To protect the consumer and so that the consumer has some idea of what’s in the bottle, legislation and norms are established regulating viticulture, vinification, and the information indicated on the label. History abounds with examples of the adulteration and falsification of food and beverage products: in the Middle Ages, the baker’s helper who would hide under the table and steal bits of the dough that customers would bring to be baked; in 1969, the Italian merchant who sold Parmesan cheese which consisted of ground umbrella handles; and here in Peru, the adulteration of Pisco with sugar cane distillate or Pisco distilled from non-permitted grape varieties.
As we learned in the second part of this series, toward the end of the nineteenth century in Germany several new professional associations were formed with the idea of improving the quality of German wine. Unfortunately, this left grape growers with few resources in a difficult situation. These small growers formed cooperatives to sell their product, but in many cases with vineyards located on the worst sites and in years with poor weather they would harvest grapes with little natural sugar and high levels of acid. The solution? Add water to dilute the searingly high acid, and sugar to increase the alcoholic content of the final wine. Chaptalization, the technique in which sugar is added to grape must so that the yeast have more fermentable sugar, will raise the final alcohol content of the wine. This technique can be used to make small adjustments to the grape must, but if abused the resulting wine will be unbalanced and notably alcoholic. And because of the abuse of this technique and the poor-quality wine produced with this process was one reason for the ratification of the first national wine law of 1892. This law and its subsequent modification in 1901 permitted controlled chaptalization. The law of 1909 applied a new restriction on chaptalization to a maximum of 20% of the undiluted wine.
Various modifications to the law would occur over the years, but the new law of 1971 made significant changes, among those the establishment of quality levels and the exact definition of historic terms used on labels. If you think a German wine label is difficult to understand today, you won’t believe how difficult it was to decipher the content of an old label! (See image right) But that’s a subject for a future blog. As before, there would be changes from time to time, most notably in 1994 with stricter vineyard yields and minimum grape ripeness levels. In 2008, the European Union established its rules which each member state would be obliged to follow. Specifically, the new law established three levels of quality: Protected denomination of origin (PDO), protected geographic indication (PGI), and the most basic category “wine.” You can describe these three levels of quality in this way:
– Protected denomination of origin (PDO) [In German, geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung (g.U.)]: “wine whose quality or properties are significantly or exclusively determined by the geographical environment, including human and cultural factors. They possess a quality, reputation, or other specific characteristics attributable to their geographic origin.” In 2018 approximately 96% of German wine fell into this category.
– Protected geographic indication (PGI) [In German, geschützte geografische Angabe (g.g.A.)]: “wines which possess a determined geographic origin and have some quality or reputation attributed to their place of origin.” The only German wine in this category is Landwein (literally, Land Wine). It is a little-used category in Germany.
– (German) wine [In German, (deutscher) Wein]: Wine produced from grapes of German origin with few restrictions in terms of verification. In general, these are inexpensive and humble wines. In 2018, along with the PGI category, these wines accounted for only 4.4% of the total production of German wine.
You can visualize the categories like a pyramid, the pyramid of quality.
Since the “Wine” and “PGI” categories represent so little of the German wine production, let’s focus on the “PDO” category. In Germany, this category is divided into two subcategories: the Qualitätsweine (quality wines) and the Prädikatsweine (wines with special attributes).
In 2018, this category represented 59% of the total production of German wine. It’s possible to produce any style of wine in this category: sparkling or non-sparkling; white, rosé, red; dry to sweet. Among the most important requirements:
– One hundred percent of the grapes must come from one of the thirteen wine growing regions;
– Grapes used must be permitted varieties;
– The minimum natural sugar content of the must (grape juice) is between 55° and 72° Oechsle (a hydrometer scale used in Germany for measuring the density of grape must). Fifty-five degrees Oechsle represent approximately 143 grams per liter of sugar. At this degree of ripeness, the grape must has the potential to produce a dry wine of 7.3% alcohol. The minimum alcoholic content of a Qualitätswein is 7.0%, But in the majority of cases the winemaker will choose to chaptalize the wine (add sugar to the unfermented grape must) so that after alcoholic fermentation the wine will have a higher degree of alcohol, more acceptable to the consumer, but the maximum increase in alcoholic content permitted by law is 2% in the case of the Baden region (the country’s warmest region) or 3% in the country’s other regions.
