Here is a typical wine label next to the bottle it came on. This is a fine bottle of Riesling from the Nahe region. Notice also the German words Spätlese and Qualitätswein mit Pradikat (QmP). I'll get this and the rest of the label deciphered in this fermented essay.
This is not a lesson in oenology, or enology if you prefer that spelling. You will not learn anything about nose, body, balance, bouquet, or palate here. I leave that high falootin lingo to the pros.
In this monograph you will learn the fundamentals of how grape juice becomes wine, and how to identify the product inside a hermetically sealed bottle without pulling the cork. As my boss in Germany used to say, buying wine is like buying a cat in a sack. You can't open it until you pay for it.
This entire book is published totally free on-line by the author, photographer, and webmaster, yours truly, with help from my daughter Stephanie. I welcome all questions, comments, and complaints. For contact information please see NOTE TO READERS. Updated 18 January 2016.
This essay is an introduction to the art of reading German wine labels. I offer this because there is so much awful rubbish written about wine that a simple starter explanation seems to be in order. Call this piece "elementary" or "rudimentary" or first grade or whatever. It is not even "Wine 101" but it is a first step. With practice you can learn to walk, run, and dance.
The German word for wine is Wein. It is pronounced something like "vine."
What is Wine?
Before getting into this we should know what wine is — you know, make sure that we are using the same dictionary. Wine is a beverage made from grapes. The process for making wine is called fermentation. The grapes are first crushed into a mush which is known as the the must. Fermentation is a biological process in which bacteria in the form of yeast eat the sugars in grapes. The yeast can be natural yeast which gathers on the grape skins or a special yeast which is added to the must.
The yeast consumes the grape sugars, and multiplies. The products are more yeast (a solid), carbon dioxide (a gas), and ethanol (a liquid). Carbon dioxide bubbles out of the fermentation vessel into the air. Ethanol is ethyl alcohol which stays dissolved with the grape juice. The grape skins give their color to the liquid and are filtered out. The tiny yeast bodies slowly settle out. The result is a beautiful clear liquid in about two weeks. Bingo, you have wine! It's pretty simple. I've made hundreds of gallons in my kitchen over the years.
WHAT IS ON THE LABEL?
Before truth in labeling became law in the United States, vineyards in Europe were already under strict label regulations. These rules required quite a bit of information about the liquids that the vinyards put in the bottles. Wine is a serious business and rules were imposed to protect the stakes and credibility of the quality producers.
Every German wine label has detailed information about the origin, type of grape, year produced, vineyard, and several other features. Of course, it is all written in the native language, with an occasional word of English on export bottles. When shopping for wine or selecting wine in a restaurant, decisions are easier if you know the meaning of all those German words. This article will help you undaunt yourself and benefit from one of the pleasures in life, German wine.
Usually the first and most prominent word on a German wine label ends in er. The root of the word you see indicates the Dorf of origin. For example, a popular German white wine in the USA is "Piesporter." People speak of it as a brand name for a specific wine. Actually, the only thing that Piesporter indicates is that the wine comes from the Dorf named Piesport. There are a number of vineyards in Piesport, all producing individual and distinctive wines but all calling themselves Piesporter, and rightfully so.
The exception that proves this rule is the photo above. The biggest letters are reserved for what appears to be the house brand, Pieroth Blue. The wine isn't blue, the bottle is. Burg Layer indicates that the wine is from the Burg Layen part of Rümmelsheim, a mini Dorf about 50 miles east of Frankfurt a/Main. On Burg Layer Strasse you'll find the Pieroth winery as you drive southeast toward Nahestrasse. If you look at the satelite map you'll see plenty of vineyards. They are easy to spot because the vines are all planted in straight rows. It looks like green corduroy from outer space.
Schlosskapelle is translated as the castle chapel. Maybe that is where the monks made it. There are a million places called Schlosskapelle in Deutschland.
By the way, the word Dorf is not seen on the label. Dorf is the German word for small town or village. Dörfchen is a very small town, like a crossroads. Düsseldorf is a big and very lively city on der Rhein, the Rhine River. It is Rhenus in Latin but you don't need to know that.
The er ending is also used on other German words to indicate the city or region of origin. For example, there is an annual week-long fish festival in the German city where I lived, Aschaffenburg. Dozens of fish mongers serve all sorts of marine life in all sorts of manner in the town square near the Schloss. The fish sellers group is from the northern German city of Hamburg, halfway between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. So naturally, the name of the fish festival is the "Hamburger Fisch Fest." Sorry kids, you won't be able to buy a hamburger there.
Americans have a similar usage. E.g. a person from New York is a New Yorker. I was born a New Yorker but I got out of town.
If there is no er on the end of the first prominent word there will probably be another smaller word in front of it, Bereich. This is the German word for "area" or "region." Thus, this wine would come from an Einzellage in the surroundings of the named Dorf.
