Here is a typical wine label next to the bottle it came in on.
This is a fine bottle of Riesling from the Nahe Anbaugebiet.
Notice the words Spätlese and
Qualitätswein mit Pradikat (QmP) in the middle of the label.
I'll get to these important terms and decipher all of the German wine vocabulary in this tasty essay.
I have no wine recommendations. Only your personal taste buds and the back of your head the next morning can determine if thou hast chosen the proper wine. Whatever you find under the cork or screwcap is a cat in a sack unless you take some time and effort to know what you are about to drink.
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Travel ≠ Wine. What do I know about wine? Say, something like half a century and 15,000 bottles worth. Mon Dieu! See my wine qualifications below. Updated 25 March 2015.
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. All German nouns are capitalized. More properly it is der Wein. All German nouns have "gender" and this is indicated by the form of the word "the" in front of the noun. The English language does not bother with putting a "the" in front of nouns but "the" is essential in German, French, and some other languages. The word "the" in German can be der, die, or das depending on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter, respectively. Thus, wine is a manly item in the German mind. I did not make this up. You girls can deal with it.
Wein 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 slush which is known as the the must. Fermentation is a biological process in which yeast eats 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 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 or thousands of gallons in my kitchen over the years. Who is counting?
It occurs to me that many readers have heard of carbon dioxide gas. The mass media has been reporting that carbon dioxide is an evil "greenhouse gas" and will destroy the planet or something like that. This Malthusian crap from the Chicken Littles of the left wing is a huge lie. They neglect to mention that carbon dioxide is essential to the life system of the earth. Plants use carbon dioxide to grow and to produce carbohydrates, cellulose, and sugars. This is our food. If the production of carbon dioxide is ever stopped we are all dead. Period.
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. The only finding for Burg Lay on internet maps is for Burg Layer Strasse in Rümmelsheim, a Dorf about 50 miles east of Frankfurt a/Main. On that street you'll find the Manfred 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. Now Ich bin ein Michigander!"
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.
Abfüllung, 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, Gutsabfüllung, may be used. Or the term Abfüllung 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.
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.
What are Sulfites?
Sulfites are compounds of sulfurous acid and metals, usually sodium. Sulfurous acid is made by burning sulfur and disolving it in water. It stinks, seriously. 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 and the Federal government has a law saying that such label must be on each bottle.
In fact, all living organisms contain sulfur. It is essential to life. Sulfites are ubiquitous. Grapes have it, celery has it, you have it.
When you make your own wine you smell that sulfur immediately after fermentation begins. If you get too close to the vat it can almost put your eye out. Most of the sulfur 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, to put it kindly.
While it is lying there apparently doing nothing there is plenty of stuff 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. You are advised to 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. It will improve with age, like me. But make sure you drink it all before you die.
MY WINE QUALIFICATIONS
So how do you know that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to wine. My travel qualifications are written out at Meet The Author. There is nothing in that blurb about wine, eh?
Well, as a matter of fact I've been drinking the rouge for about half a century. I started out, probably like most kids, drinking Italian Lambrusco with pizza. Mateus from Portugal was another of my early favorites. When you are in college you drink what you can afford.
About 10 years into my career, in my early 30's, I moved to Southern California, Newport Beach to be specific. I was single and making good money as a chemical engineer. I wined and dined the girls a couple times a week. I started developing my taste buds and favorited a few wines. The most popular red wine at that time was cabernet sauvignon. Most people couldn't pronounce those big French words so they just ordered "cab." Another full bodied dry red wine, merlot, has also been a long time favorite in Southern California. Both of these grapes are the primary grapes in wines from the Bordeaux Appelation of France. They are also the mainstay of California red wines, and many wines from Australia, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina.
These Bordeaux grapes are OK but my taste buds kept probing around and found a better grape, pinot noir. As mentioned above, the pinot noir grape is the foundation of red wines from Borgougne. We know Borgougne as the Burgundy region of eastern France, centered on Dijon and Beaune. Pinot noir is also grown around the world. Pinot noir is generally less expensive than cabernet sauvignon or merlot, but I would pay more for it. I hear that there was a movie about pinot noir. Being as it came from Hollywood I assumed that it was blasphemous or stupid or both so I didn't see it.
Home Wine Tastings
My adopted home town, Newport Beach is blessed with many of the better things in life — sea, sail boats, sand, surf, sun, sunsets, etc., etc.. One of the man made blessings is a great wine store near 17th Street, not to mention nice selections of ruby liquids in most of the grocery stores in town. There is also one of those huge box warehouse stores nearby and a famous food import store in town, both of which have a good selection of good wine at good prices. You can buy almost anything with a cork in it. But even better than Newport Beach is Long Beach. I worked there for a few years and found a large wine shop near my office. This had the greatest selection of wines I had ever seen. I developed a wine shopping routine for Friday after work. Before getting on Pacific Coast Highway for my commute home I would drive to the wine store and buy a half case of various pinot noir wines from different wineries from all over the world. During the week I would conduct my own nightly wine tastings. In a few months I had tried everything in my mid range price level and selected one brand as my standard home wine. Thereafter I would buy it by the case and replenish the supply as I ran out. I didn't keep a "wine cellar" as such because I was living in apartments and had no room for that. Also, my favorite was a California brand, B.V., and was available everywhere. When I found it on sale I would clean the shelf. Let's hear it for free market wine prices!
