I was all ready to write this post, but something was missing. I rummaged in my wine fridge and found the perfect thing—a bottle of Peter Lauer's 'Barrel X' riesling. That's better. The bright pop, the mouth-watering freshness of this riesling—and so many German wines—makes it easy to get excited. Before I knew it, the bottle was empty (whoops) and I was wishing I had a Mary Poppins-like bag filled with more (I shared with my husband and it's only 11% alcohol—so give me a break).
What's Up With Riesling?
A fifth of all of the wine grapes planted in Germany are riesling, so to talk about German wine, you have to start with this iconic grape. There's a lot to love: Riesling can taste like peach or apricot, with a bolt of lime-like tartness. It's also incredibly aromatic, all jasmine and honeysuckle.
German riesling also offers a beautiful clarity: drinking a bottle from grapes grown on blue or red slate, you'll swear you can taste straight through the fruit flavors to the minerals at the wine's core.
If riesling grapes stay on the vine long enough to be affected by botrytis—called 'noble rot'—then the wines will take on flavors of ginger and honey. You won't find much German riesling aged in oak barrels: winemakers prefer to emphasize the freshness of the grape rather than weigh it down with oaky hints of vanilla and clove. Riesling also ages incredibly well—bottles taste amazing 10, 20, even 30 years after the vintage.
Don't Fear the Sugar
Not all German rieslings are sweet, but you shouldn't steer clear of a riesling with a little residual sugar. Riesling grapes are naturally very high in acid, and the cool, northern climate of Germany means this ripping acid stays in the grapes even into the fall harvest season. So winemakers let the fermentations stop before the wine is completely dry, retaining a little sweetness in order to strike balance in the wine.
Think of it like this: Have you ever made fresh lemonade? If you taste it and it's too tart, you add some sugar until the flavor is right: plenty tart, with just enough sweetness to soften the edge a little.
That slight sweetness also makes these rieslings handy at the dinner table. Sugar will help moderate spice: try an off-dry German riesling with fiery Indian or Thai food. Bring in something fatty (say, crispy pork belly) and you'll discover the true triumvirate of deliciousness: acidity, sweetness, and richness are amazing together.
The Prädikat System
German wine labels can be a bit intimidating: so many words! So many umlauts! But there's a ton of useful information on those labels, so it's worth getting comfy with a few terms.
Like wine anywhere, Germany's highest quality bottlings come from a specific place. The spectrum in Germany starts with table wine from anywhere in the country: that's Deutscher Wein. Then there's Landwein, which is from broad geographic areas within the country, a bit like Vin de Pays in France or Indicazione Geografica Tipica in Italy.
Above those two, there are two categories: Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (Quality wine from a certain wine region) and Prädikatswein, which will also have the specific region listed. Prädikatswein is the highest level for wine classification and must be labeled by Prädikat—a note on the bottle that tells you about the ripeness level of the grapes before they were made into wine. As the grapes get riper, they pack in more sugar...and more intensity of flavor.
The levels in the Prädikat system can give you a hint at how sweet the wine will be: the more ripe the grapes are, the more sugar they have before fermentation...and the more likely there will be some sugar left over when the fermentation stops. This leftover sugar is called 'residual sugar'.
(Prädikat isn't a perfect predictor of sweetness, though. More on the exceptions later.)
Kabinett is the least-ripe of the spectrum, and wines in this category are usually light and fresh. Grapes for Spätlese wines were left on the vine a little longer to get more sugar, and the resulting wine is likely to be more powerful and rich, plus sweeter than the Kabinett. Auslese wines are even more honeyed and bold, made from riper grapes than Spätlese. These wines age beautifully, though they're also excellent accompaniments to a cheese plate whenever you're ready to pop the corks.
Looking for a sweet wine for after dinner? Look for Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese. Yep, that's the sweet stuff: trocken means 'dry,' but here the term refers to the dried berries on the vine rather than the wine. These sweet wines are made with late-harvest grapes attacked by botrytis or 'noble rot'—the same fungus that makes the renowned wines of Sauternes.
Finally, grapes for Eiswein are picked and pressed in winter when they are frozen. Freezing concentrates the sweet grape juice, and these wines tend to be the sweetest—and most expensive—of the bunch.
How Do You Know How Sweet the Wine Is?
So you are at the wine shop and staring at the wall of German riesling—how do you know if you are getting something bone dry, off-dry, or made for dessert?
I wish it could be as simple as always paying attention to the ripeness levels—the Prädikat categories above. But sometimes winemakers will decide to take a wine made from Spätlese-level ripe grapes and call it a Kabinett.
"The lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine will be."
Here's a handy trick: Look at the alcohol percentage. The lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine will be. This is because not all the sugar has been converted to alcohol through fermentation. Is the ABV 8%? Then it's gonna be on the sweeter side. 13%? That'll be pretty dry.
There are a couple more German words that are worth learning to help you determine sweetness.
If you see Trocken on a label, that means it's dry. (This is true even if there's also a Spätlese on the bottle—that term refers to ripeness, and the Trocken is the final word on dryness.)
Halbtrocken is off-dry: perfect for that Thai or Indian dinner. If you see Selection on the bottle, that wine will be dry (and sourced from a single vineyard) while a wine labeled Classic is off-dry, like Halbtrocken.
A wine labeled with 'GG' will also be dry. This is short for Grosses Gewächs ("Great Growth"). This means that grapes from a really good vineyard site were used to make a dry wine. Theses great sites are a bit like a 'Grand Cru' vineyards in Burgundy. These wines will generally be more expensive than bottles labeled 'Trocken' or 'Selection,' but will also be powerful and complex.
