This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by E.& J. Gallo Winery. At Gallo, we exist to serve enjoyment in moments that matter. The hallmark of our company has always been an unwavering commitment to making quality wine and spirits. Whether it’s getting Barefoot and having a great time, making every day sparkle with La Marca Prosecco, or continuing our legacy with Louis Martini in Napa, we want to welcome new friends to wine and share in all of life’s moments. Cheers, and all the best.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses Germany’s wine region. Listeners will learn about all the Prädikats or categories that make up the region. Beavers takes listeners through the unique yet complicated history that is German wine law. Also, for listeners who know of German wine, chances are you have seen Riesling bottles on the American market.
However, Beavers will list the different white and red varieties that are made in Germany such as Silvaner, Grauburgunder, a Pinot Gris blend, Dornfelder, and Spätburgunder, a Pinot Noir blend. In terms of Riesling, there are six Prädikat categories that include Kabinett, Eiswein, and Trockenbeerenauslese, to name a few. And that is just scratching the surface!
Tune in to become an expert on Germany and its wines.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and did you know there are battery-powered lawnmowers now? Obviously, I got one. This is crazy.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 15 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director of VinePair. What’s happening? OK, so Germany’s nuts. It’s pretty deep. It’s pretty intense, but there are things we have to talk about. I can’t get into all of it, but we need to talk about Germany. We have to get to know what’s happening over there.
I know I say it a lot when we’re talking about a country and we’re talking about wine.I say, “You guys gotta understand, this is a unique thing going on here.” I know I say that a lot, but it’s true. Every country in Europe or every wine region in general has such a unique story. As we move through these episodes and we talk about European wine regions, I always start with the Greeks, Gauls, Romans, Saracens, Visigoths, Moors, dukes, monks, kings, and queens, and then the revolution. There are always these things going on, but within that, there’s all this uniqueness. I also say this because it’s hard to explain how intense the history of Germany is, and then to connect wine to that.
Of all the wine regions that I’ve researched, this country seems to change hands so frequently throughout history, that the wine industry is always playing catch-up with what’s going on politically and geopolitically in wartime in Germany. We’re talking all the way back before Charlemagne, because Charlemagne was German. Before Charlemagne all the way up to the 1980s, this country has been trying to equalize itself for so long. It’s finally getting there in modern times, we’re talking the last 30, 50 years.
Like the region of Champagne, Germany went through a trial-and-error situation as well. Where Champagne had all this crazy climate to deal with, so did Germany. The varieties that survive today are the varieties that survived this land along with the humans. I know this happens all over Europe. There are always these big shifts in history, but in Germany, it just seems so dramatic. It’s almost as when every time something shifted, the industry had to really move to acclimate the new thing. At some point in the wine region, the classical wine region of Germany, an entire section was lobbed off and given to France, the region of Alsace. It’s crazy. Imagine adapting to that.
OK, so we’ve lost an entire wine region. An entire section of the country is now given to France. All right, cool. Deal with that. There’s a really good chance that if you’ve heard about German wine, you first hear about Riesling, and then you hear about another Riesling, and then you hear about another Riesling and another Riesling. Riesling is becoming, what I read at one point, the calling card of German wine right now.
For white wine, there’s Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc). For red, there’s Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Dornfelder, Portugieser, Trollinger, Pinot Meunier, and Lemberger, which in Austria they call Blaufrankisch. There are a lot of different varieties being grown in Germany. The thing is, the percentage of those under vine is so small that we don’t see a lot of that over on the American market. Most of what we see here is either Riesling or everyday, affordable German wines. It’s not easy to find, but Dornfelder is a very affordable, easy-drinking, soft red wine that often comes in 1-liter bottles that is a great wine for a party. It’s awesome. We just don’t see a lot of it around.
Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, these are grapes that make wines that are more popular in northern Italy than they are in Germany, even though they probably originated in Germany alone. Germany’s even messing around with Chardonnay these days. Also, the Pinot Meunier thing is crazy. In the Riesling episode, I gave you a rundown of the wine-growing region of Germany. I’m not going to get too deep into that because I really want to talk to you guys about German wine law. If you want to get into German wine these days, German wine law is happening. There are a lot of winemakers that are shunning it. There’s also even an organization that was formed to write their own laws within the law. It’s complicated, so I’m going to get into that more than anything else. If you want to get nice, deep, and wine region-specific, then go ahead and listen to the Riesling episode.
