Germany is one of the world's most northerly wine-producing nations, with a continental climate of warm summers and cold winters. Rain falls throughout the year, but July and August are the wettest months. There are 11 defined regions in the southern half of the country, mainly towards the west (Ahr, Baden, Franken, Hessische Bergstrasse, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Württemberg) plus a couple of vineyard areas further East, towards Naumburg and Dresden (Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen). The country's reputation suffered somewhat, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, due to mass production of cheap, semi-sweet wines. Nevertheless, wine connoisseurs have always been aware of the wonderful quality available and many retailers in the UK and elsewhere now have a far better selection of German wine than previously. The main grape is Riesling, described by Jancis Robinson as "the greatest white wine grape in the world" and Germany is respected for producing some of the finest white wine available anywhere. Moreover, in recent years, red wine production has increased and gained much attention from international buyers, especially wines made from Spätburgunder, aka Pinot Noir.
Traditional German wine labeling conventions, particularly when written in Gothic script, can seem confusing at first with long, difficult to pronounce names, referring principally to the producer, grape, region, village, vineyard name and ripeness levels. However, great strides have been made in modernising this aspect of the industry, making labels clearer and more contemporary for the international consumer, particularly with regards to distinguishing between dry, sweet and semi-dry or semi-sweet wines.
German wine has traditionally had four quality categories, of which the highest two are Qualitätswein (QbA) and Prädikatswein, renamed from Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP). The other two categories are Deutscher Wein (German Wine) and Deutscher Landwein (German Country Wine). Prädikatswein (wine with special attributes) represents Germany's highest quality designation and is further divided into levels of ripeness, indicating the amount of sugar in the grapes when harvested:
- Kabinett – harvested the earliest and so lowest in sugar.
- Spätlese – picked a minimum of one week later.
- Auslese – individually selected bunches of grapes, picked after the normal harvest.
- Beerenauselese – late harvest dessert wine made from selected individual berries.
- Trockenbeerenauslese – dessert wine made from selected individual berries that have been left on the vine and dried out to a raisin-like state.
- Eiswein – dessert wine made from over-ripe grapes that have shriveled and frozen on the vine during winter, concentrating the juice.
One important aspect to note is that since it is the amount of sugar in the harvested grapes that is measured, rather than the amount of sugar in the resultant wine, Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese can all vary on the dry to sweet spectrum. Indeed, there are some superb dry Ausleses, a category more often associated with sweeter wines. Ultimately, the winemaker decides whether to ferment all the sugar in the grapes into alcohol, or to stop fermentation while there is some residual sugar present, achieving good balance with acidity levels (particularly important with Riesling). However, in general, sweetness does correlate with levels of ripeness, although the bottle label can indicate if a wine is dry (Trocken) or medium dry (Halbtrocken). Additionally, in 2000, two new classifications were created for good quality dry wines - Classic and Selection, the latter being the more stringent, denoting reduced yields of hand-harvested grapes originating from a named vineyard.
There is also now a VDP Classification for approximately 200 of the top German grape growers, showcasing quality based on terroir, rather than on levels of ripeness. It came into effect from the 2012 vintage and is indicated on the bottle by an eagle bearing a bunch of grapes. VDP is short for Verband Deutscher Qualitäts- und Prädikatsweingüter (The Association of German Quality and Prädikat Wine Estates) and is the world’s oldest association of that kind. Using a pyramid model, based on Burgundy, wines are classified according to their origin, as follows:
- Gutswein (estate wine, equivalent to a Bourgogne Régional).
- Ortswein (classified site wine from a village's best vineyards, equivalent to a Bourgogne Village).
- Erste Lage (wine from a 'first', i.e. top vineyard, equivalent to Premier Cru.). A dry wine of this level is termed "Qualitätswein trocken".
- Grosse Lage (the highest classification, signifying wine from a 'great' vineyard with excellent aging potential, equivalent to Grand Cru). A dry wine of this level is termed "Grosses Gewächs".
A wine from the top two categories with natural, ripe sweetness is still labelled with one of the traditional Prädikat classifications, i.e. Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein.
I recently attended a tasting of German wines in London, hosted by German wine specialists, The WineBarn. With nine regions represented, there was plenty of choice, so I concentrated on six of these and my selection of highlights is shown below. No slight is intended to companies or regions not represented in my list. However, time constraints made it impossible to do justice to every quality wine-producing area or producer and some regions were not part of the organiser's portfolio.
Baden is becoming increasingly renowned internationally for its Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), which accounts for more than one third of the area under vine. The region comprises a relatively narrow strip of land, approximately 250 miles in length, extending from the upper Rhine to the Swiss border. It has a mild climate, being the country's warmest and sunniest region and enjoys a diverse range of soil types.
