German Wine 101

There is one major wine region in the world that is generally misunderstood by lots of people, especially in the US.  Germany.

We were spoiled by “Blue Nun;” the bottles are green or blue and tall and skinny; and the words on the label are tongue twisters for most of us.  So German wines aren’t the most user-friendly.  But they sure are sipper friendly!

Most of the German wines imported to the US are white, not surprising when you think of the cold climate and the need to ripen in a short growing season.  They’re aromatic and flavorful, led by Riesling, which is an amazing wine once you get to know it. Riesling has a wonderful balance of acidity and sugars, yielding wines that smack of ripe peaches along with spiciness, tanginess and mineralty. You may also see Muller-Thurgau and Gewurtztraminer, as well as an occasional Pinot Gris.  There are red wines from Germany as well, but usually you have to be there, or in other parts of Europe, to find them.  Pinot Noir, called Spatburgunder, is the main red, but I really enjoyed discovering Blaufrankisch, another lighter styled red, on a trip last year.

But whites are where it’s at and Riesling is the star so let’s concentrate on that – and what a great time to jump into some as we head into summer.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about German Riesling is how they are classified by the ripeness levels of the grapes.  The German wine laws require a designation on the label for all the highest quality wines, the Qualitatswein Mit Pradikat.  Right up front you then know something about the wine in the bottle.  The ripeness designation isn’t specifically an indicator of dryness or sweetness, because the balance of alcohol and residual sugar impacts that, but it is generally a really good guide to it and a handy shortcut to understanding German Riesling.  It’s also a good guide to the flavor intensity.  Here’s your cheat sheet:

Kabinett: Lowest grape ripeness level and usually the driest wines.  Lighter to medium bodied with alcohol at 10% or below, some as low as 7%.  Riesling Kabinett are awesome summer sippers with flavors of ripe peach along with slate-like mineralty.  And with the low alcohol they are easy to enjoy when it’s warm outside, at a picnic or just sitting on the patio.

Spatlese: Riper.  More lush and full with some residual sugar, which means sweetness. Delightfully nuanced and flavorful. Spatlese wines are the perfect pairing for German sausages (can you say bratwurst!), smoked meats (smoked pork chops with suarkraut!) and spicy Asian foods.

Auslese: Picked later in the harvest when more sugar is concentrated in the grapes.  Better with desert like fruit tarts or tortes unless you have a real sweet tooth and let them stand on their own. Intense flavor and a nectar-like viscosity.

Beerenauslese: A true desert wine. Much like the botrytis (noble rot) wine of Sauternes.  Lush is the word with honey and apricot. Very sweet and rich, they can age for decades.  You might also see the word Edelfaule on the label or in a description.

Eiswein: Grapes are left to over-ripen and freeze. Individually picked frozen berries with highly concentrated sugars. High touch means high price but it’s fun to splurge.

Trockenbeerenauslese: A mouthful to say but what an incredible mouthful to sip! One of the world’s great desert wines.  Grapes are allowed to partially raisin-ate before crush, yielding an intensely sweet wine.  A little goes a long way.  Usually sold in half bottles and in excess of $200 each.  I’ve had one and it was amazing.

There’s a lot more to learn about Germany and its wines but this should get you started sipping and exploring.  Here’s sampling to try.

Ever Day Sip
August Kesseler R Riesling Kabinett 2014 $16
Unscrew it an enjoy.

2014 Dr Loosen Estate Blue Slate Riesling Kabinett $20
Great producer. Classic Kabinett profile.

2013 Georg Albrecht Schneider Niersteiner Hipping Riesling Spatlese $15
Nice off-dry Spatlese for your brat!

Guest Sip
2014 Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese $30
Lovely balance of acidity and sugar. Delightful to sip at the dinner table.

2013 J J Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese $50
Elegant wine – terrific producer.

Splurge Sip
Dr. Loosen Riesling Eiswein 2012 $80 375ml bottle

3 thoughts on “German Wine 101

  1. Ken — Much a the German wine in the US (like the Blue Wine) is Qualitaitswein — meaning sugar has been added to raise the alcohol content. To be a Kabinet or above it is prohibited to add sugar. Thus we always stuck to Kabinets when we lived in Germany — and loved them and their low alcohol content!

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    1. kensipswine

      Thanks Larry! Right on. When I said “spoiled by Blue Nun” I meant in a negative way. The addition of sugar is used to prompt the low sugar grape must into adequate alcohol levels. And it’s why I would stick to the Prädikatswein and not the Qualitaitswein level of quality. I love the Kabinetts and Spatlese as fun alternative whites to the ususal Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay that are so frequently sipped.

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  2. Pingback: Getting Serious about Riesling – Sips

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