German Wines - Part One

Last week I conducted a wine tasting of Eastern European wines. We tasted wines from Greece, Montenegro, Hungary, Austria and Germany. Now, before I get nasty comments, I know these are not all Eastern European countries, but have you tried to find a good tasting sample for this region? One of the most confusing things for some of the tasters had to do with the discussion of German wines, and how to tell if they were sweet or not. While it can take years of tasting and studying, I will attempt to give a simplified explanation of German wine laws and labels, that should help you when shopping for a nice wine to pair with your next dinner.

As in other European countries, German wines are divided into two classes: Table Wine and Quality Wine. Since most of the Table Wine is not available in the United States, we will concentrate on the Quality Wine (Qualitätswein). There are two categories of Quality Wine: Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) and Prädikatswein (formerly known as Qualitätswein mit Prädikat or QmP).

QbA wines are probably the easiest to understand. These are quality wines from specific regions (anbaugebiete). There are 13 quality regions in Germany: Ahr, Mosel, Nahe, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Paflz, Baden, Franken, Württemberg, Mittelrhein, Hessische Bergstraße, Saale-Unstrut, and Sachsen. In this Quality Wine category, the wines must all be made within the region designated on the label, and have a minimum natural alcohol content of 7%. These wines are allowed to be chaptalized (the process of adding sugar to bring up the alcohol levels or sweetness).

QbA wines represent the highest level of quality in German wines. These are "Quality Wines with Special Attributes". This is where it gets a little more complicated...the special attributes are based on the amount of sugar in the juice of the grape at harvest. In the United States, we refer to this as Brix, while in Germany it is measured in the degrees of Oechsle. Prädikatswein range from dry to extremely sweet. The different Prädikat designations used are (in order of increasing sugar levels): Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA).

In general terms, Kabinett is considered fully ripened, from the initial harvest. Spätlese is considered "late harvest". These will have more body, and fruit than a Kabinett, but may or may not be sweeter than a Kabinett. Auslese translates to "select harvest" and consists of individually picked bunches of grapes. This level can span the range of dry to sweet. The next three levels are dessert wines. Beerenauslese translates to "select berry harvest" made from individually selected overripe grapes commonly affected by botrytis (noble rot). Eiswein is made from grapes that have naturally frozen on the vine, concentrating the grape sugars. Trockenbeerenauslese means "select dry berry harvest" made from selected overripe shrivelled grapes, which produce extremely rich sweet wines. These are only produced in the finest vintages, and can be some of the most expensive wines in the world.

QmP wines are not allowed to be chaptalized and must be produced from allowed grape varieties in one of the 39 subregions (Bereich) of one of the 13 wine-growing regions.

Next week, we'll take a look at how to read a German wine label. These wine labels give more information that any other wines in the world, but can also be the most confusing.

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