German wine labelling made simple
- Friday 6 June 2008
C ontrary to popular belief, German wine labels are logical and simple. Let me explain. Today, at last, the grower or producer is the most important element: take a sample name, say, Weingut Fritz Haag, one of the great estates of Mosel. Its first wine is a simple, delicious Gutswein (estate wine), whose label details the Mosel region, the vintage, the grape (Riesling) and the alcohol level, but no specific vineyard. Its other wines,
classified as mit Prädikat (‘with distinctive attributes’, according to sweetness level), range from a light Kabinett to a very rich, sweet Trockenbeerenauslese. They show the quality and style on the label, with the name of the village (in this case Brauneberger), followed by the name of the vineyard (Juffer). The challenge is not just deciphering which is which, but
their individual status. That the name of the grower and the vineyard have become the key elements on the label is long overdue. As Ernst Loosen, the great Mosel and Pfalz grower, said of the sprawling 1971 German wine laws: ‘Germany has massive and precise
wine laws goose-stepping through the vineyards – get rid of the whole lot, talk about vineyards, not laws.’ Now, finally, moves are afoot to do just that.
Over the centuries, German growers discovered which vineyards produced the
greatest wines. The unearthing of a number of Roman press houses, such as that in the great Goldtröpfchen vineyard in Piesport, suggests Loosen’s Roman predecessors had worked out the great viticultural sites. However, it was not until the mid-19th century that vineyards began to be officially classified, as the beautiful, large-scale maps of the time
prove. Even then, despite their accuracy, German classifications were little known
to consumers, and were largely used for tax purposes – owners were proud to pay
higher taxes on sales of their finest wines. However, the 1971 wine law undid all
this good work by increasing the area of the famous vineyards, thus allowing growers in adjacent, inferior vineyards to cash in on the use of the great names. Even worse, Grosslage (‘large site’) names covering huge areas such as Piesporter Michelsberg and Niersteiner Domtal were introduced, enabling small growers, big bottlers (mainly huge industrial companies) and co-operatives to massproduce cheap wines with unfermented
sweet grape juice of no specific origin, which they used to stretch quantities and make their wines sweeter – and, therefore, seemingly of higher quality.
Happily, you do not see Grosslage labels in Germany now, although they are still used in certain export markets. At the same time, ridiculously low must-weight levels were introduced forPrädikat wines from Kabinett upwards. Tasting to assess the actual quality of the wines was no longer deemed necessary. The Association of Independent Estates (the VDP) has now redressed the balance in favour of its 200 members by moving to reflect the quality of the wine on the label. But these being German wine labels, nothing is straightforward. VDP members voted unanimously in 1991 to adopt new, revolutionary policies – stringent yield restrictions and the highest-possible standards in both vineyard and cellar, substantially exceeding those required by the weak law of two decades earlier. Even more significant was its move in 2006 to revive the old vineyard classifications under the overall name Erste Lage (‘First Site’, stressing the wine’s derivation). Although the VDP is still developing its rules, this recent classification, the equivalent of premier cru in Burgundy, is the most important regulation and the overarching form of classification, applying to dry as well as traditional wines (mit Prädikat) with residual sugar.
Unfortunately, the first attempt at a legal classification within this new format, Erstes Gewächs (‘First Growth’), was, and still is, a disaster. The classification only covered Rheingau (governed by the state of Hessen) and not Rheinhessen (in the state of Rheinland/Pfalz). It was alsobased on simple scientific data rather than historical evidence. Despite these oversights, Erstes Gewächs became a trademark, its use limited to the wines of Rheingau. Unbelievably, more than a third of Rheingau’s total wine area had thus been classified with its own system, including fields that had never even seen a vine
Worse, every grower in the region could qualify for the term if their wines reached the set criteria. And if consumers weren’t confused enough, the definition of ‘Rheingau dry’ was amended to allow up to 13 grammes of sugar per litre, rather than the standard 9g/l. It is hoped this law will be annulled, but until then, some great (and not-so-great) Rheingau wines continue to be labelled Erstes Gewächs. Cause for optimism Within Erste Lage, there is more reason for optimism elsewhere. Most of us will be familiar with wines categorised in the Prädikat style, containing residual sugar above 9g/l, classed from Kabinett to Auslese to Trockenbeerenauslese (see below). But great dry wines are also part of the history of German wines in every region (except, arguably, Mosel). And now, top-quality VDP dry wines have a classification of their own – Grosses Gewächs (Great Growth) – and are permitted to boast ‘GG’ on the label and use a special VDP bottle, complete with a symbol featuring the number 1 and a bunch of grapes (see box, previous page). The front labels of the dry wines are greatly simplified and bear the name of the estate (Weingut), the vintage, vineyard, and, in smaller letters, village. Although sweetness level is now absent, it is easy to check if a wine is dry because if the label showsaround 13% alcohol, the grape sugar will have been almost completely fermented out, retaining less than 9g/l of sugar.
Gutswein (estate wine), another VDP innovation, is at the basic end of the scale. The wine must be from the member’s vineyards, but there is no mention of village or vineyard on the label. Usually dry, these are intended for everyday drinking.Despite all this apparent progress, producers are not yet permitted to put Erste Lage on the label. Instead, you need to look for the VDP logo, which may be embossed on the bottle. The grower’s name and original vineyard name appear on the front label, with the legally required information on the back. Because yields are extremely low, and meticulous attention must be given to viticulture and vinification, Erste Lage and Grosses Gewächs wines are expensive. But these classifications do help to draw German wines (some 98% of wines that qualify as Erste Lage are dry, and sold as Grosses Gewächs). The world is saturated price, but Germany is sidelining them and gaining sales of good and great wines, notably Riesling. Slowly but surely, consumers are being led to them.