If you have ever been to Germany and thought of buying some German wine as a souvenir, you probably know how confusing it can be. Spätburgunder, prädikatswein, trocken… so many strange and unfamiliar words! No worries, we’ve got you covered. In this easy guide to German wines, we will go through everything that you need to know to choose just the right bottle.
- Is German Wine Even Any Good?
- Common German Wines
- The Geography of German Wine
- Is There a Quality Ranking System for German Wine?
- Is German Wine Always Sweet?
- So, How do I Choose a Good German Wine?
Is German Wine Even Any Good?
Germany and… wine? Aren’t Germans all about beer? You know, those huge beer mugs, lederhosen, Oktoberfest?
I’m sure that’s what some of you think when hearing “Germany” and “wine” used together in one sentence. I was certainly guilty of that myself at some point.
Well, it turns out that while Germans definitely love their beer, they also have a taste for wine. And, as we are about to find out, it is not a bad one, either!
In fact, Germany is currently the world’s eighth-largest wine-producing country. That is 1.3 billion bottles annually no less, a fair chunk of which is exported. It is the leading producer of Riesling and 3rd largest producer of Pinot Noir, after France and the U.S.
Many people still associate Germany with either elegant white wines or cheap sweet wines. Neither is really true anymore. Red wine is becoming more and more popular and now constitutes more than a third of the country’s entire wine output.
As for the quality, the German winemaking tradition dates back to the Roman era, approximately between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. So I think it is safe to assume that Germans had plenty of time to perfect their craft.
So the short answer is yes – there is wine in Germany, and not only Riesling. And yes, some of that wine is very good indeed.
Common German Wines
For many, German wine is synonymous with Riesling. However, as I have already briefly mentioned, Riesling is not the only German wine (although it undoubtedly remains an unchallenged king!).
There are over 100 grape varieties cultivated in Germany, although only around 20 have a share of more than 1%. Some of those are internationally known, while others are mostly specific to the region.
To make things even more interesting, some of the scary-sounding German wines are actually those that you are probably well familiar with. They just call them differently in Germany!
So, to help you navigate the complex world of German wines, here are some common varieties you are likely to encounter.
German White Wines
Germany is traditionally associated with white wines and for good reason. There are plenty of options to choose from. Here are some of the more prominent ones.
Riesling. The unrivaled king of the German wine scene. Grown at almost a quarter of the country’s vineyards, Riesling is the most famous German white wine. The taste can range from sweet to dry, with anything in between possible. Petrol-smelling Riesling, anyone? The most famed classical Rieslings come from the Mosel region.
Müller-Thurgau (Rivaner). Müller-Thurgau was created in the late 19th century by crossing Riesling with Madeleine Royale. It is less demanding than Riesling, ripens earlier, and is easier to cultivate. The wines are fruity and flowery but are mostly considered uncomplicated. Still, a properly done Müller-Thurgau can be quite lovely.
Grauburgunder. Known as Pinot Gris in France and Pinot Grigio in Italy, Grauburgunder is a light and fresh white wine. The German variation is fruitier than its foreign counterparts and can have lots of flavors. Grauburgunders, especially those from the Rheinhessen region, are among my favorite German wines.
Silvaner. Silvaner is harder to grow than Riesling and is therefore far less widespread. In skilled hands, Silvaner becomes an expression of the winemaker and the terroir. This means there are some outstanding Silvaners out there. And since it lacks the international fame of Riesling, Silvaner is likely to be less expensive for the same level of quality. I specifically recommend Silvaners from Franconia.
Weißburgunder. Weißburgunder is the German word for Pinot Blanc. It is a fresh and light white wine ideal for those hot summer days. Weißburgunder goes very well with many types of food but lacks a bit the complexity when compared to Grauburgunder. Weißburgunders from Baden or Palatinate are particularly worth considering.
Are There any German Red Wines?
Yes! Quite a few in fact. Red wines have been on the rise in Germany for quite some time now. Here are just a few you might want to check out.