The second prominent word on the German wine label is the producer, usually indicating the name of the vineyard, der Einzellage. Each Einzellage is unique. Grape farmers can have great or mediocre locations within a Dorf or on a particular slope. Most German grapes are grown on steep hills adjoining major rivers. A good aspect to the sun is critical, as is water drainage and soil conditions. The farmer also has many options in his growing and pruning practices depending on whether he wants a big crop of ordinary grapes or a smaller but higher quality crop.
Sometimes the second prominemt word is the name of der Weinhändler, the vintner or wine maker. Many vineyards are too small to do their own fermenting and/or bottling. The small ones sell their grapes or their wine to a wholesaler or cooperative who will do the fermenting and/or the bottling. A wholesaler in Germany is a Grosslage. This may or may not be indicated on the label.
Die Weinlese, the harvest year or vintage, is shown on labels except for the lowest quality wines. The harvest year is important because wine changes every year. Grapes need a good amount of rainfall and sunshine and temperature, and at the right times in the growing season to produce an optimum crop. It's like growing corn. Some years are great but most are not.
Die Traube is indicated in smaller print. This is the type of grape that was used in making the wine.
The most common German white wine grape is the Riesling. Riesling has been crossed with other grapes over the past century and Germany now sports a number of closely related varietal grapes such as Muller-Thurgau, Kerner, Faberrebe, and Schuerrebe. Another varietal, Sylvaner, is distinct and is the predominant grape used in wines from the Franken Gebiet, the Franken region in Bavaria just southeast of Frankfurt a/Main. This area is also known as Franconia. I lived there for a couple of years.
Germany's red wines are made primarily from the Spat Burgunder grape. Spat Burgunder is the German word for the pinot noir grape, the grape which serves as the foundation of virtually all red wines from Bourgogne (Burgundy), France. I don't know what the Germans do to it but their red wine just doesn't go with me. I love the French version.
Somewhere on the label, either in large type or lesser, is the name of the Anbaugebiet, the cultivation region where the village and vineyard are located. There are 13 legal wine Gebieten in Germany. Most are unknown in the USA because their wine is not exported. The locals drink the entire crop straightaway and don't let the rest of the world know it even exists. The old saw about "export quality" being the stuff that the locals won't drink is generally true.
The best known regions for exported German wines are Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Rheinpfalz (or just Pfalz and also known as The Palatinate). Excellent wines, though not so well known, also come from the Nahe and the already mentioned Franken Gebieten. The other Gebieten are Mittelrhein, Hessische Bergstrasse, Württemberg, Baden, Sachsen, Saale-Unstrut, and the Ahr.
Abfüller, if present, indicates where and/or by whom the wine was bottled. If it is accompanied by Erzeuger this means it was bottled at the vineyard, "bottled by producer." An alternate term, Gutsabfüller, may be used. Or the term Abfüller might be accompanied by the name of a cooperative or wholesaler and the city where it is located if the vineyard is too small to bottle it's own wine.
In the image of the label above, the term Abfüller is accompanied by the English "Bottled by:" which would indicate that the wine was originally intended for export. The bottler is Ferdinand Pieroth GmbH located in the Dorf as mentioned earlier, with zip code D-55452. The GmbH after the name means that Pieroth is a private corporation, similar to the American form of limited liability company, LLC.
Qualitätswein, und so wieter
The fineness of the wine is indicated in a German system of degrees of quality. The lowest quality wine is Deutscher Tafelwein, "German table wine." Ordinary wine is Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet (QbA), "regional quality wine." This is often stated simply as Qualitätswein because the Anbaugebiet is stated elsewhere on the label. Superior wine is labeled Qualitätswein mit Pradikat (QmP), "distinctive quality wine."
In order to receive either of the Qualitätswein designations, the wine must be tasted and approved by a local professional council and have a minimum alcohol content. QmP wines must have at least 8% alcohol by volume and the alcohol content cannot have been raised by adding sugar to the must. The practice of adding sugar to the must is called Verbesserung in Germany, translated freely into English as "improving."
By the way, und so wieter is German for "and so forth." This is a very common expression in German. It is normally abbreviated as u.s.w.. The Germans love to abbreviate, z.B. for zum Beispiel which can be translated into English as e.g., the abbreviation for exempli gratia, a Latin phrase which means "for example." But you already knew that.
Verbesserung is considered "improving" because it increases the alcohol content of the wine. At the same time it dilutes the natural flavors of the fruit used in making the wine. This is certainly not improving the wine. Heck, you can just add yeast to sugar water and have home booze in a few hours if this is all you want.
In the wine trade in general, outside Germany, adding sugar to the must is normally called chaptalization, after a Frenchman named Chaptal who came up with the idea.
The A.P. Nummer is the Amtliche Prüfungsnummer, "official test number." This means that the wine has been tasted by a committee of the wine region and meets the standards of QbA or QmP as the case may be.
