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German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by David M. Bueker » Tue Jul 31, 2007 1:43 pm

Just for information sake I thought I would update & re-post something I did a few years ago. This is an important primer on the prädikat system (e.g. kabinett, auslese, trockenbeerenauslese) that is critical to understanding German wine labels.

I do not pretend that this is comprehensive, but it's a start:

A primer on the prädikat system of German Riesling.

Note 1: In the somewhat bizarre world of German wine there are separate ripeness requirements for every single approved grape variety. So what’s kabinett for Riesling is not necessarily kabinett for Scheurebe (in fact it is not if I recall correctly). The same goes for Muscat (each kind of Muscat…), Kerner, Spätburgunder, etc. So the numbers quoted below are for Riesling unless otherwise stated.

The prädikat system:

Developed as part of the 1971 wine law (which also rewrote the boundaries of a number of vineyard sites), the prädikat system was meant to codify and clarify (?) the ripeness requirements for various levels of German wine. Prior to 1971, terms such as Cabinet (generally meaning a wine meant for keeping) and Feinste Auselse (roughly translatable to today’s gold capsule auslese) were used with little or no regulation. Certainly 1971 was an auspicious year to start such a system, as the exceptional vintage meant a full usage of the system, from QbA to TBA in its first year out of the blocks. Since 1971 there have been some revisions to the system, most notably the addition of the Eiswein prädikat in the ‘80s, but the majority of the system remains as imposed in 1971. (As an aside, there have been some more recent additions with the advent of Grosses Gewächs, Erste Lage, Selection & Classic labeling rules, but that is another set of rules for another post.)

On to the system.

There are essentially three levels of wine in Germany. The first is tafelwein, equivalent to vin de table in France and actually controlled in its regulation through the European Union, not German wine law. With the exception of certain “experimental” lots (e.g. untraditional use of barrique) this category is not worth considering here.

The second category is Quälitatswein eines bestimmten Anbaugebeites, hereafter referred to as QbA. While not actually a prädikat, QbA (translatable as “quality wine from a specified region”) still has legal requirements on grape variety and ripeness. In that way it is frequently, and incorrectly, considered as a part of the prädikat system (even though the wines must pass the testing process and receive an AP number…more later). This does not mean that QbA is inferior wine. In fact many QbA wines are excellent and can represent remarkable value. QbA has also recently been used as the opening for the new styles of dry wines in Germany, with wines legally entitled to a prädikat instead being sold as QbA or with a new designation of Grosse Gewächs/Erstes Gewächs. This primer will not delve into the Grosse Gewächs discussion. That will have to come later.

The third category of wine is Quälitatswein mit Prädikat. This is the heart of the matter. “Quality wine with distinction” (or attributes) is the translation, and it opens up the world of fine German wine, and a whole lot of confusion for those who are first faced with a German wine label.

First off there are six levels of pradikat, though one (eiswein) is not really a separate level, just a specification of production tied to other levels. The levels are:

Kabinett: The first level of prädikat, and normally the lowest in alcohol

Spätlese: Literally meaning “late harvest”, and required to be harvested at least one week after the main harvest has started

Auslese: Meaning “selected harvest”, but with no requirement for late picking

Beerenauslese (BA): Meaning “berry selection”, and normally affected by botrytis. This is also the minimum level of ripeness required for a wine to be officially classified as an Eiswein.

Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): Meaning “dried berry selection”, and normally affected by significant amounts of botrytis.

Each of these prädikats carries with it certain requirements for the “ripeness” of the grapes (actually the sugar content of the unfermented grape must) that vary by region and grape variety. This is specified by the öchsle scale (a measure of specific gravity of the must), and does not in any way indicate the amount of sugar in the finished wine.

Limiting this discussion to Riesling, and the six most famous wine regions of Germany, the minimum öchsle requirements are:

QbA: 51 (approx. 12.6 degrees Brix!!) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Mittelrhein; 57 for the Nahe and Rheingau; 60 for the Pfalz and Rheinhessen

Kabinett: 70 (approx. 17 degrees Brix) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Mittelrhein and Nahe; 73 for the Pfalz, Rheingau and Rheinhessen

Spätlese: 76 (approx. 18.4 degrees Brix) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Mittelrhein; 78 for the Nahe; 85 for the Pfalz, Rheingau and Rheinhessen

Auslese: 83 (approx. 20 degrees Brix) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Mittelrhein; 85 for the Nahe; 92 for the Pfalz and Rheinhessen; 95 for the Rheingau

Beerenauslese & Eiswein: 110 (approx. 25.8 degrees Brix) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Mittelrhein; 120 for the Nahe, Pfalz and Rheinhessen; 125 for the Rheingau

Trockenbeerenauslese: 150 (approx. 34 degrees Brix) for ALL SIX REGIONS

There are a couple of things to note here. First is that the ripeness requirements overlap. For instance an auslese in the Mosel may only legally be spätlese in the Pfalz. This is based on the climate in the various regions, and the likelihood (prior to the recent warmer years) of ripening grapes to the specified requirements. Second is that there are no requirements for the use of gold capsules, stars or any other special identifier. This is a loophole in the 1971 wine law that leaves everybody confused.

