- Q & A
Germany is by far the most individual wine producing country on Earth. If the old addage that the grapes must struggle to produce the greatest wines, then Germany's grapes are not only the planet's greatest survivors, but so are its winemakers. Many different grapes are grown here, mostly white, but it is the Riesling that rises to heights above all others.
Germany is the the coldest wine-producing area there is on Earth. It's latitude is on a par with southern England and Hungary, yet its topography brings cooler temperature than either of those countries. For a small country, Germany produces almost as much wine as the U.S. Yet, over half of Germany's wines are sold on price, and not on quality. Individual vineyard sites are capable of producing superior grapes nearly every year, but, as with all wine, quality rests with the name of the producer.
Most of Germany's best vineyards are on the steepest slopes, overlooking the rivers Rhine, Neckar, Main, Nahe, Ahr, Mosel and its tributaries. Their high cost of upkeep is what accounts for the high quality of wine they can produce. It takes three times the labor to tend these steeply sloped vineyards than it does those on flatter terrain. But the quality of the wine is what makes the difference. Many slopes along the Mosel are so terraced, the workers need cleated shoes or risk falling off the slope!
The two major growing regions are the Rhine Valley and the Mosel. The finer wines in each come from vineyards adjacent to their respective rivers (the Rhine and the Mosel) which provide a more temperate climate. Germany is famous for its Riesling, but the predominant grape planted here is a crossbreed, Müller-Thurgau. If the varietal is stated on the label it must be 100%, if not so stated it can be anything.
Germany's most famous and sought-after wines have a touch of sugar in them. This is normally balanced by a gripping acidity which often masks the presence of the sugar. There is a current move in Germany to make more dry white wines, since the country is identified as a sweet wine producer. "Trocken" (dry) or "halbtrocken" (half-dry) are the key words indicating the wine's dryness.
The system of labeling wines in Germany is based upon the condition or ripeness of the grapes at the time of harvest. Too often, Germany's difficult growing conditions do not allow the grapes to ripen so they must add sugar to attain an acceptable level of sugar for the yeast; to ferment. Wines labeled QMP (Qualitatswein mit Prädikat) are wines that did not require the addition of sugar to ferment. They are usually either the best, most sun-drenched sites in a poor year or most of the wines in a good year.
Today, German wines benefit from very advanced winemaking technology. A few other special features should be mentioned. The wines of Germany tend to be lower in alcohol, somewhere between 7% and 10%. The labeling regulations are the most complex, but also the most stringent of any wine-making country. And finally, German wines are enjoyed before, between or during meals, the way Americans enjoy beer. The major wine growing regions of Germany are as follows:
The southern most wine producing region. Most wines made from the Muller-Thurgau with some excellent Rieslings produced and a small amount of the red Spatburgunder which is the German version of Pinot Noir.
Distinctively packaged in the famous "Bockbeutel" bottle featuring the round, narrow body. These wines, made from the usually ordinary Sylvaner grape, are transformed here into a refreshing, "racy" offering not duplicated anywhere else.
Named after the famous Mosel River and includes its two most renowned tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer. These wines are primarily made from the Riesling and are arguably the finest in Germany.
Between Baden and the Rheingau, this area produces very good Riesling and Muller-Thurgau, but it is the Gewurztraminer and the exotic Scheurebe which are its greatest achievements.
The only competition for Mosel as the King of German wines. Almost exclusively Riesling-based, these wines reach a power and longevity beyond any white wines made on earth. Wines made in the top of the area near the town of Mainz have been reputed to live (and actually be drinkable) for 300 years!
The largest area making pleasant and occasionally distinctive wines from the Sylvaner and Muller-Thurgau grapes. The finest wines in the area, however, are made from Riesling.
The following terms are distinctive to German wines:
Tafelwein: The lowest category of table wine. Usually barely ripe grapes with sugar added to complete fermentation and should be drunk within its first year.
Qualitätswein: A quality wine of some distinction, but usually having sugar added to it.
Qualitätswein mit Prädikat: A strictly controlled wine which must be picked at certain minimum sugar levels and cannot have sugar added to it. The following terms are the different levels of Prädikat wines.
Kabinet: The basic grade. Usually fairly tart, but can be excellent with food.
Spätlese: Wine made from grape clusters picked later than Kabinet grapes. Has 1-2% sugar but also fairly high acidity. The impression is not as sweet as one might expect.
Auslese: Same late picking as Spätlese, however clusters containing unripe grapes are rejected. The wines are sweeter and fuller-bodied.
Beerenauslese: Made from riper grape clusters than Auslese. Very sweet dessert wine, but retaining the characteristic stinging acidity.
Trockenbeerenauslese: Made from individually selected, late picked grapes that are usually shriveled with Botrytis. A very luscious, and extremely expensive, dessert wine that can live for centuries.
The use of Süssreserve, or unfermented grape juice, to sweeten wine is becoming more uncommon in private estates. The residual sugar left in the wine is often the result of low cellar temperatures and sterile bottling filtration. Luxurious sweetness and concentration found in Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese are produced from grapes that have been attacked by Botrytis, also known as "noble rot" because, though a type of mold, its presence adds incredible flavors as opposed to most molds. Another German elixir is Eiswein, made from grapes that are literally frozen on the vine, yet during precise condtions of both sub zero temperatures and sunshine, the grapes continue to produce sugar through photosynthisis. These grapes are crushed and the ice solids, mostly water, are discarded, leaving only the grape's essence to be made into wine. These wines can be picked as late as December, and have been known to be harvested after the New Year. Of course, the prices are as vaulted as the wines, but should be experienced at least once by every wine afficianado.
Chaptalization, the adding of sugar to increase alcoholic strength, is permitted for Tafelwein and Qualitätswein, but is prohibited for Qualitätswein mit Prädikat wines. The addition of sugar usually occurrs in particularly poor vintages, but can also be used when the yield is so high that none of the grapes get enough sun to ripen correctly.
Within Germany, there is a new preference for drier wines labelled trocken and halbtrocken. Sweeter wines are becoming less fashionable and producers in the northern regions of the Rhine and Nahe are more likely to be marketing their drier Spälese trocken wines as an apperitif than their sweet or medium sweet wines. Some would argue that these drier versions take the soul out of German wines. For one thing, the slight sugar in Kabinet and Spätlese versions is usually subdued by the high acidity. Without the sugar, many of these wines come off as too tart for most palates, as do many trocken and halbtrocken wines. Another benefit is the low alcohol levels of the kabinet and Spätlese versions, most averagine 7 to 8.5% whereas their troken counterparts compete with most white table wines at the 12% level. One should compare both versions with and without food to make their own judgements.