Editor’s note: This story was written with assistance from Al Schaff, who has spent more than 20 years of his life living in numerous parts of Germany and absorbing its wine culture.
When people first imagine culinary delights of Germany, most conjure up images of beer, pretzels and sausages. One doesn’t naturally equate the country with exceptional wine.
Yet, savvy residents who have a taste for the beverage soon appreciate the ease, accessibility and quality of German wine.
Most residents may experience direct tastings with private vintners, or have the pleasure of attending a wide range of village wine festivals (the largest of which is an almost 600-year-old festival called Wurstmarkt that occurs in Bad Dürkheim every fall).
The more one partakes in the German wine culture, the more one develops awareness of his or her own preference in tastes (for example, preferring a Silvaner over a Riesling) as well as the subtle differences between wine regions (Frankenwein over Moselwein).
Yet, many facts and features of the German wine industry remain obscured by a lack of experience or false assumptions. Learning about some of the key points about the production and business surely deepens both the causal sipper’s and the connoisseur’s respect.
Learn some of these following features of the German wine industry to get you well on your way to appreciating the full vinicultural experience.
I. Many German wines carry a QBA, or Qualitätswein, listing on their labels. The very best wines show a Prädikatswein listing. Qualität simply means quality wine. A Prädikatwein label signifies the wine has been certified with an official guarantee of its quality. A wine with a label of “Kabinet” signifies its winemaker deems it to be special, limiting its release into the mass market. “Kabinet” mean cabinet, thus the label on the wine — as if the winemaker has put it away in a special cabinet for the more discerning wine drinker.
II. The most prolific, resilient and well known grape in Germany is the Riesling. This frost-resistant grape has a long life and may produce one of the most undervalued wines in the world. The Riesling grape is not a naturally sweet wine as some Americans believe. Most Rieslings produced and consumed in Germany are half or fully dry. Few Germans drink a sweet (lieblich) Riesling with meals or for simple entertainment of friends, but most choose a dry Riesling to enjoy. One of the most popular choices at neighborhood festivals (called a Volksfest) is a “halbtrocken,” or half dry, Riesling, which is often enjoyed mixed with soda water, called a Schorle. The sweet Riesling is typically enjoyed for a special toast or as an after-dinner drink to sip.
III. The German wine industry is one of functionality and quality. Many grape varieties must withstand cold and harsh climates. Some grape varieties are relatively new. For example, the Bacchus grape, developed in the Pflaz region in the late 1970s, is a cross between three local grapes: Slivaner, Riesling and Müller Thurgau. It is crisp and fruity and an excellent choice.
If white is not to ones liking, the red Spätburgunder is silky, smooth and light. This grape, known as a Pinot Noir, was grafted from France’s renowned Burgundy region. Most drinkers also enjoy a dry Dornfelder. Again developed in the late 1970s, this grape was developed from cross breeding many different grape varieties. Dornfelder is easier to grow than Spätburgunder and if barreled, the flavors are more bold and complex.
IV. In Germany, a corked bottle does not mean the wine is better or more expensive. Whether the bottle is corked or uses a screw top means nothing in terms of quality. German wine authorities have conducted numerous taste tests to conclusively confirm that metal capping is more functional. The cap cannot rot (as corks often do) and air cannot get in as the wine ages. Caps can also be less expensive, keeping quality wines at affordable prices. Many German vintners now bottle with metal caps, preferring this new functionality over traditional corking methods.
V. Many less expensive German white wines sent to the U.S. are made using non-German grapes. The bottlers may be located in a familiar town (Bingen, Rüdesheim or Trier). However, on the bottle, you may find the words “Product of EEU.” The wine juice therefore can be supplied by several other European countries before being mixed and processed with German wine and then bottled in that listed German city. Yes, it’s legal, although quite misleading.
Equipped with these details of the wine industry of our host nation, one can savor with a deeper appreciation and enhance our palates.
(Dr. Krystal White is a pediatric psychologist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center who specializes in community assets and developmental disorders.)