Monday, July 26, 2010

An Unfortunate, Uninformed Report about Dry German Rieslings in the Decanter - The World's Best Wine Magazine

Picture: London Tower Bridge

The Decanter of August 2010 contains an interesting, but unfortunate report about a panel tasting of dry German Riesling Kabinett wines from the vintage 2009, written by Freddy Price, wine writer and author. The report is full of mistakes and suggests that the author and the Decanter, which uses the subtitle "The world's best wine magazine" on its front page know little about the intricacies of German wine. I will first discuss the unfortunate Decanter Report about dry German wines and then quickly present the Decanter ratings.

An Unfortune Decanter Report About Dry German Wine

Praedikatswein and Qualitaetswein

Price writes that “ the German Wine Law of 1971 classifies wines based on the weight of the grape must, without reference to the quality of the wine. Wines included in this are known as Praedikatswein , meaning wines with distinction”. While the first part of the statement is correct, the second is wrong.

The wines that fall in the Praedikatswein groups are indeed included in the German Wine Law of 1971, but account for only less than 50 percent of the total. The other very important group of wines, accounting for more than 50 percent of the German wines, are so called “Qualitataetsweine besonderer Anbaugebiete”, or QbA wines. Price ignores the QbA wine group and the difference between Praedikatswein and QbA wines; this is a major weakness of the article. The distinction is key to understanding the German Wine Law of 1971 and the reasoning of the VDP association, which Price also discusses.

Sugar in the Grape and Sweetness of the Wine

Price goes on “since the must weight is chiefly dictated by the grape’s ripeness and hence sugar level, the scale gives a broad indication of the wines sweetness. Kabinett is the first (driest) level, followed by Spaetlese and Auslese”. This is wrong.

The sugar level at the point of harvest has nothing to do with the sweetness of the finished wine as far as QbA and Praedikatwein up to Auslese are concerned. These wines can potentially be bone dry or very sweet in the glass, although the sugar level at harvest was exactly the same.

Price apparently does not understand the link between the sweetness of a grape at harvest and the sweetness of the finished wine: During fermentation, the sugar in the grape turns into alcohol and CO2; the level of the sugar in the must goes down while the level of the alcohol goes up. Once a certain level of alcohol is attained, around 13 to 15 percent, the fermentation process stops naturally and the unfermented sugar remains in the wine.

For 95 percent of the grapes harvested in Germany, without additional effort of the wine maker, no unfermented sugar remains in the wine and the finished wine will be bone dry. Grapes harvested at QbA, Kabinett, Spaetlese or Auslese level do not have enough sugar to produce a wine that is sweet, if you just leave it to mother nature. Grape sugar only remains for the group of noble-sweet wines, i.e. Beerenauslese, Trockeneweerebnauslese and Eiswein. However, in reality, there are plenty of sweet QbA, Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese wines. How does that happen?

There are two methods used by German winemakers to generate residual sugar in such wine:

First, stopping the fermentation; this is typically done through a skillful manipulation of the fermentation process with sulfur and temperature control. The winemaker needs to follow closely the fermentation process and must make sure that it comes to a stop at the desired level of sugar.

Second, the other technique is to let the wine first fully ferment and then add to the dry and fully fermented wine sterilized grape juice (called in German "Suessreserve"). Here the winemakers lets the wine fully ferment to produce a dry wine and then experiments with different amounts of Suessreserve to achieve the desired level of sweetness in the final product. Ideally, the Suessreserve comes from the same wine. It needs to be sterilized so it does not begin to ferment after it is added to the wine.

Both methods are used and perfectly legal.

Chaptalization is Legal in Germany

Price writes: “Chaptalisation (the addition of sugar) is not permitted.” This is wrong.

What is not permitted is to add sugar to the must, if these wines are sold at the Preadikatswein level, that means as Kabinett, Spaetlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein. But chaptalization is permitted for wines at the QbA level and below, which account for more than 50 percent of German wine. These wines can be chaptalized and indeed are. However, the purpose of chaptalisation is not to increase the sweetness of the wine, but the alcohol content of the wine. Remember, sugar turns into alcohol during fermentation.

In addition, and this is very important, Praedikatswein, though not allowed to be chaptalised, can be made sweet(er) by adding Suessreserve (sterilized juice). Adding Suessreserve to increase the sweetness of the finished wine is perfectly legal in Germany, within certain limits.

