When it comes to buying German Riesling, German wine labelling terms are a constant source of bafflement for the casual wine consumer. Unless the producer/bottler had the prescience to include a brief description of the wine on the back label- rather rare for traditional producers- the job of trying to figure out what style of wine you are buying can be quite tricky and involves navigating an array of German wine labelling terms- usually multisyllabic and largely indecipherable even for those who read German.
German quality Rieslings will typically bear a quality designation (“Prädikat”) using one of the following terms:
(4) Beerenauslese (BA)
(5) Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA)
The latter three categories, BAs, TBAs and Eisweins, are styles of wine which indisputably fall into the sweet dessert wine category. BAs and TBAs are botrytised wines, i.e. made from grape berries infected with “noble rot”, the fungus which gives rise to Sauternes. BAs are rich whilst TBAs are lusciously sweet, and Eisweins are sweet marked with purity of fruit and acidity. BAs, TBAs and Eisweins are produced in relatively miniscule quantities in Germany.
In the first three categories, the terms Kabinett (meaning “reserve”), Spätlese (late harvest) and Auslese (selected harvest), are often misunderstood. These terms do not equate to dry/offdry, medium sweet, and rather sweet, they refer to the ripeness level of constituent grapes at harvest time. This ripeness is measured in terms of the amount of sugar in the grapes (must weight), in degrees Oechsle (°Oe). The minimum must weights for Kabinetts are between 70-85 °Oe, for Spätleses 80-95 °Oe, and for Ausleses 88-105 °Oe. Auslese grapes are typically riper and harvested later than Spätlese grapes which are in turn riper than Kabinett grapes.
Does a greater amount of sugar in a grape translate into a sweeter finished wine? Not necessarily- remember that wine is a product made by fermenting the sugars in grape juice into alcohol. The more of that sugar which is fermented into alcohol, the less sugar is left behind, and the less sweet the finished wine would taste. In some cases, the majority of the sugar in the grape can be fermented to alcohol, resulting in a dry style of wine with higher alcohol.
To get around the fundamentally annoying question when it comes to purchasing German Riesling wine- how do you really know what style of wine you’re buying- I have a few tips- not fool-proof but generally works:
Look out for whether the label says “Trocken”, German for dry, or “Halbtrocken” (half dry). It could be a Trocken Kabinett, Trocken Spätlese or Trocken Auslese, but they will all taste dry. For Trockens, Kabinetts are the lightest in body, texture and alcohol, with Spätleses further up the scale, and Ausleses even richer and fuller bodied.
Look at the alcohol level: less alcohol=more sugar, more alcohol=less sugar. Generally speaking, a Riesling wine with lower alcohol of around 7-8% will almost certainly have some residual sugar and will therefore taste sweet on the palate. At 11-12%, the wine probably be dry of off-dry at the most.
Look for giveaway terms such as “Classic” or “Selection”, or “Erstes Gewächs” and “Grosses Gewächs” – these all denote quality levels of dry wines.
Look at the Prädikat or special attribute classification. This is how the Deutsches Weininstitut describes each Prädikat:
“Kabinett: made from fully ripened grapes. Fine, usually light wines with a low alcohol content. Excellent with or without meals.
Spätlese: literally means late harvest; made from riper grapes that usually have been picked at a later stage in the harvest. These wines are more intense in flavor and concentration, but not necessarily sweet. Good with richer, more flavorful foods, or by themselves.
Auslese: made from selected, very ripe bunches. Noble wines, intense in bouquet and taste, usually, but not always sweet.
Beerenauslese (abbreviated BA): made from individually-selected, overripe berries that usually are infected by Botrytis cinerea (noble rot). These are rarities, harvested only when exceptional weather conditions enable the grapes to ripen to this extent. They are notable for their longevity (can be stored for decades). Remarkably rich, sweet dessert wines, or to be enjoyed by themselves.
Eiswein: made from grapes as ripe as BA, but harvested and pressed while frozen. Truly unique wines with a remarkable concentration of fruity acidity and sweetness.
Trockenbeerenauslese (abbreviated TBA): made from individually-selected berries which are overripe (and usually infected by noble rot) and dried up almost to raisins. Rarities. Extraordinary longevity. Rich, sweet, luscious, honey-like wines. ”
(Deutsches Weininstitut, http://www.germanwines.de)
The region tends to offer some clue as to the style: Mosel Rieslings tend to towards an off-dry, medium dry or medium sweet style, with the sweetness counteracting the searing highly acidity; the best Mosel Rieslings display intense minerality and a delicate floral fresh fruity nature. Perhaps equally famous for its Rieslings is Rheingau, but the style here is dry, and wines tend to be rich and full-bodied. Rheingau is home to the famous Schloss Johannisberg. Pfalz is renowned for dry Rieslings, which are rich and ripe in style. Nahe produces a variety of styles which can range from the lighter style akin to Mosel style to more full bodied Rieslings- it is important to look at the producer and label. Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest wine producing area and produces a variety of qualities of wine, often for mass market. Almost as much Muller Thurgau is grown here as Riesling. It is also where Liebfraumilch originated.
Google before you buy !