Friday, June 11, 2010

German Spaetlese Wines Can Come in Different Versions. I Have Counted Five.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Winemaker Mirjam Schneider from Mainz, who Uses an Innovative Classification System for her Wines

Picture: Eberbach Abbey in the Rheingau, Germany

German Spaetlese and Auslese Wines – Dry and Sweet

Germany’s Spaetlese and Auslese wines, translated literally, means selected harvest and late harvest wines. Many consumers associate with these terms sweetness in the wine. This is not correct. Auslese and Spaetlese wines can be sweet, even sugar-sweet, but can also be bone dry.

In the German wine law approach of classifying wines, Auslese and Spaetlese refer to the level of sugar in the grape at the point of harvest. The sugar in the grapes however, disappears during fermentation and turns into alcohol. If you leave it to mother nature, without additional effort of the wine maker, grapes harvested at Auslese and Spaetlese level do not have enough sugar by themselves to produce enough remaining sugar so that the wine is sweet. This is only true for noble-sweet wines Beerenauslese, Trockeneweerebnauslese and Eiswein. If you do not do anything, all the sugar in the grapes harvested at Auslese or Spaetlese level is fermented and disappears. You get a bone dry wine. However, in reality, there are sweet Spaetlese and Auslese wines. How does that happen?

There are two methods used by German winemakers to generate residual sugar in such wine:

First, stopping the fermentation; this is typically done through a skillful manipulation of the fermentation process with sulfur and temperature control. The winemaker needs to follow closely the fermentation process and must make sure that it comes to a stop at the desired level of sugar.

Second, the other technique is to let the wine first fully ferment and then add to the dry and fully fermented wine sterilized grape juice (called in German "Suessreserve"). Here the winemakers lets the wine fully ferment to produce a dry wine and then experiments with different amounts of Suessreserve to achieve the desired level of sweetness in the final product. Ideally, the Suessreserve comes from the same wine. It needs to be sterilized so it does not begin to ferment after it is added to the wine.

Both methods are widely used and perfectly legal. What is not legal is to add sugar to the must, if these wines are sold at the Preadikatswein level, that means as Kabinett, Spaetlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein. Chaptalization is only permitted for wines at QbA level and below. Roughly 60 percent of German wine is accounted for by QBA and lower level wine and thus can be chaptalized and indeed is.

Spaetlese and Auslese wine can be both sweet and dry, which is confusing for the consumer. The sweet Spaetlese and Auselse wines can be low and high in terms of alcohol content. In addition, new concepts of wine classification have been introduced in Germany. The most prominent is the one of the VDP. I have counted the different ways of making a Spaetlese wine and came up with 5 different categories. The same applies to Auslese wines. Here they are:

Grosses Geweachs

Let us start with Grosses Gewaechs wines. This is a concept that the VDP wine makers introduced for their membership a few years ago. Only wines from VDP wine makers, who account for 3 percent of the wine production, can be a Grosses Gewaechs wine . But these are more or less Germany’s top wine makers.

A Grosses Geweachs wine

(1) It is a wine from a top vineyard, a Erste Lage;
(2) is always a fully fermented wine and bone dry;
(3) at the point of harvest, it has to be at the Spaetlese level in terms of the sugar content of the grapes at the point of harvest; often they are at the Auslese level.
(3) is, as a rule, marketed under the QbA (Qualitaetswein) category. One of the implications of this is that they can be chaptalized. Here, chaptalization has nothing to do with the sweetness of the wine; the sole purpose is to add alcohol – this are bone dry wines.

Example: The number 87 of the 2009 Wine Spectator list, which got 93 points: 2007 Wittmann Riesling QbA Trocken, Weingut Wittmann, Rheinhessen

Erstes Gewaechs

For reasons that I have a hard time to follow, the state of Hessen, that means the Rheingau region mainly, did not go along with the Grosses Gewaechs concept and introduced a different concept: Erstes Gewaechs. In terms of quality, there is absolutely no difference between Grosses and Erstes Gewaechs, but in the Rheingau, any wine maker can produce an Erstes Gewaechs wine, supposed, he meets the strict criteria.

Ergo, a Erstes Gewaechs wine, like the Grosses Gewaechs wine is always at least a Spaetlese wine, labeled as a ObA wine and is bone dry.

Example: 2008 Hochheimer Hoelle, Riesling, Erstes Gewaechs, Hochheim, Weingut Schaefer.

Josef Schaefer explained to me that this wine was his first Erstes Gewaechs wine. His Estate is in Hochheime, Rheingau. At harvest, the wine was at Auslese level. It was not chaptalized. See more here.

Spaetlese trocken

This are wines

(1) made from grapes harvested at the Spaetlese level,
(2) were the wine maker decided to make a dry wine and to fully ferment the must so that all the sugar turns into alcohol and no sugar remains in the wine and
(3) which do not fall into the group of Grosses Gewaechs or Erstes Gewaechs wines.

A typical wine of that kind would be for example, a Spaetlese trcken produced by a non-VDP wine maker in say the Pflalz region. These are typically high alcohol dry wines.

Example: Two wines from Weingut Schaefer, Hochheim, Rheingau, which I recently tasted in Frankfurt am Main. See here.

