I know there are tons of instructions out there on the internet on how to read a German wine label. And it makes sense, because they can be confusing with all the information on them, some of it prescribed by law, some voluntary. German labels are anything but the simplicity of new world labels from California, Australia or South America. Some blame it on Germans being sticklers and precise, but one can also see it as a great tool for wine consumers because you get a lot of information that is not marketing gibberish on the back of the bottle but rather standardized and hopefully, to a certain degree at least, helpful.
One of the reasons why German labels are so information filled is that most German wines, especially the whites, can be anywhere from bone dry to super sweet, and from light to heavy. This is different from other wine regions, where whites tend to be dry or specifically labeled as sweet. Whether I buy a Soave or an Orvieto from Italy, or a Chablis from Burgundy or an Albarino from Spain, I can be pretty sure that they are all dry wines. German wines do not have that easy help of white equals dry (at least in most cases). Because the variety is so much broader, labels should reflect that…
I want to try to take away some of the insecurities surrounding German wine labels and want to show how you can turn that barrage of information into a useful tool when deciding what wine you want to go for.
My explanation is focused on labels by German winemakers that are not part of the elite wine makers association VDP which has some extra rules. The explanation is based on the 1971 Wine Act and its workings. As critically as one can see that statute it still governs German wine making. Also, I will use a label of a wine with distinction (Prädikatswein) because this is most likely what you will be looking at in wine stores.
First of all, we have to understand the distinction between the three types of wines allowed to produce in Germany: simple basic wines, quality wines of specific regions (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete, QbA) and lastly wines with distinction (Prädikatswein). As a rule of thumb, we can say that a higher quality wine will also have more information on the label. This is easy to understand: If a winemaker produces a table wine, he can use grapes from all over the place. So he will not be able to write on the label where exactly the grapes are from. A producer of a Spätlese in a prestigious vineyard, however, has an interest in putting that vineyard’s name on the label.
The information on the label required by law is: specified region, quality category, content in liters, alcohol in % vol., producer/bottler, A.P. number (a quality control test number).
Optional information is: vintage, village, vineyard site, grape variety, style (dry or sweet), and all additional information such as residual sugar or acidity levels.
Winemakers are free to decide whether to put the information on the front label alone or add a back label. A number of winemakers are opting for a back label in order to de-clutter the front.
As an example, I am using this Dr. Hermann label which is still a classical German label. Please note that the information can be anywhere on the label and does not have to be displayed in the order that Dr. Hermann labels work.
On the top, we see the name of the winery: “Dr. Hermann”. It is not necessary to add the word “Weingut” (winery). If the wine was not bottled by a winery but rather by a winemakers’ association or co-op (“Winzergenossenschaft”) or a commercial trader/bottler, that name or trade name will appear instead of a single winery’s name.
Next, we see the vintage year, an optional information. A vintage year can only be added if a minimum of 85% of the must used for the wine are from that year.
This is followed by the village name and the vineyard name, in this case “Ürziger” and “Würzgarten”. The village name is not “Ürziger”, but rather “Ürzig”. The -er is a possessive suffix indicating that the vineyard belongs to that village. So, in our case the grapes for the wine were grown in Ürzig’s vineyard “Würzgarten”. As an aside, German vineyard names tend to have long histories and some of them are hilarious. It can be worth trying to figure out what they mean. Some refer to geographical sites (such as “Sonnenuhr”, a sun dial that was placed in the vineyards), others can be indicative of taste (such as “Würzgarten”, spice garden), yet others are just outright hilarious (take “Himmelreich”, heavenly kingdom; or “Apotheke”, pharmacy; or “Nacktarsch”, naked ass).
Please note that the reputation of a vineyard itself does not necessarily guarantee that the wine will be good, too. Often, many winemakers of different skill and schools own or lease vines in these vineyards. If a vineyard is exclusively owned by one winery, they will usually add that to the designation (e.g. Trierer Augenscheiner, which is exclusively owned by Vereinigte Hospitien and says so on the label: “Lage im Alleinbesitz”, which translates to “vineyard in sole ownership”; an example for not adding this indication is “Josephshöfer”, a vineyard close to Bernkastel-Kues exclusively owned by Reichsgraf v. Kesselstatt).
