Yet learning how to read a German wine label isn’t as difficult as it seems at first. These wines look complicated and intimidating, but once you understand the basic rules they follow, the puzzle pieces will begin to fall into place. Knowing how to identify the region, style, classification, and producer can actually give you more information about the wine inside compared to simpler wine labels. This is a very valuable skill for wine collectors, as it lets you understand exactly what type of wine you’re buying, helping you make better investments and more confident purchases.
How to Read a German Wine Label: The Basics
Most wine enthusiasts are initially thrown off by the massive wall of text that they encounter when they glance at a German label for the first time. However, with a little training, you can learn how to read a German wine label by decoding the text one chunk at a time. Sommelier Jim Newcomb describes these labels as “Russian nesting dolls” of information. The information usually starts out broad and general at the top, and then gets more narrow and specific as you approach the bottom of the label.
For instance, you’ll usually find that the general wine growing region is listed at the very top of the label, followed by the smaller subregion, followed by the village, followed by the vineyard group, and then, finally, the single vineyard in which the grapes were grown. Reading a German label is like slowly zooming in on a single point on a map. While not every label will necessarily be formatted in this way, this is a good general rule for many wines on the market. Once you understand this basic concept, the text on the label should already appear a little less intimidating. Chances are, most of the words on the label are related to the region.
Reading the rest of the label requires a slightly deeper knowledge of German winemaking in order to accurately interpret the information. This is a skill that you need to learn and study over time, even if you already speak fluent German. Thankfully, it’s a relatively easy skill to pick up, as long as you’re given the right tools and information.
By the end of this article, you should know how to find:
- Wine classification
- Style and grape ripeness
- Regional style
You can see each of these pieces in the example label below:
All five of these factors combined should tell you almost everything you need to know about how the wine will taste and whether it’s worth storing in your cellar long-term.
Reading German Labels by Classification
The problem with German wine classifications is that there are actually two different systems of classification. The first was created by Germany, and it applies to every single wine grown within German borders. The second classification is called “VDP,” and wine growers receive these ratings through a special growers association. In the past, it was very difficult to identify which German wines were especially high in quality, since the country didn’t really have a classification system based on grape ripeness or specific winemaking style. To remedy this problem, some wine growers formed a special growers association in 2012, which they call “VDP.” This new classification actually tells you whether a wine will likely be high or low in quality, and is extremely useful for collectors of German wine.
According to the original German classification system, wines land in one of four categories:
- Deutscher Wein
- Qualitätswein (QbA)
“Deutscher Wein” and “Landwein” include the country’s table wine. These are bottles that are meant to be drunk young and have no secondary market value.
Wines labeled “Qualitätswein” (or QbA) and “Prädikatswein” are generally higher in quality and may have some secondary market value.
Wines for sale in the U.S. will most commonly be labeled Qualitätswein or Prädikatswein. If you see either of these words on the label, you can assume that the wine inside is of relatively high quality and that it may even be collectible. However, to know exactly how fine the wine is, you’ll also need to consider VDP classification–at least for wines made after this rating system went into effect.
The VDP rating system accompanies the overall German classification. So, you may see a wine that has both a basic German classification and a VDP classification on the label.
The VDP classifications that you may see include:
- Erste Lage
- Grosse Lage
According to this more specific classification, the highest-quality wines are those labeled “Grosse Lage” (sometimes also called “Grosses Gewächs,” depending on how dry the wine is). This is similar to First Growth status in regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy–it means that the grapes were grown in a particularly excellent vineyard. Meanwhile, “Erste Lage” is the second-highest classification, and it means that the grapes were grown on a relatively high-quality site. “Ortswein” means that the grapes were grown in a local vineyard that is among the top in the region. And finally, “Gutswein” refers to any proprietary wine that was made in a particular village or region. This is the lowest-quality of the VDP classifications, however, it’s still superior in quality to German table wine (Landwein or Deutscher Wein).
While German and VDP classifications can give you a ballpark idea of how high in quality a particular wine is, you’ll need to look for additional information on the label before you make your final investment decision. The ripeness of the grapes and the style of the wine can vary greatly even between two wines with the exact same German and VDP classifications.
Analyzing Sweetness and Grape Ripeness
After you know how to read a German wine label based on overall quality classification, you’ll need to dive deeper into the label by analyzing the sweetness level and ripeness of the grapes. This can be a challenge, even for experienced wine drinkers. I once bought a bottle of Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Trocken, thinking that it would be semi-sweet. However, I somehow missed the word “Trocken” on the label, and was shocked to find that the wine was absolutely bone dry, with not even a hint of sweetness. This is a relatively common incident for German Riesling fans–you have to read the label carefully to avoid making mistakes like this.