Spätburgunder. Simply put, Spätburgunder is German Pinot Noir and the red wine king of the country. Spätburgunders are very similar to what you normally expect from Pinot Noir, although sometimes lighter in both color and acidity. So if you enjoy an elegant velvety Pinot Noir, you can’t go wrong with a Spätburgunder!
Dornfelder. Developed less than a hundred years ago, in 1955, Dornfelder is a relatively new kid on the block. But it has already taken the country by storm, currently being the second dominant red wine grape in Germany. Easier to grow than Spätburgunder, Dornfelders make fragrant and complex red wines ideal for those who want to try something new and trendy.
Blauer Portugieser. Representing only about 3% of total wines in Germany, Blauer Portugieser is relatively hard to come by. These are light and fruity mild reds that are easy to enjoy and are great in summer. If you want to surprise your friends with a wine they never heard about, Blauer Portugieser is a perfect candidate.
The Geography of German Wine
The geographical origin of German wine is a bit of a complex matter. It is important, however, so bear with me. Some understanding of this topic is essential to read and understand the labels on German wine.
With regards to wine, there are four different geographical units in Germany, any of which can be present on the label. Let’s go through them one by one.
Regions are the largest winemaking geographical unit in Germany. There are 13 in total: Ahr, Baden, Franken, Hessische Bergstraße, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen, and Württemberg. This map shows their locations.
For wines of higher quality, the region must always be printed on the label. This can already provide valuable information about the wine, although I wouldn’t rely solely on that to guide your decisions.
For example, many people are aware that the best Rieslings traditionally come from Mosel. So pretty much any winery from Mosel will try its best to clearly indicate the region on the bottle. Yet, not all wineries are equally good, so having a Mosel Riesling does not in itself guarantee it is great.
Still, to those who deeply understand the topic, the region can tell a lot about the wine. For instance, Grauburgunders from Baden are usually more full-bodied than those from Rheinhessen, which are more elegant.
Obviously, this is not something you would figure out straight away. But as you drink more German wine, you will naturally learn a lot of these little nuances with time.
Districts are smaller subunits within a region. If you look at the region map, you will notice that some are quite large and dispersed. Having districts allows narrowing down the geographical location of the wine somewhat.
I will not recite the entire list here, because most of these names will not tell you much anyway. If you are interested, the full classification is available online.
It is worth noting that sometimes a district is explicitly mentioned on the wine bottle. For example, you might see something like “Saar Riesling” stamped there. This tells you that this Riesling not only comes from Mosel but specifically from the Saar district.
But in my experience, it is not a widespread practice. Usually, the district is omitted in favor of a specific vineyard (or a group of those).
Vineyard (Einzellage) or Vineyard Group (Großlage)
The districts are further subdivided into separate vineyards (Einzellage). Because vineyard names are not necessarily unique, they are normally prefixed by the name of a village or town they are located in.
So you might read something like Würzburger Innere Leiste on the bottle. This means that this wine comes from the vineyard Innere Leiste in Würzburg.
However, and this is where things get a little tricky, most vineyards also belong to a larger group of vineyards (Großlage). The groups follow the same naming convention, and any particular wine can be marketed under either of the geographical units.
This is probably very confusing, so let us look at a real-life example.
- In the village Nittel of Obermosel district in Mosel, there is a vineyard called Kapellenberg. Local wine may therefore be sold as Nitteller Kapellenberg.
- By some strange coincidence, another village Palzem in the same district also has a vineyard called Kapellenberg. In this case, the label might say Palzemer Kapellenberg
- But because both of these vineyards belong to a group called Gipfel registered in Nittel, either of these wines can also be marketed as Nitteler Gipfel instead
Unfortunately, it is impossible to differentiate a single vineyard from a group simply by looking at the label. And there are many reasons why a winemaker would prefer using collective notation instead of a specific vineyard.
