Few other wines carry so much detail on their bottle labels as German wines. Here is some background information to help you make sense of the VDP’s classification system:
Terroir is the cornerstone of the VDP’s classification system and a key criterion for producing world-class wines. Vineyard names emphasise the pedigree of wines that reflect this terroir. The VDP’s classification system aims to enhance the prestige of Germany’s finest vineyard sites as an integral part of a unique viticultural landscape – lieux-dits that are home to some of the world’s best wines. The VDP’s four-tier classification system came into effect on release of the 2012 vintage.
VDP.GUTSWEIN – A good foundation
VDP.GUTSWEINE are entry-level wines in the VDP’s terroir-based quality pyramid. They are the winemaker’s ‘calling card’, originating from an estate’s holdings and meeting the VDP’s stringent criteria.
VDP.ORTSWEIN – Sourced from superior soils
VDP.ORTSWEINE are the equivalent of Burgundian village wines and ambassadors of their respective terroir. Typical local grape varieties along with low yields are the prerequisites for this category. VDP.ORTSWEINE occupy the middle ground between VDP.GUTSWEINE at the bottom and single-vineyard wines at the top of the quality pyramid.
VDP.ERSTE LAGE® – Premier cru
VDP. ERSTE LAGE® refers to Germany’s ‘premier cru’ vineyards. Offering their own distinct profile as well as optimum growing conditions, these sites are planted with grape varieties ideally suited to the terroir in which they grow. Yields are strictly limited to enhance quality. It has been well documented that wines of exceptional quality are produced from grapes grown in VDP.ERSTE LAGEN®.
VDP.GROSSE LAGE® – Top of the pyramid
VDP.GROSSE LAGE® refers to Germany’s ‘grand cru’ vineyards, which have been narrowly demarcated to encompass the finest plots of land. Wines grown here have tremendous ageing potential. These sites are planted exclusively with superior grape varieties that are ideally suited to the terroir in which they grow. Extremely strict quality criteria apply to this, the pinnacle of the VDP’s classification pyramid. VDP.GROSSES GEWÄCHS® (GG) refers to a dry wine made from a VDP.GROSSE LAGE®
Wines in the Prädikatswein category must meet to the highest standards with regard to grape variety, ripeness, harmony and elegance. Chaptalisation is not permitted. There are six different types of Prädikatswein. Their minimum starting must weights vary depending on the grape variety and growing region. (Germany’s most southerly wine regions have the highest minimum starting must weights.)
Kabinett: 73–85° Oechsle**. Fine, light, low-alcohol wines from just-ripe grapes. This category is home to some of the world’s lightest wines with regard to alcohol content, but can pack a punch in terms of extract and flavour concentration. German Kabinett is perfect as an aperitif and can make a great accompaniment to starters and other light dishes. Dry Kabinett should have no more than 11 to 12.5% abv, while Kabinett in the residually sweet idiom* normally has somewhere between 7 and 10.5% abv. It is often best to drink dry Kabinett young, i.e. when the wine is still showing primary fruit characteristics. Residually sweet Kabinett can easily age for eight years and longer.
Spätlese: 80–95° Oechsle**. Ripe, elegant wines with fine fruit and much greater power and body compared to wines at Kabinett level. Normally weighing in somewhere between 12 to 13.5% abv, dry (‘trocken’) Spätlese is the perfect match for a whole variety of dishes. Its ageing potential ranges from three to 15 years, depending on the vintage, grape, vineyard and producer. The wine’s potential lifespan is significantly longer once residual sweetness comes into play. Off-dry to medium-sweet Spätlese also goes well with food, with spicy Asian cuisine a particular favourite when the wine is still young. The fruitier style is a great match with venison and many other strong meat dishes once it begins to taste less sweet after around four to five years.
Auslese: 95–105° Oechsle**. Noble wines from fully ripened grapes; unripe grapes are rejected. Wines belonging to the Auslese classification combine ample ripeness and aromatic richness with exquisite elegance. They are made for long ageing. This is a broad classification encompassing various styles right up to the next level, Beerenauslese – from clean, pure Auslese made from completely healthy grapes, to Auslese made from fully botrytised grapes.*** Old names like ‘feine Auslese’, ‘feinste Auslese’ and ‘hochfeinste Auslese’ were rendered obsolete by the 1971 German Wine Law, forcing growers to think of new terms to describe the finest styles. Nowadays, Auslese Goldkapsel (GK) and Auslese Lange Goldkapsel (LGK) are regarded as superior Auslesen. Alternatively, some producers use a star system on their bottle labels to denote the different quality levels (the more stars, the better the wine). However, if the wine has neither ‘trocken’, ‘feinherb’ nor ‘halbtrocken’ on its label, it will in all likelihood contain residual sweetness. (This rule of thumb also applies to Kabinett and Spätlese.) On the other hand, Beerenauslese (BA), Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) and Eiswein (ice wine) are noble sweet wines**** and will always taste sweet.
Beerenauslese (BA): 110–128° Oechsle**. Highly intense, concentrated wines made from overripe, sometimes shrivelled grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea, or ‘noble rot’. (Botrytis cinerea is a highly desirable characteristic for this style.) BAs are not always possible in every vintage. They can age for decades.
Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): 150–154° Oechsle**. Made from raisin-like, shrivelled, botrytised grapes, Trockenbeerenauslese is at the top of the Prädikatswein pyramid. Thanks to their enormous concentration of sweetness, acidity and extract, TBAs can age and improve for many decades.
Eiswein: 120–128° Oechsle**. Eiswein (ice wine) also occupies the top of the Prädikatswein pyramid. It is made from fully ripe, healthy grapes that have frozen on the vine: when the water in the grapes freezes, the grapes’ remaining juices become all the more concentrated. The mercury has to drop to at least -7°C for this to happen. The lower the temperature, the more concentrated the Eiswein. Only the high-extract, high-sugar juices in the grapes are pressed out – not the water. They must reach the same minimum must weight as Beerenauslese within their applicable growing region. The result is a highly concentrated wine that marries extraordinary fruit expression with ripe acidity.
The Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates, or VDP for short) is the world’s oldest national association of top-quality wine estates. In 1910, four regional associations joined forces to form the Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer (VDNV). Today, more than a century later, the VDP unites some 200 leading wine estates from all of Germany’s winegrowing regions. The VDP works to strict, self-imposed quality standards – from grape to bottle.
* Wines containing natural, unfermented sugar.
** This range refers to the minimum starting must weight required by law, which can vary according to region and grape variety. In practice, quality-oriented producers tend to achieve much higher starting must weights as a matter of course.
*** Botrytis cinerea, or ‘noble rot’, is a fungus that affect grapes when they are ripe. Humid, misty mornings followed by sunny dry afternoons are conducive to noble rot. This fungus punctures the grape skins, causing the fruit to dehydrate and shrivel – a natural process that concentrates the juice inside. Grapes affected by noble rot achieve the very high must weights that are necessary for producing Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.
**** Sweet wines made from grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea, or ‘noble rot’.