Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Approaches to Classifying German Wine: The Standard Approach (the Law of 1971), the VDP Approach and the Zero Classification Approach

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Kai Buhrfeindt, Grand Cru Weinrestaurant, with Wilhelm Weil, Weingut Robert Weil, who is one of the dominant forces in the wine classification developed by the VDP and Markus Schneider, Weingut Markus Schneider, who has achieved cult status in Germany and who does not classify his wines. At a Grand Cru Winemaker Dinner: German Riesling and International Grape Varieties – Top Wine Makers Wilhelm Weil and Markus Schneider at Kai Buhrfeindt’s Grand Cru in Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Although many people think that there is only one wine classification system in Germany – the classification system of the Law of 1971 – this is not correct. True, the classification system of the Law of 1971 is the standard classification system in Germany and the vast majority of winemakers in Germany use this approach.  A large number of winemakers, however, have moved away from the standard, in particular the producers of premium and ultra-premium wines. Importantly, the powerful group of German elite winemakers – the VDP – has conceived its own classification system and is developing it further currently. Other winemakers moved to a zero classification system – no classification, an approach very familiar in the New World.

This of course does not make it easier for wine consumers to read and understand German wine labels. The QbA – Qualitaetswein besonderer Anbaugebiete – denomination, for example, has completely different meanings in the standard classification system and in classification system used by the VDP. As for the former, it indicates that this wine is an entry-level wine of basic quality. For the latter, QbA does not mean anything, as in the VDP system even ultra-premium dry wines are labeled as a QbA.

This posting attempts to provide an overview of what is out there in the German wine market.

A. The Standard Classification System: The Law of 1971 – A Pyramid of Ripeness at the Center

The Ripeness at Harvest

The basic wine classification system in Germany is the classification system of the wine law of 1971. At the center of it is the sugar content of the fruit at the point of harvest. The higher the sugar content in the grapes at the point of harvest, the higher the classification of the wine.

The Germans use the Oechsle scale to measure the sugar in the grapes. Based on the Oechsle scale, German wine is classified into nine quality groups, ranging from Tafelwein with the minimum Oechsle degree of 44 to Trockenebeerenauslese with a minimum Oechsle degree of 150. The minimum Oechsle degrees differ somewhat between Germany’s wine regions and between red and white wine. The numbers indicated below are those for the white wines from the Mosel valley. See: German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine

Tafelwein (Table wine) - the lowest German quality class; has to have at least 44 degrees of Oechsle in the vineyard.

Landwein (Country wine) - 47 degrees of Oechsle at the minimum.

Less than 5% of wine produced in Germany is classified as Tafelwein and Landwein

Qualitaetswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA wine) means a quality wine from one of the thirteen specified German wine regions; close to 50% of German wine is QbA wine - 50 degrees Ochsle.

Importantly, these 3 groups of wines can be chaptalized (Chaptalization: sugar is added to the juice before fermentation to increase the alcohol level after fermentation, commonly used in all wine producing regions of the world). The chaptalization adds body to these otherwise lighter wines and makes them great simple food wines. The EU wine law limits the amount of additional alcohol that can be achieved through this cellar technique to between 3.5% by volume (28 grams of alcohol per liter) and 2.5% by volume (20 grams of alcohol per liter), depending on the region.

Kabinett - 67 degrees Oechsle.

Spaetlese means late harvest but this are simply wines made from grapes with a higher level of Oechsle - 76 degrees - and not necessarily wine made with grapes harvested late in the season.

Auslese - 83 degrees of Oechsle.

Beerenauslese - 110 degrees of Oechsle.

Eiswein - icewine, the same minimum level of 110 degrees of Oechsle.

Trockenbeerenauslese - 150 degrees of Oechsle.

Sugar in the Grape and Sweetness of the Finished Wine

In contrast to a widespread believe, these 9 quality categories do not reflect the sweetness in the finished wines. Except for the noble-sweet wines, German wine, ranging from Tafelwein to Auslese, can be either sweet or dry. Why is that so? See: German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine

A bit of background: The fermentation of grape must is a process in which sugars, naturally present in grape juice, are transformed into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the action of yeasts. During fermentation, the sugar content of the must declines, while the alcohol content increases and the CO2 disappears. This process stops automatically when the alcohol level in the wine has reached around 13 to 15 percent of the volume.

There is a straightforward link between the sugar content in the fruit and the resulting alcohol level in the wine.