German wine labels are actually very clear and organized when it comes to sweetness classification. You should never have to guess how sweet or dry the wine will be before you open it. Here are all of the wine styles that you’ll encounter when you read a label, and what each phrase means:
For wines labeled Qualitätswein, you will find one of five basic styles:
- Trocken/Selection – Very dry.
- Halbtrocken/Classic – Semi-dry.
- Feinherb – Semi-dry. It is an unofficial style that tastes very similar to Halbtrocken.
- Liebliche – Sweet.
- Süss – Very sweet.
By comparison, Prädikatswein uses slightly different terms to differentiate between dry and sweet styles. These are:
- Kabinett – Light wine. Usually dry or off-dry.
- Spätlese – Rich wine. Semi-sweet.
- Auslese – Bold wine. Sweet.
- Beerenauslese – Dessert wine. Very sweet.
- Trockenbeerenauslese – Even sweeter than Beerenauslese.
- Eiswein – The sweetest wine available. Very rare.
For all of the styles above, these sweetness levels only hold true if the label doesn’t also include the word “Trocken.” Wines with this word on the label will typically be close to bone dry, and have no more than 9 grams per liter of residual sugar. Many of these Trocken wines are also relatively high in alcohol and acidity, which will make them taste dry on the palate. So, even if an Auslese is usually sweet, if it’s Auslese Trocken, it likely will be drier than expected. However, you should also note that “Trocken” is present in the style “Trockenbeerenauslese”–this is an exception to the Trocken rule. Although this term has the word Trocken in it, this is a distinct style of its own that will still taste like a sweet dessert wine.
The name of the style on the label can generally tell you whether a wine will be dry or sweet, but if you’re unsure, you can always check the ABV. Wines that are above 11 percent ABV, on average, tend to taste drier, while those with lower ABV are usually sweeter.
Region Impacts a Wine’s Personality
Although classification and style combined can tell you a great deal about a wine, it’s not always possible to predict exactly how a wine will taste based on this information alone. Learning how to read a German wine label by region will offer you an even more detailed picture of a particular wine. For instance, a bottle of 1971 JJ Prüm and 2003 JJ Christoffel may share some basic similarities, even though one is an aged Trockenbeerenauslese and the other is a younger Auslese. That’s because both of these wines were grown in the Mosel region, which has a particular personality all of its own. Understanding some of the differences between Germany’s most popular wine regions will help you use every piece of information on the label to your advantage.
These are the regions that you should identify on any German wine label, accompanied by a few traits that are typical for those particular regions:
Mosel, Saar, Ruwer: Notes of peach, flowers, and minerals. These wines tend to be very acidic.
Pfalz, Baden, Württemberg: Notes of fruit. These wines are also very acidic, but they also have plenty of stiff structure.
Nahe, Mittelrhein, Franken: Strong minerality. These wines usually have a steely personality.
Rheingau: These wines are elegant, refined, and very structured.
Rheinhessen: Notes of fruit. These wines are mineral-heavy and have some steely traits.
To properly read a German label, you need to combine basic classification, sweetness style, and regional personality together to get the whole picture of the wine. For example, you may look at a bottle of 2001 Dr. Loosen and see that it is Qualitätswein, meaning relatively high in quality. Next, you’ll see that the wine is an Auslese, meaning it will be bold and sweet. Finally, you’ll see that it’s made in Mosel, whose climate will likely give the wine some peachy, floral notes and high acidity. Sure enough, the critical tasting notes for this wine include phrases like “rich,” “oily,” “apricot,” and “snappy acidity.”
Research Unusual Wines Individually
Most of these rules apply to Riesling, which is Germany’s most sought-after wine. With other styles and grape varieties, the process of decoding the label is usually easier than it is for Riesling. Usually, if the wine is something other than Riesling, the label will say so (for instance, you will likely see “Pinot Noir” directly on the label). These less-common styles and grapes typically don’t have their own separate classifications in the same way that Riesling does. To read these labels properly, I recommend researching these wines on a case-by-case basis. If you stick with high-quality vineyards and reputable producers who are known for making excellent Riesling, then it’s likely that they will also craft excellent Pinot Noir and other styles of wine as well.
Look for Iconic Producers
When in doubt, a reputable producer is almost always the answer to your German wine needs. Even if you still have trouble understanding all of the information on the label, as long as you recognize the names of Germany’s top producers, then you can at least rest easy knowing that you’re buying a well-crafted wine. Some of the most consistent producers in Germany include:
Not only do the wines made by these producers typically taste well-balanced, they are also valuable on the secondary market, and potentially collectible. Choose vintages that appear to be high in acidity, as these will age long-term.
Using these tips and rules, you should know how to read a German wine label without researching professional tasting notes for every Riesling you encounter. With a little practice, you should be able to walk into any wine shop and choose the perfect German wine for your needs, from a light, dry Kabinett to pair with a cheese platter, to an ultra-rare, supremely sweet Eiswein that can age in your cellar for decades.
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