Perplexing labels, unique classifications and unfamiliar regions, all in an arduous language. Confused? Let’s look at Germany and Austria’s wonderful wines, demystify the label and decipher the varying levels of quality. This is a puzzle you will definitely enjoy completing.
There is more to Germany than beer and lederhosen. Many of us have heard of the winding German Mosel River, and perhaps the slate stone that imparts a great mineral element to the wines. Germany is the northernmost wine-growing country in the world, with some of its vineyards well above the 50th parallel. Vines are planted on south-facing slopes and along river valleys to enable the sun’s warmth and the moderating influence of large bodies of water to mitigate the cool climate.
Germany has a marginal climate--a challenging environment for grape-growing--in which grapes often do not fully ripen. For this reason, the German quality pyramid is determined by the degree of ripeness (sugar) that the grapes have achieved at harvest.
Let’s talk about quality classifications for German wine: Tafelwein is the lowest level; this and Landwein equal 5 percent total German production. Landwein is the next level and usually will be a half-percent higher in alcohol levels. Qualitätswein bestimmte Anbaugebiete (QbA), a quality of wine from a specific German region, and Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), a superior quality of wine, and the highest level of classification, make up 95 percent of all German wines.
In ascending order (from the lowest to the highest degree of ripeness), the Prädikat wines are:
- Kabinett (commonly found in St. Louis market)
- Spätlese (commonly found in the St. Louis market)
- Auslese (available, but not easy to find)
- Beerenauslese (dessert style - hard to find)
- Eiswein (dessert style - hard to find)
- Trockenbeerenauslese (dessert style - hard to find)
There are about two dozen grape varieties grown commercially in Germany. Because of the cold continental climate, red grapes are particularly difficult to ripen. Consequently, most of the grapes grown are white. Riesling commands most of the acreage under vine, but Müller-Thurgau, a riesling cross, is a close second.
The most prominent red grape variety is pinot noir. It is known as Spätburgunder in Germany and is often made into a delightful rosé called Weissherbst. Portugieser, Dornfelder and Trollinger, all reds, are planted commercially and are found predominately in the southern regions.
How to read a German wine label:
Oberhauser is the town: It’s from Oberhaus (‘er’ means ‘from,' like New Yorker).
Brucke is the vineyard.
Riesling is the grape varietal.
Auslese is the quality/sweetness level.
Austria is known as the land of music, and its grapes can be a symphony to your palate.
Although Austria has a long wine-making history, it evaporated with the 'antifreeze scandal' in 1985 in which millions of gallons of Austrian wine were suspected to have been laced with diethylene glycol. This forced the country to implement some of the strictest wine laws in the world. The 'banderole,' the red and white stripe found on the top of Austrian wine bottles, indicates it has undergone rigorous inspection.
Austria grows mostly cool-climate white grapes such as riesling, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, but the true star here is Gruner Veltliner. Also known playfully as 'Gru-Vee' among some wine drinkers, the grape is one of the only varietals that actually works with greens like asparagus, artichoke and other foods that are difficult to pair with wines.
Austria’s quality levels are very similar to Germany’s; however, in Austria, the Pradikatswein level starts with Spätlese (not Kabinett), Auslese, Beerenauslese, Ausbruch and Trockenbeerenauslese.
Still confused? When in doubt, open your mind and palate and experiment a little. Familiarize yourself with the taste of the wines from Germany and Austria, and soon you will be singing their praises with or without the lederhosen.
Tasting Tip: When tasting riesling...yes, it hits you up front with a lot of fruit/sweetness, but pay attention to how the wine finishes--it is almost completely dry for a Kabinett style. Wines from this northern part of Europe have very high acidity. So don’t confuse fruit with sweetness.
Wine Recommendation: From Austria, try Gruner Veltliner and also Blaufrankish. From Germany, try a Spatburgunder and taste the world of riesling. Riesling is a great food wine and is highly regarded by some of the world’s finest sommeliers because it is so diverse in style and use.