Just a quick recap. Wine-growing and producing regions in Germany are mainly located in the southern part of the country. That area is classically known as the Palatinate. In German, it’s named Pfalz. The lower part of the Palatinate would be named Unterpfalz. It’s here that the majority of the wine appellations of the wine regions exist. The oldest vineyards are on the left bank of the Rhine River, and then the right bank going south has more historically newer sites, if you will. That shows you how old this place is. These regions I get into more in the Riesling episode.
Here’s the capper: Across all 13 wine regions, the way German wine is classified is different than you would see in other places in Europe. The qualification and the classification of German wine is based on the must weight. You’ll remember the must from the first season all the way to the beginning, we’re talking about how wine is made. Must is that organic material after the crush that is just grape skins, moisture, flesh, pips, and skin. All that stuff. What’s also in that is all the natural sugar that the yeast is about to eat. That sugar adds to the weight of the must. The more sugar in the must, the heavier the must.
In Germany, they’ve developed a scale to weigh this must, it’s called the Oechsle scale. There are also other scales out there to weigh the sugar or waste must. There is Brix, which is very popular in the United States, another one called Baumé. They’re all interconnected. Usually when you’re weighing must weight, you’re estimating and calculating what will be the future alcohol percentage of the wine. For example, in America, 23 to 24 Brix, I think, is about 13 or 13.5 percent alcohol. There would be an equivalent Oechsle to that. The science and technology around this stuff are really cool. I don’t understand it completely but they use something called a hydrometer and something called a refractometer. A refractometer makes a little bit of sense to me. The less you can see, the more dense the sugar is. It’s hard to explain, but the German wine law states that depending on the must weight, depending on the sugar and the future alcoholic content of the wine, will determine where the wine is classified. I know, it’s crazy. It’s different. It’s cool. Let’s get into it.
German wine has two categories, and the second category has other stuff in it which we’ll get into. The first category was once called Tafelwein or table wine. It’s now called Deutscher Wein or land wine. This is similar to the entry-level categories in other European countries like vin de pays in France, which is country wine. Vino di Tavola in Italy, which means table wine. In Spain, Italy, and France, these categories exist, and a lot of wine is made within those categories. However, traditionally in Germany, not a lot of this category is made. It says about less than 4 percent of it is made. Right now on the American market, other than Riesling, that’s the majority of the wine we’re going to see. They’re often very affordable. They’re often a little bit sweet, red and white. But keep an eye on these. In Germany, they’re trying to elevate this level of wine a little bit. I believe they might be taking a little bit of the sugar out, trying to elevate the acidity. That’s just my theory, but keep an eye out. There is probably some awesome stuff coming in the future.
The second category is the largest category, and it is what we’re going to see most in the United States. When you look at a bottle of Riesling, this is what you’re going to see. This category is called Qualitätswein, which means quality wine from a specific region. Basically, that’s the AOC of France, the DOC of Italy, the DO of Spain. This is a regular run-of-the-mill EU-controlled appellations system, but all similarities with that end there. For a wine to be part of this category, the grape must originate from one of the 13 wine appellations of Germany, and it needs to reach the minimum must weight of that region. Even beyond that, the variety itself.
Every region has different must weight requirements. Every grape has its own must weight requirements. Within this category, there’s a superior category that you can be elevated to. It’s similar to the DOC and the DOCG of Italy, but not really. OK, let me explain. This is the scale. This is the thing. This is the 1971 German wine law saying, “Hey, we are going to categorize our wine by increasing must weights. We need to have categories for each of those must weights.” They created a category within Qualitätswein called Prädikatswein or Superior Quality Wine. There are six Prädikat or categories within the Prädikats, and all these categories are based on the Oechsle scale.