For instance, a particular vineyard could be relatively unknown or have a worse reputation than another one from the same group. Using the Großlage notation hides the fact while allowing to benefit somewhat from the more famous brand.
Or perhaps, the wine contains mixed grapes originating in different locations within the Großlage. Again, using the collective name can conceal this.
Is There a Quality Ranking System for German Wine?
I am glad you have asked. Yes, indeed there is a quality ranking system for German wines. However, true to the German way of doing things, it is not as straightforward as you might be hoping.
The Official Quality Ranking System
Officially, there are four levels of quality for German wine. If you are familiar with the classification of wine in France or Italy, these will feel very similar. They are:
Deutscher Wein. The lowest level, basically meaning that what you are holding is indeed wine and comes from somewhere in Germany. It is an equivalent of “Vin de Table” or “Vino da Tavola” in Italy and France.
Landwein. A step above the Deutscher Wein, Landwein is an equivalent of IGT or Vin de Pais in other countries. Essentially, you can think of it as a slightly better table wine.
Qualitätswein. Translated as “quality wine”, this is a wine that must come specifically from a particular region. The region needs to be shown on the bottle.
Prädikatswein. Predicate, or quality wine with specific attributes, is the highest level of quality for German wines. Unlike the other three, this one is not based on geography, but rather on the ripeness of the grape. There are six types of predicates in total, depending on the grapes used and how late they were harvested.
- Kabinett (cabinet) – made of fully ripened grapes that the winemaker would be happy to put in his own cabinet rather than sell (hence the title)
- Spätlese (late harvest) – the grapes that are picked at least 7 days after the normal harvest
- Auslese (select harvest) – very ripe, hand-selected grapes
- Beerenauslese (select berry harvest) – made from overripe grapes
- Trockenbeerenauslese (dry berry select harvest) – overripe grapes that dried on the branches
- Eiswein (ice wine) – grapes that froze on the plant and therefore have very high sugar concentration
Why is the Official Quality Ranking Unhelpful?
Although by the looks of it, the German quality classification is similar to that of other countries, there are a few issues with it.
The most obvious one is that there is no DOC/DOCG/AOP equivalent that would strictly define the geographical origin along with quality standards. The closest Germany has is qualitätswein which really isn’t the same.
That’s because historically, Germany was always at the edge of the climate suitable for winemaking. Sometimes, the grapes did not mature enough to result in drinkable wine. And so, the official quality ranking is there to mostly guarantee the ripeness.
Therefore, qualitätswein is essentially wine from grapes that are ripe enough and originate in one of the official regions. As long as winemakers can comply with these conditions, they can usually sell their wine as a quality wine.
With the rising temperatures brought by climate change, bad harvest is increasingly a thing of the past. As a result, in 2017, 98% of German wine was either qualitätswein or predicates. Table wine constituted only 2%.
Simply put, pretty much all wine in Germany is quality wine these days!
Existing geographical designation is hardly helpful either. Not only are single vineyards indistinguishable from the collective vineyards by name, but they are also not always indicative of the quality.
This is a result of Napoleon’s law that was in force in Germany until the mid-twentieth century. It mandated that after the winemaker died, the land was to be split equally among his children.
The net result is that a single vineyard is often divided between several wineries with very different quality standards. And unless you know those, picking wine based on where it comes from may not always be ideal.
VDP to the Rescue?
Naturally, winemakers are well-aware of these problems. Many are every bit as dissatisfied with the existing classification as the consumers. After all, why work hard to create truly top wine if the lazy neighbor’s label will read the same?
So some of them took it upon themselves to come up with a solution. This led to the creation of VDP, an association uniting Germany’s top winemakers.
VDP holds its members to extremely high standards that include guidelines on yield, sustainability, and cultivation practices. In their own words: “VDP wines are more than just good. They are among the finest available not just in Germany, but in the whole world.”
All VDP wines are easily distinguishable by the VDP.Eagle mark on the neck of the wine bottle. There are 4 different levels of the classification:
- VDP.GUTSWEIN – everyday wines by the VDP members.