40 Oechsle ==> 5.3% Alcohol
44 Oechsle = Minimum Tafelwein
47 Oechsle = Minimum Landwein
50 Oechsle = Minimum QbA ==> 6.9% Alcohol
67 Oechsle = Minimum Kabinett
76 Oechsle = Minimum Spaetlese
83 Oechsle = Minimum Auslese
90 Oechsle ==> 13.0% Alcohol
100 Oechsle ==> 14.5% Alcohol
110 Oechsle = Minimum Beerenauslese
110 Oechsle = Minimum Eiswein l
150 Oechsle = Minimum Trockenbeerenauslese

For a wine with 13.0 percent alcohol, for example, one needs grapes at the 90 degrees Oechsle level. This would be a dry wine, without any remaining sweetness. 90 degrees Oechsle is well beyond the Spaetlese category and high up in the Auslese category. Thus, all of Germany’s Spaetlese wines and most Auslese wines, if left to mother nature only, should be dry. You have to go beyond that - say 110 degrees Oechsle - for the fermentation to stop naturally and sugar to remain in the wine. This is the case with the group of noble-sweet wines (Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein). All German wines up to the Auslese category are potentially bone-dry.
Fruity-Sweet Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese Wines - How?

In reality there is plenty of sweet-style German wine at the Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese levels, and very popular in particular in Germany’s export markets. How do winemakers achieve this? 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 sweetness.

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.

The Noble Sweet Wines

Noble sweet wines, however, is a different story. The fruit has such a high sugar level at harvest that there is nothing you can do preventing the wine to remain sweet. These noble-sweet wines are produced either from botrytised grapes or grapes that were harvested during frost, more specifically,

First, the fog in the autumn mornings at German river banks produces a fungal infection, botrytis cineria (noble rot), which removes the water in the grapes and adds a unique flavor to the grape; and

Second, the frost late in the year, which also removes the water in the grapes when the temperatures fall (but does not produce the botrytis taste).

In both cases, the sugar content of the grape is exceptionally high at the time of the harvest and mother nature is unable to ferment all the sugar. These are the famous sweet dessert wines in Germany: Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein.

Vineyard: Einzellage and Grosslage

The 1971 wine law also has elements of a terroir concept, but this is on the backburner. There are Grosslagen (collective vineyards) and Einzellagen (single vineyards). For the average consumer, Grosslage sites became virtually indistinguishable from Einzellage sites. Only few experts would know, for example, that Hochheimer Daubhaus is a Grosslage and Hochheimer Hoelle a Einzellage. Would you?

B. No Classification – The Example of Cult Winemaker Markus Schneider

Markus Schneider, the dynamic owner of and winemaker at Weingut Markus Schneider, has taken the very radical approach of completely abandoning the standard classification system and has moved to a zero classification system. Many of his colleagues have done the same thing.

Markus Schneider markets all his wines as QbA, without any reference to the predicate level and (in most cases) without any reference to the vineyard(s) were the grapes come from. Here are some of Markus Schneider’s wines: Blackprint, Rotwein Alte Reben, M Spaetburgunder, Tohuwabohu, Kaitui and Ursprung Cabernet Sauvignon.

Allthough the Markus Schneider wine labels look very radical by German standards, from a New World perspective, they look pretty familiar.

Markus Schneider is not anybody in Germany. He is a shooting star. In 2003, Markus Schneider was voted Newcomer of the Year by the Feinschmecker and in 2006, Discovery of the Year. Within only a few years, Markus Schneider had shot to the top echelons of the German wine industry and established a solid position. Since 2007, Weingut Markus Schneider is in the 3 (out of 5) grapes category of Gault Millau.

For more on Weingut Markus Schneider see:  German Riesling and International Grape Varieties – Top Wine Makers Wilhelm Weil and Markus Schneider at Kai Buhrfeindt’s Grand Cru in Frankfurt am Main, Germany

C. The VDP Classification – The German Elite Winemakers: The Burgundian Approach with the Terroir Concept at the Center

For the VDP see: New Wine Book: VDP Member Directory - The Association of German Elite Winemakers

The VDP classification shifts away from the ripeness of the grapes at harvest as the determining factor to the terroir principle, following the Bourgougne.

The VDP classification was started to be developed and implemented in the early 2000s. The VDP just agreed on a series of modifications, which will be dealt with in a separate posting.

3 Quality Levels in the VDP Classification

The classification of the VDP puts the terroir principle at the center of its classification approach.  The pyramid of ripeness has been moved to the backburner and indeed for dry wines completely removed.

