In-Depth: Deciphering - German Wine Labels

Jun 30, 2009


I know what you’re thinking already. Did I step back into time? Is this an old German wine label?

German wine labels have been known to exhibit a Teutonic quality, with illustrations of the Rhine and medieval villages while featuring old Germanic script. Not to mention the amount of writing on the label, all of it in a foreign language contributing to what most wine marketers and buyers would call a ‘nightmare’.

But once you get past the label’s archaic illustrations (I find them quite beautiful myself but I have a fascination with German culture) and learn how to deconstruct the label, you’ll find that the Germans have made it a lot easier for you than the French or Italians.

Greg Nees in his fascinating book, Germany: Unraveling an Enigma, provides some of the most fundamental insights into the German people. He writes of their need for order, knowledge and clarity.

Germany wine labels offer all of this. Let’s break this label down together.

JOH. JOS. CHRISTOFFEL ERBEN – this is the name of the wine producer/estate in Germany (and a personal favourite of mine). You will always find a producer’s name on the front of the bottle.

2003 – The year of the vintage. So far so good. Easy, right?
ÜRZIGER WÜRZGARTEN RIESLING AUSLESE - Alright now, don’t panic, we can handle this.
Ürzig is the name of the town. The name of the town always ends in the ‘er’ on a
label. (Basically, it is the possessive, ie. Ürzig’s’…)
Würzgarten is the vineyard name. So the first title would read in English as: Ürzig’s Würzgarten.
Riesling (pronounced REEZ-ling) is the name of the grape.
Auslese or selected harvest (lese = harvest, aus = out) is the time when the grapes were picked. The grapes used to make this wine were harvested late in a warm season. These wines tend to be more expensive because the growers picked individual bunches. Most likely this wine is going to be medium-sweetness.

QUALITÄTSWEIN mit PRÄDIKAT (QmP) – literally translated as ‘Quality wine with specific attributes’. These are top of the class. The wines are natural with no Chaptalisation (a process by which grape juice or sugar is added to get higher levels of alcohol) is allowed.

You will also find on other German wine labels:

QUALITÄTSWEIN bestimmter ANBAUGEBIET (AbA) – translating as ‘Quality wine of a particular region’. There are thirteen wine-growing regions or Anbaugebiete in Germany. The ones you’ll most likely encounter in the North America wine market, including the Mosel Saar Ruwer are: Nahe, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and the Pfalz. The remaining regions, Ahr, Mittelrhein, Baden, Franken, Wurttemburg, Hessiche Bergstrasse, Saale-Unstrut, and Saachsen are either much too small (Ahr and Hessiche Bergstrasse) or the domestic market leaves little to export (Baden for instance, which also imports a great deal of red wine).

QbA simply means that the grapes for this wine can only come from the specified region on the bottle. Blending between different regions is absolutely verboten. These wines are generally chaptalised with higher levels of sugar and alcohol.

Let’s look at the different quality categories (found on QmP labeled German wines) indicating when the grapes are picked.
KABINETT – a wine made from grapes during the regular harvest. Normally a Kabinett wine will be low in alcohol and typically dry but there are variations and exceptions (see below). Kabinett wines are food-friendly but great with conversation.
SPÄTLESE (pronounced ‘SHPATE-lay-zuh’) – which means “late harvest” The grapes are riper, the intensity and strength is more full on. These wines can be either dry or blessed with a touch of sweetness.
AUSLESE (pronounced ‘OUSS-lay-zuh) – already mentioned…
BEERENAUSLESE (BA) (BEER-EN–ous-lay-zuh) “berry selected harvest”. These wines are rare, expensive and usually affected by noble rot, Botryis cinera, a friendly rot that concentrates the sugar of the grapes, giving these grapes a tangy-honey component. Not to be missed.
TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE (TBA) (TRAWCK-EN-BEER-EN-ouss-lay-zuh) – or ‘dry selected harvest’. Don’t let the dry fool you. These are rare, very sweet, very exquisite wines, made in the most exceptional of years. The individual grapes picked for these wines are shriveled up like raisins. It will take one person a full day just to select these grapes. The alcohol is low but the price isn’t.
EISWEIN (pronounced in German as ICE-vine) or Ice Wine. The grapes are usually picked in the early, early morning (2 or 3 am) by harvesters wearing gloves so their hands don’t warm up the grapes.

GUTSABFULLUNG – the wine was bottled at the estate of Joh.Jos. Christoffel Erben.
WEINGUT – meaning Wine Estate
MOSEL SAAR RUWER – one of the most famous Germany quality wine regions. The Mosel (Moselle in French) is a left tributary of the Rhine with the Saar and Ruwer being its tributaries. The vineyards in the Mosel are among the most beautiful and steepest in the world, making mechanical harvesting impossible and hand-picking a necessity. The high cost of labour is factored into the cost of these bottles.

You’ll also notice a lot of numbers on the wine label. This means the wine has been given a quality-approved number, letting the customer know that a special organization has approved of these wines.

Still with me?

German Rieslings are perhaps, like Sherry from Jerez in Southern Spain, the most under-appreciated wines in the North American market. At the turn of the 20th century, they were the most sought after. But tastes change and so do perceptions. Many wine buyers are either put off by their labels or the sugar levels. Most fine German wines are not sweet, but rather intense and bold. The ones that are sweet are far less sugary than a can of cola.

It was in the 1960s that mass-produced German bulk wine (aka ‘sugar water’ like Liebfraumilch) came on the market and ruined Germany’s reputation for being regarded as a fine wine producer.

If you happen to like Riesling but are not partial or prepared for the occasional sweetness, there are ways to tell if the wine is going to be sweet or not.

First of all, some German wine labels will have the following words on their labels:
TROCKEN – meaning dry
HALBTROCKEN – ‘half-dry’ with up to 1.8% residual sugar.
FEINHERB – also indicates dry
CLASSIC – or ‘harmoniously dry’

Sometimes these words don’t appear. You can get a Kabinett that is sweet and a Spätlese that is dry. Many German wine producers are quite small but produce somewhere between 20 and 30 different wines. How can you tell if one is going to be sweeter than the other?

Well, the lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine. Sugar converts into alcohol. The more sugar converted into alcohol, the less sugar left in the wine. This is the best way to tell.

Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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