Spätlese, und so wieter
Grapes are harvested at different times in their maturity. This is indicated on the label by Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, or Eiswein. These designations represent, respectively, reserved normal harvest, late harvest, overripe grapes, overripe dried grapes (raisins), overripe grapes which have begun to rot on the vine, and overripe grapes which have frozen on the vines. The grapes and consequently the wines become sweeter the longer the grapes are left on the vine. Eiswein is the sweetest and is normally called ice wine in the USA, which is the translation of Eiswein.
The Alkohol content is stated on the label as percent by volume. Most German white wines have 8% to 10% alcohol. This is less than than Italian, Spanish, and French wines. The reason for this is that Germany is so far north and the growing season is shorter. And what there is of a growing season is not nearly so pleasant as in southern parts of Europe.
Even the southern tip of Germany is north of Burgundy, and that is at a latitude significantly north of Traverse City, Michigan, probably the northernmost of non-coastal wine producing areas in the USA. If you are ever in Michigan in early fall I suggest a trip to the Leelanau Peninsula. You won't find anything like it anywhere, even in Europe. It is beautiful up there. I live a couple of hours south.
How much wine is in the bottle? A normal bottle of wine contains 750 milliliters. What the heck is a milliliter? That is an international unit of volume equal to about half an eyedropper. That doesn't tell you much.
To make this easier to grasp, 750 milliters is ¾ of a liter. One liter is about one quart. So call it ¾ of a quart, 24 fluid ounces. This is enough for 4 or 5 good sized glasses of wine. See my chapter 27 Metric System in Europe: Travel with Grams, Meters, Liters, and Celsius for complete information on how stuff is measured in Europe.
Some bottles have only 500 ml. The Beerenauslese and Eiswein are normally in 500 ml bottles and usually cost much more than normal wine. A few Auslese wines also come in 500 ml bottles. These 500 ml bottles are just as tall as a 750 ml bottle giving you the impression that they are a normal bottle, but they are a bit narrower so the contents are much less.
Some people stretch their wine by adding water or soda. Friends of mine in Michigan add ice cubes. Ugh!
German wines are bottled in very characteristic tall narrow bottles, for the most part. Mosel wines come in green bottles and Rhein wines come in brown bottles. Nahe wines often come in blue bottles. Frankenwein is packaged in a fat semi-flat bottle called a Bocksbeutal. It looks something like the Mateus wine bottles from Portugal.
Sulfites are ubiquitous. Sulfites are compounds of sulfurous acid and metals, usually sodium. Sulfurous acid is made by burning sulfur and disolving it in water. It stinks. The sodium salt in small concentrations as found in wine has no aroma. Vintners add sodium sulfite in very low concentrations to help preserve wine. The sulfites retard further bacterial growth. In the USA, and perhaps overseas, the fact that sulfites have been added to the wine must be stated on the label. The reason for this is that some people have a negative reaction to sulfites.
In fact, all living organisms contain sulfur. It is essential to life. Grapes have it, celery has it, you have it. When you make your own wine you smell that sulfur immediately after fermentation begins. Most of it is soon gone but there is undoubtedly some left behind in the wine.
Let Your Wine Sleep
Wines improve with age. This is particularly true of red wines which can improve for up to ten years. White wines max out in about half that time. But if stored correctly reds and whites can survive for decades.
The foremost enemy of wine is vinegar bacteria. The best defense is to keep the cork wet. If the bottle is left standing the cork becomes dry and shrinks. This allows air and vinegar bacteria into the bottle. If you take a taste of that you are spitting right now.
The best storage place is a dark area at earth temperature. That's about 50°F, or 10°C in that international metric system of weights and measures and such. An unheated corner of your basement is ideal. If your basement is heated then cover the wine so it has primary exposure to the floor or an outside wall.
Lay the bottles on their side so the cork is submerged. Do not disturb your wine. It likes to be left alone in that cool dark place. People who show off their wine on a fancy rack in front of the fireplace do not know what they are doing. They are roasting their wine, to put it kindly.
While it is lying there apparently doing nothing there actually is plenty of real chemistry happening inside the bottle. Some of the alcohol is reacting with the acids in the wine to produce milder aromatic compounds called esters. Esters are what make perfumes smell so nice. But what acids are in wine? A bunch of them. The literature says that the most common acids in grapes are tartaric acid and malic acid. Of course there is always ascorbic acid, a lousy sounding name for something that is more commonly known as vitamin C, and which is found in all fruits. Then there is a bit of citric acid, tannic acid from the stems, and a bunch of other organic acids. Don't worry. This stuff isn't battery acid and won't hurt you.
In some wines the tartaric acid has a habit of precipitating out as the sodium or potassium tartrate salt. This can happen within a few years. It leaves a soft crystaline substance in the bottom of the bottle. This is known as "dregs" and it is very foul tasting stuff. Trust my experience on this. Never tip a wine bottle over and pour out the last drops. You will possibly get some dregs with those drops. Spit.
So lay your wine down and let it sleep for a few years. Like all of us wine lovers it will improve with age. But make sure you drink it all before you go up to stay with the Big Guy.
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