Again, the requirements listed above are for the unfermented grape must, and do not necessarily give an indication of the final residual sugar in the wine. The terms Trocken (dry) and Halbtrocken (“half-dry”) do have legal definitions, and when placed on the label indicate residual sugar content ranges. For trocken the range in 0-9 grams per liter of residual sugar, and for halbtrocken the range is 10-18 grams per liter. For about half of the trocken range the allowable residual sugar range is below the human detection threshold (commonly around 5 or 6 grams per liter), and given the acidity of most German Riesling, the average trocken wine will taste dry. Halbtrocken is completely within the detection threshold, but can end up tasting fairly dry due to the acidity. Even wines with higher residual sugars can taste dry if the acidity in the wine is high enough. (Tried any 1996 kabinetts folks?)

So it now seems perfectly clear. Right?

Heck, this is where it gets fun!

There are a whole bunch of things that can happen to totally confound the wine lover. Let’s take them one by one.

1. Why is my kabinett so sweet?
Well probably because it’s not really kabinett. More than likely these days (2005 is perhaps the latest ultimate test case) the wine labeled kabinett is actually spätlese. It’s been declassified. So you’re getting a bargain right? Well yes, but if you’ve come to expect the light, fruity, just off-dry refreshing kabinett of yore (those of us who started drinking these wine prior to say 1998) then you are likely to be disappointed. Many of today’s kabinetts are monsters sold as kabinett because people buy kabinett. The $15.99 kabinett is a staple of the wine trade (at least the niche that is German wine), and without it the genre might actually flounder. So producers are “forced” to make something called kabinett. If they pick the grapes earlier (lower sugars but unripe skins/seeds) the wines can be green and nasty. So some take their lightest spätlese (or even auslese) and call it kabinett, while others do a careful selection in the vineyard to try to craft something that resembles kabinett.

Don’t get me wrong. I love some of these “declassified” (there’s a loaded word for you) bargains. As an example, the 2005 Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett is legally an auslese. It was harvested at 99 öchsle (remember 83 is the minimum for auslese in the Mosel). Now it does not taste like an auslese, but it certainly does not taste quite like kabinett. I’m cellaring it with anticipation that it will react in much the same way as a good spätlese. If I want a kabinett I grab a bottle of 1997 Willi Schaefer Graacher Domprobst or a Merkelbach wine. (Both of them are likely legal spätlese, but at least they taste like kabinett.)

So with a series of very hot years the genre of kabinett is a somewhat endangered species. What is a wine lover to do? You can drink QbA, but the alcohol content is likely to be higher. Most QbAs I run across are around 10% alcohol by volume, where kabinett hovers around 8-9 percent. I guess until (if?) we have a cooler year we will be drinking a lot of spätlese and auslese but not knowing it from the label

2. What do the stars/capsules mean?
Oh another one of my favorites. This is widely discussed on the wine bulletin boards every time a new vintage of Christoffel (stars), Selbach-Oster (stars), J. J. Prum (capsules) or Dönnhoff (capsules) is released. All the stars or capsules are is a way for a producer to designate selections of a certain pradikat. Unfortunately they don’t use them consistently. They have no legal requirement to do so.

And please let me stress that the “no star” wine is not a bad wine. It’s just a different wine, usually priced lower and thus a lovely bargain for the discerning wine geek. For what it’s worth, my favorite 2005 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Auslese is the no star, and I have tasted them all multiple times.

This gets even more complicated because some producers (e.g. Dönnhoff) use gold capsules for all of their auslesen. It’s only by knowing the AP number (that cryptic code number on the bottom of the label) that one can determine if the bottling in hand is the regular or gold capsule release. I have two versions of the 2001 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Auslese. They have two different AP numbers. One is the “regular” bottling (my wife’s favorite wine in the world by the way), and the other is the gold cap.

Stars can represent a stylistic choice as well. J.u.H.A. Strub has released several Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Spätlese wines with stars. The 1998, 2001 & 2005 have three stars, while the 2002 version has two stars. They basically denote an auslese level wine with no botrytis. So we have another variation on the theme, with the number of stars being some indicator of the overall concentration of the particular wine.

