German wine classifications are almost as confusing and complicated as German wine labels as a whole appear to be. There are just a few basic things you need to know about to have more confidence in shopping for a German wine, Riesling or not. I’m not going into every nuance of the system, since, frankly, a lot of it doesn’t matter to most wine drinkers, unless you are trying to impress somebody. There’s a graphic representing the classification system on our Monthly Wine Specials page. In effect, this post will follow that pyramid from the bottom up.
Let’s start with Deutscher Wein and Landwein. Deutscher Wein used to be known as Tafelwein (Table wine). These two you won’t see much of outside of Germany. Deutscher Wein is wine made from grapes grown in Germany. That’s it. Landwein is associated with a specific region of origin (Mosel, for example). No other major restrictions or requirements for the wines in these categories. No need to spend more time here, but I will note, if you get a chance to try them, do so. Just because they are the ‘lowest’ level of classification doesn’t mean they aren’t any good.
We then move on to Qualitätswein – Quality Wine. You may sometimes see this abbreviated (on the back label, for instance) as QbA. It is supposed to be what the name suggests: good stuff. This is quite a large category. It’s main rules are that the grapes must all be from one of the 13 different official German wine regions. Other restrictions may vary by region. Our Pauly-Bergweiler Riesling Trocken is a Qualitätswein. We have others, as well. Definitely nice wines.
Higher up on the pyramid, we next come to Pradikätswein. These used to be called Qualitätswein mit Pradikät, which is why you’ll see this category on the left hand side of our pyramid.
There are five sub-categories here. These are based not on sweetness, or region of origin, but what is known as must weight. In other words, the sugar level in the harvested grapes. This sugar, as you’ll recall from your basic fermentation knowledge, can be fermented into alcohol. So, more sugar = more alcohol. Or you can stop the fermentation process, and have sugar left over, giving you less alcohol but more sweetness. It is thus possible – but very unusual – to see a Trocken Spätlese, for example. So:
Kabinett – Not a whole lot to say here. Kabinett wines are made from ripe grapes. They tend to be relatively low in alcohol, and can range from dry to off-dry. We’ve included two of these in the case, since there can still be a wide range of styles, and Kabinett wines are still quite affordable.
Spätlese – ‘Late harvest.’ (You will also see this spelled ‘Spaetlese.’) These are made from grapes that, as the name tells us, are harvested late. So, they are very ripe, and usually picked about a week or so after the grapes for Kabinett or Qualitätswein. These wines are noticeably sweet, but not really yet a desert-wine level of sweetness. I personally find they often pair well with food. A nice Spätlese Riesling makes a nice match for New England Clam Chowder, for example. (And thus I betray my American roots…)
Auslese – ‘Selected harvest.’ Which come later than ‘Late Harvest.’ In other words, they are even riper than the grapes used for Spätlese. More sugar potentially means more alcohol, but most Auslese wines are sweet, rather than alcoholic. They can be considered a desert wine, but also go well with some foods. Perhaps most notably, while not a wine made completely from botryitsed grapes, there may be some in the harvest.
Beerenauslese – ‘Selected harvest of berries,’ more or less. You may see this referred to as ‘BA.’ An category with an even higher must weight than Auslese. A proper desert wine, usually made from botryitised grapes, although this technically isn’t a legal requirement. Not only that, the grapes are picked individually, not by the bunch.
Trockenbeerenauslese – Finally, in the German classification system comes ‘Dried berry selection,’ and Trockenbeerenauslese is often abbreviated TBA. These wines are made exclusively from grapes affected with noble rot, individually picked, making them quite rare and expensive. Nonetheless, they are stunning wines, and well worth trying if you can get your hands on them.
Eiswein – This is a category that falls outside of the Pradikätswein schema, but overlaps it. Eiswein (ice wine) is wine made from grapes picked and pressed when frozen. Understandably, this isn’t guaranteed to be possible every year.
Working with frozen grapes means that when they are pressed, you get a much more concentrated must, as most of the water is locked in the ice. It also means, or so I’m told, that it is easy to damage your press when making this. Ice is hard. You end up with a sweet wine, that tends to fall in the BA / TBA range of sweetness. They aren’t cheap, but well worth trying, at least once in your life. Possibly more like two or three times. Or every Christmas, come to that.
Finally, there are a number of unofficial terms that you may see. I’ll mention only one here, since several of our wines use it, including one in the German Riesling Trinity case. That term is ‘Feinherb’. Feinherb is used to designate a slightly sweet wine. A Kabinett Feinherb would be on the sweeter end of the Kabinett range. The sweetness is noticeable, but to my tastes, doesn’t become the main characteristic of the wine. Rather, it lends another element of complexity to it.
Hopefully this has helped remove some of the intimidation factor that German wine labels can invoke. I’d fully recommend trying a range of different styles – you’ll probably find one (or several) that are just right for you.