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The German government first began officially regulating the production of wine with the Wine Laws of 1892. One important motive for the implementation of the new law was the uncontrolled use of chaptalization, adding sugar to unfermented grape must (juice) to increase the final alcohol content of the finished wine. This uncontrolled chaptalization led to thin and acidic wines, damaging the reputation of German wine. The past 130 years have seen several changes to the laws, perhaps the most significant taking place in 1971. The 1971 Law did simplify the label from the consumer’s point of view, but over the decades the shortcomings of the 1971 Law have been revealed. In my opinion, there are two glaring examples of these shortcomings. First, from the point of view of the consumer, is the ill-conceived concept of the Grosslage, or collective vineyard sites. From the standpoint of a large wine producer or cooperative, it does make sense to collect grapes from several individual vineyards and make a large batch of wine at a lower price point for the non-discerning wine drinker. The tricky point is that unless you are well-versed in German vineyard names, you could be buying a low-quality wine blended from several (or many!) vineyards of questionable quality. The example I frequently use with my students is Piesporter Goldtröpfchen versus Piesporter Michelsberg. The village of Piesport has long been renowned for its wines from the famed Goldtröpfchen (literally, “little drops of gold”) vineyard. The boundaries of this vineyard are well defined, and although rather large (another consequence of the 1971 Wine Law – more about that further down) for a vineyard considered top-quality, the wines in general are very good. Michelsberg, on the other hand, is a Grosslage, a collection of vineyards in the region, some on flat land. This blend produces wines of basic quality. Simply by reading the label, there is no way to discern if the wine is from a Grosslage or an Einzellage (individual vineyard site). I suppose you could consider this just short of consumer fraud codified into law.
The second glaring shortcoming was the emphasis of grape ripeness over terroir. Many less quality conscious producers switched from Riesling to Müller-Thurgau in pursuit of earlier harvests with higher yields and higher natural sugar levels. The average consumer soon began to think of Germany as producing cheap, sweet wines. Fortunately, many quality-minded producers maintained their emphasis on quality, and the VDP continued to spread the message of quality to consumers and professionals around the world.
Loss of Historical Names
Another consequence of the pursuit of ripeness over terroir and the zeal to simplify wine labels was the absorption of small, highly regarded parcels into larger vineyards. These land parcels, known in German as a Gewanne (the plural form; the singular form is Gewann), can be considered the equivalent of the French lieu-dit. Sometimes these tiny parcels had little in common with the vineyard swallowing them up except for location. A good example is the Kupp vineyard in the village of Ayl located in the Saar River Valley. Pre-1971 the Kupp was a mere 3 hectares (7.4 acres) in size. Currently it consists of three non-contiguous parcels, each located on a different hill, and totaling 68 hectares (168 acres). In the image below from Weinlagen you can see the three different vineyards which comprise the modern Kupp vineyard. As you can imagine, the quality and characteristics of the wines produced from different parts of this large vineyard can vary wildly. Hardly a terroir-based model. Although many of these Gewanne existed for decades on government cadaster maps before the 1971 Wine Law, they were not officially permitted on wine labels with the implementation of the 1971 Wine Law as the law only allowed official vineyard names. Some quality-oriented producers came up with clever ways around this, some creating fantasy names, for example, Van Volxem’s Volz, which refers to a small parcel within the Braunfels vineyard. European Union wine law eventually would offer an alternative in that EU law takes precedence over national law, and EU law allows place names to be used on food and beverage products if “the product possesses features that are substantially different from those of the surrounding designations of origin or geographical indications.” However, the process of registering a place name is tedious, and only a few did so. Eventually, in 2013, the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz) passed a law permitting the use of Gewann names on wine labels from the six wine-producing regions within the state: Ahr, Mittelrhein (Middle Rhine), Mosel (Moselle), Nahe, Pflaz (Palatinate), and Rheinhessen (Rhenish Hesse). A step in the right direction and perhaps a sign of things to come.
