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Wine Guide: German Riesling

It goes without saying-- learning about wine can be an insanely intimidating venture. With endless regions, grape varieties, and viticultural lingo, it can often feel that simply scraping wine's surface will take an eternity. Worst of all, anyone who's studied the stuff can recount the dreaded moment when the hazy cloud of wine was finally starting to make sense-- until German Riesling came along and totally screwed with their head. Find yourself backed against the German wine-learning wall? Don't panic! We've all been there, we promise. Thankfully, we've got a guide for that.

Understanding German wine, especially the deep, dark rabbit hole of Riesling, can definitely be daunting. Though when you begin to grasp the basic qualifications of Germany's wine classification system, understanding Riesling becomes a whole lot simpler. But first, let's start with the basics.

About Germany's Wine Production:

Germany is the eighth-largest wine producing country in the world, with an average of 1.2 bottles made annually. Due to Germany's cold climate, most wine production takes place in the warmer, southwestern quadrant of the country. Wine producing appellations sit along the Rhine or Mosel rivers, which moderate climate and keep daily temperatures in check. As you may have already guessed, the majority of German wine production is white; in fact, white wine accounts for two thirds of German wine production, 20% of which comes from Riesling.

Germany's wine producing regions are broken down into 13 larger defined areas, known as Anbaugebiete; Ahr, Baden, Franconia, Hessiche Bergstraße, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen, and Wurttemberg. Within these 13 regions, you'll find thirty-nine Bereiche (think appellations), and even further to over 160 Großlagen, which are essentially bigger vineyard sites. The most intricate classification is the Einzellage title, which is the equivalent of a single-vineyard site; there are currently over 2,600. Out of the thirteen major wine regions, Riesling is most widely planted in Mosel, Rheingau, and Pfalz.

Classifications of German Wine:
When it comes to German wine, especially Riesling, it's all about the classification systems. First and foremost, the Germans classify their wine by quality. The first classification is pretty simple; table wine versus quality wine. Most table wine, otherwise known as tafelwein or landwein, hardly make it out of the country and account for little of the country's production. Quality wine is further broken down into two more categories, Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein. These two designations are where the juice finally starts to get good, and almost always what you'll find in your local wine shop's German selection.

Qualitätswein (often written as QbA) is a step up from table wine, where standard and excellence become key factors. Wine must come from one of the thirteen allotted Anbaugebiete and be indicated on the bottle. Grapes are generally harvested at low ripeness and are permitted to be chaptalized, which is the process of adding sugar to non-fermented grape juice. The purpose of this process actually has nothing to do with the sweetness of the wine whatsoever; as we all know from fermentation 101, yeast needs sugar to eat to convert to alcohol-- therefore through chaptalization, the sugar added isn't for sweetening purposes, but to boost alcohol content.

For Qualitätswein, wine must have a minimum of 7% ABV to be classified. Qualitätswein wines range from bone dry to semi-sweet, and thanks to producers catching onto foreign consumers confusion as to what they're getting in their bottle, a new sweetness indication system has been placed on most bottles.

The second designation of quality wine, Prädikatswein, literally translates to “quality wine with specific attributes." This designation indicates top-tier quality German wines, ranging from completely dry to super sweet, with chaptalization forbidden in this designation. Prädikatswein must come from one of the classified Bereiche, and yes, a whole other classification of wine exists within this level of classification.

The classification of Prädikatswein is ranked by gradually increasing sugar levels in the wine, which is not to be confused with the Germans general sweetness classification system for wine-- don't worry, we'll get to that in a second. The different Prädikats are as follows:

  • Kabinett - translates to “cabinet." The signification comes from the quality wine saved by the winemaker to keep in his own personal cabinet. These wines are generally dry to semi-sweet, with crisp, balanced acidity.
  • Spätlese - translates to “late harvest." These wines are usually sweeter than Kabinett wines, considering grapes are picked at least a week after Kabinett-designated grapes. Permitting the grapes to ripen longer allows for higher sugar content, translating to sweeter off-dry wines or fuller-bodied dry wines (more sugar = more alcohol from yeast conversion, remember?)
  • Auslese - translates to “select harvest." Grapes designated for Auslese bottlings are always hand harvested and extremely ripe. Auslese wines have the broadest variation of styles, from bone dry to dessert style wines.
  • Beerenauslese - translates to “select berry harvest." Wines in this category are produced from overripe grapes, many of which have achieved 'noble rot' otherwise known as botrytis cinerea, a grey fungus that sucks water from grapes, concentrating their sugars and making them sweeter. Beerenauslese wines are sweet, dessert style wines.
  • Eiswein - “Ice wine." Wines produced from naturally frozen grapes, creating concentrated, sugar-rich juices. These grapes must have, at minimum, the same amount of sugar as Beerenauslese grapes, however, must not be influenced by botrytis.
  • Trockenbeerenauslese - translates to “select dry berry harvest." These wines come from botrytis influenced, overripe grapes and are the most complex and sweet of them all. The wines are pretty rare, and generally very expensive.

Many wine consumers' first instinct is to shy away from Riesling, for fear of encountering a wine that's “too sweet." However, as we just learned, Riesling's flavor profile covers the entire spectrum of possibilities. Producers have begun to understand international consumers' stress over sugar content, so a breakdown of sweetness was created.

Basically, if you can remember that trocken means dry, you're pretty much set from here. Sweetness levels, from dry to sweet, look like this: trocken, halbtrocken (half-dry), feinherb (off-dry), lieblich (semi-sweet), and suß (sweet.) Another life-hack when shopping for Riesling is to check the alcohol content; drier wines tend to have a higher alcohol content than their sweet counterparts. Remember, leftover (residual) sugar in wine means less sugar converted to alcohol, therefore, a lower ABV for the final product.

Sweetness aside, the flavor profile of German Rieslings range all over the spectrum, from floral, honeysuckle tinged citrus, to bolder tropical fruit flavors, to minerally, earth-driven flint flavors. As Riesling ages, signature aromas of gasoline can reveal themselves, due a compound within the grape-- but seriously, don't freak out. The wine is insanely good.

Moral of the story, German Riesling can be an intimidating beast to tackle, but once you understand the Germans' slightly over-intense way of classifying (hey, a little order never hurt anyone, right?) Riesling is actually pretty easy to understand. So grab a couple of those gorgeous, thin green bottles and get to tasting! Don't worry, we'll break down that weird bottle shape/color next time…