Other manipulations are also permitted. For example, in the case of a rainy season, the grapes tend to have a higher water content than normal, and it is allowed to concentrate the grape must removing water by using either vacuum evaporation or reverse osmosis. It is also permitted to use oak chips as a flavoring agent if the producer doesn’t want to invest in oak barrels. These manipulations may sound strange, but they are quite common in wine production around the world. This doesn’t mean that they are low quality wines, and in the hands of an experienced winemaker they can be wines of quite high quality.
Every wine in this category is subject to an official quality control examination. The label of every wine produced under this category will always carry the official code given by the regional authority responsible for the examination, the A.P. Nummer (official examination code).
In 2018, this category represented nearly 37% of the total German wine production. The Prädikatsweine are subject to stricter production rules than the Qualitätsweine, for example, chaptalization, dealcoholization, must concentration, and the use of oak chips are all prohibited. This category represents the purest and least manipulated wines. It’s possible to produce any style of wine in this category: sparkling or non-sparkling; white, rosé, red; dry to sweet. Among the most important requirements:
– One hundred percent of the grapes must come from one of the thirteen wine growing regions;
– Grapes used must be permitted varieties;
– The minimum natural sugar content of the grape must (grape juice) is between 70° and 154° Oechsle according to the Prädikat indicated on the label. Seventy degrees Oechsle represents approximately 182.5 g/l of sugar. At this degree of ripeness, the grape must has the potential to produce a dry wine with an alcohol content of 9.35%.
– Everyone in this category is subject to an official quality control examination. The label of every wine produced under this category will always carry the official code given by the regional authority Responsible for the examination, the A.P. Nummer (official examination code).
The Prädikate (special attributes)
The six Prädikate indicate the degree of grape ripeness at the time of harvest, or the natural sugar content of the grape must measured in the degrees Oechsle. The Prädikat is not necessarily an indication of the sweetness of the final wine, although in the case of the three highest Prädikate they are indeed sweet wines. In theory various grape varieties can be used in the production of the Prädikatsweine, but the Riesling variety is most common. Riesling can be used to produce many styles of wine since the variety expresses its best characteristics at all levels of the Prädikate, so the Prädikat is an indication of the wine’s style.
Minimum alcohol content 7.0%. Produced from ripe grapes, this category represents the lightest of the Prädikate. These wines generally have a touch of residual sugar, and in many cases the label will indicate this with the term feinherb, although some producers maintain that the use of the term is unnecessary since this is the typical style of this category. On the contrary, if the wine is dry the term trocken indicates this. Kabinett wines are excellent as an aperitif and accompany soft and semi-soft cheeses, chicken dishes, and river fish very well. Indeed, a classic dish from the Mosel region is Forelle Blau (blue trout), prepared with vinegar, parsley, and other herbs. It sounds rather acidic, but not so much. A Riesling Kabinett trocken (dry) is an excellent partner.
Minimum alcohol content 7.0%. Slightly riper grapes harvested several days later than those used to produce Kabinett wines are used (in fact the German word spät means “late”) for the production of Spätlese wines. These wines are fuller in body that the Kabinett wines and tend to have perceptible residual sugar although dry versions do exist. As with the Kabinett wines, the Spätlesen are excellent partners for soft and semi-soft cheeses, oily-fleshed river fish, lobster dishes, or simply enjoyed on their own. Although they typically have noticeable residual sugar, they are not normally sufficiently sweet to pair with desserts. These wines are excellent with a cheese plate on the terrace on a sunny afternoon.