The New Wine Law
The upcoming changes to German wine law were officially announced 27 January 2021 and will be legally binding with the 2026 harvest. The new quality system is based on the Romanesque model and follows the principle “the closer the origin, the higher the quality”. The basic idea is that the characteristics of a wine are determined in a special way by its origin, the terroir on which the vines grow. The changes will also allow German wine quality categories to better coincide with the European Union’s three-tier quality pyramid scheme (read more about this subject here), listed here from basic quality to top quality:
German Wine Quality Pyramid with German Terminology and the EU Equivalents.Tweet
- Wine without a geographical indication, in German, Deutscher Wein, literally German Wine in English;
- Wine with a geographical indication, in German, geschützte geografische Angabe (g.g.A.), or Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), the English equivalent. The wine of this category in German are traditionally called Landwein, literally country wine in English;
- And the top of the pyramid, wine with a geographical indication, geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung (g.U.), or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), the English equivalent. This category has been known as Qualitätsweine (Quality Wines), and this term will continue to be used.
The Qualitätweine are further categorized according to the new law according to a terroir-based concept, which can be visualized as a nested hierarchy as seen in the accompanying image. Those familiar with German wines will recognize these names:
German Qualitätswein Nested HierarchyTweet
- Anbaugebiet (in English, Growing Area), the largest defined growing areas for the production of Qualitätsweine. Thirteen Anbaugebiete exist in Germany. A few of the more recognized names are Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen. You can read more about Germany’s thirteen Anbaugebiete here. Each Anbaugebiet is divided into:
- Regionen (in English, Regions). This category replaces the soon-to-be obsolete concepts of Bereiche (Districts) and Grosslagen (collective vineyard sites, large vineyards made up of several smaller vineyards). We sommeliers will no longer have to try to remember if the vineyard name on a German wine label is a collective vineyard or a single vineyard. Wines of this category will be clearly labeled Region. Each Region is divided into:
- Ortschaften (in English, Town or Village), for wines produced in a defined municipality and labelled with the name of the respective municipality. Of course, wines labelled as Ortsweine will likely be blended from several individual vineyards located within the village. The astute reader will understand that this concept is really no different than that of the Grosslage, but unlike the Grosslage concept Ortsweine don’t disguise themselves on the label as single vineyard wines.
- At the center of the German nested hierarchy are the Einzellagen (in English, individual sites) which produce single vineyard wines, the Lagenweine. These are smallest official vineyard units in Germany. German wine enthusiasts will easily recognize many of these names, many of which have existed for centuries. A few examples are the Doctor vineyard in the village of Bernkastel; the Sonnenuhr in Wehlen; the Goldtröpfchen in Piesport; the Stein in Würzburg; and many, many more. The name of an Einzellage must always be stated on the label together with the name of its respective municipality.
As one can imagine, some vineyards produce better wine than others. Einzellagen which produce top-quality wines will be categorized as Grossen Gewächse (plural; singular Grosses Gewächs). Also written using the German character, “ß” as Großes Gewächs and Großen Gewächse. In English, we would call these grand cru vineyards, using the French term.
Vineyards producing very good, but not quite top-quality wines, will be categorized as Ersten Gewächse (plural; singular Erstes Gewächs). In English, we would call these premier cru vineyards, using the French term.
Of course, the majority of the Einzellagen produce good wines, but the quality isn’t quite good enough for the vineyard to merit classification.
The German Einzellage Quality PyramidTweet
And a positive effect for those producers who have struggled to label wines from individual parcels within Einzellagen, the so-called Gewanne will now be allowed to be indicated on the label provided the name is officially registered. See my comments further up and further below in this post for more information.
The existing classification of Prädikatsweine (in English, wines with predicates) will continue unchanged: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, and Trockenbeerenauslese. The Prädikatsweine are considered a sub-category of the Qualitätsweine. Read more about the Prädikatsweine here.
Terminology and Regulations
Laws, of course, state certain requirements. Below is a summary of the most important requirements of the new concepts.
- Anbaugebiet: On the lowest level of the quality wine pyramid are wines whose grapes come from a specific growing area but otherwise do not have a more defined geographical designation. The new wine legislation has not changed the quality requirements for these wines. According to the new wine law, the term “Qualitätswein” will be able to be replaced by the statement “geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung” or “wine with a protected designation of origin” along with the name of the respective wine-growing region for all Qualitäts– and Prädikatsweine.