Going International, Holland, France
My next move was to the Netherlands. To avoid too much redundancy take a look at my aforementioned Meet The Author travel bio. I lucked out with a company transfer to Haarlem, a beautiful city neaar Amsterdam. The Dutch don't make wine but plenty of the beverage and its cousins are available. I tasted just about everything in Holland and wherever I went on road trips around Europe. The American market is rather narrow and products available are limited, even in the well-endowed area where I lived. Europe has fine liquids that are unknown in the USA. After two years in Holland I came back to California and worked my way out of my job. So I went back to Europe to write my book, etc., etc. After getting the book published, a DIY job, and selling out several printings I went back to Europe. It was France this time on my own. I did my Paris life on the Left Bank and ended up with a wife.
Going International, Germany, France
After the baby we lucked out again with a company transfer to work in a Dorf near Frankfurt a/M for a couple of years. We lived in a big house on a cliff overlooking the Main River with a glimpse of the Schloss in Aschaffenburg. This is in a little finger of Bavaria, an area known as Franconia and/or Franken. Vineyards covered the hills just north the city. Frankly, no pun intended, we were not impressed by the German wines. That area produces Silvaner grape white wines and there are no bargains. Elizabeth and I preferred red Burgundies. As for German red wines we learned fast that we didn't want to get close enough to even spit.
We rose to meet this challenge. Sinple, just drive over to Burgundy and get the real thing. So we loaded up the car with the million things that then two year old Stephanie needed and drove over to Dijon on Fridays for a weekend sortie. On Saturdays we drove around Beaune and Nuits-St-Georges looking for wine merchants with signs announcing degustation. Now that might sound like the wrong place to be, but it means "tasting." With the barrels and paintings of grape clusters all over the place we knew this is where we wanted to be. We also drove up into the hills and found some wineries welcoming us with their degustation signs. This was the Mother Lode.
We would walk in and try to find the proprietor. Here we are walking around all these tanks, barrels, and bottles full of vin de Bourgougne and there is nobody to be found! Finally we would find Authority and proceed to taste. We bought the wine en vrac, meaning "in bulk" rather than ready bottled. Polyproplyene containers of 10, 20, and 30 liter capacity could be purchased from the vintner. We accumulated a supply of these and had well over a 100 liter capacity for the wine expeditions, which we did two or three times a year. You do the math. We had wine every night.
I bought a supply of bottles, corks, and a corking tool. The vintner gave us the labels and we bought pine wood wine racks at Ikea. The week after the Burgundy trip I would cork our booty. There were 150 bottles. Mon Dieu! This is a lot of work, especially for a desk jockey, but it saved plenty of money compared to buying bottled wine. Here is a picture, wine purchase, a few years later as I bought more wine on a road trip from Milano to Amsterdam. Good habits are hard to break.
The Lost Wine
As I said in the caption to the intro photo above "I have no wine recommendations." But I would be remiss if I did not mention a couple of wines we "discovered" on these Burgundy sorties.
There is a Burgundy wine called passetoutgrains. This is a blend of wines produced from the pinot noir grape and the gamay grape. It can contain between ⅓ and ⅔ of each. The more pinot noir the better. Passetoutgrains is my favorite wine. I once tried to find it in California and after many phone calls I finally did. But it was not worth the effort. When you are in Burgundy you will find it easily.
The other "discovery" is a white wine. As you know chardonnay is the best known white wine of Burgundy. I used to smell it on the breath of my secretary in California. It is nauseating, especially the oak aged variety. There is another white grape in Burgundy, aligoté. I found this at a small winery somewhere in the hills around Beaune. I bought a ten liter carboy. Unfortunately, this is the lost wine. I could never find that winery again, and nobody in the USA has ever heard of this wine. There is an old saying that "export quality" is the stuff that the locals won't drink. If the locals won't export it what do you think?
In the late 90's I took a course and obtained a certificate as a bar tender. That certificate helped land a single one-night job as a bar man for a millenium charity celebration in Los Angeles. The one-off job nearly paid for the cost of the lessons.
A few years later the certificate helped me pull in a part-time job as a wine consultant for a wine importer. For several years I was part of teams conducting wine tastings at consumer trade shows nationwide — Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, etc. The objective was to sell wines. We were "consultants" in name only, more or less. I am barely a mediocre salesman but I had fun and met a lot of fellow wine drinkers along the way. We are the best people, you know.
I continue to make my own wine. That is an easy and safe thing to do. I learned how to do it out of necessity when I lived in Saudi Arabia for a year. Not only is the desert sand as dry as a bone but no alcohol is permitted in "The Kingdom," as they call it over there. It can be serious slammer time if you are caught. Those jails are straight out of the 15th century. I saw one in person, fortunately from the nice side of the bars.
My Dad would always say "Rules are made to be broken." I don't think he ever broke any laws but he liked to say that about the petty stuff. So I had a dozen bottles constantly under fermentation in my locked closet in Al-Khobar. If it wasn't locked up the apartment cleaning crew would take their share when I wasn't around. Anything with alcohol content is known as sidiki, "my friend," in The Kingdom.
To get the hard stuff we bought uncut home booze from an established ex-pat guy, delivered direct from the trunk of his car out in the desert. I am not making this stuff up. Do-it-yourself moon shine is dangerous to your life and liberty, especially in The Kingdom. Tales of The Kingdom could fill another chapter.
That's my wine story, up to now.
Here's mud in your eye. I learned that from my Dad also.
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