Stars and capsules can be discussed till the proverbial cows come home.

There’s a whole lot more to talk about, but this is probably long enough for one post. I’ll do more based on comments/questions.

Cheers!
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Kyrstyn Kralovec » Tue Jul 31, 2007 2:01 pm

This is very helpful, David. Thanks - I'll be bookmarking this for future reference.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Håvard Flatland » Tue Jul 31, 2007 4:27 pm

I've had some nice gold capsel and stars wines this summer. It seems these designations are mostly attributed to auslese wines. But I had a Dr Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Beerenauslese 1995, and it had a gold cap. Does all beerenauslese wines of Dr Loosen have gold cap or does he have one regular bottling with white caps?

And what about kabinett wines of 2003? Are they all declassified TBAs?
:D
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by David M. Bueker » Tue Jul 31, 2007 5:14 pm

Ernie Loosen makes gold cap bottlings and non-gold cap bottlings. I am not exactly sure on the BAs as I have not had his, but I would be willing to bet that he uses gold caps for all of them (not atypical).

2003 is a bizarre year, but the kabinetts are not quite that ripe. In fact due to drought stress there was a bit of a limit to how high many wines went. Almost everything is technically auslese, but 2005 and 2006 actually produced more BA and TBA.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Peter May » Tue Jul 31, 2007 5:21 pm

I think you've given a succint explanation of the reasons why so many people pass by German wines....
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by David M. Bueker » Tue Jul 31, 2007 7:36 pm

Peter May wrote:I think you've given a succint explanation of the reasons why so many people pass by German wines....


Cynic. :wink:
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Steve Slatcher » Wed Aug 01, 2007 2:58 am

Peter May wrote:I think you've given a succint explanation of the reasons why so many people pass by German wines....

I've never understood why people have such problems. I think it is more to do with long words than difficult to unerstand regs. Try explaining French wine law in as many words - at least the German hierarchy do not change from region to region! And right now you would need an essay to explain what Cru Bourgeois means/meant :roll:

How about an addendum on "feinherb" David? I understand it is not a controlled term and I have had 3 explanations from 3 different prodcuers.
1/ As it's not controlled, I can use it to describe a style without worrying about actual must sugar levels.
2/ It's stylistically different from halbtrocken
3/ It has a different level of sugar from halbtrocken
4/ It is a marketing thing. It sounds nicer than halbtrocken.
Oops, thats 4. Number 1 probably came from somewhere else. I suspect 1 and 4 are the most honest answers.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by David M. Bueker » Wed Aug 01, 2007 8:10 am

Ahem...cough...cough (clearing throat):

Feinherb - a generally uncontroleld term that has more than one use. First of all it has no relation to must weight, and is so not a pradikat. Some producers use it to describe a wine that tastes dry (or nearly so) but does not meet the legal definition for trocken or halbtrocken. Others use it instead of halbtrocken (e.g. Strub uses it for their Niersteiner Gruner Veltliner - Margrit Strub says the word halbtrocken is "stupid."). Either way it's not really regulated. There are no residual sugar limits on feinherb, but again it will normally be on a wine that tastes nearly or toally dry. (always remember that taste and analyses are two very different things)

From your list of 4 items I would say that #1 is only partly right (the must level requirements for the base pradikat must still be met). #2 is sometimes true. #3 is sometimes true. #4 is a little bit true, but let's face it, once you're outside of Germany does either term actually sound good?

I've had some lovely wines that were labeled or created as feinherb, most notably the 2005 St. Urbans-Hof Leiwener Laurentiuslay Riesling Spatlese Feinherb. Delicious stuff that graces any table it touches.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Cynthia Wenslow » Sat Aug 04, 2007 2:26 am

Ok, I just re-read this in preparation for listening to the WLDG TalkShoe podcast tomorrow on German wines.

I dunno, Steve, maybe my mind just doesn't work like this, but I am still confused by it all. Hopefully after listening to David tomorrow I'll "get" it a bit more.

An aside: I dined this evening at a German joint in Albuquerque where the poor Albuquerque-born-and-raised server had a horrible time trying to tell us what wines they had. After which, I ordered tea and my dining companion ordered beer. Nothing else sounded drinkable. :roll:
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by David M. Bueker » Sat Aug 04, 2007 11:28 am

Ok everyone who understands all the ins and outs of Burgundy raise your hands.

Alright, now everyone who didn't have to spend some time either studying on their own or with a very helpful merchant raise your hands.

Ah, a much smaller number.