- Region: This category is used to designate still or sparkling wines whose grapes come from a wine-growing area that spans a municipality or district. These wines will be labelled by placing the term “region” directly in front of the respective area or major site name. A community or district name will not be permitted to be indicated with wines of the Region category.
- Ortswein: Still and sparkling wines that bear the name of a municipality or a district as a geographical indication of origin. In terms of taste, they reflect the special terroir of the district or municipality. The grape must for these wines must be of at least Kabinett quality and they may not be marketed before December 15th of the harvest year.
- Erstes Gewächs and Grosses Gewächs: These are either dry red or dry white wines. The grapes must be harvested by hand: mechanical harvesting is not permitted. Grapes used for wines of this category must achieve at least Kabinett level ripeness. The regional protective associations or industry associations will determine the grape varieties permitted in these vineyards. They can specify additional requirements such as specific maximum yields per hectare or minimum must weights. Associations that already use the terms Erstes Gewächs or Grosses Gewächs may continue to use them if they meet certain minimum requirements according to the new law regarding grape varieties, yields, harvest regulations, or aroma and taste profile.
- Erstes Gewächs: The grapes must be harvested selectively, and the yield must not exceed sixty hectoliters per hectare in flat areas, or seventy hectoliters per hectare on steep slopes. The must used for production must have a minimum natural alcohol potential of eleven percent by volume. These wines may only be sold from March 1st of the year following the harvest and must indicate the vintage.
- Grosses Gewächs: The grapes must be harvested selectively, and the yield must not exceed fifty hectoliters per hectare. The must used for production must have a minimum natural alcohol potential of at least twelve percent by volume. The harvest year must always be specified on the label. White wines of this quality level may only be sold from September 1st of the year following the harvest; for red wines, the period is extended by a further nine months, i.e., until June 1st of the second year following the harvest.
A transition period has been granted for the geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung (g.U.), or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) wines. They may still be labeled according to the previously applicable provisions up to and including the 2025 harvest year and placed on the market until stocks are depleted. Wines of the categories Erstes Gewächs and Grosses Gewächs up to and including the 2023 vintage can still be labeled and placed on the market in accordance with the previously applicable regulations.
Interview with the German Wine Institute
Although there is a good amount of information freely available on the web, I still had some questions. I could think of no better source of information than my friends at the German Wine Institute. Moritz Volke, International Head of Seminars responsible for international educational activities agreed to an interview. Below are my questions and Mr. Volke’s responses, lightly edited for the purpose of clarity.
Q: What were the motives behind the wine law change?
- The EU wine market reform in 2009 was a turning point leading to the Europe-wide quality designation scheme, PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
- There was no possibility of profiling the different levels of origin in the [existing] German law.
- “Protected Designation of Origin” so far only stands for the origin of the grape, but not for a specific or higher quality of the wine.
- Rethinking has already taken place in some associations and producers! For example, the system of estate, local, and single vineyard wines (Guts-, Orts-, and Lagenweine).
- Price and offer as well as designation structure diverge. Old terms like Prädikat have lost their value/story during the past years. The new system will also improve the price differentiation.
- International protection: in international agreements the protected designations of origin are protected, but other legal terms/German descriptions are not!
- Better comprehensibility of the German wine law system also abroad. A positive effect on exports.
Q: When was the idea first conceived?
Q: Who were the major proponents of the changes?
A: In general, the whole German wine industry was open for a new origin-oriented quality and designation system that would be transparent and easy for customers to understand. However, everyone had to make compromises and had to find the broadest and deepest common ground.
Q: What will be the benefits for the consumer of German wine?
- A new origin-oriented quality and designation system that is transparent and easy for consumers to understand.
- Protected designation of origin = quality promise.
- The indication of a smaller origin should include a larger or more specific quality promise.
Q: Will the wine laws work together with the VDP classification system?