This is a family-run winery and member of the V.D.P., which can trace its history back to the middle of the 15th Century.
- Grauer Bürgunder Jechtinger Eichert Kabinett dry 2012 - £8.88 per bottle. Fresh and fruity with elegant minerality from the volcanic soils plus some richness from the use of old oak.
- Weisser Bürgunder Burkheimer Feuerberg Grand Cru dry 2012 - £18.15. Notes of apricots and apples with citrus hints and minerality.
Founded in 1935, the steep vineyard slopes result in most grapes being hand-harvested.
- Weissbürgunder sonett dry 2012 - £9.99. Fermented in stainless steel to produce an approachable, delicate and floral wine with citrus overtones.
- Ihringer Winklerberg Mimus Spätburgunder Barrique 2011- £21.75. Currently showing notes of red fruit and hints of meat juices with good acidity, this has fantastic potential to develop over a few years.
- Achkarrer Schlossberg Spätburgunder Grand Cru Barrique 2010 - £36.45. Balanced acidity and tannin with notes of fruits of the forest. This wine will also develop well.
This is a relatively new wine estate, producing its first bottles in 2007. Alexander Laible, son of a renowned German winemaker himself, has gone from strength to strength, winning international accolades.
- Riesling Alte Reben dry 2012 - £11.30. Notes of baked apples with good intensity of flavour and acidity.
- Riesling Tausend Sterne dry 2012 - £21.60. Notes of apples, raisins and a sweet spice hint of cinnamon.
- Grauburgunder Chara dry 2012 - £15.15. Good acidity with notes of stone fruit and spice.
This hilly region, east of Frankfurt, is renowned for the Bocksbeutel - a distinctive, flat, bulbous-shaped bottle used for many of its wines. Silvaner is a particularly successful grape variety here.
Currently in the 15th generation of the Wirsching family dating back to 1630, this is the largest privately-owned vineyard in the region.
- Iphöfer Kronsberg Silvaner (Old Vines) Spätlese dry 2011- £13.99. A fresh fruit character with notes of pineapple, minerality, hints of nuts and herbs, good depth and structure.
- Iphöfer Julius-Echter-Berg Rieslaner Auslese 2011 - £20.30. Notes of tropical fruit, peaches, apples, dried fruit and cloves with well-balanced acidity.
This is an area renowned worldwide for its Riesling planted on mineral-rich, slate slopes.
A family-run estate founded in 1947, they are committed to producing wines that express the unique character of this region.
- Estate Riesling off-dry 2012 - £8.35. Notes of apples, cinnamon and spice plus a subtle herbal character on the nose.
- Ockfener Bockstein Kabinett 2012 - £11.50. Notes of blood oranges, apricots and apples to the fore.
- Ockfener Bockstein Spätlese 2012 - £17.15. Floral with notes of apples and oranges.
- Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Auslese 2012 - £23.40. Elegant and fruity with good acidity, this is leaner and feels less overtly sweet than some Ausleses.
This is the second largest wine-growing region of Germany, extending north from the French Alsatian border for approximately 50 miles.
A family estate dating back to 1718, dedicated principally to growing Riesling.
- Pechstein Riesling Grand Cru dry 2012 - £25.25. Notes of fresh apples and limes with minerality and good depth.
A renowned producer of Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder), the family owns approximately 36 acres of vineyards in the southern part of the region.
- Kammerberg Spätburgunder Grand Cru 2010 - £52.99. Notes of cherries, forest fruits, tobacco and spice (16-18 months oak ageing).
- St Paul Spätburgunder Grand Cru 2010 - £52.99. More earthy than the above example, this is a fruity and complex wine with notes of raspberries, in particular, plus a hint of celery and spice.
Bordered by two rivers - the Rhine to the north and east, the Nahe in the west – this is Germany's largest wine region, comprising over 65,000 acres of vineyards.
An organic producer, which can trace its winemaking roots back to the 1660s.
- Estate Riesling QbA dry 2012 - £10.10. Well-structured with apple and lime notes.
- Westhofer Riesling QbA dry 2012 - £15.50. Hints of apricots complement the elegant, green apple and mineral freshness.
A hilly area within the Neckar Valley, stretching over 150 miles north and south of Stuttgart, with mineral-rich soils containing sea deposits. Red wine production dominates here, while Riesling is the most popular white grape variety.
Tracing its family history in the area back to the end of the 15th century, there are currently three generations working to produce a range of quality, terroir-driven wines from traditional grape varieties.
- Fellbacher Lämmler Lemberger Grand Cru 2011- £26.99. One of the standout wines of the tasting. Elegant and fruity with dominant notes of ripe plums and meat juices, it will develop beautifully over the next six to eight years, but could be aged for longer.