German Riesling is available in a very wide variety of profiles and styles. Riesling can be picked very low in sugar, very high, or anywhere in between. Finished wines range from bone-dry with high acid to lusciously sweet with balancing acidity. German Riesling is a great food-pairing wine and often presents tremendous value too. It’s important to understand the many classifications of German Riesling so you know what you’re getting.
My previous article here outlined Riesling as a variety overall. It also covered the most important regions for Riesling in Germany. This article explains the potentially confusing array of terms categorizing the wines by ripeness, quality of the wine, and quality of the vineyard.
Quality Levels of German Wine
At its most basic, German wine law mirrors that of the European Union overall with respect to categories of quality. There are three categories: Wein, geschützte geographische Angabe (ggA), and geschützte Ursprungbezeichnung (gU). They apply to all German wine, not just Riesling.
The lowest classification level and least specific with respect to growing area, these wines tend to be the least expensive, highest volume, and least distinctive. The regional designation for production in this category is simply Germany. Some of the content in a given bottle may even have been imported—as berries, juice, or wine—from another country. Sugar can be added before fermentation to boost alcohol levels, a technique called chaptalization. [Note: wines labeled Deutscher Wein are made solely from German fruit.]
geschützte geographische Angabe
This category corresponds to the EU’s Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and provides more regional specificity than does Wein. The named region must be approved for ggA production and at least 85% of the fruit needs to come from it. The minimum level of ripeness (and therefore potential alcohol) is slightly higher than for Wein, but chaptalization is still allowed. Quality is generally better than that of Wein.
This is corresponds to the EU’s Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) designation, which is the highest level of quality and regulation. 100% of the fruit in each wine must have come from the named region, which must be one of the 13 Anbaugebiete.
Geschützte Ursprungbezeichnung is further divided into two categories: Qualitäts bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) and Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP).
Qualitäts bestimmter Anbaugebiete (aka Qualitätswein)
This translates to “quality wine from a precise place.” The wines must not only be from the specified region, but can only be made from grapes approved for this level of quality in that region. Minimum ripeness is legislated, to ensure the wines are of high quality. Chaptalization is allowed.
Qualitatswein mit Prädikat (aka Prädikatswein)
This translates to “quality wine with special attributes.” This is the highest level of quality for German wine within this overall scope of classifications. The wines conform to all the QbA requirements, but chaptalization is illegal.
The “special attributes” above relate to ripeness at harvest, as measured by sugar density of the grapes. There are six categories of ripeness. A QmP wine must be labeled with one, and only one, of these categories. They are, in order of increasing ripeness, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, and Trockenbeerenauslese. These attributes don’t necessarily indicate differences in wine quality.
Ripeness Levels in German Riesling
To help consumers better predict what a particular German Riesling will be like in the glass, many of the wines are categorized by ripeness of the grapes at harvest and/or the production style.
Wines of the ggA level may be labeled either trocken, which means dry, or halbtrocken, which is off-dry. These ratings reflect sugar content in the bottle, but don’t indicate how ripe the grapes were at harvest.
The six levels of QmP wines do designate ripeness. But, they don’t indicate how much sugar is in the wine. That’s because fermentation can continue until a wine is bone dry or stop early, leaving some amount of sweetness. To determine how sweet the actual wine might be, you have to look at both the Prädikat level and the alcohol percentage.
This is the lowest level of legal ripeness for QmP wines. Most are either dry or off-dry, but some are sweeter. A Kabinett-level wine with 10% alcohol or more will be fairly dry, perhaps bone dry. Less alcohol indicates more sweetness.
The label above says "Prädikatswein," indicating QmP level quality, the highest in Germany overall. The ripeness is Kabinett, the lowest tier of ripeness. That might suggest a dry wine. But, the alcohol percentage is just 8.5%, so it's probably off-dry.
Spätlese translates to “late harvest.” The grapes are harvested after a given date, which varies by region and vintage. That ensures advanced ripeness, which means more developed flavors, more intensity, and more sugar.
Spätlese also vary from dry to sweet. However, because of the higher grape sugars, alcohol runs higher in the dry wines. So whereas a 11% alcohol Kabinett would be pretty dry, a 12% Spätlese could be off-dry.
Auslese basically means “selection.” These wines are made from grape bunches which are harvested selectively to ensure a high-level of ripeness. These wines tend to be more intense and powerful than Spätlese. Fermented dry, Auslese can exceed 14% alcohol. Most of the wines have some residual sugar though. This is the highest-ripeness category producing wines that would commonly be drunk throughout dinner, rather than for dessert.
