True confession time: I’m starting my D3 studies ‘early’ because as I’m working through my D2, I’m finding that I need real life references as to how the D2—Wine Business—material works in today’s wine industry. It’s like fate that the below question came at the bottom of a newsletter from the Napa Valley Wine Academy. So, I’ve decided that, in an effort to connect the dots between D2 and D3, I’m going to ask this question of every region I study.
Explain how wine law and regulation influence the style, quality, and price of wines from Germany.
For an abbreviated, basic version of this information, please read German Wine Laws and Labels: Pop Quiz
We should start with this fact: Germany’s current wine laws date back to 1971. (Although, check out this article from J.R. about how they’re now reviewing these rules). As far back in German winemaking that we can see, the value in its wine has always been associated with must weight at harvest. Methinks this is because it is such a cold climate, it was shown as a kind of “badge of honor” to have high must weights at harvest.
This is where the Pradikatswein categories come in. But let’s stick a pin in that and talk about the three other quality levels of German wine first.
Deutshcer Wein: Literally, “German wine,” this category covers any wine made without a geographical indication. The only rule(s) is that it must be made from German-grown grapes. They can be any style (red, white, still, sparkling—although I *think* the latter is usually referred to as Deutscher Sekt, but we’ll get there later), but ABV must be between 5% and 15% ABV. So, referring to the question above, this is a category for (typically) cheap wine intended for early drinking. I also want to make a note here that enrichment is allowed at the Deutscher Wein level.
Landwein: For folks that like numbers, this category was introduced in 1982 as the German equivalent of PGI. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, this is a rarely used label and, to be honest, I’m struggling to think of an example of how and where this is used. In any event, to be a Landwein, at least 85% of grapes must originate in the Landwein region named on label and alcohol levels must be between 5% and 15% ABV. The wines are only trocken or halbtrocken in style with just a few sweeter wines permitted. Again, I’m making a note that enrichment is allowed at this level. I’m going to go ahead and say that, again, even though rules are “bit” stricter here, the wines that fall into this category are going to be the easy drinking, non-ageable, economically efficient wines.
Qualitatswein is a PDO category, thus has more strict rules than the above two categories, but less strict rules than the Pradikatswein category. To be a Qualitatswein, grapes must come from one of 13 designated quality wine regions (Anbaugebiete) and the name of the Anbaugebiete must appear on the label. All wine styles are allowed. The minimum alcohol level is 7% ABV, but there is no max ABV. According to my text, Qualitatswein makes up the majority of everyday drinking, high volume wines consumed. However, I’m adding a note here that this is not *necessarily* the case because, as you’ll see below, the VDP demand that if you are making a dry wine, you categorize it as Qualitatswein and save any Pradikat labeling specifically for sweet wines. And, as we know, the VDP are the guys with the highest quality vineyard sites—so in this case, Qualitatswein from the VDP equals high quality stuff. Also note, that for general Qualitatswein, enrichment is allowed.
FUN FACT: Wines at Qualitatswein level and above must undergo lab analysis and blind tasting prior to release
LABELING FACT: Those that pass are given an “AP” number (Amtliche Prufungsnummer)—a 10-12 digit number (indicating where and when wine was tested, location of vineyard, and the bottler’s lot number.
Pradikatswein: Are you ready for this?
Pradikatswein, like Qualitatswein, is a PDO category. In this case, the grapes come exclusively from a Bereich (one of 40 recognized wine-producing districts [smaller than Anbaugebiete]) the name of which does not need to appear on label BUT the name of the Anbaugebiete must be stated. Enrichment is NOT permitted.
FUN FACT: Pradikat means “distinction:” There are six levels of distinction which are defined by minimum must weight and are categorized in the following order:
- Kabinett: This is the lowest must weight category. The wines produced are the lightest in body and highest in acid. Wine style can range from dry to medium sweet. The legal ABV minimum is 7% but dry wines can reach as high as 12% ABV.
- Spatlese: Spat means late. So these grapes are harvested later in the season ensuring fully-ripened (on the cusp of over-ripe) grapes that have greater concentration and riper fruit flavors at harvest. Thus, the wines produced will have higher alcohol levels (with comparable RS) and fuller bodies than those of the Kabinett level. Wine style ranges from dry to medium-sweet. The ABV min is 7%.
