The novelist and critic, Kingsley Amis, once wrote that “a German wine label is one of the things life’s too short for”. And for good reason. German producers are required by law to provide very detailed information on their wine labels ranging from quality levels to control numbers. Whilst you would think that this information would help inform the consumer in his or her choice of wine, it actually often has the opposite effect. A combination of words in the German language, terms relating to a seemingly impenetrable classification system and information overload leaves many consumers scratching their heads and reaching for the closest bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
But, in fact, a German wine label actually contains lots of very useful information. The key, of course, is knowing how to decode it. So, what I have tried to do is pick apart the label below to hopefully give you greater confidence when faced with a shelf of otherwise irresistible German Rieslings!
1. Name of producer
Let’s kick things off with an easy win. It seems blindingly obvious but every German wine label will contain the name of the producer or bottler. The producer’s name will often (but not always) be preceded by the word “Weingut” which simply means “winery” – in this case the producer is Weingut Dr Hermann. The address of the producer will also appear on the label.
2. The vintage
Again, another easy win here. This bottle is a 2010 vintage. Vintages in Germany tend to vary from region to region but generally speaking 2007 and 2009 were particularly good across the board. 2010 was a difficult vintage with lower yields but quality was still high among top producers.
3. The grape variety
Unlike a lot of Old World wine producing countries such as France, Italy and Spain, German producers will usually always state the grape variety on their labels. You will see that this bottle quite clearly says it’s a Riesling. This means that you shouldn’t have any problems tracking down the varietal you are looking for as it will be plastered across the label! Contrast this to the French system which (with the exception of Alsace) labels its wines by geographical region – for example, a bottle from the Northern Rhone may be labelled ‘Crozes Hermitage’ (the geographical location) rather than ‘Syrah’ (the grape from which it is made).
4. The growing regions
There are 13 wine growing regions in Germany, namely: Ahr, Baden, Franken, Hessische Bergstraße, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen and Württemberg. Generally speaking, Riesling is the dominant grape variety when it comes to these regions’ premium wines, with the exception of Ahr and Baden, which are known in particular for their Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir).
There are a handful of regions in particular which are worth putting to memory and which you are likely to see with reasonable regularity outside of Germany – Mosel, Nahe, Rheingau, Baden and Pfalz immediately spring to mind. You will see that this bottle is from the Mosel region. But I should point out that there are some very exciting wines being produced in the other regions, many of which are seriously underrated.
5. Style of the wine
Ok, here we hit more difficult territory. What most people want to know is whether the wine will be dry, off-dry, or sweet. The label will not always tell you this but by learning these simple terms you give yourself an excellent chance of working this out.
Trocken means dry; halbtrocken and feinherb mean off-dry; Classic and Selection indicate a dry wine; Erste Gewächs and Grosses Gewächs mean First Growth or Great Growth (i.e. Premier Cru) respectively – these Cru wines will always be dry.
To be on the safe side, you should therefore assume that if you don’t see the words trocken, Classic, Selection, Erste Gewächs or Grosses Gewächs then there is likely to be some residual sugar in the wine.
This wine label does not contain any of the words listed above so we should assume that the wine will be off-dry or sweet (even though it does not say it is halbtrocken or feinherb).
6. The quality level of the wine
If there is one piece of information that leads to more confusion and uncertainty than any other it is the German quality classification system. But it is key to determining the wine’s style so unfortunately you have no choice but to take the pain on this one.
The first thing to understand is that there are 4 quality levels. These are, in ascending order: Tafelwein (table wine – equivalent to vin de table); Landwein (land wine – equivalent to vins de pays), Qualitätswein (quality wine from a specified region) and Prädikatswein (wine with distinction). Less than 5% of wine produced in Germany is classified as Tafelwein and Landwein.
Within the top category – Prädikatswein – there are 6 categories. If you can recognise which category a Prädikatswein belongs to it will help you massively in determining the wine’s style.
