German wine, a brief introduction

Germany is the 10th largest wine producer in the world but its presence on the supermarket shelves outside areas of direct German influence does not reflect this. The UK, for instance, was very partial to German wine. The demise of German wines in the UK may be due to changed taste preferences of consumers, confusing labels and classifications, and variable or poor historical experiences. As sales declined and wine from other countries increased, UK retailers have been increasingly reluctant to give shelf space to German wines.

Importantly, German wine has in recent years changed, and changed very significantly. Quality and classification controls have strengthened and there has been a greater focus on “better” grapes such as Riesling. As a generalization, German wine is now drier than previously. Undoubtedly, Germany produces very high quality wines that attract a small but highly enthusiastic crowd of consumers, although the better quality wines do not come out cheap.

One of the best known German wines in Anglosaxon countries is perhaps Blue Nun. Blue Nun was developed as an export brand, primarily to the UK and the USA, and launched in 1923. It was created as a simple, low cost brand that could be drunk throughout a meal. The style of wine was called “Liebfraumilch.” Liebfraumilch was defined as a semi-sweet wine made from a range of grapes grown in broadly defined regions. In the period 1950-80 Blue Nun was probably the largest international wine brand. After a period of major decline and ownership change, Blue Nun is now less sweet, and has a higher Riesling content. Blue Nun is now a brand that includes a Languedoc Merlot, Spanish Rosé, sparkler and ice wine.

Germany has now focused more on Riesling, its largest varietal at 21.9%. Muller-Thurgau has reduced to 13.4%. Muller-Thurgau was previously favored because it was earlier ripening and had a higher natural sugar content. Around 30% of German wine is red with Pinot Noir, known as Spatbutgunder, and Dornefeld ther major red grapes.

German wine classification can be complex, changeable and confusing. However the basis of the key classification is the sugar content of the grape. The highest classification is for Pradikatswein which is the most hihgly regulated – chaptalisation or adding sugar is not allowed for these wines. These wines are often called Qualitatswein Bestimmter Anbamgebiete (QbA)

Pradikatswein has 6 levels of sweetness, and usually price:

Kabinett
Spatlese (late harvest)
Auslese (selected late harvest)
Trockenbeerenuslese
Ice Wine

Unfortunately for the consumer, the sugar level of the grape does not always translate into an equivalent sweetness / dryness. The most variable is Kabinett, where the wine can range from Trocken (dry) to Halbtrocken (semi sweet)

Germany has two other important classifications:

Deutsche Tafelwein – This is usually blended wines from grapes that are not classified as QbA. The grapes can be from any source, including from outside Germany. These wines are primarily for domestic consumption and extremely inexpensive.

Landwein – Superior to Tafelwein but also sold at very low prices.

German wine law requires a minimum alcohol level of 7%. Typically, German wines average 7.5-8.5% although levels can be significantly higher.

Out of Germany, German wine enthusiast usually seek ourt specialist merchants who offer a wide range of wines often from very small producers – and therefore limited quantities.