A: The new law and the VDP classification will co-exist. Non-VDP members will also be able to use the terms “Erstes Gewächs” (premier cru) and “Grosses Gewächs” (grand cru). All producers will have the right to use these terms, including large producers and cooperatives provided the wines meet the minimum standards prescribed by the new law.
Q: Will here be any major challenges for wine producers? Either big or small?
A: The biggest challenge will be to communicate the new regulations to the consumer.
Q: Does the new law address maximum must weights for the Prädikatsweine? I believe currently there are only minimum must weights and not maximum. I ask this because it seems depending on the vintage some Kabinettweine stylistically seem to be more Spätlese-like.
A: No, there will be no maximum must weights.
Q: What happens in the case of very large top-quality vineyards like the Würzburger Stein? Some of the wines can be labeled “Erstes Gewächs” (premier cru) and others “Grosses Gewächs” (grand cru)? Thus, allowing a producer to sell Stein Erstes Gewächs from 1 March of the year following the harvest and Stein Grosses Gewächs from 1 September of the year following the harvest?
A: Yes, this will be possible.
Q: Sorry if this is a rather complex question. Does the new law address minimum vineyard size and the use of Gewann names? For example, with the 1971 law the Ayler Kupp went from a high-quality 3-hectare vineyard to a sprawling 49 hectares. So, for a producer who has vines planted in the former 3-hectare plot, would they be able to indicate this somehow on the label? I believe this might be the case as Peter Lauer produces Ayler Schonfels. But will this somehow be codified into the law? I understand that from 2014 the state of Rheinland-Pfalz permits Gewann names with or without indicating the village. Is this now the case or will be the case country-wide?
A: If the name of a single vineyard is used, it shall always immediately follow the name of the municipality or subdivision. If a smaller geographical indication is used, the specifications for the single vineyard apply. However, all smaller geographical indications must be entered in the vineyard register or be a municipality or part of a village name.
Q: According to the DWI website, Qualitäts– and Prädikatsweine will be allowed to use the phrase “wine with a protected designation of origin” combined with the name of a winegrowing area. If I understood correctly, most Einzellage do not necessarily comply with EU law giving them PDO/g.U. status. Will all Einzellage with the new law automatically be granted PDO status? Will the terms “PDO” and/or “g.U.” be allowed or required on the label?
A: Qualitäts– and Prädikatsweine have to state the name of the PDO (e.g. Baden or Rheinhessen). The phrase “geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung” / “wine with a protected designation of origin” is optional. The wines that comply with the requirements of the Einzellage level will be granted PDO status.
Q: How will “g.g.A.” (geschützte geografische Angabe) fit into the new wine law? Will this term and/or “PGI” (Protected Geographic Indication) be allowed on the label?
A: Landweine / g.g.A. have to state the name of the PGI (e.g. Landwein Rhein). The phrase “geschützte geografische Angabe” is optional.
Q: Other than these changes, are there any other minor changes? For example, changes in chaptalization laws, deacidification, new terminology, terminology no longer allowed (other than in what I’ve mentioned in the previous questions), production of Sekt.
A: Other criteria can be defined by Communities for the management of the PDO in the future.
Q: Are there any sample wine labels showing what a label would look like under the new law?
A: Not yet. Sorry.
This “new” wine law does not entirely discard previous concepts and is thus based on existing concepts, but it does better define and codify these existing concepts. At first glance, it does seem complex, but this is the nature of the system, and for German wine producers to comply the regulations must be clearly stated. It also does correct the shortcomings of the 1971 Wine Law. Being a terroir-based model, it is also not new and is key to the entire European Union wine industry. After all, we wine professionals understand that theoretically wines produced from the La Tâche vineyard are better than village wines from Vosne-Romanée which are better than wines bearing the simple Bourgogne designation. Does the new law make it easier for the average consumer? Well, anyone who has not studied the German language or who is not a German wine enthusiast will always struggle to understand German wine labels, but for those of us who are wine professionals or studying to be a wine professional the new law will make our life a bit easier.
Pronunciation of German Wine Terminology found in this article
I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest blog post and found it informative. Check back for future posts.
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