Whew! We have covered a lot of wine labels. We started with labels attributed to wines from California and the US in our Wine Labels 101: California article. Those were simple and soon we will be moving onto France, then Spain and Italy, covering their wine labels along the way. But before we get there, today we will be covering Germany and Austria.
Though they are two individual countries, they do share a common language, wine culture and the manner in which they make their wines and how it is classified. While many of the wine labels from these regions can be quite confusing, their simplicity comes in the concept of transparency; literally everything you need to know about the wine is on the label. It’s just in German.
German & Austrian Wine Classifications
Let's start with the German/Austrian hierarchy and classification of wine.
The pyramid above illustrates the VDP (Verband Deutscher Pradikats) wine classification from bottom up, keeping with the German and Austrian tradition of classification where wine is classified based on the "weight" of the grapes when they are harvested, meaning how much sugar they contain.
As you can see, ‘Kabinett’ wines lie within the QmP (Qualitatswein mit Pradikat) classification. In Austria, it is slightly different and they classify ‘Kabinett’ wines under QbA (Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete). Another difference regarding the classification of Kabinett wine is that in Germany, the wine may be dry or semi-dry, in Austria, it denotes only dry wines.
By definition, the term Kabinett was used to imply thats a wine was of superior quality, which could be saved and aged for later sale.
Spatlese is the name of the next classification and the first session of the late harvests. Varietals harvested during this stage will make much sweeter wines with lower alcohol levels. The following late harvests of Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese are much sweeter and the grapes are hand-selected, perhaps, by separate passes depending on the quality of the grapes. Most wines produced from a later harvest, from Auslese forward, will have been affected by noble rot, a mold that forms on grapes given the ideal conditions, which concentrate sugars while conserving the acidity balance in the fruit. Auslese wines are somewhat common, however, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese are very rare wines and may only be harvested once in a decade. By the time the grapes might be harvested, sometimes they are lost to bad weather, animals and other factors.
One more later harvest which should be noted is Eiswein or "Icewine". These are extremely rare wines that also may occur once only in a decade or more. The German and Austrian law states that the grapes must be harvested in temperatures of 19 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius) or colder and be pressed for juices in the vineyard. Sometimes these grapes remain on the vine into later winter months. The grapes are pressed, but as their water content is completely frozen, only the concentrated sugars and true essence of the grape are pressed in order to ferment them into wine.
Another wine classification for later harvest wine that exists in Austria is Ausbruchwein, which falls under the Pradikatswein classification in between Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. This is another wine made from grapes affected by noble rot, and upon harvest, the grapes must have a specific "weight" requirement to be labeled as such.
German & Austrian Wine Terminology
Now that we’ve covered the semi-complicated wine classification system of Germany and Austria, there are some terms you may find on the label that will indicate what style of wine you'll find in the bottle.
- Trocken - a dry wine without any perceived sweetness
- Halbtrocken - This means "semi-dry", and by law, the wine cannot contain more than 18 grams per liter of sugar. While the wines have a slight perceivable sweetness, for most wine drinkers it is still considered a dry wine.
Both ‘Trocken’ and ‘Halbtrocken’ are two terms likely to be found on a Kabinett wine bottle.
Under the VDP Classification system, there are classifications that can be indicated on the labels determining more local hierarchy systems of wine based on locally grown grapes, soils, vineyards and minimum yields permitted. Here are some examples.
- Gutswein - Entry-level wines that determine the wines’ quality based on their origin. These wines uphold the highest standards of winemaking determined by the VDP
- Ortswein - These wines are sourced from superior locations and vineyards of varietals typical within their region.
- Erste Lage - These are wines that indicate first-class vineyards with optimal growing conditions which have been consistent and in long-standing.
- Grosse Lage - This indicates that this is the best wines from only the best parcels of the vineyards. They often have great aging potential and are expressive of their terroir.
Now we've covered terminology, we can start to familiarize you with other elements of the German/Austrian wine labels.
- Reisling (white)
- Muller-Thurgau (white)
- Silvaner (white)
- Gewurztraminer (white)
- Chardonnay (white)
- Sauvignon Blanc (white)
- Kerner (white)
- Spatburgunder (aka Pinot Noir) (red)
- Portugieser (red)
- Trollinger (red)
- Gruner Veltliner (white)
- Reisling (white)
- Chardonnay (white)
- Sauvignon Blanc (white)
- Pinot Blanc (white)
- Blaufrankisch (red)
- Zweigelt (red)
- Blauburgunder (aka Pinot Noir) (red)
Familiarizing yourself with varietals and classifications, leads the way into learning more about other parts of the wine label process. Printed on many German and Austrian wine labels will be regional maps noting the origin of the wine.
Below are maps indicating the main wine regions of each country.
Austrian Wine Regions
German Wine Regions
So far we've covered classification of German and Austrian wine, some terminology, listed some grape varietals and viewed maps of wine regions; now, we can finally get into reading a couple labels.
Each section of text found on a label is important and represents something. For this label:
- The Producer is Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium.
- The harvest year was 1995
- The grape is listed as Riesling and the style of the wine is Kabinett. We can also assume as there is no indication of ‘Trocken’ or ‘Halbtrocken’ that this is a dry wine.
- The region the wine is from is Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
- Alcohol is 8%. Just a little side note, due to the northern location of Germany and Austria and also due to local microclimates thanks to mountain landscapes, steep slopes and continental weather patterns, these regions are quite cool. Therefore, the growing seasons are shorter and the development of sugars is lower, thus lower alcohol. However, that does not mean they lack in character!
That was easy. Let’s see another from Germany. This is a good one.
- You can see that the producer is located under the vintage year, Westhofener Riedspiel.
- The grape is Muller-Thurgau and it is a later harvest wine of Auslese. Therefore, this wine will be sweeter than a Spatlese wine.
- The vintage year is 1971. Notice the ‘er’ following the year? In German, ‘er’ translates as ‘from’.
- The region the wine is made is the Rheinhessen
Now for Austria…
- The Producer is Blau Haus. Notice that perhaps Austrian labels take on more of a modern approach.
- The vintage year is 2010 and without saying in German, this is a dry red wine from the region of ‘Mittelburgenland’
- The alcohol percentage is 13%.
- The varietal is Blaufrankisch.
I know that was a lot! But taking the time to read wine labels will help you grasp the culture and style of German and Austrian wine. And just as a little motivation, if any of you love spicy eastern cuisine, these wines (more the whites that reds) make for the perfect wine companion to these foods!