Next up is the grape variety, in this case “Riesling”. Other prominent German grape varieties include Silvaner, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris/Grigio), Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc/Bianco) and Gewürztraminer (whites), as well as Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Dornfelder (both reds). Again, as with the vintage, the grape variety can only be listed if more than 85% of the grapes in the wine were of that variety and the wine shows the distinct characteristics of that grape. If the wine is made exclusively with two varieties, both can be named in descending order (e.g. Riesling – Sauvignon blanc, if the content is 80% riesling and 20% sauvignon blanc).
The grape variety is followed by the level of distinction, or Prädikat, if the wine falls into that category. Distinctions range from Kabinett (lowest level) to Trockenbeerenauslese (or TBA, highest level). These distinctions are solely based on sugar content in the grapes at harvest. They do not reflect the level of sweetness in the wine. See more on this in my previous post here. In our case, we are dealing with a Kabinett.
As indicated above, winemakers may then add an indication regarding the taste of the wine: dry (trocken, i.e. between 0 and 9 grams residual sugar per liter), off-dry or semi-sweet (halbtrocken or feinherb, between 9 and 18 gr RS/l), medium sweet (lieblich, between 18 and 45 gr RS/l), or sweet (süss, above 45 gr RS/l). Winemakers do not have to write this out on the label, and few do, although this would be most helpful for consumers. In most regions, it is written on the label when the taste is unusual for that category of wine. Say a Mosel Spätlese is vinified in the dry style. Usually, you expect a Spätlese to be off-dry and up. Then it can make sense for the winemaker to indicate on the label that it is a dry wine.
However, this labeling is not mandatory. Therefore, you need another tool to figure it out. And luckily, we have one that winemakers must put on the label. On the bottom, the Dr. Hermann label shows the alcohol content as being 7.5% vol. This is indicative of a sweet wine. Because yeast turns sugar into alcohol in the fermentation process, a higher alcohol content in the wine usually indicates a drier wine, while a lower alcohol level indicates a sweeter wine. There are outliers, but as a rule of thumb wines tend to be sweet when they have between 7 and 9% alcohol, off-dry between 9 and 12% and dry from 12% up. Some areas overlap, you can find pretty dry tasting wines at 11% and still off-dry wines at 12.5%…which is why I just say it is a rule of thumb.
Next on the label, we see that confusing thing, the A.P. number or, in long form “Amtliche Prüfnummer” (official approval number or quality control test number). By the time you buy your bottle, every German wine will have gone through an official testing procedure. Official testers evaluate each wine that is produced and score it. If the wine makes it past a bare minimum of scores, it is assigned the A.P. Nr. Only wines with that number can be marketed and sold as wines. If you don’t really care about this (and I don’t blame you!), skip the next paragraph!
The A.P. Nr. assigns each wine a unique signature that can be traced back to the barrel. Let’s unravel the one we have here: 2 602 145 6 09. The first number stands for the region where the wine was produced and tested, in our case 2 which stands for the middle Mosel region. Rheinhessen, e.g., has the number 4. The next number stands for the village the wine was grown in, here 602 standing for Ürzig. This is followed by a unique number for the winery, in Dr. Hermann’s case 145. The next number is in ascending order of wines submitted in that vintage, here 6 stands for the 6th wine submitted by Dr. Hermann in the respective year. The final digits indicate the year of testing, usually in the year after the wine was harvested, as here: 09 for the vintage 2008. What is the use of this? The winemakers have to keep sealed bottles of each wine with an A.P. Nr. for a certain number of years, so that if complaints arise or doubts over the wine’s authenticity, the wines in question can be cross-checked.
On the label, we also see the word “Gutsabfüllung” (sometimes called “Erzeugerabfüllung”) followed by the name of the winery. This indicates that the wine was estate bottled, i.e. the grower also bottled the wine on his estate, unlike bottlers or traders or a co-op.
Finally, it has to list the location of the winemaker, in our case Ürzig.
There are many more designations that can make German wine labels confusing, be they VDP designations or others. I will go into detail about the VDP in another installment, and I tried to keep this simple. What I want you to take away from this are several things:
First: Don’t get intimidated by German wine labels, they can actually help you.
Second: The alcohol level is the best indicator for whether the wine is dry, off-dry or sweet.
Third: To be sure, look for the word “trocken” on the label if you like dry wines.
Fourth: The -er at the end of the village name is a suffix, not part of the name!
Fifth: Germans are sticklers, but the A.P. Nr. is a great tool of consumer protection.