- Auslese: Aus means out. These are specifically selected grape bunches chosen for their “extra-ripeness.” FUN FACT: According to my text, although bunches should be selected by hand harvesting, it’s *technically* not required, and some producers harvest mechanically before sorting by hand at the winery. However they’re harvested, the resulting wines are more ripe, more concentrated with flavors than Spatlese and, in some cases, some grapes may have been affected by botrytis (which adds additional complexity). Again, the ABV min is 7%.
- Beerenauslese: Beeren means berries. Aus means out. These are individual grapes specifically picked by hand for their “extra ripeness,” and therefore are always picked by hand. This category will always mean sweet wine, as the must requirement is so high. As a result, fermentation will be long and slow, resulting in pretty low levels of alcohol, the minimum being 5.5% ABV. This category doesn’t require botrytis, but more often than not it will in order to reach the required must weight. This doesn’t just add to the complexity of the wine, but it adds to the time, labor, and cost of making these wines as well. Not to mention, yields will be quite low, thus these rare wines will usually be pretty expensive.
- Eiswein: I’m putting this category here because the must weight requirements for Eiswein are near around the same as for a Beerenauslese. I’m not going to go into the mechanics of how Eiswein is made (I think we all have a handle on that, no? If not, read about Eiswein here.), but suffice it to say that berries are picked when frozen, which means that harvest can take place any time from December through to February. LABE FACT: The vintage indicated on the bottle represents the year when harvest started. RISKY BUSINESS: Growers waiting for grapes to freeze sometimes lose some or all their crop to either disease or predators—preventative measures include shielding vines with plastic sheets to protect until they freeze. Any guesses on what this extra effort in the vineyard and winery does for wine prices?
- Trockenbeerenauslese: This is the highest must weight requirement. In fact, grapes must be affected by botrytis, otherwise, there’s no feasible way to reach the must minimums. FERMENTATION FACT: Fermentation is long and slow and rarely continues on beyond 8% ABV. DID YOU KNOW: Botrytis produces an enzyme during fermentation called laccase that actually increases the rate of oxidation. So creating a botrytized wine—especially at this level—is a difficult process. Not to mention, yields are extremely low, so wines are made in small quantities and only in suitable years.
Referring back to the question above, it’s pretty obvious to see that, as we climb the Pradikat ladder, wines become increasingly more difficult a) to harvest, due to the manual labor involved and b) to actually make, due to the high level of sugars in the must. So, the further up the ladder we go, the further up we go in quality, the further down we go in quantity, and the higher up our prices will go.
Are You Down with the VDP? (Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter)
We can’t talk about wine quality and not talk about the VDP. I didn’t realize, but the VDP has actually been around for many many years. I mean, like back to the 1800s. These are the guys that are adamant that wine quality categories should be based on the land and the quality of the grapes (and wines) produced, not must weight at harvest.
At present, according to my text, the VDP members own about 5% of Germany’s total vineyard area and produce about 3% of the annual production by volume and 7.5% by value—so, actually, kind of a small amount. I also read elsewhere that the current number of members is at just above 200. So, again, a farily small amount.
Riesling is the most planted variety amongst VDP (over half vineyard acreage). Under a quarter of VDP wine is actually exported. (Lucky for me, most wines I tasted were from VDP producers.)
Rules of the Game: The VDP went ahead and created stricter rules (than German wine law) all around. This includes lower maximum yields, higher minimum must weights (for Pradikat categories), and growing traditional grape varieties for their respective regions. Audits are real: Don’t play by the rules, get kicked out. VDP also encourages sustainable viticulture and FUN FACT: 1/5 of Germany’s certified organic producers are from the VDP
As mentioned above, most wines produced by VDP are dry. Even though must weights are higher than required by law, these dry wines must be labelled Qualitatswein trocken. Pradikatswein labels are used only for wines with RS.
If that wasn’t enough information, check this out. The VDP emphasizes provenance of wines and has established a…
Four-tier vineyard system:
- VDP Gutswein: regional wines originating from the estate’s own vineyards and abide by all VDP standards
- VDP Ortswein: come from the best vineyards within a specific town and are planted to grapes typical of the region.