Minimum alcohol content 7.0%. These wines are produced from very ripe grapes. Any damaged or unripe grapes are discarded. The grapes in this category tend to be affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea, colloquially known in English as “noble rot” (see image below). The fungus attacks the grape causing the skin to break allowing for the evaporation of water from the grape. This concentrates the grape’s natural sugars. The final wine typically shows notes of caramel, dried fruits, and honey and is noticeably viscous depending on the degree the grapes are affected and the degree of dehydration. Auslese wines made from grapes not affected by the fungus will not have the notes of caramel and dried fruit but will maintain their intense notes of fresh fruits. These are noble wines of intense aroma and flavor and almost always sweet. They may accompany fruit-based desserts that aren’t too sweet. Auslesen (and the higher Prädikate) are typically bottled in 375 ml bottles (half bottles).
Minimum alcohol content 5.5%. Literally, “berry selection,“ the grapes used for these wines are usually affected by the Botrytis fungus and at the time of harvest contain a very high level of natural sugar. The minimum degree Oechsle at harvest is 110, meaning a potential alcohol level of 15.0% if the wine were fermented dry. But this is a dessert wine category, and the law allows a minimum alcohol content of only 5.5% meaning that these wines contain a very high concentration of residual sugar. Because of this as well as a high natural acidity content, these wines can develop and mature for many years. Indeed, they need several years for their components to integrate. I have tasted wines in this category more than forty years old, like this one from Freiherr Langwerth von Simmern (see image right). I drank this in 2016 when it had reached its fortieth birthday. It was the color of black tea and was incredibly complex. An unforgettable experience. Due to the necessary weather conditions to make this style of wine, and the risk the producer runs, these wines are not common. In many cases these wines are best appreciated on their own, and in small quantities. They can, however, accompany fresh fruit, a juicy, ripe peach for example; or a simple meringue tart filled with fresh fruit and topped with whipped cream; or even a creamy blue-veined cheese.
Minimum alcohol content 5.5%. Literally, “ice wine,” these wines are subject to the same requirements as those of the Beerenauslese category, but the grapes are harvested and pressed while frozen. According to the law, the temperature at the moment of harvest must be -7°C/19°F or lower. In many cases the harvest takes place in the early hours of morning in the dark. Upon pressing the grapes a very concentrated must with a high content of natural sugars and acids is obtained. The water, in the form of ice, floats to the surface of the must from which it is separated. When the must reaches an adequate temperature, the yeast begins its job of fermentation. These wines are becoming scarcer due to global warming. The producer also runs the risk of losing these grapes since the bunches are deliberately left on the vine much later than the normal harvest, many times into December or in extreme cases even into January or February. And because or their high sugar content, birds and wild boar consider them a delicacy and consume them with great relish. The grapes destined for this category of wine are generally not affected by the Botrytis fungus. These wines are very sweet, but the high acid content acts as a foil to the high sugar content resulting in a wine brilliant and vibrant on the nose and palate. As these are rare wines, they are not inexpensive, but they are worth seeking out as they provide an unforgettable experience. They really don’t need any dessert, but if you would like a luxurious experience try one with lemon meringue pie, a dessert which demands sweetness and vibrant acidity.
Minimum alcohol content 5.5%. A very long word, so many prefer to use the abbreviation, TBA. The grapes for this category are even riper than those harvested at the Beerenauslese level. The word trocken (“dry” in English), refers to the physical state of the grapes at harvest: due to the action of the Botrytis fungus, the grape has lost so much water that it has become a raisin. Obviously, a dry grape does not yield much juice, and a great quantity of them are required to produce a single bottle of wine. Due to the implicit risk in producing this style of wine, the labor involved, and the small production, these are expensive wines. As a matter of fact, the wine featured here to the right, Egon Müller’s Riesling Scharzhofberger Trockenbeerenauslese, is always among the world’s most expensive wines, generally fetching around $9,000.00 for a half bottle. But not all are so expensive! Trockenbeerenauslese wines are very sweet, have a high natural acid content, and are noticeably viscous. They require several years in the bottle just to begin their slow evolution. I wouldn’t even consider opening a bottle of TBA before its twentieth birthday. Because of their high sugar and acid content, and an impressive complexity, these wines demand your attention to appreciate them.
Coming soon: The Grape Varieties of Germany, Part 2.
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