Still not sure if a wine is dry or sweet? The International Riesling Foundation (yes, such an amazing thing exists) has created a scale of sweetness that you might see on the back of riesling bottles. Pretty helpful!
More Label Hints
Many German wine bottles will bear a picture of an eagle with a cluster of grapes, indicating membership in the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (Association of German Prädikat Wineries)—abbreviated as the VDP. This organization was formed to promote quality wine in Germany by requiring its members to adhere to strict guidelines. Plenty of great producers have chosen to opt out of VDP membership, though.
There's another thing to look for when you're scanning labels: if you're not familiar with the winemaker, check the back of the bottle to find out who imported the wine. While there are many great importers, folks like Terry Theise, Rudi Wiest, and Vom Boden have all built impressive portfolios of some of the most renowned estates in Germany.
Grapes have a tough time ripening in the cool climate of Germany, but generations of winemakers—there have been vines planted in Germany since Roman times—have found spots for remarkable vineyards. Some of the best sites lie along rivers, such as the Mosel and the Rhine, because the steep south-facing slopes get maximum sun. (Heat reflecting on the water helps, too.)
Single vineyards appear on German wine labels with the name of the town ending in 'er' preceding the vineyard name. Ürziger Würzgarten is the Würzgarten vineyard in the town of Ürzig, for example. Many winemakers make wines from each vineyard—each producer owns just a segment of the vineyard, and may farm his steep-sloped parcel of vines alongside a dozen neighbors.
Beyond Riesling: Other Grapes You Should Know
Over the years, scientists in Germany have created many crossings of different grapes in order to come up with grape varieties that could succeeded in the harsh German climate. (Think of them like the wine equivalent of a Puggle or Labradoodle, but maybe a bit less cute.) Müller-Thurgau—the second most planted grape in Germany—is one of these, a crossing of Riesling and Madeleine Royale. Müller-Thurgau wines are fresh and light, aromatic and floral.
Spätburgunder—also known as Pinot Noir—has a long history in Germany, but in the last twenty years both its quantity and quality have increased immensely. Germany is actually the third largest producer of Pinot Noir, after France and the United States.
Winemakers generally decide to emphasize the purity and precision of the fruit flavors when it comes to Spätburgunder, though the use of oak varies greatly. Some winemakers age it in large old barrels that they've been using for Riesling for years, while others take the opposite approach with new oak barrels that'll impart more flavor. The tiny region of the Ahr, north of the Mosel, is known for its Spätburgunder.
Silvaner makes a white wine that's usually full-bodied and dry, and tends to be austere with an intense mineral side. Producers like Hans Wirsching tend to use the traditional bocksbeutel bottle, a squat green flask-like bottle that's named in reference to the, ahem, private parts of the goat.
German Wine Regions You Should Know
Germany has thirteen different wine regions that are mostly clustered in the southwestern part of the country. Below are five regions you'll most likely encounter.
The Mosel region is famous—and for good reason. The slate soils absorb the sun's heat and release it back to the vines to help the grapes ripen. The river zigzags dramatically through the land, giving ample opportunity for different exposures. The slopes are incredibly steep, so the grapes must be hand harvested. But the effort is worth it: Mosel rieslings are wonderful, with lots of acidity to complement flavors of peach, slate, and fennel. There are tons of great producers, including Willi Shaefer, Immich-Batterieberg, Martin Kerpen, J.J. Christoffel, A.J. Adam, and Merkelbach.
Within the Mosel region, the Saar and the Ruwer tributaries are home to a few great wine producers: Peter Lauer and Egon Müller in the Saar, and Karthäuserhof and Carl von Schubert in the Ruwer.
Compared to delicate Rieslings from the Mosel, Rheingau rieslings tends to be more powerful and concentrated. Here, too, a river plays a major role in ripening the grapes. Most of the Rheingau's vineyards are clustered on the northern bank of the Rhine between the towns of Assmannshausen and Wiesbaden. Storied Rheingau producers include Robert Weil, Schloss Schönborn, Georg Breuer, and Leitz. The village of Assmannshausen has a gained a reputation for outstanding Pinot Noir—look for Spätburgunder made by August Kesseler.
Remember the Blue Nun? The Rheinhessen is where cheap Liebfraumilch—a sweet white blend—came from. In the same way that Carlo Rossi doesn't represent the quality of California wine, so it goes with Blue Nun. Certain producers are working hard to stand out in this region—the largest of Germany's winemaking areas. Wittmann and Keller are making excellent dry rieslings that help the world remember the great wines of the Rheinhessen.
After trying a 2000 vintage Riesling from Dr. Bürklin-Wolf a couple years ago, I was hooked on wines from the region and I continue to discover exciting producers and bottlings. The Pfalz sits north of the French wine region of Alsace and enjoys a similar warm, sunny climate. This extra sunshine results in a fuller-bodied style of Riesling compared to the Mosel. The region also makes some minerally, expressive white wines, such as Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris). Producers to look for include Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, Rebholz, and Müller-Catoir. Friedrich Becker makes excellent Spätburgunder.
The best sites in this tiny area are along the river that lends its name to the region. If you drink wine from one producer in the tiny region of Nahe, let it be Dönnhoff. The lineup starts with an estate wine that sells for $20 (delicious and fresh, with laser-like acidity), and moves up to legendary (and pricey) dessert wines. Cornelius Donnhoff, who took over for his father in the winery in 2007, says he likes his rieslings "very clear, like fresh spring water." They're perfect. To delve deeper, look for wines from Schlossgut Diel and Schäfer-Fröhlich.