Monday, October 27, 2014

The new (VDP) Wine Classification in Germany: Tasting Weingut Robert Weil Wines from Gutswein to Grosse Lage Wine

Pictures: With Wilhelm Weil, Weingut Robert Weil, and his Wines in Kiedrich, Germany

I recently had the chance to taste 6 wines of Weingut Robert Weil, the VDP producer of world class Rieslings in the village of Kiedrich in the Rheingau. Weingut Robert Weil is a leader in terms of implementing the new classification of the VDP, the association of about 200 elite winemakers in Germany (Verband Deutscher Praedikatswein Produzenten). The 6 bottles covered all 4 quality levels of the new VDP classification.

Wine Classification Systems in 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 with its pyramid of ripeness of the grapes at harvest (Qualitaetswein, Kabinett, Spaetlese, Auslese …) at the center 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. The latest modifications are those that came into effect with the vintage of 2012.

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller and Wilhelm Weil at Weingut Robert Weil

The VDP Wine Classification Matrix

Wilhelm Weil: “The new VDP Wine Classification System is basically a matrix classification.” On one axis you find the different quality levels of the wines, along the Burgundian terroir approach, with estate wines, village wines, first growth (premier cru) wines and great growth (grand cru) wines.

Following their colleagues in the Bourgogne, the terroir principle has taken center stage in the VDP classification. Effective with the 2012 harvest, the VDP classification has the following 4 quality layers (In brackets, the equivalent quality classes in the classification system of the Bourgogne):

• 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)

Note that for some legal reasons, the VDP has started to use the terms Grosse Lage, Erste Lage, Ortswein and Gutswein with the pre-fix VDP.

On the other axis, you find the sweetness levels: Trocken, Kabinett, Spaetlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese as well as Eiswein. Please note that in the new VDP classification system the Prädikats have lost their critical importance that they have in the traditional classification system of 1971 and that they have changed their meaning. In the VDP classification system, they have become an indicator for the sweetness range of the finished wine, while in the traditional classification they are an indicator of the sugar content of the grapes at harvest. Generally, in the new VDP classification system, the Prädikats are to be used exclusively for wines with residual sweetness, “thereby enabling the Prädikats to resume their traditional meaning”, as stated by the VDP.

VDP.Grosse Lage - The Peak of the Pyramid

VDP.Grosse Lage is the peak of the terroir-based pyramid, equivalent to Grand Cru in the Bourgogne. These are the very best vineyards of Germany. Note: For a Grosse Lage vineyard, like in the Bourgogne, you don’t use the village name on the label, just the name of the vineyard.

Maximum yield is at 50hl/ha. The grapes have to be harvested by hand while the sugar content of the grapes at harvest has to be at least at Spätlese level. The grapes can be fermented in a dry, fruity-sweet and noble-sweet style.

A dry wine from a VDP.Grosse Lage is designated VDP.Grosses Gewaechs and labeled Qualitätswein Trocken. A Grosses Gewaechs wine is from 2012 on the ultra premium dry wine made from a Grosse Lage vineyard.

A fruity or noble sweet wine from a VDP.Grosse Lage is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese.

Examples: 2013 Weingut Weil, Kiedrich Graefenberg, Riesling Trocken GG and 2013 Weingut Weil, Kiedrich Graefenberg, Riesling Auslese

VDP.Erste Lage - First Class

VDP.Erste Lage designates first-class vineyards with distinctive characteristics, equivalent to Premier Cru in the Bourgogne. Erste Lage vineyards provide optimal growing conditions, as evidenced over a long period of time.

They are planted with traditional varieties. Maximum yield is at 60hl/ha. The grapes have to be harvested by hand while the sugar content of the grapes at harvest has to be at least at Spätlese level.
A dry wine from a VDP.Erste Lage is labeled Qualitätswein trocken. Note that there is no “VDP.Erstes Gewaechs” designation.

Examples: 2013 Weingut Weil, Kiedrich Turmberg, Riesling Trocken and 2013 Weingut Weil, Kiedrich Turmberg, Riesling Trocken

A fruity or noble sweet wine from a VDP.Erste Lage is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese.

Third: VDP.Ortswein - Sourced from Superior Soils

A VDP.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 VDP.Ortswein is labeled Qualitätswein Trocken.

Example: 2013 Weingut Weil, Kiedricher, Riesling Trocken

A VDP.Ortswein with residual sweetness is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats.

Fourth: VDP.Gutswein – Entry Level

VDP.Gutsweine are the entry-level wines in the VDP's hierarchy.

Example: 2013 Weingut Weil, Rheingau Riesling Trocken

Key Elements of the VDP Classification System to Remember

First: Use of the Prädikats Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese only for fruity-sweet wines - As a major innovation, the VDP members have dropped the traditional Prädikats for dry wine. Only wines that have a noticeable level of sweetness carry the traditional Prädikats 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 fruity-sweet Spaetlese. “Spaetlese Trocken” or “Kabinett Trocken” does not exist anymore among the VDP members. If you still find it - and you may indeed find it on the shelves - it is due to the number of exceptions which are in force for the transition period.

Second: The Prädikats Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese no longer indicator of ripeness at harvest, but indicator for sweetness of the finished wines - In the 1971 Classification, the Prädikats Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese are an indicator of ripeness at harvest. Thus, for instance, you can have a fruity-sweet Spaetlese and a dry Spaetlese. In the VDP classification, the Prädikats Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese are an indicator of sweetness of the finished wine (and not of the ripeness at harvest).

