The Wines of Germany
By: Olga Sgibneva
German wines have their ardent admirers throughout the world, including in Russia. Germany’s fairly severe climate is best suited to making white wines, and that is indeed where German winemakers excel. The best German wines tend to have a high mineral content due to the character of Alpine soils. They are deep wines, full of dignity and possessing a unique character. The German winemaking industry continues to develop at a rapid pace, both in terms of the quality of its wines and in its positioning on the market.
You could say that Germany is a country of northern winemaking. There is, of course, an influence from the Gulf Stream that affects the German climate and allows grapes to ripen. But there are other unique features here as well: there aren’t too many sunny days during the growth period, summers are usually warm with moderate temperatures and adequate humidity, and it also tends to rain in summer.
All of this increases the period in which the grapes have to ripen, and it also helps them build up a uniform acidity—a hallmark of German wines, especially white ones. These conditions are also beneficial to sugar levels, though this also requires some luck with sunny days. All of these aspects determine the grape varieties used in Germany and its focus on white grapes.
Germany is first and foremost a country of white wines. It has plenty of local and international grape varieties, such as Weißburgunder (the same as Pinot blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot gris or Pinot grigio), Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer, and Kerner. Red varieties include Spätburgunder (Pinot noir), Dornfelder, Portugieser, etc.
Müller-Thurgau, also known as Rivaner, is the second most widespread grape variety in Germany, taking up around one-fifth of all vineyards. It’s cultivated all over the country.
This variety is named after the Swiss professor Müller-Thurgau who created it in 1882 as a hybrid of Riesling and Gutedel. The yield capacity of this variety is 30% higher than that of Riesling. It also ripens earlier, usually in the second half of September. This variety requires more precipitation than Riesling does, and soils with adequate drainage are recommended. Wine made from Müller-Thurgau is usually light, with a flowery bouquet and less acidity than Riesling. Müller-Thurgau is often associated with Muscat. It’s best consumed young. Dry versions are usually marketed under the name Rivaner.
A synonym of the French Pinot blanc, this ancient grape variety feels at home in limestone soils and ripens quite late. In wine, Weißburgunder has a less prominent, relatively neutral bouquet and more acidity than the Grauburgunder from which it mutated.
The dry style of the wine is quite popular and goes well with food. The majority of vineyards are located in Baden and Palatinate, and it’s also a traditional choice for Saale-Unstrut and Saxony.
This grape variety is also known as Pinot gris in France and Pino grigio in Italy. Dry Grauburgunder wines are an excellent accompaniment to food. The richer, more concentrated and aromatic versions are called Ruländer. They are named after Johann Ruland, a businessman from Speyer who started promoting the wine at the beginning of the 18th century. This variety requires richer soils. It’s usually harvested at the end of September–beginning of October. Grauburgunder is cultivated mainly in Baden and Palatinate.
Spätburgunder (Pinot noir) is the main grape variety used for red wines in Germany. Spät is the German word for «late.» These grapes are sensitive to climate and soil conditions, require warm (but not hot) weather, and prefer limestone soils. As suggested by the name, this variety ripens late. It was introduced to Germany from Burgundy. These grapes make elegant, velvety wine with a signature bouquet that resembles bitter almonds or blackberry. Traditional German Spätburgunder is light in color and has less of a tannin taste than its counterparts from warmer countries. Some winemakers, however, produce rich, dark-red wines high in tannins. The deep and complex wines are usually those that have been matured in small oak barrels (225 L). Spätburgunder occupies just over 11.5% of all vineyards in Germany. It is mainly cultivated in Baden, and half of the vineyards in Ahr are also Spätburgunder.
Riesling, the King of White Wine in Germany
The star of German winemaking is, of course, Riesling—the most noble white grape variety. The German environment is perfect for Riesling; they are quite literally made for each other.
Riesling thrives in stony soils and can survive on minimum water. It is resistant to cold and produces high-quality grapes with high (sometimes very high) acidity levels, which makes the wine fresh and suitable for long aging periods.
Riesling requires a few more sunny days to reveal its full potential. It ripens very late, usually no earlier than the second half of October. Riesling makes elegant wines with rich aromas and flavors. It’s cultivated all over the country.
Riesling is a hard worker: its vines dig deep into stony soils and extract minerals from them to provide the berries with the nutrients they require. The long ripening period ensures even sugar levels and preserves the high or very high levels of acidity. These qualities make for fresh and crisp white wines with wonderful multilayered aromatics and the potential for long development and longevity.
Grapes in Germany are mainly cultivated along rivers. To provide them with as much sunlight as possible, winemakers tend to opt for slopes facing the south and southwest. They can often be incredibly steep, which means the grapes can only be harvested by hand.
As with many things, that which is most precious is also most scarce. When it comes to German winemaking, that precious and scarce commodity is sunny days. Without enough sun, the grapes can’t accumulate enough sugar. This has led to a special classification and quality control system for German wines based on the level of sugar in the grapes during harvesting—not on an assessment of the terroir (as in France).
Due to the climate conditions, the grapes ripen slowly. The later they are harvested, the better the chance of getting a more concentrated must with a high sugar content. In this case, fermentation will occur naturally as the berries will have enough of their own sugars to produce rich and vivid wines with the required alcohol content, making chaptalization (adding sugar to the grape must, as permitted in most regions to one degree or another) unnecessary.
These are the conditions that the requirements for wine production are based on. Wines are divided into several main categories.
- Tafelwein—table wine. Winemaking materials can be purchased anywhere, and production restrictions are light. Such wines usually occupy the lowest price category in the domestic market and are not exported.
- Landwein—local wine.
- Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA), or simply Qualitätswein. Quality wine from designated cultivation areas. There are 13 certified regions where wines of this and the following category can be produced. The addition of sugar (chaptalization) is permitted, but the grapes need to meet ripeness requirements. Mixing grapes from different regions is not allowed.
- Prädikatswein, prior to 2007—Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP). Superior quality wine made with select, fully ripe grapes. Chaptalization is not allowed. Wines of this category fall into six additional categories based on the ripeness of the grapes and sugar levels.
The 13 wine regions certified for making quality wines are:
- Franconia (Franken)
- Hessische Bergstraße
- Palatinate (Pfalz)
- Saxony (Sachsen)
There is a minimum required sugar level for all wines prior to fermentation. It’s almost twice as high for quality wines than it is for table wines. There are also legal regulations on the minimum alcohol content for each wine category. Labels must always provide information about the Prädikatswein quality subcategory, the name of the region of origin, and the alcohol content.
The six categories of Prädikatswein are:
- Made from fully ripened grapes. These are usually light wines with simple aromatics and flavor and fairly low alcohol content. These wines are quite acidic and tend to be served with meals.
- Spätlese. Spätlese literally means «late harvest.» It’s made with ripe grapes usually harvested at later stages. These wines have intense aromas and high concentrations of residual sugar but are not necessarily sweet. They go well with dishes that have rich flavors and aromas but are also excellent on their own.
- Made with select, very ripe berries. These are noble wines with rich tastes and aromas. Note that these wines are not always sweet.
- Beerenauslese (BA for short). This wine is made with select overripe grapes, often affected by noble rot (Botrytis). These wines are rare as they are only produced when weather conditions allow the grapes to ripen to this extent. They are very hardy and can be stored for decades. These wines have a rich flavor, and are often paired with desserts or served on their own.
- Made from overripe grapes like BA, but the grapes are harvested and pressed in the cold while frozen. These wines are unique, striking a perfect balance between sweetness and acidity.
- Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA for short). Made with select overripe grapes often affected by noble rot and dried almost until raisin-like. Long-lasting wines that are a rare sight on the market. These sweet, juicy, honey wines have a distinct flavor and aroma.
There are specific periods established by law for when wines can enter the market, depending on their subtypes. Kabinett wines cannot go on sale earlier than the 1st of January of the year following the year of harvest. Other wines cannot go on sale earlier than the 1st of March of the year following harvest.
In Germany, the classification of a wine as dry or sweet is determined by the flavor (the ratio of acidity to sweetness), not simply the highest permitted sugar level. That’s why labels did not indicate whether a wine was sweet or dry until recently.
Due to geological and climate conditions that cause the grapes to ripen more slowly as well as meagre soils that force vines to dig deeper in order to get enough nutrients, the grapes accumulate significant amounts of acids, resulting in naturally highly acidic local wines.
If a wine does not have enough residual sugar (left over in the must from the yeast) and has high acidity, our taste buds will perceive it as acidic. That’s why Germany has a different approach to the maximum permissible levels of residual sugar in wine.
A classic German wine has a harmonious, dry flavor with a great balance between sweetness and acidity. The level of residual sugar can be no more that 15 grams per liter—regardless of the region of the wine’s origin.
Since September 1, 1994, the law has outlined a special kind of quality wines—wines with guaranteed place of origin (Qualitätswein garantierten Ursprungs, abbreviated to QgU). These are wines from a specific wine region, vineyard, or settlement, with a flavor related to the location where the grapes grew. This signifies that measures have been taken to determine the characteristics and qualities of the terroir.
Germany does not currently have an official classification procedure for vineyards, although attempts have been made in recent years to create a system for assessing the quality of a terroir. A terroir assessment system was created in Rheinhessen, under which the best vineyards with limited harvesting are marked as Ernste Gewächse («grown in strictness»).
Every wine region has a list of traditional grape varieties that can be used to produce classic wines typical of that region. Such wines are made from a single grape variety, with the exception of a cuvee from Württemberg. When it comes to the production of high-quality wines, there are special requirements for the lots where grapes grow: they have to have specific soil and microclimate conditions and limited harvests.
Given these trends, Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüte (VDP, the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates) has developed a new wine classification system based more on the origins of grapes than on determining the style of wine. So far, the classification is used only by members of VDP, but it is spreading gradually and successfully. The VDP mark of quality is an eagle carrying a cluster of grapes. It appears on the caps of bottles.
Here is a brief outline of the VDP classification system:
- Local wines with the labels of wine estates, rural, or regional wines.
- Wines from categorized vineyards with an indication of the variety on the label.
- Wines from first-class vineyards (Erste Lage) with the name of the vineyard on the label and a corresponding logo (the number 1 and an abstract grape cluster) on the bottle or label. VDP members may only include the name of the vineyard on the label if the wine conveys the specific character of the terroir.
- Elite wines from the best categorized vineyards, Große Lage. Dry wines are marked as Großes Gewächs (GG on the label), and sweet wines also have an additional mark (Prädikats) as per the six categories listed above (Kabinett, Auslese, and so on).
The efforts made over the last few years are now reflected in changes to the style and increased quality of German wines. There are now fresh and crisp wines with multilayered aromas and flavors, balanced acidity and distinct terroirs—first and foremost Riesling, but also Weißburgunder. Yes, Riesling, which can now be produced dry not only in terms of flavor and the ratio of sugar to acidity but also in terms of its actual residual sugar content while retaining the required balance. This was made possible by the truly exquisite work of winemakers.
Such wines convey a feeling of refined style and incredible pleasure thanks to their harmony of senses, aromas, and structure. They are vivid, full-bodied, and nourish every cell of the body. Just like the people of the Alps themselves!