgundy, focusing on sites of vineyards instead of ripeness levels or legal designations. You can ID VDP wines by the eagle logo on the foil (see picture below). Most VDP wines (outside of Mosel Anbaugabeit) are made in a dry style.
The term used for a generic wine, but with a lower yield requirement [75 hl/ha] than standard for Deutscher Wein (meaning slightly better quality)
The term used on the label describes a regional wine made with grapes most suited to the region (most typically Riesling). Also 75 hl/ha yields
Erste Lage [First Growth]
A single vineyard of high renown, similar to a Premier Cru vineyard in Burgundy. The yields are even lower than Ortswein or Gutswein, and the wines are held to a higher level of scrutiny.[60 hl/ha]
Grosse Lage/ Grosses Gewachs [Great Growth]
Both terms indicate a wine from a single vineyard with very- high renown, similar to a Grand Cru in Burgundy. Yield requirements are even lower [50 hl/ha]. Only the Riesling grape is permitted, and only the best regions for growing Riesling can have this designation. A little more costly for you, but this guarantees high quality.
Note: Grosse Lage and Grosselage(above) are distinctly different concepts.
Note: Grosses Gewachs (Great Growths) are wines from a Grosse Lage but are required to qualify as dry or trocken.
Other Label Information
The Amtliche Prüfungsnummer (AP), loosely translated as “Official Testing Number”, is a number given to high tier wines (Qualitätswein/Pradikätswein) to ensure quality and provenance. The AP Number also serves to distinguish different quality bottlings within one producer.
Click links below to read get more info.
This complicated word means “Estate bottled”.
This unofficial designation is most common in the Mosel, and mainly for the Auslese category. Wines with a golden capsule are those that have higher flavor concentration and intensity (and also higher sugar) than ones without the capsule.