The 6 categories ascend according to the level of ripeness of the grapes at the time they are picked – they are: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese (or TBA) and Eiswein. You should note that Kabinett and Spätlese wines will often be dry but this will not always be the case (so look for the word trocken). Auslese will invariably be off-dry but watch out for a few very rare exceptions where they can be dry. Beerenauslese, Eiswein and TBA will range from the sweet to the outrageously sweet in the case of Eiswein and TBA.
This wine says it is a Spätlese which means it could be either dry or off-dry. Given the absence of the word trocken or any of the other terms at 5. above indicating a dry wine, we should assume that this wine will be off-dry.
7. The town and vineyard
It will usually be the case (especially with Prädikatswein) that the name of the village and vineyard is contained on the label. The name of the village will often end with the prefix -er and then be followed by the vineyard name.
This wine is labelled Erdener Treppchen which tells us that it is from the village of Erden and the specific vineyard is Treppchen.
8. The quality control number
This seemingly random stream of digits actually indicates that the wine has passed the chemical and sensory tests required of all German quality wines. Feel free to happily disregard.
So by breaking down the constituent parts of the label we can establish that this is a bottle of Riesling from the 2010 vintage produced by Weingut Dr Hermann. It was produced in the Mosel region of Germany and more specifically in Treppchen vineyard in the village of Erden. It is classified in the highest quality category (Prädikatswein) and is most likely to be an off-dry wine.
With these tools now at your disposal I have every faith in your ability to successfully decode the label the next time you are faced with a bottle of Schlossgut Diel Dorsheimer Pittermännchen Riesling Spätlese or Weingut Künstler Riesling Hochheim Hölle Erstes Gewächs!
Never shy to get out there and preach the Riesling gospel, I teamed up with Wines of Germany to shoot a couple of videos to get people in the mood for mass Riesling consumption!
This first video gives a brief introduction to German Riesling and I also talk a little about why I am such a big fan:
I also made the trip to one of my favourite restaurants in London, The Glasshouse in Kew, which is one of the restaurants participating in 31 Days of German Riesling. The Glasshouse has a cracking list of German wines (including some great Rieslings) and the head sommelier, Sara Bacchiori (@tasteinwine), was kind enough to let me ask her a few questions about German Riesling. So here you are:
Both of these videos are now posted on the 31 Days of German Riesling homepage which you can find by clicking here so why don’t you head over there and check out the website.
That’s it for now but be sure to check out some of the retailers and restaurants participating in 31 Days at www.31daysofgermanriesling.co.uk as they are making a superb effort to raise the profile of this much underrated grape variety! Cheers!
In this video, I review the Dr L Riesling 2011 produced by the Loosen winery in the Mosel in Germany.
If you want to try an off-dry German Riesling that is fresh, lively, affordable and widely available, this is the Riesling for you. You can find the Dr L Riesling in many of our supermarkets in the UK and it is usually priced around the £7 to £8 mark.
At only 8.5% abv, it would make for a lovely aperitif on a warm summer’s day, or alternatively a great match for a fatty meat like pork belly or a meaty seafood dish like scallops and bacon or lobster ravioli.
Thanks to Richard @richard_R2K for the camera work
I have recently teamed up with online wine retailer, Winedirect.co.uk, to help them launch Winedirect TV. A number of the larger wine retailers such as Majestic, Bibendum and Slurp are all using videos on their websites and on YouTube to good effect to engage with potential customers (and especially a younger generation of wine drinkers).
As wine geek and social media guru, Gary Vaynerchuk, has shown in the US (read more about Gary here), video reviews can be a very useful sales tool, as well as giving customers an opportunity to learn more about the wine they are thinking about buying from the comfort of their own homes.
So, the idea behind WinedirectTV - which will feature videos of myself and Winedirect’s Helen Tate – is to carry out wine reviews, winemaker interviews, give tips about wine regions and lots of other stuff. Essentially, the idea is to give potential customers a better idea of the wine they are considering buying by giving them informative and relevant information which is delivered in a fun and approachable manner.
Naturally, the first few videos that I shot for WinedirectTV were Rieslings, so over the coming weeks I will share these videos with you on The Riesling Revolutionary.