Erste Lage – Ortswein - Gutswein

The VDP currently distinguishes 3 quality levels, following the terroir principle:

The top level: ERSTE LAGE (Grand Cru Wine) - Wines from the best single vineyards of Germany. Conditions: A site’s absolutely finest, narrowly demarcated parcels with discernible terroir qualities. Designated grape varieties and taste profiles. Maximum yield of 50hl/ha. Selective harvesting by hand. Minimum must weight equivalent to Spätlese.

The second level:  ORTSWEIN (Village Wine) - An Ortswein originates from a village's best vineyards that are planted with grape varieties typical of their region, equivalent to a village wine in the Bourgogne. Maximum yield is at 75hl/ha. A dry Ortswein is labeled Qualitätswein Trocken. A Ortswein with residual sweetness is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats.

The lowest level: GUTSWEIN (Estate Wine) - High-quality wines that reflect regional character. Maximum yield 75hl/ha. Minimum must weight (higher than prescribed by law) is determined by the regional associations.

Example: Weingut Robert Weil

Here is an example from recent wine tasting with Wilhelm Weil. Tasting with Wilhelm Weil the 2010 Weingut Weil Wines in Kiedrich, Germany 

Wilhelm poured wines from all three categories - Gutswein, Ortswein, Erste Lage, including:

2010 Weingut Robert Weil Rheingau Riesling Trocken – Gutswein  from Weingut Robert Weil

2010 Kiedricher Riesling, Robert Weil, Trocken – Ortswein from Kiedrich

2010 Kiedrich Graefenberg Riesling Robert Weil Trocken –  Erste Lage- Graefenberg

Use of the Predicates Kabinet, Spaetlese and Auslese only for Fruity-Sweet Wines

As the second major innovation, the VDP members have dropped the traditional predicates for dry wine and have started to market all dry wines as Qualitaetswein – QbA - regardless of the sugar level of the fruit at the point of harvest. Only wines that have a noticeable level of sweetness carry the traditional predicates like Kabinett, Spaetlese or Auslese. Thus, if you see Spaetlese on the label of a VDP member wine, you can be sure that it is a sweet Spaetlese. The label with “Spaetlese trocken” does not exist anymore among the VDP members. If it is a wine at Spaetlese level and fully fermented to complete dryness, it would be marketed as QbA wine. And the level of quality would be indicated by the terroir concept (Gutswein, Ortswein, Erste Lage).

Grosses Gewaechs – Spaetlese and Auslese  

The counterpart of the fruity sweet Spaetlese and Auslese wines of the VDP are the bone dry Grosses Gewaechs wines. These are ‘Grand Cru” wines made from grapes from a 1. Lage vineyard, harvested at Spaetlese or Auslese level in terms of sugar content and fully fermented so that they become bone-dry. The Grosse Gewaechs label is thought to resemble the Grand Cru designation in neighboring France. Here and there, these wines are bone-dry.

1. Lage wines that are sweet carry the traditional Spaetlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein labels.

schiller-wine - Related Postings

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

Phil Bernstein’s Third Annual German Riesling Tasting with the German Wine Society, Washington DC Chapter - Rieslings With a Touch of Sweetness

Visiting Agnes and Fritz Hasselbach at their Weingut Gunderloch in Nackenheim, Rheinhessen, Germany

Visiting Weingut Josef Leitz in Ruedesheim – Johannes Leitz is Germany’s Winemaker of the Year, Gault Millau WeinGuide 2011

1.International Riesling Symposium

Impressions from the Riesling and Co World Tour 2010 in New York

When Americans Drink German Wine - What They Choose

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

JJ Pruem Goes Supermarket: Meeting Katharina Pruem and Tasting the Incredible JJ Pruem Wines at Wegmans

The Focus on Dry German Riesling – Daniel Hubbard Presents the German DSWE Portfolio to the German Wine Society (Washington DC Chapter)

The Wines of Franz Kuenstler from Hochheim, Rheingau, Germany


  1. Hi, I'm a WSET student. Your blog is very helpful for my study of German wines, which is one of my weakest parts.
    Thank you:)

    PS: a mistake of writing I found in the part of VDP classification

    "ORTSWEIN (Village Wine) - Only wines from classified sites of superior quality bear the name of a vineyard."
    bear the name of a village, I suppose?

  2. • VDP.Grosse Lage (Grand Cru in Burgundy)
    • VDP.Erste Lage (Premier Cru in Burgundy)
    • VDP.Ortswein (Village level in Burgundy)
    • VDP.Gutswein (Bourgogne régional in Burgundy) from an article of yours. And here "The top level: ERSTE LAGE (Grand Cru Wine)". How to understand?

    1. Things have developed. This article is from 1012, with 3 levels. Now we have 4 levels.