Ultimate Guide to German Wines

Stahleck Castle in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, boasts the Winery Stahl.

Germany is one of the top 10 wine-producing countries in the world, generating more than 3 percent of the world's wine in 2009. Until relatively recently, Germany specialized in somewhat sweet, white wine that's relatively low in alcohol. White grapes grow well in the cooler climate and hilly topography of the German countryside where they account for nearly 85 percent of Germany's wine production.

Besides being a major wine producer, Germany is a big wine consumer, too: about 8.5 percent of the world market. For a country known for its beer and beer culture, that's something of an accomplishment. Because of the cool climate and inconsistent weather, German wine can vary widely from vintage to vintage -- one feature that makes experimenting with German wines an adventure. Another potential wrinkle is Germany's labeling conventions, which can make understanding what you're buying a hassle if you're not paying close attention.

The premier vineyards in Germany have been established along large river systems like the Rhine and the Mosel that have favorable microclimates. This helps stabilize the inevitable weather extremes, giving grapes the best opportunity to mature before harvest. The limitations of a cool climate and a short growing season make selecting cool-weather, quick-ripening grape varieties doubly important. The three most significant grapes grown in Germany are: Riesling, Silvaner and Muller-Thurgau. There are 13 winemaking regions in Germany, but exports favor what are often considered the top four: Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Pfalz.

Now that we know a little about the why of German wine, let's explore a few varieties that make a bottle of trocken or halbtrocken wine from Germany such a singular delight.

Types of German Wines

Although German wines are widely perceived as sweet wines, that's not strictly true. There are three broad styles of German wine: sweet to semidry (fruity), medium-dry (halbtrocken) and dry (trocken). Look for these designations on the label. They may not always appear, but when they do, they'll be a great indicator of what you're getting. Dryer wines are gaining favor in Germany, so be on the lookout for halbtroken and trocken wines for a pleasant surprise, especially if you've tried German wines in the past and thought they were way too sweet.

When shopping for German wine, there are a few quirky things to keep in mind:

  • Wines are named for their place of origin: This will usually consist of a village name as well as a vineyard name.
  • The location designation will be followed by the grape name and a level of ripeness. Because vintages achieving the right level of ripeness in a season are considered the best, in the universe of German wine, ripeness equals superior quality -- not the name of the winery.
  • There are six ripeness or pradikat designations for German wine. They're listed here in order of highest to lowest quality: trockenbeerenauslese, eiswein, beerenauslese, auslese, spatlese, kabinette

You may see a wine listed with a QmP mark, which stands for a quality wine that has special attributes -- extra points for sweetness. The QmP may also be spelled out: Qualitatswein mit Pradikat.

Just below the QmP designation on the quality scale is the QbA rating for a quality wine from a specific region. It may be listed as: Qualitatswein or Qualitatswein Bestimmter Anbaugebiet. Below these high-quality designations are the table wines: landwein, tafelwein and deutscher. These are less likely to be exported, though, and are definitely in the minority of wines produced in a given year.

You probably know that wine is made through a fermentation process in which yeast converts the sugar in grape juice into alcohol. If grapes don't get enough sun, they can be low in sugar and yield a tart, acidic wine. Less expensive German wines get around this problem by allowing the fermentation process to convert what sugar there is in the grape juice to alcohol. Then, they add back a little unfermented grape juice from the same varietal to achieve more sweetness and less bite. It's a clever solution called sussreserve, German speak for "sweet reserves." The Germans call wines made using this method lieblich or "gentle" because they're light, definitely sweet and somewhat fruity. Look for this term in the description on the bottle. Many imported mass market German wines are made this way.

On the other end of the scale, you'll find the naturally sweet wines that grow through the (hopefully) warm fall months on the best German vineyards. Some are a symbiotic collaboration between capricious nature and the hand of man. We'll cut to the reality here: Some German wines are infected with a special fungus, botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. The affected grapes shrivel up and look dreadful, literally drying on the vine. But the process also concentrates the sugar in the fruit and deepens their flavor. Those pathetic raisins yield some of the best wines (trockenbeerenauslese) Germany has to offer -- at upwards of $150 a bottle.

German Wines: Lots More Information

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