And what better way to get the ball rolling than with the 2008 Pegasus Bay Riesling from the Waipara growing region in New Zealand. This is a dry, complex white wine that really pushes the boundaries. I hope you enjoy the review!
p.s. any feedback, good or bad, on my videos is very welcome! You can leave comments below or also on The Riesling Revolutionary’s Facebook page. Cheers!
Video review for Winedirect.co.uk – Wines from Weingut Thanisch
After having recently spent an immensely enjoyable month working in the vineyards of Germany, I was delighted when Winedirect.co.uk asked me to review a couple of stunning Rieslings and a Dornfelder from Weingut Thanisch in the Mosel region of Germany. The following wines were reviewed in this video:
- Weingut Ludwig Thanisch - Alte Reben R 2010
- Weingut Ludwig Thanisch - Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Auslese 2010
- Weingut Ludwig Thanisch - Dornfelder 2010
After a really successful campaign in the US 31 Days of German Riesling was launched just a few days ago for the first time here in the UK.
The idea behind the campaign is for selected restaurants and retailers throughout the country to team up and promote Riesling wines for the month of July.
If you ask most sommeliers or wine professionals for their favourite white grape variety, they will usually answer: Riesling! But in the UK, most wine drinkers still associate Riesling with cheap and sweet German wine from the 1980s.
So, 31 Days of German Riesling is a great opportunity to get the word out there about Riesling and explain to people that the Germans are producing some really world class dry Rieslings which have character and originality.
You can check out which of your local retailers and restaurants are involved in 31 Days of German Riesling here.
There will be more to follow from me as the month continues as I will be doing various things to drive the Revolution forward. But, in the meantime, I know with your support we can convert some of those Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers to the charms of German Riesling!
As I mention in Part 1 and Part 2, I recently made the decision to leave my job as a lawyer in the City to follow my passion for wine. The first stop on my wine adventure was a month’s work experience at legendary German winery, Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff.
Now that I have returned to UK soil, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the four weeks that I spent at Weingut Dönnhoff and share with you some of my highlights.
New vineyard. After spending an exhausting first week bottling wines from the 2011 vintage, much of my second week was spent outside working in the vineyards. The final two weeks were a combination of the two but a real highlight was helping to plant young rootstocks in a new vineyard plot in the Norheimer Dellchen. One of the really smart things that Helmut Dönnhoff has done over the last 20 years is to acquire parcels in numerous vineyards throughout the region. By cherry-picking the best sites as they become available, he has been able to maintain very high quality not only in his top single vineyard wines but also in his more generic estate Rieslings.
Lunch breaks. The way that we took our lunch breaks was a breath of fresh air for me. Each day we would all assemble in the communal galley at 12.30 to have lunch together. Lively conversation would flow – often about wine and football (which suited me down to the ground) – and there was also usually a bottle of something to hand so that we could wet our beaks on the good stuff before heading back to work. A definite improvement on my time as a lawyer, where I routinely spent my lunch breaks alone at my desk!
Driving the Unimog. What a rush! Google search “Unimog” and you’ll get the idea.
My housemates. I was fortunate to have the company of three other lads in the accommodation block where I was staying – one from Germany and two from Poland. The German, Sebastian, 20, is currently carrying out a year-long work placement at Dönnhoff as part of his wine studies. The two lads from Poland, Mateusz and Mateusz, both 23, are in Germany for the year just to earn some cash. They are genuinely three of the hardest working people I have ever met and their humour and goodwill kept me in high spirits throughout my stay.
Visit to the Mosel. It was brilliant to have the chance to make my first trip to the Mosel, the most famous of all German wine regions. As we made our way from village to village, it was amazing at last to see so many of its magnificent vineyards after having spent so many years quaffing the region’s wines! The most striking feature was without doubt the steepness of the slopes. Previously, I had thought that the vineyards in the Nahe were steep but the Mosel takes it to a whole different level – some of the vineyards reach 80% gradient in places!
