Some of the finest white wines in all of Europe are produced in Germany but the way its wines are classified varies from systems in other countries. As no-one wants to pick up a sweet German wine thinking that it’s a dry wine, we have put together this introduction to German white wine.
German wine production in a few numbers
Let’s start with a few figures about wine production in the country:
– There’s a little more than 100,000 ha of vines (for comparison, France has nearly 800,000 ha)
– 840 million litres of wines was produced in 2020 (France produced nearly 4.7 billion litres)
– 9th greatest wine-producing country in the world on 2020 (France came in 2nd)
– 60% of the wines produced are white and 40% are red (this proportion has increased over the last 15 years)
An introduction to German wine
Germany possesses some of the most northerly wine regions in Europe. This means that you mainly find white grapes here, and these grapes go on to create superb wines. Most of the country’s wine regions are located along the Rhine and the French boarder. Some of the best domains grow their vines on terraces where soils soak up or reflect the heat and the vines have optimum sun exposure. One of the most famous vineyards in the country is Scharzhofberg. It took more of a century of hard work and global warming for this terroir to finally be able to show its full potential.
The main white grape varieties are Riesling and its hybrids, Müller-Thurgau and Kerner, and Sylvaner. Pinot Noir, which is known as Spätburgunder here, is the main red variety.
The German wine-growing regions
There are 13 vine growing regions, or Abaugebiete, in Germany. These are then split into Bereiche (districts), Gosslagen (a group of vineyards) and Einzellagen (individual vineyards).
The areas located to the west of the Rhine are:
– The Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region along the Mosel, running from the Luxembourg border to Koblenz
– The Rhine Valley, going from Bonn to Wissembourg which is split into different sections: Mittelrhein, where vineyards “surround” the Rhine, running from Bonn to Lorch, Ahr in the north, Rheingau where Riesling is at its best, Nahe, Rhine-Hessen and Pfalz
The areas located to the east of the Rhine include:
– Franken extends from the south-east of Frankfurt into Bavaria
– In the centre, Wurtemberg which surrounds the city of Stuttgart butts up to the Hessische Bergstrasse which lies north-east of Mannheim
– In the south of the country, there is Baden which forms a long 10-km stretch of vineyards that go from the south of Karlsruhe to Basel on the Swiss border
– In the east sits Saale-Unstrut and its steep terraces and Sachsen, one of the smallest European regions that is divided up into tiny plots.
To summarise, the majority of Germany’s best white wines come from the regions of Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the Rheingau, the Nahe and Pfalz.
The hierarchy of German white wines
German wines are classed on a scale of quality based solely on the grapes’ ripeness when they are harvested. This means they are ranked depending on the sugar content of the must.
Before going into greater detail, let’s take a look at the four different categories of German wine production: Tafelwein, Landwein, Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein.
- Tafelwein is table wine which are bottles without a geographical indication and if the wine is made with German grapes the word “Deutscher” can proceed the word Tafelwein.
- Landwein denotes a protected geographical indication and means that the grapes came from the region written on the label. These wines are generally light and dry or almost dry.
- Qualitätswein means quality wine and is similar to the French AOC as the grapes can only come from one of the 13 regions (Anbaugebiet) The grapes that go into it also have greater ripeness than those that go on to produce Landweins. Most of these wines have sugar added to them but you can find some interesting specimens created by famed producers.
- Prädikatswein, which literally means wine of special quality, denotes qualitative German wines which can only be produced by naturally ripened grapes that come from one sole region and no sugar can be added.
It is divided into six categories according to the amount of sugar the grapes contain when they are harvested (so it indicates the ripeness and not the residual sugar in the bottle):
- Kabinett: This category contains very good, light wines that are dry or off-dry with relatively low alcohol content. Some can be aged for three to five years to allow their quality to continue developing. Just so you know, German wines are considered dry (trocken) when they have a residual sugar content of below 9 g/L. This might seem high, but you mustn’t forget that the wines contain a lot more acidity than French wines. You can also aerate these wines by using a carafe if you would like as they are often quite refined which can be off-putting. In any case, you need to pay attention to the alcohol percentage written on the label. When it is between 7% and 9%, it will be a wine that contains residual sugar, so it won’t be dry. Anything above 12.5% can basically be considered as dry. So, for example, if you find a Kabinett that is 7.5% or 8%, it will be fruity with residual sugar and a good deal of acidity. If it’s 10.5% or 11%, it will be “halbtrocken” or “feinherb” (off-dry).
- Spätlese: This is a wine made from grapes that were harvested a little late, which creates a wine that is similar to the semi-sweet ones found in the Loire. It can continue to develop over 5 to 10 years.
- Auslese: Specially selected bunches go on to produce a more structured and more persistent wine. This third category creates fairly sweet wines from successively picking the ripest grapes (those that have and have not been affected by botrytis). They can be stored for five to 20 years.
- Beerenauslese: These are wines made from selected, over-ripe grapes that are almost always affected by noble rot and so have the potential of reaching an alcohol content of around 16%. Beerenauslese cannot be made every year as the right weather conditions are needed to create these very sweet wines that can age for at least 15 years.
- Trockenbeerenauslese: Minuscule yields of grapes that have been severely affected by noble rot are picked one by one. This produces a sweet, very fragrant wine with not too much alcohol content that can be aged for a very long time.
- Eiswein: An ice wine is made by pressing frozen grapes that are generally picked in December or January when it’s at least -7°C. The water content in the grapes remain froze when they are pressed which naturally creates a highly concentrated must. Botrytis does not play a part in the process. The vinification method allows a signification amount of acidity to remain in this rich and very sweet wine.
The winemakers that you just have to discover!
- Dr. Loosen: This Mosel domain was created more than 200 years ago. Its philosophy is based on the idea of being able to taste the terroir, the depth of the vines and the character of the vintage.
- Egon Müller: This German producer has created a wine that has been the most expensive wine in the world several times.
- Joh. Jos. Prum: Joh. Jos. Prüm is without a doubt one of the most sought-after German producers along with Egon Müller. Located in the middle of the Mosel Valley, each wine contains an incredible freshness that is so characteristic of the Mosel-Saar.
- Markus Molitor: Markus Molitor is a passionate, visionary winemaker who is devoted to his native Mosel. His philosophy is based on simple principles: nature, terroir, complexity and ageing potential. Each of his wines showcase these qualities, not matter if they are dry, off-dry, medium or sweet.
- Schloss Johannisberg: Vines have been growing at Schloss Johannisberg since 1200 and Riesling vines have called it their home since the start of the 18th century. Today, the property is made up of 50 hectares in the Rheingau that face due south.
- Willi Schaefer: This small, 4-hectare family vineyard is located in Graach’s best terroir with parcels situated in the village (Himmelreich and Domprobst) as well as in Wehlen (Sonnenuhr) on the slate slopes that fall away into the Mosel where Riesling excels.