German wine is like anything else. It takes some study to fully grasp the system. Not a lot, but some. Hopefully I can help that along this afternoon.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Maria Samms » Sat Aug 04, 2007 1:44 pm

Thank you David for posting all this information...I found it very helpful! I too will be bookmarking this page.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Steve Slatcher » Sat Aug 04, 2007 7:03 pm

David M. Bueker wrote:From your list of 4 items I would say that #1 is only partly right (the must level requirements for the base pradikat must still be met).

Ah, yes. I meant RESIDUAL sugar; not must sugar.

And of course, when you (think you) understand Burgundy, you still don't know what 1er and Grand cru mean in various parts of Bordeaux (not to mention grand premier cru, or was that premier grand cru, A and B) and Alsace. And then of course Beaujolais (viticulturally part of Burgundy) is differerent again, where crus are more like village appellations.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Victorwine » Sat Aug 04, 2007 10:08 pm

Question for David.
On some German wine labels one finds a logo of an “Eagle” is this similar to the Italian “Rooster” of Tuscany?

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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Steve Slatcher » Sun Aug 05, 2007 3:59 am

Victorwine wrote:Question for David.
On some German wine labels one finds a logo of an “Eagle” is this similar to the Italian “Rooster” of Tuscany?

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http://www.vdp.de/english/
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Michael Pronay » Sun Aug 05, 2007 7:13 am

Steve, there's another eagle:

Image

If it's the latter, it's the logo of the Staatsweingüter (state estates).
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Victorwine » Sun Aug 05, 2007 8:32 am

Thanks Steve.

Salute
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by David M. Bueker » Sun Aug 05, 2007 10:40 am

It's all about where the eagle lands. If it's on the label it's one of the state domaines. If it's on the capsule it's an indication of VDP membership.

Personally I ignore them either way.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Michael Pronay » Sun Aug 05, 2007 11:45 am

David M. Bueker wrote:It's all about where the eagle lands. If it's on the label it's one of the state domaines. If it's on the capsule it's an indication of VDP membership.

It ain't necessarily so:

Image

David M. Bueker wrote:Personally I ignore them either way.

So do I.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Victorwine » Sun Aug 05, 2007 11:53 am

Thanks David and Michael.
How does one translate the seal under the wing of the “German eagle” in Michael’s wine label that he posted? Does this indicate that the estate or vineyard is designated a “German Grand Cru”? I thought this was something new or added during the early 2000’s to the German wine laws and regulations to make them more in line with the French wine laws and EU wine laws.

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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Michael Pronay » Sun Aug 05, 2007 12:10 pm

Victor,

no, the seal on the label simply says that this wine has been bought at auction of the "Großer Ring" at Kloster Eberbach.

There is no official "Grand Cru" labelling in Germany, but there is an attempt of the VDP to achieve something along these lines. Go to the VDP site Steve mentioned. Scroll down to the logo that looks like "1_" plus a grape and reads "VDP Classification" for further info. It's the penultimate entry on the page.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by David M. Bueker » Sun Aug 05, 2007 1:59 pm

Thanks for pointing that out Michael. I had forgotten that a few producers put the VDP eagle on the labels. (Further proof that I ignore it...)

The German "Grand Cru" system is a total shambles. Whether it's called Grosses Gewachs, Erste Gewachs, Erste Lage or anything else, it is mostly a wrong-headed attempt at classification that almost totally ignores what Germany still does best: off-dry white wine. The Grosses Gewachs/Erstes Gewachs wines must be dry (Erste Lage is not quite so rigid) or nobly sweet, so there can be no such thing as a grand cru kabinett.

I could go on for quite a while enumerating the faults of the program, but let's just say that I think many of the vineyard choices are silly & the rules around residual sugar content (as well as mandated release dates for the wines) are just plain dumb.
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Victorwine » Sun Aug 05, 2007 2:43 pm

Thanks again Michael and David.

Salute
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by Håvard Flatland » Mon Aug 06, 2007 5:58 am

So, David, you do not recognize the dry wines (grosses gewächs) of Rheingau, Nahe and Pfalz as really good wines? Just the off-dry ones?
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Re: German Wine Primer - The prädikat system

by David M. Bueker » Mon Aug 06, 2007 7:57 am

Håvard Flatland wrote:So, David, you do not recognize the dry wines (grosses gewächs) of Rheingau, Nahe and Pfalz as really good wines? Just the off-dry ones?


Not at all. There are some great wines under the grosses gewachs program. I just find the program fatally flawed. Just make the darned dry wines. Don't go creating some special system that proclaims them as better/more important than the off-dry wines. It's ridiculous.
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