VDP Weinbörse. On my penultimate day in Germany I travelled to the city of Mainz for the annual tasting of VDP members. The VDP is an organisation to which most (but not all) of Germany’s top wine producers are members. Like any wine fair, you need a well laid out plan of action before you go into battle otherwise you won’t stand a chance. My focus was on the Rheingau, Mosel and Baden regions, as well as a cursory stroll through the Nahe section to say hello to Team Dönnhoff. After a good six hours slurping and spitting, I walked away exhausted but content in the knowledge that 2011 is generally speaking a magnificent vintage for Germany across the board.
Plugging English wine. Having drank so many impressive Germany wines, I could not head back to London without first spreading the word about the rapidly improving English wine scene. Our wineries continue to improve year-on-year – especially in the sparkling category – and I could not resist leaving boss, Helmut, a bottle of sparkling from East Sussex winery, Breaky Bottom – the Sparkling Brut 2008 (100% Seyval Blanc) to be exact.
It is amazing how quickly time flies when you are working hard and having fun but this experience was invaluable and I cannot thank Helmut and Cornelius Dönnhoff enough for this opportunity.
One thing’s for sure – it has certainly given the Revolution fresh impetus. Roll on 31 Days of German Riesling!
REGION: Mosel, Germany
VINEYARD AREA: 7 Ha
YIELD: 5700 cases (Riesling 2011)
VARIETALS: 98% Riesling, 2% Weissburgunder
Weingut Dr Hermann is located in the village of Erden in the Mosel region of Germany and is managed by Rudi Hermann and his son, Christian.
The present estate was created in 1967 when the renowned Mosel estate, Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben in Ürzig, was divided. Although Weingut Dr Hermann is a relatively small estate – it owns around 7 hectares – it has managed over the years to secure sites in some of the Mosel’s most prestigious vineyards. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Weingut Dr Hermann is producing such impressive Rieslings.
These vineyards (which include the famous Ürziger Würzgarten, Erdener Treppchen and Erdener Prälat vineyards) are fiercely steep (50-70% gradient) and take on an almost divine presence as they tower over the villages of Ürzig and Erden.
As Christian explains below, the soil from these vineyards consist predominantly of red and blue schist, which is a type of metamorphic rock. The wines benefit from this soil in two ways in particular – firstly the rocks absorb the heat of the sun which, in turn, warms the vineyard and helps the vines achieve a ripe and developed fruit; secondly, the large amount of schist making up the soil gives the wines a unique mineral character and, in the case of the Ürziger Würzgarten vineyard, a hint of spiciness (Würzgarten means “spice garden” in German).
I first came across the Weingut Dr Hermann wines at
the end of 2011 when I reviewed a number of them for my first video blog. I was very impressed by them and thought that they were an excellent example of the mineral-driven style of Mosel Rieslings – you can see my video review here.
So let’s hear what Christian has to say about Riesling, what the future holds for Weingut Dr Hermann and who else to look out for in the Mosel:
TTR: How would you describe the Riesling grape in 3 words?
CH: Fruit, Elegance, Mineral
TTR: What makes your region so well suited to growing Riesling?
CH: The steep slopes of red and blue schist form an ideal terroir – the Mosel valley is a warm island between two cool mountain regions. The turn of warm days and cool nights provides for an extremely long ripening season, which allows the Riesling grapes to develop complex aromas and to keep refreshing acidity. The different soils in Treppchen (blue schist), Würzgarten (red schist) and Prälat (mixture of both) add specific aromas to each vineyard.
TTR: Old World Riesling vs. New World Riesling – friends or foes?
CH: Friends – of course! Tasting the differences between old and new world Rieslings makes our “original” wines – which have been cultivated for more than 500 years in vineyards that have existed for 2000 years – as well as the new world wines, even more interesting.
TTR: Which winemakers (past or present) have had the greatest influence on you?
CH: A few old winegrowers our region who have kept the tradition of producing Riesling wines with respect to nature, giving the grapes and the wine time to develop to finally show the strengths of the different vineyard sites.
TTR: Which new producers are you excited by the most at the moment, and why?
CH: Among many young talents in our region are: Vollenweider, Adam, Weiser-Künstler.
TTR: If you’re not drinking Riesling, what wine do you usually like to drink?
CH: “Burgundian Wines” Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir – these are also fine wines made from a single grape variety.
