Understanding a German wine label.
German wine is a mystery to many, the consensus is that the bottles reaching the U.K. market are low quality, cheap, sweet wine with a resemblance to Blue Nun but this really isn’t the case. The difficulty with this less known wine producing country lies in trying to decipher the label. There is one aspect of this that they do try to make a little easier than their neighbouring French counterparts, Germany tends to include the grape variety. It's common to see Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau or Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) mentioned but unless you know the grapes' characteristics it doesn’t give much away (see the grape guide for more information). As with most countries, Germany operates a quality classification system, the basic levels are referred to as Landwein or Deutscher Wein, these categories have a few rules but tend to be low in quality and range from dry to medium-sweet. From here it gets more complicated, splitting into two large fundamental groups Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein - the latter then divides into a further six levels; Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Trockenbeerenauslese, but we are only going to concentrate on the first three. All of the levels within Prädikatswein are linked with sweetness, increasing in levels of must weight (sugar levels when the grape is harvested). However, this does not mean that Auslese is always sweeter that Kabinett, all of the first three can be dry to medium-sweet. The secret here is to turn the bottle over and look at the alcohol content, a lower ABV (alcohol by volume) can indicate a halted fermentation leaving residual sugar meaning that the wine will be towards the sweeter end. The main difference between the three subcategories is the style. Using Riesling as the example; Kabinett wines will show fresh, citrus, light in style with a burst of acidity the alcohol levels can vary from 12% abv. all the way down to 8% abv. meaning there can be a huge range in sweetness levels. Spätlese wines will show stone fruit characteristics, from peach to nectarine with a slightly fuller body. The last level in the dry to medium sweet category is Auslese, these wines can exhibit tropical fruit flavours. The grapes picked are extremely ripe, have high sugar levels when harvested and therefore show richer, fuller characteristics. However, the wines produced can still be dry which is a surprise to many. Germany makes fantastic dry white wines, sadly extremely unappreciated in the U.K. market. A term that can sometimes be seen on labels to express that the wine is ‘dry’ is ‘trocken’ (and halbtrocken meaning off-dry) look out for these when purchasing.