This is what you’re going to see and you’re going to see this on Riesling bottles. You have Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, and Trockenbeerenauslese. Kabinett, or the first level of these Prädikats, is the lightest of all of them. It has the least amount of sugar in Oechsle. It’s 70 to 82 degrees Oechsle. Basically, that just means it’s going to be about 10, maybe 11 degrees alcohol at the most. A lot of them are between 7 and 8 degrees alcohol. Some people like to say that because it’s the lightest, it can be some of the most affordable. The word Kabinett means you want to keep it in your cabinet just for any given time, which I think that there’s something about that is true. However, the word Kabinett was a word used to define quality, not just wine, but anything of quality, something you’d want to display on your cabinet. I don’t understand that too much, but that’s where it comes from. These are light wines. High acid, bright fruit, and in the Riesling category they’re fizzy, beautiful, and very refreshing.
The next category or Prädikat is called Spätlese. It translates as late harvest. For this Prädikat category, it really means the sugar levels at harvest. Sometimes they are picked later than grapes for Kabinett. Now, we’re straight-up on the Oechsle, you know what I mean? This category ups the Oechsle, and this is where wine will result in about 10 to 12 percent alcohol. You’ll notice a little more sweetness. You’re still getting a lot of acidity, but the sweetness is starting to increase a little bit. The next level is Auslese, which translates to selected harvest. Back in the day, traditionally, it was the grapes that were picked one week after the initial pick.
These days, it’s a little bit different. It just means the must weight at harvest. These wines reach about upwards of almost 14 percent, about up to 13.8 percent alcohol, which is around that normal percentage of what we know as American wine drinkers. Next, is Beerenauslese and also Eiswein. They’re in a similar category on the Oechsle scale. Beerenauslese means berry selection. Often, these wine grapes are infected with botrytis cinerea, otherwise known as noble rot. This is something I go into in the Bordeaux episode. The alcohol for these wines can be between 15 and 18 percent alcohol. We’re getting pretty alcoholic here. The thing about this category for Riesling, specifically, is where Riesling ages almost forever. This is the long-lived category for Riesling.
The last category is Trockenbeerenauslese and this means berry selection, but shriveled-on-the-vine berry selection. These berries have been infected with noble rot significantly and are made into wine. This is the highest must weight for any Prädikat, and at one time it was an infrequent category, but it’s getting warmer in Germany, so these Trockenbeerenauslese are being made more often. All of this was created in 1971. Then, there were all these tweaks going on throughout the years up until 2009. But that’s the general rule of how you will see wines on the American market, especially Riesling. Now, there’s something very specific happening here in that these wine laws are pretty dense. They’re really well thought out. It makes complete sense. All of it makes sense. It’s all about must weight. It makes sense.
However, there’s a quality control situation here because this is a broad rule across all regions, across all grape varieties. In the early 20th century, an organization called the VDP, Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, was initially developed by the few, a small group of fine-wine producers in the region, specifically for auctioning. This is when auctioning wines had come to Germany. Over the years, today, it actually includes winemakers from all 13 wine regions. What the VDP does is very interesting in that they design their own protocols within the Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein categories. They’re doing this because their eye on quality was like a hawk. This organization is so determined to produce quality that they will change the rules of the country. They will tweak the actual country’s wine laws to do whatever they want to make better wine. They have tried for a long time to get these new protocols into law. Obviously, it’s not working. What is happening is a lot of the winemakers around them that aren’t necessarily in the VDP are looking to the VDP and using their strategies as well, because it’s a quality-minded, quality-driven organization. It’s crazy.
To the VDP, which is now over 200 estates across the wine regions of Germany, they feel that lower yields are required and higher must weight is required for better quality wine than what is stated in the German wine law. They’re also very big on the varieties being traditionally associated with the area.
This is the group that really brought Riesling in as the calling card, being very strict and very adamant about it working there. They’re also big on lower yields, and they made a decision that their driest wines are going to be out of the Prädikat system. The Prädikat levels and categories are specifically for definite must weights, and a lot of other winemakers are following suit. This is the thing about Germany: It has a very old, complicated history with wine and just the country itself. It’s changed a lot, so much that today in 2021, the country understands itself. The wine region in Germany is old, established, incredible, and it’s amazing. But it still has more to do.
What we’ve talked about in this episode sets up the system and then sets up what’s changed or what’s changing. Now, when you go out there and enjoy German wine, you’ll start with Riesling and then go everywhere else. You get a sense of what’s happening. As Germany evolves and changes again, you’ll be up on that, and you’ll be ready to go.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shoutout to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.