Labels & Ripeness Levels

Germany is often accused of having the most confusing, cluttered wine labels, yet in truth many of them are quite beautiful, and contain a wealth of information. All one has to do is see past the occasional use of Olde Worlde script, and get to grips with a few words of German. There is much information that can be gathered from a German wine label. The label shown here; clearly declares the vintage, the grape (Riesling), and that the wine originates from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Looking in particular at MOSELLA's label, this tells us that the grapes were grown in the Wehlener-Sonnenuhr vineyard around the town of Wehlen. The label gives us a few other pieces of information, but there are two snippets worth concentrating on: the Prädikat, and the AP number.

The Prädikat:

Like other European countries Germany has a classification system for wine quality. At the bottom is Tafelwein (equivalent to French vin de table), and one step up is Landwein (perhaps equivalent to French vin de Pays) In general there are no wines of interest in these categories. Wines of quality, perhaps equivalent to wines designated AOC in France, bear the term Qualitätswein. The simplest wines will bear this term alone, or Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA), which means "quality wine of a designated area of cultivation". These wines may be chapitalized (the addition of sugar to boost the potential final alcoholic content). The top category, Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), which means "quality wine with distinction", may not legally be chapitalized. The prädikat used is based on the ripeness of the grapes at harvest. Whereas this may give a general guide to how rich or sweet a wine may be, it as not reliable as a guide to how sweet the finished wine will actually taste, as this depends on more than just sugar content. There are also no limits on levels of alcohol or residual sugar in the final wine, so two wines with the same concentration of sugar prior to fermentation may taste quite different afterwards, depending on how much of the sugar has been converted to alcohol. Also, in a good year when grapes are ripe, a Kabinett wine, for example, may be made with grapes of Spätlese level, and consequently be much richer than a Kabinett might normally be. There are six prädikat levels for German white wine. The first three are made from grapes with a progressively higher sugar concentration, and range from off-dry to very sweet. The next three levels are always intensely sweet. The levels are:

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Kabinett - The first level of Prädikat, originally spelled Cabinet.‚ Originally given as a description for wines considered to be particularly good quality and often stored in peoples‚ wine cabinets or cellars. Since 1971, Kabinett has been the legal term for this level. These are the lightest and most delicate German wines.

Spatlese - Late-harvested grapes. Grapes intended for the Spatlese bottling cannot be picked any earlier than seven days after the start of the main harvest of the vine variety in question. By delaying picking, the grapes develop more sugar. Spatleses are often the most profitable for the winery and the most in demand by consumers.

Auslese - The legal term used to describe quality wine made from selected but not necessarily late-harvested grapes whose MUST weight reach certain minimum levels. Auslese wines from the Mosel region are frequently made from grapes with an increased sugar content caused by “noble rot”. Such wines will also taste sweeter and will be darker in color than wines of a lower quality.

Noble Rot, Edelfäule and Botrytis are all names for a beneficial mold that attacks grapes. It removes the moisture while retaining the sugar and flavor elements and prevents the grapes from spoiling. As a result the grapes shrivel and are extremely rich.

Beerenauslese - Usually referred to at “BA” made from individually overripe grapes, probably attacked by Edelfäule, and always intensely sweet. Usually Riesling produces the finest Beerenaulesen with a high acid content and distinct yellow-gold color when young that can turn amber in old age. The intense concentrated flavor of the Beerenauslese tends to mask intrusive characteristics replacing them with a deep honey flavor.

Trockenbeerenauslese - Often referred to as “TBA.” An immensely rich wine made from overripe grapes usually heavily infected with Botrytis Cinerea. The most shriveled and therefore the sweetest grapes are selected either at the moment of picking in the vineyard or in the press house. The low alcohol content leaves the wine enormously sweet. A Trockenbeerenauslese can only be harvested in fine vintage years with good autumn weather. It is the ultimate in German winemaking; therefore these wines are typically very high-priced and with a very low quantity produced.

Eiswein - (Ice Wine) Special term given to wines whose bunches were naturally frozen at the time of pressing. The water from the grapes remains in the press in the form of ice crystals, concentrating the grapes‚ acid and sugar wonderfully. The MUST weight has to reach the same requirements as for Beerenauslese. There is always a serious risk of failure when making these wines, as sometime it is necessary to wait too long for the frost. The Eiswein, although made from very ripe grapes, can be produced in less good vintage years when TBA may not be possible. Eiswein has remarkable acidity and great residual sweetness.

The AP Number:

The Amtliche Prüfnummer (or AP number) is a code assigned to each individual quality wine cuvee produced by every winemaker in Germany. For MOSELLA's bottling of the 2003 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese shown, the AP number is 2 576 238 04 04. The number 2 represents the region of production (Mosel), 576 the village (Wehlen), 238 the estate, 04 the sequential number used for this bottling, and 04 the year of tasting. The AP number becomes important when trying to identify a wine. Many producers, including MOSELLA, will release a number of wines of the same prädikat from the same vineyard. The Cellar Master, kindly points this out by declaring the bottling number on the label, but many producers do not. As a consequence, the AP number is the only way of determining whether two bottles of a producer’s wine, of the same prädikat, from the same vineyard and vintage, are in fact the same wine.