Understanding German and Austrian Wine Labels

(Originally published May 2001)

Not so long ago Hanes shared his frustration -- and what little knowledge he has -- regarding reading Italian wine labels. It seems natural that his trenchant demystification of Italian wine labels will soon send the sales of Italian vino soaring throughout the world. To be fair and spread the benefits of his awesome market-moving powers around, Hanes has decided to attempt to do the same thing for the wine labels of Germany and Austria. With luck, this will come in handy as the summer months loom and the need for refreshingly crisp white wines becomes as pressing and urgent as losing those extra pounds before donning the old Speedo or bikini at the Hamptons.

First, we need to avoid any confusion on just what the grapes are. The vast majority of Germany's wines, and a good portion of Austria's, are made from the Riesling grape varietal. Other popular grape varietals include Grüner Veltliner (in Austria), Scheurebe, Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer and Sylvaner. The grape name is not always prominently displayed and you may need to do some searching for it. That said, if you cannot find it, the assumption should be that the grape is Riesling.

One good thing about German and Austrian labels is that they actually tend to put the producer's name in big letters. This is an amazing achievement, particularly among European wine producers. The majority of producers are named after people: either the winery's founder, an individual who shepherded the business to international fame, or the owner's most beloved classical composer. It can be the last name or the full name or last name with initials or last name with an honorific like "Dr." It can be any of these things or more.

One big tip-off of a producer's name is that the German word "Weingut" will appear before the name, as in "Weingut Franz Künstler." These words simply mean "winery" and play a role similar to "vineyard" in a Californian name such as "Dry Creek Vineyards."

This is the easy part. Now, the hard part. German and Austrian bottle labels are crammed with information, more than you will ever need. The main two categories of label info you need to pay attention to are: (1) the region/sub-region/village/vineyard and (2) the level of ripeness in the grapes when picked. These are where you are most likely to go awry in your purchase.

Unless you are a committed wine geek or Riesling nut, the truth is that you probably won't notice too much difference in the wines based on their growing region. Hanes advises that you don't get stressed about this issue. For what it's worth, among the 13 German wine regions the principal ones are: Mittelrhein; Mosel-Saar-Ruwer; Nahe; Pfalz; Rheingau; and Rheinhessen. (In case you see a theme, yes, many of these regions incorporate the Rhein river into their name.) In Austria, the main wine regions are: Burgenland; Niederosterreich; and Wachau. Village and vineyard names are probably the likeliest candidates for confusion with winery names -- "Wehlener Sonnenuhr" or "Kamptal Kammerner Heiligenstein" sound enough like a winery name to confuse any non-sauerkraut eatin' folks. Useful tip: on many bottles, the village/vineyard name is nowhere near the general region name and is placed very close to the text indicating level of ripeness. Grammatically speaking, when you see two words together like "Haardter Bürgergarten" and the first one ends in -er this is a large clue that the first word is the village and the second word the vineyard name (the -er ending meaning more or less "of this place").

The most important information on the German/Austrian wine label is the indication of level of sugar and ripeness of the grapes when picked. This *roughly* approximates the dryness/sweetness level of the wine but does *not* correlate exactly. It would be a big mistake to correlate them and the punishment is having to spend an evening listening to Hanes spout pretentiously about some dumb topic like wine labels. The first category of wines are called either "Tafelwein" (table wine) or "Landwein," with the former not being allowed to mention the region or sub-regions on the label and the latter being able to only mention the region of origin. Basically, forget these categories since it appears that very, very little of this stuff ends up on American shelves. Even the cheapest stuff we get here falls into the next category.

These wines are "Qualitätsweine" (or "quality wine" to you and me). The lowest rung here are labeled with the abbreviation QbA. When the word "Prädikat" ("special quality") appears this means it is the good shit and, more importantly, cannot be chaptalized, that is, no sugar can be added to the wine to buoy its natural sweetness. Within the Prädikat category there is a spectrum of sub-categories that follow the wine's ripeness. They are as follows:

Kabinett: Light, generally dry but some may be on the sweeter side, lower alcohol content. These wines form the bulk of the inexpensive wines from Germany/Austria.

Spätlese: Harvested later (the term means late harvest), these wines have more body and richness of fruit. Usually sweeter upfront with a dry finish. In Austria's Wachau region they substitute the term "Smaragd" for Spätlese. These wines can age, especially if from good producers or in great vintages. They also cost a lot more than Kabinett wines.

Auslese: These are the ripest, sweetest of the dry table wines, presenting deep fruit flavors and full, long finishes. These wines can cost a decent bit but represent the best dry wines made. Given their fullness, many achieve excellent balance and elegance and maintain a dry finish with little residual sweetness in the mouth. In Austria there is another similar category called "Strohwein."

After Auslese come dessert level wines. You can tell these wines apart quickly because they usually come in smaller 375 ml bottles and cost a buttload of cash. These wines are the best of the best and are not made in every vintage. "Beerenauslese" is the basic dessert wine level and have a concentrated, viscous quality to the fruit flavors (in Austria there is a slightly different level called "Ausbruch"). "Trockenbeerenauslese" are picked after the grapes have shriveled and the sugars become ultra-concentrated, often affected by botrytis, which is a form of rot that makes the grapes dry and shrivel. "Eiswein" grapes are picked after they have frozen on the vine and represent the most concentrated wines made. These can -- and will -- rock your world as well as your wallet. Yummy, yummy and they can age longer than you can.

But basically, though, all you have to remember is the troika of Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese. These will comprise most of the wines you'll likely buy from Germany or Austria and will determine what type of ripeness you'll like best in your Rieslings or Grüner Veltliners.

Sadly, there are a few more terms to note before we are done. While they can appear anywhere on the label, the following two terms usually appear near the Prädikat category. "Trocken" means dry and "halbtrocken" means half-dry or off-dry. Generally speaking one may assume that these wines are dry. However, if they don't have sufficient acidity they may turn out a bit sweeter. But this is splitting hairs and we're trying to keep things simple, nein? Gut!

Lastly, Hanes must sadly report that things have recently turned more confusing for us poor English speaking fools. Intended to replace the terminology of Spätlese, trocken, etc., Germany has devised two new classifications, to start with the 2000 vintage. The "classic" designation wines have to come from a particular region, be dry, and satisfy "high criteria of quality." Err, OK, whatever, we all like to see the highest criteria met. The "selection" designated wines have to come from a single place and be harvested under strict yield controls and by hand. They can't be released for a year after harvest. No doubt these terms will only increase confusion as some producers opt to use them and others do not, or even opt to use the old and new terms to satisfy domestic and international markets. It's good to be a bureaucrat.

May your Saturday afternoon picnic be filled with Kabinett halbtrocken wines...