- VDP.ORTSWEIN – wines from the winery’s best vineyards.
- VDP.ERSTE LAGE – top-quality wines that express the essence of the vineyard. Somewhat comparable to Premier Cru classification in France.
- VDP.GROSSE LAGE – best of the best, wines that “shine through their uniqueness and distinctiveness”. A rough equivalent of Grand Cru.
Unfortunately, while it is a great initiative, VDP cannot fully replace or supplement the official classification.
Firstly, it is not regulated by law, so the criteria may change. Secondly, no winery can apply for membership. Instead, it is the existing members who decide when and whom to invite.
Because of it, it is not as simple as picking VDP over anything else. While VDP wines are superb, many excellent wine producers in Germany are currently not VDP members.
Is German Wine Always Sweet?
A common misconception is that all German wines are sweet. Historically, that may have been the case, but these days the tendency is increasingly towards drier wines. Even the predicate system is no longer an indication of sweetness, but rather of the quality of the wine.
Nonetheless, Germans are very pedantic about this aspect and often explicitly state the dryness of the wine. An easy way to tell if the wine is dry is to look for the word Trocken on the label. Trocken is dry in German, so anything with that designation is, by definition, dry.
You might also notice Halbtrocken (half-dry) or Feinherb (slightly sweeter than half-dry) notations. All dry VDP Grose Lage wines are branded as GG (Grosses Gewächs).
If there is nothing on the bottle to explicitly suggest its dryness, an easy way to estimate it is to check the alcohol content. The higher it is, the drier the wine. Anything above 11% will most likely be dry.
So, How do I Choose a Good German Wine?
Now that we are familiar with the peculiarities of the German wine world, let’s try to pull it all together and answer a simple question. How do you choose a good German wine?
The important thing to remember is that there is no silver bullet. As with anything else, to truly become an expert in German wine, one needs to invest time and effort into the craft. That said, here are a few straightforward tips that will help you make better, more informed choices.
- Always look for Qualitätswein – this really should be your baseline. With the criteria for that being as basic as they are, there is just no reason to take anything lower.
- Wines with the VDP eagle mark on the bottleneck are almost guaranteed to be excellent. No need to pick Erste Lage or Grosse Lage, even Gutswein will do.
- Check if it is a predicate wine. Those will normally be of higher quality.
- See if the winemaker stated the name of the vineyard on the label. This isn’t always an overly accurate indicator of quality but is usually a promising sign.
- Learn to read the German wine labels. Once you get familiar with the terminology, they aren’t too difficult to understand. Pay attention to what is included, but, equally important, to what is not.
- If you are buying wine in Germany, try to find a dedicated wine store. Most wines sold in German supermarkets are of cheap variety and are hard to recommend.
- Don’t go for the least expensive option. Unlike Spain, where you can find competitive wines for laughable prices, decent German wines normally start at 6-7 EUR per bottle. For a bottle of VDP Grosse Lage expect to pay at least 25-30 EUR.
There is a whole world of German wines out there, full of surprises and unexpected discoveries. Perhaps German wines aren’t as renowned as those from other countries, but they are every bit as excellent if you just know where to look.
I hope that this easy guide to German wine got you curious about what the country has to offer. Next time you are looking for a bottle of something to drink in the evening, have a peek at the German selection. Maybe you will find something to your liking.
There are many more nuances to German wine than I could possibly fit into one post (or know myself, for that matter!). Still, I do believe that this crash course is a fine starting point.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends and whoever else you think might benefit from it.
Also, have a look at some other articles on this blog. I don’t normally write about wine, but if you enjoy traveling, you will find a lot of useful information here. These are some of my recommendations:
- Photographing Castle Neuschwanstein
- Landscape photography in Germany: lake Eibsee
- Mallorca Best Photo Spots and How to Plan A Trip
- Lisbon Photography Guide: 10 Fabulous Spots to Capture
- Top 7 locations for landscape photography on Tenerife
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