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How to read a German wine label

By: Anne Martin, Sommelier

Studert-Prüm Riesling Kabinett, 2008, courtesy Colleen Tully Author: Canadian Living Credits: Studert-Prüm Riesling Kabinett, 2008, courtesy Colleen Tully

Menus & Entertaining

How to read a German wine label

By: Anne Martin, Sommelier
German wines have long had a bad reputation as sugar-water concoctions suited only to the young or newbie wine drinker. This is because Canadians have been exposed to some cheap, badly made bottles, which have tarnished Germany’s fine wine-making tradition. It's a sad myth. In reality, Germany makes some of the world’s most sophisticated and thrilling wines (particularly the Rieslings). Once the wines of kings, Germany’s wines have fallen out of favour. But that’s the modern wine lover’s gain – these wines taste expensive but aren’t.

Complicated, hard-to-read German wine labels are difficult to decode for the average wine drinker and contribute to the myth that German wines aren’t worth the investment. But in fact, these labels are chock-full of grape information in addition to the usual producer, grape variety and vintage details.

German wine label glossary:
A German wine label bears one of 5 quality designations that indicate how ripe the grapes were when picked. From somewhat ripe to ripest (used in very fine dessert wines), they are:
  1. kabinett (seen in image above)
  2. spätlese
  3. auslese
  4. beerenauslese
  5. trockenbeerenauslese
Determining sweetness when buying German wines:
Surprisingly, even if a label says spätlese, the wine may be drier than a kabinett if it has been fermented longer (i.e., more grape sugar has been consumed by the yeast). Look for terms like halbtroken (half-dry) or troken (dry) to help figure out the level of sweetness.

One of the best ways to figure out how sweet the wine will taste is to look at the alcohol level. Anything above 12 per cent alcohol will be dry, regardless of when the grapes were harvested.

Page 1 of 2. Learn the symbols on modern German wine lables on page 2 >>

Symbols on modern German wine labels:
Today, more German wine producers use modern, sleeker labels that contain less verbal information and more symbols. Some of them are:

• Small eagle:
The symbol of the VDP, an association of some of Germany’s top producers (seen in image at left)

Cluster of grapes next to the number “1”: Denotes that this is a top vineyard site; similar to premier cru, or “first growth,” in France.

• GG:
Abbreviation of Grosse Gewächs, meaning that the wine is dry and is a “great growth,” like a grand cru in France.
At first look, all this information may still seem confusing, but it points to Germany’s constant drive to produce top-quality wines.

Why you should bring a German Riesling to your next dinner party:
When you are lucky enough to try a Riesling from a top German producer, the reason for all the meticulous detail on the label becomes clear. These wines are site-specific, and the grapes are often hand-harvested. The wine-making techniques involve long, slow fermentations that can’t be rushed.

These finely crafted Rieslings are a testament to the expression “God is in the details.” The purity of the wines’ fruit, their clarity and balance – all wrapped up with a fine seam of mineral notes – will make you to sit back and rethink white wine’s reputation as a “simple” drink. Fine German Rieslings can capture the taste of a spring orchard in a glass. They are also food-friendly beyond compare, daring to go where a less-well-made, less-complex wines will not. They will neither overpower a delicately flavoured dish or be destroyed by fiery spice.

Page 2 of 2
<< Test your German wine glossary knowledge on page 1

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How to read a German wine label