2008 Hochheimer Kirchenstueck, Riesling Spaetlese trocken, a dry Spaetlese with a lot of tropical fruits on the palate and a nice long finish.

2008 Gewuerztraminer Spaetlese trocken; also a dry Spaetlese, but a Gewuerztraminer, which is unusual for the Riesling dominated Rheingau: nice wine with lots of tropical fruit, in particular pineapple.

Sweet Spaetlese with high Alcohol

This are wines

(1) made from grapes harvested at the Spaetlese level and
(2) were the wine maker decided to make a sweet wine using “Suessreserve”. Thus, he would let the wine fully ferment, producing a high alcohol level in the wine. At that point, he would have Spaetlese dry, see above. Then, he would add sterilized juice to find the desired level of sweetness. This cannot be a Grosses Gewaechs or Erstes Gewaechs wine, because they are always dry.

The label typically says Spaetlese, there is no reference to “trocken” and the level of Alcohol would be in the double digit area.

Example: I do not have a lot of sweet wines in my cellar, but I found a good example: 1993 Niersteiner Pettental Auslese, Weingut Heyl zu Herrnsheim, Nierstein, Rheinhessen, has 12 % alcohol and is louscisly-sweet.

Sweet Spaetlese with low Alcohol

This are wines

(1) made from grapes harvested at the Spaetlese level and
(2) were the wine maker decided to make a sweet wine by stopping the fermentation. The effect of stopping the fermentation is that the alcohol content in the wine is low and unfermented sugar remains in the wines. You find these light and sweet wines often in the Mosel valley. This are sweet, low-alcohol wines.

Example: On the three Top 100 lists of the Wine Enthusiast, Dr. Loosen appears with an Auslese from Mosel: Dr. Loosen 2007 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Auslese (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer); $42; 93 points; this is sweet and low alcohol Auslese .

Innovatively Classified Wine

Increasingly, winemakers are moving away from the traditional German wine classification and are introducing new concepts of classification, where the sugar content in the grapes at harvest is only of secondary importance. What is more important is the terroir and the final product in the bottle.

This are wines

(1) made with grapes harvested at Spaetlese level or Auslese, where
(2) the winemaker has abandoned the traditional classification system. This are the young, innovative winemakers, who are often very skeptical regarding the meaningfulness of the tradional wine classification system, where the sugar content of the grapes at the point of harvest is at the center of the system and not the quality of the wine in the bottle. But also well established traditional winemakers have gone this route.

Example: Mirjam Schneider, whose wine I reviewed here, has moved away from the traditional wine classification system and has introduced her own system of quality control. She sells all her wines as QbA, according to the government regulations, and then classifies the wines herself with her own approach.

The Merlot, for example, which I reviewed here, was harvested at 99 degree Oechsle, thus was an Auslese wine, but she markets the wine as five stars Lagenwein and you also find on the label the QbA category. By, the way, this allowed her to add a bit of sugar to the must to reinforce the alcohol content to an amazing 15 percent. A fabulous wine.

Schiller Wine - Related Postings

When Americans Drink German Wine - What They Choose

German Wine Basics: Schillerwein - A German Speciality

German Wine Basics: Erstes Gewaechs, Grosses Gewaechs, Erste Lage

In the Glass: 2007 Rheinhessen with Oysters at the Ten Bells in the Lower East Side in Manhattan

German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine

Tasting Notes: German Wines imported into the US by Valckenberg

Wine Caravan from Germany Visiting the East Coast, US: Dr. Fischer, Fitz Ritter, Bolling-Lehnert, Schneider, Dr. Thanisch

Relaunch F in Rheinhessen

In the Glass: Mirjam Schneider's Merlot 2007 No. 2


  1. Hello Dr. Schiller!
    Even I (being German) can find it confusing at times... So far, I understood that any wine that is dry also states 'trocken' on its lable. Thus any wine not stating 'trocken' is a off-dry to sweet wine. Exception would be the Grosse or (as we Germans are, always making it as complicated as possible :-) )Erstes Gewächs. Correct? Or was that too simple now...?
    All the best from Sweden

  2. Hi Heike, the posting was a status report of my research in this area. You raise an interesting question. I have not really focused on it, i.e. if all dry German wines are labeled as dry or, if there are winemakers who do not do this. Anyway, I think at the end of this process, the word dry might become redundant. As a rule German wines will be dry, like in France, for example, unless otherwise indicated, as Kabinett, Spaetlese, Auselse or Classic. Right?

    Cheers, Christian (in Prague)

  3. Hi,
    I particularly enjoy Spätlese dry wines, I've recently tried a few 'exotic' Sauvignon Blancs from the Pfalz and Rheinhessen and genuinely think that they work better in this form rather that 'simple' QbA. I also enjoy a Grauburgunder from Baden - one of my favourite wines for value is a Spätlese Grauer Burgunder from Achkarren - at a fiver a bottle, you can't go wrong! Riesling can be a bit hit and miss - I tend to find some of the Rheinhessen Spätlese Riesling a little....overpowering and needlessly strong although the dry stuff from the Pfalz, Rheingau and Mosel can be fantastic.

    A pleasant evening,
    Essen (Ruhr)

  4. Interestingly, Spaetlese trocken is a thing of history, as far as VDP wine makers are concerned. see: for more on the new VDP classification system. Cheers. Christian