During my WSET tutoring, I received a practice question that showed us these two labels and asked the following question:
These two premium quality wines have very different characteristics. Under the headings below explaining how what happens as the grapes develop, up to the point when they are crushed, has a direct impact on the style and quality of these two wines.
Sweetness, Acidity, and Flavor Characteristics
Beerenauslese is a late harvest wine, meaning that the grapes stayed on the vine a bit longer, continuing to ripen, and developing a higher sugar content. These grapes may also be affected by botrytis, or “noble rot,” which will further add to the concentration to the grapes. Botrytis is a fungus whose spores puncture little holes into the grape’s flesh, causing water content to evaporate and, thus, the sugars to concentrate. It is not a requirement that the grapes be infected with noble rot (as it is with Trockenbeerenauslese), but they often are in order to meet the minimum must weight required to be categorized as Beerenauslese. The result of the late harvest, and noble rot when present, is that the finished wines will be sweet, as the sugar level is so high that yeast will be able to completely ferment all of that sugar into alcohol. If botrytis is an influence, the resulting wines will also have flavor and aroma characteristics that reflect that, often presenting themselves as nuts, honey, and orange marmalade. The other thing to take note of is that these labels represent a Riesling grape, which, even in a late harvest or when affected with noble rot, will maintain its natural high acidity, thus balancing out the sweetness.
Eiswein, similarly, is a late harvest wine style. However in this case the grapes stay on the vine until frozen. The grapes are crushed immediately following harvest when they are still completely frozen, which will separate the water content from the sugar, thus leaving behind a concentrated grape juice. Again, this will be a sweet wine, as the amount of sugars left behind will not fully convert into alcohol. And, because the grapes are frozen, they won’t actually continue to ripen while on the vine, so the varietal character of the grape will come through—in this case Riesling: stone fruits, citrus, and floral characteristics. Once again, the grape’s natural high acidity will play an important role, balancing the sweetness in the resulting wine.
Sound good? But I feel like there are a few other details worth going over to help further understand both the question and the answer:
The Basics of German Wine Law and Labeling
In Germany, for PDO* wines, wines are typically varietally labeled and classified by the must weight at harvest. Must refers to the level of sugar in the grape juice at harvest. There are two levels of classifications: Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein. Qualitätswein has a lower level of must requirement and are allowed to undergo must enrichment to enhance the level if needed. Wines in the Qualitätswein can range from dry to medium sweet, can be made from a number of different grape varieties, and span the spectrum in regards to price point. The majority of dry wines will be sold under the Qualitätswein classification. Prädikatswein on the other hand have a much more strict must requirement, with even the dry style wines containing some residual sugars (typically). The Prädikat categories, in ascending sweetness levels are are:
- Spatlese (usually left to ripen a bit longer to concentrate the sugars)
- Auslese (considered “extra ripe;” the aus translates to “out,” as in “get them outta the vineyard!” 😉 )
- Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauselese (defined above)
- Eiswein (also defined above)
A few other German wine things that may be good to know…
- All PDO wines must come from only one region and the name of the region will appear on the label.
- The Prädikat level will also appear on the label.
- Dry wines can be labelled trocken.
- Off-dry or medium wines will either be labeled halbtrocken or feinherb.
- Vineyard location is commonly stated on German wine labels. It will show the name of the village followed by the name of the vineyard.
- Some PGI* wines are made and they are labelled Landwein.
- Wine without a GI is simply labelled Deutcher Wein (or simply, Wein).
Are You Down with the VDP?
Unlike in France, there is no legally defined vineyard hierarchy. So while the Prädikat level is a good indication of style there’s not really a great clue as to the quality of the grapes used in German wines. So, an independent group of German wine producers decided to make an adjustment to that situation. The Verband Deutscher Prädikatweingüter (VDP) have classified their vineyards which, by consensus, include the majority of the “best vineyards in Germany.” The classification is usually seen on bottles of dry Qualitätswein from “the best vineyard sites,” indicated with an embossed “GG” and grape icon. (GG stands for Grosses Gewächs.
The varieties permitted by the VDP vary by location. For example:
Mosel: Only Riesling is permitted for GG wine.
Nahe: Only Riesling is permitted for GG wine.
Rheingau: Both Riesling and Spätbugurgunder are permitted for GG wine.
Rheinhessen: Both Riesling and Spätbugurgunder are permitted for GG wine.
Pfalz: Riesling, Weiβburgunder, or Spätbugurgunder can be a GG wine.
Baden: Allows a wide range of both white and black grape varieties for GG wine.
Franken: Silvaner, Riesling, Weiβburgunder, Grauburgunder, and Spätbugurgunder are all allowed as GG wines.
But it is important to note that the VDP is an independent trade mark and has no official standing in the German wine law.
*PDO stands for Protected Designation of Origin. These are small areas with tightly defined regulations. (Think France’s AOC or California’s AVA system.)
*PGI stands for Protected Geographical Indication. These are larger areas with fewer regulations. (Think wine labeled “American wine” or even “California wine.”)
**I think it’s fair to think of the G as “generic” and the D as “defined.”
Alright, I’m opening it up to you again. Have you tasted an Alsatian wine you want to recommend?
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