There are new terms appearing on German wine labels and wine lists: Erstes Gewaechs, Grosses Gewaechs, Erste Lage. This reflects efforts that are under way to supplement or even replace the current wine ranking system.
The main reference for wine making in Germany today is the wine law of 1971. At the center of the 1971 wine law is the content of sugar in the grapes at the point of harvest. Accordingly, wines are classified from Tafelwein to Trockenbeerenauslese depending on the sugar content of the grapes at harvest. This, however, does not say anything about how sweet a wine in the glass will be at consumption. Thus, a Spaetlese, for example, can be bone-dry or very sweet, although being made from exactly the same grapes with the same sugar content at harvest. See my blog posting of August 24, 2009 on that.
The 1971 wine law also has elements of a terroir concept. There are Grosslagen (collective vineyards) and Einzellagen (single vineyards). For the average consumer, Grosslage sites became virtually indistinguishable from Einzellage (single vineyard) sites. Furthermore, all the single vineyard sites were given equal status and only wine experts know which single vineyards are good and which not so good.
Driven by the objective to restore the prestige of Germany’s significant vineyards and to help the consumer in terms of distinguishing dry from sweet wines, the wineries that are members of the Verband der Praedikatsweingueter (VDP) introduced the concepts of Erste Lage, Erstes Gewaechs, Grosses Gewaechs.
In a first step, all vineyards were rated and the best parcels of them were identified as Erste Lage (First Site). This took several years. Historically relevant maps were used. After a lengthy process and lots of discussions, the Erste Lage concept was introduced in 2001. In my region, the Rheingau, about 1/3 of the wine growing area comes under the Erste Lage label.
Erste Lage vineyards are the top vineyards. Further restrictions apply: there are yield restrictions; only hand picking of grapes is permitted and harvest must be late in the autumn; the sugar content of the grape at harvest must be at least that of a Spaetlese; only certain grape varietals can be planted: Riesling is the only varietal allowed for Erste Lage wines in the Mosel, Nahe, and Mittelrhein, but grapes like Spaetburgunder (Pinot Noir), Lemberger, Fruehburgunder, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Gewuerztraminer, and Silvaner are included in other regions.
Second, the Grosse Gewaechs and Erste Gewaechs concepts were introduced. These terms basically mean the same thing but for some reasons the latter is used in the Rheingau and the former in all other wine regions. Grosse/Erste Gewaechse wines are always fully fermented and dry. The Grosse/Erste Gewaechs lable is thought to resemble the Grand/Premier Cru designation in neighboring France. Here and there, these wines are dry. Grosse/Erste Gewaechs refers to a top dry wine from a top vineyard.
Erste Lage wines that are made in a sweet style continue to carry the traditional Spaetlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein lebels.
A dry Auslese is thus a thing of the past, as far as the Erste Lage vineyards are concerned. If the wine has the Auslese level of sugar at harvest, is fully femented and made dry, it will be sold as Grosses/Erstes Gewaechs. If the same wine is made in a sweet style, it will continue to be marketed as Auslese.
In sum: The Erste Lage concept is singling out the top vineyards. If the wine is then a Erstes/Grosses Gewaechs, the consumer can expect a powerful top-quality dry wine than can compete in the international market with other great dry wines. By contrast, Erste Lage wines with the traditional Spaetlese, Auslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein labels will be noble-sweet wines, which are typical for Germany and difficult to find elsewhere.
Will this help? I doubt it. The new classification covers only 1/3 of wine produced in Germany. The large majority of wine will be produced outside the new rules. I think it has not simplified things, it has complicated it.