The new VDP Concept of Wine Classification

Price writes: “Now the VDP (Association of German Quality Wine Estates) is introducing a rule for its members , dropping the word Kabinett for dry or trocken wines and retaining the term Kabinett for those with residual sugar above 9 gram/liter. “ There is nothing wrong with this, but Price doesn’t capture the big picture.

Basically, under the VDP approach, first, all dry wines are labeled as QbA wines. The level of quality is then expressed by the terroir principle; the narrower the specification, the higher the quality of the wine is. The top dry wines are marked, in addition to being QbA wines, as Grosses Gewaechs or Erstes Gewaechs wines.

Second, for sweet wines, the traditional wine classification of Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese is maintained, and of course, also for the noble sweet wines. When the consumer buys a Kabinett, he or she knows that it will be a sweet wine.

Thus, in the VDP framework, a Kabinett trocken is a thing of the past. A dry wine that based on the sugar content at harvest is in the Kabinett range, will be labeled as a QbA wine. The quality of the wine will then be indicated by the narrowness of the terroir specification, in line with for example in the Bourgogne in France.

The Decanter Ratings

The current exchange rates are BP 0.84 = Euro 1 = US$ 1.28

5 Star Wine

One wine stands out: Gunter Kuenstler’s Kabinett wine from Hochheim. It is the only wine that received five stars.

Kuenstler, Hochheimer Hoelle, Kabinett Trocken, Rheingau

Decanter Tasting notes: Lovely floral nose. Stylish fruit on the palate. Pure Riesling with extract and great length. For a wine so youthful, you do not notice the acidity at all. Delicious. From 2010. BP 14.99

Picture: Christian G.E and Annette Schiller with Gunter Kuenstler in Hochheim, Germany

4 Star Wines

18 wines have been awarded 4 stars. Here is the list.

Schloss Schoenborn, Hattenheimer Pfaffenberg, Kabinett trocken, Rheingau n/a UK

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Christian Haas, Winemaker at Schloss Schoenborn, in Hattenheim, Germany

Dr. Bueklin-Wolf, Ruppertsberger, trocken, Pfalz, BP 14.30

Weingut Theo Minges, Gleisweiler Hoelle, Kabinett trocken, Pfalz n/a UK

Moselland, Goldschmied, Kabinett trocken, Mosel

Weingut Graf von Schoenborn, Hallburger Schlossberg, Kabinett trocken, Franken, BP 15.99

Weingut Winter, Trocken, Rheinhessen, BP 11.50

Kloster Eberbach, Rauenthaler Baiken, Crescenta, Kabinett trocken, Rheingau, BP 17.99

Weingut Dr. Wehrheim, Rotstuck, trocken, Pfalz, BP 17.99

Kloster Eberbach, Steinberg, Kabinett trocken, Rheingau, BP 17.99

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller in the Steinberg

Weingut Horst Sauer, Eschendorfer Lump, Kabinett trocken, Franken, BP 11.78

Weingut von Winning, Dr. Deinhard Deidesheimer, Paradiesgarten, Kabinett trocken, Pfalz, n/a UK

Weingut Baron Knyphausen, Erbacher Steinmorgen, Kabinett trocken, Rheingau, n/a UK

Groebe, Westhofener, trocken, Rheinhessen, n/a/ UK

Picture: Mr. and Mrs. Groebe in Mainz, Germany

Weingut Langwerth von Simmern, Erbacher Marcobrunn, Kabinett trocken, Rheingau, BP 17.99

Dr. Bueklin-Wolf, trocken, Pfalz, BP 11.75

August Kessler, Kabinett trocken, Rheingau, BP 13.25

Weingut Familie Rauen, Kabinett trocken, Mosel

Weingut Paulinshof, Brauneberg Juffer, Kabinett trocken, Mosel, BP 13.95

3 to 1 Star Wines

There are about 40 3 star wines, 10 2 star wines and 2 1 star wines. They are all listed in the print edition of the August 2010 Decanter issue and they 3 star wines are also briefly reviewed.

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The Avantgarde Wine World of Dr. Martin Tesch

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German Wine Basics: Erstes Gewaechs, Grosses Gewaechs, Erste Lage

In the Glass: 2007 Rheinhessen with Oysters at the Ten Bells in the Lower East Side in Manhattan

German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine


  1. As usual, an outstanding article. It is a shame that German wines are so little understood, and that a reputable magazine perpetuates these misunderstandings.

  2. This is an excellent post. German wines are making some progress in the US. However, very often when I mention German wine to fellow Americans they recall the cheap and sweet wines available some years ago. It is an uphill battle but it is being won.