Pictures: Annette Schiller, ombiasy PR and WineTours, at Weingut Robert Weil

Third: All dry wines up to the highest quality level labeled Qualitaetswein Trocken - All dry wines up to the highest quality level – the Grosses Gewaechs wines from a Grosse Lage vineyard – are labeled Qualitaetswein (QbA) Trocken. A wine made from grapes harvested at Spaetlese level and fully fermented to complete dryness, for example, is marketed as QbA wine. And the level of quality would be indicated by the terroir concept (Gutswein, Ortswein, Erste Lage, Grosse Lage).

This of course does not make it easier for wine consumers to read and understand German wine labels, because the Qualitaetswein denomination has a completely different meaning in the standard classification system. There, it indicates that this wine is an entry-level wine of basic quality. In the VDP classification, Qualitaetswein does not mean anything, as in the VDP system even the ultra-premium dry wines are labeled as a QbA.

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

Obviously, the Grosses Gewaechs label has become obsolete. Grosse Lage Trocken says it all. You do not need the predicate Grosses Gewaechs. But the Grosses Gewaechs label is well established in the market and recognized by wine consumers.

Fifth: No single vineyard wines below Grosse Lage and Erste Lage - In the VDP classification, only Grosse Lage and Erste Lage vineyards appear on the label. If a wine comes from a vineyard that is not in the exclusive circle of Grosse and Erste Lage, the label will not carry any vineyard name. Instead, it will be either a village wine (with just the village and the name of the winery on the label) or an Estate wine (with just the name of the winery on the label).


The VDP is the world’s oldest association of wine estates in the world. In fact, it is the only one of its kind worldwide. No other country has a national organization of the top wine makers of the entire country.

In 1910, four regional wine-growers’ associations joined forces to form the Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer (i.e. estates that sold their “natural” [unchaptalized] wines at auction). These organizations – from the Rheingau and Rheinhessen, founded in 1897 and 1900, respectively, and their counterparts in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Pfalz regions, both founded in 1908 – were the forerunners of today’s VDP. At this time, fine German wines enjoyed a heyday. They were among the most expensive wines, on the tables of imperial houses as well as leading hotels and restaurants.

Throughout the past century, the quality-driven goals and strict standards of the VDP have played no small part in shaping the viticultural and winemaking practices in Germany. With their stringent statutes and their establishment of a German vineyard classification, the 200 members of the VDP have served as role models and justifiably can be viewed as the vanguard of the nation’s producers of top-quality wines.

For more on the new VDP Classification, see:

Steffen Christmann (Weingut A. Christmann) and Wilhelm Weil (Weingut Robert Weil) Presented the New Wine Classification of the VDP, Germany
Approaches to Classifying German Wine: The Standard Approach (the Law of 1971), the VDP Approach and the Zero Classification Approach
Stepping up: From 3 … to 4 Quality Levels - The New Classification of the VDP, Germany
German Wine Basics: Grosse Lage and Grosslage (and Grosses Gewaechs)
VDP.Grosses Gewaechs, Erstes Gewaechs, Spaetlese/Auslese Trocken, … Labeling Dry Ultra-Premium Wines in Germany
The VDP - the Powerful Group of German Elite Winemakers - Refines its Classification System, Germany

Criticial Voices

The new VDP classification has a lot of support in the German wine scene. On a recent Germany wine tour by ombiasy, almost all of the non-VDP members we visited, had adopted the VDP classification. But there are also critical voices. In fact, 3 winemakers have left the VDP because of the new classification, including Weingut Tesch and Weingut Köhler-Ruprecht.

One of critical voices is Ernst Loosen, Weingut Dr. Loosen. Here is a quote from a recent interview that Ernst Loosen gave to the wine searcher. com.:

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Ernst Loosen, Weingut Dr. Loosen, in Washington DC

wine-searcher: What do you think of the new German vineyard quality classifications – Grosse Lage, Grosses Gewaechs, etc.?

Ernst Loosen: It's a nightmare. I am not against classification, but we don't make it simple for the consumer. And then every few years we change the whole system. From a marketing perspective, this is the most horrible thing you can do. They hate me, the whole VDP, because I am always criticizing this bloody bullshit. But I am out there in the world every day having to explain this whole stupid system to consumers. Everyone says: "Stop talking, we can't take it anymore!" I get the impression that the VDP really hates customers.

Notwithstanding his critical talk, Ernst Loosen has fully adopted the VDP classification for his Weingut Dr. Loosen wines. 

schiller-wine: Related Postings

Christian G.E. Schiller's Review of the Book: Ralf Frenzel (ed.) - Riesling, Robert Weil. Tre Torri, Wiesbaden, Germany, 2013, in: Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 9, 2014, No. 1, Cambridge University Press

Weingut Robert Weil, Kiedrich, Rheingau, Germany: Super Sommerfest/Summer Party 2014

Weingut Robert Weil Goes Facebook, Germany

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

Visiting Wilhelm Weil at his Weingut Robert Weil in Kiedrich, Germany

Tasting with Wilhelm Weil the 2010 Weingut Weil Wines in Kiedrich, Germany

The German Winemakers at the 4th Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle, USA

The 2nd International Riesling Symposium in the Rheingau, Germany

Steffen Christmann (Weingut A. Christmann) and Wilhelm Weil (Weingut Robert Weil) Presented the New Wine Classification of the VDP, Germany

3 Wine Tours by ombiasy Coming up in 2014: Germany-North, Germany-South and Bordeaux  

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