Beeren means “berries” or “grapes.” Beerenauslese wines are made from grapes that were picked individually, rather than by the bunch, in order to maximize ripeness. Sweetness may also be enhanced in the grapes by botrytis (noble rot), just as it is in the dessert wines of Sauternes. The sugar level is so high in this category that Beerenauslese are virtually never fermented fully dry. Most are dessert sweet.
Eiswein is made by harvesting grapes so late in the year that they are at a Beerenauslese level of ripeness, but they have also frozen on the vine. For example, a 2016 Eiswein may actually have been harvested in January of 2017. Pressing frozen grapes yields sugar and flavor, but little water. So, sugar density is extremely high in the resulting juice. Eiswein is always dessert sweet.
These wines are made by selectively harvesting grapes which have raisined on the vine. They may also have been affected by botrytis. Trockenbeerenauslese are intense, profound, dessert wines.
Other Indications of Sweetness
Since even Prädikat levels are not a clear indicator of wine sweetness, some wineries choose to provide additional indications on the label. The terms seem general, but are actually legally defined in terms of residual sugar
- Trocken wines have 9 gL sugar or less
- Halbtrocken are off-dry, with 9–18 gL
- Wines labeled lieblich or halbsüss measure 18-45 gL
- Süss wines are fully sweet, 45+ gL
Note: Wines labeled feinherb are off-dry, but the term isn’t legally regulated.
The VDP Classification
The Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweinguter (VDP) is a consortium of German wineries producing QmP wines. They have created their own, additional levels of classification to further indicate quality. It’s similar to the system used in Burgundy and classifies growing areas.
The VDP regulations do more than rank vineyards though. They also stipulate maximum yields, harvest method, and additional factors. VDP classified wines bear the consortium's emblem, an eagle, on the capsule.
VDP-classified wines bear the organization's emblem. Photo courtesy of VDP
VDP Grosse Lage
This translates to Grand Cru and is the top classification level of vineyards. Maximum yield is 50 hl per hectare (about 20 hl/acre) and harvest must be by hand. If the wine has some residual sugar, the label also indicates Prädikat level. If the wine is bone dry, there is no Prädikat level listed. Instead, the wine is labeled Grosses Gewächs (GG), Qualitätswein Trocken.
VDP Erste Lage
This translates to Premier Cru. Maximum yield is 60 hl per hectare (about 24 hl/acre) and harvest must be by hand. If the wine has some residual sugar, the label also indicates Prädikat level. If the wine is bone dry, there is no Prädikat level. Instead, the wine is labeled Qualitätswein Trocken.
These wines are from classified vineyards, but they didn’t achieve Erste Lage status. Maximum yield is 60 hl per hectare (about 30 hl/acre). If the wine has residual sugar, it can be labeled with a Prädikat level, or either halbtrocken or feinherb. If the wine is dry, it’s labeled Qualitätswein Trocken. The corollary in Burgundy would be village wines.
These wines are made under VDP regulations, but not from classified vineyards. This level is similar to Burgundy’s regional wines. Maximum yield is 60 hl per hectare (about 24 hl/acre). Up to 20% of a wine may be made from grapes not VDP-approved for the region. If the wine has some residual sugar, the label also indicates Prädikat level.
Just reading through this, it can seem like a lot to take in. However, there is a logic to all of it and even a level of simplicity. There are three main quality levels for German wine. The top level has two further distinctions. Wines from the best of those two indicate ripeness, or Prädikat level on the label. And those wines may also be ranked based on the quality of the vineyard from which they’re made.
The best way to get a concrete understanding of Prädikat levels is to taste wines from each level. Here are some examples from JJ Buckley’s excellent selection of German Riesling.
2018 Joh Jos Prum Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett
2015 Weingut Dr Von Bassermann-Jordan Forster Pechstein Riesling Grosses Gewaechs (Spatlese Trocken)
2013 Markus Molitor Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Auslese** Gold Cap
2015 Peter Jakob Kuhn Oestricher Lenchen Riesling Beerenauslese
2012 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Eiswein Goldkapsel
JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, and educator. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine) among others. He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred is founder of Wine Writers' Educational Tours, an annual, educational conference for professional wine writers. He also leads private wine tours and conducts tastings and seminars in person and via Zoom. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator, Northwest Wine Appellation Specialist, and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers three times.