TTR: What are the biggest challenges currently facing you as a winemaker?
CH: Given the differences of each year, to take the right decisions in vineyards and cellar at the right time in each single year.
TTR: Where do you see your winery in 20 years time?
CH: Still in Erden and in the top group of Mosel-Riesling producers.
TTR: How can Riesling improve its reputation on the world wine stage?
CH: The global reputation of Riesling has already improved enormously in the last 15 years. The strength of our Rieslings is that they are fruity wines from first class vineyards. We, as German wine growers, will have to make people all over the world familiar with the top wines from the classic vineyard sites. Someone who has tasted the best will always keep in mind Riesling as noble white grape variety.
As I mention in Part 1, I recently made the decision to leave my job as a lawyer in the City to follow my passion for wine. The first stop on my wine adventure is a month’s work experience at legendary German winery, Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff. Here is my write-up of my second week in the job:
After a tough but thoroughly enjoyable first week bottling wines from the 2011 vintage, I returned from the Easter break well rested and hoping to spend some time in the vineyards.
Following a short team meeting, I was given the nod to join the vineyard crew for the day which came as excellent news. The only downside, with the prospect of an eight hour day ahead of me, was that the weather was looking extremely ominous. Catching the eye of oneof the team, I gestured to the sky. His response was simply to shrug and say “April macht was er will” (April does what it wants). Not quite the reassurance that I was looking for but, reminding myself that I had not come to Germany to work on my tan, I grabbed my rain jacket and saddled up for the day’s work.
Before I joined the others up on the slopes, one of the lads gave me a quick guided tour in the van of the vineyards owned by Weingut Dönnhoff to help me get my bearings. Dönnhoff owns plots in a number of vineyards in the Nahe region and the majority of these are situated around the villages of Niederhausen and Oberhausen. The best sites are fiercely steep and south facing so that the grapes can soak up the maximum amount of sunlight as possible.
The vineyard where I spent much of the week was the Niederhausen Hermannshöhle, regarded by many as one of Germany’s finest vineyards. The first thing that struck me as I worked up and down the rows of vines was how steep it is. The slopes have a cramp-inducing 40% steepness in places and this certainly does not make the day’s physical labour any easier. I daresay I will have no excuses for not looking good in a pair of shorts when I return to the UK in May!
Although the grapes are usually harvested in September and October, a lot of time and energy is invested at this time of year in making sure that the grapes grow healthily and achieve the required levels of ripeness without any problems. Some of the tasks in which I was involved included training the vines around a wire high off the ground (to avoid damage from Spring frosts), fertilising young rootstocks (to promote healthy growth) and spraying the vines (to keep pests at bay).
At the risk of taking on the appearance of a mountain goat, I was relieved on the Friday to be working on one of the flatter vineyards towards the town of Bad Kreuznach. The morning’s work was much of the same – “vineyard management” – but for lunch we all went to a local Wirtshaus (or pub to you or I). After a cursory glance at the menu, it appeared that the general consensus was that the schnitzel platter was the thing to go for. Not wanting to break rank and ever the fan of a good schnitzel, I got in on the act.
To my delight, a few minutes later no fewer than three schnitzels arrived in front of me together with chips and a token side salad – just the ticket after a week in the vineyards. Although I managed to polish them off, it was definitely a case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach. Feeling like I was about to burst at the seams, one of the lads mentioned that I would be spending the afternoon scaling the seemingly vertical face of the Hermannshöhle. Thankfully he was only joking but the look of fear in my eyes must have been evident for all to see!
On Saturday morning I woke up to a beautiful sunny day. I decided to walk through the vineyards to the neighbouring village, Niederhausen, home to Weingut Jakob Schneider. The previous week I had tried a bottle from Jakob Schneider and was very impressed so I was looking forward to doing a tasting of his wines. I was not disappointed. I was shown warm hospitality and the wines a delight, something that is becoming somewhat of a recurring theme during my time in Germany.
I have no clue what next week has in store but hopefully next weekend I will be able to visit some of the other top wineries in the region. Crossing my fingers that this beautiful weather is here to stay!