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Unravelling German Wine Law

Unravelling German Wine Law

- Adrian Read

It can be difficult to know exactly what a German wine label is telling you about the wine inside. But initiatives led by the top producers are making a difference.

The German Wine Law is -- or aims to be -- extremely precise.

This is both a strength and a weakness. Every vineyard, every village, every region, is exactly delineated. But misleadingly, the grapes grown in a particular place can be used to make wine at any quality level.

This has led to much consumer confusion, particularly over likely sweetness levels.

Enter the VDP, or Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, the most influential and prestigious German growers’ association, representing more than 200 of the finest wine estates in all 13 wine-growing regions.

The VDP imposes far more stringent requirements on its members than the German Wine Law and although the holdings of VDP members amount to less than 5% of Germany’s total vineyard area, they produce a very high proportion of the country’s finest wines.

Also, since the early 2000s, VDP vineyard classifications, quality control standards and labelling practices have become influential beyond Verband membership.

Most significant is the prestige wine category, in use since 2002, known as Grosses Gewächs (‘great growths’), similar to the Burgundian notion of the ‘grand cru’.

These wines, labelled ‘GG’ since the 2007 vintage, come from vineyards (or parts of vineyards) classified by the VDP as grosse lagen (‘superior locations’).

The intention is also to indicate a relatively full-bodied, legally ‘trocken’ (dry) wine, although the focus of the label, as in Burgundy, is on the vineyard name and its GG status.

Wines (mainly from the Rheingau) labelled as erstes gewächs (‘first growths’) can still be found, but the GG designation now also encompasses them.

Across the board, the word ‘Trocken’ on the label will indicate that the wine is dry, although the term is not always used at the highest quality levels.

One step further down the quality ladder we return to the Prädikat (‘special attribute’) classification, with the familiar ‘Prädikats’ of Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) and Eiswein.

BA, TBA and Eiswein will always be intensely sweet dessert wines, but Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese will vary depending on the style the maker is pursuing: relatively dry (and with higher alcohol) if sugar is fermented out; relatively sweet (with lower alcohol) if the wine is allowed to retain residual sugar.

The amount of wine reaching Prädikat ripeness levels can vary between more than 50% and less than 10% of Germany’s total harvest, although climate change is leading to generally higher ripeness levels.

To return, finally, to the Burgundy analogy, ‘village’ or good quality local German wines will (under VDP rules) be called ‘Gutswein’, labelled with a proprietary, village or regional name, or ‘Ortswein’ (local vineyard wine), labelled with a specific vineyard or site name.

If you want dry German Riesling, focus on the highest-quality GG wines and/or look out for the word Trocken on the label.

If it still sounds too complicated, your Langton’s broker can help.

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