There are two main classification systems in Germany, that of the German Wine Law of 1971 and that of an independent growers association, the VDP.
Under the German Wine Law of 1971, wine is classified according to sugar level at harvest, ignoring that a fermentation programme can result in a wine with a range of sweetness from dry to luscious, and ignoring the contribution of terroir. The philosophy is that any producer with any terroir can produce great wine, at any yield ….. this is clearly not the case. Add to this the use of sussreserve – the addition of unfermented grape must to sweeten at wine at bottling, then the consumer is working virtually blind in assessing, for purchase, the sweetness and quality of a wine, though back label information can help, and of course the abv% can be a rough guide – low numbers say 7-10% will be sweeter, higher numbers say 13%+ will be off-dry to dry.
The VDP is an association of premium quality producers established in 1910, of currently 209 members, here wine is classified firstly according to the quality of the vineyard and secondly according to sugar level in the finished wine – giving significant clarity to the consumer.
The German Wine Law of 1971
Times have changed and the 4 German wine categories below are now history, having been replaced to be in line with European Union rules. In summary (1) and (2) are now geschutzte Ursprungbezeichnung (gU), or PDO, the existing terms, spatlese, auslese and so on are tacked on to gU where appropriate; Landwein (3) is now geschutzte geographische Angabe (ggA), or PGI; and Deutsche Wein or Tafelwein is now simply Wein.
- Einzellage – an individual site analogous to premier cru or grand cru.
- Grosslage – a group of adjoining vineyards, often under the name of a top site, which can result in the top site’s reputation being diluted by the inclusion of mediocre vineyards. This affects the ability of the consumer to gauge quality, having to rely on acquiring detailed knowledge of individual producers within the grosslage.
Wine classification, for historical interest and in relation to older vintages, is in 4 categories, from the top:
1. QmP (Pradikatswein) – wine with one of the 6 special attributes (pradikats) below, from one of the 13 designated quality wine regions, and chaptalisation is not permitted. Wines are classified by the amount of sugar in the must, with the idea that riper grapes have more sugar, extract, flavour and expression, from the top:
- Trockenbeerenauslese – from shrivelled grapes affected by noble rot, minute juice yield, rich, sweet, luscious, honeyed, with sweetness balanced by high acidity, medium (+) body, rare and expensive; minimum potential alcohol 19%
- Eiswein – harvest at < -8C, water content freezes, isolating and concentrating the sugars, ice crystals removed at pressing, concentrated fruit acidity and sweetness, medium body, moderately expensive; minimum potential alcohol 16.4%
- Beerenauslese – from individually harvested grapes with noble rot, rich, sweet and expensive, medium (+) body; minimum potential alcohol 16.4%
- Auslese – from selected extra ripe grape bunches, style dry to sweet, medium to full body; minimum potential alcohol 12%
- Spatlase – late harvested, so more sugars, body, concentration and riper flavours (than kabinett), style dry to sweet, medium body; minimum potential alcohol 10%
- Kabinett – from fully ripe grapes, light to medium body, low alcohol, crisp acidity, style dry to medium sweet; minimum potential alcohol 8.8%
- To add to the general confusion, 2 other label terms exist (7), for DRY wines only: ‘classic’ – a wine from one of the 13 designated quality regions with potential alcohol 1% higher than the minimum and >11.5% abv with < 15 g/l RS in the finished wine; and ‘selection’ – from a single top echelon vineyard site, with auslese ripeness 11.5-14 degrees potential alcohol, reduced yield, hand harvest and < 12 g/l RS.
2. QbA – quality wine (qualitatswein) from one of the 13 designated quality wine regions, chaptalisation is permitted – which adds body, minimum 7% abv. Most German wine is QbA ranging from the commonplace liebfraumilch – only from Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, with no cross-regional blending; up to Grosses Gewachs wines from VDP members.
3. Landwein – a superior Deutscher Wein, by virtue of 0.5% more abv, the equivalent of French VdP, wine from 26 specified landwein areas, must be dry to off-dry.
4. Deutscher Wein – table wine, from normally ripe or slightly underripe grapes of approved varieties, from one of 4 specified regions; few restrictions, untested.
Dry wine classifications:
- Trocken – <9gm/l residual sugar
- Halbtrocken – <18gm/l residual sugar
Deutscher Verband Pradikatswein Produzenten (VDP)
The literal translation of VDP is the Association of German Quality Wine Estates, reflecting the quality-oriented philosophy practiced by its members. It has as its logo a stylised eagle. Vineyards are classified by regional VDP associations or chapters (eg Rheinhessen, Nahe, Mosel), adopting a hierarchically-based terroir-based system. For the consumer this system is the most transparent, being similar in ethos and structure to eg Burgundy.
In 2012, VDP vineyards covered 4% of total German vineyard, harvesting 2% of the national crop, and producing 8% of German wine sales.
