German wines are known all around the world for their sweet character. The common belief is that all German wines are sweet, but in actuality, about 2/3 of all German wines are dry or without any residual sugar.
Throughout the wine-producing countries of Europe, classifications are used to define the quality of a wine according to yield, classical regions, recognized vineyards and under restrictions and styles in which it can be made. Germany (and Austria) stand out among the other wine-producing countries and the wines are classified using a german wine classification in accordance with the the level of sweetness of the wines.
German Wine Classification & the Oechesle Scale
When grapes are harvested, the must (grape juice) is weighed using the Oechsle scale. This is a hydrometer used to measure the density (sugar concentration) of the must and also indicates the ripeness level in the grapes. Before the wines are made, they are already classified according to the level where they fall on the Oechsle scale. There are six official levels of sweetness for German wines under the quality system.
The system German wines fall under is called Pradikatswein modeled after the Qualitatswein mit Pradikat (QmP) system created in 1971 and changed in 2007. The term, Pradikatswein translates as "quality wine with specific attributes". It is Germany's version of Appellation d'Origine Controllee (AOC) or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC).
Outside of the Pradikatswein quality system are wines which hold lesser value. However, these wines are also labelled according to their level of sweetness. The lowest quality of German wine is Deutscher Wein and is made from grapes which are of average ripeness or under ripe.
Up the scale from Deutscher wein is Deutscher Landwein. This wine has a slightly higher quality and must not have more than 18 grams of sugar per liter. It must also have 0.5% more alcohol than Deutscher wein. Following Landwein is Qualitatswein (QbA) or "Quality Wine".
The Qualitatswein (QbA) System
Kabinett is the first level under the quality German wine scale. This wine is the least sweet and can also be a dry wine. It varies depending on the regions where the grapes are grown, when they are harvested and the quality of the growing season. In order for the wine to be labelled as Kabinett, the grapes require a must weight of 70 degrees on the Oechsle scale and must have a minimum potential alcohol of 8.8%. These wines can be found labelled as Troken, "Dry" or Halbtroken, "Half-dry". The first is a dry style wine with no residual sugar and the latter is a sweeter wine with a slight amount of residual sugar.
The term Kabinett comes from the German language designating wine that was made from fully-ripened fruit. Traditionally, it is a light-bodied wine and was usually set aside to be sold at a later date and was often stored in the vintner's "cabinet". The term has also been German for Reserve wine.
Following Kabinett wine is Spatlese, directly translated as "Late Harvest". These wines are considered to be of superior quality and are made from grapes following the main (Kabinett) harvest. Now some of you might be wondering, how and when are the vineyards determined for harvest?
The first wine harvest of the season in Germany is determined by their wine regulating body. National and local experts are sent to the vineyards to determine when the first harvest can begin. Once the first harvest starts, it is mandatory that the producers wait approximately two weeks before the Spatlese harvest and each subsequent harvest can begin. The grapes are always picked by hand, not only to be more gentle on the fruit, but also because the steep terrain of many German vineyards cannot support machinery.
After Spatlese is Auslese. These grapes are selected particularly for there ripeness which are often affected by noble rot like the image on the left. The minimum must weight required is 90 degrees, with 12% potential alcohol. The wines made from Auslese fruit can range from dry, medium-dry and sweet.
Auslese wines are followed by Beerenauslese (BA). During this harvest period, each individual grape is hand-selected. The minimum must weight is 120 degrees, with 16.4% potential alcohol, and wines labelled "Beerenauslese" are very rich and full-bodied and are dessert wines to be enjoyed on their own or with accompanying dessert.
Eiswein: The Rare German Late Harvest
The following harvest is Eiswein, or "Ice Wine". These are extremely rare harvests which may occur only once or twice in a decade. The harvest typically takes place in late January and early February and must occur under very specific conditions, but, it starts in the early morning hours around 2am. The temperature in the vineyard must be -7 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit). A wine press is brought to the vineyard where the grapes are immediately pressed while they are frozen. Therefore, the juice which is extracted contains no water and is pure grape nectar. The harvest is extremely rare as the winter conditions must be just right; if a freeze does not come quick, grapes may rot, and if the grapes are frozen too severely, no nectar can be pressed.
Deer and birds also often determine the fate of an Eiswein harvest, as they love to snack on the sweet morsels. These factors are the reason for the high cost one has to pay for a German Ice Wine. A bottle of 375ml (half-bottle) Ice Wine can start around $50. Wine of special harvest years and notable producers can cost up to $500 or more. These are wines which can age for decades and are prize pieces for many collectors.
Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): The Rarest of All German Wines
The next wine on the German quality wine scale is Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) It's a tongue-twister! These grapes are harvested at a minimum of 150 degrees Oechsle, with a minimum potential alcohol of 19%. As you might imagine, similar to Eiswein, this harvest is also very rare. The grapes by this stage are almost raisins and create wines which are silky smooth and very sweet with characteristics not unlike honey. These wines also have a heavy price tag.
There is much more to be said about German vineyards, terroir and their unique and harsh terrain. There is even much more to be written about the delicious varieties of wines created there; these are the most coveted classes of sweet german wines, and I'd recommend exploring as many as you can to decide on your favorites.