- VDP Erest Lage: these are considered “first-class” vineyards that have distinctive characteristics. There are, of course, more strict rules both for grape growing and winemaking. For example, only grape varieties the local association deems best suited to the site may be grown, grapes must be hand-harvested and be ripe enough for Spatlese status, wines must be produced using “traditional winemaking techniques,” and village and vineyard must appear on label
- VDP Grosse Lage: these are the best parcels from the best vineyards in the best locations. Stricter rules apply and permitted grape varieties differ according to Anbaugebieten:
- Riesling is allowed in all Anbaugebieten (though only for botrytized wine in Ahr)
- Spatbugunder is allowed in all except Mosel and Nahe (makes sense since they’re so far north and…cold…)
- Whoa! Strict!: Dry white wines cannot be released until September 1, following the harvest; Red wines must spend at least 12 months aging in oak and cannot be released until September 1 the year after that; sweet Pradikat wines may be released on May 1 following harvest.
- Dry wines made from grapes from Grosse Lage are designate Grosse Gewachs—this does not appear on label, instead the VDP “GG” trademark is used; only vineyard name appears on label
The Rheingau Charta
This was new on me. The Rheingau Charata, introduced in 1984, was created to promote the best dry wines of Rheingau. The term Erstes Gewachs refers to the best sites of the Rheingau and is now a legally protected term. Rules of the Rheingau: To use the term Erstes Gewachs, wines must be made exclusively from Riesling or Spatburgunder, grapes must be hand-harvested from lower yielding vineyards with minimum must weights equivalent to Spatlese, and the wines produced must be dry.
FANCY FACT: In 1999 the members of Charta joined the VDP in Rhengau and can now label their wines as GG.
The D2 Connection
The VDP is where I feel like I can really apply my D2 knowledge. Members of the VDP benefit in many ways as being part of the program. First of all, the association itself is associated with high-quality wines, so already that’s a marketing plus—consumers will see the VDP symbol and know they are getting a quality product. Furthermore, their labelling, though different than the German wine law (which could be a potential point of confusion to some consumers), is actually a bit more clear regarding place of origin and even wine style (dry, off-dry, sweet).
Furthermore, if a producer was lucky enough to have wines across the four tiers of the VDP classification system, he/she/they could also benefit from what’s called “ladder branding,” in which the very fact that this producer has a GG product on the market makes all the other lower tiers seem just as desirable. Not only do they have multiple wines that can cater to multiple consumer types at varying price points, but those looking to “level up” from one tier to the next (either for special occasions or, perhaps, because they’re becoming more interested in quality wines), can buy a higher quality wine from a producer they already know and trust.
Lastly, I’d like to point out that their branding and labeling crosses cultural boundaries—meaning, it’s a clear sign and signification of quality wine that consumers outside of Germany can understand and appreciate. For example, myself—when I went searching for all those Rieslings, I actually sought out VDP labeling because I knew they were the ones who would most likely cater to my specific needs: high(er) quality, dry Rieslings.
RANDOM WINE BIZ FACTS
Just a few random facts I learned through my reading that I thought were interesting…
SAD FACT There were certain places where Flurbereinigung were not possible (like the steep slopes of the Mosel), so there are still to this day several abandoned vineyards. (Although it’s noted that some well-established producers or young up-and-comers are now re-cultivating these sites.)
BIZ BUMMER: For vineyards on steeper slopes, the high cost of labor and low yields (especially, as mentioned above, for sweeter wines), coupled with vintage variation results in high production costs. These wines, as I said, do go for a pretty penny, but unfortunately profits don’t always meet the needs of the growers. So, Germany has actually seen a reduction in growers in recent years. However, the area under vine has actually increased, mainly due to increased plantings on flat, fertile floor sites where grapes for bulk wine production are grown.
The best wines are said to come from wine estates that grow and vinify their own grapes.
Fun fact: The German Wine Institute established Generation Riesling in 2005 to give young winemakers (under 35) in Germany a national and international platform.
Fun fact: Germany was one of the first wine-producing countries to establish co-operatives
Fun fact: Despite still being a dominantly beer-drinking country, Germany is the fourth largest consumer of wine in the world
BIG BRAND TO KNOW: Badischer Winzerkeller in Baden is one of the largest co-ops in Germany, developing a range of small-volume, high-quality wines.
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