If you’ve ever stared at a German wine label, you probably assumed deciphering it requires next-level skills (and most likely, some reading glasses). However, we urge you to set aside your fear of impossibly long words and umlauts and hear us out. The wines of Germany are worth discovering – and not just Rieslings – and cracking the code of the German wine label is easier than you think.
What’s Germany as a Wine Country Like?
Germany is known as one of the world’s coldest-climate wine regions. Its northernmost vineyards lie well above the normal latitude range for growing grapes and are far from the moderating influence of a large body of water. Through determination (or is it stubbornness?) and hundreds of years of experience with carefully chosen vineyard sites, German winemakers have found a way to produce world-class wines. Many regions have a unique terroir of red and dark blue slate soils that are ideal for absorbing solar heat during the daytime and radiating it back at night, which is why these grapes can still grow and ripen properly even in a harshly cold climate.
Riesling is king, a grape that is one of the most cold-hardy grapes. German Riesling has a worldwide reputation for quality, complexity and ageability. However, German wine is about more than just Riesling: the country also produces many white, red and even sparkling wines.
Why You Should Know About German Wine
Due to its unique climate, Germany can produce wines with a high acidity, which makes them extremely food-friendly and a great pairing to a vast amount of different dishes. Much like German engineering, the wines stand for quality and precision: they are a force to be reckoned with. Read our blog about acidity in wine, and why high-acid wines pair well with food.
What Grapes Are Grown in Germany?
It’s no surprise that white grape varieties dominate the nation, accounting for 66% of the country’s total wine plantings. Germany is home to over 100 different grape varieties however, 20 of those make up most of the plantings that we see in the German export market.
Riesling is the most widely planted variety, accounting for roughly 20% of total production. Rieslings from Mosel and the Rheingau are the most sought-after worldwide.
Müller-Thurgau comes after Riesling. This is a Riesling crossing developed for heartiness and its ability to grow in cold climates, but it lacks in flavour and longevity compared to Riesling. You could consider it a “drink now while you are waiting for your Riesling to age” variety.
Other German Grape Varieties
Germany’s leading grape producers also grow:
- Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is the most planted red grape variety.
- Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) is also common and sometimes labeled as Ruländer
- Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) is less common but still widely available
- Chardonnay. Germany produces a small amount in a Chablis-style.
Other important grape varieties that are indigenous to Germany and exciting to try include Silvaner and Kerner (whites) and Dornfelder and Portugieser (reds). Most of the red grapes grow in southern German growing regions, whereas most of the whites come from Germany’s northernmost growing regions.
Quality German Wine Levels
In Germany there are two main quality levels to look for:
These wines are defined as quality wine from a designated region. The wine must come from one of the 13 designated wine growing regions in Germany. This means these wines meet basic level quality standards and are above average table wine.
This is the highest quality level designation, a notch up from Qualitätswein. This classification is divided into different degrees of ripeness of the grapes at harvest time.
Kabinett [“Kah-bee-Net”]: Light to medium-bodied wines made from grapes with the lowest ripeness level. Around 7% – 8% alcohol and good for acidity. And if you are a member of WineCollective, you’ll know that this means Kabinett will pair perfectly with lots of different foods!
Spätlese [“SHPAYT-lay-zuh”]: These are late-harvest wines with additional ripeness and can be made in an off-dry or dry style. Perfect to pair with roast pork of moderately spiced Asian dishes.
Auslese [“OWS-lay-zuh”]: Selected harvest. These are wines from grapes that have stayed on the vine a bit longer to develop more sweetness. They can also be made from dry to sweet – with the drier styles around 14% alcohol. The drier versions pair better with food, while the sweeter styles are best savoured on their own.
Beerenauslese [“Bih-ren-OWS-lay-zuh”]: Rich, sweet dessert wines made from individually harvested berries. Often affected by botrytis, a fungus that pierces through the grape’s skins and concentrates the juice, and affecting the grapes to exhibit honeyed flavours similar to Sauternes.
Trockenbeerenauslese [You can do this! “TROH-ken-bih-ren-OWS-lay-zuh”]: Wines from individually picked berries. They are overripe to the point of being raisins and among the sweetest, most unctuous dessert wines.
Eiswein [“ICE-vine”]: Ice wine made from frozen grapes harvested late in the season and very sweet. Yes, Frozen. Picked at temperatures that are a minimum of -7 ºC (We can almost hear the harvesters sing “The cold never bothered me anyway!”)
What Are Germany’s Main Wine Regions?
The Mosel is the best-known wine region in Germany. It’s famous for its Rieslings and one of the largest areas in terms of production. This is the most northern wine region in Germany with vineyards so steep that they must hand-harvest the grapes, while balancing on the slopes (see: stubbornness, above).
Known for producing high quality white wine, Riesling takes up 60% of total production with the rest being mostly Müller-Thurgau. Acidity is the hallmark of these wines, balanced by rich flavours of stone fruits and honey. As these wines grow in regions so far north, they usually contain no more than 10% alcohol and are a great choice for those looking for low-alcohol wines.
This region only produces about 2% of Germany’s wines but is also the most famous for producing the highest quality wines in all of Germany. Among the best examples are Riesling and Spätburgunder [“Sh-PATE-boor-gun-der”] (Pinot Noir). Look to this region for a fuller body-style Riesling.
This region is dominated by indigenous white grape varieties. Nahe is a great place to look if you want to find something unique, like a Kerner or Sylvaner.
The Rheinhessen leads Germany wine production with the most land under vine and overall wine production. Best known for its Riesling, Müller-Thurgau and Dornfelder.
This region’s name comes from a Latin word meaning “palace” and given this region gets the most sunlight and least cloudy days it’s rather fitting. The Pfalz lies along the border of France and is a stone’s throw away from Alsace. This is the best place to look for affordable Riesling and Gewürztraminer.
The warmest of Germany’s growing regions and most famous for its red wine production, this is the best place to look for Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Dornfelder and Portugieser.
How to Read A German Wine Label
Now that you know something about the German grape varieties, quality classification system and regions, you can get a lot of information from a German wine label.
On these labels above, you can spot the name of the producer (“Dönnhoff”), the vintage (“2005” and “2003”), the town (used as an adjective, so “Oberhausen (an der Nahe)” becomes “Oberhäuser”, and the specific vineyard is “Leistenberg”). These are wines from Nahe, with 9% and 11.5% alcohol, respectively. They are both “Qualitätswein mit Prädikat”: one a Riesling Kabinett, the other one a Riesling Kabinett trocken, an off-dry and dry wine.
Or, if you’re still confused, watch Ernst Loosen, one of the Mosel’s most renowned winemakers, explain it:
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