- Minimum of 80% traditional varieties, best suited to the site, as determined by each region – riesling and pinots blanc, gris, noir and meunier (schwarzriesling in Baden), silvaner, muller-thurgau and bacchus seen; for example in the Mosel and Nahe only riesling is permitted, and in Rheingau and Rheinhessen only riesling and spatburgunder.
- Maximum yields for all hierarchy levels
- Hand harvesting for grosse lage and erste lage sites
- Minimum ripeness as determined by sugar level at harvest, being, for gross lage and erste lage, a minimum of spatlese level, that is 10-12.5 degrees potential alcohol
- Obligatory use traditional winemaking techniques
- Obligatory to practice ecologically friendly, sustainable viticulture
- Vineyards and wine making facilities are visited and certified regularly
Classification is firstly by the quality of the vineyard, in 4 levels, from the top, with the equivalent French term given:
- Grosse Lage (erstes gewachs in the Rheingau) = grand cru; producer and individual vineyard named on the bottle
- Erste Lage = premier cru; producer and individual vineyard named on the bottle
- Ortswein = [orts = local] village wine; producer and village named on the bottle
- Gutswein = [guts = estate] district/regional, estate wine from regional vineyard holdings; producer and quality wine-producing region (one of thirteen) named on the bottle
… and then by natural residual sugar (RS) in the finished wine (chaptalisation is not allowed) as 2 basic levels – bone dry and noticeably sweet, the second then being subdivided:
- Trocken (fully fermented to bone dry, according to EU regs < 4 g/l RS) signified by the absence of any indication of dryness on the bottle, similar to France, Italy and so on; except that a Grosse Lage trocken wine is labelled, somewhat unnecessarily, as Grosses Gewachs (great growth), usually with the initials GG – this simply heaps further confusion on the consumer. Some producers emphasise the dry nature of such a wine on the labelling, with terms such as dry (eg Dr Loosen – Ernst Loosen’s comment at LIWF 2016 was in essence … why the hell would I label GG when I can label dry? everyone understands dry), trocken or a point on a sweetness scale bar. It is possible to ferment grapes harvested at kabinett, spatlase and auslese sugar levels through to trocken dryness.
- Wine with natural RS above trocken level, that is > 4 g/l, is labelled as kabinett, spatlase, auslese, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese or eiswein.
Example labelling, for the VDP hierarchy, of a dry riesling, from the label top to bottom:
- VDP.Grosse Lage Grafenberg (specific site): Kiedricher Grafenberg; Weingut Robert Weil; Riesling trocken, GG.
- VDP.Erste Lage Grafenberg (specific site): Kiedricher Grafenberg; Weingut Robert Weil; Riesling trocken.
- VDP.Ortswein Kiedricher (of the village of Kiedrich): Kiedricher; Weingut Robert Weil; Riesling trocken.
- VDP.Gutswein: Rheingau; Weingut Robert Weil; Riesling.
As I said above there are 2 main classification systems, there is a third, that of the Charta (pronounced carta) Wine Estates, an independent association of Rheingau grower/producers, for dry to off-dry RIESLING wines only. As with VDP, regulations are stricter than under the national 1971 law, and only individual producer wines that pass the 3 stringent tasting panels are allowed to use the Charta logo. Currently there are 30 Charta members.
Though Charta merged with the Rheingau branch of the VDP grower’s association in 1999, labelling, as below, can it appears, be hybrid VDP and Charta, Charta alone, or indeed Rheingau wines outside VDP and Charta membership, can fall through to be classified according to the 1971 law.
- Wines only from classified sites, the best are classified as erstes gewachs – first growths; if the VDP is applicable, then these sites are classed as Grosse Lage.
- Permitted varieties – varietal riesling
- Max yield of 50hl per hectare; harvesting by hand of late-harvest grapes
- Permitted styles: internationally classified as dry to off dry.
- Approval – quality assessment by blind-tasting before and after bottling, in addition to the official wine test for recognition as an Erstes Gewachs (Charta) or Grosses Gewächs (VDP).
Erstes Gewächs wines are labelled with those words and the 3 Charta logos surrounded by a black border, example, whereas plain Charta wines do not, example.
- Bottle and labelling – tall brown Rheingau bottle with the Charta sign, the Romanesque double-arch, on the front and back label and on the capsule.
- Some bottlings show the VDP logo on the capsule, with Charta, its double gothic arch logo and Riesling on the label, and for example VDP.GUTSWEIN or VDP.GROSSLAGE; others show Charta Riesling Rheingau with no mention of VDP.
- Understanding German wine labels. [online]. Accessed 21/11/16.
- VDP (The Association of German Quality and Prädikat Wine Estates). [online]. Accessed 21/11/16.
- German wine – wine basics (selection und classic). [online]. Accessed 21/11/16.
- Wines of Germany. [online]. Accessed 21/11/16.